Seeing Red

In a city like Cambridge, red areas aren’t about home cooking, gun-toting and moral values-loving. Red Cambridge means hammers, anvils
By Nathan J. Heller and Jessica R. Rubin-wills

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.

“When they finally let him do it, he went wild and painted the whole place red,” says Nils Johnson, who now manages the bar. The establishment was transformed into a place of counterculture for which leaving means “exile”—as a sign above the door suggests.

Today, the People’s Republik drips Marxist motifs. The bar’s shady red walls are decked with framed Soviet propaganda posters—many of which have been donated by customers. They’ve given other things, too.

“There’s a guy who drinks in here who just arrived with that bomb one day,” Johnson says, gesturing proudly toward the scale model of a missile (or is it a torpedo?) balanced on a ledge over the window. “There’s not too many people who show up with a bomb replica at a bar for aesthetic amusement,” Johnson says. The bomb is long and gray and more than enough to frighten away the uncertain customer.

“Some people sit down and don’t really know what’s going on and say, ‘What’s up with all the propaganda and stuff?’” Johnson says. “You can kind of play with them.” He says some Eastern European visitors have remarked the place reminds them of home.

And beyond those Cold War relics currently on display, the bar’s basement houses several posters and artifacts that can’t fit on its walls.

Of course, it’s not always a space issue. One particularly zealous patron once presented the bar’s management with a life-sized poster of Josef Stalin.

“There are just some things you can’t put up,” Johnson explains.

Center for Marxist Education

550 Mass. Ave., Central Square

(617) 354-2876

Open Thursday evenings and for special events

From the outside, it might seem that the Center for Marxist Education has gone the way of the Soviet Union. The entrance at 550 Mass. Ave. in Central Square—right beside the Cambridge Business Center—is marked only by a sign and a black door with peeling numbers. The door is set back from the street in an entryway covered by old bumper stickers and graffiti that includes the opaque message, “AR YU REDI FOR DH REVOLUSION?” An issue of People’s Weekly World in the mailbox is several weeks old.

But according to director Gary Dotterman, the volunteer-run center—which will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary in January—is still open during limited hours on Thursday evenings, offering lectures, courses, book signings and film series. The center, which has a mailing list of 540 members, also operates the Bookmarx bookstore and hosts a weekly show on Cambridge cable television. Just this past weekend, an economist came to the center to talk about the status of Marxism in China.

“It’s mainly a place for people to come, converse, learn and explore new ideas and some old ideas,” Dodderman says.

The space on Mass. Ave. was first used as a headquarters for Communist Party candidate Laura Ross, who challenged legendary Massachusetts congressman Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill in the 1970’s. After she lost—twice—the newly founded center took over the space, and to this day pays the rent using donations from members. One of its founders, MIT mathematician Dirk Struik, was banned from teaching during what Dodderman calls “the dark years of the McCarthy era.” Struik stayed on at MIT, and “he couldn’t teach but they had to pay him anyway,” Dodderman says.

Since then, the center’s space has been used by activists and hosted foreign dignitaries, including an ambassador from Haiti and representatives from Cuba. Dodderman says Harvard faculty members and students have taken part in the lecture series and study groups over the years. “We got a really good deal on the rent,” Dodderman says of the space. “We’ve grown up around it.”

Mathergrad: Communism on Campus>b

10 Cowperthwaite St.


Harvard isn’t taking the same kind of heat today as it did in the 1950s, when it gained the nickname “the Kremlin on the Charles” and came under fire from Sen. Joseph McCarthy for the faculty’s alleged communist leanings. But the campus’ liberal sensibility reared its fur-hatted head again last year, when Mather House adopted a Soviet theme and wrapped itself in an iron curtain in the campus-wide House Wars.

At last January’s Primal Scream, intrepid residents of “Mathergrad” wore Soviet-style attire and blasted the strains of the USSR national anthem. “Everything became more and more Soviet as things went on,” recalls Hunter S. Maats ’04, who painted himself red with a yellow hammer and sickle on his chest for the naked run around the Yard.

When Mather launched an attack on Kirkland for the alleged theft of the Adams House gong, the Mather House Committee re-formed itself into a communist government, with its former “co-chairmen” adopting the titles of “co-czars.” Maats took on the position of Minister of War. “We started using Soviet fonts in our commiques,” Maats says. And when Mather welcomed its new freshmen in March, its representatives proudly displayed their affiliation with “Mathergrad: The Kremlin on the Charles,” dressed in their new House t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “34 years of Soviet bloc housing” and a hammer and sickle that had been turned into a beer bottle and keg.

Maats says Mather chose the Soviet theme in part because of a note left behind by the gong’s thieves, saying the gong had been sent to the Danilov Monastery in Russia in recompense for the Lowell House bells. The theme also fit well with Mather’s existing House colors, red and yellow. And Maats says the House’s notable architecture also lent itself to the Soviet comparison. “Conan O’Brien [’86] said the same person who designed Hitler’s bunker designed Mather, but really I think it was more likely whoever designed the Gulag,” Maats says.

With the departure of Maats and the rest of last year’s HoCo, the house war and Mather’s Soviet identification have quieted down. But the spirit may live on in Quincy House, which stayed out of last year’s House warfare, but boasts a mysterious red door next to the building manager’s office with the inscription “Toilet” in Russian. Building manager Ronnie Levesque says the door is not a statement of the political leanings of the “People’s House.” The locked bathroom used to be labeled in English, he says, but in an attempt to dissuade people from asking to use it, a friend who spoke Russian helped him change the sign to a more cryptic message. “I did it as a joke,” Levesque says.

A communist joke? FM thinks so.