‘As avowed anticapitalists, communists made for unlikely business owners’
It’s not entirely clear when communists first sold books in the US. But almost as soon as they split off from the Socialist Party of America to form their own parties in 1919, communists opened their own bookstores, too.
Communist booksellers immediately became targets of state repression as they faced an intense postwar backlash against so-called subversion. In 1919, the New York legislature established a committee to investigate “seditious activities” in the state. As part of the investigation, a group of fifty state police officers and right-wing volunteers led by Deputy Attorney General Samuel Berger raided the People’s House bookshop of the Rand School of Social Science, then New York’s premier radical educational center. The investigators seized communist books and papers, but prosecutors eventually failed to convict the bookstore’s employees of sedition.
As avowed anticapitalists, communists made for unlikely business owners. But as entrepreneurs, their objective was to promote ideology and cover costs, not maximize profits. Red bookstores spread rapidly as the ranks of the consolidated Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) swelled during the Depression. By the end of the 1930s, roughly fifty communist bookstores were open for business. Their politics were also paradoxical. Unwavering supporters of Stalin abroad, American communists were relentless champions of democracy and civil liberties at home. And their bookstores helped them circulate a domestic agenda of racial and social equality.
Photograph by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid