The best-known classic of radical activism is as alive and fearless as ever.
The Communist ManifestoPublisher: Penguin Classics
Length: 128 pages
Authors: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Publication date: 2011-03
With global economic recession biting hard, and protesters thronging streets from Tunisia to Wisconsin, the times seem to have turned, at least for now, revolutionary. This must be one of the best and also one of the worst moments to release a deluxe edition of The Communist Manifesto.
First published in 1848, The Communist Manifesto is no stranger to crisis and turmoil. That same year a wave of revolutions crashed through most of Europe, leading eventually to the unification of Germany and Italy. Soon the Communist League, the workers’ organization that had asked Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to draft the Manifesto, would itself drown in post-revolutionary terror. In 1850 Wilhelm Stieber, Bismarck’s spymaster, stole the membership list from Marx’s house; the leaders were arrested, tried, and imprisoned; the remainder of the organization voted to dissolve itself. Still, the Manifesto survived to be translated into many languages and be read by millions over the next century and a half, alternating through periods of popularity and indifference as the tides of rebellion rose and retreated.
Even during the quieter ebbs, however, its unmatched wit and political boldness remained a source of inspiration. Witness the audacious passages hitting back at moralizing and conservative critics. To the charge that communists are trying to turn all women into the shared property of men -- for example -- the authors reply that such shared property "has existed almost from time immemorial”, and offer as proof the civilized bourgeois, who “not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives”.
The Communist Manifesto is both a document of its time and a document for our time.
As a window to European politics of the mid-19th century, it restores back to life a faded landscape of figures and institutions. The old-style bourgeois, Prussia, Metternich, Guizot -- all gone. Gone also are aristocratic socialism, the school of economist Sismondi, and the pompous ‘true’ socialism of German philosophers. Because these and other feeble factions labeled themselves ‘socialist’, the Manifesto instead was titled ‘communist’.
The distinction is now moot. Since 1848, both terms have been used and abused by regimes far more brutal than Bismarck’s police state could ever be. They weren’t the only ones. Liberty, peace, democracy, human rights -- every pretty banner has been snatched and trampled on, by the left and by the right, on countless unhappy occasions. Marx and Engels must have spun in their graves at seeing their words parroted by the world’s most notorious tyrants -- from Josef Stalin, the “Gardener of Human Happiness”, to Kim Il-sung, who currently holds the title of North Korea’s “Eternal President” even though he died in 1994. It's a blow the communist cause and the Manifesto have not yet recovered from.
It would be easy to be cynical -- but should we? As a document for our time, The Communist Manifesto makes a credible case that we shouldn’t. It invites us to recall the noble aims of the original communists and to measure them against those of our own cowardly and corrupt political culture. As they stood trial in Cologne with the Manifesto for their standard, the members of the Communist League knew exactly what their crime was. They wanted an end to the “existing social and political order of things”. They wanted, in place of class divisions, a cooperative, non-exploitative society where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. They wanted what many today want and some are still persecuted for.
The genius and the surprise of The Communist Manifesto is that it grounds its idealism in the very process of historical change that condemns all politics, revolution included, to extinction. Capitalism, argue the authors, feeds its own demise. Capitalism is the greatest revolutionary the world will ever know. In unleashing vast economic forces, in steamrolling over everything and everyone, in creating a globally connected mass of dispossessed individuals -- in doing its own work, it places the wheel of history finally in people’s hands. Capitalism, as the Manifesto proclaims in the language of the 19th century, produces its own gravediggers; only the gravediggers of today carry cellphones in their hands.
Let us hope our century’s earth-stirrers still have time for reading classics -- for gaining perspective, for settling down awhile, for resting and reflecting before the next jolt or tweet arrives. This deluxe edition demands more concentration than its slender size suggests. Included, in it is an introduction by Marshall Berman, the veteran Marxist author and New Yorker, reminding us that our global society is “ever more unified by downsizing, deskilling, and work disappearing”. Included also are seven prefaces written by Marx and Engels, or by Engels alone, between 1872 and 1893; they contain precious insights and track the text's early history, but reading them in bulk occasionally gets repetitive.
Positively distracting, though, are the skulls, blood, pigs, hammers, and sickles in red, black, and white, jumping and screaming all over the covers. Away, specters! Didn’t the publishers read the book? A world in crisis might shake and shudder, but the brave heart of communism beats long, deep, and steady.