The revolution entombed
The Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow was first designed by the architect Aleksei Shchusev in 1924. Even outside of Russia, its image is fairly familiar: some kind of cross between geometric modernism and a primeval ziggurat. What is seldom remembered today, however, is that Shchusev had to design and redesign the building more than once. Of course, the public display of Ulianov’s corpse was originally intended to only last a few weeks.
An exceptionally cold winter (Lenin died in January) helped preserve the Bolshevik leader’s remains longer than expected. Despite Lenin’s explicit request that his body be cremated and buried next to that of his mother, the new Soviet administration began making more permanent arrangements.
Vladimir Paperny offered a fairly memorable explanation for this fact in his book Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin. He suggested that a transition was then underway between the two dominant cultural attitudes that define Russian-Soviet history:
Culture One [Bolshevik, avant-garde culture] wanted to burn its limbs [Shklovskii (1919)], wash memory from its soul, kill its old [Maiakovskii (1915)], and eat its children — all this as an attempt to free itself from the ballast that was interfering with its surge into the future. In Culture Two [Stalinist, realist culture], the future was postponed indefinitely. The future became even more beautiful and desirable [the architect Krasin (1937)], and the movement forward was even more joyous [state prosecutor Vyshinskii (1938)], but there did not seem to be an end in sight to that movement — the movement had become an end in itself.
[Stalinism’s] movement “forward, ever forward” changed nothing: The…goal was still the same; therefore, there was no way to determine whether this was movement or rest…Movement in Culture Two became tantamount to immobility, and the future to eternity…The history of the building of the Lenin Mausoleum is a good example of how culture’s idea of the longevity…changed. In Culture One, the idea of a mausoleum evoked a temporary structure, one that was needed “in order to grant all those who wish to, and who cannot come to Moscow for the day of the funeral, a chance to bid farewell to their beloved leader.” Culture Two had no intention of bidding farewell to the beloved leader. The temporary wooden mausoleum erected in 1924 was replaced first by a more solid wooden structure [six months later], and then, in 1930, by one of stone built to last.
Clearly, the different materials implemented in the construction of each version reflect different anticipated durations. The first was to be fleeting, the second durable, the third eternal. While the second is still, like the first, only made of wood, its form already appealed to eternity. Planks and crossbeams combined into regular geometric slabs, beyond real space and time. The upper half meanwhile ascends in pyramidal fashion, evoking that same mute permanence one feels before the ancient pharaohs’ tombs.
Lenin’s memory still haunts today’s Left. Just as the post-1991 Restoration in Moscow could not bring itself to finally lay his corpse to rest, neither can the contemporary Left bring itself to discard the legacy of October 1917. Even in rejecting Lenin or Leninism — whatever this might be thought to entail, be it democratic centralism, vanguardism, totalitarianism — it is forced to confront such associations. This is to say nothing of those who seek to take up Lenin’s mantle, with all the competing interpretations and conflicting points of emphasis.
And yet, an undeniable distance separates Lenin’s politics from the politics of the present. Our age is incapable of producing a Lenin, because politics in the sense he understood it is no longer imaginable. No one can really be a “Leninist” today apart from a general attention to discipline, organization, and more or less democratic or centralized elements. Lenin spoke about politics as something that could only meaningfully occur when the masses began being counted in millions, when space and time were measured in continents and epochs. In this sense, no one on the Left can be “political” the way Lenin was, if for no other reason than the fact that no workers movement exists on such a scale.
How are we to account for this phantom presence of a figure like Lenin, when the conditions that would be necessary for a figure like Lenin to exist are everywhere absent? As Chris Cutrone contends in his essay on “The relevance of Lenin today”:
It is Lenin who offers the memory, however distant, of the relation between political and social revolution, the relation between the need for democracy — the “rule of the people” — and the task of socialism. This is the reason that Lenin is either forgotten entirely — in an unconscious psychological blind-spot — or is ritualistically invoked only to be demonized. Nevertheless, the questions raised by Lenin remain.
The irrelevance of Lenin is his relevance.
Such recognition is sorely lacking in those who emptily invoke Lenin’s name today. Žižek was probably the first major intellectual to begin openly citing Lenin following the fall of Communism in the East, as more of a provocation against multicultural “tolerance” or post-colonial imperatives to “provincialize Europe.” Richard Seymour started blogging under the flattering handle Lenin, titling his website after David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb. As usual, Sebastian Budgen saw an opportunity to capitalize on this resurgent interest in Lenin, using the great revolutionary’s name as a kind of marketing gimmick in the 2007 essay collection Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth. Besides Verso’s established cash cow, Žižek, and the rising internet sensation, Seymour, contributors included mainstays of the SWP/Verso/Historical Materialism circuit such as Alain Badiou, Alex Callinicos (then still in favor), and the Italian neo-Stalinist Domenico Losurdo. Lenin Reloaded was thus not a far cry from the 2011 documentary Marx Reloaded, which also featured myriad Verso and HM authors.
But “Lenin” is here no more than an empty signifier, conjuring up vague ideas of dangerous “radicalism” and broken thought-taboos — but little else. It’s no more meaningful than the nearly contemporaneous insistence on “communism” by authors ranging from Badiou to Jodi Dean, Bruno Bosteels, and Boris Groys. To believe, on this flimsy basis, that Lenin or communism are currently enjoying a renaissance is supremely naïve. Such things must appear as remote and inaccessible as that primordial, proto-brutalist antiquity from which Shchusev wrested the shape of Lenin’s tomb.
Jan. 22, 1924
Lenin is no more. We have lost Lenin. The dark laws that govern the work of the arteries have destroyed his life. Medicine has proved itself powerless to accomplish what was passionately hoped for, what millions of human hearts demanded.
How many, unhesitatingly, would have sacrifice their own blood to the last drop to revive, to renew the work of the arteries of the great leader, Lenin Il’ich, the unique, who cannot be replaced. But no miracle occurred where science was powerless. And now Lenin is no more. These words descend upon our consciousness like gigantic rocks falling to the sea. Is it credible, can it be thought of?
The consciousness of the workers of the whole world cannot grasp this fact; for the enemy is still very strong, the way is long, and the great work, the greatest of history, is unfinished; for the working class of the world needed Lenin as perhaps no one in the history of the world has yet been needed.
The second attack of illness, which was more severe than the first, lasted more than ten months. The arteries “played” constantly, according to the bitter expression of the physicians. It was a terrible play with the life of Lenin. Improvement could be expected, almost complete recovery, but also catastrophe. We all expected recovery, but catastrophe happened. The breathing center of the brain refused to function and stifled the center of that mind of great genius.
And now Vladimir Il’ich is no more. The party is orphaned. The working class is orphaned. This was the very feeling aroused by the news of the death of our teacher and leader.
How shall we advance, shall we find the way, shall we not go astray? For Lenin, comrades, is no longer with us!
Lenin is no more, but Leninism endures. The immortal in Lenin — his doctrine, his work, his method, his example — lives in us, in the party that he founded, in the first workers’ State whose head he was and which he guided.
Our hearts are now so overcome with grief, because all of us, thanks to the great favor of history, were born contemporaries of Lenin, worked with him, and learned from him. Our party is Leninism in practice, our party is the collective leader of the workers. In each of us lives a small part of Lenin, which is the best part of each of us.
How shall we continue? With the lamp of Leninism in our hands. Shall we find the way? — With the collective mind, with the collective will of the party we shall find it!
And tomorrow, and the day after, for a week, a month, we shall ask, “Is Lenin really dead?” For his death will long seem to us an improbable, impossible, terrible arbitrariness of nature.
May the pain we feel, that stabs our hearts each time we think that Lenin is no more, be for each of us an admonition, a warning, an appeal: Your responsibility is increased. Be worthy of the leader who trained you!
In grief, sorrow, and affliction we bind our ranks and hearts together; we unite more closely for new struggles. Comrades, brothers, Lenin is no longer with us. Farewell, Il’ich! Farewell, leader!