How to democratize reading?

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By LINCOLN SECCO*

Only socialism will be able to sow books by the handful and keep people working in its productive chain

In Brazil, the debate advances on the proposal for a fixed book price law (or José Xavier Cortez Law), whose rapporteur is Senator Jean Paul Prates (PT/RN). Inspired by the Lang Law in France, the law would oblige all bookstores to limit a maximum discount of 10% on a publication during the first year after its release. With that, the small book trade would be protected from powerful groups like Amazon.

Marisa Midori Deaecto, our greatest specialist in the history of books and a professor of this subject at USP, defends the proposed law. Upon learning about his new front of struggle, I remembered our old professor Edgard Carone, bibliophile and collector of socialist books and drafted some notes about a reality that had almost disappeared: the policies to promote books in socialist countries.

The book cycles in the former socialist bloc accompanied the vicissitudes of the history of the communist party. The Russian Revolution enthroned the book as the main vehicle of agitprop (agitation and propaganda). Vladimir I. Lenin, who was a bookworm to the point of being irritated by sloppy editions, was concerned with securing a budget for libraries and publishers. In fact, all the main Bolshevik leaders devoured books and tried to impose themselves in debates using erudition. Nikolai Bukharin was a born intellectual. Grigori Zinoviev wrote a History of the Bolshevik Party. Léon Trotsky was probably the most talented of them and had to take huge boxes of books and documents into exile. Josef Stalin maintained an extensive personal library with hundreds of annotated books.

 

Books and agitprop

Propaganda consists of the political training of cadres who work permanently in the party or in organizations influenced by it. Agitation aims to reach the masses in rallies, marches, strikes, protests, clashes, etc.

In short, for Lenin agitation popularizes few ideas for many people and propaganda spreads many ideas for a smaller number of militants.[I] Agitprop is not a sum of rigidly separated fixed tasks, but a set of processes and relationships between people. The aim is to transform more and more members of the masses into cadres and qualitatively change the relationship between the led and the leaders.

The agitation resorts to posters, leaflets, pamphlets, newspapers, etc. Propaganda uses courses, theoretical debates and books. This is an analytical distinction, because in practice newspapers can bring book chapters, theoretical debates and booklets; lectures can serve agitation.[ii]

What matters to us here is that the book has a core function in these activities. With the existence of a socialist power, its role becomes much more important in provoking the passage from quantity to quality, as millions of people now have access to the theory.

In the Stalinist period the content of editions became controlled. In 1931, Editorial Progresso in Moscow was founded. In turn, de-Stalinization was reflected in various reforms that affected reading. The Khrushchev period was one of expansion of family urban housing, when people conquered their private kitchen. This made it possible to be more critical and independent in private life. And also discuss semi-prohibited works, such as handwritten or mimeograph literature called friendly.

The film I am 20 years old, directed by Marlen Khutsiev in 1964, it shows a very active and book-centered cultural life in Moscow. There are piles of literary works in an apartment, used book stalls, public reading of poems, etc. As much as there was the propaganda intention, it was significant that the film gave prominence to the book.

This reality led the French historian Serge Wolikow to notice a contradiction between the democratization of reading and the authoritarian control over its content,[iii] therefore between quantity and quality. However, the socialist bloc was never uniform. In Yugoslavia, after the break with the USSR in 1948, the mode of book production and distribution was decentralized and the market price system introduced. In addition, it reduced censorship.[iv]

 

Distribution

In general, all socialist countries had a book policy. In Democratic Germany, a 1973 decree determined that companies should have a library, with a librarian. Factories should maintain a proportional ratio between the number of workers and the number of books. The largest should have 30.000 copies. During the country's existence, the number of books printed each year more than tripled.[v] and the proportion of those that were fiction was increased.

In the 1980s, when I discovered Soviet editions in foreign languages, socialism basically presented itself to me as a world of books. The role that theory played among communists required a lot of reading. It was natural for the Soviet ideology to spread especially through print, since it was concentrated propaganda directed by the state.

In São Paulo I frequented, if I am not mistaken, on Rua Barão de Itapetininga, the Livraria Tecno-Scientífica which imported books from the aforementioned Editorial Progresso, in addition to selling subscriptions to Soviet magazines at modest prices.

Editorial Progresso in Moscow only became known worldwide after 1963, when it assumed the role of publishing house for Soviet books in foreign languages. That year, the USSR reorganized its publishing industry and placed it under the general control of the State Publishing Committee, linked to the Council of Ministers. Ultimately, the book was a top-down affair.

An important effect of the Moscow Foreign Language Editions was the qualitative change in the translations of Lenin into Portuguese. According to Fabiana Lontra's innovative research, all Brazilian translations of Lenin were made mainly from French and Spanish and none from the Russian original. It is possible that Otávio Brandão translated Lenin's articles directly from Russian when he lived in the Soviet Union. But there is no book by Lenin officially translated by him.

In 1964 the editor Enio Silveira intended to launch the Selected Works translated by Alvaro Vieira Pinto from the Russian original, but the dictatorship destroyed the translation manuscripts. Is it possible that the decision had or sought support in Moscow?

Editions in Foreign Languages ​​allowed Lenin to be translated directly into Portuguese from Portugal after the Carnation Revolution, thanks to the partnership between Avante! (publisher of the Portuguese Communist Party) and Progresso. The texts were reproduced, after adaptation, by Brazilian publishers.[vi]

In the quantitative aspect, the socialist countries made a leap in the offer of cultural goods. Between 1957 and 1961 the average annual export of books from the USSR was 35 million copies,[vii] although there are statistical controversies arising from the definition of the size of a book and the combination of books and other printed matter (pamphlets) in the count[viii]. It was also the country that most translated titles from other languages.

In titles per million inhabitants (between 1955 and 1971) the Soviet Union jumped from 140 to 175 and the United States from 66 to 278.[ix] The average print run in the Soviet Union in 1965 was 16.811. Among the countries that led the world in this regard were Democratic Germany (17.900), Hungary (11.300), Poland (10.800), Bulgaria (10.600), Chile (8.000), Yugoslavia (7.500) and Czechoslovakia (7.300). Nordic countries led the way in per capita bond production.[X]

 

after the fall

The self-dissolution of the USSR was not just a geopolitical catastrophe, to quote controversial President Vladimir Putin. It lowered the cultural level of the nations that arose in its place. Editorial Progresso continued to exist, without support to disseminate Russian works abroad.

What is the role of a socialist publishing house after the fall of a block of countries that supposedly represented the future? In addition, the challenge of the Information Technology Revolution and, naturally, the internet arose. Digitization has expanded access to texts, but has not eliminated the market for printed books. We consult books and also computer screens according to the purpose of reading and the price of the works. This raises the question of costs, royalties and profit.

No leftist militant requires lawyers to provide advice to unions and they do not charge. Let a Marxist content creator for a video-sharing platform not get paid for it. Only in the world of left-wing books is there a charge for gratuity and the disrespect for copyright is compared to breaching a patent by a large pharmaceutical company.

On the other hand, in practice, pirated digital text hardly replaces printed text. Lawrence and Wishart publishing house was founded in 1936 to disseminate communist literature in England. With the end of the socialist bloc and the Communist Party of Great Britain, the publishing house went into crisis. In 2014 it decided to revoke permission for the site to Marxists Internet Archive keep in the air Marx/Engels Collected Works (MECW). This is his main collection, edited between 1975 and 2004 in 50 volumes. The justification is that the publisher would close if it could not sell the printed copies and, in the future, digital copies.

Certainly, many people lost access to an easy and quick citation of texts by Marx. On the other hand, without the editorial effort, the work of translators and the financial investment, the collection would never have existed. How to arrive at a solution to this dilemma?

Collective and voluntary work on network translation is a first step, although subject to many problems. Requiring the State to invest in public libraries is another. Ask leftist parties to maintain publishing houses with printed works as well. But as in all other problems of capitalist society, only socialism will be able to sow books by the handful and keep people working in its productive chain.

* Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of Caio Prado Júnior: the sense of revolution (Boitempo).

 

Notes


[I] Conceição, Fabiana Zogbi Lontra. The Works of Lenin in Brazil (1920-1964): in search of a history of translation. Masters dissertation. Porto Alegre: UFRGS, 2022.

[ii]We leave aside the translation of these concepts to the virtual sphere, but lives and texts on screen can be located in an intermediate zone between agitation and propaganda, perhaps serving as a passage from one to the other, that is, from publicizing to reading books.

[iii]Woliwow, S. “History of the Book and Publishing in the European Communist World”, in Deaecto, Marisa and Mollier, Jean-Yves. Edition and Revolution. São Paulo: Ateliê, 2013, p. 324.

[iv]Booher, Edward. “Publishing in the USSR and Yugoslavia”, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Sep., 1975, Vol. 421, Perspectives on Publishing (Sep., 1975), pp. 118-129.

[v]An International Study of Reading Literacy at the time of the fall of the Wall found that "the average reading comprehension of eighth grade students in East Germany was significantly higher than in West Germany". Ottermann, Philip. “Red poets' society: the secret history of the Stasi's book club for spies”, The Guardian, 5 February 2022.

[vi] Conceição, Fabiana Zogbi Lontra. The Works of Lenin in Brazil (1920-1964): in search of a history of translation. Masters dissertation. Porto Alegre: UFRGS, 2022.

[vii]Scarpit, Robert. La Revolution du livre. Paris: UNESCO, 1969.

[viii]Enoch, Kurt. and Phrase, Robert. W. “Book distribution in the USSR”, ALA Bulletin, v. 57, No. 6, Chicago, June 1963

[ix]Unesco, Statistical yearbook, 1972. Paris: Unesco, 1973.

[X]Book publishing in the USSR, New York, American Book Publishing, 1963.

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