Why Are Communists Red?

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March 20 2012 7:06 PM

Why Do Communists Love Red?

Was it Marx’s favorite color?

Chinese women militia march past Tiananmen
Chinese women militia march past Tiananmen Square during the National Day parade celebrating 60 years of communist rule in 2009 in Beijing

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images.

The popular Chinese official Bo Xilai has been ousted by China's Communist Party. Bo became famous in part through his “red” campaign, in which he promoted "a retro-Maoist culture in which citizens sang patriotic songs and dressed in red." Why do communists love red?

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

Because it's the color of revolution. Starting during the rise of the radical Jacobins during the French Revolution, red flags symbolized uprisings against entrenched authority. The revolutions of 1848 furthered the trend, as they began with red flags foisted in France and continued with others in Germany, Denmark, Italy, Austria, and Poland. The Communist Manifesto was published the same year, and its followers fought under the same red flags as the democrats and anarchists.

The red flag didn’t always represent popular uprising. Earlier, it was a symbol of emergency, and was used to signal the need for martial law. When a crowd petitioned to depose King Louis XVI in 1791, the red flag was flown not by the revolutionaries but by the counterrevolutionaries. The writer and historian Thomas Carlyle described how the crowds let out a great “howl of angry derision” at the sight of it. Similarly, when in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens describes how the crowds were “tumultuous under a red flag and with their country declared in danger,” he’s describing the flag of the authorities.

In any case, the first Marxist regime to make red its official color was the Paris Commune, which ruled over Paris very briefly in 1871. (They flew the red flag rather than the French tricolor.) Soon Marx became known to his opponents as “the Red Terror Doctor.” As fear of the red menace set in, Prussian police banned the use of the color “on the first letters of banners in demonstrations.” The young townsmen of the Pyotr Lavrov’s “Going to the People” movement in 1874 wore “red shirts and baggy trousers” as they went to live with the peasants. By 1889 the colored banner was inspiring young socialists to break out in songs, like “The Red Flag” by Irish socialist and journalist Jim Connell in 1889. The lyrics express the sanguinary symbolism of the flag: The people's flag is deepest red,/ It shrouded oft our martyr'd dead/ And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,/ Their hearts' blood dyed its ev'ry fold.”

With the Bolsehvik Revolution in 1917 and the rise of the Red Army, the color became a global phenomenon. Italy experienced the uprisings of its Biennio Rosso, or “Two Red Years,” starting in 1919. The United States had its First Red Scare from 1919 to 1920, with the New York Times warning of the “Red Peril.” By the 1950s the fear of socialism reached such a pitch that the Cincinatti Reds baseball team changed their name to the Redlegs, to avoid any confusion. Even in democracies today the color red is commonly associated with liberalism, such as in the U.K.’s Labor party. (The Conservative party’s official color is blue.) The American association of Republicans with red and Democrats with blue seems to have only been established since the 2000 election.

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