The Power of Symbols—Communism and Beyond

  • Harald WydraEmail author


Examining the revolutionary origins of Soviet communism this paper argues that symbolic structures were crucial in the making of Soviet communism as a political force. It conceptualizes symbolizations as contingent interpretive acts that capture people in extraordinary situations of dissolutions of political order. In the first part, I identify the dramatic and imaginative sources of the Bolshevik Revolution, which created a schismogenetic system, in which symbolic structures of time, representation, and leadership would become disintegrative forces in Soviet society. In the second part, I elaborate on the creativity of political symbolism by understanding symbolizations as rites of passage, constructions of origins and ends, as well as reality-creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Rather than to know the origins of symbols, the proposition here is to understand how symbolic meanings contributed to the creation not only of the empirical-objective world of Soviet communism but also of dominant social science interpretations.


Political symbolism Soviet communism Liminality Constitutive imagination Schismogenesis 


  1. Agamben, G. (2000). Le temps qui reste. Paris: Rivages.Google Scholar
  2. Alexander, J., Giesen, B., & Mast, D. (Eds.). (2006). Social Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Arendt, H. (1984). On revolution. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  4. Arnason, J. (1993). The future that failed: Origins and destinies of the Soviet model. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Barthes, R. (1984). Mythologies. London: Paladin.Google Scholar
  6. Berdyaev, N. (1961). The Russian revolution. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bonnell, V. (1999). Iconography of power. Soviet political posters under Lenin and Stalin. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bourdieu, P. (1982). Leçon sur la leçon. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.Google Scholar
  9. Campbell, J. (1993). The hero with a thousand faces. London: Fontana.Google Scholar
  10. Cassirer, E. (1946). The myth of the state. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Certeau, M. de (1975). L’écriture de l’histoire. Paris: Gallimard.Google Scholar
  12. Chang, J., & Halliday, J. (2005). Mao: the unknown story. London: Jonathan Cape.Google Scholar
  13. Cohen, A. (1969). Political anthropology: The analysis of the symbolic of power relations. Man, 4(2), 215–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cohen, A. (1979). Political symbolism. Annual Review of Anthropology, 8, 87–113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cohn, N. (1970). The pursuit of the millennium: revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the middle ages (3rd ed.). London and New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Djilas, M. (1964). The new class. An analysis of the communist system. 19th printing. New York and Washington.Google Scholar
  17. Dobry, M. (2009). Critical processes and political fluidity: A theoretical appraisal. International Political Anthropology, 2(1), 74–90.Google Scholar
  18. Douglas, M. (1982). Natural symbols. New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
  19. Duncan, P. (2000). Russian messianism: Third Rome, revolution, communism and after. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Edelman, M. (1985). The symbolic uses of politics, 2nd edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  21. Edles, L. D. (1998). Symbol and ritual in the New Spain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Eliade, M. (1963). Aspects du mythe. Paris: Gallimard.Google Scholar
  23. Eliade, M. (1991). Images and symbols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Figes, O. (2003). Natasha’s dance. A cultural history of Russia. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  25. Figes, O., & Kolonitskii, B. (1999). Interpreting the Russian revolution. The language and symbols of 1917. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Furet, F. (1999). The passing of an illusion. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  27. Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  28. Giesen, B. (2010). Zwischenlagen. Münster: Velbrück.Google Scholar
  29. Gill, G. (2005). Changing symbols: The renovation of moscow place names. The Russian Review, 64(3), 480–503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Griffin, R. (2007). Modernism and fascism. Basingstoke: Palgrave.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Handelman, D. (1990). Models and mirrors. Towards and anthropology of public events. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Hankiss, E. (1994). European paradigms: East and West, 1945–1994. Daedalus, 3, 115–126.Google Scholar
  33. Hanson, S. (1997). Time and revolution: Marxism and the design of soviet institutions. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  34. Hoffer, E. (1964). The true believer. New York: Mentor Books.Google Scholar
  35. Horvath, A., & Thomassen, B. (2008). Mimetic errors in liminal schismogenesis: On the political anthropology of the trickster. International Political Anthropology, 1(1), 1–24.Google Scholar
  36. Hosking, G. (2006). Rulers and victims. The Russians in the Soviet Union. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Isaac, J. (1998). Democracy in dark times. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Jung, C. G. (1990). Man and his symbols. London: Arkana.Google Scholar
  39. Kautsky, J. (1965). Myth, self-fulfilling prophecy, and symbolic reassurance in the East–West conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 9(1), 1–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kennan, G. F. (1961). Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, and Company.Google Scholar
  41. Kharkhordin, O. (1999). The collective and the individual in Russia. Berkeley/London/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  42. Kharkhordin, O. (2005). Main concepts of Russian politics. Lanham: University of America Press.Google Scholar
  43. Koestler, A. (1940). Darkness at noon. London: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  44. Koselleck, R. (1985). Futures past. On the semantics of historical time, translated by Keith Tribe. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  45. Koselleck, R. (2006). Begriffsgeschichten. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
  46. Kubik, J. (1994). The power of symbols against the symbols of power: the rise of solidarity and the fall of state socialism in Poland. University Park: Penn State University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Lefort, C. (1986). Essais sur le politique. Paris: Seuil.Google Scholar
  48. Lefort, C. (2007). Complications: communism and the dilemmas of democracy. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Lenin, W. I. (1985) Ausgewählte Werke. Moscow: Progress.Google Scholar
  50. Lenin, W. I. (1989). What is to be done? London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  51. Lüsebrink, H.-J., & Reichardt, R. (1997). The Bastille. A history of a symbol of despotism and freedom. Durham and London: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Malia, M. (1994). The soviet tragedy: A history of socialism in Russia, 1917–1991. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  53. Malksoo, M. (2009). The politics of becoming European: a study of Polish and Baltic post-cold war security imaginaries. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  54. Mannheim, K. (1936). Ideology and utopia. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  55. Marx, K. (1971). Die Frühschriften. In S. Landshut (ed.), Stuttgart: Kröner.Google Scholar
  56. Miłosz, C. (1953). The captive mind. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  57. Montefiore, S. S. (2007) Young Stalin. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.Google Scholar
  58. Nietzsche, F. (1997). Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, Werke in drei Bänden, Vols 1–3. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.Google Scholar
  59. Pasternak, B. (2002). Doctor Zhivago. London: Vintage.Google Scholar
  60. Popitz, H. (1997). Wege der Kreativität. Tübingen: Mohr.Google Scholar
  61. Prozorov, S. (2009). The ethics of post-communism. Basingstoke: Palgrave.Google Scholar
  62. Remnick, D. (1994). Lenin’s tomb. The last days of the soviet empire. New York: Vintage.Google Scholar
  63. Rossbach, S. (1999). Gnostic wars. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  64. Sakwa, R. (2009). Liminality and postcommunism: The twenty-first century as the subject of history. International Political Anthropology, 2(1), 109–125.Google Scholar
  65. Schütz, A. (1971). Collected papers, vol. 1, the problem of social reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.Google Scholar
  66. Service R. (2007). Comrades: A world history of communism. Basingstoke: Palgrave.Google Scholar
  67. Sewell, W. H. (2005). Logics of history. Social theory and social transformation. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  68. Solzhenitsyn, A. (1994). The Gulag archipelago: an experiment in literary investigation, vols I and II. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  69. Szakolczai, A. (2000). Reflexive historical sociology. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  70. Szakolczai, A. (2008). The spirit of the nation-state: Nation, nationalism, and inner-worldly eschatology in the work of Eric Voegelin. International Political Anthropology, 1(2), 193–212.Google Scholar
  71. Szakolczai, A. (2009). Liminality and experience: Structuring transitory situations and transformative events. International Political Anthropology, 2(1), 141–172.Google Scholar
  72. Talmon, J. (1952). The origins of totalitarian democracy. London: Secker&Warburg.Google Scholar
  73. Thrower, J. (1992). Marxism–Leninism as the civil religion of soviet society. God’s commissar. Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press.Google Scholar
  74. Tismaneanu, V. (1998). Fantasies of salvation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  75. Trepanier, L. (2007). Political symbols in Russian history: Church, state, and the quest for order and justice. Lanham: Lexington.Google Scholar
  76. Trotsky, L. (1969). Permanent revolution and results and prospects (3rd ed.). New York: Pathfinder.Google Scholar
  77. Tumarkin, N. (1994). The living and the dead: The rise and fall of the cult of world war II in Russia. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  78. Tumarkin, N. (1997). Lenin lives! The Lenin Cult in soviet Russia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  79. Turner, V. (1969). The ritual process. Structure and anti-structure. New York: De Gruyter.Google Scholar
  80. Ulam, A. (1969). Lenin and the Bolsheviks. London: Fontana/Collins.Google Scholar
  81. Urban, M. (1998). Remythologizing the Russian State. Europe-Asia Studies, 50, 969–992.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Urban, M. (2010). Cultures of power in post-communist Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Van Gennep, A. (1960[1909]). The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  84. Verdery, K. (1996). What was socialism and what comes next? Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  85. Verdery, K. (1999). The political lives of dead bodies: reburial and postsocialist change. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  86. Veyne, P. (1988). Did the greeks believe in their myths? An essay on the constitutive imagination. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  87. Voegelin, E. (1987). The new science of politics. An introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  88. Vogt, H. (2005). Between utopia and disillusionment: A narrative of the political transformations in Eastern Europe. New York:Berghahn.Google Scholar
  89. Watzlawick, P. (1999). Die Unsicherheit unserer Wirklichkeit (7th ed.). München: Piper.Google Scholar
  90. Weber, M. (1980). Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Tübingen: Mohr.Google Scholar
  91. Wedeen, L. (2002). Conceptualizing culture: Possibilities for political science. American Political Science Review, 96(4), 713–728.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Wolin, S. (2008). Democracy incorporated: Managed democracy and the specter of inverted totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  93. Wöll, A., & Wydra, H. (Eds.). (2008). Democracy and myth in Russia and Eastern Europe. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  94. Wortman, R. (1995/2000). Scenarios of power, Vols 1 and 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  95. Wydra, H. (2007). Communism and the emergence of democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Wydra, H. (2009). The liminal origins of democracy. International Political Anthropology, 2(1), 91–107.Google Scholar
  97. Wydra, H. (2011). The politics of transcendence. Cultural Politics, 7(2), 263–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Zanker, P. (1986). The power of images in the age of Augustus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.St Catharine’s CollegeUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations