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 the mantle of the Caesars, the cardinals of Rome took to robing themselves in red.

In the Middle Ages red became the favorite color of the Crusaders, and it was under a scarlet banner with a big white cross that Saint Louis (1214-1270) and his French knights went to battle the Saracens in the Holy Land and North Africa. It is probably no accident that red, being essentially a “hot” color (as opposed to the cooler blue), was chosen as the principal color for the flags of Europe’s two most ardently Catholic nations. In the case of Poland a white eagle was first superimposed on a red background, the red remaining after the eagle had been removed; in the case of Castille and subsequently of Spain, gold castles were placed on a scarlet ground, where the scarlet has remained to this day.

The kings of France, for their part, preferred to be robed in white, and their heraldic emblem being the three-petaled fleur-de-lis (derived from the white iris), the flag of the French monarchy was composed of white fleurs-de-lis on a blue background. (This is just a hunch, but I suspect that the blue rectangle and stars in the left-hand corner of our own flag were inspired by those royal French colors and combined with the red-and-white stripes of the Washington family crest to form the Stars and Stripes—the soldiery and mariners of Louis XVI’s France having done as much as anyone to ensure the defeat of George III’s Redcoats.)

Now let us jump to the watershed year of 1789, which saw the start of the great mutation. On July 20th, six days after the storming of the Bastille, Lafayette, who had returned to France after campaigning in America, and who had been placed in command of the Paris militia, decided that something with a less absolutist connotation than the blue-and-white fleurs-de-lis flag was needed to symbolize the new, fondly hoped-for “union” of king and people. Thus was born the tricolor flag, which combined the traditional blue-and-white colors of the House of France with the scarlet oriflamme of Saint Denis, the legendary first bishop-martyr of Paris and the country’s patron saint. The relative simplicity of this new flag, with three basic colors matching the ideals of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” made it almost overnight the flag of the Revolution, and more specifically the flag of the triumphant bourgeoisie.

Revolutions being what they are—difficult to control—the members of the constituent Assembly undertook three months later (October 21, 1789) to vote a law authorizing the municipal authorities to proclaim a state of martial law, if necessary, in order to maintain law and order. A red flag—the red flag of danger—was then to be prominently displayed from one of the windows of the town hall, and another paraded through the streets of Paris as the visible signal that all crowds were to disperse. Once order was restored—if necessary by warning shots, followed by firing—the red flag was to be removed and replaced for the next week by a white flag, the symbol of peace and tranquility.

By the summer of 1791 the Revolution had turned sour, and the bourgeoisie, having humbled the aristocracy and stripped it of its privileges and tides, found itself threatened in its turn by revolutionaries of a more radical stripe. The clumsy Louis XVI having bungled an attempt to escape to Belgium with his wife, Marie Antoinette, and a coachful of faithful servitors, the hotheads of the revolutionary Club des Cordeliers (so called because they had set themselves up in a monastery previously occupied by the rope-beltwearing Franciscans) decided the time had come to get rid of this king who had betrayed his country and his people by trying to flee abroad. On July 17, 1791, after circulating a petition and collecting six thousand signatures, they organized a major turnout on the Champ de Mars (which was then an open parade ground and quite different from the present, Eiffel Tower-dominated parterre of lawns, flowerbeds, and gravel walks). While Danton and Camille Desmoulins were working the crowd up to fever pitch with their revolutionary rhetoric, Lafayette turned up at the head of 1,200 National Guardsmen. The red flag, which had already been hung out over the façade of the Hotel de Ville, now made its appearance on the Champ de Mars, preceding the arrival of the mayor, Bailly, and members of the municipal council. Few persons in the angry crowd saw the flag, nor were they in a mood to disperse peacefully and drift away. The Guardsmen, greeted by stones and curses, had to load their muskets and start firing, and by the time the smoke had cleared one hundred demonstrators were dead.

The “massacre of the Champ de Mars”—for which Lafayette, Bailly, and ultimately Louis XVI were blamed—helped to seal the fate of the French monarchy. But in the immediate wake of the slaughter the red flag of martial law was bitterly denounced in radical pamphlets and newssheets as “the infamous red flag . . . the flag of death, an iniquitous flag, the all too certain signal of the barbarism of dangerous aristocrats, who give a thousand new forms to the infamy of their hideous projects,” etc. In short, the red flag was regarded as the emblem of the war that the more prosperous “haves” were waging against the less fortunate “have nots.”

But soon, thanks to a kind of chemical reaction produced in the witch’s brew of revolutionary fervor, the same red flag of martial law—the “martial law of the sovereign people”—was brandished by the crushed demonstrators of yesterday against “the rebellion of the executive power”—which is to say, against the “rebellion” of Louis XVI, guilty of having been “fanaticized by the clerical party” and of being associated with France’s enemies, led by the reactionaries of Marie Antoinette’s Austria. The abhorred red flag of yesterday now became the emblem of the extremists and in particular of the Jacobins, taking its place at meetings of the “Society of the Friends of Equality and Liberty” next to the Phrygian bonnet as the symbol of revolutionary élan.

Under Napoleon—himself a former Jacobin who had quickly “seen the light”—the red flag of the extremists was all but forgotten, blotted out by the tricolor flag and the even more triumphant green of the French Imperial banners. Not until June 1832 did the red flag return to the forefront of the Paris stage, during the funeral procession of a notoriously republican (and thus anti-Louis-Philippe) general, when a strange black-clad and blackwhiskered horseman girdled in a glaring red waistband suddenly appeared out of nowhere brandishing a red flag on which, in bright white letters, were inscribed the words, “Liberty—or Death.”

By this time the color red was firmly associated with the libertarian and progressive cause as opposed to the “black” reactionaries of the church—whence the title of Stendahl’s Le Rouge et le Noir. With the onset of industrialization the red flag became the emblem of the first “socialistrevolutionaries,” popping up in Paris and Lyon during the textile workers’ riots of April 1834. Subsequently driven underground by a ferocious repression, it reappeared in February 1848, when the red blinds were torn from overturned carriages and brandished over the first barricades. On February 24 it was behind a red banner that a frenzied mob stormed Louis-Philippe’s Tuileries Palace, and it was with the red silk and red velvet upholstery of its furniture that the triumphant revolutionaries undertook to fashion red buttonhole emblems and Phrygian bonnets.

The red flag of revolutionary militancy had finally come of age, at the very moment when Karl Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, was proclaiming the forthcoming dictatorship of the proletariat. As Proudhon, the wildeyed propounder of the notion that “Property is Theft,” put it: “Keep, if you will, the tricolor flag, the symbol of your nationality, but remember that the red flag is the sign of a revolution that will be the last. The red flag is the federal standard of the human race.”

Today this symbolic transmutation has come full circle, and there is surely a profound historical irony in the fact that the red flag is now the symbol of the triumphant proletariat, of the Red Czars of Muscovy. In Russia the word for “red” (krassny) was always closely associated in popular fancy with “wonderful” (prekrassny)—which is why the Beautiful Square (Krassnaya Ploshchad) of prerevolutionary Russia could become, in one of the greatest semantic travesties of all times, the Red Square of the Soviet Caesars.