Do Card-Carrying Communists Really Carry Cards?

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Oct. 2 2012 7:00 PM

Do Card-Carrying Communists Really Carry Cards?

What do they look like?

Membership card of the Communist Party of the U.S.A., Jul 1946.
Membership card of the Communist Party of the U.S.A., Jul 1946

Life Magazine.

Anti-Obama conspiracy theorists are shipping DVDs of the film Dreams From My Real Father to swing states with funding from a mysterious donor. The documentary claims that Obama was secretly sired by Frank Marshall Davis, who theorists allege was “a literal card-carrying communist.” Do Communists really carry cards?

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

Not anymore. During the Cold War, most American Communists did not carry around cards certifying their membership in the Communist Party, but some prominent members did. While others would keep their records secret at headquarters or at a local chapter, these party and union leaders would carry their cards with them. As labor activist William McCuistion testified when asked to explain the phrase at a House Committee on Un-American Activities hearing in 1939, the “ ‘card-carrying Communist’ is the type of Communist who comes out and admits to everybody he is a Communist. … He flashes it to everybody, just like a reporter flashes his credentials at this thing here.” Some such cards were produced by HUAC investigators during the Second Red Scare. One card was even printed in a July 1946 article in Life magazine: It read “Membership Card” and “Communist Party of the U.S.A.” alongside the holder’s name and the “Rights and Duties of Party Members.” The magazine suggested that the card was “held by approximately 65,000 Americans.” However, the cards produced by the committee were not usually plucked straight from the pockets of Communist Party members. Instead, the FBI had broken into Communist Party headquarters and taken photostatic copies of their records, and the committee produced the documents without revealing their source.

Industrial Workers of the World membership card.
Industrial Workers of the World membership card

Wikimedia Commons/IWW.

Before Communists, the first “card-carrying” groups tended to be members of labor unions, and often members used the cards openly to claim union jobs. Perhaps the earliest  mention of “card-carrying” union members came in a 1912 Daily People article, which described how “ ‘Union-card’ carrying members” of certain labor unions were occasionally able to get elected to Congress. A 1918 New York Tribune article described members of the Industrial Workers of the World as “red-card-carrying ‘wobblies,’ ” referring to the members by their popular nickname and red membership cards. In 1927, all “card-carrying members” of the secret organization United Farmers reportedly received discounts from local merchants.

The term card-carrying became more firmly associated with members of the Communist Party in the 1940s, during the HUAC investigations into the Hollywood Ten, when the committee produced cards allegedly belonging to Hollywood screenwriters Dalton Trumbo (accused of holding card No. 47,187) and John Howard Lawson (accused of holding card No. 47,275). In 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy alleged that there were 57 “card-holding Communists” in the State Department, launching the phrase “card-carrying Communists” into headlines across the country. Soon the term began to take on a life of its own. As the 1950s went on, people began to characterize each other more figuratively as “card-carrying Republicans” and “card-carrying Christians.”

The current Communist Party USA no longer issues membership cards, and a spokesman told the Explainer that “like most other organizations that once had cards, dues, stamp books and such, we have entered the digital era.” Those who wish to become “card-carrying” members today can pay dues and register online.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University and Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com.

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