Communism Appeals to a New Generation

How young, gifted Americans are reviving the Reds.


| May-June 1999


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).