Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov

Symbolism, ideology and revolution - 6 February, 2009

Continued. Read Part I of the article here


Marx used the symbolic word bourgeoisie to describe the capitalist class that existed by exploiting the labor of the working class. In Marxist terms, bourgeoisie plays an essential role in history by its revolutionizing of industry and modernizing of society. By its inevitable exploitation of the workers it creates the tensions necessary to ignite the revolution. Bourgeoisie became a term of abuse on the Left for its enemies—“bourgeois values” and “bourgeois democracy.”

Though Lenin like Marx fostered the idea of a bourgeois revolution to precede the proletarian revolution, he detested bourgeois reformists as pusillanimous, a yoke that had to be done away with. Meanwhile however the bourgeoisie was an “ally” of the working class in its revolutionary aspirations. For the working class it was more advantageous if bourgeois democracy came about by way of revolution rather than reformism; it was a question of speed.

Finally, in Europe, the bourgeoisie was guilty of permitting if not creating Fascism in order to preserve its social rule, private property and the capitalist system, threatened by the Revolution. For the European bourgeoisie Fascism was merely an annoyance that saved their system. In that sense, Fascism and Capitalism controlled and protected each other mutually against the working class.

In the USA, middle class refers chiefly to the economic class situated between the poor and the upper rich class, in effect, the capitalists. Today, the increasingly impoverished middle class has sunk to levels nearer that of the poor. The more economically impotent they become, the more politically disenfranchised they feel; yet, surprisingly, one notes little solidarity between middle class and poor, nor real inclination toward revolt of either. The middle class supported capitalism in the creation of neocon America. Listeners to the revolutionary message tend to be on the fringes.


Of Liberals, Leo Tolstoy wrote: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means, except by getting off his back.” Even Mussolini said, “A Liberal State is a mask behind which there is no face.”

Often intolerant, extremist and sanctimonious in their limited views, Liberals take strong stands on minor community improvements; they can work themselves into a fury and campaign relentlessly and join sit-ins concerning, let’s say, how the local school yard is to be used on weekends or about alternate days for trash pick-up, and still ignore the concept of social justice for all. Therefore I am dubious about grassroots activities: naturally they are welcome, but I suspect in the long run harmless. No wonder Power as a rule lets them sit-in, sit-out, march and carry little placards. As Berdyaev showed, Liberals are the opposite of the Russian striving for world brotherhood. In the final analysis, Liberals, at the very most only potentially revolutionary, are Power’s ally and stand in the way of drastic social change.

Slogans, symbols and rituals

To read of the Russian Revolution today is to read a continuing story of symbols and signs. The victorious Bolsheviks raised their red flag over the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in October of 1917. In subsequent days workers poured onto Red Square singing the song of the international proletariat, the Internationale. In the Russian language, the word for red, krasny, also means beautiful. When Russian revolutionaries overthrew Tsardom, they raised a red flag, a “beautiful” flag, and named Moscow’s famous square Red or Beautiful Square, making red the color of Communism.

Since the price of revolution is marked in blood, the red color has special significance in the international workers’ movement.The red flag represents revolutionary aspirations of the oppressed against injustice. The red flag meant battle already two thousand years ago for Rome ’s legionnaires. As did the slaves of Rome, also peasants in revolt in south-central Germany in 1525 waved the red flag. Red is a warning to counter-revolutionaries: danger, fire, stop. The red color, the red star, the red flag came to symbolize the aspirations of people of the world for a new kind of freedom. Each time people rise up somewhere in the world against illegitimate power and oppression, they raise the red flag.

Trotsky, writing of the effects of the revolution in St. Petersburg, noted that revolution had made millions of people spring to their feet. Russians were in a fever to unite, a very Russian feeling. The slogans and manifestos, the names of their press organs, Pravda (Truth) and Vperiod (Forward), proclaimed a new reality, a new era. The slogan, All power to the Soviets, exhorted the passing of power to the people while their red flag soared over the Winter Palace.

One of Russia’s major poets, Aleksandr Blok, wrote his greatest poem, Dvenadtsat' (The Twelve, 1918) about the Russian Revolution. In his poem a band of twelve Red guardsmen, apostles of destruction, march in the first winter of Bolshevik Russia through the icy streets of Petrograd. They are led by a Christ figure, “crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls, / a flowery diadem of frost,” who appears beneath a red flag. The poem sold some two million copies in three years, was on the Vatican index and was long banned in Fascist countries. Change was in the air everyone breathed, in each slogan, in each symbol, in each ritual. Such were the times. Such is the atmosphere of revolution. A revolutionary movement needs its symbols and rituals reflecting its ideology. We need symbols that encourage the vanguard and work wonders on the people. Therefore, Power takes a dimmer view on symbols than on Liberals’ demonstrations and manifestations and sit-ins.

The song of Italian partisans in World War II, Bella Ciao, still stirs the hearts of the Left … and irritates the Right. It creates tensions because of its echoes and distinct effects. Any time it sounds, people join in at the top of their voices.

He wakes up one morning and finds an invader in his land and they sing:

Oh partigiano, portami via

Oh bella ciao, bella ciao Bella ciao, ciao ciao

E se io muoio da partigiano

Morto per la libertá.”

(Oh, partisan, carry me away, Oh, beautiful girl, ciao, ciao, ciao. And if I die as a partisan, dead for freedom. Oh bella ciao ciao ciao, etc.)

Every society makes some objects sacred—totems, animal images, gods, holy books, flags, or concepts such as freedom or democracy. A society's sense of its identity depends also upon the boundaries between what is sacred and what is profane. The profane world is ordinary. But sacred objects (flags) and times (revolution) and even places (Red Square) are sacred, reinforced by ceremony and ritual. The ceremony and rituals are intended to bond members of the society. Symbols inspire devotion and loyalty among those who identify with them.

Such are the reasons for the commotion about the Pledge of Allegiance in the USA and prayers in public schools in Italy or Islamic girls wearing veils in France. The flag arouses passions because it underlines identity and purpose, successes and failures as a people. For Socialists, the red flag arouses the same emotions as the stars and stripes for most Americans. For Socialists it symbolizes brotherhood and social justice; for many Americans, the flag symbolizes ideals such as liberty, equality, and justice for all.

In theory to pledge allegiance to the flag was to honor those ideals as well as the American institutions that upheld them. However, today, for other Americans, the flag evokes awareness of the gap between those ideals and the realities of Americanism such as racism, imperialism and war. For those people to pledge loyalty to the symbol of today’s America smacks of hypocrisy and chauvinism.

The Russian Revolution is a symbol itself, the symbol of revolutions to come. It reinforced the Leninist image and idea of the power of the working class. The heart of Leninism was that only the masses can make a revolution. Yet, as he outlined in his famous pamphlet, What Is To Be Done, it had to be led by a small group of professional revolutionaries like himself. Other revolutionary icons such as Rosa Luxemburg and also Karl Marx adhered to the same theory. Lenin believed that the proletariat included the entire working class. It would form the Soviets, which in turn would provide the necessary administration of society.

Leninism was only gradually supplanted by insistence on the role of the Party. Its role was to educate the working class. Abroad, Lenin pushed toward United Fronts with other Left parties in Europe to gain that mass support. Decades later, the combination of such policies morphed into European Communism, of which Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party in 1921, became associated.

Antonio Gramsci

The Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and a major Marxist thinker, took a distance from Leninism and its emphasis on the revolutionary vanguard party. Leninism was only one ingredient in Gramsci’s theory for social change. Though Leninism is now largely history, Gramsci’s contributions to Socialist thought are intact.

In Gramscian thinking, revolutionary violence is not the only way to change things. He supported political action to challenge the hegemony of the capitalist class. Though a revolutionary, Gramsci did not advocate a totalitarian Weltanschauung. He amended Marx’s conviction that social development originates only from the economic structure; Gramsci’s distinction of culture was a major advance for radical thought, and it still holds today.

The Italian Marxist recognized that political freedom is a requisite for culture; if religious or political fanaticism suppresses the society, art will not flower. To write propaganda or paint conformist art is to succumb to the allures and/or the coercion of the reigning system. For that reason, most artists are countercurrent. That is also why artists should stay far away from the White House or the Elysées Palace.

Though the Stalinist brand of Communism in East Europe failed and those states disappeared, the European Right—in Italy, France, Spain, Greece — continues to raise the specter of the “Communist” threat to “family” and “our values.” In the minds of many non-Communists, Communism is still associated with the former USSR. Yet, Communistic ideas are as old as man: a social system characterized by the community of goods and the absence of private property. Such ideas marked the organization of the first Christian communities. In the Nineteenth century Communistic ideas inspired reformists all over Europe, ideas of equality and the abolition of private property. Today, many Communist slogans sound more utopian than threatening. Communism is nearly a myth, abstract even in countries that call themselves Communist, like China.

Gaither Stewart, Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His collections of fiction, Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger and Once In Berlin are published by Wind River Press. ( His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes, (