Maxim Gorky was arguably the most famous writer in the world at the turn of the 20th century. His novel Mother inspired millions of workers for generations. His play The Lower Depths, was among the first plays to detail the lives of the lower classes in a very realistic, unromantic manner. But Gorky is now more or less forgotten. How did this happen? A key to this lies in the answers to the following questions: Why did Gorky, who had severely criticized the October 1917 revolution, go back to Russia under the regime of Joseph Stalin? Why did the man who would publicly denounce such gifted men as Lenin and Trotsky, succumb to the guile of the much less gifted (and more ruthless) Stalin?
The answer to these questions is important because his decision to go back to his homeland in 1929 after a partially self-imposed exile that started in 1921, sealed his fate on both sides of the propaganda system, and thus in history. After his return, the Soviet propaganda system proclaimed him to be a committed Bolshevik who had always sided with them, leading to generations of sincere socialists being presented with an extremely false picture of the unique artist. On the other hand the Western propaganda system branded him a crude hagiographer, and in time totally shunned him. The story like always is much more complex:
By 1905, Gorky had already established himself as the leading light of a new kind of literature (later called Socialist Realism). He played a leading role in the 1905 revolution and later had to leave Russia due to Tsarist persecution. As early as the first decade of the 20th century, Gorky was helping all revolutionary groups, financially and morally, regardless of their ideology. Due to his international stature, he was in a position to secure funds more easily than others. At the same time, his struggle and leadership during the 1905 revolution had made him a darling of the masses.
During his exile abroad, he became friends with Lenin. Though this friendship in one way or another continued on a personal level till Lenin’s death, their political views diverged quite early. Very early on, he came into conflict with Lenin and sided with a left group among the Bolsheviks. While relations were still cool between them, he wrote to Lenin saying, “… I hold you in great esteem…(but) it seems to me, at times, that everybody is for you nothing more but a flute, that you can play on it one time or another as long as it is pleasing you. You value the individual (by the criterion) of whether he is useful to you…this kind of attitude will unavoidably lead you to the making of mistakes.”
After the October 1917 revolution, he wrote scathing criticisms of both Lenin and Trotsky and was severely opposed to their actions. Gorky wrote in his newspaper Novaia Zhizn: “Lenin and Trotsky and their followers already have been poisoned by the rotten venom of power. The proof of this is their attitude toward freedom of speech and of person and toward all the ideals for which democracy was fighting”. Some days later he wrote again: “Lenin and Trotsky and all who follow them … are dishonoring the revolution, and the working class…Imagining themselves Napoleons of socialism, the Leninists are completing the destruction of Russia”! He also said that Bolsheviks were “starting bloody despotism all over again!” Gorky wrote much else besides, and kept condemning the Bolsheviks.
Finally, his criticism reached boiling point in 1918 and Lenin ordered the publication of his paper to be suspended indefinitely. Upon losing his paper, Gorky came into a tacit agreement with the Bolsheviks in that he became a protector of arts and culture (and people associated with it). He saved many a writer from persecution, writing letter upon letter to Lenin and the central committee. In many cases, his requests were granted, as he still had a huge following among the people. Gorky stopped writing literature and was consumed in saving his fellow writers and all those he could.
However, his criticism of Bolsheviks continued. He was bitterly opposed to their oppression of workers and their anti-democratic practices. Lenin and others kept advising him to go abroad on the pretext of his health, and also to secure aid for famine plagued Russia. Gorky deeply cared for his beloved homeland and agreed to go, as he could not bear to see it in such horrific shape. As far as Lenin was concerned, Gorky’s exile killed two birds with one stone: to get some money for the govt., and also to get the uncompromising Gorky out of the way, who Lenin still regarded as a friend on a personal level.
Meanwhile in Russia, Stalin assumed more and more power. Lenin’s health deteriorated and in those circumstances he wrote his last testament. In it, Lenin severely criticized Stalin and said: “Stalin is too coarse and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead who in all other respects differs from Comrade Stalin in having only one advantage, namely, that of being more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.” Of course, a similar defect had been noticed (in a smaller degree) by Gorky in Lenin very early on. Indeed, the institutional practices and attitudes that both Lenin and Trotsky had fostered from the outset, found their very natural culmination in the person of Stalin.
As luck would have it, Lenin died soon after. And then Stalin being the ultra cunning person that he was, cynically started building Lenin’s cult of personality, something that Lenin would have despised. Indeed, Lenin’s widow was to famously remark that had Lenin remained alive, he too would have suffered the same fate as all of Stalin’s other rivals!! However, it must be repeated that Trotsky’s propaganda that everything was fine till Lenin was alive is a false one. Lenin and Trotsky undermined workers Soviets as soon as they came into power, among many other anti-socialist steps that the two men took; steps that were bitterly condemned by Gorky. Trotsky was especially drunk on power and dogma, and ruthlessly crushed many a workers and peasants uprising. Thus, both Lenin and Trotsky, hand in hand, had laid the groundwork for someone like Stalin to take over. Lenin was fortunate that he died and was saved from Stalin’s wrath; Trotsky, not so much.
Earlier, Gorky had written a memoir for Lenin. This memoir greatly embarrassed the central party members at the time. In it, Gorky took turns in both admiring and criticizing Lenin. Later on this version was suppressed and was edited heavily to make it more acceptable. The essay that generations of socialists all over the world read for years was one in which Gorky appeared to be unconditionally praising Lenin. But this was not his original version. This was just one lie in a long series of lies that the Stalinist propaganda machine churned out.
As Stalin got rid of more and more of his rivals, he kept pressing upon Gorky to return to Russia. Stalin recognized that Gorky’s return would be an important victory for him: Gorky was loved by the masses and also had a great international reputation. However, Gorky kept refusing, going so far as to write to a friend that he would never go back–“not on your life”!
But in 1929, Stalin lured him back. The welcome that Gorky received was unprecedented. It was not because Stalin employed his usual practice of forcing people to appear at govt. ceremonies. In this particular case, the workers and other common people themselves appeared by the thousands in love of Gorky, the man who had always stood by their side. In all kinds of ways, Gorky was treated like royalty. Gorky now stayed in Russia till his death in 1936.
And it is during this phase that Gorky’s attitude is almost inexplicable. On the one hand, he would remark to his friends, that he was a sly person and would use “all that they have arranged for me”, i.e., he would use the space given to him for his own purposes. But on the other hand, he would enthusiastically and publicly support the worst of Stalin’s policies. The man who could not tolerate Lenin and Trotsky’s despotic practices easily digested Stalin’s much worse deeds. However, he still kept trying to save fellow writers as much as he could. For example, Gorky intervention allowed Yevgeny Zamyati, who wrote the influential novel “We” which Orwell used as a model for 1984, to leave Russia unharmed. Indeed a long list could be made of all the people that Gorky saved.
There might be many reasons for Gorky support of Stalin’s regime. Perhaps, he thought as part of the system he could do more good as opposed to being out of it (as in saving other writers); perhaps he had become tired by his life of poverty in exile and was seduced by the riches that Stalin threw his way; perhaps he felt on balance Russia was progressing (which indeed it was).
All through this, he was always monitored by intelligence agents. Towards the last years of his life, he was virtually under house arrest and was not allowed to meet many of his friends. He had served his purpose of ratifying Stalin’s regime, and was no longer needed. He said that he felt he was living in a “gilded cage” with the “eye of the inquisition on him”. Finally, in 1936, Gorky died and escaped his gilded cage. Stalin being Stalin, did not even let this opportunity slip by. He charged the few remaining central committee members of Lenin’s time who were still alive with Gorky’s murder (among other charges) and also got rid of them!
Thus, Gorky the “first proletarian writer” who was loved by one and all at the turn of the 20th century, had the most tragic of ends. He died, loved and hated by many; most of whom did not even know his true history and were acquainted only with the caricature served by Stalinist propaganda on one hand, and Western propaganda on the other.
Gorky’s praise of Stalin’s regime has been much used to malign him. However, this is pure hypocrisy. What Gorky did in Stalin’s case was that he sided with the strong and the powerful. But this has been the historical role of intellectuals. If we are to condemn Gorky, then we should also condemn the majority of Western (especially Anglo American) intellectuals who either serve as cheerleaders or remain silent as their governments commit crimes and atrocities that would make Stalin blush! In the 20th century American imperialism alone (leaving aside British, French, Belgian et al.) has wreaked far more havoc than Stalin ever managed. The historical role of intellectuals is to serve power and they do it wonderfully well, as we see in the case of present day American and British (and French et al.) intellectuals.
Therefore, what is surprising in Gorky’s case is not his later day praise of Stalin but the fact that unlike most intellectuals he was at one time a true rebel and a dissident, who had thrown in his lot with the common people. Unfortunately, he died on the side of the powerful, but at least he was on the side of the voiceless for the bulk of his life, which is more than what one can say for most intellectuals!