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U.S. communists, ever hopeful, say they're coming back

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The new hip and trendy face of Communism in the U.S.: 24-year-old New Jersey-native Sam Delgado. (Photo by Matt Kennard)

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The new glass-wall offices at Communist HQ. (Photo by Matt Kennard)

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The new communal kitchen at Communist HQ. (Photo by Matt Kennard)

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Before the after. The bathroom that escaped the $1 million refurbishment. (Photo by Matt Kennard)

The décor inside the national headquarters of the Communist Party USA, or CPUSA, is more Macy’s than Marx. Glass walls rise up from the floor to form state-of-the-art work spaces, nontoxic linseed oil burnishes the work-surfaces, and biodegradable blue carpet is underfoot. Colorful paintings by the renowned artists Boris Taslitzky and Alejandro Romero, depicting the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and working-class struggle, dot the walls of the expansive open-plan office. Inside their transparent cubicles, the 21-strong staff tap away on Apple Macs and sip Starbucks coffee.

This is what class warfare looks like in the 21st century.

Last month, the CPUSA officially unveiled its newly refurbished office space in the trendy Chelsea district of Manhattan. The Reds went “green” for their $1 million overhaul, including various environmentally conscious features in the design. Huge windows and transparent walls were installed to take advantage of the sunlight and create greater energy efficiency. They also installed occupancy sensors so artificial lighting would not be wasted, and nontoxic building materials were used to reduce health risks to staff.

The new office is the symbol of a new era in the Communist movement and what its members hope will be the first step in a return from the political fringes.

“It’s a very exciting time for the organization,” said Sam Delgado, a 24-year-old web content developer and spokesperson for CPUSA. “When I first joined the movement in 1999, there were no young people. That’s not true any more. The offices, they were dark and dingy and depressing; now look at it!”

As the new frontman of the Communist Party, Delgado, a New Jersey-native and video production expert, bears a greater resemblance to the Rock than to Che Guevara. Like the other 20 staff member--whose roles in the office range from the finance department to national leadership--he earns a paltry but equal $26,000 per year. The Party’s income comes from a combination of donations and bequests—with enough left over for the million dollar renovation.

“We’re part of a new generation,” Delgado said. “The younger people are re-evaluating our presence and how we put ourselves forward. We renovated the national office and now we want to create a new digital space.”

With two other young converts to the revolutionary struggle, Delgado has formed a new technology buzz-team, which aims to announce a new Web site at the end of the year. The Youth Communist League already has a fully operational Myspace page, with 250 buddies with names like “Maoism” and “Socialism.” The Texas branch of CPUSA proudly displays a cartoon of Karl Marx in a cowboy hat on its Web site, and the party has even jumped on the YouTube bandwagon, with a video presentation of the new office set to tongue-in-cheek ’70s music fit for an episode of “Shaft.”

Delgado claims results. “We have turned a corner recently,” he said. “We get two or three new members every week.” And while not a recruitment rate that keeps George W. Bush up at night, it is an improvement for the party, whose current membership nationwide is roughly 3,000.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ’90s were a troubled time for the party. But Delgado doesn’t look back, and exudes more than a healthy amount of optimism. “I believe now we can achieve Communism in America within my lifetime, within the next 50 years.”

Delgado is also quick to dampen any idea of a rift between the new and old guard. “We definitely support old models of organizing,” he said. “We’re merely beefing up the Communist presence.” He admits there have been murmurs from the veterans of the party, distrust of new media. “There’s a tension,” he said. “Certain members were worried we were going to do away with the newspaper. But it’s all part of the same space.”

Sam Webb, 62, the leader of the CPUSA since 1998, is a full supporter of the youth movement and has given the political program of the party a similar overhaul in order to make it more appealing to new members. “The new office and the move into digital communications is all part of a bigger process,” said the 32-year veteran of the party. “We’ve also updated our political program, which gives us a view of the near-term as well as longer-term. We now envision a broad coalition of the people of this country as the only way we can move towards socialism.”

Webb believes it is vital to focus only on the “ultra-right” now. “Instead of fighting corporate power as whole, we made a distinction between one section of it--right-wing extremism based among energy and military industries, and other sections that weren’t quite as reactionary.” According to Webb these new alliances with more moderates have been a major factor in bringing more members to the party.

Alongside this ideological softening, the party has also embraced a new organizational principle called “democratic centralism,” a seemingly oxymoronic new admixture of Joseph Stalin and pluralism. “Most people think it means top down organizing,” said Webb. “But it’s not only that. It does have leadership bodies that make decisions, but the membership is asked to be part of those decisions. It is democratic; we don’t order anybody to do this thing or that.”

To its own surprise, the party has even found a connection to Democratic golden boy and presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama. In his autobiography, “Dreams of My Father,” Obama refers to a mentor named Frank, who was recently revealed to be Frank Marshall David, a poet and a CPUSA member. When asked about the potential president, Webb seemed unexcited. “The Communist Party doesn’t endorse a candidate at any level. We have our own particular outlook on things.” Of Marshall Davis and a potential link to the sought-after mainstream, Webb is unimpressed: “I heard the name but I know nothing about him,” he said. “I don’t even know if he is still living.”

With anti-right and antiwar sentiment riding high among the new generation, the CPUSA hopes to strike a chord among the young. And despite the public insouciance about Obama, some of the younger people in CPUSA recognize that the senator from Illinois is seen by many of their peers as a timely break from the status-quo. Lucas Gray, 19, of Knoxville, Iowa, joined the CPUSA a year ago and is a member of the new CPUSA facebook.com group. “A lot of the positions of the Democrats now, like universal healthcare, are actually the same as the Communists’,” he said.

The Fox News pundit David Horowitz, a former Communist, takes a potential resurgence seriously. “I’m concerned,” he said. “Why wouldn’t the CPUSA be having some kind of revival? The left hate the U.S. and its society and that opinion is growing in popularity.”

But away from the rah-rah spirit at headquarters and a few chatty leftist corners of the Internet, a CPUSA revival is viewed as about as likely as Fidel Castro’s coming out of retirement to win the Republican Party nomination for president. “The CPUSA is completely historical,” said John Earl Haynes, an author on domestic communism at the Library of Congress. “As a historian, I don’t usually feel comfortable about predicting the future; however, in this case, I’m confident in saying that the CPUSA has absolutely no future in the country.”

The Chinese, the global leader in Communism, are equally disparaging if more polite. “China has little contact with the Communist Party of the United States,” said Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “Communism in this country is not on the screen of my attention or that of my colleagues.”

And even through the zeal of the newly converted, there is a streak of doubt. “To be honest,” said 19-year-old Gray, “I’m not optimistic at all about the future of the Communist Party to expand or become a dominant political force in the U.S. It’s just not feasible.” Yet he remains dedicated, passing out copies of the Communist People Weekly on street corners, and attending regular meetings of his branch. “I really appreciate that the Communist Party is trying to appeal to younger people now.” As part of the Communism 2.0 outreach project, Gray been asked to get new converts on the campus of his university, Truman State in Kirksville, Mo. “I’m the only member at the whole university so it’s hard,” he said. “I’m still trying my best, although I haven’t got anyone yet.”

E-mail: mk2939@columbia.edu