Caduceus, or the staff of Mercury

Skannad 1I would like to draw attention to a detail on a medallion deigned by Sergey Chekhonin (Tchehonine), from 1918.* On Chekhonin’s work of art an able-bodied female and a ditto male are depicted. The female stands before a cropland. She is carrying a sickle and a spade and so represents farmers. The male stands before a factory. He is holding a sledgehammer in his right hand, thereby seems to represent (despite Chekhonin’s choice of a non-factory tool as symbol) industrial workers. Behind him, on the ground, rests a parcel, perhaps with goods from his workplace. In his left hand ­– and it is this detail I found surprising – he carries a caduceus.

           Skannad From the late 19th and early 20th century, we spot the caduceus – or Mercury himself, or symbols associated with him (especially his winged helmet) – on trade union banners and emblems. In Sweden and Denmark – and certainly in the countries that harboured workers’ movements that influenced the culture of these small countries, Germany and Britain above all – the banners and emblems decorated with this symbolism belong to unions that organized personnel working in shops, offices and akin workplaces.** This is hardly surprising since Mercury (Hermes) famously is, among other things, the god of commerce.

 Is it possible that Chekhonin, fashioning this medallion, choose to use two symbols for farming, one for industrial production and one for commerce? Considering the emphasis of the Marxist Bolsheviks on the historical role of the industrial proletariat, this interpretation doesn’t strike me as entirely convincing. But I am not able to come up with a better one.

Skannad 1 kopia

* Medallion from Richard Stites, Revolutionary dreams: utopian vision and experimental life in the Russian Revolution, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989.

** Banners from trade unions for personnel working with commerce (and in offices). From the Danish city of Herning “with surroundings” (reproduced in Henning Grelle, Under de røde faner: en historie om arbejderbevægelsen, Fremad, København, 1984) and the Swedish city of Norrköping (reproduced in Margareta Ståhl, Vår enighets fana: ett sekel fackliga fanor, LO, Stockholm, 1998).

Left Fascism

11-236_1.jpgBy spring 1936, the French literati George Bataille famously came to the conclusion that Fascism had to be fought with its own means. For a surrealist inclined intellectual, this meant not jibbing at the darker sides of human existence: desire, perversion, violence, torture, sacrifice, fanaticism and death. For this aspiration, Bataille has been, quite erroneously according to my view, branded “Left fascist” by Richard Wolin.*

batallodelamort01 kopiaI wonder whether there are connections between this aspiration of Bataille and his friends and fascist-like feature in anarchism? I’m especially thinking about the obscure anarchist “Batallón de la Muerte” aka “Centuria Malatesta” that fought in the Spanish civil war and wore uniforms that looked “fascist”, not only to us today, but likewise to the contemporary bystanders of its parade in Barcelona on the 3rd of March 1937. If anyone has information on this unlucky unit, I would be very keen to learn.

Makhno Ukraina.jpgAlready in the Russian Civil War, The Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine seems to have used a black flag with a skull. In the 1930s also the Sandino rebels in Nicaragua used a Jolly Roger-ish flag (in the image displayed by their adversaries, the American Marines).

U.S._Marines_holding_Sandino's_Flag_-_Nicaragua_1932.jpg* I find the Wikipedia article on “Left-Wing Fascism” overall misdirected. For me, if you defend the ideals of the French revolution, with whatever means, even fascist-like ones, you are necessarily opposed to Fascism. Maybe “fascist Left” is what the article is really about? In any case, “Left Fascism” ought to be reserved for people like Gabriele D’Annunzio in Italy, the Strasser brothers in Germany and Juan Yagüe in the Spanish Falange. So far in the history of fascism, we have recurrently seen the purging of Left Fascism within the victorious and ruling parties.

Sandino’s spiritism

Augusto_César_Sandino_cph.3b19320Remembering how left-wing friends in the 1980s took great interest in the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua (recall The Clash’s album Sandinista! I personally backed the Contras, perhaps not my finest political decision), it is intriguing to learn from Donald C. Hodges’ Sandino’s Communism: Spiritual Politics For The Twenty-First Century (1992) how deeply involved Augusto César Sandino  was in spiritism and esotericism.

maestro_trincadoSandino seems to have taken a particularly keen interest in the religio-philosophical ideas of Escuela Magnético-Espiritual de la Comuna Universal, founded by Joaquín Trincado Mateo. The Magnetical-Spiritual School of Universal Commune, “the direct continuation” of the magical system “Moses founded 36 centuries ago”, if we are to believe Wikipedia, seems to still be around. I doubt however that the political dimension of the school, that first attracted Sandino, are vibrant still. In respect to early 19the century France, Julian Strube has recently studied the juxtaposition of socialism and occultism. It was news to me that such a joint adventure continued well into the interwar period.Emblem

The Rose of the Great Seal of Knighthood

44 kopiaI’m reading the final draft for The Style and Mythology of Socialism. Socialist Idealism, 1871-1914 (to be published by Routledge in 2018). In this book I’m, among other things, trying to understand the symbolism of the Knights of Labor. One of their key symbol was the “Great Seal of Knighthood”.

I have tried to interpret its symbolism in details, but it is only now when I read this final draft that I perceive that from a distance the Great Seal of Knighthood on Grand Master Terence V. Powderly’s gravestone (next to the Masonic emblem) appears as a rose.42 kopia

How could I have missed this! More precisely, it comes into sight as a so-called heraldic or Tudor rose. 220px-Tudor_Rose.svg

I’m reminded of the poem by Elizabeth Doten (who was she?), recited during the opening ceremonies of the K of L:

God of the Granite, and the Rose, // Soul of Archangel, and the Bee; // The mighty tide of Being flows, // Through every channel, Lord from Thee; // It springs to Life in grass and flowers, // Through every grade of being runs; // Till from Creation’s radiant towers, // Thy Glory flames in Stars and Suns

Moreover, I need to look into the history of the use of the red rose by social democratic parties, at least the Swedish branch…Socialist_Party_of_Granida_rose.png



Origin of the Red Star (1)

The red star of communism is one of the most familiar signs in modern politics. Still, there seems to be surprisingly little known about its origin. Like everything else that we encounter repeatedly, and  has been present already from our childhood, the red star of communism appears palpable. But on reflection, this choice of symbol is of course far from evident: why on earth do a star painted red symbolise the movement that aim to abolish class societies?! During the last year, I have taken every opportunity to ask historians, even specialists in the history of socialism, if they knew the answer to this enigma, but they have left me empty-handed.

If we conveniently start our investigation with consulting Wikipedia, we learn about the occurrence of the read star on the Red army uniforms in 1917. We also encounter a competing theory explaining that Trotsky brushed the green star of Esperanto red. The first theory doesn’t really seem to answer the question about the choice of symbolism, however. (Maybe the theory implies that stars are frequently used symbols on uniforms, which I guess is true, at least nowadays, and painting them red an obvious choice for socialist?) The second theory just comes across as long-fetched. Let me suggest another hypothesis.

In 1908, Alexander Bogdanov published Красная звезда (translated into English as Red star: The first Bolshevik Utopia in 1984). Through the eyes of the most advanced socialist revolutionary on the planet earth, Leonid, the novel describes a utopian socialist society on Mars, the red-coloured planet. The society the reader gets familiar with, and the Martians portrayed, are fascinating and the novel truly worth reading. Could it be that this popular novel – written by a person that for while, by some, was depicted as Lenin’s chief rival as the chief ideologue of the Bolsheviks – became the inspiration for the symbolic adaptation of the red star? Somewhere out there, there must be someone to know the answer to enigma of the birth of red star.

(Nota bene, that the red star on this newyear postcard is, for some reason, a pentagon.)

Masonic G and Anarchist A (2)


Two new things concerning the from-Masonic-G-to-Anarchist-A theme.

David Leopold was kind enough to show me the image to the left above. It is the membership card for the left-chartist group Fraternal Democrats, active between 1845-1853. It is obviously masonic and most certainly influenced the emblem for the First international (1864–1876). Marx and Engels were in contact with the Fraternal Democrat group from its start. Moreover, the emblem looks very much like an A.

The emblem for the Spanish branch of the First International, to the right above, is indeed not reproduced in the version by historian Alberto Valín Fernández that I referred to in my latest post, but it in fact appears in another version:

IMG_1802.jpgFrom the frontcover to The Democratic Review of British and Foreign Politics, History and Literature (1850). Harney, G. Julian (ed.). Vol. II.  London: J. Watson.


K of L emblems, pins, charms

KofLpins ur Irons & Russel sid 224 kopia.jpgThe Holy and Nobel Order of the Knight of Labor was a (proto-)socialist order, spread all over USA in the late 19th century. The order had something like 750 000 initiated members, males and females, whites and blacks, skilled and unskilled workers.* Despite its huge impact on the American worker’s movement, this romantic and mythic socialist order is today, due mainly to the biased historiography of victorious form of socialism, largely forgotten.

The emblems/pins/charms (I am uncertain about the correct term) display the triangle (trinity) of God surrounded by the circle of humanity. If the knights follow the rules of European heraldry, the lozenge-shaped emblems/pins/charms was probably intended for women. The “SOMA” written on one of them is the acronym for the motto of the order: “Secrecy, Obedience, and Mutual Assistance”.

* Best book about the K of L is without doubt Robert E. Weir’s Beyond labor’s veil: the culture of the Knights of Labor. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press(1996). ** From Irons, Charles F. & Charles A. Russell (no year, probably 1895). Illustrated Catalogue of Solid Gold. Society Emblems, Pins, Buttons and Charms. Providence: Irons & Russell, updated version of an earlier version by Irons alone.