Correspondence

But Why the "Red Flag" of Revolution?

Letter From Paris

I have never been a flag-waver, nor felt much sympathy for howling mobs, particularly when bent on destruction. But since this year, 1989, marks the bicentennial of the world's first and most influential revolution (there is hardly a revolutionary notion or motif that cannot be traced back to Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Babeuf, and their spiritual ancestor, Rousseau), we might pause to ask ourselves how it is that the once royal, not to say imperial, color of red should in our time have come to symbolize the cause of the downtrodden proletariat. For it was during the revolutionary turmoil that accompanied the death of France's ancién regime that the red flag was first brandished, though not, curiously enough, by proletarians.

It is indeed a curious story, and one more proof of how, like words and everyday expressions, traditional symbols can be semantically inverted and invested with radically different meanings. For a long time red and its first cousin, crimson, were colors closely associated with authority and power. Two thousand years ago, when the tinctorial art was still in its infancy, crimson—or what the Romans called purpura—became the privileged color of successive emperors because of the extreme costliness of its production, the hue being derived from a Mediterranean shellfish that gave rise to the famous Tyrian dye. Later, the descendants of Saint Peter having inherited...

Join now to access the full article and gain access to other exclusive features.

Get Started

Already a member? Sign in here

X