Consciousness, Culture and Revolution

The Weapon Arsenal by Diego Rivera, part of the cycle Ballad of the Revolution or Political Vision of the Mexican People, 1928. Frida Kahlo is in the center wearing a red shirt with a star and passing out weapons for the revolution

While running around Lake Merritt recently I saw a capoeira group practicing. I stopped to watch, because there was this beautiful young girl fighting an adult man. It was a nice scene to watch. I then looked at the rest of the group, and was somewhat surprised to see that half of them were white. A part of me cringed inside and asked myself, ‘is nothing sacred’. Then I had to check myself for personalizing the situation. I am sure these white people, who take capoeira classes are aware of the revolutionary nature and history of the art form, at least I hope so. But I can’t help but feel uncomfortable by the ease with which middle-class white liberals can access and enjoy other cultures. They can take capoeira classes at the gym; go on vacation in other countries; and feel empowered by these cross cultural experiences. I then think of my students in East Oakland, who are majority black, whose ancestors were slaves, an experience which led to the development of capoeira. I am sure that the vast majority of them do not know what capoeira is; and even if they were exposed to it might not even find it culturally relevant to them. When I define blackness and the history I think of capoeira; I think of revolutionary black artists across time; and I think of the revolutionary black militants who have existed since we were colonized. If I were to ask my students to define it they might draw upon lil Wayne and the stuff that is fed to them from popular culture, which is a reflection of the ruling class’s ideas.

So, is it frustrating to me that middle class white people get access to my people’s history, while working-class black youth in East Oakland and in hoods across the country don’t? Yes. But is it the real issue or question? No. When it comes to issues of culture and politics we cannot personalize it. Not that politics aren’t personal, because they are. Everything has an element of personal, because politics, culture, art are social. What I mean is that we cannot personalize or blame individuals without looking at the geo political system we are living under, which gets supreme control over everything, including knowledge. The people have always resisted this control through actual revolutions and rebellions to the system in the form of strikes, riots, occupations, ect.,. There have also always been vibrant art and cultural movements that have a relationship to these revolutionary movements, and are another form of expression of these revolutionary ideas. Revolution has been expressed intellectually through literature, such as theory and bios; and it is expressed through art by the oppressed. The ultimate goal of revolutionary theory and art should be to stimulate and inspire the oppressed working-class to overthrow the system. The revolutionary ideas expressed in art and theory provide clarity to the oppressed, who have been brain washed in the culture and ideas of the oppressors. Our oppressors, the Bourgeoisie, understand this, which is why they seek control over knowledge production, culture, and will always co-opt revolutionary art or suppress it, as well as violently smash any struggle or rebellion to the system. However, as people we only have complete control over our consciousness; ideas are what influence our consciousness and what inspire people to move and make revolutions. Radical rebellion and art have always inspired people’s consciousness, and strengthened our revolutionary movements. Understanding the relationship between culture and politics is key to understanding the totality of the system and how it oppresses us; it also helps us develop a dynamic revolutionary movement that can respond to this system and hopefully liberate us.

The Bourgeoisie is the ruling class; they get to rule over society and us. They get to structure society in their own self-interests, which revolves around reproducing capital and profit through an exploitative division of labor that we all have a position in. They compete and work with the other Bourgeoisie’s around the world in their control over resources and profit. This is the fundamental reason behind war, and it has always been that way. These bourgeois arguments that war is about spreading liberation and democracy are incorrect. The Bourgeoisie could care less about liberating and taking care of people in other countries; they don’t take care of people in their own country. This notion of democracy that is so prevalent in bourgeois culture is a front for their own capitalist operation of strengthening profit. Because the bourgeoisie enjoys this position as ruler of the world, they have control over all aspects of society, including the culture and values we are all brought up in that brainwash us to believe in the system and not resist it. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci writes at length about the hegemony (control) that the ruling class has over us through passive means (culture, school, ect.,) and through violent means (the police and military). He writes,

1. The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production. 2. The apparatus of state coercive power which ‘legally’ enforces discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively. This apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed.”

This passage comes from his prison notebooks, which were written cryptically due to the ruling class reading all of his mail. When he talks about the ‘dominant fundamental group’ he is referring to the Bourgeoisie. Number 1 speaks to the passive consent that the masses give to the bourgeoisie, because they have control and cultural hegemony. When crisis in rule happen, due to people rebelling and refusing to consent, then the violent state intervenes to beat people down, lock them up, and/or kill them.

Revolutionary struggle happens when people are tired of living the way they do and decide to refuse to participate in a system, and act towards the destruction and transformation of that system on that basis. They can act through rioting in the street, occupying schools and workplaces, going on strike, making art, ect.,. There are numerous tactics and vehicles for the oppressed to use to make a revolution, but tactics are not revolution and should not be substituted for the revolution. What makes revolutions are the minds and heart of the people, who are moving in motion together and breaking through the hegemony that the ruling class has over our political economic system and corresponding culture. Revolution, then, is the awakening of class consciousness of the oppressed, and class consciousness means that people are aware of their position within the working-class and begin to identify, with others, as a class fighting in its own interests against the interests of the ruling class. This class feeling that must develop within the people is what will ultimately lead us to overcome the divisions and alienation of this system that makes revolutionary struggle so hard. In Marx’s 1844 manuscripts he talks about the alienation of the people; we are disconnected from our species-being, in other words our community and sense of collectivity. The oppressive and exploitative nature of capitalism keeps us divided from each other, forced to spend long hours of the day working for someone else so we can pay someone else for the basic means of our survival (food, clothes, shelter). Because the system is not communist, and, therefore, not based on the survival and preservation of our species and the earth, we lose our organic connections to ourselves and the earth. On top of the material divisions, we are also educated in bourgeois public schools that teach us their lies of history, as well as train us to accept their bourgeois work ethic. And we are also surrounded by their media and popular culture that also reflect their bourgeois culture of individualism and consumerism. All of these things make it quite difficult to develop class consciousness and reconnect with our communities. However, this is the work that must be done, and it must be done on the basis of revolutionary culture and struggle.

Revolutinary artists marching on May Day in Mexico

The ruling class is organized as a class through their own organization, which is the bourgeois system of government. Their politics are expressed intellectually though schools and mainstream literature and news, as well as culturally through controlling the media and art. We, the oppressed masses, must also become organized through revolutionary collectives and organizations that can inspire people through struggle, reading and studying revolutionary theory and history, and through art, such as visual art and music. Art should never be neglected, because it inspires people and nurtures their soul. Not everyone will pick up and read Marx (although that is what I would like), but they can be inspired by a painting or a poem. We must build a dynamic revolutionary organization and struggle that accounts for all the aspects of humanity that inspire people. Historically, the oppressed have always resisted their conditions and there has always been vibrant art movements happening alongside the concrete struggles by the people. Above is a photo of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (both were Marxists and communists) marching as revolutionary artists on May Day. When people are oppressed and silenced, art has always been an outlet for people to express their experiences. Since we all have experiences with oppression, because that is the nature of the system, art is a useful way to overcome alienation and connect people with others through relating to the content of the art that is being produced. What is frustrating is that the ruling class also understands this, and will do all it can to co-opt art and movements and take the revolutionary nature out of them. Hip hop is a great example. A musical art form that came from the ghettos of the Bronx; the content of hip hop early on spoke to the oppressive and exploitative conditions of the American ghetto. Once capitalists saw that they could commodify that art form, like everything else, they did and sold it back to us void of any real message. The gangster rap of the early 90s came from LA, where historically gangs have roots in revolutionary struggles and movements. But the music of Ice Cube, NWA, Dr. Dre and Snoop at the time did not reflect any real substance or revolutionary politic. It was the exact opposite actually, and exuded a type of hood bourgeois culture of making money that is so prevalent in mainstream hip hop today. It made the corporate music industry a lot of money, as well as continued to reproduce their bourgeois values amongst the people. The capitalists will also co-opt revolutionaries and struggle in order to control it and make it more digestible for the people so that they are not actually educated in the truth. Corporations don’t mind Che Guevara as long as it is just his image on products that will make them money.

Co-optation of art and struggle is real; just like the division of labor is real. But we must not allow it to intimidate us from struggling, and, also, seeing the significance of real revolutionary art. As the ruling class draws upon all its powers to control the minds of the masses and repress us, we must also draw upon all our resources to respond to this system and spread the truth. The people will move when they are ready to move and revolution is not a deterministic thing to be planned in advance. However, it is the revolutionaries, armed with the truth, that must always agitate the people and quicken the process of revolution. We must be creative in the way we do this work, and understand that there are multiple ways to connect and inspire people to join the struggle. I believe that art and culture can, and must, play an important role in this work, because it always has. And just like we must build upon the history of struggle, as we try to make history today, we also must build upon the history of our cultural movements that are connected to these struggles, as we move forward determined to get free.