Great and terrible has been the year of 2017, midnight in the century approaches and war clouds faintly gather on the horizon. From the dim light of a mausoleum in Moscow, the corpse of Vladimir Lenin remains still, silent and hollow amid polished stone. What power can a corpse wield long after the state founded by the man himself has ceased to exist? Yet the new Russian Tsar fears this corpse. The Putin government has hesitated, in fact refused, to officially commemorate the event the once living Lenin took part in 100 years ago — the October Revolution of 1917.
Something about this corpse in its suit and tie, with the look of a wax statue according to those who have visited the mausoleum in Red Square, retains a potent fascination. It goes beyond mere morbidity, because as with all revolutionaries, from Spartacus to Lenin, what illuminates the image is the idea it represents. His body was of course embalmed as that most brutal of heirs, Joseph Stalin, cemented his power over the Soviet Union. Lenin’s corpse was the first signal of what would be a personality cult culture in the USSR and later in much of the Communist world. The personality cult is of course an almost perverse art form, in which an individual becomes political aesthetic. Stalin’s current, most obvious remaining heir is the North Korean regime. Lenin’s body can be seen as a sculpture embodying the notion of radical government. Yet Stalin would never have imagined that a century after the revolution itself, his image would be more readily identified with villainy than egalitarianism, yet Lenin’s corpse retains a diverse mixture of both.
A century later, the Russian Revolution retains a dangerous air even amid its own rubble. Like the second, bloody phase of the French Revolution, the October Revolution is a reminder of popular upheaval becoming a double-edged sword cutting a dividing line of “us versus them.” Even as capitalism has consumed the world — as Rosa Luxemburg long ago prophesized it would — we live with reminders of the fiery times of the Russian upheaval because it was the first great revolution of the modern era, captured on film and influencing cinema itself. The cinematic flower of the Russian Revolution includes stirring epics such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, with its sailors in revolt, the theory of montage which influences even Hollywood nonsense to this day. Decades later, Soviet cinema would still produce astounding works which survive past the political system. The greatest war film I have ever seen is Elem Klimov’s 1985 Come and See, a hypnotic, apocalyptic vision of the Nazi invasion of the USSR.
Lenin himself is a figure whose persona is defined entirely by a political idea. He lacks the handsome charisma of a Che Guevara, yet like Maximilien Robespierre, he remains explosive in that he has not transcended controversy. Different glances on his mummified corpse, whether in person or online, will inspire different approaches. In his own time Lenin divided even the left itself. If today the word “socialism” is smeared by the right-wing as encompassing nothing but totalitarian impulses, in 1917 Lenin was actually considered a right-wing authoritarian by mainstream Marxists, including Trotsky himself (before joining the Bolsheviks fully on the eve of the October revolt). Before Lenin socialism meant the libertarian impulse towards workers’ control of industries and the formation of councils to form the new organs of society. Key Marxist thinkers of his time like Rosa Luxemburg seemed to bridge the gap between Marxism and anarchism by suggesting socialism would build a society both highly organized yet based on autonomy and radical democracy. It’s easy to forget that the Russian Revolution itself erupted in February 1917, spontaneously, with workers themselves forming “soviets” (councils). Lenin and the Bolshevik Party arrived later to impose a new order to it all in the form of a vanguard. It would be the revolutionary intellectual class that would guide the proletariat towards socialism, hopefully igniting a European revolution to shatter capitalism and its imperialist avatars.
In a way I grew up under the shadow of Lenin and his famous corpse. My mother was a refugee from the civil war which turned El Salvador into a Cold War battleground in the 1980s. The Marxist guerrilla movement FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), waged a war against a U.S.-backed military regime. At home names like Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and yes, Vladimir Lenin, were uttered with a grave urgency. My grandmother, who is now 99 years old, would speak of Communism not as some distant ideology but as something that took on a physical presence in her country. She remembers Trotsky as someone students of her generation venerated, and in 1932 witnessed a mass peasant uprising in her country, fueled by Marxism, which resulted in about 30,000 peasants slaughtered by the regime of Maximiliano Martinez. It is one of the great ironies of Latin America that tiny El Salvador was the first country in the western hemisphere where workers attempted to form “Soviets,” in the Russian model, as recounted in poet Roque Dalton’s beautiful work of history, Miguel Marmol. My grandmother, reared in the now extinct, highly traditional Salvadoran society of the early 20th century, was never particularly political and yet her eyes widen, her voice quickens when I mention the Russian Revolution. Its political ideas would lead to the Cuban Revolution, which would fuel the nature of the civil war that eventually consumed her homeland. Her intact memory returns to a vanished age, yet it reminds one of what William Wordsworth wrote in his poem, The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement,
“But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!”
100 years later and the Russian Revolution comes down to us in a series of brilliant and stirring images, later to be mere pageantry casting a veil over dark cells and terrible dungeons. No Revolution endures without devouring its children. The brilliant Trotsky would be exiled by Stalin who later have him assassinated in Mexico. Other great thinkers like Victor Serge would also flee into what Serge termed “midnight in the century.” A historical pattern was being revived. The Russian Revolution would degrade into the gulag, the French Revolution before it dipped its guillotine in a crimson twilight, in Iran’s Evin prison hundreds met the noose in the years following the Islamic Revolution. But every revolutionary moment, from the Reformation to the Arab Spring, is notable for its first seeds. One of the key new books on the October Revolution is October by fantasy author and intellectual China Mieville. A stirring, romantic gesture, the book nonetheless acknowledges the dark turn of the revolution and the devouring of its children. Yet the most important line of the entire text may be when Mieville states, “Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all.” Yet the early poetry of the revolution had a darker cadence, one of almost holy war, as in Alexander Blok’s The Twelve, with the lines:
To get the bourgeoisie
We’ll start a fire
a worldwide fire, and drench it
in blood —
The good Lord bless us!
You bourgeoisie, fly as a sparrow!
I’ll drink your blood,
Your warm blood, for love,
for dark-eyed love.
Illustrations for Alexander Blok’s The Twelve, by Yuri Annenkov, 1918.
One looks at Lenin’s corpse and must weigh both the man who wrote the April Theses and State and Revolution, works so full of libertarian power that fellow Marxists in 1917 accused Lenin of becoming a Bakuninist anarchist, and the cold ruler who would order a “Red Terror” to purge enemies and ban intellectuals. As a leftist, I have always learned the value of thinking in iconoclastic, sobering terms when I weigh my admiration for the April Theses with my love for the works of the Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, whose satires tore apart the inevitable hypocrisies of the system Lenin would leave behind. And this may be the greatest challenge Lenin’s corpse offers radicals of this postmodern era. In a world now fully consumerist, where mutual aid is a near heresy and mad capitalists rule the imperial powers, what form should radical change take? If a world conflagration erupts again, what ideas will guide the radicals of today? Lenin immediately recognized World War I as a chance to turn a conflict between nations into a war between social classes. In his own important, though often conveniently ignored- book, Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky clearly stated the Bolshevik ethos as “to make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. And this problem can only be solved by blood and iron.” Our slightly more modernized society now asks itself, just how far should we go to change the order of things? Lenin’s corpse, in its mausoleum, eyes closed, like a man dreaming of other worlds, challenges us with this question. It is an important question, because like all radical art, or art produced in a true fervor, the images of the Russian Revolution, those film reels of armed militias and workers on the march, of Lenin amid wintry hazes delivering a speech, of red flags held aloft, is a reminder that these events happened, and they shall happen again.
Imagine history winding back on itself like a film reel. Trump walks back behind the stage on November 8, the tanks in Baghdad march backwards in 2003, those winged steel birds of death fly back out of the towers which rebuild themselves, Yugoslavia is put back together, the Berlin Wall rebuilds then unbuilds itself, the Flower Children return to infancy, Kennedy’s skull is put back together, Jackie’s rictus of horror turns back into a smile, the Cuban missiles sail backwards before reaching the island, the Selma marchers begin to walk back, the Korean peninsula is whole again, the atomic mushroom cloud in New Mexico shrinks on itself, the Nazi hordes march backwards out of Poland, Trotsky’s blood seeps back into his brain, the cabarets of Weimar Germany degrade into empty buildings once more, Stalin falls back asleep, Lenin rises from the mausoleum, alive again, all the revolutionary crowds move back into their original homes, and the vast armies of the Great War all scatter back into their countries. The world is again uncertain and the revolutionaries of tomorrow are not yet corpses on display, but wandering and thinking, feeling a tempest inside as yet undefined. This is where we are now.
Professor Alan Woods discusses Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917 and his famous “April Theses,” which sought to rearm the Bolsheviks politically.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.