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Salvo 12.21.2022 5 minutes

The New “Reds”

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Saddling conservatives with the color of communist tyranny is repugnant.

One of the most striking features of late modernity—of our decayed and decaying political culture—is our inability to pass on our most cherished beliefs and formative experiences to our children and those who come after us. Something so central to humane conservatism, and civilized life as the continuity of human experience, can hardly be assumed in an era where the past perishes before we can come to terms with the requisite seriousness it requires. As George Orwell showed with his characteristic lucidity, totalitarianism entailed at its core the deliberate, even murderous, extinction of memory and the vital truths it reveals. Yet our postmodern commitment to live in the ephemeral, in the always fleeting present, has much the same result: the extinction of the historical consciousness, of the memory shared across generations, on which all mature civic and moral judgment rests. Without such shared memory, there can be no public realm, no common space connecting the living to our forebears and the yet to be born, to cite Edmund Burke’s always evocative and pertinent image from the Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Let me give one example that ought to have been the subject of at least some public discussion. For two hundred years or more, red has been the color of leftist subversion and radical revolution. This phenomenon was ubiquitous and truly global. During the French Revolution, the Jacobins declared red their color in a mendacious reference to all the blood that had allegedly flowed under the Old Regime and the more moderate revolutionary regimes that ruled France between 1789 to 1791 (with a king who governed while held in “captivity”). The red flag would soon become associated with regicide and revolutionary terror and hardly with moderation and constitutional government.

The least moderate parties and factions claimed the color Red (capitalized for political emphasis) as their own during the French Revolution of 1848, a revolution which Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out had a distinct socialist cast from its inception. All the SocialistInternationals (I though IV) and the bloody revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871 claimed Red as their own while anarchist movements (once numerous and adopting terror as their preferred principle of social and political disruption) went back and forth using red and black flags as their banners. In South America, liberal, leftist, and anti-clerical parties typically adopted Red as their political symbol par excellence. Even the Labour party in Great Britain, the most progressive of that country’s main parties, stood behind the red flag despite the party’s distinctly social democratic and non-revolutionary orientation.

In The Red Wheel, especially the volumes dedicated to the revolutionary events of March 1917, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn portrays how educated “society,” as the Russians called it, decked itself out in Red, waving red crimson banners and decorating themselves with red flowers to show their sympathy for “revolutionary change,” come what may. They could not imagine anything worse than Tsarism. The dominant attitude was “no enemies to the Left.” Even the comparatively liberal Kadet Party adamantly refused to condemn the methods of the far Left. In due time, the inebriated bourgeoisie of St. Petersburg and Moscow would sober up, as Lenin had barges with class enemies sunk in the Neva, and the first camps in the Arctic north (on the now dreaded Solovetsky Islands) would fill up with liberal and socialist “enemies” who once had coddled the Bolshevik wolf. The Red Army would win the Russian Civil War over the anti-Communist Whites, and Russia would experience seventy years of unrelenting totalitarianism. Once again, the political meaning of Red was perfectly clear.

By the mid-1920s, the word pink or pinko was in circulation and would remain so for approximately the next seventy years. It was a ready-made way of describing “fellow-travelers,” or those soft on Communism who refused to join the party but hardly criticized it with sincerity or gusto. The refusal or inability of Henry Wallace (once vice president of the United States and a “peace” candidate for the presidency in 1948) or First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to see the gulag archipelago for what it was, their marked tendency to take Communist propaganda at face value, was emblematic of an indulgently pinkish attitude toward Soviet totalitarianism (one brilliantly mocked in chapter 59 of Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle).

Meanwhile, turning to Asia, the Red Star came to represent Maoist China, a murderous tyranny already celebrated as a libertarian paradise by the pinkish journalist Edgar Snow in 1937’s global bestseller Red Star Over China. As Communist regimes spread to East-Central Europe and then to large parts of the so-called Third World, Red remained the unquestioned emblem of the forces of revolutionary subversion and dictatorship. At home, even a silly if well-intentioned movie as Red Dawn (1984) identified Red with the violence and repression inherent in Communism’s ideological DNA. And on a more serious cinematic note, Warren Beatty’s 1981 film Reds romanticized the origins of Soviet Communism in a truly shameless way, lauded of course by all the most prestigious and influential critics.

The political meaning of Red was once loud and clear. No more—at least in the United States. A unilateral decision was made by the national television networks in the contentious presidential year of 2000 to have Red represent the Republican Party and Blue the Democratic one. One prominent network television executive justified this arbitrary and counter-intuitive decision by pointing out that the Republican Party begins with the letter r, hardly a compelling reason for reversing political symbolism deeply rooted in the political experience of modern man since the late eighteenth century. As a result, American conservatives are now the new “Reds,” a change of language and symbolism that is truly startling if anyone took the time to think about it.

My informed guess is that people in the elite media did not want to identify the Democratic Party—the more leftist of the two major parties, and much more so now—with the color Red since it might smack of that evil of evils, “McCarthyism,” an unjust or even just attribution of Communist sympathies. In any case, Communist totalitarianism, with its labor camps, mass political repression, misery-creating system of political economy, unprecedented religious persecution, and surreal and systematic mendacity, was dismissed as yesterday’s news. It was written off as an “economic failure” and one not worth contemplating at any length. There were new problems to tackle. What lessons could possibly be learned from its regrettable “mistakes.” Better to move on to the environmental crisis or the “injustices” that were said to “systematically” plague capitalist democracy. That’s what truly mattered.

So now American conservatives wrap themselves in the color Red. The crimes of a truly malevolent ideology of global scope are now blamed on nefarious Russia as Communist ideology increasingly gets a free pass. Young people remain palpably ignorant of Communism and all its works. Poll after poll confirms that many esteem it in theory—and even in practice. Conservative parties in South Korea and Japan wrap themselves in Red, too, in a strange imitation of American exceptionalism (especially strange since Red power lies immediately to the north and westof them). Two hundred and a quarter years of human experience are wiped away without anyone noticing or bothering to comment on this strange development.

Language matters, as does memory, as the all-important vehicle for passing on what human beings and political communities have learned from common experience and from the tragedies that often accompany and inform it. In a world where experience is seemingly reinvented at will, where the American Founders are dismissed as racists, where the slaves freed themselves, where the political symbol Red changes political meaning at will, it is difficult to see how political wisdom can be discerned and passed on to those to whom we owe a full accounting of hard-won truths. A people without the historical consciousness that teaches us about enduring human nature and that helps shape morally serious political judgment is destined to always begin anew and to be ever more ignorant of its past, present, and future. All the technological progress in the world cannot fill this colossal hole in our hearts, minds, and souls.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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