Communists on Campus

By Brian Brennan

Over the years, politicians, activists and officeholders of many stripes have descended upon Youngstown State University. The two major political parties have been well represented with their platforms loyally endorsed by student organizations of similar outlook.

Occasionally, someone with unusual views emerges from the mist, providing welcome relief from the routine fulminations of the Democrats and Republicans. Sometimes, even the Communists have put in an appearance.

In 1972, Gus Hall came to YSU as the Communist Party USA’s candidate for president of the United States.

The Mahoning Valley was familiar territory to Hall; in the 1930s, he was a founding member of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and participated in the Little Steel Strike in 1937. The actions of Hall and others led to the unionization of the steel mills.

Hall was a dedicated Marxist-Leninist, with the CPUSA accepting Moscow’s strict party line — and money. Nevertheless, Hall had to canvass for votes like any other American political candidate.

During his visit to Youngstown, Hall spoke out against an American foreign policy that led to wars like that in Vietnam. He also recommended making all acts of racism a federal offense, promoted social security and demanded job protections. In the end, none of this mattered; Richard Nixon was re-elected in a record landslide victory.

In 1987, Hall once again spoke at YSU, filling the DeBartolo Hall auditorium to capacity. He condemned the Reagan Administration and its lack of action regarding Youngstown’s closed steel mills and economic decline.

Off campus, few paid attention. Soon thereafter, the already-low relevance of the CPUSA waned even further as Soviet Communism declined and died with the end of the Cold War. Today, the CPUSA endorses Democratic Party candidates.

Probably more interesting was the Revolutionary Communist Party. The RCP was founded by Bob Avakian, a 1960s radical who had links to the Black Panthers, the Students for a Democratic Society and the Free Speech Movement.

Unlike Hall, Avakian took his cues from Chinese communism and the works of Chairman Mao Zedong.

While Avakian never visited YSU, he was well-represented by the RCP’s youth wing, the May Day Group. Having been previously expelled from campus, the May Day Group tried again to present their case in March 1980.

The audience erupted in anger and a scuffle broke out, with an RCP informational brochure being set alight. A second disturbance occurred a week later when two May Day members were accosted while selling RCP publications without a permit.

A year later, the RCP was back, with one woman sporting a black T-shirt bearing the message, “I was born in a sewer called capitalism. Now, I’m living for revolution.” While the audience generally disapproved of the RCP’s presence, there was no violence on this occasion. The RCP still exists with Bob Avakian remaining at the helm.

Communism is fairly well ignored today; however, socialism — which is not the same thing as communism — is staging a comeback. In addition, a local Green is running for president. Variety, even in political discourse, remains the spice of life.