You Asked: Where Are The American Communists?

On Patreon (I cannot stress enough how important your support on Patreon is), we ask supporters to occasionally toss questions over to us that they want answered that are a little bit harder to get an answer to than something you might ask on Quora. For this, the fifth piece in our series You Asked, we’re tackling a red herring.

I’ve heard of the Democratic Socialists of America, but I never hear about an organized communist party in the United States. Is that a normal thing, or is the U.S. unusual for not having an active communist party?

A primer on the difference between socialism and communism

Although they’re used interchangeably, socialism and communism are not the same things. Socialism is a political philosophy in which industry is controlled by the state (known as social ownership) and it comes in many flavors. Nearly every country has some form of social ownership – including the U.S., where organizations like the United States Postal Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority are under government ownership. Communism, in contrast, calls for the abolition of the state; everyone works towards common goals and there’s no need for state institutions. It’s more complicated than this, but it’s a good basic foundation.

In much of the world, social democrats advocate for certain elements of socialism to be implemented within a capitalist, pluralistic democratic society. This is slightly different that democratic socialists, who advocate for full socialism brought about in a democratic way (instead of by violent revolution), and Bernie Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist but is really a social democrat, which has helped to fuel some confusion about these terms in the United States.

Did you… follow that?

The United States has several communist parties

Communist Party USA, founded in 1919, is one of the oldest communist parties in the world. Throughout the twentieth century it was financed by the Soviet Union but it was never a particularly powerful party.

One thing that impacts communist movements is that there are a lot of flavors of communism. Marxism (or Marxism-Leninism) is the dominant one and the flavor that the Communist Party USA enjoys. But there’s also:

The Party for Socialism and Liberation, which is a Marxist-Leninist party, secured 85,623 votes in the 2020 presidential election. That put their ticket in sixth place behind the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green, and Alliance parties.

85,000 votes is nothing to scoff at, but the Democratic and Republican parties are the third- and fourth-largest parties in the world, respectively. The American two-party system is incredibly powerful.

But what about other countries?

There aren’t as many big communist parties as you might expect

China’s ruling party, obviously, is enormous – although only around 7% of Chinese citizens are members. Likewise, countries like Vietnam have dominant communist parties because they’re single-party states.

Russia’s communist party is that country’s second-largest party. The descendent of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, it claims a membership of around 160,000 and holds 42 seats in the national legislature (United Russia, the ruling party, holds 335 seats).

Nepal’s current government is communist. Communist parties also act as junior partner in several coalition governments around the world including in Argentina, Belarus, Czechia, Palestine (West Bank), and Spain.

But in most countries, communist parties sit on the fringes. Israeli’s Maki, for example, holds two seats in the national legislature. The Trotskyist Solidarity-People Before Profit has five seats in Ireland’s lower house. While socialist parties often call for participation in democratic institutions, there is a commonly-held belief in communist circles that elections are a tool to prolong the ruling class’ power and so participating in “bourgeois democracy” is unnecessary and counterrevolutionary.

That’s a perfectly fine political position to take but it obviously means you don’t see a ton of communists winning races. In countries with stable democracies, like the United States probably isn’t, it can be hard to convince people that the solution is to overthrow the democratic apparatus and replace it with a dictatorship, even if “dictatorship” isn’t a very good explanation of how a communist political system works.

In the U.S., there’s an effort to engage more young voters from all parties and that includes communist ones. Communist Party USA has begun to embrace electoral politics as a way to maybe, you know, win some seats. What effect it could have on the two-party system, though, remains to be seen. In states where third parties have achieved successes like Maine, Vermont, New York, and Minnesota, none of those third parties have been communist ones. Vermont’s unusually powerful third party, the Progressive Party, is the closest the left has come.