In Defense of the Hammer and Sickle: On Symbolism and Struggle


Charles Wofford I Social Movement Studies I Analysis I November 2nd, 2017



According to Cultural Hegemony Theory, often attributed to Antonio Gramsci but also developed by Edward Said and Nicos Poulantzas among others, the ruling class maintains its power by deliberately shaping the cultural discourse to which the populace is exposed. The hegemony theorists recognized that no ruling class can survive by constant application of violence; it must obtain some degree of legitimacy among the oppressed populace. This means normalizing the oppressive status quo. Cultural hegemony is therefore the structure through which the ruling maintains the day-to-day domination, and may be seen as the complement to the deliberate application of violence, which is reserved for those moments when hegemony fails to marginalize the populace.

A major part of maintaining cultural hegemony is controlling language. In American political discourse, that movement whose policies may destroy the world is referred to as "conservatism;" the party openly sneering at democratic processes is the "Democratic" Party; those who advocate a total tyranny of private corporations call themselves "libertarians;" and advocating increasing the number of private bank owners ("break up the banks!"), rather than advocating socialized control of banking, is enough to earn you the title "socialist." This kind of distortion (or actual political correctness) is like the footprint of cultural hegemony.

A different aspect of the control of language is the control of symbols. Given the effort of the Left toward popular democracy (or as we might call it, "democracy"), what are the hegemonic distortions of the symbols of democracy? And does the pattern of turning terms into their opposites (as exemplified above) give us a clue into that distortion?

Obviously I think the answer to the second question is, "yes," and to answer the first question: the hegemonic distortion of the symbols of democracy is to turn those symbols into symbols of anti democracy. What is the word for the purest anti democracy in political theory? The word is totalitarianism. Which society is mostly widely and immediately regarded as totalitarian in the United States? Answer: the Soviet Union.

There are many theories of democracy. If we look at the etymology, we find the Greek "demos," (people) and "kratos" (power). A democracy, taken in perhaps its most literal and broad sense, is a state of affairs where power resides in the populace. Exactly how that state of affairs obtains may vary widely; plenty of arrangements may qualify as "democracies."

But pure democracy, democracy in its most terrifying and effective moment, is revolutionary practice. What is more democratic than a populace so agitated, so politically conscious, that they have decided en masse to forcefully dispose of their ruling class? What is more revolutionary than a class conscious populace that organizes its own communities independently of the dominant organizations, to such an extent that they replace them?

The demonization of the hammer and sickle is part of the demonization of genuine democratic, populist impulses in defense of capitalism. The hammer and sickle, as a symbol of the greatest revolution in history, is therefore a symbol of the purest ecstasy of democracy. We ought to embrace it, reclaim it, make it ours again on the left, and not be scared to be associated with it.

But there is another intersection here: as noted Marxist political scientist Michael Parenti has pointed out, democracy itself is an invention of the people of ancient history to guard against the abuses of wealth. A quick survey of the history of Ancient Greece confirms this: prior to Athenian democracy, Athens was ruled by wealthy aristocrats. Political scientist Cynthia Farrar writes in that "The beginnings of Athenian self-rule [i.e. democracy] coincided with Solon's liberation in the 6th century B.C. of those who had been 'enslaved' to the rich." Enslaved to the rich! Athens, the ancestral society whence we trace our democratic lineage as Americans, developed that early democratic structure in order to defend the People from being

! It was a weapon against the abuses of wealth; a fact that today is being thoroughly distorted; where capitalism, a system that emphasizes private concentration of wealth and which posits an ideology that justifies a wealth-accumulating politic, is thought of as synonymous with democracy.

Class struggle is the crucible which forged democracy. Democracy is most purely expressed in popular revolution. The most powerful popular revolution in history is the Russian revolution of 1917, and the emblem of that revolution is the hammer and sickle. The hammer and sickle is closely related to Marxism, a doctrine of class struggle.

To return to the opening point, the demonization of that symbol is immensely useful in the hegemonic battle over the legitimacy or de-marginalization of the Left. Due to a number of factors, the Left is no longer marginal in the United States. That is not to say the Left is portrayed positively in most media, but it is recognized and it is covered. We ought to recognize this battlefield and seize the imagery of our heritage as Leftists.