Hint: It has something to do with capitalism’s failures and a so-called ‘Trump bump.’
To put it in blunt but unsurprising terms, the world is in shambles right now. Fascism is on the rise again. Hate crimes are up in the U.S. Water crises loom on the horizon. Wealth inequality has never been higher. Climate change and natural disasters abound. Mass shootings galore. Police brutality and racism. A rising threat of nuclear war.
Amidst this nightmarish backdrop, many people — particularly younger Americans — are in search of answers, trying to identify a root cause for all of these problems. And one that’s emerging front and center is our entire economic system.
A 2011 Pew Research Center poll found that a slight majority of liberal Democrats held “negative views” of capitalism. In 2016, a Harvard University study revealed that 51% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 “don’t support” capitalism—and only 42% support it.
So if not capitalism, then what?
The study found young people favor socialism, but that’s not the only alternative. There has been an uptick of interest in a 170-year old political system — that dirtiest of C-words.
Communism.Amidst a nightmarish backdrop, many people — particularly younger Americans — are in search of answers. Communism. Click To Tweet
It’s no secret that the United States doesn’t have the best relationship with communism; “dirty commie” is an insult as American as apple pie. Much of this is rooted in the The Red Scare of the 1940s and ’50s, which fueled the Cold War and the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and which had a lasting effect on how people in the U.S. view the political system. Since then, the U.S. government has interfered in multiple countries — supporting coups and assassinating leaders — in order to weed out communism anywhere it popped up. Or was even perceived to pop up.
For some, communism brings up images of the oppressive reigns of Soviet-era Stalin and China’s Mao, and the widespread murders attributed to their regimes. Communism is sometimes thought of as Big Government coming and taking everything you own.
Critics of communism say it goes against human nature, that it can’t work because people are naturally lazy and/or selfish, that it won’t work if the state gives citizens food and shelter for nothing. Frank Zappa famously said, “communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff.” Others say it conflicts with people’s desire for freedom by forcing them to submit to the will of big government.
But is that what communism really is?
To understand the goal of communists, it’s necessary to have a nuanced understanding of communism and its relationship to Marxism — that political movement that so many in the so-called “alt-right” are constantly railing against.
A quick overview: Marxism draws from the work of Karl Marx, a German philosopher, historian, and economist from the 1800s. He and Friedrich Engels co-authored The Communist Manifesto of 1848, and since their passing, communists and other Marx/Engels fans have been interpreting and developing upon their ideas. One expert called communism “the endpoint of Marx’s ideas.”
According to Marx, there is conflict between two classes of people. These are the capitalists — people who control the means of production, such as business owners — and the working class, who actually produce all the concrete goods of our society. In its purest form, communism espouses the belief that the means of production should be in the hands of the workers — not the government.
What many people think of as communism is actually closer to socialism, a related system that has many similarities to communism. It is socialism, not communism, that relies on “big government” to get things done. In socialism, the government owns the means of production rather than the people. In a true communist system, government as we know it today would likely not exist.In its purest form, communism espouses the belief that the means of production should be in the hands of the workers. Click To Tweet
However, it’s important to keep in mind that these are ideas. The theories of socialism and communism are continually being developed and not every communist agrees with the next about how government should look in a communist society. Many value the idea of a true democracy rather than a representative democracy — every person gets an equal vote on every issue in the community. No one person is given power over others. There are no presidents, no governors, no mayors. In this form, communism actually overlaps with anarchist ideas more so than it does with socialist ideas.
In any case, in recent months, communist ideology has seemed to catch on with more Americans. The Communist Party USA — a national communist organization with 7,000 registered members — has reported a significant spike in interest and membership. According to one article, CPUSA had 5,000 members in April 2017; at that time, the organization’s international secretary said, “There is growing interest in communist ideas.”
Local groups, too, have been invigorated. In my own backyard, the Seattle Communists, a chapter of the Pacific Northwest-based Communist Labor Party, has seen its numbers swell. The organization, which came to life as a spin-off of the Tacoma Communists, had only three dedicated members in the summer of 2016. Now it has 25 to 30 registered members, and a lot more people involved in its community programs (plus more than 800 Facebook followers). It also has high-profile partnerships, including with 2017 mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver.
When A Changemaker Runs For Mayor: An Interview With Nikkita Oliver
Why the change? Sophia, Seattle Communists’ secretary-treasurer (who doesn’t want her last name used), has no doubt that the increase in membership has to do with the results of the 2016 election. She calls it the “Trump bump” — and the Seattle Communists aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed.
“Public receptivity has gone from, ‘Is this a joke?’ in 2010 to, ‘Why do you hate freedom’ in 2012 to, ‘Yeah fuck Trump’ in 2016,” a representative of the Tacoma Communists told me. “Blessedly, we hear ‘Where do I sign up?’ just as frequently since last summer.”
This trend parallels the increase in membership for far-right groups — the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the Klu Klux Klan has anywhere between 5,000 and 8,000 members today. And far-right activity has been featured in the news much more than anything the communists are doing, likely due to the well-documented violent tendencies of fascist and white nationalist organizations. It also helps that they currently have a strong figurehead in Donald Trump, who has been reluctant to condemn them and has employed their people in the White House.
Further, communists believe that fascism happens when capitalism is under threat. As the economic system becomes unstable, white working class people are directed to blame immigrants and people of color and are steered toward white nationalism. Meanwhile, those with class and state power use fascism to defend against the rise of the rest of the working class as their quality of life plummets. In this sense, simultaneous rises in both far right and far left ideas are inevitable under capitalism.
It Wasn’t Just Hate. Fascism Offered Robust Social Welfare.
Against the backdrop of rising hate and bias nationally, coupled with Seattle’s rampant income and racial inequality, it’s unsurprising to see communism take flight.
“We don’t want the government to own everything,” Sophia tells me. In fact, she emphasizes, communists are widely against the U.S. government — they view it as an oppressive entity and an enemy of the people.
“What is government but a tool that a class uses to control society?”
What communists really want is for state and economic power to be put back in the hands of the community. For it to be communal. Hence, Communism.
To that end, the Seattle Communists — whose slogan is “fight the power, serve the people” — leverage community programs centered on efforts to build social institutions so that people don’t have to rely on the government. Their long-term goal: make it so every part of society is controlled by participatory democracy rather than state power.
The group’s earliest community involvement was in response to the rising rates of anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes in Seattle’s Capitol Hill, one they felt the government wasn’t responding to effectively. So the organization revived the “Q-Patrol” program, where volunteers are trained in self-defense and de-escalation techniques. The group is also involved in a “serve the people” food delivery program, launched last October to bring free groceries to poor households.
The group’s idea is to actively work to improve the community in order to gain trust, so when participants hear about communism, they won’t immediately dismiss the idea. Sophia repeatedly tells me about “making the leap from protest to action.”
Although there are misconceptions about communism, Sophia believes that the word doesn’t carry the same stigma that it used to. At least in Seattle, she is frequently asked why she uses the word communism because “doesn’t it scare people away?” But only once has anyone told her that they actually object to the term. “Everybody thinks that everybody hates the word and is scared of the word, but in my experience, not a whole lot of people are.”
The real challenge is to prove that their ideas work.
Many of us grew up with the message (some would say propaganda) that communism is impossible, evil, or both. But a new day might be dawning. It’s possible that communists haven’t seen this kind of interest in their ideas since they were so thoroughly persecuted in the 1950s.
I myself have become very interested in alternatives to capitalism in recent months, and although I can’t say for sure if communism is the answer, I also definitely don’t believe it’s evil, as I was taught growing up. I also know there’s a lot more to it than I could possibly get into in one article.
If you’re interested, there’s plenty of reading out there — and you won’t be alone in your exploration.