Often communists are reproached for using the imagery of historical figures by claiming that it’s a form of “cultish” devotion, or a symptom of a sort of historical nostalgia for past communist movements. While both of those phenomena do exist amongst some segments of the Left (one need only think of the myriad of micro-sects that are little more than hobby clubs for discussion of 20th century Russian history, or political cults like the RCPUSA), the broader use of the imagery of individuals amongst communists shares nothing in common with such insular behavior and idol worship. To understand the ideological, historical, and political function of this imagery in the communist movement requires a closer examination into the use of such imagery as a means of communication, as well as a critique of its use.
Of course the most common usage of this imagery comes from the Marxist-Leninist and Marxist-Leninist-Maoists movements, both past and current. Primarily, these movements have inscribed the names or faces of three individuals on their banners and propaganda; Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong. Far from being insular micro-sects, the movements that have employed the imagery of these three historical figures have numbered in the millions of supporters and participants, and have even achieved state power in some countries. However, just because something is popular or part of a “tradition” doesn’t mean that it is correct or free from criticism. First, let’s examine the whys of individual imagery in the international communist movement.
The primary reason for the use of the imagery of individuals is twofold. The first reason is experiential in nature. The three figures of Marx, Lenin, and Mao represent a precise historical moment, or practical and theoretical breakthrough, in the course of the historical struggle of the working class. For example, the imagery of Marx can serve as a summation of the class struggles against the utopian and petty-bourgeois socialists of the 19th century and the bourgeoisie , culminating in the explosive moment of the Paris Commune, as well as a symbolic representation for the political, philosophic, and economic methodology that was systematized by Marx and Engels. The imagery of Lenin recalls the struggle with opportunism in the socialist movement, the experience of actualizing revolution, the construction of socialism and its difficulties, and the world-historic insights of Russian Revolution. Mao Zedong is much the same, where here we can see the lessons of the Chinese revolutionary experience, the theory of continuing the class struggle during the period of socialism, the need for revolutions in the superstructure, and the leaps in Marxist philosophy.
Here the usage of such imagery reveals its Marxist kernel. The imagery itself is a part of the Marxist theory of knowledge in which knowledge comes from practice, and then returns to practice through application. The imagery of Marx, Lenin, and Mao reflects this process, but on a historic stage. Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism are all summations of the practical struggles, victories, and defeats of the international working class, as well as serving as the ideology of many such past and current struggles. In their book Public Sphere of Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge make a similar observation, yet are clear to distinguish between its positive aspect and its negative one.
Whereas the proletarian use of these symbols or of identification with working-class leaders serves to develop an ego-ideal, these same symbols and mechanisms of identification can be enlisted for opposite ends: for the stabilization of a superego marked by its authoritarian and repressive aspect. This is why, in the case of demonstrative identifications, especially identification with public figures (e.g., Mao, Lenin, Guevara, Luxemburg, Liebknect), what counts is strictly the identity of the experiential content. Only if the collective experience expressed by these individuals has a concrete and communicable historical connection with the autonomous experience of the demonstrators is it possible to differentiate between ego-ideal and authoritarian superego fixation. – Public Sphere of Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, 43.
In summary, while the possibility for falling into the type of “cultish” idolatry exists, and several examples abound, there is also the positive aspect of such imagery embodying the collective experience of individuals and classes. These images function much like murals on a building, or stained glass windows in a cathedral. The images themselves condense meaning into an easily communicated and digestible form of collective knowledge and experience. In the same way that a mural can describe hundreds of years of a city’s history in a few images, or even a single one, or how a stained glass window depicting the crucifixion communicates the larger theological message of sacrifice and salvation, so too does historic imagery of the communist movement communicate revolutionary theory and practice.
However, as mentioned above, the usage of this imagery can produce a separation of the image from the collective experience, thereby delinking is content from its form. Not only that, but the usage of such imagery, and the exaltation of the individual, is a product of capitalist society. Our contemporary bourgeois society promotes narratives of “Great Men” who alone supersede history itself and guide it towards definite ends. Much of mainstream historiography is centered around this notion, for example, George Washington winning the American War for Independence, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt implementing reformatory measures to alleviate the problems of the Great Depression. While both of these figures were certainly important in their context, such a view ignores the fact that the masses make history, that they have agency and that collective struggle in modern society is the sole force for producing change. Such an elevation of individuals, combined with an attribution of supra-historical agency to them, obscures our understanding of social processes and upheavals and cannot produce correct insights into the operation of society.
This elevation of the individual above the masses also produces a “genius theory”, or a notion that certain individuals are “destined” to be great due to some innate capacity for theoretical breakthroughs that places them above and outside the fray of social movements and struggles. As Alain Badiou notes, this “genius theory” has emerged in the communist movement as well.
It is also curious, by the way, to see that, trained as we are in the theory of genius in the realm of art, we should take such strong offence to it when it emerges in the order of politics. For the communist parties, between the twenties and sixties, personal genius is only the incarnation, the fixed point, of the doubtful representative capacity of the party; it is easier to believe in the rectitude and the intellectual force of a distant and solitary man than in the truth and purity of an apparatus whose local petty chiefs are well known. – The Communist Hypothesis, 115.
Not only has the communist movement suffered in the past, and present, from the elevation of certain individuals to the level of “geniuses”, but it also reproduces this “Great Man” theory of history, which is inherently gendered. As Hisila Yami explains in her book People’s War and Women’s Liberation, this elevation neglects to mention the fact that since we live in a patriarchal society, in which men have much more access to knowledge and the means for reproducing knowledge, the “Great Man” and “genius” theories reproduce patriarchal relations in which larger than life men stand above and outside of mass movements (which are primarily composed of women and non-men).
So, what is the communist position on the usage of the imagery of individuals? Firstly, we should recognize its positive potential in acting as a representation of various collective political experiences, as well this imagery being the common property, historically, ideologically, and politically speaking, of the entire working class. However, we should be critical of any imagery that separates the content from the form of the imagery, or more simply, untethers collective experience from representation. Furthermore, we should examine this process from a historical materialist standpoint, against the “genius” and “Great Man” theories, in which we recognize that remarkable individuals may emerge from social movements, but that they merely describe or give insight to larger movements. They alone are incapable of producing any new knowledge outside of direct experience, nor can or do they direct struggles from on high. Just as importantly, we should be wary of the individualist and patriarchal tendencies inherent in using individual representation, and any and all manifestations of such imagery should be struggled against and criticized.