Your Marx and Lenin Memes Aren’t Cute: Messages from the Motherland Pt. I
Like any self-disrespecting Millennial, I adore memes. Whether it’s SpongeGar, Harambe (God rest his soul), or this versatile still from Arthur, I can’t get enough. Coinciding with the rise of memes has been another love of Millennials: socialism. Predictably, I often see these two mesh together in memes that tell the story of Millennials’ discontent with capitalism through some pretty fine-tuned humor.
As a liberal thinker sporting an unhealthy obsession with Russia and the former Soviet Union, I initially thought these memes were pretty, well, dank. During my recently begun adventure in Russia, however, I started to think twice about the historical significance of the communist and socialist symbols being touted in these memes. Many people in the former Soviet Union view such symbols as symbols of oppression, abuse, and mass starvation. If I would find a meme of a Confederate flag repulsive, why would I laugh at a meme that made use these symbols?
I argue that the use of these communist and socialist memes, while stemming from legitimate political and economic concerns, is ultimately harmful and reminiscent of oppression. Before I get to that, though, here’s a refresher from the high school history class that none of us remember.
What exactly are communism and socialism?
Communism and socialism, while often used interchangeably, are not actually the same thing. Communism is an ideology, whereas socialism is the system through which communism is typically implemented. In the interest of brevity, however, I will refer to socialism and communism simply as “communism” in the remainder of this piece.
A common misconception has it that German philosopher Karl Marx invented communism, showcased in his post-mortem bestseller, The Communist Manifesto. The collection of ideas later coined as communism was originally tossed around by radicals such as the Chartist movement in England and a French guy named Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who—fun fact—Marx hated.
Marx’s chief contribution to communism, then, was his manifesto. It was basically a mix between a TL;DR of previous communist philosophy and Marx’s own communist version of the Ten Commandments. Marx also published a number of other works both before and after his death with the help of his underappreciated sidekick, Friedrich Engels.
Despite Marx and Engels’ literary feats, however, communism wasn’t put on the map until a guy named Vladimir Ulyanov—better known as Vladimir Lenin—started shaking things up in Russia. Life for the working class in Russia had been so poor in Russia that Lenin’s call for a socialist state was understandable. The Russian people thought it was so understandable, in fact, that it led to the creation of one of the most powerful states ever to exist—something Marx never even dreamed of.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
Unfortunately, communism is a Utopian and well-meaning ideology that in real life can get derailed very, very quickly. The central idea of communism is to ensure that there is no class system, meaning that economic equality is absolute. By definition, the state must gain control of virtually all aspects of the economy in order to determine who gets how much of what. This means also having control over the labor force of the economy, or the people who make production possible. What could possibly go wrong when the government has control over the economy and the people, in addition to the law of the land?
The answer to this question has been repeated throughout history. It didn’t take long for life in the Soviet Union to turn to shit. The massive amount of power the Soviet regime had was dangerous in the hands of corrupt individuals. Joseph Stalin, the prime culprit in this corruption, was a deeply paranoid man who feared losing control of his nation. Accordingly, he persecuted and often murdered anyone he thought to be a risk to his reign, including the intelligentsia, military leadership, and fellow bureaucrats. It’s estimated that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of over 20 million people, a sum second to only Mao Zedong’s 30 million (and it’s worth noting that Mao was also a communist dictator).
Stalin’s oppression coincided with frequent agricultural shortages that led to the mass starvation of millions more, a symptom of the communist regime’s poor economic planning. Life was so bad in the Soviet Union that when it came time to repatriate Soviet prisoners of war captured by Germany during WWII, many attempted or committed suicide to avoid having to go back to the Soviet Union (Stone).
This trend of oppression, starvation, and murder continued to a lesser extent for decades after Stalin’s death. Similar stories have played out in China and North Korea, both communist regimes. Even today, people in Venezuela are dying very preventable deaths because the socialist Venezuelan regime there refuses to accept humanitarian aid in fear that it will undermine the regime’s control.
So what does this have to do with memes?
It is critical to understand that a lot of what was done by Stalin, Mao, and many other proponents of communism was justified through the struggle of the working class and the offer of utopia. Communist symbols such as the hammer and sickle, images of Stalin and Marx, and idolization of the proletariat hero—while not inherently evil—served as communism’s pretty, red wrapping paper for the masses. This is why so many in the former Soviet Union see these symbols and are reminded of the oppression that they and their families endured.
After speaking with some of these individuals personally, I feel it is necessary that I convey these sentiments to the millions of Millennials who use memes laden with communist symbolism, Millennials who are so far removed from the atrocities that happened in the name of communism.
Does that mean I want you to stop critiquing capitalism or discussing the many political and social problems present in Western society? Absolutely not. When left unleashed, capitalism can wreak all sorts of havoc, the extent of which is deserving of its own article. I simply ask that you be more mindful of how you express your frustration with your society and economic system, for your actions may have unintended consequences.
I. Stone, “Seven Incidents Illustrating the Reaction of Soviet Nationals to the Prospect of Forced Repatriation 1945-1946,” U.S. Department of State: The Office of the Historian, 1952.
The views in the piece do not represent the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo: "Marxism-leninism red star hammer sickle chinese communist marx engels lenin trotsky chen duxiu," originally taken by rosaluxemburg for Flickr with a CC BY-ND 2.0 license. Use of this photo does not indicate an endorsement from its creator.