Rose Crees delves into why cultural and artistic communicative formats of 2017 are returning to the Communism that was supposedly left in the 20th Century.
The first trailer for Armando Iannucci’s latest project, The Death of Stalin, stormed onto the internet this week with the first glimpse at what lies beyond the satirical Iron Curtain. The film itself, based on a graphic novel of the same name by Fabien Nury, is open about its being “loosely” based on the events proceeding Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 as Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend) struggle for leadership of the USSR. Riddled with sharp wit and historical satire, this star-studded comedy seems to be playing into a cultural trend much bigger than simple humour.
With the film’s screenplay adapted and directed by Iannucci, famed for creating BBC’s The Thick of It (a political satire set in the corridors of British government, following and mocking the actions of government ministers, their advisers, civil servants and the sewer-mouthed spin doctor played by Peter Capaldi), this a step in a politically obscure direction. While the British political system, abundant with foot-in-mouth diseased politicians who babble and blunder, is a natural source of amusement, Communism has a more sinister history.
The number of deaths under Communist regimes, particularly that of the USSR, is a hotly debated topic amongst historians – figures vary depending on whether war casualties are included, time when the estimate was made and the resources made available to the estimator. It is suggested that anywhere between 8 and 61 million people were killed under Stalin’s regime, with Yale’s director of the ‘Annals of Communism’ suggesting 20 million, but some communists arguing that it is actually closer to the hundreds of thousands. Specific numbers aside, there is no question that famine deaths as a result of Stalin’s agricultural policy, poor working conditions, purges that wiped out and executed opponents and imprisonment in gulags are not a natural source of comedy.
Returning to the notion that The Death of Stalin is a part of a cultural trend, Iannucci’s film is being released to an audience who have already immersed themselves in Communism as a form of comedy. There is an internet wide trend, which is growing in popularity, for Communist and socialist memes. Facebook pages such as ‘Communist Memes’ (160,000 likes), ‘Sassy Socialist Memes’ (930,000 likes) and ‘A Communist Meme Page? In 2017? Unheard Of’ (111,000 likes) are churning out hundreds of current and apt memes that all put Communism at its heart. While some of these, such as this, seem aware of Communism’s bloody past – most memes seem to celebrate Communism and often pit it against current world politics. The question is why, in 2017, are we doing this?
The film’s trailer has been met with some backlash from Communists who feel like it is an inaccurate portrayal of Stalin’s rule but, in reality, it is a story about persevering to stabilise the Soviet Union after the death of its leader, evil or otherwise. Though it would be foolish to suggest egos had no role in the struggle for power, this is a film about a group of political figures attempting to prolong and preserve Communism and its philosophy as long as is possible. A line is drawn here between what are the actions of Communism and what are the actions of a dictator and by understanding this line we can begin to understand the mentality behind increasingly popular Communist satire.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto, the written origin of Communist ideology, states a utopian creed that aims to rid the many from the oppression of a minority, privileged ruling class giving all men equality by seizing the means of production (or wealth) from the few to share equally across society. While this philosophy is almost 170 years old, it resonates with today where the richest 1% of Americans own 38% of the wealth and the richest 1% of Brits own 24% of the wealth. When considered in this light, it is no surprise that internet users in their hundreds of thousands find humour and entertainment in Communism and a film such as The Death of Stalin is entering mainstream cinema.
In recent years, the awareness of the power of the 1% and the privilege held by the rich, white and cis-het citizens of the world has led to a growing class or group consciousness. The oppressed are demanding equality and the privileged are becoming aware of their role in providing it and seeking entertainment in an “extreme” leftist ideology comes hand in hand with this struggle. A Communist cultural revolution is becoming less bizarre as boundaries of societal expectation are broken both positively (a non-white president of the USA) and negatively (a racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, reality-television-star president of the USA). If the last year has proved anything, it is that a Communist regime is not needed to have an egotistical lunatic in charge of a global hegemonic power.
People are seeing the failings of capitalist government and seek solace in utopianism, the growth and attraction of Communism in arts and culture is a form of optimism in a world that is otherwise utterly depressing. And now, as Nazis and fascists march the streets of America with flaming torches, masquerading as the ‘alt-right’ to try and legitimise their racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist views (and there is no question that the rights of these groups are questions of class), it seems only natural to seek the ultimate form of equality as a counter ideology.
While before the 21st Century satire dwelled in political cartoons and books, memes, film and television have overtaken these as the chosen forms of political comedy. Memes are ten-a-penny on any form of social media, film is made increasingly consumable and accessible with the growth of internet streaming sites and politics is, as it has always been, depressing so it is unsurprising that Communist memes and The Death of Stalin are a part of mainstream entertainment and comedy. In a right-leaning political climate, comedy in this format is a constant reminder of our responsibility to each other as human beings, to preserve and fight for equality in all its forms. Oscar Wilde said ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life’ and equality in its ultimate form at the centre of film and cultural communication is an example of art purveying an ideology of responsibility to its observers – reminding them that what politics currently offers them is not enough.
The Death of Stalin is due for release in September 2017. Watch the video below to hear director Armando Iannucci talk more about his latest project.
(Image courtesy of Know Your Meme)