On Monday 13 March Keelan Kellegher from the Cambridge Marxist society debated Peter Hitchens – notorious right-winger and Daily Mail columnist at a meeting of the Kings College Cambridge politics society. The debate was over a framed Soviet flag that hangs in the student bar at Kings College, Cambridge. Hitchens argued that the flag should be removed, on the grounds that it’s the symbol of a brutally repressive regime. Keelan argued that it should remain. The text of Keelan’s introductory remarks in the debate is below.
I find the Right’s attitude to the symbols of the Soviet Union to be a total hypocrisy. They oppose the hammer and sickle, often claiming that it’s because they’re appalled by the atrocities committed in the Stalinist era. And yet there is no call for the Union Jack to be lowered from the places it flies, despite the horrendous crimes perpetrated by the British Empire. We should rightly condemn Stalin’s brutal purges of the 1930s, but likewise we should condemn the first use of concentration camps by Britain in the Boer War.
The problem that those on the Right have with the flag is that it is an overtly left-wing symbol – a symbol of the struggle of workers and peasants against the capitalists and aristocrats. The main victim of active Soviet repression was the Left Opposition. The millions that died in addition was the result of bureaucratic degeneration which Trotsky critiqued in his brilliant work The Revolution Betrayed. As someone who has the same politics as Trotsky, I don’t believe we should bury the symbols of the Soviet Union but reclaim the hammer and sickle as the symbol of the Left Opposition. It should serve as a reminder of the great communists who struggled against the Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration.
This flag should remain on the wall because it is a symbol, also, of the socialist alternative to capitalism. Capitalism is in complete crisis, as wages remain stagnant across Europe and the USA, whilst China’s economic growth is sustained only through the accruement of enormous debt and a capitalist bubble that is set to burst in the future. Nothing the global elite – the ruling class, as Marx would have put it – do or say can offer a way out of this crisis. The only way is through socialism, of the style advocated by Lenin and Trotsky, not Stalin.
Also, it should be noted that the hammer and sickle is not owned solely by the USSR. It is an international symbol of struggle against capitalism and reaction. The PKK, a Kurdish group fighting for national independence against the Islamic State uses the hammer and sickle as its symbol. I believe it is wrong to claim that the symbol represents the repressive nature of the Soviet government alone. To many, including myself, it is a flag that reflects the revolutionary struggle against a failing capitalist system. Ultimately the hammer and sickle is the flag of the international working class and the political parties and trade unions that represent them.
The flag not only holds historical importance. The principles of revolution, anti-capitalism, and the struggle for socialism which it embodies will become more and more relevant to today’s student movement, because we will continue to be attacked by government austerity as the crisis of capitalism, that began in 2008, continues. This fight can only succeed if we embrace, not reject, this kind of resistance and struggle against capitalism. And I think removing the flag would therefore be a step backwards.
Finally, I am proud to defend this flag as a symbol of the Bolshevik revolution and its achievements. The early Soviet Union remains a showcase for what can be achieved if you implement true workers’ democracy: communal childcare to liberate women, and the removal of capitalist exploitation. Lenin’s Soviet Union was the first nation to legalise homosexuality and abortion. It granted self-determination to national groups previously oppressed by the Russian Empire. The Bolshevik revolution can also be credited with the ending of the horrors of WW1, and it provided land for the previously disenfranchised peasantry.
I believe it is possible to attack the ruthless atrocities of Stalinism and still defend the Bolshevik revolution of Lenin and Trotsky by keeping that flag in the Kings bar.
by Keelan Kellegher, Cambridge Marxists