The Flags of Reaction: The Usage of Past Symbology by the Global Far-Right

Written by Christopher Boyne

The Imperial Flag of Brazil seen above the Brazilian Congress in January 2023. Accessed via Reddit.

On 8 January 2023, protesters opposing Brazil’s newly elected socialist president, Luis Ignacio Lula de Silva, stormed various government buildings in the nation’s capital of Brasilia. The protestors would be removed from the buildings by the authorities shortly after breaking in, but for a few hours a different flag flew over Brasilia: the flag of the Empire of Brazil which had been dissolved in 1822. In a way, it makes sense in the context of a protest movement against the peaceful transition of power within a presidential republic. Some may not support the concept of the country having a president at all. However, we could also see the raising of this flag as a part of a wider trend in analysing the far-right from a global perspective. 

Flags are fundamentally symbols. They simultaneously represent both the state and the nation, which can be viewed somewhat as separate entities in a relationship with one another: the state being practical, the nation being cultural. The use of flags by far-right elements within a state that differ from the official flag is a longstanding one. There are a number of reasons for this, but firstly it’s important to look at a few examples and how they connect to similar political events to those which occurred in Brasilia.  

On 6 January 2022 during the Capitol riot in Washington, D.C., there were two flags used in this way: the original thirteen-star union flag was flown by the pro-Trump protesters as well as the Confederate flag. These are two interesting symbols to be used by the same political movement, being that both represent contradictory institutions from a historical perspective. However, both symbols also share the fact that they represent an imagined past of a nation, which is why the far-right movement can accept both being used side by side.  

Another example we can see of this is just north of the border in Canada, in which the red ensign (the flag of Canada used prior to 1965) has taken on a role within the symbology of Canada’s far-right. The ensign flag is seen as a symbol of the country’s past prior to increased immigration which has changed its racial demographics. Arising from the immigration reforms of 1967 passed shortly after the changing of the flag, these reforms essentially ended Canada’s racial restrictions on immigration. The ensign flag is therefore seen as the symbol of a Canada in which people of white ethnicity were the vast majority of the population. Due to the prominent placing of the Union Jack in the flag’s top left corner, it is also seen as being the symbol of a Canada more in tune with a perceived connection to Britain and British culture, the ancestry of the majority of white Canadians. In these examples we can see these symbols being used by groups aiming to return the country to a previous state of being with a particular focus being placed on a racial perception of this past. 

One other place this trend takes some of its strangest manifestations is in the usage of these past symbols by the militaries of countries. To return to a previous example, the Confederate flag, has been regularly used by American soldiers, particularly those from the southern states. This is not a new development with photographic evidence of the practice dating back to the Second World War. However, it is somewhat strange how these soldiers have taken to using a symbol of a nation founded in opposition to the state which they now serve. Perhaps one way we can view this is that these symbols have assumed within military cultures a sort of apoliticality, in which they are seen as representing the place and culture of origin of the soldier, particularly in this instance. Many soldiers from the southern states could see the usage of the Confederate flag as honouring their ancestors’ military legacy, rather than the ideology of the institution in which they serve.  

Another more recent example was during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the days following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, social media was plastered with images of Russian soldiers, and particularly Russian tanks, sporting the flag of the Soviet Union. This is a somewhat strange development, particularly considering that Putin and his party, United Russia, have largely based their political movement in a sweeping away of socialist ideology in favour of a strict Russian nationalism, with some influence from the ideological abomination that is Eurasianism. But again, in this example we can see the same patterns appearing: the iconography of the Soviet Union has been incorporated into an apolitical understanding of Russian nationalism. This places the Soviet Union as being, regardless of historical accuracy, a Russian nationalist project, and therefore it can be connected to the current Russian nationalist project in Ukraine. Putin may long to forever bury the ideology of October 1917 but, to the Russian nationalist, the flag represents the borders “Russia” lost in December 1991. 

Bibliography (last checked 09/03/2023) (last checked 10/03/2023) (last checked 10/03/2023) (last checked 10/03/2023) 

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