There was a time in American history when the fear of communism reached such a fevered pitch of paranoia that it came to be known as the Red Scare.
Either by invasion or infiltration, communists planned to take over the United States. There were “Reds under the beds,” argued those who urged Congress to outlaw the American Communist Party, which it attempted to do in 1954 when it passed the Communist Control Act.
Rather than hide under beds, today’s communists occupy a spacious loft in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan — headquarters of the Communist Party USA. Portraits of notable American communists line one wall of the loft. A bust of Vladimir Lenin glares from a windowsill. A framed photo near the entranceway shows former party Chairman Henry Winston standing next to Fidel Castro.
“Yes, we’re still here,” said Jarvis Tyner, former chairman of New York’s Communist Party.
For America’s communists today, it seems the Red Scare has been replaced by the Orange Scare — President Donald Trump.
“I think Trump may not even consciously know it, but the objective effect of his policies move us in a fascist direction,” he said. “I think the fascist danger is very great. He is not an ordinary right-winger.”
Trump is threatening to make broad political changes that aim to elevate the power of corporate America while weakening the power of the people, Tyner said.
“He put racists in charge of the Justice Department,” he said. “He put polluters in charge of the EPA. He put the head of Exxon in charge of foreign policy and a woman who believes in private schools in charge of the nation’s education policy when 90 percent of the students attend public schools.”
Tyner’s overall assessment of the current occupant of the White House: “The guy is a crude ignoramus.”
He’s quick to point out that since Trump’s election, the Communist Party USA has seen a slight uptick in membership — about 600 new members since Election Day.
During the past five years, about 5,000 Americans have joined the Communist Party USA via the internet, party officials said. Most of these members haven’t join the party’s clubs, or grassroots organizations. There are 3,000 clubs nationwide.
Although some members are well versed in Marxist theory, a thorough understanding of communist doctrine isn’t a prerequisite to joining the party. What the party seeks are members who desire to engage in political and social activism, Tyner said.
Local party members recently have been active in protests against the police shootings of unarmed black men and the failings of cities to preserve and create affordable housing.
Tyner concedes that there is a stigma attached to being a communist. Many feel it’s un-American. Those who suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin helped Trump win the presidency certainly have portrayed it as a sinister force.
“People have been subjected to erroneous ideas [about the party] for a long time,” Tyner said. “Probably in New York, there are a good number of people who call themselves liberal and have a very positive attitude toward socialism. That doesn’t mean they’re all going to run and join the party. But it’s an atmosphere that the party can survive in.”
Jarvis Tyner became a communist soon after finishing high school in West Philadelphia. Roughly two decades later, he was campaigning for the office of Vice President of the United States as the candidate of the Community Party USA.
He wasn’t welcome at every stop along the campaign trail, but he managed to win over some crowds in rather unlikely places.
“I campaigned all through the South,” he said. “I talked to them about straight-up class stuff, how some people are rich and you have nothing. They were open to hear what we had to say.”
Tyner ran twice as the party’s vice president nominee, in 1972 and 1976. Both times he shared the ticket with party leader Gus Hall.
“I believe we never did get on the ballot in more than 24 states,” he said.
Hall, who led the CPUSA for more than 40 years, campaigned for the presidency two more times, in 1980 and 1984. His running mate both times was Angela Davis, a counterculture activist during the 1960s who was linked to the Black Panther Party during the civil rights movement.
The CPUSA hasn’t nominated a presidential candidate since Hall’s last campaign in 1984.
“The danger of the right [conservative wing] had become so great and the money needed to continue to run candidates became so great that the collective decided against it,” Tyner said.
Tyner held various leadership positions with the party and until recently was its executive vice chairman. At age 75, he’s semi-retired.
“I’ve see the party evolve over a long period of time,” he said. “No party has been more persecuted than ours. Our leadership was imprisoned. People were mistreated and lives were destroyed. But they kept on fighting and that tenacity influenced me a lot about the correctness of what they were doing and their deep dedication.”