Rereading the Communist Manifesto in a crisis

manifestocoverThe Communist Manifesto is always ripe for another reading and this year celebrates 150 years since its first publication.
Up until the fall of the Soviet Union, the Manifesto had a different sort of existence: it was the general, bare-bones declaration of “Marxism”, by Marx himself, in a concise format. It was also arguably the first overtly ‘revolutionary socialist’ declaration to have an authoritative and lasting impact and, as such, has left a legacy of problems.

A good half of those 150 years and most of those ‘problems’ have been struggled over in the sphere of academic Marxism; the institutionalised version of proletarian struggle that becomes ‘marxian’ instead of ‘marxist’, and chiefly worries about interpretational problems rather than practical ones, essentially a marxology. Academic Marxism is not entirely worthless; trying to understand Marx’s work is a necessary enterprise, but it must always lead back to practical solutions. Whatever academic Marxism is, whatever its contributions and insights, it is not a revolutionary movement. At best it is a mildly subversive one, at the worst it is the theoretical equivalent of a declawed cat.
The problem with this evaluation is that it appears to put into question Marx himself: Marx, a scholar and theoretician, who wrote books and carried on a similar academic life. However, this should be rejected because if Marx was anything at all, he was revolutionary. And the Manifesto was the work of a revolutionary, not a pure academic exercise.

Now, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the now popular evaluation of that as a supposed total failure, not least as an experiment to vindicate Marx and Engels and everything they predicted and stood for, the question remains: what is left of the Communist Manifesto apart from its existence as a document within the history of Marxism?
The answer is: a great deal. Such an answer, of course, needs qualification. It matters how you approach the Manifesto and what you expect from it.
There is an initial problem we are left with today concerning how much of the document has applicable relevance. Considering that it was written in the middle of the nineteenth-century when capitalism was really only developed in one country (Britain), and nothing like ‘capitalism’ as we understand it today, we need to know whether or not it can answer any of our current concerns. We need to know whether or not reading the manifesto is anything like reading a mid-nineteenth-century book of physics in an effort to understand the current state of physics research. In a sense it is just like that; to expect it to apply completely to current problems and conditions is unrealistic. In another sense, it is worthwhile reading the manifesto because it remains the most readable and dense introduction to both the central concerns of Marx’s approach to socialism/communism and to many of the issues that arise.

Even in Marx’s own lifetime the manifesto differed somewhat from the way in which capitalism was unfolding and also from how the working class and its situation was developing. Marx made an effort, after the manifesto, to address some of these problems, others he didn’t. One important problem in the manifesto is the lack of focus upon how the proletariat as a class was supposed to hold and exercise power. As the class destined to abolish all classes and class antagonisms the proletariat couldn’t wield power in the same way as the bourgeois state, without itself becoming a clone of the bourgeois state. This problem has been extensively discussed from a critical perspective by anarchists who are more concerned with complete abolition of all forms of the state.
It is never really clear in the manifesto what kind of power organisation Marx sees for the victorious proletarian class, other than some sort of republic. He pulled back from anarchist ideas of confederations of autonomous councils. (For a good discussion of this from an anarchist perspective see Bookchin’s article on the manifesto).

That is just one of the ‘problems’ encountered when reading the manifesto under current circumstances. Another common problem is the broad generalisations Marx offers about the concentration of capital and the continued and unavoidable impoverishment of the proletariat. It was the contradiction of this that led to the revisionism beginning at the end of the nineteenth-century, before Marx’s work had even properly taken root and well before it became the basis of an actual political movement.
This is the precise point at which any reader of the manifesto must pull back and resist the temptation to read the whole of Marx’s work, and the whole revolutionary politics of the early twentieth-century, into this one document.
There is a good reason why this has to be avoided: it is not reasonable to keep looking back to a book and hoping that it will explain accurately every new development. It is equally unreasonable to declare every future event that does not correspond to every sentence and declaration in the manifesto as ‘evidence’ of the failure of its analysis.

However, the manifesto is a book containing claims about how things are and predictions about how things will be. In its opening lines it declares: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. This is not a statement that has been satisfactorily disproved.  That opening chapter also gives a brilliant and concise account of how the rise of the bourgeoisie has changed the nature of economic life completely by completely (and in a revolutionary way) destroying the feudal world. This also still stands as sound analysis. As does the explanation of how ‘capitalism’, the new bourgeois economic system, has made the world into a new kind of market and has made new productive relations. Marx writes almost rapturously about the birth and domination of bourgeois capitalism and does so in marvellously rich language:

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation or rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”

Not even the Adam Smith worshippers would disagree with that evaluation. They would, however, disagree with Marx‘s contention that the domination of bourgeois capitalism leads to its own collapse.  And the explanation Marx gives of why this is so strikes one as very current:

“It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of over-production.”

If anything, the current economic crises, on this scale far removed from anything Marx could have known about, brings his analysis into sharp and meaningful focus. In just another short paragraph he explains:

“Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.”

If that is not a prediction of our economy and our current crisis in a nutshell, nothing is.
In fact it is worthwhile just reading the initial chapter of the manifesto for the concise analysis of the origins and nature of bourgeois capitalism and the unique place of the proletariat. There has been no ‘manifesto’ produced before or since that can compare to the Communist Manifesto in terms of analysis, clarity, openness and certainly in terms of literary value.  This is where even much academic work falls short; the production of dense, tedious tomes of analysis, hardly or never read by the class of people to whom Marx addressed his conclusions. The constant untying of small, often self-made knots in the middle of a very long string, and leading nowhere, certainly not to furthering a practical revolution.
The Communist Manifesto is 150 years old, but still worth reading, just like every classic work is still worth reading, because it offers many things and provokes many ideas; and it still offers those many things after so long.

Read the book. Download The Communist Manifesto here

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2 thoughts on “Rereading the Communist Manifesto in a crisis

  1. Thanks for this. Indeed, everyone should reread the manifesto! Do you have any plans of publishing any more Marxist or Socialist classics? Your e-book layouts are better than those coming from other sites.

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