22 January 2008

The Religiosity of Soviet Communism

As we all know, one of the commonest arguments against atheism is that it was responsible for the atrocities of the old Red Menace. And of course we've heard the rebuttals: 1) that coincidence doesn't imply cause, and 2) that the dogma of Bolshevism and the personality cult of Lenin and Stalin are sociologically indistinguishable from religion - and that when we argue against "religion," it is in many ways a shorthand for "dogma and cult."

The reason I bring it up is because I was just reading a collection of Soviet jokes linked to by P.Z.Myers, and in the footnote of joke #1.7 I learned an interesting little factoid I thought I'd share. Apparently one of the "commonest statements of the official propaganda" of the soviet union was the phrase:
Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin shall live.
Which immediately triggered my few remaining Catholic brain cells to regurgitate the phrase:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
So, you ask: what the heck is a messianic promise doing in Stalinist propaganda? Aren't they supposed to be heartless godless atheist materialists with no belief in the supernatural? Did they really believe in the Second Coming of Lenin?

On the one hand, you could say that the phrase "Lenin shall live" was meant to be a metaphorical reference to the restoration of pure Leninist ideals - but you could just as easily turn around, as some liberal theologians do, and say the same about "Christ will come again." But on the other hand, just as the majority of Christians believe the statement literally, you can also bet that the Lenin Prophesy was, at some point and by some people, also taken at face value. With any written, canonical formula there will always be a spectrum of interpretation, from the literal to the figurative and everything in between. And so, ultimately, we see Lenin being treated as a religious figure despite the explicit atheism of his prescribed world order.

Highly dogmatic ideologies cannot help but coalesce around a central, charismatic figure who takes on the trappings of a god. This shouldn't be surprising. The Soviet people were forced to place their trust in Lenin, in the world he described and in the polity he shaped, even long after his death. Because if they didn't believe in Lenin's great vision, their already dubious society would crumble. But what happens when a large group of people put their faith and trust in a non-existent entity? He becomes a god. A god is not a god only because of his ontological status as a supernatural being (one who cannot be seen and who could make all our lives better in the blink of an eye but somehow never does). A god is also the receptacle of the wishes, hopes, faith, and trust that people place in him. And because the god can't speak for himself, he is what people say he is.

EDIT: From a piece of reading I did for a class this afternoon: on the subject of relics (material remains cum magical, religious objects) Stanley Tambiah has suggested that the charisma (in the Weberian sense) of a religious leader is or can be systematically concretized into his relics post mortem.1 Thus, the Embalmed Body of Lenin plays the same functional role as the Shards of the True Cross, Shroud of Turin, the Eucharist etc.: they are all posthumous repositories for the aura of personality that accrued to the 'holy man' both during and after his life.

1. Stanley Tambiah, Buddhist Saints of the Forest (1984), 335. Cited in John Strong "Buddhist Relics in Comparative Perspective," in Embodying the Dharma, ed. Germano and Trainor (SUNY, 2004), 38.


Sara said...

Explains the continuing maintenance of Lenin's corpse?

Ben Cox said...

Beats the hell out of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, don't it? If they still had Jesus' body, you can bet it'd be on display.

Anonymous said...

Imho this is one of your worse posts. Look at the paragraph starting "On the one hand". First you don't present evidence that people actually did consider him as a god, except that you can "bet" they would. Then you say, based on this, that look, they considered him as a god. Circular reasoning.

Second, this is actually a topic for which personally I'd think you'd need to present evidence; it's *not* self-evident. Because from the stories I've heard and memoirs I've read from people who lived through the time, it sounded like no, people were unhappy with him at the time -- people from schoolmates, grocers, etc., and the fact that Stalinist Russia tried to elevate him to the level of god doesn't reflect popular belief, even if he did become more popular after people saw how bad Stalin could be. Same with monuments -- someone paid for them, but I'd give people a bit more credit than you do. It wasn't hard, after all, to remember life under Lenin (plus the whole destroying churches bit pissed off a lot of people who were already devoutly religious). I've just seen a huge gap between propaganda and what people believed, even between propaganda and what people who really admired Lenin believed.

In short, your argument only can be bought by people who already believe, which seems pretty ironic.

Ben Cox said...

Valid points both (actually, all three - this isn't one of my better ones).

You're absolutely right that this is a topic that requires much more research. Which is why I jotted it off onto my blog rather than sitting down for six months with a stack of books on life in Soviet Russia. And my hedging terminology ("bet" etc) is a deliberate reflection on that.

As for the true zeitgeist of the Russian people of the Soviet era, it's absolutely true that most of them didn't give a flip for the party line (the bitterness expressed in the rest of the jokes attests to that amply). The big difference between Soviet party ideology and a religion, which I didn't make nearly as explicit, is that the Soviet one was imposed, whereas most religions are grassroots. In fact, if it weren't for the modern methods of propaganda and statecraft, the "religion" of Soviet orthodoxy would have failed right out of the starting gate because of lack of popular support. The only reason we remember the Soviets now is because the party cult had significant monetary backing. Otherwise, it would have gone the way of innumerable unsuccessful religions that for whatever reason didn't catch hold.

I would, however, be interested to see how this question plays out among Chinese communists. From what little I know about the attitude of the Chinese toward their political system, it seems like the Cult of Mao has caught on much more successfully than Lenin or Stalin. But the very fact that *someone* out there is promulgating the myth that Mao, just like ancient emperors before him, swam the entire length of the Yangtze River (for example) is an interesting one, and at the very least implies an interesting similarity between religious and political heroes/founders that's worthy of further study.

alina said...

Katherine Verdery's book, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, is great on this subject. Send me a link any time you guy post about religion and communism or Marxism. It's my fetish.