If socialist literature is to give a fuller and more comprehensive interpretation of reality than all other schools, it must systematically demythologize the countless myths that cover up man’s alienation in capitalist society. At the same time it must examine critically how far and under what conditions the factors making for alienation in socialist society are being overcome.
Any reality which takes the form of an order of things tends to hide its own inconsistencies and try to perpetuate the state of affairs reached at the moment. Socialist society likewise is subject to these factors, which are rendered all the easier to understand, and all the stronger, by the fact that, in the world’s present state, socialism is involved in a perpetual war of defence against a capitalist propaganda which operates by means of a well-tried, traditional, psychologically proven system of false myths. The ‘Left Myth’, as Roland Barthes has called it, springs of course not only from the need to fend off external enemies but also from internal reasons: thus a victorious revolution will secure and consolidate its first, historically relative successes chiefly by trying to deny their relativity, turn them into something absolute and identify them with its ultimate goals. Once its own equipment for revolutionary control and self-criticism stops developing or is thrown out of gear, as happened in the Stalin period—once everything is declared to be not only sensible but beyond question—then socialism’s whole historical perspective is at stake. For a revolution that allowed itself to be guided entirely by its illusions about itself would lose its sense of reality, its revolutionary dynamism and perspective.
The ‘Right Myth’ (to cite Barthes once more) has an openly conservative function: it hides capitalist society’s class composition, lending an air of legitimacy to the existing order of things by identifying it with an unchangeable and long-prevalent world hierarchy. The ‘Left Myth’ has quite a different nature and social origin. The society brought about by the revolution has no cause to conceal its class composition or demonstrate the unchangeability of an allegedly old-established order of things: quite the contrary. None the less it too operates as a brake, though in a different manner. Note that for the moment I am speaking of myths as the expressions of a false
Literature is, and has to be, a critique of reality from the standpoint of the chief conditions for man’s self-realization. It casts doubt on supposedly universal conceptions of reality, destroys false myths, dispels self-deception; and this cannot be seen as destruction but as a socially most important renewal of our sense of reality. Its central concern is to criticize the state of humanity’s basic values, which make up the content of socialist humanism. Its aim is to stimulate awareness of human responsibility in the widest sense, both individually and historically, along with incessant protest and agitation against anything that reduces men to mere puppets of fate and of history. The system of values contained in our idea of humanism embraces every form and every possibility of sensual, emotional, intellectual and creative human life. All these are respects in which man, under present conditions and in the middle of this divided and endangered world, falls tragically short of being a man, of the full measure of his true potentialities and needs. This is all material for the critique of which I am speaking. It is a critique that helps us to find our way towards a realization of all that can and should be. Socialist literature however must not represent what should be as already existing, but rather as fearfully and painfully failing to exist, yet still an indispensable human need.
But are these factors in themselves enough to explain socialist art’s relationship to reality, all its vital functions? If they were, then that art would be unable to transcend the dimensions of reality; it would remain a mere means of analytical recording, and perhaps also a kind of ethical tribunal to judge human ways.
Need literature abandon its hope of reaching beyond the present moment and influencing life as a model of unachieved possibilities and unrealized values? Those who feel that it need not, tend more and more to relate their arguments to the concept of the modern myth and the question of literature’s mythopoeic power.
We spoke of myth as the expression of a false social awareness. But besides the literary myths which preserve old conditions and concepts of life there are others, like the utopian-romantic myths of paradise lost and regained, of social upheaval, of martyrs and revolutionary agitators. Such myths proclaim, not the ‘law of eternal recurrence’, but on the contrary that of eternal change and protest against the existing order. They do not suggest that everything has always been like that; rather they tell men that whatever is, is worth overcoming and changing.