If Confederate statues are coming down across the US, should statues of figures like Lenin come down too, as demanded by a small group of Trump supporters this week in Seattle, dubbed the “worlds saddest right-wing protest”? No, says John Medhurst….
In reaction to the events in Charlottesville and across the American South, where statues of Confederate war leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are now being taken down, a small group of right-wing protestors have demonstrated in front of a Soviet-era statue of Lenin in Seattle (purchased and transported to America when the Soviet Union fell, and erected in a bohemian area of the city). Their point was that Lenin was responsible for far more deaths than Lee etc, and also in the name of a defeated, discredited cause. Should not, therefore, this statue also be removed?
As the author of a new history of Lenin and the Russian Revolution that condemns Lenin and the one-party state he introduced (No Less Than Mystic, out now from Repeater), do I sympathise and agree with these protestors? Basically, no. If the statue was of Stalin, sure. One cannot rationalise and defend Stalin’s record. He was literally and directly responsible for programmes of mass murder such as the collectivisation of the Russian peasantry in 1929-33 and the “Holodomor”, the hunger-extermination of 7 million Ukraninan peasant-nationalists in the the 1930s, not to mention the Great Terror of 1936-38, which executed between 600,000 and 1.2 million people.
Why not, then, take down the Lenin statue? Because there is no equivalence at all to the Confederate statues. Firstly, there is no historical or cultural context to the placement of, and response to, the Lenin statue. Seattle did not go through the Russian Civil War or its aftermath, and does not argue about its symbols to this day. Absent that history, the statue is essentially an ironic cultural artifact, an indulgence in armchair revolutionism by a trendy middle-class. It has no direct relevance to the contemporary American political scene. The statues of Lee etc are a permanant and deliberate reminder and endorsement of a war fought to protect slavery, of the Jim Crow system that survived until the 1960s that was only defeated by a mass black civil rights movement, and of continuing white supremacism. In a country where 27% of African-Americans live in poverty compared to 11% of whites, where black males have six times the incaceration rate of whites, and where black men between 15-35 are nine times more likely to be killed by the police than are other Americans, these staues are not an ahistoric post-modernist statement.
Secondly, Lenin’s record, whilst open to severe censure and criticism, cannot be equated, as one of the protestors’ placards has it, with that of Hitler (or Stalin). He unforgivably destroyed the fragile flowers of Russian democracy in 1917, including those of the grass-roots “soviets” or workers councils, denied politcal opponents including socialist ones the right to free expression, and laid the foundation of a system that would eventually mutate into Stalinism. But his crimes, whilst real, were small in comparison to those of Hitler and Stalin, and arose more from a culpable inability to foresee the consequences of his actions rather than a set intent to establish tyranny.
I hold no brief for Lenin, as my book makes very clear. Leninism was a disaster for the international socialist movement and for the prospects of establishing a durable, democratic socialist society across the world. But the protest in Seattle is disingenous and insincere, designed to give cover to white supremacists now revealed as violent neo-nazis. It should be ignored.
No Less Than Mystic: A History of Lenin and the Russian Revolution for a 21st Century Left, is out now from Repeater. More info/links to buy online here.
John Medhurst is the author of That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974-76. He has written for Novara Media, the Morning Star, Red Pepper, Green Left and the Journal of Contemporary European Research. He is married with two daughters and lives in Brighton, England.