On your Marx: meet the modern-day communists

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One hundred years after the Russian revolution, communists are still flying the flag in countries from Russia to Nepal to Italy. Photographer Jan Banning captures the enduring spirit of 1917

No two modern communist parties are the same. In Nepal, the comrades look quite Oceans Eleven, purposeful and united, glamorous despite their woolly hats. In Italy, the insistent sun gives them the air of drinkers in a rural bar with an eccentric owner. The reds of the Indian state of Kerala carry themselves with a distinctive authority and have the look of seasoned medics in a run-down but well-used county hospital. The Portuguese communists have an anarchic energy, a bit of versatility, as if they could be plotting a revolution, or opposing fracking. The Russians have a complicated, mournful alertness, as if theyre running a seance.

Laura

  • Above: Laura Vari, a member of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), in Lenci, Liguria, Italy. Main image: Olga Volnina, first secretary of the Communist party of the Russian Federation, Torzhok, Tver Province

They share a love of Marx and primary-coloured paintwork, but differ over their enthusiasm for one of the biggest mass murderers of the 20th century. Joseph Stalin, widely held responsible for tens of millions of deaths, doesnt get much traction outside Russia, but there he is major. Without exception, says photographer Jan Banning, in all the 50 party offices I visited, they were in favour of Stalin. They would just deny the bad side of it: There are problems in every country you have to realise there were a lot of saboteurs, so he had to do something. Of course, these people have not experienced the toughest years of Stalin, the 1930s. He is a war hero for a war they did not fight in.

Activist

  • Activist Rodrigo Jose de Silva in the offices of Partido Comunista Portugus, Borba, Alentejo, Portugal

Over the past four years, Banning has photographed communists from five non-communist countries: Russia, for obvious reasons; India, where they are still a significant electoral force; Portugal, because even since their recent electoral collapse they still net one vote in 12; Italy, because they were interesting historically; and Nepal. Banning talks about them all with a parents slightly anguished affection, almost pained to see them struggling to make their way in the world. The Portuguese, he says, wanted to be seen in a very heroic way: mass demonstrations and lots of flags, not this intimate and slightly clumsy representation. They are dreaming of the past, some form of land reform nobody has been talking about since 1974. There is not that much to hope for. I think they would be able to set up two soccer teams and have a few people on the bench they are less than marginal.

Yuri

  • Yuri Budylev, chairman of the Office of the Council of Veterans of the Second World War, in Staraya Russa, Novgorod province, Russia

When Banning showed the Portuguese communists his first set of photographs, they didnt invite him back; the Italians, conversely, asked if they could use the portraits for their Facebook page. Meanwhile, the Keralans are much more established than either European party. Theyre different, Banning says. Theyre governing. Its a social democratic party theres nothing revolutionary about them. Theyre in a communist coalition. Theyve been in power regularly since the mid-1950s.

What all the parties have in common is passion and uncertainty, a desire to persuade and a stoic preparedness to fail. Politically, Banning approached the project from a sympathetic place, though you wouldnt call him a fellow traveller. Im an anarchist at heart, he says. I have never voted for a communist party my sympathies have never been with any real, existing socialism. Communism as it was in Russia, in China, I have never been attached to that. But I have always been on the left side of the spectrum.

Members

  • Communist party of Nepal (Revolutionary Maoist), Pokhara district. Standing: three youth party members. Seated: a journalist on the party newspaper and, right, the officer in charge of the constituency

Activist

The

  • Above left: activist Maria Schiavone at the Emiliano Zapata office of the PRC in Acerra, Campania, Italy. Above right: the Che Guevara club of the PRC in Verbicaro, Calabria, Italy

Certainly there is no partisan sugar-coating in his images. The bogeyman trait of the left is self-righteousness, but theres none of that; its hard to look pleased with yourself beside such dicey plasterwork. The low spec of the interiors, crumbling concrete and 70s chairs, give a sense of having been left behind. In Russia, particularly, the disparity between these sparse meetings and the USSRs high-polish, monolithic granite and aggressively synchronised marching is vertiginous.

From Strugi Krasnye to Alentejo, portraits of the heroes of communism festoon the party faithfuls walls. Che Guevaras face, photogenic from any angle, at any scale, occupies such a kitsch, post-political niche in the capitalist aesthetic that to see him looming heroically for his politics rather than his cheekbones is a quiet accusation. The problem with Marx, ran the Russian saying post-glasnost, is that he was wrong about communism but right about capitalism. For this cross-continental communist rump, though, Marx was so right about the right stuff theyre prepared to overlook the wrong.

NP

  • NP Vidyanadan of the Communist party of India (Marxist), the main party in the communist-led government of Kerala, India

What should we feel when we see Che and Stalin side by side? What mixture of nostalgia, ambition, myopia and idealism are we looking at, and in what proportions? Of course viewers have to be attracted to the images, Banning says. But then, if theyre confused by the content, it hopefully stimulates them to start using their brain, and not just their hearts and their eyes.

Many of Bannings images are very funny, albeit with a slightly queasy, unwilling humour. These circumstances, the situations, the offices yeah, I find them funny, he agrees. Regularly. But Im not trying to make a fool of the people in there. First of all, who am I to judge them? I can judge the system when its in power, but these individuals? It would be a very cynical series if I went there to make fun of them.

Office

  • Office secretary Ramhari Pokharel of the Communist party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), in Sindhuli district, Nepal

Banning is from the Netherlands, and had scoped out the Dutch communist party first. The first thing I discovered was that they were extremely marginal. The second thing that struck me was that they seemed to be hardly bothered by it. They were thinking in the millennium term, in the sense of, These changes are going to take about 1,000 years. Were in a dip now, but never mind: we win in the long run. They did not want to be presented as a group of dinosaurs. I should include the youth, they said. Now, the youth I went to a few meetings and a funeral, and I saw a total of one always the same one, a young fellow.

If you took Bannings book too literally, you would see in it an insult to communism, a depressing dishevelment; you would quibble with the scope, limited to the oldest building blocks of local organisations, paying no heed to more modern and optimistic experiments, the networked tech lefties and their fully automated luxury communism.

Georgi

  • Georgi Georgievich Slovtsov at the Communist party of the Russian Federations Leningrad provincial office, in St Petersburg, Russia

But it doesnt claim to be an audit of the movement, and Banning found some unexpected parallels outside it. We drove some 5,000km in western Russia, saw quite a lot of these villages and small towns. Its a disaster. You can clearly see the effects of neo-liberalism public space has been dismantled, the roads are a mess, there are few shops left, the people are on their own.

Funnily enough, it reminded me of what Id seen in the southern US states. Of course, the level of development is better there, but I had this feeling of nothing being up to scratch. I remember laughing out loud when I was driving there and listening to Obama saying, We have the best infrastructure in the world. Its utterly ridiculous. That has nothing to do with communism, but I think it does have to do with neo-liberalism, the purest form of it which we do not have in the western European continent.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/14/on-your-marx-meet-modern-day-communists-