By Gaither Stewart, Senior Editor of Cyrano’s Journal. Original dateline: 14 March, 2008 also published at Countercurrents.org. [This article is part of the Cyrano’s Virtual University Collection. This collection contains articles the editors over the years have felt to be foundational and insightful in expanding understanding of concepts and issues.]
Rome) [W]hen Italian Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer (1922-1984) spoke from the platform adorned in red banners raised on Piazza San Giovanni in Rome, a forest of red flags bearing the hammer and sickle waved over the great square in front of the Rome Cathedral, the traditional site of Italian Communist rallies. The entire event—place, objects, music, chants, language—was emblematic of the aspirations of Italy’s working class. Whatever Europe’s beloved Communist leader said was greeted with a furious agitation of flags, the raised clenched fist salute of solidarity and from loudspeakers bursts of the music of Bandiera Rossa (Red Flag). Italian Communist rallies are festive affairs, celebrated according to trusted rituals and symbols and a million voices singing the Internationale or Bandiera Rossa or Bella Ciao.
You have to be totally insensitive to ritual not to feel chill bumps down your spine when a million voices sing, Oh partigiano, portami via Oh bella ciao, bella ciao Bella ciao, ciao ciao.
Symbols of Italian Communism. Symbols for those who in Berlinguer’s time still had hopes for revolution. Now, today, with increasing frequency we hear the word “revolution” in America. The revolution in the making has been defined as the Third American Revolution—after those of 1776 and 1865. The atmosphere is coming to resemble the mood that swept across Europe in the 1970s and 80s when the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army Fraction in Germany and Direct Action in France launched their armed attacks on the state, in the conviction that they were the revolution’s vanguard.
Australian writer Desmond O’Grady describes in his Stages of the Revolution (Hardie Grant, Melbourne, 2004) the 1854 rebellion of gold miners on the Eureka field in the city of Ballarat, Victoria, who organized themselves in a stockade against the maladministration of the authorities. Some thirty people were killed when a scared government put the rebellion down. Some in the government thought it was a “democratic revolution,” and feared it foreshadowed a republic. Nowadays that Eureka stockade is still an inspiration for some for a different Australia. Some would like its flag to be the Australian flag.
The symbol of the Eureka Stockade is a flag, a flag that ignores the Union Jack. Instead, on a blue field a cross with stars at the extremities represents the Southern Cross seen so vividly in the Southern hemisphere—the original is still preserved as a symbol of rebellion.
Movements of resistance, rebellion, revolt and revolution have always been rich in slogans and rituals and symbols that can be more powerful and unifying than any speeches: the red flags and the hammer and sickle meant resistance; the names Red Brigades and Red Army Fraction and Direct Action meant revolt and revolution.
Fascism, always strong in symbols in an Italy in that period especially susceptible to symbolism, also considered itself a revolution. The poet and Mussolini mentor, Gabriele d’Annunzio, once attributed Fascism’s success to its symbols, to its songs, like Giovinezza, that Italians of that generation still recall.
There is a story of Hitler’s arrival at an Italian rail station—maybe it was Venice—frumpy and gauche in a crumpled raincoat, met by Italian Fascists in their pompous uniforms following strict Italo-Fascist rituals. Hitler was so impressed by the power of such symbolism that he decided on the whole mythological representation of Nazism, the uniforms, the nocturnal parades, the symbolic use of torches and the herald-like banners of militants on the Königsplatz in Munich and the other great squares in Nuremberg and Berlin.
D’Annunzio, by the way, also coined the slogan, Forza Italia (Let’s go, Italy), that became the name of the rightwing party created by Silvio Berlusconi.
This article is about the relationship between symbols and revolutionary ideas and the experience of some of history’s more successful revolutions, especially the one nearest us today, the Russian Revolution and its reflection in the rest of the world.
THE RED FLAG AND HAMMER AND SICKLE
Since ancient’s Rome’s slaves rose up against their oppressors many of the revolutionary symbols down through the centuries have been similar. For two spring months in the year 1871 the red flag waved over Paris. It became the symbol of the historical act of the prise du pouvoir, the seizing of power, by Socialists and Anarchists. Though it was simply the city authority, the conditions in which the Paris Commune was born and its bloody end made it an important link in the chain of events marking the development of workers’ resistance to traditional power. Their red flag stood for revolt, for blood shed. It symbolized the aspirations of the international proletariat for revolution against oppression and exploitation, which culminated in the Russian Revolution forty years later.
The Paris Commune itself has become a symbol of proletarian revolution. The mere mention today of the Paris Commune rings revolutionary to many ears.
Practically every human being is familiar with the hammer and the sickle and the red star, the most famous symbols of Communism and Communist parties. The symbiosis of the sickle and the hammer (serp and molot in Russian) adorning red flags illustrate the unity of industrial and agricultural workers in revolution. Not surprisingly, some members of the European Parliament have proposed a ban on the hammer and sickle symbol.
The red symbol is a favorite scarecrow, a bugaboo, used by Capitalism to maintain its power. The supposedly invincible “Red” Army poised to sweep over West Europe was the bugbear used by the USA to create the Cold War and its military instruments like NATO now in Afghanistan to fight “terrorism”.
The Russian born anarchist, Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), wrote in his major work, The Great French Revolution: “A revolution is infinitely more than a series of insurrections in town and country. It is more than a simple struggle between parties, however sanguinary; more than mere street-fighting, and much more than a mere change of government…. A revolution is a swift overthrow, in a few years, of institutions which have taken centuries to root in the soil, and came to seem so fixed and irremovable that even the most ardent reformers hardly dare to attack them in their writings. It is the fall, the crumbling away in a brief period, of all that up to that time composed the essence of social, religious, political and economic life in a nation. It means the subversion of acquired ideas and of accepted notions concerning each of the complex institutions and relations of the human herd. In short, it is the birth of completely new ideas concerning the manifold links in citizenship—conceptions, which soon become realities, and then begin to spread among neighboring nations, convulsing the world and giving to the succeeding age its watchword, its problems, its science, its lines of economic, political and moral development.”
The Italian writer and semiologist Umberto Eco defines revolution as “the sum total of a long series of revisions.” He writes, “society on the other hand has become a universe devoid of a center. Everything is periphery. There is no longer a heart of anything. Only romantic terrorists of the Red Brigades believed that the state had a heart and that it was vulnerable.”
In an interview with me, Eco said that Michel Foucault had elaborated the most convincing notion of power (against which revolutions explode) in circulation: “power is not only repression and interdiction but it is also incitement to speak…. Power is not one single power. It is not massive. It is not a unidirectional process between an entity that commands and its subjects. Power is multiple and ubiquitous. It is a network of consensuses that depart from below. Power is a plurality. Power is the multiplicity of relationships of strength.” Eco’s theory is that criticism of power has degenerated because that criticism became massive which in turn spawned ingenuous notions that power—the system—had one center, symbolized by the evil man with a black mustache manipulating the working class.
The French Revolution proved Kropotkin right. It had the effects he outlined. In that sense, the Paris Commune however was not a revolution; at most it was the tail end, the last throes of the French Revolution.
In the same manner, the aspirations of the European terrorist organizations last century pale in comparison to revolution; though ambitious, generous, idealistic and highly ideological, and based on the two pillars of an intellectual vanguard and workers, they were limited in scope and realism. Their only symbols were the pistol, the red flag and the five-pointed star. Nor were the objective conditions in modern United Europe ready for revolution. The Red Brigades’ chief, Alberto Franceschini, told me afterwards that they had truly believed the modern state had a heart and that they could strike it and turn history around.
The Red Brigades had learned many lessons from Russian revolutionaries. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky insisted that to make a revolution it is not enough that a movement of ideas should manifest itself only among the educated classes. Insurrections by the people do not make a revolution. Revolutionary action by the people must coincide with a movement of revolutionary thought among the educated classes. The two approaches to revolution were necessary: dedication and heart. The professional revolutionary Lenin created revolution with words; Trotsky was the revolutionary of the heart. There must then follow a union of the two, the people and the vanguard, as happened in England in 1640-1660, in France in 1789 and finally in Russia in 1917.
Recognition of the original international character of the Russian Revolution of 1917 is fundamental to understanding its success: “Workers of the world unite” was its slogan and the hammer and sickle the symbol. Lenin furthermore believed the Russian Revolution was doomed to defeat by capitalist counterrevolution unless it generated proletarian socialist revolutions in West Europe. Russian revolutionaries originally had no illusions that a revolution in Russia alone could succeed: permanent and international revolution was the key to victory. Therefore its internationalist slogans.
We have the example of the Cuban Revolution today. Though it overthrew the corrupt US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba faced U.S. sanctions and an entire Latin America dominated by U.S. capitalism. Despite the counter-revolutionary waves from the USA, the Cuban Revolution brought social progress to the people, universal health care and education and exported doctors and medical care to several African countries. Still today Argentineans and other Latin Americans go to Cuba for serious medical care. Cuba remains as a spiritual guide for the Left in Latin America.
Economically, Cubans continue to suffer because of the US embargo. Its problems lie in its isolation. As Lenin and Trotsky insisted in the early days of the Russian Revolution, Socialist revolution in one country is not possible. If impossible in huge Russia, how much more so in the island state of Cuba. Since it could rely only on the Soviet Union, after the disintegration of the USSR, Cuba’s economic sufferings have increased. Now, with Castro’s retirement, the capitalist world is ready to pounce.
However, times have changed. The emergence of the Left and diverse forms of Socialism in Latin America have created a new objective situation. Cuba is no longer in total isolation. Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua have elected pro-Cuban leftwing governments; much of the Mexican electorate has swung Left; Brazil, Argentina and Chile are now friendly states. ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), the Venezuelan creation to oppose the IMF, The World Bank and U.S. neo-liberalism in general. The figures of the freedom fighters Martí and Bolívar and Che Guevara are symbols of liberation from U.S. hegemony, in the same way the Cuban Revolution itself is a symbol of Latin American revolution. For this reason alone, the capitalist world is dedicated to crushing the Cuban Revolution. Cubans themselves however continue to favor Castro but, as happened in the Soviet Union, they suffer under the plague of Bureaucratism.
BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION AND UNIVERSAL BROTHERHOOD
Nicolas Berdyaev (b. 1874 in Kiev, d. 1948 in Paris) in his The Origin of Russian Communism, written in 1937 and published in English in 1960 as an Ann Arbor paperback by The University of Michigan Press, distinguishes between the Russian “Bolshevik” Revolution and Communism in the West, which he defines as a phenomenon of another sort.
Berdyaev recalls the legend that sprang up in Russia in the early years of the revolution about Bolshevism and Communism: in popular thought Bolshevism itself was a revolution of the Russian masses, “an inundation of the elemental forces of Russian nature.” But Communism was something foreign, Western; it was not Russian and was imposed upon the people’s revolution by a despotic organization. In the end, after years of chaos and recklessness, the unruly, nihilistic masses were disciplined and organized in the elemental force of the revolution by the “Communist” idea. The anarchy threatening Russia was checked, contained and absorbed by the Communist dictatorship.
One reason for the success of Bolshevism as defined above is that Russians were long a people but not a nation. The state symbolized by Orthodoxy and the double-headed eagle was always distant from the people, while their Tsar was a godlike “Little Father.” For that reason, as author and religious thinker Vladimir Weidle noted, the “dismaying abyss between upper-class culture and the culture of the people, contrasting with the harmonious unity of the ancient and autochthonous Orthodox culture.” But that unity, as we know today, turned out to be illusion.
Berdyaev, philosopher, religious existentialist thinker and prolific writer, who broke with Marxism and Bolshevism and left Russia for West Europe in 1922, wrote that Russian Communism was actually the transformation and deformation of the old Russian messianic idea of international brotherhood, and in that sense a reflection of the Russian religious mind.
On the one hand, history has demonstrated again and again that the Russian idea of universal brotherhood is utopian. Likewise the idea that workers of the world will unite is utopian. Milovan Djilas, the leading Yugoslav Communist and lifetime Socialist, noted after imprisonment for his dissidence in Tito’s Communist Yugoslavia: “The disintegration or change in Communist visions is both a vertical and a horizontal process and the restratification of society.” The disintegration he meant was vertical in the Communist idea itself, and in each party separately; horizontal, in that it underwent a multilateral breakaway in which the national parties separated from each other as well as from the Communist superpowers.
Besides Djilas’ striking insights on the birth and growth of “The New Class”, deprived of any ideology, in each Communist state, (and I would note that the new bureaucratic class in Yugoslavia itself had no symbols, no rituals, no slogans, or even admitted its existence as a class), he had in mind specifically Yugoslavia’s breakaway from Moscow and the divisions along ethnic lines in the multiethnic and multi-religious state of Yugoslavia. When I interviewed Djilas several times in Belgrade on the eve of the Balkan wars he outlined in advance the bloody breakup of Tito’s Yugoslavia into ferocious nationalism, which culminated with Kosovo’s separation from Serbia, executed by American imperialism.
Though Djilas’ analysis of the new class and the national paths to Communism were penetrating and based on his lifetime experience, I today do not accept his breakaway conclusion that Communism is therefore unsuitable for contemporary life. Moreover, I believe Djilas himself would revise many of his conclusions today in view of American globalization-imperialism.
Perhaps we today need to take another look at the slogan, Workers of the world, unite!
PERMANENT AND INTERNATIONAL REVOLUTION
What a difference it would have made if Trotsky had not gone to Mexico to meet his destiny. Oh, Leon, don’t go to Mexico! Leo! Don’t! Vladimir!—Pardon, Ilyich—watch out for the Man of Steel. Watch out! How a few words of one person, a decision, a false step, can change the course of human events. But they don’t listen to reason, the revolutionaries. They have minds and hearts of their own.
Pictures of Marx, Lenin and Mao Zedong remain as emblems of the philosophy of Communism. Today, as a result of the tightening U.S. encirclement of “post-Communist” Russia, huge portraits of Lenin mushroom on Red Square while parades of missiles pass before surprised crowds, many of whom are too young to have seen the First of May parades of the Soviet era. In view of US pressure on Russia, I would bet that this year’s May 1 parade will be the biggest and most symbolic since 1989. And, as many do, I hope for a revival of a Russia, Holy or Profane, in order to control rampaging and loony Washington.
The philosopher Berdyaev envisioned what latterday West European Communists came to believe as they saw the degeneration of the Soviet model into Bureaucratism: despite its basis in Marxism, Communism in West Europe is truly an entirely different matter. Communism elsewhere, Berdyaev predicted, would be less integrated, more secular and less likely to try to take the place of religion, and most likely more bourgeois. (The latter emphasis reflects the typical Russian characteristic, which Berdyaev shared, of the “differentness” of the Russian people and the resulting Asiatic quality of Russian Communism.)
In that sense, I disagree with the debunking of Western Communism-Socialism and Euro-communism of the 1970s. The West is not Asiatic. Nor is it Russia. Italian Communists came to realize in the late 1960s after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that it had no need of the Russian brand of Communism. On the other hand, I do not accept that “Russian” Communism was the reason for the failure of the Socialist attempt in Russia. That is to be found in the Bureaucratism of which Trotsky warned and the relentless Western interventions in the Soviet Socialist state.
Considering especially the Russian experience in retrospect, one realizes the immensity of the word “revolution”. The revolutionary vanguard of the educated and politically aware faces enormous challenges—such as ridding the people of their illusions and false consciousness of what their society is in reality. Nothing has changed in the fundamentals: somehow the vanguard must transmit its revolutionary message to the masses in order to create a mass awakening, to radicalize the masses and to create a new consciousness.
One such message today is the phony nature of elections in the USA and in much of Europe and on the other hand the “idea” of a different kind of democracy, which is alive among Western people.
SOME BASIC TERMS
BOURGEOISIE: The European bourgeoisie is not to be confused with the American Middle Class. They might be similar but they are not the same thing. Italy and France are largely bourgeois states while the USA is middle class. The European bourgeoisie has created more culture, while in the USA, most probably because of social mobility (rapidly vanishing), culture and art can come from anywhere.
Since the rebellious years after 1968, Europe shows less fixed class relationships. Europe is again rich. As a result its daily life is more “bourgeois”. Within that bourgeoisie are the highly educated classes of yesterday. The politico-revolutionary vanguard derives from that class. Therefore from within that class emerge the thinking and movements for drastic social change. Still, though considered somewhat outdated today, the term bourgeoisie still packs a wallop as used by the Left in Europe and the USA to depict the society the Left opposes.
Marx used the word bourgeoisie to describe the class of capitalist society, which existed by exploiting the labor of the working class. In Marxist terms, the bourgeoisie plays an essential role in history by its revolutionizing of industry and modernizing of society. Moreover, by its inevitable exploitation of the workers it creates the tensions necessary to ignite the revolution. Bourgeoisie thus became a term of abuse on the Left for its enemies—“bourgeois values” and “bourgeois democracy.” (See the first article in this booklet, Bourgeoisie)
Though Lenin, like Marx, fostered the idea of a bourgeois revolution to precede the proletarian revolution, he continued to detest bourgeois reformists as procrastinating and pusillanimous, a yoke that ultimately had to be done away with. In the meantime however the bourgeoisie was an “ally” of the working class in its revolutionary aspirations. For the working class it was more advantageous if bourgeois democracy came about by way of revolution rather than reformism; it was a question of speed. The revolutionary way, the professional revolutionary Lenin believed, is quick amputation of the putrid parts of society. After the real revolution there would be no place for them in the new society.
Finally, in Europe, the bourgeoisie was guilty of permitting if not creating Fascism in order to preserve its social hegemony, private property and the capitalist system, threatened by the Revolution that Western Socialists were however never able to execute. For the European bourgeoisie, Fascism was merely an annoyance that saved their system. In that sense, Fascism and Capitalism controlled and protected each other mutually against the working class.
In the USA, middle class refers chiefly to the economic class situated between the poor and the upper rich class—in effect, the capitalists. Today however the increasingly impoverished middle class has in many cases sunk to levels nearer those of the poor. The more economically impotent they become, the more politically disenfranchised they feel; yet, surprisingly, one notes little solidarity between middle class and poor, nor inclination toward revolt of either. The middle class supported capitalism in the creation of neocon America. Receptive listeners to the revolutionary message tend to be on the fringes.
Lionel Trilling defined middle class in relation to the government. From the ruling or governing class one scales down to the lowest classes which are cut out totally from any relation with the government. The middle class, situated midway between the two, continues to believe—in its overwhelming false consciousness—that the government exists for it and for its interests. It seems to me that the major target for proponents of radical change should be precisely those deaf and dumb, ignorant and obtuse, super patriotic middle classes.
LIBERALS: Of Liberals, Leo Tolstoy wrote: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means, except by getting off his back.” In a similar vein, Lionel Trilling wrote that, “Liberals and Progressives know that the poor are our own equal in every sense except that of being equal to us.” Even Mussolini said, “a Liberal State is a mask behind which there is no face.”
Often intolerant and extremist and sanctimonious in their limited views, Liberals can take strong stands on minor community improvements; they can work themselves into a fury and campaign relentlessly and join sit-ins and carry placards concerning, let’s say, how the local school yard is to be used on weekends or about alternate days for trash pickup, and still ignore the concept of social justice for all. Viewed from the distance, I therefore am dubious about so-called grassroots activities: naturally they are welcome, but I suspect in the long run, harmless. No wonder Power as a rule lets them sit-in, sit-out, march and carry little placards.
As Berdyaev showed, Liberals are the opposite of the Russian’s striving for world brotherhood. In the final analysis, Liberals, at the most only potentially revolutionary, are Power’s ally and stand in the way of drastic social change.
SLOGANS, SYMBOLS AND RITUALS
To read of the Russian Revolution today is to read a continuing story of symbols and signs. The victorious Bolsheviks raised their red flag over the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in October of 1917. In subsequent days workers poured onto Red Square, Krasnaya Ploschad, singing the song of the international proletariat, the Internationale. In the Russian language, the word for red, krasny, also means beautiful. When Russian revolutionaries overthrew Tsardom, they raised a red flag, a “beautiful” red flag, and named Moscow’s famous square Red or Beautiful Square, making red the color of Communism.
Since the price of revolution is also marked in blood, the red color takes on a special significance in the international workers’ movement. The red flag represents revolutionary aspirations of the oppressed in revolt against established power and injustice. The red flag meant battle already two thousand years ago for Rome’s legionnaires. As did the slaves of Rome, also peasants in revolt in south-central Germany in 1525 waved the red flag. Red—like a red stop light—is also a warning to counter-revolutionaries: danger, fire, stop.
The red color, the red star, the red flag came to symbolize the aspirations of people of the world for a new kind of freedom. Those symbols are international. They are the symbols of resistance, rebellion and revolution. Each time people somewhere in the world rise up against illegitimate power and oppression, they raise the red flag.
Whether or not they have ever been inside a factory, sensitive people sympathize with one of the most effective slogans ever invented: Workers of the world, unite!
Trotsky, writing of the effects of the revolution in St. Petersburg, then named Petrograd, noted that revolution had made millions of people spring to their feet. Russians were in a fever to unite, a very common Russian feeling. The slogans and manifestos, the names of their press organs, Pravda (Truth) and Vperiod (Forward), proclaimed a new reality, a new era. The slogan, All power to the Soviets, exhorted the passing of power to the people while their red flag soared over the Winter Palace.
Russia’s major poet after Pushkin, Aleksandr Blok, wrote his greatest poem, Dvenadtsat’ (The Twelve, 1918) about the Russian Revolution. In the poem a band of twelve Red guardsmen, apostles of destruction, march in the first winter of Bolshevik Russia through the icy streets of Petrograd, looting and killing. They are led by a Christ figure, “crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls, / a flowery diadem of frost,” who appears beneath a red flag. The poem sold some two million copies in three years, was on the Vatican index and was long banned in Fascist countries. Also the Russian Futurists were fascinated with dynamism, speed, and restlessness of modern urban life which revolution promised. They sought to arouse controversy and to attract publicity by repudiating static art of the past. Like the Bolsheviks, they wanted to change everything.
Change was in the air everyone breathed, in each slogan, in each symbol, in each ritual. Such were the times. Such is the atmosphere of revolution.
A revolutionary movement needs its symbols and rituals reflecting its ideology. No movement is political without an ideology. Thus we don’t mock symbols. We need symbols. They encourage the vanguard and work wonders on the people. Therefore, Power takes a dimmer view of symbols than of Liberals’ demonstrations and manifestations and sit-ins.
The Internationale never fails to stir emotions; it keeps alive the spark. I once saw on Italian TV an Irish dance group of some twenty persons dressed in traditional black, shoulder to shoulder across the stage, performing their beautiful coordinated Irish dance to a modern version of the Internazionale!
‘So comrades, come rally, And the last fight let us face, the Internationale unites the human race.’
I was so swept up at the modernity, the fast music, and the tap tap tap in rhythm with the Internationale, that I telephoned the TV studios to learn where I could get a copy of it.
Nothing! No one had ever heard of it. Irish dancers? La Internazionale? On state TV? Nothing. Somehow it got there by an oversight.
The song of Italian leftwing partisans in World War II, Bella Ciao, today, in this 2008 electoral campaign also in Italy, stirs the hearts of the Left … and irritates the Right. It creates tensions because of its echoes and distinct effects. Any time, any place it sounds, people join in at the top of their voices.
He wakes up one morning and finds an invader in his land and they sing:
Oh partigiano, portami via Oh bella ciao, bella ciao Bella ciao, ciao ciao E se io muoio da partigiano Morto per la libertá.”
(Oh, partisan, carry me away, Oh, beautiful girl, ciao, ciao, ciao. And if I die as a partisan, dead for freedom. Oh bella ciao ciao ciao, etc.)
Likewise Bandiera Rossa (The Red Flag), the song of Italian Communists: bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa trionferà. The red flag will triumph!
Every society makes some objects sacred—totems, animal images, gods, holy books, flags, or concepts such as freedom or democracy. A society’s sense of its own special identity depends also upon the boundaries between what is sacred and what is profane. The profane world is ordinary but sacred objects (flags) and times (revolution) and even places (Red Square) are sacred, protected by taboos and reinforced by ceremony and ritual—and in some cases by prayer and pledges. The ceremony and rituals are intended to bond members of the society and guarantee its survival. Flags thus bear the value the society gives them. Symbols inspire devotion and loyalty among those who identify with them.
Such are the reasons for the commotion about the Pledge of Allegiance in the USA and prayers in public schools in Italy or Islamic girls wearing veils in France. The flag arouses passions because it underlines identity and purpose, successes and failures as a people. For Socialists, the red flag arouses the same emotions as the stars and stripes for most Americans. For Socialists it symbolizes brotherhood and social justice; for many Americans, the flag symbolizes ideals such as liberty, equality, and justice for all.
In theory, to pledge allegiance to the flag was to honor those ideals as well as the American institutions that upheld them. However, today, for other Americans, the flag evokes awareness of the gap between those ideals and the realities of Americanism such as racism, imperialism and war. For those people to pledge loyalty to the symbol of today’s America smacks of hypocrisy and chauvinism.
Some slogans and rituals are universal and are used for better or worse by all regimes. For example, “general elections”. Even one-party systems count on the fiction of elections. Every man can express his democratic vote! Fascism too used elections to arrive at Power. Late Soviet Communism used elections to satisfy the fundamental human desire to pretend to choose. The U.S. one-party system guarantees its democratic façade with the charade of a phony two-party system and elections that guarantee continuous electoral campaigning and provide the platform for debating the ephemeral differences between Obama and Hillary.
The Russian Revolution is a symbol itself, its own symbol, the symbol of revolutions to come. It reinforced the Leninist image and idea of the power of the working class. The heart of Leninism was that only the masses can make a revolution. Yet, as he outlined in his famous pamphlet, What Is To Be Done, it had to be led by a small group of professional revolutionaries like Lenin himself. Other revolutionary icons such as Rosa Luxemburg and also Karl Marx adhered to the same theory. Lenin believed that the proletariat included the entire working class. It would form the Soviets, which in turn would provide the necessary minimal administration of society.
That is, the Soviets made up of the simple people hurtled into power over huge Russia. Mass support of the working class was the key. This “naïve period” of Leninism was thus “Sovietist.” Not so for his follower, Stalin, I might add.
Leninism was only gradually overcome in Russia and supplanted by insistence on the role of the Party together with the vanguard. Its role was to educate the working class. Abroad, Lenin pushed toward United Fronts with other Left parties in Europe to gain that mass support. Decades later, the combination of such policies morphed into European Communism, with which Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party in 1921, became associated.
Earlier than others of his generation, the Marxist, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and a major Marxist thinker, took a distance from Leninism and its emphasis on the revolutionary vanguard party. He knew nothing of Lenin until 1917 and Lenin had never even heard of Gramsci. Leninism was only one ingredient in Gramsci’s theory for social change. Though Leninism is now largely history, Gramsci’s contributions to Socialist thought are intact. Leninism is widely considered demagogy, the opposite of Gramscian intellectual pursuit and culture.
In Gramscian thinking, revolutionary violence is not the only way to change things. He supported political action to challenge the hegemony of the capitalist class. Though a revolutionary, Gramsci did not advocate any kind of totalitarian Weltanschauung. He amended Marx’s conviction that social development originates only from the economic structure; Gramsci’s distinction of culture was a major advance for radical thought, and it still holds today.
Though the Stalinist brand of Communism in East Europe failed and those states disappeared, the European Right—in Italy, France, Spain, Greece— continues to raise the specter of the “Communist” threat to “family” and “our values.” In the minds of many non-Communists, Communism is still associated with the former USSR.
Yet Communistic ideas are as old as man: a social system characterized by the community of goods and the absence of private property. Such ideas marked the organization of the first Christian communities. Communism first appeared in ancient Greece advocating the community of all goods. In the Nineteenth century Communistic ideas inspired reformists all over Europe, ideas of equality and the abolition of private property.
Today, many Communist slogans sound more utopian than threatening. Communism itself is nearly a myth, abstract even in countries that call themselves Communist, like China. Yet, Gramsci has particular significance for people ready to battle for radical change in America. In his last years he wrote about the role of intellectuals as organizers of revolutionary practice according to which revolution is only made by organized, self-conscious masses of men. Radical thinkers and activists in the USA would do well to examine closely Gramscian theories.
Trotsky too, in a like manner, in his The New Course, summed up with the paradox that, “History is made by men, but men do not always make history consciously, not even their own.”