Photos: A look at communists and their humble party offices around the globe

The devoted comrades making the most of their limited power

L to R: Two ladies running Children of the War Council; First secretary Valery Ivanyushko (seen at the back); and two party members, Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), RayKom (Rayon Committee) office in Borovichi, Novgorod Oblast. (Jan Banning)

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.

RayKom (Rayon Committee) office of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) in Pochinok, Smolensk Oblast. (Jan Banning)

“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.

Pedro Grego, “responsable de distrito” of the JCP (a youth movement), in the Partido Comunista Portugues (PCP) office in Evora, Alentejo, Portugal. (Jan Banning)

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.”

(left) Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) party activists, Primo Ardit (L) and Valeria Dordit (R), circolo Giudecca, Venice, Italy. | (right) Chairs in the office of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), Sezione Palmiro Togliatti in Taverna, Calabria, Italy. (Jan Banning)
Ikyabharatham local committee office, of the Communist Party of India (CPI) who identify as Marxists, Alappuza District, Kerala, India. The CPI(M) is the major political party in the state of Kerala, and the leading partner in the communist-led government of this state in Southern India. (Jan Banning)
Office of the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party) in Montemor-o-Novo in the Alentejo region, former stronghold of the Reforma Agraria (Agrarian Reform), 1975–1990. (Jan Banning)
Constituency office of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), who identify as Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), in the constituency #3 in Nepalgunj city, Banke district, Nepalgunj zone, Nepal. The CPN-UML came out as the second biggest party (after Nepali Congress) in the 2013 elections, with 175 of 575 elected seats. (Jan Banning)
L to R: Ram Prasad Pkharel “Baburam”, constituency in-charge of Constituency 2 in Rupandehi district; Anil Kumar Singh, constituency committee member; and Anup Baral, district secretary, in the district office of the Baidya CPN (Maoist), Bhairahawa, Nepal. The Baidya party broke away from the main UCPN Maoists in 2012. It refused to participate in the 2013 elections or take up any seats in the (2nd) Constituent Assembly. (Jan Banning)
District office in Danusha, Janakpur, of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) which identifies as Unified Marxist Leninist (UML). The CPN came out as the second biggest party (after Nepali Congress) in the 2013 elections, with 175 of 575 elected seats. (Jan Banning)
First Secretary Olga Volnina, Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) local Committee office in Torzhok, Tver Oblast. (Jan Banning)
The Thaliparamba South Local Committee office of the Communist Party of India , who identify as Marxists, Kerala, India. (Jan Banning)

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.

Follow Jan Banning on Twitter and Facebook.

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.

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