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.

4 Comments on “Consciousness, Culture and Revolution”

  1. Melissa F. says:

    Damn right, Miss Chaka:

    I have been reading your blog since the springtime and have loved and agreed with every post. Your eloquence has put my feelings and thoughts into beautiful poetry and frank prose against this capitalist “progress”-consumed culture in which Every Human Being is enslaved – black, brown, yellow, red, white, and all in between.

    As a privileged, white upper-middle-class 21-year-old female from the suburbs of Kansas City (love that you have roots near here!), I feel extremely alienated in this world. I have no doubt that my alienation, angst, frustration, and depression takes a different form and is shaped by different experiences that anyone else. However, I cannot help but feel a common human thread here. I may come from the “winning” side of the Amerykahn Promise – access to education and material things… but ultimately we are ALL losers, even if we have an iPhone and nice TV. Just because so many of my contemporaries turn the other cheek and ignore the Truth, they are still soul-deprived and don’t even realize why.

    What is better – to be enslaved and know it or just to be ignorant? The rich whites are still mentally enslaved, but just ‘distracted’ by the endless epistemes shielding Knowledge. Our souls and hearts are sick – yearning for better lifeways (like ALL people, regardless of skin color, practiced before capitalist civilizations took hold 6.000 years ago and spread over time. Even pure white-skinned people once lived with core values of reciprocity and family love, can you believe it?)

    I have definitely been grappling with identity issues lately.
    ‘Analog girl in a digital world.’ Miss Badu says succinctly.
    I feel out of place – in roots & routes. This is a hard time we are in right now.

    Why was I born white in the suburbs… when my heart is in the hills of Rwanda, the West African grasslands, the sweet & gentle Nile, the pine-savannahs of Nicaragua, a Cuban Santeria ceremony and the Argentine Pampas? Because I have no ancestors in any of these places, do I have no connection? What is your perspective?

    My decision to respond to one of your posts finally was due to the comment about your frustration with whites’ access to other cultures. Every day I feel shame. Shame about knowing more about Black/Latin/African art & music than any other person I know, whatever ‘ethnicity’ they may be. I know full-well that every book I read, vinyl I spin, concert I attend is paid for with Bourgeoisie excess money and time. I just choose to engage with and support (through money and spreading the Word) Black art rather than the dominant consumer culture. I give credit where credit is due (to the oppressed and aware)! I know who keeps it real and I tell all my privileged friends, too. Should I not do this? Am I a hypocrite?

    I do not want to be white and rich. But denying my personal truth seems like a poisonous thing to do. What right and just things can I do? I want to move to the country, grow my own food, and hide from this sick reality – but that would not change anything. How can I become revolutionary? Can I use my privilege for the betterment of others’ situations? I just don’t know if I can handle the Game anymore. Should I even express how much pain I feel even though I am on the winning side? I am trying to decide how to live my life.

    Thank you for your blog and the time you put in; it inspires me.

    Be Well,
    Miss Melissa from Lawrence, KS

    • chakaZ says:

      Hello Miss Melissa!

      Thank you so so much for reading and supporting my blog and taking time to respond with such honesty. Excellent questions too!

      I think you are correct when you speak to the exploitation that all of us share, regardless of race, because we all are compelled to be workers to survive. We all have a place within the division of labor; some of us have better positions than others, and a lot of this has to do with issues of gender and race. Historically to the present aspects of our identity, where it be race, nationality, gender, sexuality, have been exploited by the system to divide us and place us within this division of labor. Some members of the class are given more privilege and even rewarded for dominating and going against other members of the class. The ruling class pits us against each other and this plays to their advantage. We can go back to the origins of capitalism in this country, which was built on a system of slavery. The rich slave owning class exploited everybody, including working-class whites. However, the racist system of white supremacy was used to divide slaves from working-class whites and to brainwash them to accept such a racist division of labor on the basis of Africans being ‘naturally’ inferior to whites. This was developed to prevent multiracial rebellion, which was already happening. Even though working-class whites were also devalued and kept poor by the same system that enslaved my ancestors their identification with their racial privilege prevented them from showing solidarity with the slaves and struggling with them. They were also rewarded by the ruling class. We see this today when workers are pitted against each other and rewarded in the form of raises or promotions just for turning against each other.

      These divisions are real; and the privilege that certain sectors of the class receive based off of these divisions are real. We must fight the ruling class and the way it divides us by consciously overcoming these divisions so we see ourself as a united class against the system. I appreciate hearing your perspective as someone, who might have more privilege in this world, but you are identifying with the oppressed, rather than internalizing that privilege and staying complacent with the system. What I have noticed is that folks who have privilege either use it to actually climb up the bourgeois ladder, or they are so consumed with guilt that they do nothing out of fear of entering political spaces as a white person or a man, ect., Both of these solutions are the incorrect approach in my opinion. If we are to have a revolution, where we actually change the material structures and culture of our society, then we are going to have to build an organization that can bring in all sectors of our society to fight for it with the most oppressed, exploited layers of that society in leadership positions. It will not do the struggle any good if you are so overwhelmed with guilt as a white or middle class person that you refrain from doing any political work. Here in the US the left is small and we need more people who are thinking critically about capitalism and trying to organize class struggle.

      I think your comment ends with a lot of important questions and analysis. I think you are right that going off and forming your own utopian communist community will not solve anything and neither will wishing you weren’t white or middle-class. We must build revolutionary organizations and collectives that are fighting to build a better world. which I believe is communism. It helps to find other people who have similar radical ideals. This will help with overcoming the alienation that exists in society regardless, and especially when you become aware of the lies of the system, but have no outlet to discuss with others or to do anything practically about it. Please keep reading and let me know whats happening in good old Kansas!

  2. El Pelón says:

    Regarding the appropriation of various artistic expressions of struggle amongst the petit-bourgeoisie, it is an utterly dialectical relationship. I too am a veteran of the Bay Area left before I moved south, and I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to see liberal white people try to wrap themselves in Cesar Chavez and the UFW, wtih self-serving Latino egging them on. My grandparents were part of the UFW, and my first day care center was the fields. On the one hand, one doesn’t like the petit-bourgeois posing, on the other hand, one cannot deny that their being interested in these things is better than these things falling into oblivion. After all, they have the resources (i.e. the money) to keep these activities afloat (everyone else is just struggling to keep body and soul together), and perhaps some of them will come around to an authentic revolutionary consciousness at some point.

    In terms of hip hop, of course the trend is even more disturbing. One could directly trace the development of gangsta rap and so forth to the destruction of the industrial base in this country which left the black masses in the ghettos stranded after they had moved north to fill jobs that were no longer there. While the subjects of black music prior to that time were taken up by the typical themes of love, loss, and betrayal (with the occasional bow to social conscience), modern black music in its most marketable form has degenerated into a glorification of a consumer culture that the vast majority of working class black people can never participate in. The other question is if they are the intended audience in the first place, as hip hop is consumed more by white middle class people when dollars get involved. The modern day hip hop artist is the person white people find most compelling when it comes to black people, which begs the question of if the whole phenomenon is a minstrel show to begin with.

    • chakaZ says:

      Hello El Pelon,

      Thank you for your wonderfully written response. I appreciate hearing about your family and experiences organizing. I agree that it is better for the middle class to keep certain activities and art still alive rather than it going extinct. For an example, the blues could have very well fallen into oblivion if it wasn’t for the middle-class white folk musicians, who ‘discovered’ it and started seeking out these old blues artists, such as Son House and Elizabeth Cotton. Because of this interest by the white petit-bourgeoisie, we have actual footage and recordings of these legendary, influential, southern black artists. So I don’t completely reject or blame them. I do see the need to have an analysis of it though, and perhaps this analysis might help their consciousness develop in more revolutionary directions.

      I also appreciate hearing your analysis of hip hop and capitalism, which I very much agree with and employ similar arguments in my analysis of Kreayshawn and mainstream hip hop. I think this sentence is right on:

      “modern black music in its most marketable form has degenerated into a glorification of a consumer culture that the vast majority of working class black people can never participate in.”

      What is interesting is that working-class blacks internalize this culture, even though they can’t actually consume it. They identify with it rather than question the conditions that they live in, which prevents them from consuming these commodities. This works for the system, because you have poor blacks (and the working-class in general) falsely believing that they can achieve upward class mobility rather than organizing to crush this system that creates such class antagonisms.

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