In his piece in the anthology The God That Failed the anti-Stalinist socialist Ignazio Silone tells of a conversation in Moscow with Lazar Schatzky, a leader of the Russian Communist Youth.
They were in Red Square, not far from the tomb of Lenin, in the late 20s: “[I] pointed to the tomb, which was still made of wood at that time, and before which we used every day to see an interminable procession of poor ragged peasants slowly filing… ‘You must admit with me that this superstitious cult of his mummy is an insult to his memory and a disgrace to a revolutionary city like Moscow.’ I suggested to him, in short, that we should get hold of a tin or two of petrol and make a ‘little revolution’ on our own, by burning the totem-hut.
“I thought [Schatzky] would laugh about it; instead of which my poor friend went very pale and began to tremble violently. Then he begged me not to say dreadful things of that kind, either to him or still less to others.”
And yet Silone was, essentially, right. The cult of Lenin — from our point of view, the revolutionary Marxists — is absurd, unpleasant, dangerous. The dead man was raised above the living movement, by Stalin, as a political artefact — unable to answer back — in the fight against Trotsky, the opposition and the workers.
There was no Lenin cult when Lenin was still alive. He lived in a small flat built for a palace servant.
He wrote a letter — not intended for publication — in opposition to an attempt to increase his modest wages (he lived on the wage of a skilled worker). And when the Party decided to celebrate his 50th birthday he protested, then walked out during the speeches praising him.
Lenin’s authority derived from his political record, political role and his ability to win a political argument.
Lenin would have hated the renaming of Petrograd as Leningrad, on 26 January 1924, five days after his death. Streets were renamed after him. Museums were created, busts produced and statues were built.
According to the New York Times, in 1991 there were at least 5,500 statues of Lenin, built by Stalinists, in Ukraine. The dead Lenin had become a symbol of those that oppressed Ukraine — of the people who were responsible, for instance, for the Ukrainian famine of 1932-3 in which, perhaps, three million people needlessly starved to death as Stalin wiped out the potential threat of Ukrainian nationalism.
So, today, not one single Lenin statue is still officially standing in Ukraine. Of course those that pulled down Lenin from his plinths were not Ignazio Silone or, probably, socialists of any type. Nevertheless, a sort of necessary purging had taken place.
Of course Lenin knew the value of statues and memorials — only not of himself. In 1919, when the revolution looked as if it might be defeated by a combination of foreign intervention and White terror, Lenin was eager that in villages and towns tributes to the October revolution were built. If the Reds were defeated he wanted as many permanent reminders to exist as possible, to live on in the collective memory.
But, of course, statues can be pulled down.
On occasion Stalinists have even destroyed their own iconography. In 1962 an enormous and spectacularly ugly monument to Stalin was demolished in Prague. Completed in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death and just a year before Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” revealed to the orthodox Stalinist world some of the crimes Stalin committed in the name of socialism. It took 800kg of explosives to remove the 17,000 tonne monstrosity which had taken five years to build and had dominated the Prague skyline. The “reform” Stalinists had become embarrassed by High Stalinism — but they were so touchy they banned photographs being taken as the effigy came down.
Good riddance. But better was the destruction of the 25 metre Stalin statue in Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian workers’ rising. A Stalinist journalist — a real toad, evidently — remarked on its completion in 1951, “[Stalin] will watch over our work, and his smile will show us the way. In Moscow it is customary to pay a visit to Comrade Lenin in Red Square before beginning, or after finishing, an important task, either to report or to ask his advice. Undoubtedly the same will occur here with the statue of Comrade Stalin.” A mystical cult of Stalin had been built.
The 16-point manifesto issued by Hungarian students on 22 October 1956 included (point 13): “We demand that the statue of Stalin, symbol of Stalinist tyranny and political repression be removed as soon as possible.” The students wanted a statue to their own heroes, “a monument in memory of the martyred freedom fighters of 1848-49.”
The next day a massive crowd celebrated as workers with metal cutting equipment, steel cables and trucks pulled down and chopped up the statue. All that was left on the limestone base were Stalin’s boots.
It is not of no consequence who pulls down a particular statue, and why.
When US troops ran a cable round Saddam’s statue in Bagdad, in 2003, and the local population rejoiced and, laughing, beat the toppled statue with their shoes, in contempt, it was possible to see both imperial arrogance and joy at the death of a tyranny.
When the Stop the War campaign attempted to mirror the event by pulling down a giant model of the Statue of Liberty in Trafalgar Square it was great theatre, but bad socialist politics. Was the Statue of Liberty simply a symbol of thuggish American imperialism? That’s ridiculous. To the refugees and migrants who passed the Statue in New York harbour it was and is a sign of hope. And the Chinese pro-democracy demonstrators, the students and the workers, had erected a Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square in 1989 as a symbol of freedom and liberty.
At the end of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book about the Shah of Iran, Shah of Shahs, there’s the story of Golam who made his life’s work to pull down the monuments of the Iranian Shahs.
Golam studied the matter scientifically and started in 1941, with his father: “I remember when the old Shah stepped down. Everyone ran out to smash his monuments…. In ‘53 [during the British and US sponsored coup against Mossadegh] when democracy ended and the Shah’s regime began I recall the radio said the Shah had escaped to Europe [before the army put him back in place]. By the time the Shah came back there wasn’t a Pahlavi monument left. But he started right back in putting up monuments to himself and his father… Many times we nearly gave in. If we pulled down one, he’d set up three.”
By the 1970s Golam had his own set of special ropes for pulling down the dictator’s statues, “We hid our stout sisal hawser at a rope sellers in the bazaar. It was no joke. If the police had picked up our trail we’d have gone to the wall.” Golam’s work was dangerous. By this time the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, had a fearsome reputation.
By the Islamic revolution of 1978-9, which replaced one brutality with a clerical one, Golam had become very scathing of amateurish attempts to destroy the Shah’s cult. He watched as statues were erected, “That was the best chance [to work out how it could be pulled down] — to see how it was built, whether the figure was solid or hollow, and, most importantly, how it was attached to the pedestal and how it was reinforced… It wasn’t work it was a duty…” It was not clear what Golam made of the Islamists.
Of course erecting statues to oneself is the work of someone with state power. The purpose is to project permanence, grandeur, great dominance and authority. And to create veneration and devotion around the individual who demands power and control without accountability.
On the British far left Gerry Healy — thankfully — never held state power and consequently had no statues. But he did take the power and act like a tyrant inside his group, the WRP. And Healy’s cult was a violent and criminal one. The WRP had even bought Trotsky’s death-mask which it put on display, back-lit, treated as a religious icon as part of the WRP’s bizarre political cabaret.
Jeremy Corbyn has no statues but he does have garden gnomes (£23), “I love Jeremy” mugs (£7.99), underpants (100% cotton, £15) and his own Lego figure (hours of family fun, £12). He has an anthem and groups of adoring fans.
Of course some of this Jezmania is silly and harmless. Corbyn is not a Stalin nor a Shah, nor anything like it. Nevertheless the Labour Party has a single leader — rather than a collective leadership — fitting into the standard, bourgeois model of how political parties are expected to behave, which allows excessive focus on the individual leader and their personal qualities, at the expense of politics.
And now, when many on the broadly defined left are so very desperate to see a socialist alternative to New Labour and the Tories, it seems that many have had their critical faculties numbed or partially dismantled. Even Jon Lansman’s coup in Momentum — an overturn designed to prevent left criticism of Corbyn — gained little overt, open opposition from Momentum’s 30,000 members.
The radicalisation that found its expression in the Corbyn leadership victory and a mass return to Labour took place at a time of little direct class struggle. The Corbynistas were born from discontent with post-2008 capitalism, memories of the 1970s and 80s, and the wearing out and discrediting of Blairism. The Corbyn movement is not a movement full of debate — some are passive, voting on the internet but not involved in the living movement; some are new to politics and join at a time of a low political culture.
Putting Corbyn in place, on a pedestal, and expecting him to do the job for us, without our critical participation or the active working-class movement, won’t end well.
The great American socialist, Eugene V Debs, who won 900,000 votes on the Socialist Party ticket in the 1912 US election, put the matter like this:
“I am not a Labour Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.”
Indeed. We must use our heads, think, fight militantly, and rely on no great leaders.