Seeing Red

A Communist guide to Cambridge

In a city like Cambridge, red areas aren’t about home cooking, gun-toting and moral values-loving. Red Cambridge means hammers, anvils and life-sized posters of Josef Stalin.

In NBC News’s America, of course, Cambridge, Mass., is definitively blue. In the last election, Cambridge gave George W. Bush less than 13 percent of the vote. The city has long been seen as a beacon of leftist thought—but just how leftist is it? A couple of The Crimson’s most ideologically impervious reporters embarked on a tour of some of the local establishments that earned the city the moniker “the People’s Republic of Cambridge.”

Revolution Books

1156 Mass. Ave., Harvard Square

(617) 492-5443

Open Tues.-Fri. 2 to 8 p.m., Sat. 12 noon to 8 p.m., Sun. 2 to 6 p.m.

We all want to change the world, but the proprietors of Revolution Books are actually trying—one shelf at a time. This bookstore at 1156 Mass. Ave. specializes in Marxist tracts from all sectors of the great red globe. A door to the shop’s storage room is covered with buttons featuring the unsmiling face of Mao Ze Tung, which may have something to do with the reason that, according to 15-year bookseller Ben O’Leary, Revolution Books gets an “unpredictable” number of customers.

The store purports to specialize in revolutionary theory (hence the name), in keeping with the tenets of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, whose members comprise its staff. But when it comes to stocking the shelves, the store’s managers seem to be seeking a diversity of views, from the left (Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky) to the far left. You can’t get far into the store without running across the polemical prose of Bob Avakian, chairman of “The Party,” as members call the organization. Chairman Avakian is also one of the most frequent contributors to the Revolutionary Worker. And the star of the five-part video series Revolution: Why it’s necessary, why it’s possible, what it’s all about. And the author of such books as Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (The Party prefers “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.”)

With parallel shops set up throughout the country, Revolution Books is something of a chain—but you didn’t hear that from us. At heart, the store is profoundly un-capitalist. It’s so un-capitalist, in fact, that its staff members don’t get paid at all. Sales only generate half of the store’s operating costs, and it relies on donations from communist sympathizers nationwide to make up for the rest, O’Leary explains. He says the store’s mission is to help sustain and propagate “the science of the revolution, as we call it.” A rack of photocopied pamphlets near the door gives the small venue a grassroots turn, while the Revolutionary Worker, the weekly publication of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, reports on current events with black type and red headlines.

According to O’Leary, Revolutionary Books was founded “about thirty years ago” (Marxists believe in an historical dialectic, but not that historical) and it’s been in its present location for the past decade. The staff members, who describe themselves as “a product of the sixties,” explain that, even in 2004, it remains a bastion of the counterculture that Cambridge embodies. “It still has a reputation as an area for radical thought,” O’Leary says. Harvard students have been known to patronize the establishment, and volunteer Jane Sullivan recalls one other visit from students from Northeastern University. “Are you guys Bolsheviks or Mensheviks?” the students asked.

The People’s Republik

876 Mass. Ave., between Harvard and Central Squares

(617) 492-8632

Open Sunday-Wednesday 12 noon to 1 a.m., Thursday-Saturday 12 noon to 2 a.m.

Sometimes you want to go where all the comrades know your name. The People’s Republik bar, tucked into a boxy scarlet building at 876 Mass. Ave. between Harvard and Central Squares, playfully claims to offer an ideological “refuge” from oh-so square, gentrified Cambridge. True, many of the patrons look more likely to be carrying briefcases than tattered Red Books, but hey, glasnost happens.

The bar donned its current name in 1997, when it came under new ownership. (Previously, it had been called Drumlin’s Pub.) The name change set off bureaucratic alarm bells. The Cambridge License Commission initially refused to approve the new name, maintaining that it could prove offensive to Cambridge residents. But by the time the Commission conceded, bar owner Philip Blair was irritated.