Karl Marx’s idea that if history repeats itself, it does so the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, has become something of a cliché – a phrase which can be glibly slithered from an original intended meaning to be applied hither and thither at face value.
Marx was talking about the way in which the successors of terrible leaders become caricatures of their predecessors – like the way Nikita Khrushchev’s break from Josef Stalin’s shadow, as outlined in his famous Destalinisation speech at the 20th annual congress of the CPSU in1956, lead to uneven projects that seem, in some ways, to miniaturise and parody Stalin’s utter disregard for the welfare of his comrades. Specifically, the post-Stalin housing projects of the 1950s and 1960s oversaw the construction of massive, dejected out-of-town mega-estates, with red, orange and yellow blocks of cramped, cut-off flats in which the proletariat were interred. These buildings have been affectionately and derisively dubbed the Khrushchevki, and remain a clown-coloured thorn in Moscow’s side.
Stalin’s apartment projects, by contrast, are examples in muted urban proportion; grey, iron balconied, sweeping stairwelled. It has been said that the architecture of Moscow is configured like an onion, and that a plumb-line dropped North/South would reveal concentric districts of housing built under the auspices of successive leaders, pushing out chronologically from a jumbled centre.
Marx’s phraseology proved too cute to be taken in its proper context. In historical practice, many such ideas (even those defined with crystalline precision) become repeated, naturalised, digested, and become a cliché –or a discipline. Successive ideas are overlaid in any interpretation of history, be it academia or memory. The historian’s task could be said to be sifting the clichés of the past for their meanings in the present, or tracing paths from a point or points of origin – an endless, largely thankless, and certainly frequently pointless task.
As Marx would have it, by the way, the failings of the tragic leader are exaggerated to a point of satire in the successor. The tragic example becomes a meaningless farce – a type – and a cliché is made anew.