Sick of the Hammer and Sickle

As anti-fascist activism grows, so too does the use of communist symbology. But is it right to brandish symbols under which millions were deliberately starved and killed?

It’s been 26 years since the colossal fall of the Soviet Union. In the time since, Cuba opened its borders and China embraced free market enterprise on a gargantuan level. Every year people escape North Korea’s failed regime and every year communism fades further into the history books. However, there have been increasing instances of anti-fascist groups donning emblems of the former Soviet Union during demonstrations. Last month, several images of anti-Trump rallies in Washington DC showed Antifa protesters waving Soviet Union flags and openly displaying hammer and sickle symbols. For a movement which continues to fight growing jingoism and isolationism around the world, using symbols under which millions died as a show of progressiveness and insurgency is highly counterintuitive.

Image via CSC Media Group

The swastika of the German Nazi Party is now universally recognized as morally abhorrent. However, the same cannot be said for the hammer and sickle of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps this is due to the racial consequences of the former and its ugliness which continues to find a niche in western society. Nonetheless, it’s generally believed Josef Stalin was responsible for as many, if not more deaths than Adolf Hitler. This sentiment alone should be enough for protesters to readily detest anything which associates their movement with this ruthless tyrant. However, historical analysis is largely based on revisionism and experts continue to be divided over the ‘quality or quantity’ of Stalin and the Soviet’s mass-killings as opposed to those committed by the Nazis. After all, isn’t it a common narrative of liberalism to embrace communism and ignore its failings because, of course, nobody was more evil than the genocidal Hitler?

In his book Stalin’s Genocide, author and historian Norman Naimark highlights the Soviet’s state-sanctioned murders of “enemies of the people”. Naimark further argues the term ‘genocide’ should be broadened to include the state-sanctioned killings of social classes and political groups, which were common under Stalin. While this is dubious, it still reaffirms consensus of Stalin as a blood-thirsty demagogue. However, other historians are adamant the size and racial implications of Hitler’s mass murders were far worse than those of his Soviet counterpart.

According to Timothy Snyder, the number of civilians killed under the Stalin compared to those killed under Hitler is much less than previously thought. Figures count for roughly 11 million non-combatants deliberately killed by the Nazis while the figure for the Soviets is anywhere between 6–9 million. Furthermore, Snyder says Soviet killings did not take place during times of war and were predominantly motivated by ideas of modernization as opposed to racial imperialism. This includes the famine of 1930–1933 which saw more than 5 million Soviet citizens die of starvation, as well as the ‘Kulak’ killings, in which prosperous farmers were murdered by Soviet soldiers to centralize production and accelerate modernization. While Snyder’s arguments may seem questionable when measuring the ‘quality v quantity’ of different mass killings, it does emphasise the importance of context.

Historians often highlight ‘The Great Terror’ of 1937 in which Stalin ordered an enormous purge of his political opponents and those in the Red Army he considered a threat. While this is believed to establish Stalin as the bloodiest dictator in modern history the death toll is slight compared to Nazi Germany’s mass executions from 1941 onwards. Journalist Ekaterina Gracheva, estimates the number of those killed during The Great Terror is 500,000, while the previously held figure of 10 million is actually the number of those sent to forced-labour camps.

Example of Stalin’s photo tampering during the Great Terror via fourandsix.com

On the contrary, author John Heidenreich estimates more than 12 million prisoners were killed in forced-labour camps alone. While this number is closer to Snyder’s estimates of those killed under Hitler, the context of such atrocities are still debated. Should we condemn Stalin and the Soviets for arguably murdering more people than Hitler, or should we continue to damn the Nazi leader for killing millions based purely on race and ethnic supremacy. Isn’t every murder an unjust taking of life regardless of personal characteristics?

In Out of Step, author Sidney Hook recounts his argument with a left-wing communist supporter. “When I confronted them with the evidence that Stalin had unjustly killed more Jews than Hitler, which was true at the time, they retorted that he was killing them not as Jews but as dissenters. Since in this respect the Jews were being treated equally with others, that was more important in their eyes than the alleged injustices of their executions.”

The motives behind such killings may differ in their necessity and reason, but murder is still murder. And while historians vary on their interpretations of Stalin, few deny his cruel personage. So, where does this leave the iconography of the hammer and sickle? It’s important to remember the symbol was conceived by Vladimir Lenin to represent the workers of Russia as opposed to the distinctly monarchical coat-of-arms. However, the symbol soon came to represent the failures of communism and the totalitarian rule of Lenin’s successor.

Young, liberal activists donning a symbol under which millions were starved, bled and forced to work until exhaustion shouldn’t go unchecked. Antifa and similar activist groups have legitimate concerns in detesting the resurgence of fascism, but celebrating symbols which represent exactly what they’re fighting against is gross, ill-informed and completely unnecessary.

While sources vary over the quantity of those murdered under Stalin and his successors — Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn estimates as many as 60 million deaths — Hitler’s motives were undeniably heinous and based purely on primordial delusions of ethnicity and imperialism. The swastika and everything it represents is a grossly offensive symbol which should be confined to the back rooms of history. While the hammer and sickle doesn’t represent the same type of evil it does represent an ideologically unhinged regime which murdered and starved millions of its own people. The Soviets desired a system free of capitalist oppression, but the means they took to achieve this goal with few constructive outcomes is abhorrent. Why should we treat this symbol as being any more acceptable than the swastika?

This is not a competition to see which dictator or which example of deliberate mass-killing was more repugnant. The sheer cruelty of both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union is indisputable. If socially conscious activists are to keep pushing messages of diversity and equality they must acknowledge the horrors of the past — from the Holocaust to the Great Terror, and even smaller-scale terrors such as the Black War and the Rwandan genocide — without celebrating the ideologies of the culprits.

It is not “smart”, “edgy” or “progressive” to don symbols under which millions of innocent people died. We should all continue to critique and challenge the integrity of our governments, but we should never use the ideas and symbols of evil, failed regimes as an excuse for progressivism.