BERKELEY, Calif. - In the fields of political thought, communism clings to existence like dried kernels clinging to the cob. These days a lot of people think it is dying out there, row after row going all gnarled and dry.
The mainstream communist bookstore in San Jose, Calif., has closed. The radical Maoist bookstore in San Francisco has closed.
But in Berkeley - which, as everybody knows, has a climate and growing season unto itself - who knows? Maybe the kernels there will fall off into the earth and one day flourish again!
Anyway, that's the belief they nurture at Revolution Books, an earnest if somewhat dusty little emporium near Telegraph Avenue. These are the die-hard communists who spurn the revisionists, ridicule Gorbachev, yearn for another Mao.
Political developments in Eastern Europe notwithstanding (those guys aren't real communists, anyway), they're still waiting for the revolution at Revolution Books.
"A lot of people say this store's an anachronism," store worker Felix Barrett says. "They say communism's dead; we should fold up and go home." His response, he says, is that he welcomes the moves toward capitalism and democracy, because that just shows who the true communists are.
While the world-watchers and trend-spotters seem to be relegating communism to the passe (remember the joke about My Karma Just Ran Over Your Dogma?), hard-core believers like Barrett don't concede anything. The problem with the Soviet-bloc countries, he says, is "they gave up the ideals of communism long ago."
To the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which is associated with the bookstore, "the ideals of communism" are those espoused by Marx, Lenin and Mao. At Revolution Books, their giant faces on elevated posters sourly survey the floor.
You can buy the Big Three's likenesses or their writings. You can buy a T-shirt displaying Mao, wart and all. Or buttons with slogans (U.S. Out of My Uterus!), pamphlets with slogans, newspapers with slogans (Send a Revolutionary Worker reporter to Iraq!).
That's the supply - but in these post-Berlin Wall, post-Ceausescu, post-Tiananmen Square days, what's the demand?
Barrett, bespectacled, graying at 33, looking more like a guy who'd drill your bowling ball than overthrow your government, doesn't like to talk much about the details of the business. The number of customers "really can vary a lot" from day to day, he says.
Various communist factions gained some visibility this year while partaking in demonstrations against the Persian Gulf War. But that visibility flamed out about as quickly as the war.
George Wayne Bradley, who teaches a class called comparative communism at San Francisco State University, says: "They're basically confused. They don't know what to do" in the face of the party's decline in Europe.
It hasn't always been that way. The high points came with vigorous labor movements of the '30s and protest movements of the late '60s and early '70s. But there's a consensus that U.S. communists' numbers and influence have diminished significantly since then.
How much is difficult to measure. The FBI certainly won't say. "If I speak to that, then I'm implying we have some sort of investigation, which I'm not going to say," says Ed Appel, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's San Francisco office.
But in roundabout FBI style, he implies the FBI perceives that the communists' power has diminished. "I think you can take the inference that there's not a heck of a lot of interest here," he says.
The communists are equally evasive.
"You don't give out information like that if you're serious about preparing for a revolution," says Gregory "Joey" Johnson of San Francisco, an RCP spokesman. (Johnson gained notoriety in 1984 when his arrest for burning the U.S. flag led to the Supreme Court's famous decision declaring the act legal.)
"I will say this," he adds. "We're not large enough yet to make a revolution. We need to grow."
Nowadays, the communists grow older and more analytical of the system whose banner they carried for so long.
Herbert Aptheker, 75, a nationally known Marxist scholar and historian who lives in San Jose, says the recent failings of the party in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have created a "profound impact" for him personally.
But he says some of those reservations have begun to pass. Although he is a long way ideologically from the Maoists at Revolution Books, he shares their idea that the kernel will one day take root and grow.
"The sickness in mature capitalistic society is becoming more awful, more intense," Aptheker says. "So it's not that the vision of a collective, humane, peaceful society must be abandoned, but rather it must be reaffirmed and purified."
"If there's anything certain in history, it's that the wheel keeps turning."