One of the conventions of seventeenth-century warfare was the "flag of defiance": a plain red flag flown by a fortress or ship, denoting refusal to surrender. But until 1791 the red flag had no particular political significance. On  17 July 1791, the Marquis de Lafayette, commanding the Paris National Guard, ordered a red flag to be hoisted over the Champ-de-Mars, signaling the proclamation of martial law in response to anti-royalist disorders. Some fifty protesters were killed in the fighting that followed, and the republican revolutionaries subsequently adopted a plain red flag in memory of the martyrs of 17 July. The red banner had been launched on its political career.

Since then the red flag has become universally accepted as the symbol of socialism, communism and revolution. The national and sub-national flags of many past and present socialist states, such as the USSR and the People's Republic of China, feature a red field. Socialist and communist parties everywhere employ variants of the red flag, often combined with other familiar symbols of the Left such as the hammer and sickle, the star and the sheaf of grain. Following the practice initiated by the Soviet Union, these symbols are usually golden yellow.

The so-called People's Republics established in central and eastern Europe after the Second World War kept their traditional national flags, usually with the arms of the state added. But often, particularly on holidays and during official ceremonies, the national flag was flown together with the plain red flag. In socialist Bulgaria, the law required the flag of the International Workers' Movement, very similar to the flag of the USSR, to be flown together with the Bulgarian national flag. Each national Communist Party also had its own flag, invariably with a red field and usually displaying the party symbol.

It should be noted that there are many flags with a field of red, for example the national flags of Denmark, Morocco and Turkey, that have no historical connection to the revolutionary tradition.




The Red Flag of the Paris Commune

The red flag became a standard feature of the series of revolutions that France experienced between 1789 and 1871. During the Reign of Terror (1793-94), the Jacobins adopted the red flag as an alternate national flag, though it was never formally confirmed and the Tricolor remained the official national flag of France. But the red flag's association with revolution had been established, and it reappeared during the Revolution of 1830 and again during the Revolution of 1848, when it nearly replaced the Tricolor. It was the disastrous (for France) Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, however, that cemented the red flag's connection with revolutionary socialism. The Commune was composed mostly of radical republicans, Marxist socialists and anarchists. It took power in Paris after the city's surrender to the Prussian Army and immediately adopted a revolutionary program. The Commune soon clashed with the provisional government of France and a violent civil war ensued, with horrifying atrocities on both sides before the insurrection was finally put down. This was a landmark moment in the history of the Left and after the Commune's bloody suppression, socialists around the world adopted the red flag.


Provisional National Flag of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic



National Flags of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic

From the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the red banner played a prominent symbolic role. When the sailors of the Baltic Fleet revolted, they hoisted a plain red ensign. Following the Bolshevik coup in October 1918 this ensign was adopted, with a conscious nod to the traditions of the Paris Commune, as the de facto national flag of revolutionary Russia. Upon the formal establishment of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RFSFR) the initials of the state, in golden yellow Cyrillic characters, were added and this flag, of which there were several variants, was officially confirmed. The early red flags of the other socialist states that would constitute the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) mostly followed this pattern.



Popular Front


P.O.U.M  •  Lenin Barracks

Though the national flag of the Spanish Republic was a tricolor consisting of horizontal red, yellow and purple stripes, many of the political flags on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) were red. Among these were the flags of the Popular Front and the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista or P.O.U.M.). The Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing political parties, formed the Spanish Republican government and sponsored the International Brigades, who adopted the three-pointed star as their insignia. The P.O.U.M., an anti-Stalinist communist party, was initially part of the Popular Front. The flag shown above flew over the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona at the time of George Orwell's enlistment in the P.O.U.M. militia. Orwell's service in Spain, during which he witnessed the Soviet-supported Spanish Communist Party's vicious purge of P.O.U.M. and other anti-Stalinist groups, played a major role in the development of his political thought.


Socialist Unity Party  •  German Democratic Republic


United Workers' Party  •  Polish People's Republic


Communist Party  •  Socialist Republic of Romania

After the Second World War, communist regimes were established in most nations of eastern and central Europe. The People's Republics, as these states were collectively known, retained their former national flags, usually with the communist-style state coat of arms added. The red banner was not disregarded, however. Plain red flags were often flown in conjunction with the national flag, particularly on holidays like May Day, revolutionary anniversaries, etc. With various symbols added, the red banner also served as a party flag, the flag of party organizations, etc. An example is the flag of the Socialist Unity Party of the German Democratic Republic (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED), which displayed the party badge on a field of red. The clasped hands symbolized the merger of the German Communist Party with the German Social Democratic Party—actually a forced merger in the Soviet zone of occupation only that led to the suppression of all other political parties. Note that the red banner appears as a backdrop for the clasped hands. In Poland, the United Workers' Party (actually a front for the Communist Party) maintained the tradition of the plain red banner.


National Flag of the People's Republic of China


Chinese Communist Party


Chinese Communist Party Youth League


Korean Workers Party  •  People's Democratic Republic of Korea


National Flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam


Vietnamese Communist Party

The color red has long been associated with the Han, China's dominant ethnic group. Thus the red field of the flag adopted in 1949 by the People's Republic of China symbolizes both the Chinese nation and the socialist character of the state. The large yellow star and four smaller stars symbolizes the Communist party's leadership of Chinese society's four classes. The flag of the Chinese Communist Party replaces the stars with a hammer and sickle and that of the Youth League displays a star within a ring. The national flag of the Korean Democratic Socialist Republic (North Korea) is red, white and blue, but the flag of the Korean Communist Party is a red banner with symbols of industry, intellectual work and agriculture (hammer, artist's brush and hoe) in the canton. Vietnam's national flag follows the Chinese example, and the flag of the Vietnamese Communist Party is similar to that  of many other national communist parties: red with the hammer and sickle in golden yellow.


Canadian Communist Party


Communist Party of Great Britain


Irish Communist Party


German Communist Party


South African Communist Party


Che Guevara Flag

Today the red banner maintains its status as a symbol of revolution. Communist and socialist parties around the world use it, either plain or with added symbols. In 2011, the red banner waved over the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City and around the United States. One variant popular with many progressive and leftist groups displays the visage of Che Guevara, the romantic hero of the Cuban Revolution. Flags of this type have been used by various left-wing insurgent groups in Central and South America. The Spanish motto reads: "Onward to Victory."