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Washington, D.C., members of the Communist Party USA are meeting on a September night in the living room of Comrade D, who lives on 10th Street NW. “If this were Cuba or the Soviet Union when we were in power,” says Comrade D, “this street would have its own cell.” He turns to point out of the town house’s back window. “And that street back there would have its own cell, too.” A “cell” is the basic communist meeting group, the clique of comrades getting together and making plans for the ideal classless society.
Contemporary Petworth, however, doesn’t furnish enough believers for cell division. This gathering isn’t just 10th Street’s cell—it’s the whole Washington area’s cell. Some say it reaches into rural Virginia. One cell member says it stretches to Kentucky.
Last month, the cell tried having a meeting via teleconferencing. Tonight they talk about doing it again. Truth is, the monthly Wednesday-night meeting plan is hard to work out. One member’s working two jobs, one member’s working three, and another has marriage counseling that night. Maybe everyone can hook up over the phone instead.
Mimicking a corporate meeting strategy doesn’t appeal to Comrade D, who’s in his early 50s. “If people can leave their houses to go to a movie or to church, they can come to a meeting,” he says. “Not like we’re asking them to come to a meeting in London, or to come to a meeting in places you’ve never heard of.” He worries that the authorities could eavesdrop on a teleconference. Coming to a meeting, he says, is no big deal “if you’re about Lenin.”
These guys are about Lenin. Among them are untold decades of party membership. In those years have been trips to the Soviet Union, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, and even North Korea. In those years have been fears of losing jobs for political convictions.
And in those years have been endless opportunities for debate. “It’s not a ‘cell’—it’s a club!” insists Ed Elkind, 75, at another get-together. Elkind is the treasurer and former chair of the Frederick Douglass Club, District of Columbia, Communist Party USA—the official name of D.C.’s Marxist-Leninist faithful. “‘Cell’ is from the ’20s.”
It’s tough for Elkind to get around these days. He sits in his motorized wheelchair among the members on folding chairs. Elkind’s name is the contact on the club’s Web site; more than anyone, he is concerned with the stagnation of the D.C. party’s membership, which hovers somewhere between 10 and 35, depending on whom you believe. “I heard from a 15-year-old kid last week,” he tells the club. “He said he was all full of energy for being in the party.” Elkind sent him some materials and invited him to the meeting. “Never heard from him again,” he says.
Elkind has been to a lot of meetings. He says the issue these days is always the same: recruitment. The national party has just 2,200 members. Addressing the room at Comrade D’s, Elkind asks, “How do you organize, and how do you get people moving?” He says this to a crowd of seven, including one member’s disoriented, elderly mother. She walks across the meeting space with a cane in one hand and a teddy bear in the other.
Nicholas Wolf, coordinator of the Frederick Douglass Club’s youth wing, created some posters over the summer to get things going for the party. They’re new, with black and red ink on white paper, made by a fellow member of the Young Communists League. Wolf says he particularly likes the design because it has a profile of Lenin on one side, along with images of marching workers, flag-waving, and industrial-age scenes.
The posters’ messages wouldn’t be out of place in a major-party presidential campaign: “Fight for our future” and “Now Hosting Open Meetings,” read the slogans.
So what’s the deal with these “open meetings”?
“They’re going to be great. Very lively. Heated discussions of issues important today. There’ll be lots of different people with very different viewpoints,” says Wolf.
Asked when the meetings are scheduled, he replies, “We’re in the postering stage.”
Wolf started high school as a Republican, because he simply accepted the politics of his conservative father. “It was the structure in which my ideology grew,” he says. The younger Wolf was very much into GOP politics and “the church and [was] family-oriented.”
But then Wolf had to work to support himself when he became 18. He found it hard to deal with student-loan applications and the financial demands of higher education. He got a job as a private security guard. “The options in this situation are working at CVS, McDonald’s, or working security,” he says. “I picked security only because it paid a few dollars more an hour than the others.”
Wolf, 25, patrolled low-income housing projects for five years in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties. “Trying to manage survival on $8 an hour in the D.C. area, without reliable transportation, affordable housing, no savings, and limited medical insurance, is very difficult,” he says. “I started questioning a system in which an adult working full time, 60 hours a week, even—that adult can’t support himself. I realized a lot of people are in that situation, and it drove me to question the system.”
Coming out of a suburban white community, it was a shock. “We’d be working with the police very closely whenever something happened on our property,” he says. “It’s no wonder minorities, and poor minorities, fill the crime stats, because these are the people targeted for criminal arrests.”
Like most rent-a-cops, he had some free time on his shifts. So he read Marx and Lenin, and he’s up on the thinking of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher whose works were a starting point for Marx.
Wolf’s on-the-job reading informed a certain anti-establishment approach to his patrol work. “When I was working security, I took pride that I never, ever, made an arrest. Five years and never, not one. Many guards boast one arrest a week—loitering, drug busts, whatever, and they’re cheerful about it. Not me. Of course I would have made an arrest for a crime that wasn’t victimless, but it never happened. I’m proud to say never, not one.”
An excitable comrade, Wolf gets as animated about his party’s future as he does about keeping the cuffs on his hips. Big things are going to start happening in the club’s outreach very soon, according to Wolf. Young Communists League meetings twice a month, he says, nights out postering the town, lots of things. He’ll send a list. One night we’re in his car, driving to the club’s monthly meeting, and I ask whether they distribute the party’s newspaper, the People’s Weekly World, which is printed in New Jersey.
Wolf gives me the latest copy every time we get together. I’ve seen small stacks of them in cafes in Minneapolis, and they’re distributed by ambitious comrades in other cities, as well. Does the D.C. club make a round of sympathetic businesses and leave copies to spread the word? No, here it comes by subscription only, Wolf says. He’s also got a problem with the layout. “If they would only just put our principles on the front, at the top, every issue,” he says. “If people would only understand our principles.”
Wolf prefers pamphleteering to newspapering, anyway, even though he hasn’t done much of the former. “I really should do one—I’m sure the party wouldn’t mind.” What would he put in a pamphlet? “I basically prefer posters, though, because all you have to do is put them up,” he responds.
Indeed, Wolf can’t spend all his time working on the struggle. He left his security job in 2003 and now works arranging meetings and doing accounting for a venture-capital company.
It’s a new era for communism and the Communist Party USA. There’s no more Soviet Union. There’s no more Iron Curtain. The People’s Republic of China is enjoying a huge economic boom thanks to its quasi-capitalist economy.
Communist Party USA National Chair Sam Webb acknowledged the contemporary realpolitik at July’s national party convention in Chicago. “[T]he Cold War and McCarthyism are over,” he said. “Therefore, we must put to rest the political culture, habits and practices that were shaped by that era.” He called for members to take a page out of the book of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered comrades and “come out of the closet.”
Barry Weinstein, 49, co-chair of the Frederick Douglass Club, has heeded Webb’s call. When I first contacted him, Weinstein cited concern that he’d end up being “red-baited by this article.” Yet when it comes time to meet, Weinstein shows up with a white T-shirt with a red hammer-and-sickle logo and “CPUSA” printed on it. “Look at me—don’t call me a terrorist, and don’t call me less than an American,” he says. “I’m as American as you can get, as patriotic as anyone. Even more so!”
A public-elementary-school teacher in Fairfax County, Weinstein says he has been lavished with presents from his students’ parents, including gift certificates for one of the swank shopping malls at Tysons Corner. With careful explanation to those parents, he has passed the gifts on to charities.
On one level, he thinks communism can be explained only with old stories of labor fights. “Man, to understand communism in America today, you’ve got to go back to the Haymarket Martyrs,” he says. The Haymarket Martyrs were seven anarchists arrested in 1886 after a bomb went off at a Chicago strike supporting the eight-hour workday, resulting in the deaths of eight police officers and four civilians; against the pleadings of organized labor, the anarchists were executed. But when I ask how a distant reference explains the scene today, Weinstein is brought up short.
“You’re right,” he declares, stumped. “I’ve got to think about that. I’ve got an interest in [clarity] as an educator….What I’m trying to do is make this understandable to our [socio-economic] classes today.”
Weinstein is excited about what’s coming up. Sept. 24, 25, and 26 are going to be “very, very big” for the club. It’s the national anti-war mobilization march on the National Mall, sponsored by United for Peace and Justice and International ANSWER. He hopes a lot of people from the party will be coming down. Protests, he says, are another way the club meets. They’ll meet up at the protest “and have a meeting” while supporting “our class.”
The day of the march, communist clubs from New York, Connecticut, and Philadelphia turn up, with party members from other states and cities, as well. National Party Chair Webb is here, along with staff people from the headquarters in New York City. There are about 100 people who’ve come to march behind the party’s red banner, and clubs have brought their own banners.
D.C.’s club has six members in attendance, and one is a brand-new face—Jonny Malm, 32, who joined the party online the week before. Malm is half-American and half-Swedish and has a tattoo on his upper arm of Fidel Castro speaking and pointing a finger. “He’s pointing towards my heart,” he says.
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But D.C. club members are too busy running from place to place to schmooze with the new member. Weinstein is in and out on errands, as is Wolf, who says, “Sorry, today is such a mess.” Elkind is on the scene, too, but not long after the communist section gets moving, he and his girlfriend are gone. The D.C. club doesn’t have a banner of its own to march behind—it’s over at the house of some inactive member, and Weinstein couldn’t pick it up. During the march, Weinstein disappears, as does Wolf. The march’s last holdout from D.C. is the new guy, Malm.
A private room in a bar near Dupont Circle, it turns out, is an ideal place to hammer out a contemporary application of Marxist principles. Just who makes up D.C.’s proletariat? “At the CVS on Dupont Circle that’s open 24 hours, in the middle of the night, you don’t see white people working behind the desk,” says Dustin Tasker, 22, a graduate student at American University pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy.
“Yeah!” respond other comrades at the September Young Communists League meeting: Wolf and Michel Watts, 29, who’s a comrade from the party in France and working in the United States. All three comrades are smoking a lot, it’s very dark, and it’s late. The door is closed. Wolf asks that the name of the bar be kept out of print, because the sympathetic owner might lose business through association with the party.
Tasker’s tour of the local proletariat goes on: “Anyone who has to work for a wage to survive,” Tasker says. “Doctors employed to work at hospitals are wage earners, too.”
“Just because they’re not wearing the hats and clothes that look like early-20th-century English laborers” doesn’t mean they’re not the proletariat, he adds. Styles that date from early-20th-century Europe are important to Tasker. They’re his look. He’s the comrade who made Wolf’s “Now Hosting Open Meetings” poster, and he draws sartorial inspiration from the profile of Lenin on the poster’s border. A loose slouch hat with a snap brim is tilted to one side of his head, and his pants are big and loose, of heavy canvas or denim, cut off raw, midcalf.
In Tasker’s view, contemporary communism boils down to one thing: burritos. Specifically, Chipotle Mexican Grill. “If you look with the right eyes, you see them taking raw materials and turning them into commodities,” he says. Anyone who’s ever eaten at Chipotle knows the drill: At one end of the line, an employee gets the burrito started, placing rice, beans, and/or meat on a tortilla, then passes it along to the next employee, who’s in charge of other ingredients. The third employee rings you up. It’s about as close to factory-floor industrialism as locals will get these days.
Burritos, says Tasker, explain the evil interdependence inherent in capitalism. “The bourgeoisie needs the proletariat, and the proletariat needs the bourgeoisie,” Tasker says. “This is why communism is a revolutionary idea. The system itself is the problem, and it all needs to be uprooted.”
Getting the ball rolling toward a better society is harder than thinking about it. It’s easy to see what goes on at Chipotle or CVS; figuring out something young communists can do is the first thing on Wolf’s agenda for the meeting.
He wants “a very direct action in the city,” something through which “we can attack that issue and relate it to capitalism, even though we’re small….To actually show ourselves as doing something. What do you think?”
No one has any ideas, but there’s general agreement. Wolf wants “a focused action” that the three of them can do that will gather “just 25 people to show up for an issue.” A really divisive issue, he says, with “a point that will offend people because they’re in power. So it would be something that would piss people off.” Maybe something in neighborhoods, he suggests.
“But we don’t live in the same neighborhood,” Tasker objects.
So the group can’t figure out what to do. Instead, they agree to read What Is to Be Done?, a 1902 text by Lenin.
As they part, they all agree to try to think before their next meeting of some action they can take together. They agree to put up posters once or twice a week, but Watts says he can’t the coming week because he has to make a long weekend’s trip to Serbia. Tasker is overjoyed at hearing this, and while they’re walking down the stairs back into the bar, he asks if Watts can bring back some Serbian cigarettes for him. He gives a tutorial on the brand’s correct pronunciation. “I’ll write down for you the name in Cyrillic.”
Comrade D can’t afford to reveal his communist identity to the public. The reason? “[B]ecause we’re not in the power structure,” he says. Another consideration in favor of anonymity, says Comrade D, is that “I work in today’s capitalist society.” He thinks he might lose his job at a large institution that receives government funding if his ideology were revealed. “As soon as we take state power, I’ll put my own name down!”
Comrade D, who is African-American, became a communist in the early ’70s, when he was 16 and growing up in the South “disillusioned and with problems reading.”
“When you’re young, when you can’t read very well, it makes you jittery,” he says. “You want to do it, but you can’t.” According to Comrade D, he had problems both in school and with people in general.
A man in his neighborhood took interest in him, though, and showed that he cared for him, for what he thought and how he was doing. “I always looked at this guy and thought, This guy is different.”
One day, the young Comrade D sounded off about white racism with the neighbor, particularly the racism he felt was coming from the white people who attended the local Mennonite Church, a historically very liberal denomination. The man cautioned Comrade D against judging people too quickly. “I looked at all of them as being racist, as outsiders,” he says. “I didn’t understand that they were probably there because they wanted to help.”
The man counseled him against his hard anger and disdain, “so I wanted to know, who was he? Was he a preacher? He said no, he was a Marxist-Leninist.
“So I wanted to be that,” says Comrade D.
The man told him that to be a Marxist-Leninist, he’d have to go back to school and learn to read. So he did.
“Those abilities, to open myself up, to have self-esteem, just raising my head, making me this new man—this is what the Communist Party does. This is what it does to all the new men in all the countries,” says Comrade D.
“Marxism gives you that energy,” he says. “Like a drug addict uses drugs, Marxism is what boosts me. Still, in 2005, I need a boost of Marxism.”
In decades past, Comrade D procured his collectivist fix via travel; he’s taken two trips to Cuba, one to North Korea, one to the Soviet Union, and another to Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic.
All that ideological globe-trotting helped him stock a large collection of memorabilia and books. “Kim Il Sung gave me this watch!” says Comrade D at a party meeting. The timepiece is chrome, with an elasticized band and a white face. It no longer works. Comrade D got the watch when he was in a receiving line with a few hundred other communists. “I was five people past [Kim Il Sung] by the time I could have said anything,” he says.
Comrade D’s expansive communist library, located in his basement, celebrates even more obscure bygone dictators. “I’ve got the collected works of Nicolai Ceausescu!” Comrade D exclaims. Ceausescu was the violently deposed Romanian dictator who banned typewriters, starved his citizenry, and elevated his black Labrador, Corbu, to the rank of colonel in the Romanian Army. When asked to rate Ceausescu’s works, Comrade D just remarks that because “he’s out of power,” he keeps many of the tyrant’s volumes behind other books. He also has about three shelves of the collected works of Kim Il Sung.
Comrade D’s immersion in communist history makes his digs a logical place for local communists to discuss their future. In a September meeting, Weinstein says the party is hitting him up for funds to support the People’s Weekly World. He asks Comrade D if he’ll ask a generous donor he knows to contribute. Comrade D says he’ll go by and pick it up from him. “He lives on the Gold Coast: 16th Street,” he says.
The plan for tonight was originally to watch a DVD movie called Salt of the Earth, from 1954, about a strike at a zinc mine. “Something to feed the inner comrade,” Wolf describes it. The group, however, decides it doesn’t have enough time for the viewing.
Toby, another comrade in attendance, takes control of the meeting. A gaunt man commonly draped in loose old business shirts and khaki pants, Toby sits tonight with a brown clipboard on his lap, piled with curling-edged papers. The four corners of the clipboard are so worn down that it’s almost round. Toby passes out a photocopied reading. He says it’s from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, and it’s a very encyclopedic entry for “Democratic Centralism.”
“Democracy is the sovereignty, independent activity, and initiative of the toilers; and the election of directing bodies and their accountability to the masses,” the entry reads. The fine print of communist organizational babble goes on for two-and-a-half pages. It is dense and overwhelming. No one knows what to do with it.
Comrade D says he’d like to hear a report on what happened at the party convention in July, but the other comrades say they already did that report at a previous meeting. “I was not called!” protests Comrade D, but Toby and Weinstein both insist that he was.
Wolf suggests that for the next meeting they should all read What Is to Be Done?, just as the youth wing is doing. But there seems to be some confusion about why they should read something. They didn’t have to read anything for this meeting, for example. Toby wonders how to apply their proposed reading. “Should we tie it to something separate that we’re doing?” he asks. “Should we be thinking about how we should use it?”
Wolf says he thinks “it’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s for our own theoretical knowledge and applies to our global outlook, and it’s Lenin’s direct writings.”
“So it’s about how a party should work, you mean, right?” asks Toby.
Wolf says yes and that it can be found easily online.
“I’ve got it on cassette tape,” says Comrade D.
Local communist meetings aren’t found only in dark bars, living rooms, and coffee shops. Every month the comrades get a hot lunch, too—at the National Education Association cafeteria on 16th Street NW. Attendees park lunch trays with paper plates and soup bowls together at the table. There’s sunlight, uncomfortable stacking chairs, potted plants, and rubber-edged tables everywhere.
At a June gathering, Elkind presides over a table of comrades for whom McCarthy is still very much alive. Once it is clear there’s a reporter in the mix, two attendees clam up.
Conversation at these lunch breaks pingpongs back and forth among such topics as the AFL-CIO’s troubles, what office Vermont socialist and U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders is running for, a socialist movement that supported the First World War, and legendary labor organizer Eugene V. Debs, who died in 1926. The discussions produce a range of questions and insights: “What do you think of the Labor Party to not get involved? Is that any way to build a party?” and “In the ’30s, I guess FDR did help a lot, once he got pushed into it.” Also: “If you can get all the trucks to stop for one day, then everything stops.”
A couple of lawyers also show up for the lunch sessions. At a September session, one of them sets down his lunch tray and realizes he’s in the presence of a reporter. “Leave now!” he yells, amid the din of all the other office workers lunching. “This is outrageous! We’re not going to have our meeting in front of you! Go!” I explain that we’re in a public place and that Weinstein has said all its meetings are open to me. The lawyer looks hard at the other members at our table. He wears perfect downtown clothes—blue blazer, blue oxford shirt, red-striped dark tie. He’s got the look of someone you’d want to represent you in court. “That’s it,” he declares, and he leaves the table, neither rushing nor looking back.
“I don’t know what he’s afraid of, to tell you the truth,” says Elkind. The group wouldn’t be talking about anything different in the absence of a reporter, he adds. Then Elkind starts telling stories about how he was followed around and questioned by FBI agents in the ’50s, “really wearing fedoras, too.” Finally, he leans over to the lawyer’s left-behind bowl of chili and pumpkin pie and asks if anyone wants something to eat.
The other attorney at the table reports that the departed lawyer has a wide range of clients and doesn’t want to be publicly tied to the party. Nor does this second lawyer want to give his name. “No, I don’t want to be blacklisted anymore than I already am,” he explains. He declares that he “defend[s] poor people” for his practice and is afraid judges would “blackball” him if they knew his communist views, because “they’re screwing over poor people to make the city safe for the capitalist class.”
There was a time when being associated with Marxism-Leninism meant something and brought sympathetic Americans into danger. Now it means irrelevance or perhaps ridicule. Give it meaning again by leaving your lunch behind.
“I’ll tell you what that’s about,” Weinstein says, referring to the lawyer’s hasty departure. “Lenin said that party members should infiltrate society. There should be doctors and lawyers who are in the system and are sympathetic. That’s what he is.”
“And you know what?” says Weinstein. “This is going to mean some shit for me, too, being in this story.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.