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.

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