The American Communist
Photos & Text by Gokhan Cukurova
It all started with one question:
What would it be like, to be a communist in the most anti-communist country in the world?
The country that sponsored military take-overs, armed rebellions, to stop "Soviet influence" around the world, over and over for decades.
We were expecting our first child when, one night, I mulled over ideas for a unique photo documentary, something I could capture before the arrival of the little one. I thought of many things but nothing appealed to me much until I asked myself that question: What would it be like to be a communist in the most anti-communist country in the world?
I went online and started my research. What was the history of the labor movement? Who were the key figures in American communist movements? My first shock was to find out that the communist party in the United Stated goes almost as far back as the Soviet Revolution of 1917. The party was founded here in 1919, after a few decades of activism and socialist movements going as far back as the late 1800’s.
When I found out that they were meeting here in Chicago for their 30th National Convention, I was even more determined to do this photo documentary. But, a part of me was still nervous. I didn’t know who they really were. Would the U.S. Government black list me? That was a legitimate question considering where I grew up and how the citizens were treated if they fundamentally disagreed with their own government.
I contacted the party via link on their website. A couple of months passed with no response. I was also busy with work, teaching photography workshops in Europe. My email had been very straight forward. I wanted to do an objective photo documentary and only show what I see, with no intention of turning my work into communist propaganda, manipulating my findings or ridiculing their ideology.
A few months after my first email, and a follow up email, I received a phone call. The journey of two years had begun…..
A little background on my childhood and the red scare:
I spent the first 11 years of my life in a city like no other. A city that was crowned as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and later, The Mighty Ottoman Empire; the city with top geopolitical and strategic importance: Istanbul, the biggest city in Turkey.
One of many very vivid memories of my childhood was that of an explosion. I was four. I still remember my mom and dad looking out the window with fear, both in their pajamas at dawn. Their bedroom light was on, it was dark outside. We didn’t live near the sea, but they were looking up and to the right, towards the sea that was miles away. That's all I remember. I have no memory of looking out myself. Maybe I was not allowed, maybe I was told to go back to my room and sleep more. Later I learned, it looked like doomsday out there.
What made all of us jump out of our beds was a huge explosion. The Romanian oil tanker Independenta had collided with the Greek cargo ship Evriali. It happened off the Haydarpasa Port, at the entrance to the Bosphorus, the straight that connects the Black Sea to the rest of the world. Independenta, carrying almost 100,000 tons of crude oil and heavy fuel oil, lit up the Istanbul skies in hues of red and orange. Miles inland, houses were damaged by the force of this explosion.
The reason this memory is so important to me is that my dad later told us that, when he first heard the explosion, he thought it was either the end of days or the Communist Soviets had dropped an atomic bomb in Istanbul. At that time in history, Turkey was split into two camps. The political left wing demanded more democracy, complaining that the government was becoming too dependent on U.S. foreign policy, allowing fascist movements to hide under the label of "patriotism" while attacking non-violent student leaders and union organizers. The political right wing demanded more restrictions against those "communists," the "Soviet Puppets, those godless, merciless communists!”
Some people believed that the U.S. government had a hand in the military take-over in Turkey on September 12th, 1980, to stop leftist movements from bringing the country closer to the Soviets. They were afraid it would bring a Soviet style government to Turkey. On the other hand, some people believed that the Soviets were preparing for action to avoid a fascist military junta take-over in Turkey. They would even drop an atomic bomb to prevent an Imperialist take-over in their backyard, turning Turkey into another American satellite country.
A number of young people were getting shot and killed every day. My dad told me later that the Soviet threat to Turkey was imminent then. (At least that’s what they were told to believe.)
It was 18 days before my fifth birthday when Turkey woke up to tanks rolling along the streets. The military took over the government. People were being arrested by the thousands. Later, history shows that, despite the military’s claims of "stopping the bloodshed, putting an end to young people killing each other over politics," it crushed the leftist movements in Turkey like nothing else. Close to 700,000 people were arrested, tortured and many were killed in torture rooms while in custody. Most of these were people who did not agree with the government, like college students, activists, union workers and organizers, journalists, government employees with ties to unions, and even some underage teens.
I was 8 years old when the military allowed "free" elections again. After three years of cracking down, a Saudi friendly, Western educated/backed Turgut Özal became the prime-minister.
The voice on the phone was very friendly, a guy named John. From his last name, I recognized this was the Illinois chapter leader. I was talking to the communist party leader in my state. Before inviting me to meet him at their “office” he complimented me on my work, which was mostly wedding photography as my street and documentary photo site had been down for maintenance for a long time. “So he looked me up online” I said to myself.
I was thrilled that this project I had been waiting on for months was finally about to take off.
I was late for my meeting, didn’t really know what to expect. I had seen a few YouTube videos online and all seemed harmless, almost like a book reading club but people were talking about real issues of working class Americans. I wasn’t sure if I would to see a huge Stalin and Mao painting on the wall. Maybe everything was painted red and yellow, men and women in uniforms, military boots. Was this place under ground? Am I going to be taken somewhere else after I meet this John guy? Many questions went through my mind during that drive.
“And I have a pregnant wife!” I said to myself. I just drove.
I parked my car right in front of the address given to me. There was no sign announcing it as the headquarters of the Communist Party USA. But, there were some political banners on the windows so this had to be the place. I walked in. Instead of uniforms, everyone was dressed casually. Instead of a big painting of any Soviet or Chinese Communist Party leaders, the only huge portrait I saw was that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my most favorite historic figures. Instead of serious looking people, all the folks walking by seemed actually happy, friendly. I noticed that the propaganda that I was exposed to during my childhood still had its effect in my head. I had doubts prior to walking into this building.
John greeted me very warmly and we sat down in his office which was probably 8 feet by 8 feet. I noticed the photo of Che Guevara by his desk. I told John what my intentions were once more and what I envisioned as the end result. He welcomed the documentary idea I had. He also promised to check with the party leadership if it would be ok for me to attend their National Convention and photograph the other party members as well. This was a great start!
I wanted to photograph at least a few party members in their own habitat; in their homes or even at their work places. How do they live? Where do they work? I wanted to bring out the real American Communists as who they really are, without leaving any room for imagination.
John asked me if I would be interested in interviewing and photographing one of the oldest communists in the country. The answer was a resounding YES!
A few days later I was having a phone conversation with a very soft spoken lady. I was not yet aware of how big of a name Beatrice Lumpkin was.
Mrs. Lumpkin opened the doors to her south side Chicago apartment and welcomed me in. She was very elegant. It was a very clean, small apartment with a view of Lake Michigan and Chicago. She was the daughter of an Eastern European immigrant family, born in 1919, the year the Communist Party in America was founded, grew up in the Bronx. She experienced the Great Depression, only a kid when the American economy collapsed (1929-1939). She joined the Young Communists League in 1933. Mrs. Lumpkin seemed and spoke like a history professor. She worked in laundries in New York, organize blue collar workers early on, then became a technical writer, an Associate Professor of Mathematics from 1967 to early retirement 1982 at Malcolm X College in Chicago. At the age of 95 when I interviewed her, this lady was nothing short of a walking library. She possessed a very clear mind; was very knowledgeable and firm in her ideology. She told me stories about her labor-organizing late husband Frank Lumpkin, as well as her trip to Chile during Salvador Allende years.
Having a big interest in history and politics all my life, my interview with Mrs. Lumpkin lasted several hours.
When I asked her about the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of multi-national corporations and unlimited amount of money flowing into American Politics, her answer was straight forward: “Supreme Court = Supreme Example of Lack of Democracy.”
I asked her who her favorite president was since she has seen many come and go, and she liked FDR the most.
“He was able to move people and the people became the wind behind him so he was able to bring some much needed change to the country,” she said.
When I heard the word “change” I of course asked her about President Obama.
“Mr. Obama had a great opportunity but failed to take that wind behind him,” she said.
Mrs. Lumpkin and I also talked about voting rights and crime.
She told me that, “registration to vote is a very undemocratic system, all people should be able to vote without the requirement of registration.”
I asked how she would approach crime in America if she were in charge.
“I believe poverty, unemployment, very low minimum wage has a lot to do with high crime rates. Youth that has a bright horizon, decent paying job opportunities, free education and the hope of a decent life will be much less interested in doing wrong. We invest in everything in our country but the education is not a priority unless it is making some rich people richer.”
Communist Party USA 30th National Convention: Day 1
I met a small crowd of communist party members by the University of Illinois Chicago campus. Two school buses, full of communist party members from all over America and myself, headed to Haymarket Square to pay tribute to workers who were killed in that square in 1886, the victims of a clash with police after a peaceful protest for an 8-hour work day.
“In 1886, close to 100,000 workers gathered to protest harsh conditions at the work place and demanded an 8-hour work day. The National Guard surrounded Chicago with heavy artillery.”
“Seven cops were killed as well as many protesters.”
Four of the labor movement leaders were hung in front of Chicago City Hall.
After leaving flowers by the statue at the Haymarket Square, party members and some international guests from communists parties of Japan, Iraq, Vietnam, Germany, Brazil, Britain, Iran headed to the The Haymarket Martyrs' Monument, located at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
I spoke to a few party members on the bus. A lady who claims to be one of the 6 communists in Montana showed interest in speaking with me. While she was trying to learn how to pronounce my name, a gentleman from a row behind us started speaking in Turkish with me. The world was becoming smaller.
The gentleman, Yusuf Gürsey, was a delegate from Connecticut, an assistant professor, the son of the world famous Turkish mathematician and physicist Feza Gursey. Now, I am on the bus full of communist party members and I learn that one of them lived 30 minutes from our home back in Turkey.
Mr. Gursey claimed that the freedoms we have here are all on paper. Masters rule the country in favor of the powerful, the more ordinary people are pressed, the more likely a revolution to start brewing. The “masters” are happy to keep masses entertained and let them get by so they don’t rise up.
I asked who those “masters” are and he replied, “Those who buy politicians to make the playing field uneven, they place a stick of dynamite under the foundation of this country.”
I asked how he would explain the collapse of the USSR, and he told me the main reason was not a flaw in the ideology, “the USSR collapsed because the Communist Party became too powerful and lost its touch, its responsibilities to the people.”
The Convention began in the afternoon. I thought the entire convention was going to include only those on the busses. I wasn’t prepared for how crowded the convention room would be. I had my “press pass” hanging on my neck and spoke to many members during breaks. One thing that I noticed, many were eager to talk, but did not want to be photographed.
There were mini workshops where Communist Party leaders would educate delegates on different topics, such as Marxism in the 21st Century, Voter Suppression in the United States and how to overcome Attacks on the working class, as well as attacks on Medicaid and other social programs that are vital for many Americans. I attended some of the mini-workshops and in one Athena M. talked about how voter suppression takes place, why people stay home on Election Day and how to overcome, help them. There were quite a few people above age 70, but there were also many young people from all corners of the United States.
Some party members put these notes on easels to share their experiences during different decades in the 20th-century.
Between workshops I met a Communist Party delegate from North Dakota, Mr. Lubka who taught city planning at North Dakota State University for 20 years. I sat down with Mr. Lubka in the lobby area of the conference hall. He told me that his son is in medical school in Havana, Cuba, so we hit it off discussing Healthcare in the United States. I told him that I know we’re far from being the best in the world when it comes to health care and he was surprised to hear that I already knew that the infant mortality rate per 1000 live births (under the age of one) in the United States is even higher than in Cuba. I knew that because I was a couple of months from becoming a father myself. Mr. Lubka told me that he is the only Communist Party member in North Dakota. He wrote a screenplay in Kentucky where he was a union organizer in 1953. It was about a gun battle that took place to protect a black man owning a house.
Delegates who wanted to share their concerns, or suggestions with their comrades came to the microphone and spoke up.
I later sat down with a communist journalist from Japan, covering the Communist Party convention in Chicago. His name was Minetaka Shimeda, Washington correspondent for Akahata paper in Japan. He told me that the level of political corruption in Japan is on the rise. With the support of the wealthiest families in Japan, financial powers wanted to introduce a two-party system, but faced a strong opposition and didn’t succeed.
I asked Mr. Shimeda, if communism was better for people, how come so many have suffered under the Soviet Rule? Why did the system collapse then?
“Democracy is the key ingredient for successful governing of the people. The Communist Party of Russia turned against their people, turned their people into slaves. It was not communism, it was slavery,” he replied.
Communist Party USA 30th National Convention: Day 2
During a big discussion in the main room I noticed a Native American delegate teaching workshops. I later introduced myself and asked for an interview. After the program I sat down with David Bender.
I asked him if he was ever threatened for being a communist and a native.
“The only threat to our people, the people in general, is the threat of poverty caused by the capitalist mentality, greed. The Next 10 years will be really crucial for survival,” he added.
I asked David the same question, why did the USSR collapse? Why would you think the Communist System would succeed in the U.S.?
David said that the Russian experience with Socialism/Communism was the first big revolution, the first real experiment, and it was a hundred years ago. The world has learned a lot from that experience, and it would succeed here because, unlike the Soviets, we don’t have an enemy holding the world economy hostage. An enemy this size would not exist for the American Communist movement. I countered with Chinese example, he replied very firmly that China is ruled by greedy capitalists under the communist banner, “They are far from the Marxist ideology.”
Power of media: David believes that honest and powerful media outlets are necessary and would bring change quicker.
Jacob, a delegate from Utah who preferred not to be photographed, told me during our interview that the socialist experience would be much better and different here in the United States than it was in Russia.
I asked why?
He answered, “How you experience socialism and communism has a lot to do with your democratic culture and elements, we are far different from Russians in those areas. The ideology is not a ‘one size fits all,’ it’s strong.”
Jacob then added that “maybe Russians did not have a lot back then, but most people had a stable life, job, free college and healthcare. Although they made big mistakes by moving away from the Marxist ideology, we have learned so much from those mistakes. The concentration of wealth is concentrated power, and that undermines democracy in any country. The wealthy will try to rig the system in their favor. A transparent government should work like a watchdog so the big fish can’t eat the small fish; all fish live together in peace.”
I later sat down with Mr. Giang, representative of the Vietnamese Communist Party. He claimed that although his country is not the most developed, they have made great strides last few decades by increasing literacy numbers, lowering the number of infant deaths and so on. He also claimed that even today his country is experiencing a high number of birth defects tied to "Agent Orange", a chemical gas U.S. military used on civilians during the Vietnam War.
Mr. Giang wanted me to write this down: "It's a lie that Vietnam attacked the U.S. We did nothing to go to war with the United States. Just like Americans, we wanted our freedom after we defeated the French."
Until I met Ian, Rose and Shane who identified themselves as anarchist communists I thought anarchy, anarchism, meant using violent methods to achieve a goal. I have to admit that working on this photo documentary, I learned a lot of new things. These young delegates from the Pacific Northwest told me that paying attention to how American Imperialism and capitalism work made them get involved.
Wadi Halebi had charts in front of him, showing numbers and how the capitalist system depends on the working class to make the rich richer if the government falls into the hands of the landlords, the big corporations. He says that the world economy is showing similar characteristics to 1907-1923.
She wanted to become an English teacher, went to school at the age of 40, then changed her studies and became a lawyer instead. Diane told me that back then, finishing a law degree cost $62,000 and now it’s close to $200,000, which makes people slaves to their diplomas, slaves of big banks.
“Young people go to school to have a bright future, a decent life and build a family, later they realize it’s not possible anymore. First they try to pay student loans, later it becomes a mortgage. Americans spend their lives making banks richer, as they dig their financial graves. Money in politics only allows the rich to buy politicians by way of bribes called campaign donations.”
She strongly believes that the communists have an obligation to work to repeal the Supreme Court Decision that allows Super Pacs, allows unlimited amount of money flow into American politics.
“Marx predicted that socialism would make ways, be more successful, in a more democratic society. Expanding democracy is the only way to achieve socialism, and our experience will definitely be unique for us. We must bring more people into the political process.”
The Convention ended after all delegates sang the Internationale.
After the convention, I met with my first contact with the American Communists, the former Illinois Chair, the new leader of the Communist Party USA, John Bachtell. I was questioning some of the things I heard during the convention. He was generous with his time and sat down with me again.
I wanted to understand how it would be possible to take over the huge assets of corporations and put them into the hands of the public. How would that really work? Wouldn’t that be a bloody revolution?
“This move must come from the people, must be requested by the people and must be done only through changing laws. We learned a lot of lessons in the 20th century and beyond. Eminent Domain is in our culture but it’s been used wrongfully. When people hear communism, socialism, they fear it, and they do have legitimate reasons to do so. Huge mistakes were made in the near history. People think about that, which is very understandable. Also, the propaganda machine that conditioned the masses to believe in everything they see and hear on the corporate media does not make things easy. Lenin tried to implement a system similar to today’s Scandinavian countries, allowing small to medium size business to flourish. It did not happen then due to many different reasons such as the growing threat of Nazi Germany changed the dynamics in the Russian Communist Party. Instead of going towards more democracy, it took a different turn. But when you hear communism or socialism, don’t think of the Soviet Union only.”
“Look at the Tennessee Valley Authority, Cleveland Power… and there are many more examples. Usually government-run institutions do badly if politicians put their hands in them. Social Security is not going bad because it’s a bad idea, only because politicians loot security to fund wars. That’s just one example. We must put people and environment before profits.”
John introduced me to a young, very smart girl from California, studying journalism at the Northwestern University in Chicago and identifying herself as a Marxist. Julia admits she is still learning and not yet a party member. Her mom in Oakland, California has had the biggest influence in her political development. Julia’s great grandfather, Bernard Riback, was a well-known activist and a communist party member.
Julia noticed that Economy majors at Northwestern are no longer required to study Marx whose ideas have challenged capitalism the most. Julia questions, she does not seem to be sold on anything unless it goes through her thinking process. Since she is from Oakland, California, I asked her about the Black Panthers and her answer was quiet powerful.
“I can totally understand where they were coming from, they had many reasons to be frustrated.”
And continues with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Our methods must be consistent with the ends we seek.”
During this meeting she received an email, a confirmation email letting her know that her application to do her internship at a newspaper in South Africa was accepted.
Julia and I met once more, this time at her apartment. She cooked while we talked politics, Karl Marx, money in U.S. politics, books and the communist party. She feels that she has a lot more to read and a lot more to learn, but it seems she’s been doing that already.
I recently found out that some of the communist party members who took part at the convention or accepted to sit down and speak with me about their ideology, their point of view about the world, have left the party by either claiming that they no longer share the same view with the Communist Party or claiming that the party has moved away from its core philosophical values by being open to a Clinton presidency, as chances of Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic Party nomination slimmed down significantly after New York primary. “Many communist party members have volunteered for Bernie Sanders campaign but Communist Party USA has a mission to stop right wing politics robbing the working class people of all backgrounds. That’s what we have to focus on. We have to look at the big picture. Clinton White House may not be as bold as Sanders but it would stop our country slipping into fascism with Trump or Cruz presidency” the party chair John Bachtell told me.
Special thanks to all who participated, let me into their lives, their homes and shared their stories, their views of the world with a stranger. I am humbled with their trust. Also would like to thank to my wife putting up with me during this project while preparing of the arrival of our first child, Maria for editing my writing, Ara for being so generous with loaning some gear at times. Without the help and support I have received, this documentary would not come to life.
©2016 Gokhan Cukurova. All Rights Reserved