Revolutionary Relics

Theo Curtis

"That's the way things are these days: let’s put a zip here, a swastika there. Why not? Who knows what these things were used for? Who even cares?"- Mark Corrigan reacting to a Chairman Mao T-shirt – (Peep Show; Season 4, Episode 1 - “
Sophie’s Parents”)

A century has elapsed since the earth-shaking events of October 1917, a revolution the consequences of which came to dominate the twentieth century perhaps more than any other single event. As Russian artist El Lissitzky put it at the time: 'We are now experiencing an exceptional epoch when a new, real, and cosmic birth in the world within ourselves enters our consciousness.' To visit the Royal Academy's exhibition of Soviet art a hundred years since is to be surrounded by a formidable assembly of relics; objects that retain the aura of powerful emotions surrounding that singular historic event despite the collapse of the political project they promoted. Artists were martyred in counter-revolutionary purges, and the futures they gestured towards were eliminated.

The decision of President Vladimir Putin to compare the preserved body of Lenin to the remains of a saint, in the most literal terms, reaffirms the quasi-religious significance that is latent in the physical remnants of communism. It should come as no surprise that material traces of 'The God that Failed' would be vaunted, valued, and traded like so many pieces of the true cross. To those who sympathised with the aims of the egalitarian society emancipated by solidarity and human reason, these remnants are taken as physical manifestations of a dream, an ideal conveniently separated by time and space from the victims of communism's actualisation.

But what of the more everyday experience of revolutionary iconography? The tongue-in-cheek Russian Communist Party poster that adorns many a student's bedroom, the rows of Che Guevara T-shirts that are on display in the stalls of Camden Market, or the macabre appropriation of radical symbols to draw our attention to the new 'revolution' in cosmetics or online betting; this range of Marxist merchandise represents the 21st century experience of communist imagery. How are we to make sense of a T-shirt bearing the visage of a Latin-American Marxist-inspired guerilla (no doubt produced in formerly 'communist' China) consumed by a generation of millennials?

In the Catholic church, relics need not necessarily be literal remains of saints; a second order relic may merely be touched by a saint and a relic of the third order attains its power merely through coming into contact with a second order relic! Keeping this in mind, we need not necessarily exclude items on account of their 'newness'; rather we should focus our attention on the meaning of these objects to those who choose to acquire them. A key quality of a relic is to mitigate feelings of sinfulness. One of the motives for Catholic pilgrims across millennia was to commute time in purgatory by visiting holy sites. This redemptive quality may also be found in communist merchandise; by buying objects that invoke an alternative to capitalism we attempt to redeem our own complicity in the consumer economy in which we are forced to live.

Or perhaps these objects are really meaningless, the run-off of a consumption driven economy that is desperate to appropriate subcultures and images in the eternal search for profits. Products that invoke communism may have no real meaning, they may be mere examples of what Tom Wolfe wryly termed 'radical chic.' In April 2017 an advert for Pepsi perfectly demonstrated this grim logic of appropriation by trying to associate a scene of political protest with the mass-produced fizzy drink. Maybe the Chairman Mao lighters that line the racks of gift shops are no different from Pepsi’s totally generic protesters.

The philosopher Jean Baudrillard describes the visual experience of late capitalism as an 'endless procession of simulacra', the infinitely recursive copying of icons until imagery no longer represents any 'reality' beyond itself. If the ironic mass manufacture of communist merchandise really is an example of the 'hyperreality' of the simulacrum, where the sign ceases to have any significance, then such objects should constitute the exact opposite of the relic. Rather than holy icons these reproductions become mere superficial 'floating signifiers.' Then, like Mark, we are confronted with an era where the meaning of things is forgotten. In effect, they have become de-consecrated.

All relics are, in a certain sense, undead; though they may be literally corpses they still possess an essence of vitality and retain the potential for reanimation. Can the original spirit of revolutionary visual culture be resurrected, or has mass reproduction severed it from its original context? In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, the Marxist intellectual Walter Benjamin comments on the capacity for radical politics to restore meaning to the icons of the past. Revolutionary images have the potential to inspire a sense of resonance across time that has the power to explode the continuum of history in what Benjamin called a 'tiger's leap' (Tigersprung).  The events that preceded the degeneration and ultimate collapse of an existing communist alternative to global capitalism are relegated to unimportance, for what is identified in this leap across time is a sense of radical solidarity with a spirit of revolutionary hope. In this sense, all symbols of past revolutions have the potential to be relics in that they contain a living spirit even after being superseded or renounced.

Perhaps the visual and physical traces of communism may be taken to be relics to the extent that such remnants invoke or partake in the spirit of revolution that they symbolise. For it was never in the object itself that holiness resides, but always in the feelings it inspires in the minds of those who seek its power. If one approaches a holy site with a sense of atheistic indifference then the relic is merely a dead thing. Similarly, to perceive the continuing vitality of outdated revolutionary icons is to be alive to a timeless spirit of insurrection.

Theo Curtis is a second-year HSPS student studying at Cambridge University. His previous roles include researcher at the House of Lords, and he now works for the Fitzwilliam Debating Society. Currently he is planning a lecture to be presented at Tsinghua University on the subject of modernity.