If you lived in what was once the Soviet Union, you might remember the official slogans and images that glorified the working class. You will probably also remember the wide-spread, mutual antipathy between workers and intellectuals which accompanied such glorifications.
To the intellectual of those times, the representative of a broad section of Soviet society, the worker contemptuously called by the nickname of “hegemon” (1) was a poorly educated, lazy slob, an embezzler and a crook, who tyrannized the poor intellectual for seventy-some odd years. In contrast, the Soviet worker understood anyone with a higher education as a useless mama’s boy, looking for the easy life; his social-productive existence as a parasite on the proletarian body could not be justified in any way. In this sense, one can understand why there was hardly any after-hours contact between workers and intellectuals during the Soviet era. Today, the officious proletarian pathos of the Soviet type has become a part of the past, along with its mythology of the working class. From this perspective, it has become interesting to examine the origins of its visualization.
The image of the worker originates in Western Europe, as, by the way, does the entire “fourth estate”. For an instance, the worker appears in the caricatures and paintings of Honor? Daumier. The worker, the worker-typographer, a muscle-bound man with rolled-up sleeves, girdled with a tri-coloured belt, becomes a symbol not only for the “fourth estate”, but for the French “common man” in general.
The Belgian painter and sculptor Constantin Meunier also played a decisive role in forming the image of the worker. While his early work is centred around the motif of the peasant, Meunier’s acquaintance with industrial labour soon brought him to a new, central theme, namely the industrial working class and its new messiah, the worker. It was Meunier who developed the iconography of the worker, reflecting the sentimental relationship to factory labour that characterized the nascent movement of European socialism in the late 19th century. Even his first painting on a proletarian theme, “Smelting” (1880), was to become one of the archetypes of personified labour. The hammerman, the apron-clad worker, or the tired labourer becomes modernity’s saint and humanity’s saviour, meek in spirit, destined to inherit the kingdom of God. Toward the beginning of the 20th century, this allegory of industrial labour, signifying a social class, became a universally recognized symbol in the visual rhetoric of all industrialized nations. The attributes of industry or the arms of labour the hammer and anvil, or simply the hammer became the emblem of the first Worker’s State; they also served as the symbol for the entire 20th century’s Communist movement. Circulating broadly, the motifs of Meunier became the basis for the theme of labour in Soviet art.
With the development of capitalism and the worker’s movement in Russia, especially after the Bolshevik revolution, the worker the “working man” became one of the heroes of Russian art, even if he had previously gone unnoticed by the intelligentsia. To a degree, this actually runs contrary to Russia’s national myth, in which “the nation” or “the people” were usually represented by a peasantry that can be identified with Europe’s most archaic form of agrarian community, dating back to the age of the Indian Vedas. While the national myth of Russia was now personified through the worker, one might note that, in fact, the working class of the Soviet era chased from its village in the process of collectivization – had far more in common with the “Vedic” peasant than with the urbanite intellectual.
Nevertheless, the Soviet Union’s visual culture of slogans, posters, films, and television shows was full to the brim with images of the worker. Neither the factory worker nor the plumber who repaired the broken toilet in the Russian intellectual’s apartment, had much in common with this image. This persona remained as a social abstraction or hieroglyph of an ideal, which the real Russian worker never became, namely a conscious proletarian, gaining freedom and power over his fate.
Before the Second World War, the poetic images of the worker both pitiful and pathos-laden, both low and sublime spread widely as a theme in the work of artists close to socialism, both in Europe and America. In Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Mexico, the USSR, and the USA, the triumph of the “insulted and injured” seemed at hand, to be realized in the very near future. Insignificance, marginality, and privations, alienation from the innate qualities of human existence, and its external expressions, poverty and uncleanness: the figure of the worker combined all of these qualities with the coming greatness of the messiah, just as they had once been combined in the image of suffering Christ. Already present in Meunier’s labourers (in the sculptures ” Stevedore” and “Stirrer”), this duality finally resulted in an ambivalent figure, reminiscent of the cowboy in American culture (e.g. the “Marlboro man”). Interestingly, this figure is relatively stable in both left-wing and right-wing discourses, in the work of K?the Kollwitz, George Grosz, Frans Masereel, Diego Riviera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Lazslo Meszaros, Bela Uitz, Gyula Derkovits, Juli Pimenov, Alexander Dejneka, in left-wing American painting of the 1930s, in Soviet Socialist Realism, and in the monumentalism of public art in Mussolini’s Italy.
Not only the visual image but the theoretical figure of the worker and its fate is analogous in both left- and right-wing ideologies and was treated in very similar terms. For an instance, in his “Der Arbeiter. Herrschaft und Gestalt ” (1932), Ernst J?nger (1895-1998) writes: “One might note how, on the one hand, the singular human being acts heroically, as an unknown soldier, falling on the battlefield of labour. Just because of this [heroism], on the other hand, he will appear as a master with the world at his disposal, attaining sovereignty, which was hitherto only imaginable in vague terms. Both aspects are part and parcel of the worker’s Gestalt, and it is this unity that supplies them with the deepest unity where they struggle with one another in a battle to the death.” J?nger’s description of the worker is a compact illustration of left-wing and right-wing socialist conception of the working class. If one compares J?nger’s Gestalt of the worker with the figure of the revolutionary worker Pavel Korchagin in the Soviet bestseller “How the Steel was Tempered” (1932-1934) by Nikolai Ostrovski (1904-1936), it becomes clear that both images belong to two, if not one, intersecting discourses. Their fundamental difference lies in the Soviet worker’s internationalism and the German worker’s nationalism.
After World War II, as a result of the American project of apolitical modernism, the figure of the worker – beautiful examples of which were supplied by Fernand Leger and Renato Guttuso – was slowly displaced from Western art, only remaining of ideological significance to Soviet art and to the art of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and Asia.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, after the death of Stalin, the post-war generation of Soviet artists, such as Victor Popkov, Geli Korzhev, Tair Salakhov, and the Smolny brothers, attempted to reinstate the contradictions of the worker’s Gestalt. In their paintings, the figure of the worker is already not only a hieroglyph, ideal, or dream, and does not always correspond to the Stalinist cultural canon’s sentimental dream. Nevertheless, by the 1970s, the worker was no longer of crucial importance: the cultural hegemony of the petite bourgeoisie had now also spread to the arts.
Does the image of the worker stand any chance of returning to the 21st century and its art? The image’s fate depends on whether or not the working class will again be recognized as the subject of history, as a revolutionary class. Perhaps one can understand the annihilation of the (liberating) working class’s image as the most successful operations undertaken by its old and new enemies in the struggle for cultural hegemony and economic-political dominance. Only credible theories and a great deal of cultural work, as well as significant events, all of which would have to prove the truth of Marx’s conclusions, can reinstate the worker and his image to their historical place.
1 According to the theory of scientific communism, the working class was “the hegemon of the revolution”, a term that was applied sarcastically by the intellectuals of the Soviet era.