On a recent morning in southern India, one of the world’s last true-believing communists rose to speak in a place where communists can still whip up the masses and win elections.
Thomas Isaac, the finance minister for the state of Kerala, gazed out at a crowd of hundreds gathered to honor the founding father of Kerala’s communist party, a man killed by a snakebite while organizing farmworkers whose dying words were reputed to have been: “Comrades, forward!”
A row of hammer-and-sickle flags fluttered in the wind. People raised clenched fists in a “red salute” and chanted “Long live the revolution!”
“We are trying to build our dream state in this fascist India!” Isaac began, and in so many ways it was still true.
A century after Bolsheviks swarmed the Winter Palace in Petrograd, Russia (now St. Petersburg), the Indian state of Kerala, home to 35 million people, remains one of the few places on earth where a communist can still dream.
The Bolsheviks, inspired by Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” had set out to build a new kind of society, a workers’ paradise in which property and wealth would be owned in common. That revolution began in the fall of 1917 and gave rise to the Soviet Union and a movement that would sweep across one-third of the world, inspiring new followers, erasing borders and filling gulags. Eventually, it would be undone by stagnant economies, pressure from the West and the alienation of its own people.
What remains today are five nominally communist nations. In Cuba, the revolution survives mostly as a decrepit museum piece. The communist parties of China, Vietnam and Laos preside over largely autocratic forms of runaway capitalism. In North Korea, communism has become a nuclear-armed cult of personality and police state.
But in Kerala — far from the high-stakes maneuvers of the Cold War and nearly 2,000 miles from the Indian capital of New Delhi — history has taken the most unexpected of detours.
Instead of ossifying into an autocratic force, Kerala’s communists embraced electoral politics and since 1957 have been routinely voted into power. Instead of being associated with repression or failure, the party of Marx is widely associated with huge investments in education that have produced a 95 percent literacy rate, the highest in India, and a health-care system where citizens earning only a few dollars a day still qualify for free heart surgery.
This modern incarnation of communism also has produced one of the stranger paradoxes of the global economy: millions of healthy, educated workers setting off to the supercharged, capitalist economies of the Persian Gulf dreaming of riches and increasingly finding them.
And that has raised an existential question for Isaac and Kerala’s other 21st-century communists: Can they survive their own success?
The story of communism in Kerala did not begin with a revolution, the storming of the capital or even Marx. Instead, its beginnings in 1939 were far more idiosyncratic, rooted in resistance to British rule, a commitment to land reform and opposition to India’s caste system.
It was also intimately tied to a traveling musical, “You Made Me a Communist,” about peasants who banded together to fight an evil feudal landlord. The play premiered in 1952, drew big crowds and helped the party win its first election five years later. Another decade passed before the “Communist Manifesto,” Marx’s account of the contradictions of capitalism, was even translated into Malayalam, the local language.
And while Kerala’s communists borrowed the symbols of the Soviet Union — they read Sovietland magazine, followed the march of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and sent rice to the Cubans — they also embraced their own local heroes and followed their own distinct path.
Unlike communists in China, Latin America or Eastern Europe, party leaders in Kerala never seized factories — the “means of production,” in the words of Marx — or banned private property. Instead, they competed in elections with the center-left Indian National Congress party, winning some years and losing others.
Communism became for many a piece of their identity. In the 1970s and 1980s it wasn’t uncommon for parents to name their children “Lenin,” “Stalin” or, in the case of one girl, “Soviet Breeze.” Pictures of early Soviet leaders, such as Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, were hung on the walls in party offices alongside Indian heroes such as the party’s founder, Krishna Pillai.
In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party had been something remote — “a mysterious and implacable external power,” as one scholar put it. In Kerala, the communist party is made up of people like Isaac, the finance minister, whose iPhone was now ringing.
“Yes, comrade,” he answered.
He had finished his speech honoring the party’s founder and was now in his government van heading off on yet another 14-hour day in the life of a local politician tending his base. His driver pumped the horn in a nonstop staccato to clear a narrow path through streets clogged with smoke-belching motorbikes, dented cars and puttering rickshaws.
Isaac often describes his decision to join the party in the early 1970s as an act of rebellion. His parents were devout Christians who owned a modest textile factory, and before joining the party, Isaac had been a seminary student. Among his first acts as a communist was to organize a strike at his father’s mill.
“If you don’t negotiate with these workers, I will be with them on the picket line,” he recalled telling his father.
Now 64, he is still very much an idealist. He owns no land, having given away a small parcel of property inherited from his parents. His two daughters, who moved to the United States 20 years ago, after Isaac and his wife divorced, worry sometimes about their father’s lack of savings. He was unable to contribute to either daughter’s college education, and his visits to the United States to see them have been rare. Only in the past few years has Isaac allowed himself a handful of luxuries, such as a car, the iPhone and an iPad that he uses to check the day’s cricket highlights and update his Facebook page.
His first stop was a ribbon-
cutting at a family-owned driving school. Then he made a two-hour drive to the village of Kollam, where a party leader had asked him to stop by his son’s wedding.
Isaac, who became an atheist when he joined the party, posed with the newlyweds under a statue of a pale, gaunt Christ on the cross, because in Kerala the communists had never sought to stamp out religion. Soon he was back in the van rushing down a narrow, potholed road past makeshift tea stands, coconut sellers and clusters of simple, concrete homes, each one with electricity and indoor toilets. Kerala is one of the few states in India where that is the case.
“This is what it means to make a better life for people,” Isaac said, pulling on a neck pillow for a quick nap.
As he approached his home town of Alappuzha, the road widened and Isaac’s minivan sped past a mural of Che Guevara, the ageless hero of the Cuban revolution, and a billboard of Colonel Sanders, the ageless hawker of capitalist fried chicken.
Near the city’s edge, Isaac’s van stopped at a state-supported cooperative that manufactures coir, a bristly fabric used to make welcome mats sold in hardware stores across the United States. There he greeted the 100 or so older women who had gathered in a mosquito-infested palm grove and assured them that they would not lose their jobs as the industry mechanized.
“Make whatever quantity of coir you want, and the government will buy it,” he said as the women in orange, green and gold saris applauded. Then, he promised to double their daily pay to about 300 rupees, or $5.
Isaac estimated that the government would have to subsidize the workers’ salaries for about 10 years, until they retire and their jobs most likely disappear.
He knew such subsidies were possible only because of the decidedly un-communist lives that the younger generations are pursuing. Increasingly, young workers are fleeing Kerala’s low wages for the booming states of the Persian Gulf region, leaving Isaac to oversee an economy unlike anything Marx ever imagined — one fueled by global demand for Kerala’s healthy, educated workforce. But even with the gulf money, Isaac is running the largest deficit of any Indian state.
As finance minister, Isaac dreams of building new highways, bridges and industrial parks that might make it easier to attract high-paying jobs to Kerala — “the best physical and social infrastructure in all of India!” he often says.
But for now, his government has more pressing priorities: expanding Kerala’s four international airports — each of which offers nonstop flights to the gulf — and adding a fifth.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Kerala’s migrant workers found employment building highways and skyscrapers in the gulf. These days, their better-educated successors fill jobs overseas as accountants, nurses, lawyers, doctors and mid-level civil servants. More than a third of Kerala’s gross domestic product last year came from remittances.
These migrants are remaking Kerala’s culture. One of the most popular programs on local television is “World of Expats,” a reality show that helps distraught family members find relatives who have gone missing in the gulf region.
They are also remaking the state’s humble landscape. Kerala is a place where big, gated homes — “gulf houses” in the local lingo — sit next to simple ones. Many of the big homes are empty for much of the year, while their owners are abroad working. One government study from 2011 estimated that there were nearly 1 million empty or partially occupied homes. Meanwhile, Isaac worries about a shortage of housing for the poor.
Less than a mile from the spot in the village of Pinarayi where the party held its first clandestine meeting, Prasanth Cherambeth, 40, and his wife, Saniga, 36, had just arrived from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and were celebrating the opening of their six-bedroom home.
Hours earlier, dozens of workers had been laying sod and tile by flashlight in a race to complete it. Now friends, family and a few curious villagers were walking up a red-carpeted driveway and entering a home festooned with marigolds. They took in the indoor fountain under the stairs, the marble floors, the glass-tiled swimming pool and the kitchen full of stainless-steel appliances that Cherambeth’s aunt was saying were “all from Dubai.” On the second floor, porch chandeliers flashed red and blue.
At the center of the party, propped on a chair and draped in white flowers, was a picture of a communist: Cherambeth’s recently deceased father, a party stalwart and longtime employee of the state bus company.
In a few weeks, Cherambeth and his wife would drain the pool, lock up their new home and return with their three young children to Abu Dhabi, where they had spent much of the past 15 years. Someday, when their work visas expire, they plan to return to Kerala permanently. For now, Cherambeth, a mid-level administrator at a nuclear power company, was going to enjoy his new home.
“It’s a dream,” he said, as guests swirled around him.
Despite all the changes, the party’s loyalists kept the faith. At a recent party-sponsored class for the public in the city of Kannur, a professor named K.N. Harilal was insisting that true communism would come only with the catastrophic collapse of the global economy.
“The deterioration of capitalism is an inevitability, and it’s happening fast,” he said. “Humans cannot be so narrow-minded and profit-oriented forever.”
Ceiling fans circulated humid air, and a few dozen mostly middle-aged students scribbled notes in party-supplied workbooks.
“How will we know when the permanent crash finally comes?” a student asked as the class stretched into its fifth hour. “What will the signs be?”
“Nobody can predict it,” Harilal replied.
A big reason for the communist party’s survival in Kerala has been its ability to adapt to the demands of electoral politics and accommodate different and even contradictory views. As a result, the very meaning of communism in Kerala has become a subject of debate.
For many, especially the young, communism today is more about the ideal of equal opportunity than the ideology of Marx or Lenin. “We believe all people are the same class and should have the same chance in life,” said Shigin Pradeesh, 20, a university student and son of a low-wage coconut picker, who was waiting by the front desk of the party headquarters in the village of Pinarayi.
“I am not a selfish person,” he said. “That’s why I am a communist.”
In Kerala, the communist idea often survives in the most parochial of ways. When the party decided to open a worker-owned amusement park cooperative, some party officials complained that the proposed name — “Malabar Pleasures” — was misguided. Pleasure, after all, is a “bourgeois” concept. The name was changed to “Incredible Park.”
Ultimately, communism in Kerala has remained Indian. At a time of rising Hindu nationalism, the party’s classes for young children — a communist version of Sunday school — emphasize a secular Indian identity.
“We are not Christians or Muslims or Hindus,” sang a group of barefoot boys and girls in Kerala’s capital of Thiruvananthapuram, near the southern tip of India. “Hunger is the same for us all; pain is the same for us all. Our blood has the same color; our tears the same taste.”
Nearly 70 years after the play “You Made Me a Communist” introduced communism to Kerala, a popular movie offered a new account of the movement.
Director Amal Neerad’s “Comrade in America” opened at theaters in Kerala, Abu Dhabi and Dubai on May 5, which happened to be Marx’s birthday. In the film, Neerad’s communist hero fights for the poor and falls in love with an American woman visiting family in Kerala. When she returns to the United States, he risks his life sneaking across the U.S.-Mexican border to win her back.
The film gently pokes fun at self-important communists and their long-winded speeches about revolution. In one of its many whimsical moments, the lovesick hero drinks too much and hallucinates a conversation with Guevara, who tells him that the “best lovers among us are communist comrades. Those who don’t have anything to hide can create revolutions and love deeply.”
In the end, the hero’s love chooses capitalist America over him. One film critic described Neerad’s lead comrade as a “losing man.” To Neerad, a former party activist, this was too bleak. “He’s a losing believer,” the filmmaker said.
This was perhaps one more way to think of communism in Kerala at a time of growing inequality and religious division in India and around the world.
“It’s a failed dream,” Neerad said. “But it’s our only hope.”
Isaac had been reluctant to see a movie that makes fun of his party, but one of his daughters, visiting from New York, pressed him to go. “She found it to be a hilarious take on us,” he said.
Isaac’s views were more complicated. “We should be able to joke about ourselves,” he said.
He paused and thought some more. The aging communist had never been prouder of the party’s achievements or more worried about its future. One hundred years after the birth of the first communist state, the movie’s heroes — its “losing believers” — seemed “very familiar,” Isaac said. “They feel true.”