Last year, more than 15,000 communists gathered in the Russian seaside town of Sochi for a week-long commemoration of the centenary of Lenin’s revolution. Nearly every nation was represented. Stalls manned by party members from Zimbabwe, Greece, Cuba and India lined the narrow concourse of the event’s main piazza.
Under the eye of the Russian police, celebrants staged rallies, meetings and marathon seminars. The daughter of Che Guevara was there. After giving a lecture on the legacy of her father, she received a standing ovation that lasted more than five minutes. ‘It feels like 1959 again,’ someone said when the cheering had finally died down.
Along with a few thousand other non-comms, I found myself at the centenary, sold to us as a ‘Youth Festival’ by virtue of a Kremlin scheme designed to dilute the political charge of the event. I roomed with two members of the Young Communist League — the youth wing of the Communist Party of Britain.
The festival programme was a hastily hashed-together roster of advertising ploys for Russian businesses and lectures that never seemed to happen. I spent most of my time with the YCL — a gang of six who’d come from all parts of the UK — helping them run the stall, tagging along at delegation meetings and more than once becoming an accomplice in the ongoing war of provocation against a rival British group.
In the kingdom of the post-Soviet world, Cuba is king, and at night the Cubans’ accommodation block was the place to be. Two enormous flags emblazoned with the faces of Castro and Guevara were draped from the hotel windows and beneath them hundreds gathered on the beaches until the early morning. ‘This is like the Marxists’ version of “Football’s Coming Home”,’ a communist from Portugal told me one night as we sipped cold lagers. ‘This is true revolutionary fervour.’
I’m not much of a communist or a football fan, but even I could see what he meant. It was exciting. As I boarded my plane back home at the end of the week I had snatches of ‘The Internationale’ playing over in my ears and a desire to know more.
Back in London, I was invited a couple of months later to the CPB Christmas social by my Sochi roommates. I said I thought communists didn’t believe in Christmas. ‘Only the hardliners,’ was the response. Things kicked off with a screening of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, which then flowed into a poetry recital from a Morning Star regular, a few four-chord protest songs, then speeches and a raffle; the main prize was a hammer-and–sickle Christmas cake. Unlike Sochi, this get-together attracted all ages: members of both the main party and the youth wing. What was most noticeable was the age gap between the two. To be a YCL-er you have to be below 27; for the rest it seems to be an unwritten requirement to be over 55. Few were in between. It isn’t surprising that the age graph spikes around 60 — Marxism hasn’t been popular in the UK since the early 1970s, when most of the current party members would have been in their formative years; what’s more surprising is the number of members in their mid-twenties.
It’s particularly surprising because the circumstances which pushed their elders towards communism have long gone. In the 1960s and 1970s, Marxism had both intellectual and cultural cachet; British universities were dominated by Marxist professors and communism was a byword for youthful rebellion. How differently we think of it now: at best, a quaint antique in the history of human thought; at worst, a psychotic experiment in civilisation and an ideology which sank with the Soviet Union.
What, then, is its continuing attraction for young people? ‘People don’t realise how wrong things have gone,’ one member told me. ‘We’ve exhausted all the options within the democratic system. What we need is serious change. The current mainstream left cannot achieve that, because it is preoccupied with the politics of identity and culture. Communists are the only ones really committed to the true leftist cause — the rights of the workers.’
The rise of traditional leftists Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders has brought about a sea change. At last year’s general election the CPB announced that for the first time since its formation in 1920 it would not field any candidates in order to give Labour the best possible shot at government. ‘If Corbyn is elected, things will be moving in the right direction,’ said one older member, who has been in the party since the late 1970s. ‘It’s a matter of priming the ground.’
Primed ground or not, the aim of a communist party operating within a social democracy is revolution. But as I sat passing round slices of sickle thick with marzipan, I couldn’t help thinking that among the older types the revolutionary lustre I’d seen in Sochi two months earlier had been dulled by time. Down from 60,000 in the 1950s, the membership of the CPB is now less than a thousand, and dwindling. It seemed to me that for the older generation the party is a kind of club, a cherished link to a fond past. For the younger delegates, however, there is a sense of both renewal and community. The numbers may not be huge, but the YCL claims around an 80 per cent activity rate among members. If true, this is far higher than for any other political organisation.
Political momentum has shifted in their favour. A resurgent Labour party has as its shadow chancellor a man who described Marx, Engels and Lenin as his ‘most significant’ intellectual inspirations. And leftist politics is beginning to recoup the cultural cachet among the under-thirties that it lost in the intervening decades. They are increasingly social media savvy, too. In the same way that Momentum in Britain and the alt-right in the US use memes and social video to promote their cause, so does YCL. The technology has helped them to organise and make the most of their small membership base.
This isn’t likely to translate into a revolution any time soon, but young communists are in it for the long haul. ‘I’m not kidding myself,’ said one. ‘I don’t expect things to change overnight. It’s not easy, but they don’t call it “class struggle” for nothing.’