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Branding Communism!

An international comrade of mine recently argued that communist movements need to seriously consider the necessity of "branding" themselves in a systematic manner.  After all, the masses are aware of bourgeois companies due to a process of marketing and branding that has instilled logos, catch-phrases, product concepts, and commodity ideas on their very consciousness: innumerable people are aware of what it means to facebook or google someone, just as they are aware of the logos of these corporations––we can cite countless examples.  Thus, if communism is seeking to achieve cultural hegemony and make its ideological position known in a context where the ruling ideas of the ruling class are often codified by a commercial sensibility, it must also find a way to insinuate itself within a discourse that people have been socialized to understand as the primary mode of comprehension.

Let's be honest: communism isn't always the most "hip" ethos, even for those who are convinced of the obsolescence of capitalism.  While its hipness may not matter for the most revolutionary movements at the peripheries of global capitalism––movements that could give a fuck about the "coolness" of a concept they understand, viscerally, as a necessity––those of us who live at the global centres, whatever form of marxism we endorse, are forced to deal with the commodification of our discourse, whatever its tendential variant.  Even if we are third worldists who dismiss all first world workers as petty-bourgeois members of the aristocracy the need to convince other radicals that this is a correct line, in a context where marketing and branding have trained our thinking, requires a certain measure of clever appropriation: to establish our ideological basis amongst the masses in our context we are forced to think of communism as a brand… to ask, in the crudest and instrumental sense, how we can convince people to choose communism over capitalism, specifically our variant of communism over both capitalism and every other variant.  And even if the masses gravitate towards a form of communism we see as a dead-end, the very fact that they are gravitating towards communism will be the result of a large-scale intervention in the marketability of capitalism.

So how do we push communism as a brand without cheapening its content?  Making communism so hip that it barely resembles its revolutionary roots, after all, is a common tactic of branding that has indeed succeeded in cheapening its content.  So an attempted rebranding of communism already exists, a paradigmatic example being Hardt and Negri's Empire.  What I'm talking about, however, is branding the kind of communism that seems to defy hipness at the centres of capitalism where culture industry fashion trends define taste––the kind of communism that inspires people's wars rather than academic papers.

Thankfully, decades of anti-communist cold war propaganda has done some of the marketing work for us!  You can't run a smear campaign without popularizing the imagery connected to your enemy––no news is bad news as the cliche goes!  Now that we are reaching a point where, so many years after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, the majority of people who live in the capitalist nations that once worked hard to convince everyone that communism was pure evil are people who are also quite skeptical of their governments––so much so that there is a constitutional crisis in many of these countries due to the fact that the majority of people aren't interested in voting for anyone.  While it is true that all of this anti-communist ideology has succeeded in making anti-communism somewhat "common sense", there are still people who are quite willing to question this "common sense" just as there are entire sections of the population who, never having lived during the height of the cold war, might not care about the "Evil Empire" of communist Russia.  And yet all of these people are familiar, on a surface level, with the brand of communism.

For example, every brand needs a logo to identify it as a coherent brand: you see that apple with the bite out of it and you know it means Apple Computers.  Anti-communist propaganda has helped logofy communism: most people who see a hammer crossed with a sickle will immediately think communism even if they don't know what communism means.  This logofication is more significant than some people might otherwise think even if it seems, at first, rather banal.  There is a reason corporations expend so much time and resources in designing logos and symbols of what they are selling––this is part of establishing themselves as a brand.  The point here is that when people think about something they want (e.g. "I want a computer") the logo of a given company that markets to this want will pop into their minds and direct their desire (e.g. "I want an Apple computer).  I'm simplifying, obviously, but you know what I mean.

If only Apple was actually communist as the designer of this image erroneously believes.

And yet there has been a lot of recent talk amongst communists about doing away with the old hammer and sickle because it is antiquated and oft-times quite meaningless: out-dated hammers and sickles, signifying a worker-peasant alliance in the late Soviet Union, are not universally relevant for the modern proletariat.  (As a side note: neither are red stars, unless there is some astrological destiny to communism I don't know about.)  Attempting to find a more accurate symbol misses the point of branding––I mean, come on, does the apple with the bite out of it accurately symbolize a bloody computer company?  When it comes to branding, the gap between signifier and signified is a vast gulf.  The reason the hammer and sickle is still a useful symbol for communism is because it is a recognizable brand that causes the name "communism" to pop into peoples' heads the moment they see this logo.

All attempts to create new communist logos are somewhat useless.  What is the point of having a logo you have to always explain, and do you really think that if you explain it enough people are going to catch on quickly and say, when they see something with your brand on it, "oh that's communism"?  Although you could always put the word "communism" on an alternative symbol, all you are doing is making the logo redundant––logos are not supposed to be explained.  They are wordless symbols that are meant to communicate a vague meaning: the hammer and sickle thus works precisely as a logo is meant to work.

Of course, if you don't want people to know that you are a communist organization, but be drawn to your ranks because of what you say and do without openly proclaiming yourself communist, then I suppose it makes sense to come up with a new symbol.  But this is blanquism, which is a problem that is larger than a choice in symbol, and has to do with tricking people into becoming communists.  Those of us who believe that communist organizing has to begin by proclaiming itself as communist, by refusing to hide the politics that untold millions died to bring into being, by drawing lines of demarcation based on our theory, and by beginning with those who are not afraid to gravitate towards an ideology feared by the bourgeoisie.  Indeed, the reason I am talking about treating communism as a brand is because I think it is important to popularize communism everywhere.  If I didn't think it was important, I wouldn't care about finding a logo to represent communism; I wouldn't have a valid reason to argue for an updated communist logo since I wouldn't care about what logos are supposed to do.

But a logo alone does not provide content––that is not, as aforementioned, the point of the logo.  What it does do is help identify a movement's politics (on the newspapers, on posters for events/rallies, on communiques, on handbills, on flags and banners, etc.) and divide those who are immediately opposed to what they believe the symbol represents and those who either agree with what they think the symbol represents or, at the very least, are intrigued.  In some ways it helps in the stage of accumulating those with an advanced consciousness; in some ways it helps cut down the amount of people who will not, at this stage, be interested in supporting you in any way/shape/form from showing up in those spaces in which you control the political line.  Running with the analogy of that bourgeois computer company (perhaps into the ground, but you be the judge!), one of the reasons why the apple with the bite is present on all of their products, even if it has only a vague connection to computers (byte maybe?), is because it not only serves the function of making the brand obsequious, it is also designed to produce a core of faithful consumers who will gravitate towards anything upon which the logo is branded.

Obviously it is not enough to simply have a logo.  The content represented by the logo is what ultimately matters: branding only serves the purpose of providing the easiest marketing division, separating those who might be interested from those who definitely are not.  Someone who is viscerally repelled by what they imagine a symbol represents will not gravitate towards the material upon which that symbol is branded; others who might be curious about the symbol, however, might also be repelled by what the symbol represents.  The logo simply eliminates the former group, but branding is not about depth: keeping long-term cadre has nothing to do with marketing an ideology, it has to do with actual agitation, practice, and ideological struggle.  But I'm talking about branding, not about theoretical and ideological practice, and branding only concerns surface details––it is about making an impression.

Even if we are talking about making an impression, however, we cannot just rely on the logos that the past has transformed into potential brands.  We also have to make our branding relevant to the present context––not by changing the logo itself but changing the way in which it is articulated.  Slapping an old-timey hammer and sickle on an ugly looking poster that resembles the hideous activist posters that have been produced since 1952 is not a very good marketing strategy.  The brand is recognizable but it is endorsing something that will annoy the visual sensibilities of people who might otherwise be intrigued by the brand.  I mean, look at the average activist poster even minus the hammer and sickle or identifiable communist symbol: it makes the brain melt with its defiant violation of every design principle known to humanity.

We are so anarchist that we rebel against rules of colour and space!
Our posters defy good taste so much that we rebel against the masses who would otherwise read them!
The point, then, is to have unique, hip, and intriguing approaches to the branding of our politics without loosing the identifiability of our brand.  (At least the above example of a shitty poster identifies itself as anarchist, even if it is doing so by literally branding a symbol of the BPP, but it has done so in a manner that makes itself seem very uninteresting to those who might otherwise be interested.)  And these approaches have to do with our design, with what media we choose to utilize, with our concrete practices.  The aim is to develop a cultural hegemony that is not only identifiable but desired: we know how to make ourselves identifiable (i.e. we have the logo basis of branding) but we don't always know how to make ourselves desired.


  1. Excellent post. And a needed response to those who question the H&S and other communist iconography. Kasama comes to mind with their attempt to "ride the tiger" (Which I think they dropped when they realized this was the title of a fascist book).

    There is a reason the H&S still exists and moves - it is easy to draw and modify (thus fit different tools and media and artistic flair), it is recognizable, and it is storied.

    However it is also widely used by often competing groups. One of the first modifications for this purpose done was the flipping of the traditional H&S direction done by the Fourth International. Then we have variations in colors, the adding of stars, even the copying of the Nazi colors by the National Bolsheviks.

    So branding is not just icons, but the hegemony these icons represent. Apple is represented by its logo even when used for other purpose - those who have been exposed to its propaganda immediately associate the logo with it.

    The H&S however, is owned by no one in an hegemonic way. During the Cold War, it usually meant the USSR or Communist with a Capital C, that is revisionism. And anti-revisionists tried all kinds of variations. Revisionists also tried variations - the CPs of Canada and the USA for example, in particular to de-Sovietify their brand but also to de-peasant it.

    And this is an important consideration: Maoism has no logo, and Maoist organizations are notoriously bad at them. And this is not a good thing.

    More importantly, the icons that we hold dear, are not hegemonic to us, and might never be.

    Thus we are caught between a rock and hard place - we have a cool logo that is to vaguely identified, and we have the need to be specifically identified but cannot come up with a cool logo that we can hegemonize.

    As you can tell, we considered this when opening our blog - and we think it works. But that is a limited purpose... the task is to brand Maoism.

  2. This is a very good post. I agree that it is very important to popularize the aesthetic of Communism. this itself, is not enough of course as pointed out; content is primary, but when it come to form one must utilize the popularization.

    I wear a hammer and sickle shirt,a Bolshevik hat with the Soviet H&S pin, and Mao pins on my regular cloths all the time, and it does intrigue people, or dived. but that is not necessarily a bad thing either.

    1. At the same time, which is kind of the point I ended with, we have to also re-asetheticize the brand. Most brands, while still recognizable, still develop based on modern trends. We might have a recognizable logo but we don't have to look like we belong in the early half of the twentieth century: there's a fine line between being recognizable and being so recognizable that we look boring.

  3. Excellent article comrade! I think a lot of people would be surprised by just how effective this sort of branding is. I have a very visible H&S tattoo on my forearm, and almost every time someone asks me about it a positive conversation ensues. The conversation usually starts with me defining communism and Marxism, and almost always ends with me explaining Maoism and why it is more relevant than whatever strange notion they have of communism. A lot of people from Eastern Europe ask me about it, and that really sets the stage to discuss the revisionism and social imperialism of the USSR later in it's life (because let's be honest, most of the immigrants from the Soviet bloc were born during the time of Khrushchev and remember Breznhev more than Stalin or Lenin). These conversations almost always end well.

    I think a lot of people are wary of outing themselves as communists via branding, and let me tell you: it's not that bad. I work at a gas station in a very conservative suburb which serves everyone from bourgeois assholes in BMWs to rednecks filling up their old rattle-trap diesel trucks. I'm known as a commie to my coworkers and a lot of customers. When a customer is interested in economics, they talk to me. They may be on the absolute opposite side of the spectrum (as most of them are), but they appreciate that I actually know what they are talking about. So don't be discouraged to brand yourself as a communist. A tattoo might be a little extreme for some people, but there's a lot of other things you can do. Wear a Mao shirt, make a H&S patch, create an "I <3 Stalin" hat. Whatever works for you.

    You are also totally right that we need to re-asetheticize. We need to get creative in how we brand ourselves, and we're perfectly capable of doing so. Most comrades on the internet are pretty up-to-date on current trends, and I think we could make some really cool shit if we put our heads together. A communist merch webstore would be awwwwesome.

  4. Yes, I think people do underestimate the draw of communist symbology. For instance, there are several popular video games which market themselves by using communist symbols and communist themes.

    The most recent example of this is the strategy game Company of Heroes 2. It is based off WWII eastern front, and the marketing around that game is exclusively communist (perhaps because marketing it around the NAZIS would be in extremely bad taste...which again goes to disprove the ideas some people have that people think communists are as bad as fascists) In their commercials they even feature a picture of Stalin. In some interviews with game designers, they wear hammer & sickle badges. Nearly all the posters feature. One of the commercials informed viewers that it was really the soviets who did most of the fighting in the war and that we cannot forget their sacrifices. Some of the soldiers in the game call out "For Stalin" while engaging in combat.

    This is the most recent example of a product produced by a capitalist company which utilizes the brand of communism in order to promote and sell. It is not an obscure game, but the most anticipated real-time strategy strategy game of the year. If communism had such a bad rap among the general population of people 32 and under who make up the majority of gamers, then doing this would be suicidal for the company. Instead, it is selling like hot-cakes, and at a hefty price that I myself baulk at paying.

    There have been other games that used communist symbology or even ideology to promote their games. Red Orchestra 1&2 are both FPS games based off the eastern front and are quite popular. Red Faction is a popular science fiction based game where you play as a miner who joins a rebellion. Well I have no more time for this, going to work now, but there are several other popular examples of such.

  5. Red flag, with the old astrological symbol for the Earth in green upper left corner, saluting fist in black centered?

    (As a sci-fi fan, it would be fun to steal the Stargate SG-1 symbol for the Earth, but I know not everyone shares my sense of humor.)


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