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Lenin, the body in memorials and ecstatic sexuality in Eisenstein's film The General Line

Esther Leslie 


Revolutions emerge out of historical tensions and forces, tangible gravities which are lived through. Revolutions emerge out of life’s movements and strains. The provision of food, or its denial, might motivate a riot or a revolution. Food, the emptiness of bellies, the extraction of a common wealth, can become a hinge of revolution. The last century, to take one instance, hosted a battle over milk, over who milked, who made the products and how, and who got to drink them. I start with milk because milk is our start, in life, would seem to be a fluid that speaks of life and futures and nurture. But it is a contested fluid, always, and specifically has a story to tell in relation to revolution – the French Revolution, which I will not address, the Industrial Revolution and the Russian one, both of which I will.

In the nineteenth century, milk stopped being processed in the home buttery, and instead the farmers conveyed their whole milk supplies to the factory or creamery daily or at regular intervals. Machines lightened the labour. Where before cream had been skimmed off by hand, after setting for some time, centrifugal separators, most successfully deployed by Gustaf de Laval in Sweden and patented in 1894, separated cream from milk quickly and easily. De Laval also invented milking machines. Milk became a factory matter. In the process, the countryside was revolutionised on behalf of capital. Lenin wrote of this mechanisation in The Development of Capitalism in Russia, from 1899, as part of a revolution in agriculture.

By buying up the milk, capital subordinates to itself the small agriculturists too, particularly with the organisation of the so-called ‘amalgamated dairies’, the spread of which was noted in the 70s (see Sketch by Messrs. Kovalevsky and Levitsky). These are establishments organised in big towns, or in their vicinity, which process very large quantities of milk brought in by rail. As soon as the milk arrives the cream is skimmed and sold fresh, while the skimmed milk is sold at a low price to poorer purchasers. To ensure that they get produce of a certain quality, these establishments sometimes conclude contracts with the suppliers, obliging them to adhere to certain rules in feeding their cows.

Amalgamating the dairies, Lenin notes, performs a role analogous to that of elevators in commercial grain farming. By sorting grain in relation to its quality, the elevators turn it into a product that is not individual, but is generic. That is to say, milk, like corn, is adapted fully to exchange. Commodities must be standardised, while at the same time, differentiated. Milk is abstracted. As abstraction it is a commodity and adapted for quantification. But it is also, at the same time, specific milk, milk of varying qualities. There is creamy milk and the rest that is less creamy, or that is watery or spoilt. The small producer and his ‘milkmaid wife’ are left to look after the cattle in the field, diligently, and so they bear the ‘brunt of the hardest and roughest work of tending the milk-yielding machine’, the machine that roams and breathes, but the cream will not be theirs.

Capital possesses the latest improvements and methods not only of separating the cream from the milk, but also of separating the ‘cream’ from this ‘diligence’, of separating the milk from the children of the peasant poor.

Industrialisation under capitalist terms of organisation produced the decline of the home dairy and the rise of the amalgamated dairies. The spinning machinery of the dairy, the centrifugal machinery, undertakes a revolution that produces and then reinforces capitalist relations of production. A revolution that loosens those relations of production, or severs them, involves another spin, another revolving, another type of revolving, an activation into movement, a rapid turn and overturning, upturning. Another machinery of the industrial epoch – contemporary to the cream separator - can be evoked to imagine this different spin, this revolutionary, second spin: it is the film camera. Just as the camera turns, spins the exposing film, just as the projector turns, revolves, spins the filmed things through its mechanism in order for them to take on their ghost life, their shadowy and light existence on the screen. Film spins, revolves. Film and revolution must be partners. Lenin famously thought. And film becomes part of the memory work, or memorialisation work, projected into the future, established by the young Soviet state.

Film met, if in unconventional ways, something of the conditions of temporary memory established by the decree from 12 Apr. 1918, titled ‘On Removing Monuments Erected in Honour of Tsars and Their Servants and Developing a Project for Monuments Dedicated to the Russian Socialist Revolution (On Monuments of the Republic)’. It is also known as Lenin’s decree on Monumental Propaganda. It provided for the removal of monuments that had apparently no historical or artistic value, as well as for the creation of works of revolutionary monumental art, which took one of two forms: – (1) decorating buildings and other surfaces ‘traditionally used for banners and posters’ with revolutionary slogans and memorial relief plaques; (2) – vast erection of ‘temporary, plaster-cast’ monuments in honour of great revolutionary leaders. These monuments were created mainly as temporary works – Lunarcharchsiki recalled Lenin stating that the monument should be not of marble, granite and gold lettering, but instead of inexpensive materials (plaster of Paris, concrete, wood). One of Bakunin in cubo-futurist style by Korolev was said to be so hideous horses shied at it and the anarchists, incensed at their hero’s portrayal, soon smashed it up. The temporary monuments could engender violent responses. Based on the didactic frescoes in Campanella’s City of the Sun, these monuments and the punctuations they necessitated upon making, unveiling, marking, were to provide opportunities to be educational, to be hinges for discussion in the city, occasions for learning. Lenin delivered a speech at the unveiling of a temporary monument to Yakov Sverdlov who died in March 1919 – the speech was then circulated further by gramophone record.

Film appeared to be another kind of temporary memorialising, of turning the events that led up to the revolution into drama. Film as form, ephemeral, visual, collective in its consumption, potentially pedagogic, was another way of making monuments to the revolution. It was itself composed of revolutionary movements. These filmstrips were sent across the Union in trains loaded with books, posters, agitators and covered in slogans These were to engender discussions in the ambience of their film’s flickery lights. The films showed what had been, the old conditions of oppression, and what it might take to alter those old conditions, which might succeed or be defeated, necessitating more struggle.

Eisenstein, in particular and consciously, developed film aesthetics to adequately convey revolution’s reorganisations, its swift changes, its re-articulation of modes of thought and life. Eisenstein, an artist and a scientist thought that his films, in their use of montage, might restructure, in aesthetic form, the world as postlude to a revolution that had already taken place and as prelude to more thorough re-orderings to come. Montage is the stretching out or contracting in of time – montage is a mastery over time in the ghosted reflections of art. Eisenstein’s filmmaking shocks and shakes up the contemplative consciousness of the viewers through the formal devices of Kino-Fist, but it also hopes to use a radically objective medium to express the internal or mental life of its subjects. The inside is turned outside into film. The outside is taken apart and reassembled in montage.

In order to refer to and move beyond the capture of the cream by the wealthy, as outlined by Lenin, Sergei Eisenstein devised his cream separator sequence in the film The Old and the New or The General Line. The cessation of suffering will not occur as a result of the ritualistic chanting of priests or from trickling candle wax, but from the forceful eruption of cream from a glossy cream separator. Martha Lapkina who desires to collectivise her village has obtained this device from the local Communist Party. The cream is drawn off, in just a few seconds, not by the rich and not by hard graft, but by the machine, for the benefit of the workers. It spurts out ecstatically, conceived in a revolutionary context in which a redistribution of property or properties is imagined possible. The cream separator is presented as tangible proof of the superiority of collectivisation. The peasant audience sees this proof with their own eyes, as they gaze on at the machinery, like an audience in the cinema, in a darkened room, glints of light flickering across their faces, their expressions moving from sceptical disbelief to a suspension of disbelief to a new belief, in the transformative powers of collectivised technology, in its speed, its multipliers, the numbers cascading across the screen, as yields rise. The cream separator spins in circles, the imagery of it intercut with images of the Volkhov Hydroelectric Dam and its circular flows of water and it echoes other images of the dynamism of communist industry in the film, such as the spinning wheels of tractors. The image of the cream separator in full flow could be seen as a partner-image to the closing images of Eisenstein’s Strike [1925], in which the workers’ slaughter after their uprising is juxtaposed to the grisly butchering of cows. The workers’ body is not brutalised any longer by the state. Cream comes to it with ease.

There is no mention of cows’ suffering for this bounty and indeed the sequence is followed by shots of a well-bred bull bought as a result of the economic success of the dairy collective. Before the bull is bought, Martha lies asleep, on top of the collective’s profits, and she dreams of thousands of cows taking over the countryside, overseen by a massive bull. Milk rains from the skies, and this milk becomes cream, filling bottles to the brim. Once she wakes, Martha purchases a bull – but before this act, the film shows images of healthy well-nourished newly hatched chicks and suckling pigs. These animals play and enjoy life, until the moment of their butchering for the good of the collective. This butchery is mechanised, with spinning blades that strip the skins efficiently. Amidst this appears a whirling porcelain pig in a dress and with a bow, smiling. It is a ridiculous thing, far removed from nature, a commodity pig perhaps, but not even a useful edible one. It is a frippery that dances across the screen and vanishes, an antithesis to the pig that has been shown from birth to death, enmeshed in life and liveliness. I think there is an argument for this pig representing the ahistorical, preserved, useless, decorative body of Lenin.

The cream separator sequence, and all that follows, by contrast shows fertility, bountifulness, ecstatic life. The milk comes slowly at first from the spigot, in uneven spurts, and builds to a gush, spurts, floods of white chaos propelled by a spinning mechanical motion. Some years later, Eisenstein cited at length the description of the scene from an article in the French magazine Le Mois. Martha is in ecstasy, beside herself, in the flow of the cream.

Suddenly, right before our eyes, milk condenses and turns to cream! Eyes sparkle, teeth shine through breaking smiles. A joyfully smiling, peasant girl, Martha, stretches out her hands to capture the flow of cream, vertically streaming toward her; cream splatters all over her face; she bursts into a fit of laughter, her joy being sensual, almost animal in nature. One almost expects her to cast off all her clothes in a frenzy of passion to wallow naked in the flood of well-being produced by the spouting torrents of cream.

This is a political and a sexual response to the ejaculations. The milk gained in this way comes as sign of fertility, of new life, rebirth of the state, of humans, abundance in a new land of milk and honey. Perhaps the collective shares this ecstasy. Perhaps the ecstasy is real. Perhaps it is only propaganda, and Eisenstein is in a game with the Soviet authorities and the requirements of Stalinist Five Year Plans. This is modern milk produced by revolution, produced by the revolution of the cream-separating machine, produced for all under conditions of collectivisation. As film, this vision of milk, made to honour the revolution, to hold onto its hopes, is a form of practical memory or memorialising in the name of the nameless, if only in the temporary and revolving medium of film, its gleams of hopeful redistribution visible as metallic gloss only.

We know, I assume, what happened next or alongside this. We know how Stalinism came to bear down on memory and memorialization in the Soviet Union, how Lenin became embalmed, put on show, held there like a religious icon, his death and decay a glaring analogue of the death of revolution. Lenin was cast as statues and lorded it over every city, town and village in the Soviet Union, and then beyond into the satellite states. Shiny metallic or sleek granite forms of Lenin stood in for memory of the revolution, and certainly, even if the pose was dynamic, future-pointing, did nothing to ensure the revolution had a future. These were not temporary monuments designed to engender debate, interruption to thoughts and thinking, moments of connection, reflection, dialogue. Trotsky, forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1929, wrote books and pamphlets for his international network: The History of the Russian Revolution and what he called A Revolution Betrayed – and these were better, realer memorialisations of what had been, rather than what was and was said to have been – and what was yet to come. Where Eisenstein had laid markers to revolution as process, as collective production, as curious interplay of state and party and people, as sexual, physical, visceral experience with hope and tragedy as powerful emotions coursing through it, as dynamic and transformative, the statues were solid lumps of immobility, silent, or mute, obstacles to city life, giant efforts to squash personal memory, to force smallness onto city inhabitants, in terms of scale as well as significance.

Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on memorialization and history are written in 1939 or 1940 into a Europe dominated by Stalinism and Nazism. Benjamin takes his line from Marx, that the oppressed are constantly robbed of their history and their memory is always ‘in danger’ of eradication, undermined, in favour of the grand and official narratives of power, the ‘triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot’, whereby historical memory is handed over as the tool of the ruling classes. Benjamin criticizes historical recounting that depends on elaborating the antics of glorious heroes of history in monumental and epic form, and is in no position to say anything about the ‘nameless’, those who are the toilers in history, the strugglers, the beaten. In some notes, he reveals that his own mode of ‘historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless’. It is able to remember the repressed of history who were its victims and its unacknowledged makers. Benjamin constructs a re-visioning of the past, wherein the historian bears witness to an endless brutality committed against the ‘oppressed’. This, he understands, to have been Marx’s task in Das Kapital. Das Kapital is a memorial, an anti-epic memorial, pulsating in the present, insisting on redress. Marx’s sketch of the lot of labour is presented as a counter-balance to the obfuscation of genuine historical experience. Marx memorializes the labour of the nameless, whose suffering and energy produced ‘wealth’ in the vast accumulations of commodities. The book is a memory work and an agitational tool – as might be Benjamin’s theses. Or Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. Or Lenin’s April theses, which he brought with him to the Finland Station. Das Kapital is a great tombstone to the nameless, but the effort to unlock their dialectical power, to seed the new view of the world, to release the negativity that might negate the existing state of things comes through theses, which work on the cusp of thought and action, slogan and analysis, interrupted continuity in order to force new thoughts, in order to actualize dialectics, and they have the effect as Zalezhski said of Lenin’s theses of ‘an exploding bomb’, which twists thought into action. The theses are memos that turn into directives.

In 1959, Guy Debord made Memoires with the artist Asger Jorn, a book covered in sandpaper to scar the books in its proximity on the shelf. Memoires begins with a quotation from Marx: ‘Let the dead bury their dead and mourn them. On the other hand, it is enviable to be the first to enter the new life alive; that is to be our lot.’ Memoires is comprised of two layers, emulating the layers of memory. One layer has black ink that outlines newspaper snippets, graphics from magazines, maps of Paris and London, images of war, reproductions of old artworks, pictures of friends, hoodlum girls, people in their milieu, and the occasional thought or question from Debord. The other layer is splattered coloured inks, which make paths from the black inked layer or overlap with it. Memory is obscure, invaded, fragmented, on the cusp of disappearance. It is abrasive, cut up, destructive, involuntary, dispersed. For the reader there is only a drift, a wandering path, with no assured meaning, a place for rag pickers rescuing the detritus of life. Countering the regimentation of time in work and the straight-ahead narrative, this book squanders time, in emulation of ruling class leisure and luxury. There are constellations, moments, evanescent points that flare up in the memoir and burn out again to be forgotten, as much as remembered.

Debord will say of forgetting that it is part of life. It is the spectacular ‘freezer society’ that uses memory, if a false one, as a weapon, keeping this or that in view, and not always allowing the natural process of forgetting and loss, which is part of what makes us alive. Spectacular society valorises youth and denies death: ‘immobilized at the distorted centre of the movement of the world, the consciousness of the spectator can have no sense of an individual life moving toward self-realization, or toward death’. The situationists’ consciousness of the humaneness of forgetting involved scuppering their own entry into the deadness of the archive – as cultish figures. They were aware that conventional forms of historical memorialization risked partaking in the reification of everyday life. Magnificent monumentalization offered a historical survival not worth living. This is a liquid strategy of memorialization, whereby what is commemorated is ‘not reduced to a dead correlate of the present, frozen in perpetuity, but salvaged in a more revitalized form, ideally as a constantly shifting, eruptive force in the present and for the future’.

Memory Now
In 2014, the world’s biggest steelmaker ArcelorMittal dismantled a monument to Vladimir Lenin outside one of its steel plants at Kryvyi Rih in Ukraine, in response to the destruction of monuments by protesters who had just forced the country’s president to flee. The reason given by ArcelorMittal: ‘in order to ensure the safety of our employees and protect the company’s buildings’. There were a hundred or so Lenin statues in Kryvyi Rih – many were pulled down by demonstrators in a period known as Leninopad, or ‘Leninfall’. In February 2014, a total of 376 statues were torn down in Ukraine, a country that had by far the highest density of Lenin statues on earth. This one was pulled down by ArcelorMittal. ArcelorMittal is among the largest foreign investors in Ukraine, having bought assets from Ukraine’s government in 2005. A massive employer, it has, however, in the past years been shedding thousands of workers to maintain global competitiveness. ‘By 2011 staffing levels had been reduced from 55,000 (at acquisition) to 37,000, high by global standards - the management hoped to reduce the number of workers to approximately 15,000 over a decade to increase competitiveness.’

The statue of Lenin outside the steelworks in Ukraine was not a realisation of the 1918 plan for monumental propaganda, but rather its negation – the negation that Stalin saw though. There is much that can be said about the erection and dismantling of statues – and about how the memorial substitutes for memory, becomes a kind of blindspot of history, freezes history as power, especially as it freezes into history, standing there through the ages as the dominating presence of domination. I point to the Arcelor Mittal removal of the monument because, unlike the dismantling as part of street upheaval, this is an act of power stepping in to interrupt the discursivity, including violent discursivity, of the streets, in the name of protecting property relations as they exist. What wild turns is history subject to? The putting up of this particular statue is just the same as taking it down. This is a reversible history. That is to say running forwards or backwards – as film might run in both directions - it amounts to the same: power building up, power taking down. Neither direction touches on what it would mean to make history, to make history forcefully, to make a revolution, something that spins, feeds back into itself and changes itself about life as it is lived, making everything in it whirl, making something breathing, its centrifugal forces productive of life and thought.


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