Books

The Ol' Rebel Heart of 'The Communist Manifesto' Beats On

The best-known classic of radical activism is as alive and fearless as ever.


The Communist Manifesto

Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 978-0-14-310626-5
Format: Paperback
Price: $13.00
Length: 128 pages
Authors: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Publication date: 2011-03
Amazon

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.

9
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.