Red flag

Red flag

Red flags can signify a warning, martial law, defiance, or left-wing politics. The earliest citation for "red flag" in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1602 and shows that at that time the flag was used by military forces to indicate that they were preparing for battle. It has been associated with left-wing politics since the French Revolution. The red flag became a symbol of communism as a result of its use by the Paris Commune of 1871. The flags of several communist states, including China, Vietnam, and the former Soviet Union, have red backgrounds. The Labour Party in Britain used it until the 1980s and the French Socialist Party uses it. The earliest citation of "red flag" in the sense of a warning is dated 1777 and refers to a flag warning of flood.


As early as the 15th century, the red flag was used as a "flag of defiance. It was raised in cities and castles under siege to indicate that they would not surrender. "The red flag is a signal of defiance and battle," according to Chambers Cyclopedia (1727–41).

The color red become associated with patriotism early in the French Revolution due to the popularity of the Phrygian cap and designs based on the Tricolor Flag, both introduced in 1790. A red flag was raised over the Champ-de-Mars in Paris on July 17, 1791 by Mayor Jean-Sylvain Bailly as a symbol of martial law, warning rioters to disperse. Over fifty anti-royalist protesters were killed in the fighting that followed. Oddly inverting the original symbolism, the Jacobins protested this action by flying a red flag to honor the "martyrs' blood" of those who had been killed. The Jacobin Club ruled France during the Reign of Terror (1793-94) and made the Red Flag an unofficial national flag. However, the earlier Tricolor flag never lost its official status and regained popularity under Napoleon.

British sailors mutinied near the mouth of the River Thames in 1797 and hoisted a red flag on several ships. The flag was also used during the Merthyr riots of 1831 in South Wales. During the 1848 Revolution, Socialists and radical republicans demanded that the red flag be adopted as France's national flag. Led by poet-politician Alphonse de Lamartine, the government rejected the mob's demand: "[T]he red flag that you have brought back here has done nothing but being trailed around the Champ-de-Mars in the people's blood in [17]91 and [17]93, whereas the Tricolore flag went round the world along with the name, the glory and the liberty of the homeland!

The banner of the Paris Commune of 1871 was red and it was at this time that the red flag became a symbol of communism. The flag was flown at a rally in Chicago on May Day 1886, which resulted in the execution of some of the Haymarket Eight. The red flag gained great popularity during the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Soviet flag, with a hammer, a sickle and a star on a red background, was adopted in 1923. Various Communist and socialist newspapers have used the name The Red Flag. The red flag, and the color red generally, was adopted by the Communist Party in China, where red is associated with good luck.

In more recent times, social democratic parties have gravitated away from the Red Flag as a symbol. However, several European parties retain a "red square" symbol, including Germany's SPD and the Party of European Socialists.

The British Labour Party

The red flag was the emblem of the British Labour Party from its inception until the Labour Party Conference of 1986 when it was replaced by a red rose. The red rose has subsequently been adopted by a number of other socialist and social-democratic parties throughout Europe. Members of the party also sing the traditional anthem The Red Flag (see below) at the conclusion of the annual party conference. In February 2006 the Red Flag was sung in Parliament to mark the centenary of the Labour Party's founding.

Laws to ban red flags

During the First Red Scare in the United States, many U.S. states passed laws forbidding the flying of red flags, including Minnesota, South Dakota, and Oklahoma. Most of these statutes have been repealed by state legislatures, but an Oklahoma statute still provides that flying "any red flag or other emblem or banner, indicating disloyalty to the Government of the United States or a belief in anarchy or other political doctrines or beliefs, whose objects are either the disruption or destruction of organized government, or the defiance of the laws of the United States or of the State of Oklahoma" is a felony with a possible 10 year prison sentence and a $1,000 fine. The constitutionality of this statute is in question but has not been tested in the courts to date.

The song "The Red Flag"

The song "The Red Flag" was written by Irishman Jim Connell in 1889. It is normally sung to the tune of the German carol O Tannenbaum, though Connell had wanted it sung to the tune of a pro-Jacobite Robert Burns anthem, "The White Cockade". The lyrics of the first verse and the chorus, which are the most well-known parts of the song, are as follows:

The people's flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyr'd dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its ev'ry 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.

There are a number of satirical versions of the song, such as "The People's Flag is Palest Pink". In 2006, Canadian alternative rock band Billy Talent released a song entitled Red Flag.


A red flag in motor sports is used to stop either a practice session or a race due to conditions been considered too dangerous. Unlike a yellow flag which temporarily suspends race conditions, a red flag indicates that the race is over.

This flag is typically used after a major accident where safety marshals are required out on the track for longer than desirable period, and having cars drive past, even slowly would pose a significant danger.

This flag can also be used where weather conditions and or the track surface prevent racing from been undertaken safely.

It is usually up to the race organizers as to how they wish to handle the race after that. They may either decide to cancel the race and declare no winner, cancel the race but declare a winner and award race points, or they may chose to restart the race at a later time or date. If a restart happens then it is up to the organizers to decide if the race will restart with the same number of laps or with a reduced number of laps.

Other uses of red flags

"Waving a red flag" is a metaphor for incitement; the metaphor comes from the sport of bullfighting, in which the matador provokes the bull by waving a red cape at it. A signal of danger or a problem can be referred to as a red flag, a usage that originated in the 18th century. In many countries a red flag is flown to signify that an outdoor shooting range is in use. The United States Air Force refers to its largest annual exercise as Operation Red Flag. Red flags are used for various signals in team sailing races (see Racing Rules of Sailing).



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