Story of the Red Flag
In March of 1871, French revolutionaries seized the Hotel de Ville in Paris—which became the heart of the Paris Commune—and hoisted the Red Flag in revolution and internationalism. The Paris Commune was the first time the working class seized power, together with their allies. In describing this in the work The Civil War in France Marx wrote, “the old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag.”
This was not the first time that the red flag was raised, representing the revolutionary aspirations of the oppressed. The red flag has historically been raised by classes in revolt. In the struggles which rocked the rule of Rome, ultimately bringing it down, the red flag was the battle standard held high by slaves who had no way out but rebellion. And in the great peasant revolts that swept across Germany—peasant armies moved from one part of the land to another raising the red flag in their midst.
With the rise of the bourgeois class and capitalism came of necessity the modern nation-state. As capitalism struggled to knock down the barriers imposed by the feudal system, creating favorable conditions for its development, a market for its goods, and freedom of commerce and transport, this brought into being countries as we know them today—each with their own, competing, national flag representing the capitalist class of the different nations.
As the bourgeois class fought to throw off the shackles of feudal society, a new class emerged along side it, the proletariat, a highly socialized class of property-less workers. Many of the peasants in the countryside as well as many urban proprietors were ruined by the rising capitalist class and driven in large numbers into the factories of the capitalists. By the 19th century, the class struggle in the world bore a completely new character from what it had at the time of the German peasant wars. Now the face of every significant social movement would in one way or another be influenced by the struggle of this class of proletarians. And, the red flag raised by this class bore an entirely new importance, the historical mission of the proletariat to emancipate itself and all of humanity.
There were many instances where the red flag was taken up by the working class. In 1831 during the Merthyr Riots in South Wales some seven to ten thousand workers took over Merthyr for four days. It is reported they marched under a red flag before many were murdered by soldiers and the rebellion crushed.
In 1848, the year that the Communist Manifesto was written, in fact only months before it was published, the red flag heralded the developing proletarian struggle across Europe. Sixteen years earlier in France, the workers of Paris raised the red flag in an insurrection aimed at overthrowing the government of Louis Philippe. And now, in February 1848, the Parisian workers took to the barricades again.
The question of choosing the French national flag arose in subsequent days. Workers demanded that it be red. Sections of the bourgeoisie which had entered this struggle, seeking to transform the state from that of a bourgeois monarchy to that of a bourgeois republic, demanded that the national flag be the tri-color flag raised during the French bourgeois revolution.
The workers’ struggle was eventually drowned in blood and the only concession to their demand that the flag be red was a red rosette (a badge that looked like a red rose), attached to the French flag.
In 1871, the red flag soared again over Paris, a declaration of the historically unprecedented act of the proletarians seizing power. The Paris Commune was established. This was the first time that the red flag stood not just for rebellion, not just for revolt, but for revolution—for the victory of the world-historic proletarian struggle and the establishment of the proletarian state.
It wasn’t until the historical Paris Commune that the red flag came to more fully represent and symbolize the aspirations of the international proletariat and its historic mission to emancipate all of humanity. In memorializing the struggle Lenin wrote, “The memory of the fighters of the Commune is honored not only by the workers of France but by the proletariat of the world. For the Commune fought, not for some local or narrow national aim, but for the emancipation of all toiling humanity, of all the downtrodden and oppressed. As a foremost fighter for the social revolution, the Commune has won sympathy wherever there is a proletariat suffering and engaged in struggle.”
The fighters of the Commune understood their conscious rebuke of the nationalism of their own bourgeoisie and that their red flag symbolized the emancipation of the people of the world. “The flag of the Commune is the flag of the world’s republic,” they wrote. Friedrich Engels later noted that the Commune “was a bold challenge to every expression of bourgeois chauvinism. And the proletariat of all countries unerringly understood this.”
At the end of the 19th century came the development of capitalism into imperialism in several European countries, the U.S. and Japan. Along with this came the first imperialist war. These imperialist countries headed toward World War I, whipping up “my nation first” and “defend the fatherland” national chauvinism. In relation to this the promotion of national flags and suppression of the red flag took on new importance for the ruling class. There was a major struggle, including among the communist forces, as to whether they were going to uphold the flag of national chauvinism or the red flag of proletarian revolution and a communist future. The grouping of world communist organizations and parties—the Second International—collapsed over this question of nationalism vs. internationalism.
The red flag was raised by the workers in many of these countries. Large-scale revolts broke out in the army and navy in both France and Germany. The red flag was also raised in the U.S. by the Industrial Workers of the World and others. But it was only in Russia—where the party of the working class and its leader V.I. Lenin had consistently maintained a revolutionary stand toward the government—that the working class was actually able to take advantage of the severe war-aggravated crisis faced by its rulers, mount an armed insurrection, and seize state power. Only in Russia was the national flag torn down and replaced by the red flag of communism.
The Bolsheviks won the people to their political programme and called for an uprising on the night of October 25th. The red flag was raised above the Winter Palace and the Provisional (bourgeois) government arrested. Days after victory, as thousands poured through the streets to Red Square, singing the Internationale—the song of the international proletariat—from atop the Kremlin wall gigantic red banners were unfurled down to the ground. Lenin spoke to the significance of the October Revolution “We have never made a secret of the fact that our revolution is only the beginning, that its victorious end will only come when we have lit up the whole world with these same flames of revolution.”
For the first time the proletariat and its vanguard party had captured state power, established the dictatorship of the proletariat and begun the socialist transition of society. This represented a historic leap for the international proletarian cause and historic mission of the proletariat.
The red flag of revolution and communism continued to be unfurled across the globe. With the victory of the Chinese revolution, the red flag flew over a quarter of humanity. And the red flag, its meaning and cause took on even greater importance after the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat in China, when the leader of that revolution, Mao Tsetung, along with a core of revolutionaries around him unleashed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao called on the masses of people to rise in revolution against forces in the Communist Party of China who were determined to take that country backward to restoring the rule of capitalism.
Today, the socialist revolutions in the former Soviet Union and China have been reversed. But the story of the red flag remains inseparable from the struggle of the oppressed and exploited, the goal of proletarian revolution, and the outlook of proletarian internationalism. (See Editorial “May 1: Another World—A Communist World—Is Possible!” on pg 3.)
As people engage in the sharp struggles of today it must be understood that there is a flag that represents the fundamental interests of the people, but it is not the flag of one nation. It is the red flag of communism and proletarian revolution. It is the flag that links the exploited and oppressed the world over as opposed to dividing them. It is the flag that represents the historic mission of the proletarian class to liberate itself and all of humanity. It represents lifting our heads up beyond the interests of any one nation, to a world without nations or borders. It represents casting our vision to the furthest horizon of a whole new world that is possible and necessary. The red flag is the flag of nothing to lose and a world to win—and it’s got to be more the case that when people rise up in struggle and rebellion they raise up the red flag!
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