In The Great Recession, Socialism Sells

The Socialist Party’s chapter in New York City has a brand new member. Kimberley Ortiz, 25, is a single mother from the Bronx who had never heard of socialism until six months ago, when her co-worker handed her a piece of paper with the details of the Socialist Party’s next meeting.

“He told me, there is a word for what you believe in,” she says. “Socialism.”

Ortiz attended the meeting, and the one after that, and the one after that. She became an official member of the party on Feb. 12.

The economic crisis may have sounded a death knell for investment banks, construction companies and countless small businesses, but there are some groups that are benefittng from the general malaise. Alternative political movements such as communism and socialism are hoping that some Americans will go outside the mainstream and adopt a socialist ideology, breathing new life into these organizations.

“I want to put a normal face on socialism, which looks like this big scary thing for most people,” says Ortiz, who has been working alongside party members, translating fliers into Spanish and handing them out. She says that she has been seeing a steady increase in the number of new faces at every meeting.

“I want more people like me to join, single moms and regular people, y’know?”

Officials from the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Party USA say they have never seen such interest from Americans as they see today. A poll conducted by Rasmussen in 2009 showed that 20 percent of Americans favor socialism over capitalism, with more support among younger people. Of adults under 30, 37 percent of them said socialism was the better choice.

Though Ortiz had never heard of socialism, she thinks that in her own way, she had always been championing its cause. “I had been inquiring about a union at my workplace, and pointing out unjust and unfair treatment,” says Ortiz, who works in food services at the Statue of Liberty. “I work my tail off at this job and I don’t get paid what I deserve, and being a woman doesn’t help my chances at promotion either.”

According to Nolan McCarty, a professor of politics at Princeton University, that sort of attitude is more common during periods of economic turmoil. A similar spike in interest in communism and socialism was seen during the agrarian crisis of the 1930s, as well as the financial crisis in the early 2000s, he says.

And the two parties are certainly making the most of it.

“A lot of things are coming together at the right time,” says Art Perlo, chairman of the Communist Party USA’s economic commission. With the rise in unemployment, Perlo says, the old communist axiom of extending unemployment benefits has “taken on a new urgency today.” This sentiment is echoed by the Socialist Party’s co-chair, Billy Wharton. “The issues that the crisis is raising,” he says, “are issues that we can speak about well.”

And speak about them they have.

The Socialist Party has begun a national campaign to organize unemployed workers into collective action, with a test run at the New York chapter. Party members have been going to unemployment agencies and unemployment lines at the state Department of Labor and handing out pamphlets emblazoned with the party’s logo, titled, “Why Am I Unemployed?”

On the back, the pamphlet says:

“Workers have been fired because employers can no longer make a profit from exploiting their labor …  and because a small part of the population – the bosses – can no longer line their pockets with money created by your labor. This is what Capitalism is all about.”

The Communist Party has also focused on unemployment since the recession began, but its methods are on a larger scale and little more direct. Perlo says his party encourages members to phone their senators and governors to demand extended unemployment benefits. Members are also encouraged to carry the communist message into their churches, homes and schools.

Awareness of these alternative political groups has been amplified since the crisis began and people started understanding what caused it. “The phone rings more, and there are more people calling who want to become members,” says Wharton. He had just gotten off the phone with a woman in Phoenix, who had just become a member and was interested in starting a local chapter. The party just finished a handbook detailing how to start affiliated branches.

The demographics of the newly interested have changed as well. Perlo and Wharton say that recent calls come more often from young people. The reasons are clear, they say, they are the ones with the most debt and the least hope for the future. “I’m 62.  It’s OK if I can’t find a job,” says Perlo. “But we have a whole generation aged 16 to 22 marginalized economically.”

McCarty explains the phenomenon differently. Marxist ideas are always more common on college campuses, he says, but people “grow out of it.” The difference is that today, some of the ideas that students are picking up in college continue to resonate in a tough job market post graduation. “If the Marxist student no longer gets a job on Wall Street, he’ll probably remain a Marxist,” he says. People also overestimate the leftist parties’ ability to solve their problems, he says. “Socialism is culturally incompatible with the American way of life,” says McCarty, “but that won’t stop people from wanting to seem like they are doing something.”

The youthful characteristic is probably why the rising awareness of communism and socialism is most obvious on Facebook and on the parties’ blogs. In December, the Communist Party ran a campaign on Facebook called “No, Governor Rell, DOL’s Response is Not Sufficient.” The Connecticut-based campaign was a response to the State Department of Labor’s unemployment filing system. Citizen response was overwhelming, says Perlo. “We got a response and the Department of Labor agreed to recall 30 people who had been fired, and upgrade the filing system.”

The Socialist Party, which began a blog in October 2008, also was astonished at the response it got in the past nine months. “We used to get 150 hits a week, and then, boom,” says Wharton. “Suddenly we’re getting more, and now we’re at more than a thousand a week.”

McCarty thinks the problem that both parties face is not lack of interest, but more a lack of organization. “Until the parties resolve their differences and the splintered groups unify around a shared leftist party banner, they won’t make an impact in the polls,” he says.

The parties’ message has also been helped by one unlikely factor – Republican insinuations that President Obama is a socialist. Though Perlo and Wharton argue that Obama is not a socialist, they say the attention is not entirely unwelcome.

“Every time the media mentions the word ‘socialism’ there is a measurable uptick in response,” says Perlo. “And with foreclosures at a record rate and two million families who are going to lose their homes this year, the interest is going to grow.”