PRINT February 1992


Lenin in Canada

BACK IN AUGUST, FOLLOWING the slapdash coup against Gorbachev, statues of Lenin toppled all over what was then the Soviet Union, only to pop up again in the Western media or in the hands of private collectors across the “free world.” Even as the media turned the tottering Bolshevik into an all-purpose stage prop for a political theater that had suddenly, briefly, gone all-out populist, a Japanese investor was said to be arranging for the resurrection of fallen monuments in a Lenin theme park in Tokyo.

It was high summer, winter breadlines were a long way off, and the Soviet ancien régime had been dispatched (apparently for good) in less time than it took the U.S. Army to outflank and bury (alive, in some cases) Saddam Hussein’s war machine in Kuwait. So I was somewhat bemused to come upon a Lenin of a different sort standing firm in Toronto, seat of Ontario’s socialist government. In June, on the invitation of curator Richard Rhodes, artist Mark Lewis had installed one of his six-foot plaster effigies of the Russian revolutionary on the south lawn of the Power Plant gallery, where it gazed out across Lake Ontario toward the United States. The work was a copy of a thirty-foot, twelve-ton bronze statue removed from Bucharest’s Piatia Scintei in 1989, where it had towered atop a huge plinth before the Stalinist wedding-cake facade of the Palace of Culture.

Lewis’ figure was accompanied by a plaque saying that an anonymous donor had bought the original and was proposing to erect it permanently on the site. Citizens, of course, were outraged. Told later on that the plaque was a “fiction,” they only condemned Lewis the more for toying with his “public responsibility” while enjoying the comforts of political freedom and squandering the government subsidies that sustain the Canadian art scene. In return, Lewis claimed that the public had been caught looking the wrong way. His “fiction” was an ironic allusion to Henry “Hal” Jackman, the Tory benefactor whose ideological proclivities and financial generosity had brought a scowling bronze Winston Churchill to City Hall, and had secured an equestrian statue of Edward VII for Queen’s Park (site of Ontario’s provincial government) after Indian decolonization had led to its removal from Delhi.

Lewis was following precedent in recycling an imperialist monument, but rather than glorify the figure and the regime that had installed it as a kind of tutelary presence, he opted for a diminishment of scale and of ideological stature. There was something droll in his pint-sized reprise of a sculpture itself based on the aggrandizement of a mortal man standing well under six feet. Authority and eminence had been scaled down for the purposes of democratic reception. Modesty also inhered in the organic materials and the organization of the site: the figure perched atop a gray wooden plinth set into a low mound of flowers spelling out the words “Let Everything Be Temporary.”

This had been Lenin’s advice to Anatoly Lunacharsky, commissar of education, concerning the materials for the busts and statues of revolutionary figures that would be erected in celebration of the first May Day in 1918. Many of the works disappeared within a few months, as expected. But-Lewis’ flower bed did not even attain brevity: the metaphoric complexity of a citation in botanical form was lost when its red irisine plants failed to take hold.

Subtleties of this sort were overlooked by the local and national media, and by those members of the public who spoke at a forum on August 7 after the statue had generated much controversy and had sustained damage by vandals. Discussion now and then returned to questions of “free” expression in a democracy, or to the function of the monument as a barometer of state authority and public will, but most speakers opted for the topos of history returning as nightmare, and of victimization by a cultural leisure class—artists—that had nothing better to do than waste public funds on dilettante esthetics with a discredited “socialist” twist. One panel member whose family had suffered under the Soviet regime was outraged that Lewis would “dare compare Churchill with a statue of a mass murderer” (which he hadn’t done), and accused Rhodes of “incredible insensitivity and bad taste” in putting up “this abomination.”

Lewis’ work, of course, was not a ploy to exacerbate the memories of those who had lived under communism. But it did elicit cries of helplessness over the organization of the public realm, and in doing so through the genre of monumentality, with its historical role in the representation of power and the political organization of public space, it mounted a critique of North American democracy as the space of a depoliticized populace. Democracy was being called to account, capitalism was being asked to answer for its deformation of liberal principles, and freedom was being repoliticized on the very continent where it had been enshrined as the central tenet of a new political testament. In submitting the present moment to the test of freedom—his own, if it was to be anybody else’s—Lewis was not only tampering with the contractual norms that organize the civil sphere. He was, more provocatively, playing politics with the transcendent concept of freedom, and thus demonstrating its liquidation as the categorical precondition that would safeguard his own expression. In place of “freedom” as an inalienable individual possession or right, he was also unleashing the vengeful will as the vestigial category of political action.

A version of the work had previously appeared in Oxford, England, in June 1990, in Quebec City in November of that year, and in Montreal in February 1991. Only in Oxford was it shown undisturbed. In Quebec it had been toppled, and in Montreal it was ripped from its moorings and vanished altogether, just a day after the Soviet Consulate had unsuccessfully petitioned the mayor for its removal as an “insult to Lenin.” In Toronto in July it suffered a broken nose, a shattered right leg, and a spray-paint attack that left a red hammer and sickle across its chest. This was Lenin in the aftermath of a street brawl, the victim of populist détournement and historical obsolescence.

And why not? Last summer, images of falling idols—be they Lenins or KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky hoisted away to the cries of a jubilant crowd—rolled past TV screens like a visual laugh-track for the demise of communism. A couple of years before, the dismantling of the Berlin wall had dramatized the triumph of a capitalist ethos that would supposedly outlast all forms of historical fatality. Now Lenin was uprooted by his own people. The monstrous ideological other was overturned, and the sullen automatons who for so long had made up the undifferentiated Soviet mass were preparing to pass through the first, heady stages of a democratic revolution that would consign the Bolshevik one to the status of a tragic farce.

Against this mainstream logic, Lewis offered Lenin without Leninism (or, rather, Lenin without Stalinism, which is what the Leninist legacy has come to mean). Not a post-Modern appropriation, but a historically, ideologically displaced effigy that addressed its Western context in terms of the question that is the work’s title: What Is to Be Done? The question comes from the lengthy Lenin pamphlet of 1902, which argued that only a coterie of professional socialists could lead a successful Marxist revolution in Russia. In Toronto the question would stand Lenin’s revolutionary elitism on its head, renounce the command model of authority and ideological enlightenment, and address instead the disempowerment of the democratic citizenry.

This was too much to ask. For some, history was still too painfully a subset of memory, while others took their cue from the media, a 24-hour clearing house of easy ideological allegories generally informed by a Möbian logic of freedom carrying on an immemorial struggle against tyranny. No wonder vandalism and denial were the immediate answers. The statue was an ideological speculum of the democratic state. It focused the contradictions of democracy by depreciating its most abstract yet most emotionally cherished ideal; it tyrannized and accused to the extent that it banished “freedom” to an outdated political imaginary. A hideous body, therefore, that had to be sacrificed in the name of our ideals, smashed and beaten until it was returned to the abyss of its historical disgrace.

Reposited in terms of a fading and largely nominal liberal legacy, Lenin’s question appears always to have been darkly prescient, and his authoritarian recipe for the seizure and maintenance of power makes him the secret sharer of state capitalism. Which is why he can exist both as a pop figure and a reviled symbol of communist imperialism—just so long as he is not seen as a democratic emblem in negative,the madman in the mausoleum who is the malign twin of Edward Bernays, the classical American theorist of public relations. At the beginning of his key work, Propaganda (1928), Bernays writes, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” With this, one satisfies the suspicion that Western power and privilege maintain themselves on a continual dissemination of promotional sophistries, for which Lenin’s advocacy of mass propaganda in the service of a conspiratorial state elite is the blueprint. Or one reads it less cabalistically, in the interests of a utopian dispersal that trades hierarchy for immanence, as per Foucault: power is nominal, without center, but the state, with its internal branches and institutional surrogates, still finally mediates the infinite play of local tensions that make up the social and political fabric of democracy.

And we’re not talking about liberal-socialist “big government,” but about taxpayer subsidy of the high-technology industry by way of military contracts. And about centralism as the preeminent form of political authority in advanced capitalist democracies. Especially after a decade of Reagan-Bush and the cultivation of the media as an organ of induced political atrophy.

Isn’t democracy, after all, how power ordains for itself a contractual space of laws and norms until the state seems to have “withered away” into invisibility? Haven’t we seen, in the past 12 years, the expansion of presidential powers accompanied by a corporate streamlining of democracy? Doesn’t Bush represent a logical culmination—the democratically elected executive for whom “principles” and “order” (as in “New World...”) precede, qualify, circumscribe freedom and individualism; for whom the prerogative of presidential power is to depoliticize the domestic sphere by shifting attention outward onto the international scene?

While back home it’s all sentimentality (“a kinder, gentler nation”), a cynical bid for humanistic consensus (the crusade against “political correctness”), and a nakedly partisan appointment to the Supreme Court—and all for the purpose of a concentration and corporation of ideological authority. That is, the overruling, according to preexistent “principles,” of popular movements that would reshape the social and economic fate of the body politic.

So neither a revolutionary leader installed in a rostrum, nor a tight-fisted nationalist like Yeltsin standing down a coup atop a tank, is sufficient. Instead, Lewis offers a recycled ideologue to reopen the democratic space of political contestation. It is, of course, a public space usually flattened and reduced to the dimensions of a television screen. AIDS activists, labor groups, coalitions of the homeless, environmentalists, prolifers and pro-choicers merely constitute a heterogeneous class of political insurgents passing across the retina of the public mind like a moving frieze.

But whereas protestors are policed and urged to keep moving, passing out of one’s field of vision or cut off by the next editorial cut on the TV-news menu, Lewis’ Lenin is installed, grounded, vulnerable. He is an anachronism, and, as befits the etymological source of “monument,” a warning, an admonition against the momentum of the “mainstream,” which is, after all, the perfect metaphor for the fluidity of capital within the established circuitry of power—or, to pirate a piece of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, the perfect metaphor for ideological inundation and the irreversibility of history.

Lorenzo Buj is a writer who fives in Windsor, Ontario. He was recently a contributor to Reading the Glass: Management of the Eyes, Moderation of the Gaze, London: Book Works, 1991.