When the Soviet Union unraveled in 1992, statues of its founder, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, were torn from their foundations by the thousands and dumped in fields and warehouses, leaving behind surreal Ozymandian relics that still litter the former Communist world. These uprooted likenesses of the great revolutionary, frozen in a triumphant pose, became reminders of the definitive deadness of the system and ideology he embodied. If, as David Remnick wrote, “Lenin was the initiator of the central drama—the tragedy—of our era, the rise of totalitarian states,” then presumably the inhabitants of the 21st century should be so glad to be rid of him and everything he represented.
“Lenin, or his heirs, may yet have the last word.”
But as we mark the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik leader’s demise, he is more present in today’s world than his gravediggers could have anticipated in the 1990s. Although Marxism-Leninism lost the Cold War, it is doubtful in hindsight whether the West really won it either. The United States enjoyed its moment of unchallenged hegemony, but now America is tottering under the weight of its own contradictions—and drawing frequent comparisons with the late Soviet empire. Meanwhile, alternative political orders arising from the parts of the world where Lenin’s creed had its greatest influence are asserting themselves ever more forcefully. What is more, the memory of Lenin, far from being dead or forgotten, has had a surprisingly vivid resonance in recent years. Echoes of his name and his slogans continue to reverberate across geopolitical and ideological faultlines. Lenin, or his heirs, may yet have the last word.
When Russian tanks started rolling toward Kiev in February 2022, Vladimir Putin pointed to Lenin in his explanation of the casus belli: “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia … by separating, severing what is historically Russian land … [it] can rightfully be called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He was its creator and architect.” Apparently seeing no contradiction with Moscow’s “de-Nazification” rhetoric, Putin promised a purge of Bolshevik influence, as well: “Grateful descendants have demolished monuments to Lenin in Ukraine.... But you must not stop halfway. We are ready to show you what genuine de-Communization means for Ukraine.” Kiev disagrees, pointing instead to Ukraine’s brief period of post-Tsarist independence as the origin of its modern statehood, which Lenin immediately tried to subdue—in which case, Putin is the one fulfilling Lenin’s wishes.
However one interprets the war, the combatants are grappling with unfinished business left over from Lenin’s time, and the war is raging against the backdrop of a larger question the Cold War’s end failed to settle: Which version of the “universal homogenous state”—the phrase used by Francis Fukuyama in his famous essay positing the end of history—should prevail in the disputed realms of Eastern Europe? Should it be the incumbent one anchored in Washington and Brussels, or the revisionist successor regime to the Communist empire founded by Lenin?
On the other end of the Eurasian landmass, the People’s Republic of China is often described as only nominally Marxist-Leninist, yet Xi Jinping hasn’t minced words in describing his guiding philosophy. In a speech delivered not long after he assumed leadership, Xi was adamant about the relevance of the Communist Party’s original doctrines: “Marxism-Leninism brings to light the laws governing the development of the history of human society. Its basic tenets are correct and have tremendous vitality.… So long as [we] uphold the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism … China will be crowned with final victory.” Beyond its formal platitudes, Xi’s speech pointed to an important truth: It was the stubborn insistence of his predecessor Deng Xiaoping on holding onto the Leninist model of party dictatorship, even as he pursued far-reaching economic liberalization, that allowed Communist rule to thrive in China where it disintegrated in Russia.
Furthermore, the pragmatic utilization of market reforms, far from a simple deviation from Leninism, can credibly be traced back to the inspiration of Lenin’s own New Economic Policy as filtered through the theories of Nikolai Bukharin, which Deng studied closely as a visiting student-revolutionary in 1920s Moscow. It was this distinctly Leninist fusion of an unyielding political monopoly combined with instrumental tactical flexibility in economic governance that ensured the success of Deng’s experiment, generating the vast material abundance Xi has inherited. The Middle Kingdom today can thus be seen as the triumph of an alternative but no less authentic strain of Marxism-Leninism. In this sense, the impending confrontation between China and the United States will determine whether Lenin’s successors inherit the earth after all.
It is one thing to hear invocations of Lenin in Moscow and Beijing, and another to see thought leaders from across the partisan spectrum in America, in one way or another, embrace the Russian revolutionary’s ideas and example. This phenomenon, increasingly widespread since 2016, offers clear indication of the weakening hold of the liberal-democratic creed in its own heartland. Among the new generation of American Leninists are conservative provocateurs like Steve Bannon and Christopher Rufo; theirs, of course, is a Leninism of style and temperament rather than ideology. Bannon is reported to have declared before his short White House stint: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.” In a similar vein, Rufo, darling of the Millennial New Right, often couches his crusade against progressivism in Leninist terms as a “vanguardist” attempt to take control of academic and cultural institutions as part of a counterrevolutionary strategy.
On the other end of the spectrum, a proudly socialist Millennial left has sought to reclaim some of the idealism of the early Communist movement while also learning from its “loss of innocence” under the Soviets. In a 2017 editorial reflecting on the centennial of the October Revolution, Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara said that he envisioned a “21st-century Finland Station,” where “many now crushed by inequity [can] participate in the creation of a new world.”
These radical-sounding formulations, however, only serve to highlight why epoch-making moments like Lenin’s arrival at Petrograd’s Finland Station in April 1917 have become all but impossible in this day and age. What separates today’s aspiring revolutionaries from the transformative possibilities of Lenin’s time is the fact that politics has since been emptied of much of its material and programmatic content; the terrain of ideological contestation has migrated from the field of political economy into the subjective realm of symbols, morals, and lifestyles, manifesting as an endless battle over the modes of personal expression. Rufo has stated as much: “We must take the conditions of cultural revolution as our baseline.… Our response must be framed in terms of a counterrevolution that plays not primarily on the axis of economy, but on the axis of culture.” The contemporary left operates in much the same manner, resulting in a sterile war of attrition between two sides resigned to symbolic power struggles over identity and recognition.
There are many ways to describe this shift: Zygmunt Bauman conceptualized a “liquid modernity,” Ronald Inglehart dubbed it “post-materialism,” while Mark Fisher saw an inescapable “capitalist realism.” Such theories explain how cultural and epistemic conditions have obviated the individual’s ability to imagine, much less enact, an “all-embracing ideology” with fleshed out material dimensions, of whatever stripe. Echoing Marx’s famous phrase about capital’s corrosive social effects, Bauman wrote: “The solids whose turn has come to be thrown into the melting pot … are the bonds which interlock individual choices in collective projects and actions—the patterns of communication and coordination between individually conducted life policies on the one hand and political actions of human collectivity on the other.” In other words, neither conservatives nor progressives can approximate 1917 because they are stranded in 1968.
“Americans have revolutionary traditions closer to home than Muscovite tyranny.”
Now, whether expressed positively as in Sunkara’s search for “a new world” or negatively as Bannon’s drive to destroy the state in the hope that something new might arise from the ruins, what remains is a spiritual hunger for the kinds of sweeping grand narratives that filled the high modern period of history, for good and ill. Thus, the turn to Lenin at the Finland Station as a powerful mythic symbol of revolutionary change in an era that can scarcely conceive of it.
The liberal state in America and the West confronts both external threats and internal pressures; whether the remedies come from the right, the left, or a reinvigorated center, the ability to overcome these challenges will rest in part on the emergence of a requisite leadership. Lenin and the murderous Bolsheviks ought not to be models for that leadership; Americans have revolutionary traditions closer to home than Muscovite tyranny. Nonetheless, some useful lessons may still be gleaned from a leader who, as Bertrand Russell wrote, was “a philosophic system-maker in the sphere of practice,” able to reconcile a rigorous intellectual vision with vigorous political action in pursuit of structural economic transformation. Those seeking to build a new vanguard today must concern themselves with addressing practical problems of state and society, not least re-establishing programmatic and epistemic discipline; resolving the great questions of capital, labor, and industrial development; and exerting mastery over material reality.