Anytime I hear some South Philly fluffernutter use the term "communist" I know I am in for a treat an order of magnitude equal to when liberal professionals spout off about "Christians."
In their global usage, the terms have a lot in common. Unless you understand the context, you don't know whether "communist" or "Christian" mean something really good in the sense of the "highest ideal," or something really bad in the sense of dogmatic and authoritarian.
Clearly, the concepts have competing interpretations. And this is one of the reasons why it drives me crazy anytime someone insists that a Christian or a communist is whatever it is they think it is. Because most of the time there are innumerable examples that run counter to their own rule, and which make their definition just one among many.
Between these ideas, communism is more interesting to pose to an American audience, because the connotations are almost universally bad. That's how you know you've got something worth talking about. As Noam Chomsky has noted, the terms "socialist" and "communist" are deployed as curse words requiring no elaboration, in spite of the fact that most people have only the vaguest idea of what they mean. Even Americans who are otherwise communist will use some other term -- any other term -- to describe themselves, because -- well, I'm sure it didn't help that people lost their careers over it in the 1950s!
The first thing most Americans think of when it comes to communism is the Soviet Union. Everybody knows the Soviet Union was not great. The Soviet government called itself communist, and the US government called the Soviet government communist. It was probably the single greatest point of consensus between the two governments during the entire Cold War, in fact. They couldn't agree on anything else, but when it came to the genuine-issue communism that was blossoming in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, both governments were pleased to promote the idea.
One can imagine why that is. In the Soviet case, communism was the justification for whatever the government was doing at any given moment; in other words, communism was a good thing, an idea that was popular amongst Russians. What was this idea, you might ask? Who cares! Russians don't know anything about their country that we can't tell them instead.
As far as the US goes, communism was an awful thing that everyone else was up to -- specifically, any government that wasn't adequately integrated into the US sphere of influence, or subordinated to its needs. At one point Champsky tracked down the national security document -- NSC 68*, I think it's called -- from the '40s or '50s where American planners defined for themselves what was wrong with "communism": It was "the idea that the government has direct responsibility for the welfare of the people."1
Whatever communism is or is not, let us always remember that for the purposes of our government, communism is the idea that the government has direct responsibility for the welfare of its people, and this is as objectionable to "the American way of life" as anything ever conceived!
*Apparently the quote was George Kennan's and does not in fact appear in the more hardline NSC 68.