Sunday, February 12

The Red Flag

Because this week promises to be very busy, with a draft of a complicated brief to write and St. Valentine's Day obligations to fulfil, I am going to cheat and post some pieces I wrote over the last few years, while this site was dormant. Because of their age, these posts contain some anachronisms, which I have left unaltered.

The first was written on the occasion of the 2003 Labour Party Conference:

The people’s flag is deepest red/ It shrouded oft our martyred dead.” Not lyrics you would expect to hear at a mainstream political rally this side of 1970, or possibly Marin County, but this revolutionary call to arms will resound once more this week at the British Labour Party’s annual conference in Bournemouth. Long banished to the conference fringes, like a dipsomaniac uncle tasked with running “important” errands during the family reunion, the unrepentant Left wing of the party is itching to crash the main bash this year. They might be forgiven for thinking that the revival of the traditional party anthem, “The Red Flag,” heralds the end of their exile but, unfortunately for them and fortunately for their party, they would be wrong.

Under the leadership of Tony Blair, Old Labour became the innocuous, voter-friendly New Labour party by repudiating militant unionism and running to the political center. During the 1990s, New Labour undermined a lazy Conservative government by clearing out the musty fug of anti-capitalist rhetoric and opening its doors to a socially conscious but personally and professionally ambitious middle-class. Red banners onstage at party conferences were quietly replaced with neutral earthtones, calls for higher taxes and social levelling were replaced with policies promoting decentralized government and fiscal responsibility cribbed from the Conservative party handbook and “The Red Flag,” the nostalgic hymn to universal labour solidarity that had been the party’s anthem for seventy-five years, was quietly dropped from the party’s playlist.

But many in old Labour never signed up to the modernizing project. With nowhere else to turn politically, the hard socialist Left could not abandon the party, so it waited—sometimes patiently, sometimes not—for the shine of New Labour’s novelty to dull. Now, on the eve of his party’s conference, Tony Blair’s reputation is duller than a Clinton autobiography and he can no longer afford to alienate any faction of his party, so the “The Red Flag” will fly once more. At least some party faithful believe this is a sign of their long-awaited reprieve. Quoted in the Daily Telegraph, a member of Labour’s national executive council reverted to the argot of the campus agitator to welcome the return of “The Red Flag,” crowing “we could certainly do with a bit of that comradeship again. Also, perhaps next year we could have the Internationale.” Heck, come to think of it, those Gulags were rather handy too. But old Labour should not get ahead of itself; “The Red Flag” may prove a red herring.

At this point, it is worth reproducing the full text of the song for Americans (and New Labourites) unfamiliar with its message:

[Sung to the tune of “O Tannenbaum”]

The peoples flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high,
Within its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.

Look round, the Frenchman loves its blaze,
The sturdy German chants its praise,
In Moscow’s vaults its hymns are sung,
Chicago swell the surging throng.

It waived above our infant might,
When all ahead seemed dark as night,
It witnessed many a deed and vow,
We must not change its colour now.

It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last,
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.

It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man's frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.

With heads uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.

As a counterpane of clumsy doggerel and blood-soaked idealism, this ditty would have been a worthy fight song for Leningrad U (motto: “Re-education Is for Everyone”), but what should we make of its reappearance in Britain today? Not too much. If it means more than the retro-commie kitsch that adorns the dorms of upper-middle class students, it certainly portends less than its literal call for world revolution.

No rendition of “The Red Flag” can ignore the lessons of a century in which rule according the cause it espouses led inexorably to repression, poverty and human degradation, so in order to sing it without irony a new generation will have to find new echoes in the old lyrics. This should not be difficult and a parallel can be drawn from another locus of socialist revival in Britain: the Stop the War Coalition.

Groups such as Workers Power, The Communist Party of Britain (not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain, also an affiliate of the Stop the War Coalition) and the Revolutionary Marxist Group (for a full list of coalition affiliates, see www.stopwar.org.uk/groups.asp) have recently been enjoying a popularity undreamed of since the heady days of 1917. By taking the lead in the Stop the War movement, groups who a year ago were little more than flotsam and jetsam in an ideological backwater managed to attract well over a million antiwar protestors to their February rally in London. How was this possible? By backing war against Saddam Hussein, the Labour party leadership has driven a majority of its supporters temporarily into the arms of the old Left wing of its party and, in some cases, even further left. So, before the erstwhile communists get carried away with visions of barricades and guillotines, they should remember that their newfound support is really only support for the antiwar cause. Any residual endorsement of the other nonsense they espouse is an illusion; millions of otherwise sensible people have not converted to revolutionary Marxism overnight. They have, however been sufficiently mobilized by opposition to the war to play the part of the radical if it will catch the attention of their political leaders.

So it is with “The Red Flag” and Old Labour. Members of the red guard who have been waiting for “their” party to come back to them will have to wait a little longer. If the Labour party is to remain electable, it cannot return to a discredited economic system or social policies that frighten an overwhelmingly middle-class electorate. A return to the party’s roots in this post-Cold War era would be followed swiftly by a return to opposition status. Labour MPs know this and the party membership (with a few, dishonorable exceptions) knows it too. But that does not mean they are happy with the leadership that has brought them such success. Far from it. Because of the government’s actions in Iraq, they are hopping mad—so mad that they are willing to hop right into bed with those who would lead the party into irrelevance, if only for a brief fling to catch Blair and Brown’s eye again.

It is in this spirit that “The Red Flag” will be sung at this year’s Labour Party conference. The song’s internationalist flavor (nevermind that the song’s allusions are to the Paris Commune, German unionists and Russian Nihilists) will doubtless appeal to those who marched in support of France, Germany and Moscow’s antiwar position and its opaque invocation of “the hope of peace” and “human right” will resonate with paid-up members of the U.N. booster club. So an old warhorse will be recycled as the glue that binds Old and New Labour together in common opposition to the war. Continental-style multilateralism may have replaced universal socialism as modern delegates’ preferred foreign policy, but that won’t stop them giving “The Red Flag” a lusty welcome back and Tony Blair’s leadership a poke in the eye.