Socialist realism was the style of art championed by the Soviets during the reign of Josef Stalin. The tenets of socialist realism were both remarkably simple and remarkably complex. Simple because the primary—the only, really—goal of socialist realist art was to educate the masses as to the “correct” way of thinking. Complex because, as we all know, the “correct” way of thinking in the Soviet Union was ever-changing, bound only to the whims of Stalin.
“Socialist realist art aimed to do away with the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought,’” Peter Kenez wrote in Cinema and Soviet Society. “Through the medium of film, ‘reality’ became what it was meant to be according to Bolshevik, Stalinist ideology.” The films that hewed closely to socialist realism were those that encouraged purity of thought and deed, denigrated the kulaks and the capitalists, and attacked whichever foreign power Stalin had arrayed the USSR against at the given moment.
Little things like “artistic merit” meant almost nothing to the fans of socialist realism: camera work, set design, acting—all secondary concerns to the plot and dialogue and theme.* Didacticism was all that mattered.
The release of Interstellar, and its reception on politically oriented websites, shows that the socialist realist impulse hasn’t died out. But it has transformed for the times. We’re now living in an age in which films are criticized for failing to live up to environmentalist realism. The distinction between “is” and “ought” has once again become a fuzzy one.