Jean Michel Basquiat, Obnoxious Liberals, 1982
There is a growing trend amongst people in my generation to ascribe to a form of ‘aesthetic communism’. By aesthetic communism, I mean people that agree with communism in theory and will say things like “eat the rich”, “fuck the military”, and crack jokes about the impending ‘revolution’. However, these same people will then devote most of their political energy to electoral politics and the discourse of popular media, via MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, etc. In other words, these people generally behave like liberals, social democrats, progressives, or whatever other terms you want to use, but then will embrace the communist aesthetic. Before I fully dive in, I just want to make it clear what kind of people I’m talking about. I’m a white man from the suburbs completing my undergraduate degree, and so most of the people I’m referring to here are of a similar background. I’m also generally referring to people online, who are generally a part of this same demographic.
The tendency of aesthetic communism can be traced to a larger contemporary problem, which I believe is the vulgarization of socialism by Bernie Sanders and his adjacent democratic socialist movement. This includes media like Jacobin, Chapo, and anything else associated with DSA. There is a popular conception of socialism as being equivalent to social welfare. Socialism to many now means a society with nationalized healthcare and education, higher wages, more unions, etc. Don’t get me wrong, having all of the above would be great and would significantly improve the lives of many people. But this conception of socialism not only negates the reality of imperialism and the history of colonization and genocide in the West, but it also places socialism on the terrain of the capitalist system. This understanding of socialism necessarily accepts many facets of the capitalism system, such as the exploitation of wage labor and the existence of a ruling class. Furthermore, this understanding of socialism ignores history, specifically when many Western states adopted forms of social welfare in the 1930s and after World War II. Holders of this strand of socialism neglect two pivotal questions when analyzing the welfare states in the West: how did these policies come about? And what happened to them? To answer the first question, these policies only came about to appease a growing mass movement that was threatening revolution. The ruling class was terrified of this possibility, particularly because of the success of the Russian Revolution, and thus conceded reforms that would appease the majority while simultaneously purging the radicals. Forms of social welfare had been stripped and undermined by the time the working class movement had been defeated in the 1980s. Social welfare was a solution to capitalism in crisis, and it was stripped away once capitalism was no longer in crisis. Many others have criticized the opportunism latent in Bernie Sanders, Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez, DSA, and the adjacent movement.1
In a recent article, “On Depoliticization,” Asad Haider argues, following Badiou, that the revolutions of the 20th century were propelled by the “communist hypothesis.” 2 The communist hypothesis asserts that, “the existing world is not necessary.’ It is not necessary for human life to be subordinated by the state and the market.” 3 It should be obvious that democratic socialists and progressives negate the communist hypothesis. They accept that this world is necessary, they cannot conceive of life beyond the capitalist system, and they thus pose socialism on the terrain of capitalism. This is antithetical to communism, which rejects the necessity of the capitalist system and asserts the necessity of revolution. Aesthetic communism is thus a co-optation of the radicalism that communism entails, which is then attached to an opportunistic politics in order to make it seem more radical than it really is. I’m not saying this is done consciously or anything, or that these people are maliciously trying to undermine communism. I think most people in my generation feel immense anger towards our society for the staggering amounts of debt we will inherit, systemic poverty and racism, a rapidly deteriorating climate, and rampant misogyny. Communism is appealing on some level because it channels this anger into a political reality. However, aesthetic communism just co-opts this anger into the fight for social welfare, which is not only harmful because of the tacit endorsement of imperialism, but also because it is a historical dead end.
Even amongst communists that reject electoral politics and assert the communist hypothesis, I believe there is an aesthetic component involved. By this I mean that some communists are bought in partly because of the aesthetic that the identity entails. I think amongst some social groups in our generation, if you identify as a communist then you come across as a cool or edgy person. This entices social democrats or progressives to flirt with the communist aesthetic because they may believe this will enhance their social reputation as well. I think twitter encapsulates this pretty well, as ‘communist twitter’ is generally defined by edgy and ironic posting. While it’s good that communist politics are enticing on some level to people in our generation, it is bad if this negates the content of these politics, which is to fight for the overthrow of capitalism. As someone who is too online myself, I notice that twitter and social media sometimes cloud my worldview and blunt my desire to fight. By spending too much time online, I sometimes forget why I am a communist in the first place. The goal is to stop spending so much time online, and to escape the social media bubble that closes us off from reality and the struggles of people intensely affected by the capitalist system. The people in my community are generally white and middle class (which is really just a privileged working class), and while we are negatively affected by the capitalist system we also benefit from it compared to black people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, the incarcerated, the homeless, and the rest of the working class which overlaps with many of these identities. We need to reject our class privilege, and build connections with those that are intensely exploited and oppressed by this system.
I’m not trying to gatekeep communism, shame people for not being radical enough, or anything like that. My goal is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, and I believe that social democrats and progressives who co-opt a communist aesthetic are a historical and contemporary threat to that goal. I believe that people who come from a privileged background such as myself need to become conscious of our privilege and oppose the tendency of closing ourselves off in our communities, whether this be organizationally or individually. Social media plays a significant role in the process of closing ourselves off. I also don’t want to imply that communism is generally popular and accepted amongst people in our society as there is still vehement anti-communism not only amongst the general populace, but even in ‘leftist’ organizations. My argument is that communism entails a radical and revolutionary connotation, which makes it enticing to identify as for people who identify as socialists already.
If you want to read more about why democratic socialism entails a tacit endorsement of imperialism, I would encourage you to read Lenin’s “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism.” If you want to read more about the history of the welfare state, and its demise, I would encourage you to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
- Joshua Briond, “The Miseducation of the US Left: Bernie Sanders, Social Democracy, and Left Chauvinism,” https://www.patreon.com/posts/32380149.
- Asad Haider, “On Depoliticization,” Viewpoint Magazine, https://viewpointmag.com/2019/12/16/on-depoliticization/.
- Haider, “On Depoliticization.”