The Dutch photographer Jan Banning decided to find out. For his new book Red Utopia, he traveled to five different countries where communism remains strong and photographed the party’s offices and the people who’ve continued to fight for Marx’s ideas.
“I excluded the five formal communist countries of China, Vietnam, Cuba, Laos, and North Korea because I was more interested in places where people become party members out of conviction rather than as a career move,” Banning writes in the book’s introduction. “I wanted to see what is left of this ideology, which, in its plea for social justice, has deeply influenced one and a half centuries of history.”
Banning traveled to Italy, Portugal, India, Nepal, and Russia, where he visited dozens of communist party offices and spoke with their leaders. The resulting photographs are a stunning portrait of Marx’s present-day followers (and their overwhelming use of the color red). They are now on display at the Museum de Fundatie in the Netherlands.
Banning uncovered some fascinating differences between countries, despite the party members’ shared philosophy. Italy’s communists were open-minded, he says, while Russia’s cared only about Russia and the glory days of Lenin and Stalin’s leadership–a distinction that is reflected in Banning’s photos. In one photo of the communist party office in Venice, several men sit around a cheerily decorated room, complete with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. The posters on the wall include a portrait of the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, a striking figure the Italian party uses to recruit younger people. Contrast that to one photo of Russian communists, in which three men and two women sit around a table decorated with open bottles of booze, their faces mostly shrouded in darkness, as a giant bust of Lenin looms over them.
Not all the people Banning visited were open to his documentarian photo style, which is a far cry from the kinds of idealistic, heroic images typically associated with propaganda. In Portugal, Banning was disinvited from returning for a longer trip when the party officials saw his initial photographs. He says he wasn’t given a reason, but speculates that they didn’t appreciate how his photos portrayed them. “What I am showing is what you could call the intimate face of communism,” he says. “It’s not extremely heroic.”
And that’s the point. Banning’s photos tell the…