Armed with a Pen

Views from a worker and student

It’s Time to Ditch the Leninist Aesthetic

Nothing screams “communism” more than Cyrillic letters and a strong Russian jaw. At least, that’s what comes to mind when one imagines the communist brand. Socialist realism, the iconic style of Soviet propaganda, is an enduring staple of the communist aesthetic and has and continues to inspire countless artists. But the thing about art is: it has its time. For socialist realism and the Leninist aesthetic, that time is not 2018.

In Russia’s Shadow

In late December, 1991, decrepit Soviet revisionism finally collapsed, taking the first socialist state with it. This, the fall of the Eastern Bloc, and the resultant crisis in or liberalization of what remained of the world socialist camp was undoubtedly the greatest moral defeat ever dealt to communism as an ideology. How could the very nation founded by Lenin, the international vanguard of the proletariat, fall? This is a question which still haunts communists and indeed every class of toilers to this very day.

The fall of the Soviet Union, in the eyes of the world, was the fall of communism. And while communists have attempted to explain away or distance themselves from the Soviet Union, she and communism are forever intertwined. Thus, it was 1989 when Francis Fukuyama, a State Department propagandist, began experimenting with “the end of history.” Something he finally declared in 1992 in his The End of History and the Last Man.

The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident … in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.

– Francis Fukuyama

Nonsense, cries any half-wit honestly looking at the state of Western liberalism. But, as an other half-wit can see, honest looks are in short supply. This “end of history” narrative, teamed of course with over a century of anti-communist propaganda, stains any conversation about a post-capitalist world. It’s difficult enough even to get certain self-proclaimed socialists to discuss the abolition of private property, let alone dialectical and historical materialism. Why is this?

For starters, scientific socialism has long been entombed in the inaccessible works of dry academics and the self insulating book clubs that read them. New developments are all but unknown and few can even name a Marxist that isn’t Marx himself. Some have tried to change this. But how many are still using sixty year old agitprop?

It’s no wonder the liberals and charlatans are cashing on the word “socialism.” We sure as hell weren’t using it for anything!

The communist brand has been ignored. A travesty! At every opportunity to advance the proletarian movement, Western communists were too busy rehashing old arguments and venerating the dead to wage a relevant struggle.

As is, we still have to prove to people that communism is relevant. Trying to bring back the Soviet Union isn’t helping. We’re on the defensive, fighting just to be heard. Why shouldn’t we at least look good while doing it? It’s time to start caring about our image. Communism desperately needs to rebrand.

Don’t be a nerd

I hate to say it but very few people like Stalin or Mao. Fewer still are gonna vibe with anything involving North Korea. We need to get it through our heads that the anti-communist orthodoxy is stronger than we think. It might not be a good idea to make our most demonized figures the faces of our movement.

Now this does not mean we have to demonize them too. The self-flagellating pseudo-leftists like those at Jacobin who spend more time criticizing socialism than advocating for it are actively harmful to our movement. But should we really make our job harder than it has to be for nostalgia’s sake? Of course not.

We need to understand that how we look and act is a reflection of our cause. If our art is old, we’re old. If our style is irrelevant, we’re irrelevant. This clinging to old icons shows an unwillingness not only to move forward but also to actually serve the people.

The nostalgist is self-serving. They put their own preferences above mass work. It’s not that their jargon and niche historical aesthetic is off putting, it’s the proletariat that’s wrong. You can talk history all you want, if it doesn’t resonate with and inspire the working class, then it’s as good as any piece of bourgeois decadence.

The nostalgists need to realize that their aesthetic is for themselves. And that’s fine. Everyone needs a hobby. But art history is of little importance to the working class and its conquest of power. If you really want to just recreate the experiments of old, what you need is a time machine, not a revolution.

The Leninist aesthetic, in addition to be completely anachronistic, has been parodied so many times it’s all but useless now. No one takes it seriously except other communists. We need to make something new, something with mass appeal, something that isn’t the butt of a joke.

Just make it stop…

Don’t be edgy

Lifestylism, something expounded upon by the anarchist Murray Bookchin, is a problem not only for anarchy but for the entire spectrum of left politics. Communism necessarily means opposition to the status quo, support for the powers to come and not the powers that be. Anti-communism necessarily means just the opposite. For this reason, communism, like anarchy, is extremely attractive to the edgy-on-purpose contrarian. These types have no interest in actually doing anything productive or even reading theory, they just want to be cool.

Misinformed, childish, and destined to just become liberals later on, lifestylists make us all look bad. I know I certainly get secondhand embarrassment when I see lanky teenagers in Che Guevara t-shirts posing with their fists raised. It may be something the lifestylists get to look back on and laugh at, but for anyone actually trying to get educated and organize, it’s a stereotype you do not want to be associated it.

The old propaganda attracts the wrong kind of people. The last thing we need is more losers playing revolutionary. They’re only going to make us look bad and repel any serious people who might otherwise be ripe for radicalization.

Don’t be reactionary

There is one other person still holding onto the old look. But where the nostalgist and even the lifestylist mean well, this one is much more insidious. These are the dogmatists and defeatists who fetishize not only the old industrial proletariat but also the regrettable conservative attitudes of those long dead communists.

Pale faced Europeans in heteronormative scenes of production have the same appeal to reactionary “Marxists” as Rockwellian nostalgia has to the Make America Great Again crowd. They vary between simple disdain for identity politics and “social justice warriors” to outright bigotry, but it’s all the same in the end. Their hundred year old aesthetic has aged about as well as their politics.

These reactionaries have a narrow minded, romanticized, and inaccurate image of the working class. Anything that differs from this, such as reality, is disregarded. Anyone who points out their reactionary character is labelled a liberal. These are by far the worst and most harmful of those archaic communists.

Among these we often find Hoxhaists or third-worldists with nothing to offer anyone. Their dogmatism is a barely distinguishable from liberal respectability politics. They consider anyone not working with actual hammers and sickles to be petty-bourgeois and will frequently go off on some tirade blasting feminism, racial equality, or queer liberation, misquoting actual revolutionaries, completely unaware of how ridiculous they look. Unsurprisingly, they don’t realize how ridiculous the ushanka or the old Chairman Mao suit looks either.

Sorry guys, some white kid said identity politics were liberal and divisive.

We are neither Bolsheviks nor Red Guards. We are not twentieth century factory workers or Asiatic peasants. Our faces aren’t black with soot and our children aren’t sweeping chimneys. We are the tired, disillusioned peons of the twenty first century. We toil with smart phones in our pockets and caffeine in our blood. Some of us are not white, straight, cisgendered, or able bodied and, if history has taught us anything, the best of us will be none of those. The dogmatists and defeatists would deny our very proletarian character; but we own no more than those who stormed the Winter Palace or beat, killed, and threw their landlords out into the streets of Hunan and we’re no less angry.

Get with the times

If a picture really is worth a thousand words, we’ve been talking a lot of shit. Socialist realism and the Leninist aesthetic served the proletariat well during the heyday of the Cold War when it seemed anything was possible. But just as Soviet revisionism has been relegated to history, so must the old style of art. Neither our art nor our movement can advance if we’re stuck in the past. We need a fresh look that resonates with the popular masses, a real alternative to both liberal respectability politics and the impotency of the nostalgists and the contrarians.

The end of history is not here; but neither is Lenin. It’s just us, the enemy, and the present. We accept this or we die.


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  1. Simon Lawrenson

    I tend to agree with this article on all except when it talks about so-called “reactionaries”. Opposition to identity politics is not some old position, it is a recognition that these days, especially in the first world, leftist groups focus far too little on economics and far to much on identity. In other words combatting the superstructure instead of the base.

    And third worldists are far from dogmatists, as they try to update theory for the 21st century. Even if you don’t agree with them, it is dishonest to call them dogmatists.

  2. no

    and yet the logo on the tab for this page is a play on the hammer and sickle

    • Ned Isakoff

      The hammer and sickle predates Lenin and yet is still in use today by communists and parties in power and in revolt. It isn’t associated with any specific time but with communism in general. As long as communism’s relevant, the hammer and sickle’s relevant.

  3. Look at this article on the Communist Party of Japan’s new aesthetics

  4. Lol What

    What a strange and outdated series of complaints. Who the hell is dressing in Mao suits except for like, Kim Jong Un, who operates at the discretion of a workers party that’s clearly much better theoretically versed and vastly more experienced than whoever this wannabe gatekeeper is. So nonspecific too, like is this directed at a particular party or tendency or just a random clique? Also this “we” thing is wild bc I’m totally mystified about who the author is purporting to speak for and to whom. Who is this group of artists out here trying to being back Soviet realism? I know plenty of leninists who make memes on super popular pages and plenty who make badass revolutionary art, none of whom are even vaguely described by this series of complaints. tbh this should be honed down to a clear concise list of points and directed toward a specific target or taken down altogether

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