It’s May Day, and I see that some still carry on the old traditions. One of the skinny tattooed baristas where I get my morning latte sometimes wears this funky T-shirt with the hammer and sickle logo; I doubt it’s ever crossed his mind that it might mean something, but to me it does.

Hammer and Sickle

Image credit: Wikipedia.

For a few months when I was eighteen, I was a genuine red-toothed commie, none of this wimpy fellow-traveler pinko stuff, but a full-blown card-carrying member of the (hey, it still exists) Communist Party of Canada. I left when I discovered the traditional Stalinist “shut up and do what the Central Committee says” ground-rules, and that improving the lot of the Canadian Worker was apparently to be accomplished mostly by cheerleading for the Soviet Union.

Marx · I gather serious young things are no longer expected to have read Marx. I was not so lucky; my memory of the experience is dominated by the endless stinking heaps of refried Hegelian bullshit.

Communism may have failed, but it would be foolish to dismiss it as foolish. For the first couple of hundred years of modern industrial capitalism, the notion that it might spontaneously destroy itself was not at all nuts. And while we now know that, in terms of producing general well-being, a planned economy can’t compete with a free market, the only way to prove that was to try it.

And one of Marx’s points remains pretty fresh and relevant: he asked the oldest question, Cui bono?; but of groups not individuals. Maybe I’m naive and simplistic, but it seems fairly straightforward to explain the economic policies of the current U.S. administration by looking at which socio-economic groups stand to benefit; what in simpler days we used to call “class analysis”.

T-Shirts and Tragedy · In the end, it’s not clear what was saddest about the great failed “Scientific Socialism” experiment: the decades that huge populations spent in unnecessary poverty, or the megadeaths unleashed by the avatars of Bad Commie Craziness: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, pick your tyrant.

So how about that barista with the hammer and sickle? Someone who lost family in the Great Leap Forward or trying to cross the Berlin Wall might be offended. But so might someone who lost family in the Red Army at Stalingrad or fighting Franco in Spain; the Commies haven’t always been the bad guys.

Hammer and Sickle? · The image remains powerful for historical reasons for anyone who was grown-up by 1989. But, looking at the barista, I couldn’t help thinking: if there weren’t all that history, then who, in the twenty-first century, might adopt those crossed tools as their symbol? I can think of three possibilities: first, to an MMORPG guild, the hammer and sickle might be a pair of seriously über weapons. Second, for a conclave of Neo-Pagans, these might be the sickle of Demeter and the hammer of Thor. And finally, this might make a nice logo for back-to-the-land organic hippies; who are trying to achieve what somebody once called “primitive communism”.

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May 01, 2005
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