After backlash from across the globe, Walmart has stopped selling items bearing the hammer-and-sickle insignia of the Soviet Union. This followed strongly worded letters from Baltic leaders and a U.S. educational effort largely spearheaded by Mari-Ann Kelam through the Acton Institute.
The controversy burst into public consciousness when Kelam wrote an Acton Commentary titled, “Walmart’s T-shirt homage to mass murder,” published on September 5. A number of news outlets picked up the story, both in print and on radio.
“When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, hundreds of thousands of our citizens were killed, exiled, tortured, raped, separated from their families,” the ambassador wrote. “Similar fates struck dozens of millions of other innocent people, including children, across Europe and across the globe.”
A number of lawmakers from all three Baltic nations – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – wrote a separate letter charging Walmart with promoting a symbol “among its customers worldwide, of totalitarianism, human rights abuse, and suppression of freedom and democracy, the values that allowed such corporations as Walmart to grow and prosper.”
“We call on Walmart Inc. to demonstrate their corporate responsibility…and immediately discontinue selling” the goods, they wrote.
The corporation proved as good as the lawmakers’ word. Walmart confirmed the removal to Lithuania’s ambassador to the United States, Rolandas Krisciunas.
Walmart’s website now marks those items “no longer available.” This is true for t-shirts, women’s hoodies, a V-neck in Caribbean blue, and a variety of keychains. (A plethora of Che Guevara clothing remains in stock.)
The decision to remove the symbol of an ideology that murdered 100 million people (and still reaps a secret harvest in North Korea, Cuba, and the less-publicized regions of China) came about more than three years after the retailing giant banished all Confederate flag items from its stores and website.
“We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer,” said Walmart spokesman Brian Nick at the time.
Like the antebellum South, Communism combined a false anthropology with erroneous economics to forge a slave system of mass murder and oppression. Unlike the Confederacy – which never established a single, internationally recognized nation – Communism’s imperial shadow darkened more than one-third of humanity. But for the dismal state of U.S. education about Marxism’s crimes, and unflagging enthusiasm for the doctrine in certain quarters of academia, the hammer-and-sickle would be as widely reviled as the Italian fasces or the lightning-bolt “SS” symbol.
Thankfully, in this case the market supplied an answer without legal ramifications.
Every manufacturer has a right to sell any merchandise permitted by law. But retailers have the right to refuse to facilitate the sale of any item based on any criteria it may choose – poor quality, the circumstances of production, or a perceived conflict with the store’s image. Featuring a symbol that offends the families of millions of formerly captive peoples is not just bad politics and bad branding; it’s bad business.
This demands a round of applause for the Invisible Hand – and the active pens of Mari-Ann Kelam, Ambassador Krisciunas, and the innumerable others who opted to express themselves in writing before voting with their dollars.