The devoted comrades making the most of their limited power
Politics takes many forms; some are highly visible, most go unobserved. Far from the razzmatazz of presidential campaigns, beyond the orchestrated photo ops for global leaders, and away from the public pomp of parliamentary process, most political deeds happen routinely and without audience. Many of the efforts of campaigners, party foot soldiers, and sub-committees barely get seen — especially when it comes to marginalized movements. Dutch photographer Jan Banning was intrigued by the apparatchiks in small Communist Party chapters across the globe. Fascinated by what communism looks like today, Banning set out to Italy, India, Nepal, Portugal and Russia to document their obscured activities.
Banning deliberately avoided the world’s five officially communist countries — China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam — because citizens there identify as communist as a matter of course.
“I’m interested in countries in which communism isn’t a dominating ideology and places I could assume that members do it out of conviction and not because they think it’s good for their career,” says Banning of the series, Red Utopia.
In examining people committed to marginalized leftist movements, Banning hopes his portraits may push his audience to look at its own political and civic engagement, and to question the certitude amid the shortcomings of Western democracies. These comrades buck the prevailing ideology.
“I hope these offices make intriguing enough images to make people willing to dive into the ideas behind them,” says Banning. “There seems to be very little organised resistance to neoliberal ideas of this age and I hope people will start wondering about this.”
Banning is not a communist.
“Never been one, but I see some qualities missing in the current neoliberal political landscape. If we look at things like the division of means and the fair division of wealth, which appear to be lacking, then we can see those in Communism; it’s what Communism stood for officially.”
These scenes of quaint workspaces and meeting rooms are the opposite of ideological bombast; they’re merely scenes of everyday organizing. The relevance, success, and influence of communist parties differ drastically between the countries Banning visited. For example, in Russia — where the Communist Party is actually the second largest party, with 12 percent of the vote — Banning encountered old Stalinists, loyal to the past, who meekly handed out text-dense literature to young people who didn’t care. In Italy, by contrast, Banning met an energetic coalition of young lefties, feminists, old partisans, and environmental activists who operate food banks and teach English to migrants. Similarly, in the Indian state of Kerala, the communists provide practical services and organize migrant laborers who drive taxis or work in construction — “a workforce that is otherwise easily exploited” says Banning.
In Portugal, communists are supporting the current socialist government, the Partido Comunista Português, which received almost one in every five votes during the time of major land reforms in the mid-1970s. In Nepal, also, communists wield notable political power. Combined, the Maoists and Marxist/Leninists win over half the vote. The parties don’t always work together but Nepal has a rooted political commitment to communism.
Banning accepts that the communist ideology falls on the wrong side of history. In the face of rampant neoliberalism that Banning says is “rapidly ravaging the environment” and fueling the gap between the rich and the poor, Red Utopia gives us a moment to pause.
“Many of the local party members I met along the way, who are still plodding along, certainly have a place in my heart now — either because of their own sad fate or because of how they devote themselves to social justice, often unpaid, and in many practical ways offer help to ordinary people,” he says. “Communism has deeply influenced one-and-a-half centuries of history but then seems to have evaporated within a few short years. Even the most communist countries, in name at least, have long since transitioned to real-life capitalism.”
The book Red Utopia is now on sale.
The project was made possible with the financial support of the Mondriaan Fund, the Democracy and Media Foundation and Fonds BJP.
Photos: A look at communists and their humble party offices around the globe was originally published in Timeline on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.