Some Thoughts on Revolutionary Aesthetics in the 21st Century

Lately I have been thinking a lot about aesthetics; particularly how important aesthetics are to building any kind of revolutionary movement and especially how modern communists should deal with the topic. How should we style ourselves? How should we style and brand our movement? The answer I came up with is that our aesthetics ought to communicate specific ideas conjure up specific imagery that is conducive to the struggle for socialism. They should neither be so militant or so old-fashioned as to frighten away or alienate the working and oppressed masses who have grown up in an anti-communist society dedicated to painting socialism (and with it, its historical aesthetics) as villainous, nor should we be so clean, so inoffensive and modern, as to seem pretentious or like we stand above the people. Additionally our art, our style, our aesthetics, should be relevant to people here and now. We shouldn’t just cape the style of historic revolutionary movements, especially when the aesthetic styles of those revolutionary movements were for a different time and place and do not resonate with working people today as they did with working people then.

I read this article: It’s Time to Ditch the Leninist Aesthetic, and while I disagree with the author on a number of points, I think the overall theme is solid; namely, that modern, 21st century revolutionary aesthetics must be built by and for the oppressed and working class people of the 21st century. I would add that they must be built by the people themselves where they’re from.

I can attest to myself being soemwhat confused, in the days before I caleld myself a communist, to see communist art being pushed by modern American communists, but that solely depict workers or peasant farmers in 20th century Russia or in China, and I could see the differences between what was shown and my own life. It isn’t to say that these world-historic revolutions, headed by those people, shouldn’t be depicted, shouldn’t be paid tribute to, but that to reach the people, our art should depict the people. We can’t substitute the people we are organizing and fighting with for people of a long-gone historical period, revolutionary and inspiring as it may have been.

Of course it’s not going to be possible to just ignore the past; and indeed it’s nothing new that a political movement would dress itself in the regalia of those that came before. Marx said:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

We can’t expect to expunge our movement of positive sentiments, or of dressings of the past, and indeed they can be useful, inspiring, and powerful at times, but we cannot replace our own creations, and our own struggle, with the struggle of the past.

At the same time, we cannot so modify ourselves to conform to modern (bourgeois-create) sensibilities that our art and style lose their revolutionary edge. That they fail to speak to the people. The author of the aforementioend article mentions Jacobin and I think that’s a good example, with its hypermodern, cutting-edge design so perfect and sterile it does not get across that it is the working and oppressed people themselves behind this. Instead it appears soulless, hipster-y, even corporate or bourgeois.

To be maximally effective modern revolutionary aesthetics should, by virtue of their style, get across several points:

  • We (those fighting) are ourselves the people, are ourselves the oppressed; that we are like you and you like us!
  • That we fight to build a better world; a world workign and oppressed people rule.
  • That we can win. That we will win.

In particular I think things can be learned, for Western socialists, by looking at much of the homegrown aesthetics material produced during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s at the height of the last revolutionary upsurge.

A Response to “A Defense of Third Worldism From the Third World”

Making the rounds in socialist cirlces online today is the article “A Defense of Third Worldism From the Third World” by Carlos Cruz Mosquera, itself a response to the article “White Guilt and Third Worldism“, a criticism of Third Worldism from a communist by the name of “Mond”. This article, as the title implies, attempts to defend the notion of “Third Worldism”, ie: the notion that the world revolution hinges solely on the Third World countries and that the working class in imperialist countries has no revolutionary potential. In this post I am going to attempt to respond to specific points made in the article. I recommend reading both articles before reading this one.

The piece starts by agreeing with Mond’s point that white guilt is not truly oppositional to white chauvinism, and that in-fact it is another facet of white supremacy. At this point all is well and good and we’re in agreement.

In the second paragraph, however, he makes a huge and unexpected leap, pinning white guilt to Third Worldism as “it’s most popular formation.” He goes on to reduce Third Worldism to a position taken by white people (because of their white guilt) to justify their “inaction” and “nihilism.” Through taking a Third Worldist line, according to him, one necessarily believes that “there is no revolutionary potential for the working class in the U.S.
This reductionism of Third World communism is not only lazy, but is also a long-standing accusation by mainstream communist parties in the West in order to deflect that they are beneficiaries of imperialist loot and embrace Eurocentric ideals in general. In this case, it is regurgitated by a member of color, which is unfortunate.”

In the second paragraph Mosquera points first criticizes the idea that Third Worldism is white guilts “most popular formation” on the left and on this specific point I would agree; white guilt is yet more prominent a position with strands of left-liberal and social democratic positions. Now there is a point of departure. Mosquero calls Monds identification of the Third Worldist line as the view that there is no revolutionary potential for the US working class a “reduction”. The implication here is that Mosquero actually DOES think there is a purpose and potential for the revolutionay action of the U.S. working class, but, as I will point out, they later betray that this does not extend beyond aiding the struggle of the Third World and does not include the fight for their own liberation. Mosquero also conflates Monds principled defense of the notion of working class revolution with white chauvinism itself by equating it with the view of opportunistic Western socialist parties that claim workers in the imperialist countries gain nothing when compared with workers of oppressed countries. Mond does not argue anything like this at any point of their article. Mosquero offensively says this line is being “regurgitated”, suggesting it’s not a principled position arrived at through study and struggle but instead something force-fed to a black communist who evidently doesn’t know their interests don’t lie with socialism.

So what is the genuine Third World communist line?

What separates Third Worldism from classical communism or mainstream leftist analysis of class struggle is the argument that Western/First World workers benefit from imperialism. This is not a mere “feeling” (white guilt in this case), but an actual material relationship that can be scientifically understood through a thorough study of the global capitalist system.

Take the example provided by Dr. Zak Cope in his book “Divided World Divided Class.” In 2012, around $1.7 trillion of value was transferred from non-OECD countries (mainly Third World nations) by means of unequal exchange in manufactures. Simply put, Third World or Global South workers and nations are being robbed of a large portion of their wealth, helping to maintain the high wages of First World workers (and other benefits derived from their governments’ public spending).

Mosquero goes on to argue for their position, but their conclusion does not follow from their arguments. It is news to no genuine communist that the imperialist, First World countries are fat off the exploitation of the oppressed countries of the Third World. This was not news even in the days of Marx and Engels, nor those of Lenin. The premise is news to nobody; but the conclusion certainly is. That conclusion being Third Worldism. Mosquero continues to go on for several paragraphs repeating and backing up the (uncontested by me or I’m sure by Mond!) fact that by virtue of imperialist countries plunder, their working class is relatively well-off when compared with the working class in the oppressed countries. Nowhere is it evident though that socialism would not be vastly better for First World workers, or that their interests don’t lie with socialism and not with capitalism. This isn’t using a vulgar, jeuvinile “fully automated luxury communism” view either; it is my view that even a sustainable Global North working on reversing imperialism, colonialism and neocolonialism with MASSIVE reparations back to the Global South, will STILL constitute an improvement in the lives of working and oppressed people. We can see in socialist but also poor (per-capita) and underdeveloped countries like Cuba or China, how their life expectancies can approach (or in the case of Cuba, even surpass) those of some of the imperialist countries because socialism prioritizes the needs of the people and not profit for capitalists. What’s more the productive relations are so advanced in the imperialist countries that socialism could very quickly meet the basic needs of all members of society. It matters little to a laid-off, uninsured American worker that they live in imperialism if they still cannot get the medicine they need to survive. A French worker who has the surplus value of their labor appropriated by a parasitic owning class is still exploited. Overwhelmingly suffering and exploitation is still lumped on the working class of the imperialist countries. Imperialism has not made basic Marxist economic principles and realities obsolete.

Implicit in all of this is that, because First World workers are better off than Third World workers, capitalism is better than socialism for First World workers. This is, as much of Third Worldist thought is, a conclusion that does not follow from that premise. It’s true that workers in imperialist countries have access to a large assortment of cheap goods, of higher pay than those of the global south, of relative benefits in healthcare, food and education when compared with Third World workers.

Linked to Mariátegui’s call for a non-Eurocentric application of Marxism are revolutionary leaders and thinkers from the Third World such as Lin Biao, Ruy Mauro Marini, Che Guevara and more recently, Omali Yeshitela. They suggested that revolutionary struggles in imperialist centers are stunted by some layers of the working class benefiting from imperialist loot.

Here comes part of the premise, and with it, the suggestion that communists like Che Guevara would support the notion of Third Worldism. Particularly humorous is the notion that Che, who in 1964 said to Americans “I envy you. You North Americans are very lucky. You are fighting the most important fight of all – you live in the heart of the beast.” would have supported the defeatist Third-Worldist view.

I envy you. You North Americans are very lucky. You are fighting the most important fight of all – you live in the heart of the beast. – Che

Even Lin Biao, who’s often incorrect views helped lead to the development of so-called Third Worldism, never went as far as modern-day Third Worldists do (who deny the potential or the existance of first world workers and who often actively oppose movements by workers in the First World on the belief that what helps First World workers necessarily harms Third World workers).

The most oppressed under global capitalism will be the first ones to destroy it. First World workers as they stand today continue to be in bed with their imperialist governments and companies. One only has to look at labor unions like the AFL-CIO that supported Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, despite the fact that she orchestrated imperialist offensives in Libya, Syria, Honduras, Somalia, Pakistan and countless other Third World nations.

More of the premise and more erroneous thinking. More correct premises that do not follow to an incorrect conclusion. That reactionary trade unions exist, that there exists a labor aristocracy (a class conscious upper section of the working class that pushes for rapproachmont with and surrender to the bourgeoisie for personal benefit, as exemplified by unions like AFL-CIO) isn’t new to Leninists but the conclusions, that this group is not a tiny percentage of the working class but instead is somehow the vast majority, certainly is.

Additionally, implicit with all the points of how First World workers are “in bed” with the imperialist bourgeoisie is the notion that Third World workers are not often imbued with the false consciousness that has them supporting their own comprador bourgeoisie (and by extension, the imperialists overseeing them). This view has Third World workers naturally disposed to revolutionary socialism without the empire-enabling false consciousness that infects the proletariat in imperialist cuntries. Any investigation into this view immediately shows it to be false. This paragraph betrays the common Third worldist view that working with oppressed people and helping develop consciousness is easy and that the masses of the truly oppressed will more or less naturally flock to the truly socialist; that the hard work of educating, dealing with incorrect ideas, and uprooting false consciousness doesn’t have to be done or is not so difficult.

The diaspora of oppressed Third World peoples in the West can join this fight if only they turn away from the myopic First World struggles that Eurocentric leftists and so-called communists (mis)lead us to.

Here we see the core of Third-Worldism; so-called “First World struggles” are to be turned away from. Instead of something bound up with the struggle of the Third World, of the oppressed countries of the global south, the struggles of workers in the First World is a “distraction” at best and at worst something to be actively opposed. There is a false distinction between on the one-hand, supporting the struggles of working and oppressed people in the imperialist core, and supporting the struggles of working and oppressed people in the global south. The two are inseperably bound up because their interests both lie in the global overthrow of capitalism (and therefore, imperialism) and in sociaism.


Mosquero’s article shows insight into a common Third-Worldist tendency, namely to have many correct premises but a conclusion that does not follow from the premise. The conclusion reached does not come from their premises; instead, it comes from somewhere else. I don’t plan on, in this post, speculating on precisely where that incorrect conclusion comes from, but I plan on making a later post on the topic of Third Worldism generally. I hope I made clear also that my positions don’t come from “Eurocentrism” or chauvinist or imperialist beliefs, but in recognizing that the struggle for liberation is a global one and that the interest of the working class lies in socialism and the overthrow of the bourgesoisie on a global scale. It is the duty of those like myself, socialists in the heartland of world imperialism, to work and fight to build working-class consciousness and to kill the beast from the inside-out.