Before his complex involvement in the events of the Cultural Revolution, Yao Wenyuan emerged as a central figure in wide-ranging theoretical debates around questions of beauty under the aegis of the Aesthetics Debate of the 1950s and ’60s. This debate provided the conditions for a series of engagements on the part of Chinese and Soviet aesthetic theorists with the conceptual vocabulary of the “early Marx,” preceding the more famous embrace of humanist Marxist discourse in the 1980s. This article proposes to take Yao seriously as a theorist of an anti-humanist proletarian aesthetics, whose thought seeks to pose the relations between labor and aesthetics in terms strictly opposed to the philosophical figure of the human that emerged in the thought of more prominent figures such as Li Zehou. It does so by tracing Yao’s conception of aesthetics as a site of class struggle at the level of sensorial experience, in terms that suspended any attempt to articulate a universalist aesthetic according to humanist tropes of creative labor. The depth of Yao’s aesthetics not only demonstrates the theoretical underpinnings of the Cultural Revolution, but so too does it underscore the persistence of the problems of humanism and anti-humanism in engagements with Marxist thought.