[Marxism] [Pen-l] Ukraine, Stalin, Hitler, and the American liberal | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 26 20:00:07 MST 2014

On 2/26/14 9:49 PM, h0ost wrote:
> Indeed, and that is to be condemned as well (for some unfathomable
> reason the Masoleum is still kept in Moscow).


The making of a socialist 'saint'
Wednesday, October 15, 1997 - 10:00

Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia
By Nina Tumarkin
Harvard University Press, 1997
337 pp., $31.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Cults come in all shapes and sizes. The Elvis cult is tacky but 
harmless. The Princess Diana cult is schmalzy and intellectually 
repellent, but not a direct threat to life and limb like the 
quasi-religious cults of the mass-suicide variety. The cult of Lenin 
that existed in the Soviet Union managed to be tacky, schmalzy, 
intellectually repellent and, in the hands of Stalin, camouflage for the 
deaths of millions.

Nina Tumarkin's book on the Lenin cult looks at the first expressions of 
the eulogising and mythologising of Lenin at the time of his attempted 
assassination in 1918; the cult's mad growth spurt, including the 
embalming of Lenin's body, during the two years following his death in 
1924; and the subsequent icon fashioned by Stalin.

Tumarkin acknowledges the element of "spontaneous devotion to 
revolutionary symbols and leaders", derived from the genuine popular 
aspect of the Russian Revolution and which contributed to the cult of 
Lenin, as much as the "self-conscious artifice" by some Bolshevik 
leaders to mobilise loyalty to the political regime.

Thus when Fanny Kaplan, a member of the terrorist organisation of the 
anti-Bolshevik Socialist Revolutionary Party, fired two bullets into 
Lenin in August 1918, an emotional tidal wave of praise for Lenin and 
anger at the attempted murder flooded in from the Russian people who saw 
this assassination attempt as an attack on their revolution.

Much of the praise, especially from Bolshevik leaders like Zinoviev, 
although a sincere expression of solidarity and respect for Lenin, was 
extravagant, flamboyant and quasi-mystical. Lenin was distressed by the 
exalted glorification and appalled at the un-Marxist veneration of the 

The cloying adulation that filled acres of scarce newsprint was 
"shameful to read", Lenin said. "They exaggerate everything, call me a 
genius, some kind of special person. All our lives we have waged an 
ideological struggle against the glorification of the personality, of 
the individual", and now here was Lenin, who had always detested 
flattery and praise, being turned into a socialist saint.

Lenin requested the publication of his praises be stopped and the 
volcano settled down, but the subterranean lava remained active.

On Lenin's fiftieth birthday in 1920 the Bolshevik Party in Moscow 
organised a commemorative meeting at which many Bolshevik leaders, 
including Stalin, vied with each other to sing Lenin's praises. Lenin, 
however, only entered the meeting after all the speeches and poems. He 
expressed his annoyance at the stylised and elaborate praises by 
"thanking the assembly for their greetings and for having spared him 
from having to listen to them" and bluntly suggested that personal 
anniversaries should be "celebrated in more appropriate ways in the future".

A vain hope, as it turned out. A socialist economy in an isolated, 
backward, war-ravaged, peasant-based country faced severe stresses and 
this created the social space for the growth of a bureaucracy under the 
oxymoronic banner of Stalin's "socialism in one country" with its 
attendant horrors of rapid industrialisation and forced 
collectivisation. The cult of Lenin was to be used by the victorious 
Stalin faction as gospel against all dissent and opposition.

Not that Stalin was the sole architect of the Lenin cult in the 
beginning. When Lenin died from a brain haemorrhage as a result of a 
major stroke in January 1924, Zinoviev, the most prominent Bolshevik 
leader apart from Trotsky, took the lead in the official veneration of 
Lenin. The rituals and symbols of the cult were designed to control and 
channel popular grief over Lenin's death into legitimacy of, and 
subservience to, the leadership of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin in their 
struggle against Trotsky.

Lenin, when alive, was the acknowledged leader of the Bolsheviks but his 
authority did not necessarily mean automatic acceptance of his views in 
a party that still practised open debate and decided issues on their 
merits. The cult of Lenin became the unquestionable authority used to 
drive democracy from the party, the soviets and the country.

Lenin's cultification swung into high gear after his death. Institutions 
and cities were re-named after Lenin: Petrograd became Leningrad and 
Lenin's image appeared on cigarette packets, cups and biscuits. New 
biographies created myths and legends. Previous memoirs which showed 
Lenin to be less than perfect were beautified, as was Lenin's 
personality. The gravitational centre of the cult was the embalmed body 
of Lenin on display in a mausoleum in Red Square, a holy relic for 

There was opposition to the Lenin cult. Lenin's sisters, Maria and Anna, 
and his brother, Dimitri, criticised the legends invented to idealise 
Lenin and they opposed the embalming. Amongst the Bolshevik leadership, 
Trotsky was outraged at the decision to preserve and display Lenin's 
body, Kamenev thought it un-Marxist, whilst Bukharin though it an 
affront to Lenin.

Krupskaya, Lenin's widow, wrote that Lenin should be honoured not by 
embalming, monuments, celebrations and the like, all of which had meant 
nothing to him, but by building day-care centres, kindergartens, homes 
and schools. Krupskaya continued her private protest by never visiting 
the mausoleum. The revolutionary poet, Mayakovsky, denounced the 
"rituals, mausoleums and processions" and the trafficking in Lenin 
kitsch. With the political defeat of Trotsky in 1926, however, the cult 
was fully established and regulated.

Stalin graduated from yoking his name to Lenin's to his own full-blown 
Stalin cult in the early 1930s. With Stalin's death, his own body joined 
Lenin's in the mausoleum for eight years until Kruschev's limited 
de-Stalinisation ended that obscenity. But it wasn't until Gorbachev's 
reign that a partial erosion of the Lenin cult was initiated.

Tumarkin's book can yield an informative account of the origin, growth 
and political utility of the Lenin cult but (and there is always a "but" 
in establishment treatments of Lenin) Tumarkin does not stray from the 
anti-Leninist path.

While she concedes that Lenin was a popular leader inspiring a genuine 
reverence, she goes on to serve up the usual fare of Lenin's alleged 
dictatorial ambitions and "personal domination of his party". Whilst 
innocent of initiating the cult, or at most guilty of passively 
accepting it, Lenin, according to Tumarkin, got his kicks in other ways, 
wanting, instead of praise and flattery, submission and obedience.

Tumarkin finds much to credit in the orthodoxy of establishment and 
ex-Stalinist biographers of Lenin such as General Dimitri Volkogonov, 
who portrays Lenin as absolute evil, responsible for only "blood, 
coercion and the denial of freedom". But Lenin as the ruthless bogey-man 
of official anti-communism, the soulless, fanatical, compulsive 
power-freak is as mythical as the Lenin of the Lenin cult under Stalin, 
the lifeless icon, the commanding figure in the windswept coat with arm 
outstretched grimly pointing to the socialist future.

Also questionable is Tumarkin's emphasis on the influence of traditional 
Tsarist Russian culture on the Lenin cult. Certainly, as was recognised 
with frustration by the Bolsheviks, the old culture reasserted itself 
after the revolution. Peasant superstitions such as the religious 
veneration of icons and the myth of the just Tsar-deliverer, did mould 
the cult, but it was politics that mattered. When Lenin was active, 
cultification was stopped or moderated, but when used to fight Stalin's 
political battles it was full steam ahead.

Tumarkin's concept of cult is very elastic, which allows her to assign 
responsibility for it to anyone who had ever shown any respect for 
Lenin, or a desire to emulate his virtues. Any note of praise, any 
resort to the writings of Lenin becomes at least a seed sown or at worst 
a conscious attempt to build the cult. So Trotsky and other 
anti-Stalinist communists, and by implication the entire Marxist 
project, are doomed to the defect of the cult of personality.

It is possible, however, to recognise and honour Lenin as an important 
revolutionary theorist and politician whose greatness lay in his ability 
to unite his political imagination with realism and in his powers of 
clear and direct argument. The difference between this view and a cult 
is the acceptance of the whole Lenin, the Lenin who was fallible, who 
got things wrong, who does not have all the answers to everything today 
and who suffered from ordinary human failings.

Lenin was not special or superior. The elitism inherent in a capitalist 
cult figure like Princess Diana denies her followers their own 
self-worth and dignity with each ritual of royalty worship. The Diana 
cult serves to reinforce people in their "ordinariness" and 
powerlessness. The real Lenin was about the collective power and 
creativity of "ordinary" people to make history and to remake themselves.

Lenin, writing tate and Revolution just days before the revolution, made 
the prophetic remark on the attempts by ruling classes to convert 
revolutionaries, after their death, into "harmless icons" as a means of 
consolation of the oppressed and cooption of their heroes, whilst 
robbing their revolutionary theory of its substance. Cruelly this was to 
be Lenin's fate at the hands of Stalin. There is a real Lenin still to 
be rediscovered.

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