Speaking at a town hall meeting, Republican Allen West made the startling claim that many of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are members of the Communist Party.
The TCPalm, a newspaper that covers northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, reported on comments the South Florida congressman made at a town hall in Jensen Beach on April 10, 2012. The article reported that West claimed up to 80 House Democrats are Communist Party members, though he didn’t name names.
West’s words went viral. Some of the responses were funny: A commenter on the the Palm Beach Post website pretended to be Joe McCarthy, the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin: "I told you there were 80 communists in Congress!"
By the next day, West’s Democratic opponent, Patrick Murphy, had posted a 26-second video of West’s statement. West’s campaign then distributed their own slightly longer version of the video. The audio is somewhat difficult to discern in parts, but here’s a transcript of what we heard:
Moderator: "What percentage of the American legislature do you think are card-carrying Marxists or International Socialist?"
West: "It's a good question. I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party who are members of the Communist Party. ... It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus."
So how many -- if any -- Democrats in Congress are communists?
West points to the Progressive Caucus
We asked West’s spokeswoman Angela Melvin for an explanation: "The congressman was referring to the 76 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The Communist Party has publicly referred to the Progressive Caucus as its allies. The Progressive Caucus speaks for itself. These individuals certainly aren't proponents of free markets or individual economic freedom."
On Facebook, West elaborated: "I stand by the point of my comments. The press wants to write gotcha stories and talk semantics, but just look at the words and actions of the Progressive Caucus. You can call them socialist, Marxist, communist or whatever you want, but the point is, they oppose free markets and individual economic freedom, they want to redistribute wealth, and they want to see the nation fundamentally transformed. Their policies are destructive and I will stand up to them regardless of the critics. Members of this Caucus lavished praise on Fidel Castro following a 2009 visit, just to name one example. The Communist Party USA claims the Progressive Caucus as its ‘ally.’"
West’s campaign manager Tim Edson told the Washington Post that some Democratic members have traveled to communist Cuba or praised Fidel Castro. (The Post noted that some Republicans have gone to Cuba too.) From the Post:
"Pressed on whether those members are actual communists, Edson said the label isn’t the point.
"We can quibble about the terminology used to describe them, but it’s clear. Whatever you call people that oppose capitalism and free markets and individual economic freedom — maybe it’s ‘socialist,’ maybe it’s ’communist’ — but that’s the point the congressman was making, and he stands by the words."
It might surprise you to know that PolitiFact has already checked claims about how many members of Congress are socialists. In the past, though, it’s been a claim confined to bloggers. (See these fact-checks from PolitiFact state sites in New Jersey, Texas and Oregon.)
Here in Florida, we previously ruled on a claim from bloggers that three Florida Democratic members of Congress are socialists; we rated that Pants on Fire. Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings and Frederica Wilson are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus -- the largest caucus within the House Democratic caucus. Founded in 1991, the group of lawmakers supports policies that advance economic justice, civil rights and other causes.
The Progressive Caucus is co-chaired by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota. We asked Ellison’s spokeswoman Jennifer Gore if any members of the caucus, which she said numbers 78, are communists: "That would really be a surprise to us. ... I don’t know how anyone would know if someone was a card-carrying member unless he or she said they were," she said.
Eric Johnson, a consultant for Murphy’s campaign, joked in response to West’s claim: "50 million Americans are living under communist rule if every member of the Progressive caucus is a communist." (He multiplied the 78 caucus members times the average district population of 646,000 based on the 2000 census. That gets you to about 50 million.)
The Communist Party responds
Communist Party USA does describe the Progressive Caucus as "our allies" on its website, and we found several other positive mentions of the Progressive Caucus on the site as well. But it also dishes out some criticism of Democrats in general as being "accommodationist."
There are no members of Congress who are members of the Communist Party, said Libero Della Piana, vice president of the Communist Party USA, which has fewer than 5,000 members.
Applicants have to apply through the national or local organizations and pay dues. Even if prospective members applied through a local group, Piana said he’d hear about it. (Generally, the party no longer issues cards. If someone asks for them, there are some older cards on hand.)
"Trust me -- if a member of Congress applied to join the Communist Party we would know about it," Piana said. "It would set up some red flags -- pardon the pun."
The Progressive Caucus promotes policies that the Communist Party thinks are better for the country than some promoted by other caucuses, but "our support of their policies does not mean they support us or our policies. That is pretty much guilt by association on steroids,’’ Piana said.
We read West’s claim to Bertell Ollman, a professor who teaches political theory at New York University and an expert on Marxism. Ollman said he considers himself a Marxist and a communist with a small "c’’, since he’s not active in a political party.
"I wish he was right," Ollman said of West’s claim. "If it was even 10 percent true I would be dancing in the streets. It would indicate that the Democrats are much more to the left than they really are."
And what’s the difference between Marxism, communists and socialists? Ollman said Marxism is more of an analytical tool, looking at what capitalism is as a system and how it works for some and not others. Communists draw more on Marxism than socialists do and are generally critical of socialists for being too moderate. Also, he added, communists tend to argue a lot more among themselves about political theory.
West said, "I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party who are members of the Communist Party." West said he was referring to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and that the Communist Party has publicly referred to the Progressive Caucus as its ally.
But just because the Communist Party has spoken positively about the Progressive Caucus doesn’t mean that the Democrats in that Caucus are communists. Heck, West has often pointed out that he and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich -- a liberal Democrat from Ohio -- agreed on a resolution calling for withdrawing from Libya. That doesn’t make West a Democrat.
West is using guilty by association here, and has failed to prove that any member of Congress is a communist. Pants on Fire!