A specter is haunting Americans. About one in 10 of them.

Eleven percent think  “communism” is a “morally superior” system to that which is currently in place in the U.S., and another 13 percent aren’t sure, according to a startling new Rasmussen poll, conducted March 12-13.

The poll,  has a margin of error of three percent with a 95 percent level of confidence.

Further, 10 percent say that the “communist system of economics and politics” is better for middle-class Americans, and another 10 percent are undecided. Still, only four percent believe the “communist” economic system to be superior to that of the “free market.” No surprise there, given the images of economic austerity in countries ruled by Communist parties.

Significantly however, 12 percent, don’t consider communism “a failed ideology.” Another 15 percent aren’t sure.

Americans appear to be slowly embracing the idea that there is a better way to run society.

“Socialism,” a term that carries far less baggage than “communism,” is even more accepted by Americans. In an April 2009 Rasmussen poll, only 53 percent said that capitalism was better than socialism. With the margin of error, those who think capitalism is better are statistically tied with those who think socialism is better (20 percent) and those unsure (27 percent).

As in the new poll, young people broke more for the left alternative: about a third said capitalism was better, a third said socialism and another third was unsure.

Those numbers represent what could be the beginning of a stark turnaround in public opinion, and are sure to horrify the tea party crowd – which finds even moderate Democrats too extreme.

So what do communists say?

“The fog of the Cold War is lifting on the one hand,” says Sam Webb, national chair of the Communist Party USA, said in an interview, “but still there are misconceptions of what communism is.”

The majority of people – the 80 or so percent who reject “communism” as a better system, says Webb, still suffer from misconceptions that gained currency over the years.

In a statistic that supports Webb’s point, younger voters were more likely to see communism as morally superior.

And, Webb continues, “If people were able to get a fairer picture of what Communists think and how they see socialist society, the polls would have been far better than they are.”

Communists see socialism as a transition between capitalism, our current system, and communism. Socialism, they explain, means that working people democratically run society without interference from big corporations. Communism comes along far later, when class division has disappeared. As socialism progresses towards communism, society becomes more and more democratic.

“If U.S. socialism is to earn the name socialist, it will be democratic at its core,” Webb said in an interview. “There is no socialism that isn’t democratic.”

But are Americans wrong to believe that people were shut out of government in some of the countries that collapsed in 1991?

Not exactly, says Webb.

Despite a record of historic and even heroic achievements – defeating the Nazis, full employment and health care in most, “The countries that were formerly building socialism had a deficit of democracy.”

Jarvis Tyner, CPUSA executive vice chair, points to the party’s history, noting that its newspaper, the Daily World (predecessor of the People’s World), was a leader in the fight to desegregate baseball.

In the 1930s, the CPUSA helped lead the fight against racist lynchings and other violent oppression of African Americans. The party, Tyner says, has always been part of the fight for labor rights, civil rights, women’s rights, a just peace and for political and economic democracy.

People, says Webb, are becoming more and more disenchanted with the current system, capitalism, in which workers’ rights, a decent living standard and democracy overall, are being curtailed by the big corporations and their “masters” in the Republican Party.

Socialism, says Webb, is not yet on the agenda, but every step forward in securing the rights of working people, in civil rights and in defending democracy against the far-right onslaught is a step in that direction.

Still, the “communism” poll was a surprise to many.

“Here you have one of the most vilified words in the English language, the most lied about,” said PW Editor Joe Sims, “and yet 11 percent have a positive outlook towards it. That is huge.”