The history of the red flag is a glorious one, and a lot of revolutionary events are enclosed within it. The red flag is a symbol of the working people and progressive sections of society. Yet, with the passing change of time, many myths have taken place of the history and character of the red flag, which is not entirely true. Some of them are only myths. One of such myths is that the flag was born during the Mayday events of 1886 in Chicago, which is far from the truth.
The red flag has become a worldwide symbol of social change. For some, it is a symbol of blood and for some it represents sacrifice. According to others, it symbolises a revolution. Despite these aspects being true, they do not fully explain exactly why the colour of the flag is red.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION AND THE FLAG
It is an interesting fact of history that before the French Revolution of 1789, the feudal ruling classes were already using flags of red colour. Red is an indicator of danger, and therefore, to announce the government’s order and declarations red flags were put up across the roads. When the great French revolution took place, power passed into the hands of the people and the bourgeoise. People openly began to use the red flag as their own. It became ‘people’s flag’.
THE COLOUR OF THE WORKING CLASS
By the beginning of the 19th century, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, capitalism was spreading rapidly in the developed countries of west and central Europe. Political consciousness spread with the increasing number of workers, leading to the formation of trade unions. An armed uprising took place in Paris in June 1832. A large number of workers, weavers, tailors, etc. participated in it. During the uprising, barricades came up in the narrow roads, lanes and armed workers clashed with the armed forces. On one such occasion, a red flag was hoisted over the barricade by workers. Thus it became the symbol of the working class. Marx and Engels have mentioned this incident. (See Marx-Engels, selected works, volume 1, note no. 104, in English, Marx’s article on ‘The Class Struggle in France’).
On 9th April 1834 in Lyon, a workers’ revolt began. The workers and intelligentsia jointly formed an organisation named ‘Human-rights’. The rebellious people appealed for freedom, equality and fraternity, and demanded the removal of the restriction on unions. Thus, in France by the 1830s, the red flag was already symbolizing the working class.
RED FLAG IN PARIS COMMUNE 1871
On 8th March 1871, workers, the mass of the people organised a general insurrection and captured power. The government fled from Paris. It is worth noting that the Red flag was hoisted on the Government Headquarters i.e. Hotel de Ville. Thus, the red flag became a symbol not only of the workers’ movement but also of its power. Besides, the commune was the product of the First International as well as the theories of Marx and Engels, according to them it was the first example of the worker’s rule.
MAYDAY AND THE RED FLAG
The use of red banners and flags had already become quite common in the American Labour movement, from where the celebration of labour day started long before May Day. In the second half of the 19th century, the American worker’s movement began to raise the demand for an eight-hour workday. The slogan was: 8 hours of work, 8 for rest, and 8 hours for recreation. Labour unions decided to celebrate 1 May 1884 as worker’s day in support of the demand for 8 hours working day. In 1886, 1st May, the labour unions of the USA decided to go on a country-wide strike. The preparations had begun in 1884 itself. There were widespread demonstrations against police brutality all over America as well as in European countries because of the deliberate act of provocation by the strike-breakers who supported the police and attacked the workers, where police resorted to open firing and many workers died. The administration filed false cases on 8 workers, held them guilty for the violence and awarded them death sentences. It was after many years that the administration admitted that the charged were false. This is how May Day became a regular international event. The red flag became a world-wide symbol of the working class.
HISTORY OF THE HAMMER & SICKLE
In Tsarist Russia, a workers’ political organisation named Emancipation of Labour Group was established in 1883 under the leadership of Georgi Plekhanov. It was through this organisation that Marxism was introduced in Russia. It educated the future leaders and theoreticians, Lenin being the most prominent of them. Russia suffered both from the development of capitalism as well as from its insufficient development. During the Russian Revolution of 1905, Lenin called for the unity of workers and peasants. The democratic revolution would not be carried out by the working class alone but on a united front with help from cooperating classes and sections, particularly the peasants. It was only during the revolution of 1905 that the mark of hammer and sickle was imprinted on the Red flag, which was the symbol of unity of workers and peasants. The Russian Revolution took place on the 7th of November 1917, led by the soviets. The revolution adopted the Red flag as the National flag of Soviet Russia. On this flag, a five cornered red star was put above the symbol of hammer and sickle. The meaning of this star was that the message of the Russian revolution is being communicated to all the five continents and all the corners of the world. The Russian revolution generated a lot of enthusiasm all over the world. The red flag became a symbol of the struggle for socialism, communism, revolution, freedom and basic changes in society. Today various countries like Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos have a red flag as their national flag.
RED FLAG IN INDIA
The red flag in India is directly related to the rise of industrial workers during British rule. It was in 1920 that the All India Trade Union Congress was founded in Bombay, Lala Lajpat Rai being the first president. According to reports, MayDay was celebrated in the Industrial town of Madras in 1923. The meetings were attended by a large number of workers. It was for the first time that the red flags were hoisted. Singaravelu and others addressed the workers. Later M. Singavarelu joined the Communist Party of India. It was he who presides over the foundation conference of CPI wherein the red flag with a hammer and sickle on it was adopted.
LONG LIVE THE WORKERS MOVEMENT! LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION!
Pearl Sharma is a student pursuing Law from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies.
Edited by: Malaika M Khan
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.