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Red and the History of Leftist Politics

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Leftists revolutionaries have been wearing red for centuries, for reasons more complicated than “radical love.”

Scenes from a #ADayWithoutAWoman rally in New York City.
Photo: Scott Nelson

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Today, on International Women’s Day, women around the world are abstaining from work, marching, attending rallies, and even giving up household chores and childcare as part of an international general strike.

Though the general strike isn’t the creation of one organization, most of the events happening in the US suggest that women and men supporting the strike wear red. On the page for A Day Without A Woman — an International Women’s Day event created by the organizers of the massive Women’s Marches that happened the day after the inauguration — an FAQ says that red is symbolic of “revolutionary love and sacrifice.” It continues: “Red is the color of energy and action associated with our will to survive. It signifies a pioneering spirit and leadership qualities, promoting ambition and determination.” Finally, it adds that red “also has a history of being associated with the labor movement.”

Scenes from a #ADayWithoutAWoman rally in New York City.
Photo: Scott Nelson

Many, maybe most, of the women participating in strikes and protests today will go into them unaware of the history behind the color of their outfits. “Revolutionary love” softens the radical history of this color to an almost absurd degree. And that final sentence hardly covers the significance of the color red in labor and revolutionary movements. Unlike the Women’s March, which was notable for the sea of pink “pussy” hats that the crowds wore, the choice of red today is far from arbitrary.

The color red has been associated with revolutionary leftists movements for more than 200 years. It started with the first French Revolution. In the late 18th century, radical groups in France began to agitate to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic led by the people. The Jacobins and other radical groups began wearing red Phrygian caps, also known as “liberty caps,” modeled after hats worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. Women also wore the caps — most notably when observing the public executions by guillotine, which were common during the post-revolutionary Reign of Terror. These women, who routinely appeared to celebrate the death of counter-revolutionaries (or anyone else the regime decided to kill), were known as “furies of the guillotine.” As you might guess, these bloodthirsty women didn’t win much favor from critics. “Never in any age or any country did women so disgrace their sex,” scolded a dictionary from 1870 by compiler E. Cobham Brewer.

Scenes from a #ADayWithoutAWoman rally in New York City.
Photo: Scott Nelson

French revolutionaries continued to associate red with radical politics. In 1848, it became the color of the next French Revolution, as well as the banner of the Paris Commune, the socialist government that formed after Napoleon III’s defeat by Prussia in 1870. Their movement had a strong influence on Karl Marx as he formulated his ideology. Around the same time, newly formed socialist parties around Europe adopted red, often to symbolize the blood spilled by their comrades in the fight for justice.

In Russian, the root word for red (krasniy) is the same as the root word for beauty (krasota). It’s even possible that Moscow’s Red Square may not have been named for the color of the buildings, but to praise its beauty. This deep connection in the Russian language made red an obvious choice for the Bolsheviks’ flag. The conclusion of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and the hoisting of the red flag over the newly communist government, cemented the connection between red and communism that persists today. From then on, communist countries, from Cuba to China, used red to symbolize their politics.

Scenes from a #ADayWithoutAWoman rally in New York City.
Photo: Scott Nelson

The color red also played a big part in American anti-communist propaganda in the 20th century. During the “Red Scares,” first in the late 1910s and early ‘20s in reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution and then in the 1950s in response to the Cold War with the Soviet Union, American propaganda used color terminology to indicate their enemy. Often, communists were referred to as simply “reds.” In 1925, the term “Pinko” was coined to described communist sympathizers (a diluted form of pure-red communism). In 1949, a film starring Robert Rockwell called The Red Menace dramatized fears of communists inside the US. The color red appeared as much in anti-communist propaganda as it did in pro-communist literature in the countries where communism ruled.

Leftist movements continued to use red throughout the 20th century, whether at rallies on the workers’ holiday May Day or during the Spanish Civil War. After World War II, socialists and social democrats began using a blood-red rose as a symbol for their cause. This symbolism carries through to today. Organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America have gained prominence following the election, and rose emojis have popped up across the internet, particularly on the Twitter accounts of those who align themselves with the democratic socialist philosophy.

Photo: Scott Nelson

In 2000, two weeks before the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, an NBC anchor first referred to “blue states” and “red states.” In the tense months after the unsettled election, those terms caught on, confusing the traditional association between red and leftism. Trump’s iconic Make America Great Again hats carried on this opposite-day symbology. It made sense — red, the color of blood, and anger seemed apt to describe a party in a constant fit.

So it’s not hard to understand why women marching today, particularly young women, may have never seen the color red as a symbol of progressivism. Perhaps today we will reclaim red for the leftist cause — if anyone bothers to investigate why they are wearing it.