On the 165th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto

The unfinished business of the past

CC Image courtesy of adobe in chaos on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of adobe in chaos on Flickr

An anniversary can be recognized in many ways. One can approach it as a commemoration – a respectful, funereal recognition of the past; a corpse momentarily exhumed so old bones can be raked over and given their ritualistic due. The 165th anniversary of the publication of Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto should not be taken as an opportunity for such activity. The anniversary is more appropriately an occasion to recognize time in a different way: the anniversary is a timely reminder of the continued resonance of the deep-seated sense of preventable injustice that motivated the Manifesto. Though Capital has an undeserved reputation as an arid and scholastic tome it could not hope to match the raw passion of earlier work. The Manifesto, penned in 1848, shares with Engels’ 1844/45 The Condition of The Working Class in England a blunt simplicity that Marx subsequently recognized that their mature work, with its ‘academic scholarly reservations’, could not match. Just as importantly, The Manifesto is a signpost that Marx and Engels would ultimately transcend the quasi-satirical, partly internecine, and essentially petty critical discourse with the various strands of Young Hegelianism &c captured in the contemporaneous German Ideology. Works such as Saint Bruno or the Theses on Feuerbach may have marked them out as acute critics, but had they not made good on the implications of their critique, Marx & Engels’ would simply be a footnote to academic history rather than of real historical significance.            

Nor should it be forgotten that the Manifesto opens with an invitation to embrace the label of ‘communist’ by those who would see a different and better world. The opening paragraphs state that the powerful of the time used the word as a term of abuse, a disparagement, a ‘spectre’ to be feared. Marx & Engels wanted to clarify what a communist was and so claim the term in a positive way; they wanted it to be clear why a communist should be feared and by whom. A communist should be feared because s/he has a clear and trenchant critique of capitalism and a communist should be feared only by those who would prevent the building of a better world for the many by maintaining a world that served the few. The terrible manifestations of the Soviet Union and of the Peoples’ Republic of China have tended to obscure the significance of this commitment. It has been over-written by a bloody history. Yet defenders of capitalism differentiate its ideals and potentials from its Enrons and Lehmans, and defenders of religion differentiate the Crusades from the essence of the teachings of Jesus. The need for a trenchant critique of capitalism remains as relevant as ever, and the possibility of a better world for the many that rejects maintaining a world that serves the few should not be a source of embarrassment to its advocates. It links the Paris Commune of 1871 with the Occupy movements of today.

Marx & Engels’ most profound insight is that social reality is a dialectical process that can be expressed through a historical materialist perspective. The very basis of their approach recognizes that social reality changes in its parts and in its sum. As such, it would be a surprise if all of the Manifesto or all of Capital were relevant today. Class dynamics have changed, immiseration has not proceeded in the way foreseen, the superstructure has become more sophisticated, any possible tendency for the rate of profit to continually fall has been at least offset by other recognized features of capitalism… Yet capitalism has continued to construct exploitative labour relations that separate out people on the basis of class; it has continued its tendency to act like a virus and extend itself to all available geographical localities, shaping world markets and institutions through globalization; it has persisted in distorting the creative capacities of the human – transforming potentially life-enhancing technologies into aspects of commodity production and thus into means of subjugation in pursuit of profit; it has continued to create an ideological inversion where humans exist for the imperatives of the economy rather than the economy exist to meet human concerns… It has continued to embrace its own ideological disjunctions – articulating free markets but supporting a prison of corporate privileges – whether that be Big Pharma or banks that are Too Big to Fail; and capitalism has continued to offer the prospect of individual formal freedoms that its own collective consequences ensure can never become practical freedoms for all… And, perhaps most crucially, capitalism has remained prone to systemic crises that vilify its victims and valorise its villains. Here, we should not obsessively focus on what Marx & Engels’ got wrong but be surprised at just how much they got right, and just how relevant much of that remains…. It’s most provocative claim is still a begged question:

“In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation has cut off the supply of every means of subsistence, too much industry and commerce seems destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, 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…”

Still, one must wonder how the Manifesto and then Capital would be phrased and focused if they were written today. What material would they draw upon? Manchester would likely be replaced by Mumbai or Shenzhen. Global supply chains and plutonomy might be prominent issues, an ‘all that is solid melts into air’ would surely be the many and varied financial instruments of a modern finance system with its CDOs CDS and couldn’t care less… And if there was one thing that Marx & Engels’ would care about it would almost certainly be the environmental context of human existence. It is often neglected that Marx & Engels’ critique of religion and critique of capitalism were not based on a technocratic sense of a rational disembodied creature. They were too enlightened to be Enlightenment thinkers. Marx & Engels’ were keen to recover the Aristotelian spiritual essence of species being from both capitalism and religion: ‘giving back to man the substance he has lost through religion; not as divine but as human substance’. There is more to this than simply labour.

A modern Marx & Engels would likely be radical eco-global political economists, unemployable in any reputable university; which is not to suggest they would be inclined to think one might knit the way to freedom. Their credo would likely expand beyond: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win…” and it would almost certainly refer to wo/men not men, but I expect they would still be of the opinion that revolution and not reform was essential.