The Evolution of Communist Symbolism

The emblem used by Communist Party of Britain

The emblem used by Communist Party of Britain

The Communist Party USA's logo

The Communist Party USA’s logo

...and finally, the Communist Party of Ireland's flag

…and finally, the Communist Party of Ireland’s flag

Above are three examples of the way in which communist imagery is used today, showing how some traditional symbols – the hammer and sickle, for instance – have been adapted to represent further ideas (as in the Communist Party of Britain’s emblem, in which the dove symbolises peace), or perhaps simply for artistic individuality (as would appear to be the case in the Communist Party USA’s logo).

Yet whist considerably different from similar imagery used sixty, seventy or eighty years ago, the same kind of images are portrayed. The colour red, the hammer and sickle, and, though not actually portrayed in the images above, the communist star, have certainly survived the test of time as the international symbols of radical socialism, which is interesting, since many of the ideas behind such imagery relate more closely to the conditions where they developed than they do to communism itself. The hammer and sickle, for example, developed in revolutionary Russia to represent a union between the Russian peasantry and the industrial proletariat, and whilst the colour red did have an association with revolutionary leftism in Europe prior to 1917, it is also deeply associated with Russian culture (the Russian word for the colour red (красный) is very similar to the word meaning ‘beautiful’ (красивый). As for the five-pointed star, there are different theories about its origins, with some believing that the five points represent the five continents, yet others, that they represent the five groups which would overthrow the Russian tsar, these being the peasantry, the industrial workers, the soldiers, the intelligentsia, and the youths.

Either way, we can definitely see a trend developing here; much of what we associate with communism worldwide is actually more closely associated with an individual country than anything else, relating to specific ideas that would only apply to the USSR. Yet this hasn’t stopped the exportation of these ideas internationally, not only among the socialist nations but through communist parties and movements operating within capitalist countries, from Peru to South Africa. So the question I’ll be answering today is this: how have these icons, often specific and relevant only to the revolutionary movement in the Russian Empire, been adapted to the multiple conditions in which they have been used?

Throughout the Twentieth Century…

I’ll start with the flag of China, the second country to experience a successful, independent revolution. This flag features one large star in the top-left-hand corner, surrounded to the right by four smaller stars against a red background. The stars are yellow and the background is red, both of which are colours used in the Soviet flag, yet if you look carefully, you’ll notice that the red background is a lighter shade on the Chinese flag than on that of the Soviet Union.

According to the website World Atlas, the large star represents communism, whilst the four smaller stars represent the social classes in China. Apparently, the total number of stars (five) ‘reflect the importance placed on the number five in Chinese thought and history’.

In this case, the hammer and sickle doesn’t make an appearance, though it is obvious that communist connotations have been used, with the design creatively blending socialist imagery with features of Chinese society and culture. Such a trend can also be seen in the designs and emblems of both communist movements and countries of that time period…

Here, the flag used by Yugoslavian Partisans during World War II is almost identical to that of the former Yugoslavian Kingdom, with only the single addition of the red star signifying communist ideology. Whilst, like the flag of China, it does seem to combine Marxist and national imagery, it appears to place a heavier emphasis on national, rather than communist identity. Since the red background is also present on the flag of Albania prior to communism, the same can be said for that of the Democratic Government of Albania.

We can see from these examples how the revolutionary movement in the twentieth century has brought about a whole new wave of art, displaying the merging of political and cultural symbols; the combination of national and international imagery, which can perhaps be seen most clearly in the flags of these revolutionary countries. But, if this is largely the case in the 1900s, what about the communist movement after the turn of the century?

After the Fall of Communism…

It’s difficult to find political examples of socialist imagery after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism in Europe, though certain parties and organisations around the world appear to have followed in the same national/communist trend, such as the Communist Party of Belarus (the logo of which is displayed below which superimposes the star, the hammer and sickle, and the open book on the outline of the country) and others (like those displayed at the beginning) have adapted such symbols in their own, individual ways.

Communist_Party_of_Belarus_Logo

Other than these small organisations, however, socialist art hasn’t exactly flourished; no new communist states have arisen, and the now-greatly-diminished communist world hasn’t made any great cultural contributions since 1991, although one interesting change did occur…

After the end of the Cold War, communism gradually became ever less of a threat to the stability of society. As a result, the culture of hatred that developed around the idea began to wear away, and people began to analyse Marxism from a more open, more casual perspective, creating a generation who looked to the left in what is perhaps a more superficial way.

This gave rise to a bizarre blatantly ironic commercial industry, one which I’ve already mentioned in my entry ‘The Commercialisation of Communism’, that exploited a range of communist symbols (often bringing them back from history’s grave) for profit-making purposes.

Cuban Revolution T-shirt

Following On…

When it comes to the future of such an art, who knows what will arise (or what won’t)? We live among certain symbols and icons which change all the time, like party logos, and some that have stuck around for thousands of years, like the cross of Christianity, and it’s interesting to imagine which path communism will travel down. Assuming some change occurs, one (by this I mean I) could waste hours of time predicting the symbols and icons that will develop communist connotations. Quite possibly, in a world where capitalism has undergone significant evolution, the hammer – representing the industrial worker – may no longer be applicable, yet what will replace it is down to the future conditions to follow.

On second thoughts, perhaps we’ll stick with the classic imagery of the 1900s, with both movements and countries worldwide reluctant to alter the icons which contain in them such a great deal of history. After all, there’s certainly something unifying about these symbols and the ideas contained within them, and it’s hard to imagine that this will be simply forgotten. In the words of John Thune, ‘I believe our flag is more than just cloth and ink. It is a universally recognized symbol that stands for liberty, and freedom.’ If the communist movement felt the same about their beloved red banner, perhaps we’ll still see these icons around and about hundreds of years into the future.

If change does occur, however, I’m willing to bet that any future development of communist symbolism will stick to the same theme, this being inequality; I think we’ll still see imagery, like the hammer and sickle, that glorifies the exploited class in whatever scenario is then present. This may be in the form of an icon representing their suffering or exploitation, or a tool they are associated with, which represents their labour, be it a robot or laser gun (insert any future gadgets or technologies you find to be appropriate here) but given that communism, by its very nature, emancipates the weak and exploited, I’m certain that it’ll be these people who inspire any future art of the revolution.

256px-Minimalistic_ray_gun_logo

Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing the result.

For any further reading, I’d like to recommend to you the following site: http://maoist.wikia.com/Communist_symbolism

Whilst not a Maoist, I felt that this website gave an insightful description of many of the concepts which I talked about today, and also some which I have not, such as the flag adopted by the Worker’s Party of Korea.

The image of the logo used by the Communist Party USA was provided by Communist Party USA from Wikimedia Commons (though this is not to say they endorse this blog or my use of their work), and was licensed under the following: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en

The image of the logo used by the Communist Party of Belarus was created by Xanadao from Wikimedia Commons, and was licensed under the following: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode

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