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In politics, a red flag is a symbol of Socialism, or Communism, or sometimes left-wing politics in general. It has been associated with left-wing politics since the French Revolution. Socialists adopted the symbol during the Revolutions of 1848 and it became a symbol of communism as a result of its use by the Paris Commune of 1871. The flags of several communist states, including China, Vietnam and the Soviet Union, are explicitly based on the original red flag. The red flag is also used as a symbol by some democratic socialists and social democrats, for example the Avami National Party (Pakistan), French Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Party of Germany. The Labour Party in Britain used it until the late 1980s. It was the inspiration for the socialist anthem, The Red Flag.
In the Middle Ages, ships in combat flew a long red streamer, called the Baucans, to signify a fight to the death. In one petition, a group of English sailors asserted that the Crown had no right to a share of the prize money earned from a Norman ship captured in 1293 because it had raised the Baucans. (Raising this streamer may have been a relatively novel practice at this time, since the writers feel the need to explain it.) By the 17th century, the Baucans had evolved into a red flag, or "flag of defiance." It was raised in cities and castles under siege to indicate that they would not surrender. "The red flag is a signal of defiance and battle," according to Chambers Cyclopedia (1727–41).
The red cap was a symbol of popular revolt in France going back to the Jacquerie of 1358. The color red become associated with patriotism early in the French Revolution due to the popularity of the Tricolour cockade, introduced in July 1789, and the Phrygian cap, introduced in May 1790. A red flag was raised over the Champ-de-Mars in Paris on July 17, 1791 by Lafayette, commander of the National Guard, as a symbol of martial law, warning rioters to disperse. As many as fifty anti-royalist protesters were killed in the fighting that followed. In response, the revolution created their own red flags to declare "‘the martial law of the people against the revolt of the court,’ under which all free men were to rally, all the republicans who had a friend, a son, a relative murdered on the Champ de Mars on July 17, 1791 to avenge."
Oddly inverting the original symbolism, the Jacobins protested this action by flying a red flag to honor the "martyrs' blood" of those who had been killed. The Jacobin Club ruled France during the Reign of Terror (1793–1794) and made the red flag an unofficial national emblem. However, the earlier Tricolor never lost its official status and regained popularity under Napoleon.
British sailors mutinied near the mouth of the River Thames in 1797 and hoisted a red flag on several ships. Two red flags flown by marchers during the Merthyr riots of 1831 in South Wales were soaked in calf's blood. The red flags of Merthyr became a potent relic following the execution of early trade unionist Dic Penderyn (Richard Lewis) in August 1831 despite a public campaign to pardon him.
During the Mexican siege of the Alamo in March 1836, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana displayed a plain red flag (approx. 10 feet square) from the highest church tower in Bejar. The meaning of this flag was not socialism: its meaning - directed to the Alamo defenders - meant "no surrender; no clemency."
At much the same time, the Liberal "Colorados" in the Uruguayan Civil War used red flags. This prolonged struggle at the time got considerable attention and sympathy from Liberals and revolutionaries in Europe and it was in this war that Garibaldi first made a name for himself and that he was inspired to have his troops wear the famous Red Shirts.
During the 1848 Revolution in France, Socialists and radical republicans demanded that the red flag be adopted as France's national flag. Led by poet-politician Alphonse de Lamartine, the government rejected the crowd's demand: "[T]he red flag that you have brought back here has done nothing but being trailed around the Champ-de-Mars in the people's blood in 91 and 93, whereas the Tricolore flag went round the world along with the name, the glory and the liberty of the homeland!"
The banner of the Paris Commune of 1871 was red and it was at this time that the red flag became a symbol of communism. The flag was flown at a May Day rally for an eight-hour workday in Chicago in 1886. A bomb blast killed a policeman and the Haymarket Eight were arrested and five were executed. This event, considered the beginning of the international labor movement, is still commemorated annually in many countries (although not in the U.S.) The red flag gained great popularity during the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Soviet flag, with a hammer, a sickle and a star on a red background, was adopted in 1923. Various Communist and socialist newspapers have used the name The Red Flag. In China, both the Nationalist Party-led Republic of China and the Communist Party-led People's Republic of China use a red field for their flags, a reference to their revolutionary origins.
In more recent times, social democratic parties have gravitated away from the Red Flag as a symbol. However, several European parties retain a "red square" symbol, including Germany's SPD and the Party of European Socialists. The building to have had a red flag flying for the longest period of time and to still have one is the Victorian Trades Hall in Melbourne, Australia. The flag has been flying for over a century.
The red flag was the emblem of the British Labour Party from its inception until the Labour Party Conference of 1986 when it was replaced by a red rose, itself a variant of the "Fist and Rose" then in wide use by left of center parties in Europe. The more floral red rose design has subsequently been adopted by a number of other socialist and social-democratic parties throughout Europe. Members of the party also sing the traditional anthem The Red Flag at the conclusion of the annual party conference. In February 2006 the Red Flag was sung in Parliament to mark the centenary of the Labour Party's founding. The flag was regularly flown above Sheffield Town Hall on May Day under David Blunkett's Labour administration of Sheffield during the 1980s, leading to Sheffield being labelled the People's Republic of South Yorkshire.
During the Red Scare of 1919-20 in the United States, many states passed laws forbidding the display of red flags, including Minnesota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and California. In Stromberg v. California, the United States Supreme Court held that such laws are unconstitutional. The current flag of Oklahoma dates to this period and was adopted because of the association of the first flag of Oklahoma, a white star on a red background, with socialism.
It has been common to find streets, buildings, businesses and product brands named after the Red Flag in nominally socialist countries. For example, a famous line of limousine cars manufactured by China FAW Group Corporation has the brand name of Red Flag.
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