Do Republicans Know What Communism Is?

Some Republicans have taken to calling Democrats “communists.” It betrays a willful historical ignorance.

Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin – not Biden, Harris, AOC or Sanders – are the icons of communism. Photo: Apic/Getty Images
Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin – not Biden, Harris, AOC or Sanders – are the icons of communism. Photo: Apic/Getty Images
Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin – not Biden, Harris, AOC or Sanders – are the icons of communism. Photo: Apic/Getty Images

The day after the 2020 vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, then-President Donald Trump did something that is hard to do: He actually shocked me with intemperate language, in this case referring to Harris as a “monster” and a “communist.” The “monster” business didn’t surprise me, actually, given Trump’s long history of personal insults to women. But “communist?” Seriously? I hadn’t heard a Republican call a Democrat a commie since the high tide of McCarthyism — and even back then, the rare slur was associated with specific (if lunatic) allegations of subservience to an international Marxist-Leninist conspiracy operating out of Moscow. Sure, for a generation, Republicans have been imprecisely calling Democrats “socialists,” though no more than a handful of Donkey Party members answer to that appellation, which in itself is as imprecise as “conservative” or “liberal.” But “communist” is actually pretty precise — and wildly inappropriate for anyone in either major U.S. party.

It’s not just Trump throwing the term around. One of his favorite Republican acolytes, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, calls Democrats — all of them, not just some of them — communists all the time (most recently in her speech to a white-nationalist group, in which she referred to “Democrats, who are the Communist Party of the United States of America”). When Republicans lost two Senate seats and control of the upper chamber in Greene’s home state in January 2021, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem called the winning Democratic candidates communists. And another Republican member of Congress, Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, betrayed a lack of understanding of communism just last month in explaining that the Russians were invading Ukraine because, as a communist, Vladimir Putin “couldn’t feed his people” and needed Ukraine’s farmland.

So it may be time for a brief tutorial.

Socialism is a very broad and diffuse group of ideologies rooted in a post-industrial-revolution reaction to economic inequality, disempowerment of workers, and the consolidation of political and economic power in a capital-ownership class. For the most part, the socialists who rose to challenge capitalist parties and regimes in Europe (and, more gradually, in developing countries) in the 19th century were thoroughly democratic and pacific, though many did believe they could only reach their goals through revolution.

Communism is a specific ideology based on the historical teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (influential 19th-century socialists) as applied by Russian revolutionary Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin, later succeeded by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong in China, Fidel Castro in Cuba, and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, among many others. While communists have varied in theory and practice, they typically espouse the total abolition of private property, the establishment of a dictatorship run for the alleged benefit of workers by a party vanguard, and an aggressive international movement aimed at global hegemony prior to a distant phase of history when the state will “wither away.”

Yes, communists consider themselves socialists — indeed, the only real socialists — but following the establishment of the Soviet Union and its terrorist tactics toward perceived enemies at home and abroad, self-identified socialists (e.g., those participating in parliamentary politics in democratic countries) have typically been anti-communist, often supporting Cold War defense policies aimed at restraining the expansion of communist countries. Now that communism has been overthrown in the Soviet Union (note to Tuberville!) — and nearly all of its client states — and has morphed into something unrecognizable to Marx or Engels in China and North Korea, socialists no longer feel quite the need to prove they are “anti-communist.” But outside the remaining enclaves, most “socialists” are “democratic socialists” aiming at public regulation, rather than public ownership, of the means of production and are comfortable with mildly nationalist — though not belligerent — political cultures.

Russia remains greatly influenced by its communist legacy, but in the most important respects, it is one of the least socialistic countries on earth, insofar as extreme nationalism, an economy controlled by oligarchic gangsters, and a culture touting homophobia and enforcing conservative religious values are not compatible with socialism of any form.

There is not a single Democratic political figure in the United States who espouses anything resembling communism as defined above (note to Trump, Greene, and Noem!). “Socialists” in any meaningful sense are few and far between and are certainly rare when compared to the members of left-of-center major political parties in democratic European nations. Whole tomes have been written about why socialism as it is generally known, much less communism, never took root in this country. One factor was the lack of rigid class distinctions based on precapitalist feudal systems; another was the early emergence of democratic habits; still another was a pluralistic culture in which religion was not identified with state power or compulsion. It doesn’t really matter anymore since socialism now connotes not the red flag of revolution but egalitarian policies aiming at the humanization of societies in which private property is taken for granted.

Perhaps Republicans rely on so much anachronistic name-calling because they are reaching out to immigrant constituencies with recent experience of actual communism (like Cubans) or authoritarian societies utilizing socialist rhetoric (like Venezuelans). But it’s getting ridiculous — as ridiculous as parallel claims that Democrats (like white, male, regular Massgoer Joe Biden) want to abolish religion and hate men. They should cut it out.

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Do Republicans Know What Communism Is?