Three Wise Monkeys?: Marx, Engels, and Lenin

We recently acquired a statue featuring Karl Marx, Fredrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. This statue is inspired by the three wise monkeys, a maxim that we think of today as: “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” with Marx covering his mouth, Engels covering his eyes, and Lenin covering his ears.

The proverb of the three wise monkeys was made popular in Japan, after possibly being adapted from a similar Chinese phrase.

While there are many different meanings ascribed to the monkeys, the one that seems most appropriate in this context is the contemporary, Western reading: “[it] is commonly used to describe someone who doesn’t want to be involved in a situation, or someone willfully turning a blind eye to the immorality of an act in which they are involved.” (from Wikipedia)

There has long been debate on whether Engels and Marx share in the blame for the state crimes committed by the Soviet Union. (Recently, Tristam Hunt‘s 2009 book Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, an effort to humanize Engels, comes to mind).  On the one hand, they were theorists and arguments can be made for how far the USSR, particularly under Stalin, deviated from their vision. Still, The Communist Manifesto was and continues to be the basis for modern communism.

As the father of the Soviet Union and the leader during its early and formative years, Lenin is frequently pictured alongside Engels and Marx, portraying the three of them as the founders of communism. The image of the profiles of the three figures, perhaps looking to the future, is iconic and appears frequently in The Wende Museum’s collection:

(pictured on a commemorative plaque from East Germany for “a sign of the bond between Soviet hunters and the hunter of the GDR on the occasion of the Friendship Hunt on 10/27/1979 from the Hunting Club of Wünsdorf to the Comrades of the Main Department of Forestry)

Like any powerful image, the profiles of Engels, Marx, and Lenin have been and continue to be appropriated.

Sometimes they will be accompanied by a fourth or even fifth portrait, frequently Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, or a contemporary political figure (used by opponents to make unfavorable comparisons). In addition to being used to comment on politicians, positively or negatively, this image has been re-imagined and parodied throughout popular culture:

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We do not yet know where or when the three wise monkeys statue was made, but it does not seem unreasonable to infer commentary on the attempts to distance Marx, Engels, and Lenin from their legacy, whether those attempts be by scholars, Communist Party members, or the figures themselves (on potential implications of their writings or political decisions).

At the very least, this statue is an interesting example of iconoclasm and the re-imagining of Cold War imagery, a recurring theme at The Wende Museum.

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