Reflections on the Communist Manifesto

The 150th Anniversary of the Manifesto invites us, I think, to ask some very fundamental questions. Specifically is the Spectre of Communism still haunting Europe? Is revolution still a possibility? If one adheres to the actualist school of thought that marks the approach of thinkers like Karl Popper and his followers then the answer would appear to be 'No'. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of the Eastern European regimes, and the development of "market socialism" in Deng's China would all appear to amount to proof that the spectre has indeed been laid to rest.

Yet fear and suspicion linger. The old mole of revolution could still be grubbing away and may be about to pop up in the most startling of places. Thus in Wolfgang Petersen's Hollywood movie Air Force One (1997) this fear was given a vivid manifestation when the 'evil' general, Alexander Radek, was released from prison and marched out to the gates to the accompaniment of the Internationale sung by the other prisoners. In the Pentagon and the Kremlin the anti-communists cringed in fear. The spectre was abroad once more.

With the demise of the Soviet Union the most commonly available edition of the Manifesto is the Penguin edition. A word about the Introduction by A.J.P. Taylor is perhaps in order. This was written in 1967 and is redolent with the smug complacencies of successful Keynesianism. But the dialectic is as always remorseless and what seems dated in these days of Economic Rationalism is not Marx and Engels' text but rather Taylor's attempts to show that it is only a 'literary curiosity'.

The Introduction, when it is not making howlers such as in its summary of the Marxist theory of economic crises (pages 29 & 43), cannot resist the stupidly snide. Thus for Taylor, Marxism is a religion and the Manifesto is its 'holy book' with the same status as the Bible or the Koran. When language is used like this it has no meaning. It should not be necessary to point out that there are no rituals or taboos associated with the Manifesto. That it has never in other words functioned as the Koran and the Bible do.

Though this is just so obvious, there remains an interesting contradiction. Presumably Penguin want to make money by getting us to buy their edition of the Manifesto. Still they stubbornly cling to Taylor's Introduction, possibly as an antidote to the Manifesto's message.

I have however no intention in saying that the Manifesto is a timeless or universal document. To suggest this would be to fly in the face of the whole Marxist tradition which demands that its core research program be constantly brought up to date. Thus the Manifesto has nothing to say on the issues of race, mental and physical handicaps, sexuality, and the environment. Nor is there much concrete utopianism nor a clearly developed ethical framework. All these are serious absences in any emancipatory text.

Nevertheless that this remains a great book can be seen from the Manifesto's opening section - 'Bourgeois and Proletarians' - in many ways its most brilliant achievement. In about fifteen pages Marx and Engels lay bare the development of Capitalism. Moreover it is our fate to live in a time when all the great prophecies have been fulfilled. Ours is indeed the era of 'uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions.' All that is solid has melted into air and all that is holy has truly been profaned. The capitalists have covered the entire surface of the globe. They have nestled everywhere. They have battered down all Chinese walls and all nations now accept the bourgeois mode of production.

This incidentally is writing at its very finest. In a time when we have seen bad writing (otherwise known as Postmodernist Theory) brought to a fine art in the works of Derrida, Baudrillard et alia, it is truly refreshing to go back to the Manifesto and see language used to persuade, to inspire and to communicate rather than to demoralise and obfuscate.

There are other passages in the Manifesto which are among my personal favourites. Some of these were labelled as 'deficient' by Engels & Marx in their 1872 Preface to the German Edition, but I think they pay a re-reading. The passage on Feudal Socialism also has interesting contemporary resonances if one thinks for example of the careers of the priests Costello and Brennan. Given the complicity of the ALP and the weakness of the Left these men are currently among the most potent sources of opposition to the Howard Government.

Yet in this passage from the Manifesto I think we have a very accurate characterisation of the fundamental truth of their politics. We have but to substitute 'Christian' for 'feudal' and 'The Church' for the 'aristocracy'.

In this way arose feudal Socialism; half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart's core, but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.

The aristocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms-bag in front for a banner. But the people, so often as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coats of arms, and deserted with loud and irreverent laughter.

There is another aspect of the Manifesto that I would like to discuss briefly. This has to do with its attitude towards Modernity. The Manifesto can be read as a celebration of the achievements of capitalism. Certainly that is how it was portrayed in a recent New Yorker article. But Marx's later writings show that he was not the simple apologist for modernity and industrial development that some have claimed. He was aware of the terrible price that was being paid by the pre-modern cultures caught up in the spiral of capitalist growth.

Still it must be admitted that Marx did expect great things when we are at last compelled, as he put it, to face with sober senses, our real conditions of life and our real relations with our kind. It remains to be seen however what will emerge from the disillusionment that follows the victories of capitalist modernity. With the total triumph of capitalist values there is now no hiding place. The "Free World" won the Cold War decisively and we can now see the brutal realities of the resultant New World Order.

The imaginary flowers on the chain have indeed withered. Will we as Marx believed proceed from this disillusionment to pluck the living flower? Or will, as Weber argued, the Old Gods ascend from the grave bringing with them a new era of irrationality?

I do not know the answer to these question of course. But the current waterfront dispute here in Australia has shown us all that there is resistance in the people and that they can defy the logics of capital. Around the world the same pattern is emerging. The public upheavals in France in 1995 show that more and more people are looking at the future the capitalist class has prepared for us all and more and more they are saying "No thanks."

Whether this refusal can gain sufficient strength to emerge as a movement of genuine transcendence remains to be seen. But for the moment we must hold to the memory that we have seen the working class move. Workers did down tools and march onto the streets in support of other workers. Such actions are unthinkable in terms of the ideological view of human nature that has buttressed Economic Rationalism. Instead of the supposedly universal Possessive Individual we had workers and the community acting together to resist the State. For a brief period it was as if the concluding exhortations of the Manifesto were being heeded. Existing social conditions were, if not threatened, at least called into question. Workers did unite and even if the chains were not cast off we were all shown how they might be broken.

--Gary McLennan


Have folks here seen Berman's review of the new (translation, book-jacket, introduction?) Verso edition of the Communist Manifesto? I think it's pretty good --- delightful, actually, giving inter alia a very decent account of Marx's prescient understanding of the global economy --- though there are a few places I feel are a bit lacking.

On p. 15, Berman paraphrases Marx's critique of capitalism:

[Capitalists] may think of only one thing, but their narrow focus leads to the broadest integrations; their shallow outlook wreaks the most profound transformations; their peaceful economic activity devastates every human society like a bomb.... Marx was appalled at the human costs of capitalist development ...

My take on this is simple. To be bound in servitude to another is slavery. Period. Whether bound because your master purchases your skin or rents it, the result is the same: violence to freedom. Marx was, if I understand him correctly, quite concerned not only about the violent results of capitalism, but this very violence to freedom, which is perhaps better known by the name "alienation". It seems to me to slight Marx's critique by eliding this, which leaves Marx sounding much more like an appreciative if gloomy Schumpeter than he really was. Besides, Marx would never say anything like "peaceful economic activity" exists under capitalism, would he??

Berman then goes on to claim that "Marxist movements around the world have concentrated on the argument, made most elaborately in *Capital*, that workers in bourgeois society had been or were being pauperized." This may be true, but it is also true that a deeper understanding of Marx reveals that this is not all there is to the criticism. Berman recognizes this, and claims that what is lacking is an appreciation of the relations between people in a bourgeois society; people "have to freeze their feelings for each other to adapt to a cold-blooded world." He then quotes Marx that bourgeois society "has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment.'" Berman then concludes his summary of Marx's position on this by saying, "The worst thing about capitalism is that it forces people to become brutal in order to survive."

Again, this is all quite true, but doesn't it leave out the crucial relationship between worker and capitalist, which is, after all, the defining relationship under capitalism? Note that here I don't mean to slight other relations in the least; there is plenty of room under the leftist tent for a critique of the different relationships of modern society to co-exist in bliss. Butler is right about one thing, leaving gender relationships out of the capitalist critique, or slighting them as "less important" doesn't make sense, even in Marxist terms (as she quite cleverly argues in her recent New Left Review piece), but more on that another time...

Perhaps Berman makes up for all this when he writes energetically:

The crucial reality is the need to sell your labor to capital in order to live, the need to carve up your personality for sale --- to look at yourself in the mirror and think, "What have I got that I can sell?" --- and an unending dread and anxiety that even if you're O.K. today, you won't find anyone who wants to buy what you have or what you are tomorrow, that the changing market will declare you (as it has already declared so many) worthless, that you will find yourself physically as well as metaphysically homeless and out in the cold.

Berman concludes his review with a rousing affirmation (and a bit of a swipe at the pomoistas) of the relevance of Marx:

The nineties began with the mass destruction of Marx effigies. It was the "postmodern" age: We weren't supposed to need big ideas. As the nineties end, we find ourselves in a dynamic global society ever more unified by downsizing, de-skilling and dread --- just like the old man said. All of a sudden, the iconic looks more convincing than the ironic; that classic bearded presence, the atheist as biblical prophet, is back just in time for the millennium. At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were workers who were ready to die with the *Communist Manifesto*. At the dawn of the twenty-first, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.

I'm off to Borders to satisfy my covetous need for this new edition.

--Bill Lear