Where have all the commies gone? Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly a decade ago, Reds have been all but dead in this country. In the early '90s, membership in the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), America's largest and oldest communist organization, dropped to an all-time low of 15,000. Trying to attract young people to the party was about as easy as selling Yanni CDs at a Snoop Dogg concert.
But now communism appears to be on the rebound, at least in the United States. In 1997 the Young Communist League, the youth arm of the CPUSA, opened up shop on the Internet to promote its Marxist-Leninist doctrine ("capitalism sucks") to the 14-to-30 crowd. Since then, YCL has signed on more than 1,500 new members, increasing its ranks by more than a third. The overall membership of the CPUSA, which also has a Web site, is growing by 100 to 150 a week, with more than 4,000 signing on in the first four months of 1998 alone.
Breathing further life into the party was the release in 1998 of several new versions of Marx and Engels' incendiary page-turner, The Communist Manifesto, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of its publication. One version, by lefty British publisher Verso, features a red ribbon marker and a chic cover design by New York duo Vitaly Komar and Alexsandr Melamid (Russians who, ironically, fled Soviet communism). The Verso Manifesto has sold more than 30,000 copies and hit No. 3 on The Village Voice's best-seller list.
Clearly, communists in America are still a tiny minority and have a way to go before the ruling classes start to tremble. But the recent upsurge leaves one wondering what the attraction is--given communism's monstrous track record. Why would a young American want to wave the red flag that so many equate with tyranny?
"Partly it may be the mystique of lost causes; pining for the egalitarian dream of socialism could be seen as something like an adolescent fixation on the glory and romance of Scarlett O'Hara's Old South," offers Liza Featherstone in Swing (Oct. 1998). "It's also perhaps the ultimate rebellious statement--what could be more outrageous and contrarian in America today than solidarity with a dead and evil empire?"
Or it could just be that the time is ripe. The American economy is booming, yet the disparity between rich and poor is constantly widening. And many feel estranged from the political process. "We have lost faith in our own ability to change the political system," write Ivan Frishberg and Mark Strama in Tikkun (July/Aug. 1998).
After all, what's so outrageous about fighting for a world where there's full employment, where everyone has access to quality health care and education, where there are equal rights for all? And young people probably don't equate their own brand of communism with that of, say, Stalin or Mao. "Kids who are 17 and 18 today were 10 when the Soviet Union collapsed," YCL member Libero Della Piana, 26, told Swing. "They're like, 'Communism, what's that?' "
Yet there's quite a legacy to contend with. The CPUSA stubbornly refuses to denounce atrocities that resulted from Soviet communism. On its Web site, the YCL responds to the question "Did Stalin kill millions?" with "Maybe. We have only been told what the capitalist class wants us to believe."
It's this sort of historical amnesia and the party's stubborn reluctance to distance itself from ideologues like Russian party leader Gennady Zyuganov (who blames "the spread of Zionism" for current conditions in Russia) that most stifles wider acceptance of communism in the United States.
Still, hate mongering does seem worlds away from current young communist activities. "YCL clubs all over the country are working with other activists on a diverse range of issues," reports Featherstone. "In Baltimore, they're protesting wasteful use of school money; in Chicago, the focus is on child labor in overseas sweatshops; in California, the group worked on the successful campaign to defeat Proposition 226, a state initiative that would have severely limited union organizing."
At a YCL convention in Philadelphia last June, members attended workshops including "It's Good to Be Red: Socialism and Standing Up for the C-Word." They got advice from comrades on how to discuss communism ("avoid talking about stuff like the bourgeoisie and the proletariat"). And they listened to YCL national coordinator Noel Rabinowitz, 28, play "Get Up, Stand Up" on his guitar.
The CIA no doubt has already been alerted.