Goodbye, Lenin

Sanford Ungar, an author and former president of Goucher College (might he also be the historian whose articles on the FBI or the CIA I read for my dissertation many moons ago?), has an oped in the Washington Post, criticizing the recent efforts to remove Wilson’s name from Princeton, take Jackson off the $20 bill, and so on. There isn’t anything new in the piece (Wilson was complicated, Jackson did some good things, etc.) But this last paragraph caught my eye:

What is at stake, in the end, is an understanding of our own history. We certainly must confront the reality that many of our greatest public figures did not always live up to American ideals. But wiping out the names, Soviet-style, of key actors who shaped the society, and world, that we live in today, will not help that process.

That “Soviet-style” reference intrigues me.

After 1991, when people in the former Soviet Union began toppling statues of Lenin, no liberal-minded person—at least none that I can recall—raised any alarm bells about “Soviet-style” erasure. Indeed, removing these signs and symbols of the past was considered the very essence of anti-Soviet-style politics. It was an act of emancipation.

But when we remove the name of Wilson or the face of Jackson, liberation becomes erasure, anti-Soviet-style politics becomes Soviet-style politics.

I get the Lenin/Stalin-was-worse-than-Wilson position. But surely that can’t explain the whole of it. If anything, one would think that in the wake of total domination, we should be even more solicitous of the past. To understand how such tyrannical regimes work, we need to unearth all their secrets, which can be hidden in the most unexpected places. Before we remove anything, we should make sure we’ve thoroughly excavated its every last nook and cranny. Conversely, it’s not clear to me why removing the symbol of some great wrong from the past is made less liberatory by the fact that that wrong was alloyed with some good, even some great good.

So we’re left with the question: If removing the signs and symbols of the past is supposed to threaten our understanding and appreciation of that past—and that is Ungar’s point, after all— how does erasure become freedom in the one instance and tyranny in the other?


  1. John January 6, 2016 at 9:35 pm | #

    False search for consistency in an inconsistent universe.Toppling Lenin (I quite liked his statues) was about “becoming non Soviet” the way the Iranians who burnt the US Embassy in Tehran were about a Deleuzian “becoming decolonialized.” It was spontaneous and real. Toppling Wilson or Jackson, on the other hand, is a measured ongoing debate which endorses a revisionist view of an America afraid to confront and understand a past of racial injustice it prefers to wish away. The difference is a temporal one: one seeks empowerment, the other continuation of the status quo by covering up the continuing inequities of the past.

  2. Nho Chalé (@CPC_yes) January 6, 2016 at 9:54 pm | #

    History is political. Our understanding and expression of history is a function of our capitalist society, while also being in the long human tradition of telling stories of the past. What we remember and honor, forget and condemn, can and should say a lot about our conditions. Why did Civil Rights/ New Leftist activist not target Wilson, but activists today do? Did they but were rebuffed? What explains the progress today? I think its imperative to understand the class nature of these particular demands (which doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, or anything negative), and how movements that can make a lot of serious noise with their demands may come at the expense of more serious issues that directly and materially impact a majority of peoples.

    • Glenn January 7, 2016 at 10:59 am | #

      Maybe in the absence of real progress a symbolic progress will have to suffice.

      And maybe in the presence a symbol the real can emerge.

      The negation of a symbol is a symbol in its own right.

  3. Princeton GS January 6, 2016 at 10:02 pm | #

    Totally agree. Ungar’s paragraph strikes me as a illustrative example of the tendency among those who oppose renaming WWS to conflate erasure from the physical landscape with erasure from the historical record. (In this case, *actual* erasure from the historical record would like something like, say, pretending Woodrow Wilson were never at Princeton.)

    Having talked to grads, undergrads, and faculty about this issue, can confirm that everyone knows much more than they did in September not only about Woodrow Wilson, but also about how to think through the normative issues involving symbolic speech more generally.

  4. D Double G January 6, 2016 at 10:05 pm | #

    Removing statues and honorary names is much different than editing people out of photos. Princeton students aren’t campaigning to remove Wilson’s status as as the 28th president, or to get his academic work banned from libraries. Wilson’s history will always be there to be learned from, and maybe even rehabilitated. However, if the campaign succeeds he will no longer be elevated as a hero who deserves to have major institutions named in his honor.

    • Brian Steele January 6, 2016 at 11:07 pm | #

      that’s a helpful distinction, I think. Thanks!

  5. Catherine Browne January 6, 2016 at 10:19 pm | #

    Is it possible Ungar is actually referring to the erasure of Trotsky rather than the removal of Lenin’s statues?

    • Corey Robin January 6, 2016 at 11:35 pm | #

      Not only is it possible; it’s quite probable. Which is why I linked to those photographic erasures of Trotsky and the Old Bolsheviks in my post.

  6. Tom Lowe January 6, 2016 at 10:45 pm | #

    Considering the multitude of likenesses of Lenin (and Stalin) in Russia, some judicious culling isn’t such a bad idea. I like the Italian approach: save everything, good and evil. Mussolini, Cola di Rienzi, Pope Julius II, Saint Francis, etc. The Italians know perfectly well who was a saint and who was a villain, but together they created modern Italy and therefore belong. It’s a healthy attitude. We are the heirs of Wilson, warts and all. Expurgating Wilson from memory would leave a significant gap in our understanding of ourselves and our society.

    • Glenn January 7, 2016 at 11:06 am | #

      Our society doesn’t understand itself.

      It speaks of one thing and acts from another.

      One could say that democracy is too precious to be subject to the rule of the people and thereby justify propaganda.

      See Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays.

  7. Brian Steele January 6, 2016 at 11:05 pm | #

    Could the answer (partly, at least) be because Wilson and Jackson both contributed substantially to what is a continuing political tradition that we do not wish to wholly jettison in the way that liberals in 1989 hoped to utterly erase Stalin and Lenin and begin over again (with, frankly (ironically?), an updated [New Deal] version of precisely that American political tradition — see Paul Berman, A Tale of Two Utopias, chapter 3)? We continue to live and work within that tradition, modifying as we go, but valuing Wilson’s progressive policies and Jackson’s democracy even as we work to expand both well beyond the narrow confines (white, male) either of them envisioned. I guess I think this is why it seems to me less easy to just tear down a statue of Wilson, and even Jackson (who, given his record on slavery and Indian Removal, is arguably considerably worse) without substantial qualification than it is with Stalin, especially. Which is not a matter of saying simplistically that Stalin was “worse” than Jackson, on the one hand, or simplistically that Jackson did some good things, after all, on the other. It’s saying, rather, that Jackson and Wilson are (whatever we think about them as human beings) in fact continuing influences on our politics, in both good ways (which we continue to embrace) and bad (which we do indeed reserve the right to condemn). But you’re right that we choose every day what to erase and what to embrace. That — the sovereignty of the people — is the tradition itself. And surely we can exercise collective judgment/wisdom about which is which and maintain the ability to appreciate (not necessarily like) the messy complexity of that tradition without demanding that it be pure from the beginning. ?

    • Daniel January 10, 2016 at 7:03 am | #

      I agree that Jackson cannot be forgiven his behaviors with regard to native peoples. For me though, the significance of his actions to preserve the US Treasury from predation by capital earns him his place on the money.

      • fosforos17 January 10, 2016 at 10:08 am | #

        Explain, please, how destroying a national bank (based on the urban centers of developing capitalism), in favor of wildcat state banks whose capital, if any, was based on the value of stolen native-American lands, was anything but an integral party of his genocidal design. Explain, also how “the US treasury” and “capital” are not part of a single class entity.

        • freegirard January 10, 2016 at 4:25 pm | #

          The 2nd National Bank had all of the problems of today’s Federal Reserve, lack of oversight, abuse of its power, favoritism to Eastern (NY, Philadelphia, Boston) banks, and lack of responsiveness to the needs of the states and municipalities.

      • freegirard January 10, 2016 at 4:13 pm | #

        Not to mention delaying the Civil War for 30 years by forcing South Carolina to back down over the Ordinance of Nuullification.

        • fosforos17 January 10, 2016 at 4:23 pm | #

          And thereby preserving slavery for more than 30 years. As he intended.

          • freegirard January 10, 2016 at 4:32 pm | #

            There is a very strong probability that without those additional 30 years the North would have lost. Those thirty years saw the North merge as an industrial power, rather than a mercantile one, and its population advantage go from one and-a-half to one to two-and-a-half to one. Without those advantages, the North loses.

  8. Jon P January 6, 2016 at 11:09 pm | #

    I suspect a major reason that the mobilization against Woodrow Wilson is occurring now instead of during the New Left period is due to the mainstreaming of New Left historiography.

  9. Frank Wilhoit January 6, 2016 at 11:10 pm | #

    He gets it. Naming something is an (attempted) honor; un-naming it is merely censorship and censorship is not one of our things, it is one of theirs.

    • fosforos17 January 7, 2016 at 12:00 am | #

      Ungar presumably wants to restore the name of Stalin to all the places it was cleansed from after the tyrant’s death. But the question arises: does he want to restore the name of Volgagrad to “Stalingrad”–or to “Tsaritsyn?”

  10. James Heartfield January 7, 2016 at 6:35 am | #

    Though the same professor that recently argued against the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oxford University, also wrote condemning the erasure of East Europe’s past at the end of the Cold War.

  11. Roqeuntin January 7, 2016 at 7:53 am | #

    “Monumental Propaganda” was a strategy by Lenin, the man himself, to build these monuments everywhere to foster support for revolutionary heroes and socialism. Google it.

    I find Ungar’s argument disingenuous too. It’s not about preserving history, it’s about not confronting a history of racism that makes him feel uncomfortable and ashamed. Whether he admits it or not, Ungar still seems to believe in American Exceptionalism. The idea that we are somehow special, somehow different from every other place, a light in a dark world.. When a man like Wilson does something racist (like praise Birth of a Nation) or Andrew Jackson kills all kinds of Native Americans, they become “multi-faceted” and must have “had their reasons.” I sincerely doubt he’d make this case for any foreign figures. Hell, I doubt he’d even make it about all the monuments to Confederate generals that pockmark the South. Racism isn’t a problem in New England. We’re special. It’s only those rubes in flyover country, the ones below the Mason-Dixon line that have that problem, right? We at the Ivy League are way too sophisticated for something like that.

    Anyhow, propaganda is everywhere. Lenin understood that well. The Soviets understood a lot of things well. I guess this is where I call Lenin “multi-faceted.”

    • Glenn January 7, 2016 at 11:14 am | #

      American Exceptionalism:

      The belief that no matter how many foreign governments and their elections the US subverts; no matter how many baseless wars devastate no matter how many millions; no matter how many are tortured and imprisoned without cause for no matter how long; no matter how many American minorities populate the extreme lower economic classes and its prisons:

      The Government of the USA would NEVER do anything so cruel, underhanded and deceptive to its own exceptional people.

  12. LIsa January 7, 2016 at 10:00 am | #

    Perhaps there are two Soviet styles, and the one referred to by Ungar is not the 1991-people-toppling-Lenin-statues style (he doesn’t specifically refer to Lenin or the post-cold war period?) but more like the way monuments or references to Stalin were erased after his repudiation in the later 1950’s. Or just a vague “totalitarian” method of “erasure” shared by Stalin and Hitler when inconvenient living or historical entities disappeared.

    • LIsa January 7, 2016 at 10:50 am | #

      (sorry, somehow i didn’t refresh and see the dozen posts from earlier, now it seems kind of redundant)

  13. Anthony Greco January 7, 2016 at 11:40 am | #

    You seem to be attributing to Ungar approval of the POST-Soviet tearing down of communist symbols, but his “Soviet-style” reference has nothing to say about that. As Lisa, above, suggests, he is talking about the practices during the Soviet era of airbrushing disgraced figures out of photos, omitting them from histories, etc.

    • Glenn January 7, 2016 at 12:16 pm | #

      That makes sense.

      In our “Soviet era” we have the name of J.Edgar Hoover on the FBI building and dissident Snowden living in exile.

      I our Post-Soviet era, Snowden’s name might be on the FBI building instead of Hoover’s.

  14. Stephen Zielinski January 7, 2016 at 1:35 pm | #

    Removing Wilson’s name from an institution is a symbolic gesture that expresses the memory of a morally culpable history. It rescinds an honor that was inappropriately given to the man. The removal recognizes the dishonor he earned.

    Removing Wilson’s name does not entail removing Wilson from the historical record. He will remain there. It does, however, alter both the record and our living memory of the man. Both will include the event that recognized the disgrace he brought to himself.

    Stalin, as we know, demanded that some Bolsheviks admit to crimes they did not commit before he killed them and had them stricken from the historical record (save for the records hidden in the Kremlin). He attacked others and the past in order to present a reified image of the present, a present marked by the personality cult that legitimated his dictatorship.

    I would argue that keeping Wilson’s name intact and in the public’s eye is akin to forgetting the immorality that was always a feature of the slave economy and the buying and selling of human beings. We would forget that history insofar as we would not want to demote a President who was comfortable with his racism.

    • fosforos17 January 7, 2016 at 2:27 pm | #

      Wilson’s racism, no different really from that of any other establishment politician and certainly no different from that of any other president after JQAdams (Lincoln *partially* excepted) is not the main reason to deny any honors to that utterly dishonorable man. Nor is his assault on the Constitution he was sworn to uphold through the Palmer raids, the lawless deportations, and imprisonments of Debs and so many others. The great crimes that make imperative the public humiliation of Wilson are the mass murder he precipitated by sending American boys to be slaughtered in the general slaughter of the Great War and his instrumental role in crafting the Versailles Treaty which led directly to the even greater slaughter of Hitler’s War.

  15. freegirard January 7, 2016 at 2:36 pm | #

    Wilson and Jackson were both in their own way despicable human beings. Certainly, both were in their own way racist. But we must not erase them from our history and our collective memories in some revisionist rush to make us more comfortable with our past. History is supposed to make us uncomfortable about our past, and serve as a reminder to be better in the future.

    • fosforos17 January 7, 2016 at 2:59 pm | #

      history. The absolute opposite: Dishonor them, humiliate them, make their place in the collective histlorical memory the place that their crimes merit. As with the Hitlers and the Stalins and the Torquemadas.

  16. Jean Paul Polis January 8, 2016 at 11:17 am | #

    “Erasing” Trotsky or Yezhov had been an act of stalinist totalitarism: an Orwellian manipulation in a sovereign and proud Nation.
    “Erasing” Lenin had been an act of liberal totalitarism: a Sorosian manipulation in a Nation under imperialist aggression.

    No Soviet Union, no Russian sovereignty, no West democracy. Call Zinoviev for more info.

    What are we doing when we talk about Wilson in 2016?

    You will know what’s a tyranny, and you *will pray* to have an your Lenin in the Hayekian tsarism of the market.

    Remind what claimed Orwell about The Road to Serfdom:

    « […] in the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of. […] A return to “free” competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably *worse*, because more irresponsible, than that of the state. »

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