Everybody should read The Communist Manifesto, and read it more than once. Short, fast-moving and written to be understood by a wide audience, it’s a gripping read, a huge intellectual accomplishment, and a way of thinking about the world that has shaped almost everything that came after it. It was once said that the second edition of Rousseau’s Confessions was bound in the skins of those who had laughed at the first; The Communist Manifesto has had the same kind of impact on our world.
The Manifesto is wrong, of course, but then almost everything is. However, most of what is written is pointless and dull. The Manifesto is anything but, and like all truly great books it is interesting and illuminating even when—or, especially when—it goes off the rails.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels dashed it off in the second half of 1847 and published it early in 1848 as revolutionary fervor was sweeping Europe. As the first copies of The Manifesto began to circulate, King Louis-Phillipe of France felt his throne begin to shake; by the end of February he had abdicated and fled to Britain. The next month, revolutions broke out in one small German state after the other (Germany would not be unified until 1871). The revolutionary excitement spread into the Austrian Empire; for a few months it looked as if every king and emperor on the European mainland would be packing his bags. Even the Pope, who at that time still ruled much of central Italy, was forced to flee Rome as the Romans proclaimed a Republic after 1900 years of imperial and papal rule.
But Marx and Engels weren’t interested in anything as trivial as making propaganda for a European revolution. They believed that they had found the key to all history, the magic decoder ring that made sense out of everything: philosophy, religion, the rise and fall of empires, culture, art. To this day there are millions of people all over the world who think they were right — and there are hundreds of millions more whose worldview has been shaped at least in part by this explosive little book.
I am one of them myself, though I don’t think many ‘big M’ Marxists would salute me as a comrade.
If you haven’t read the Manifesto, you should — and if you haven’t read it in a while, you should pick it up again. The Communist Manifesto, with all its shortcomings, is on that short list of books that every educated person should keep coming back to over a lifetime of reading and thought. Over the decades you can measure your own intellectual growth by the different ways that you read this book.
I could write a book about this book; maybe someday I will. Actually, I could write two books on the Manifesto: What Marx and Engels Got Right, and What Marx and Engels Got Wrong.
But for now I just want to highlight one of their breakthrough insights that is extremely useful today — and, as some of this blog’s longtime readers have surely figured out, it’s an insight that heavily influences my approach to history and ideas. As usual, Marx and Engels pushed it a bit too far, but their core insight– that the way we are related to the economy helps shape our ideas, our sense of right and wrong and our sense of our relationship to broader trends in history–is something I think about almost every day. I think about it when I try to understand how other people see the world, and I think about it when I’m trying to correct for my own biases and blind spots — asking myself what I’ve missed or where I’ve been unfair.
Marx and Engels weren’t the first people to have this insight, but they integrated it with an approach to the relationship of ideas and history that allowed them to criticize social thought from a new point of view. They argued that the dominant social groups in each historical era developed a worldview that justified their pretensions to power and privilege, making their particular system the culmination of the historical process or, as The American Interest’s Frank Fukuyama taught Americans to say, the end of history. Interest groups and power elites don’t just develop ideas and ideologies that favor their interests. They develop worldviews that are unconscious as well as conscious, that are the foundation of cultures and ideals. In the feudal age, the nobility and its hired hands synthesized Christianity, Germanic folk customs and classical Greco-Roman ideas into an all-encompassing world vision that stares out at us from a hundred thousand paintings, that colors the poetry of Europe for hundreds of years, and that lives on today in various forms.
In the Manifesto Marx and Engels write about the different forms of ‘socialist’ ideology that were around in 1848 and tie each of these back to specific social groups. They write about ‘feudal socialism’, the anti-capitalist writings of traditionalists who denounced capitalism for ripping up the old ‘harmonious’ social contract of the Middle Ages. They write about various forms of ‘bourgeois’ and ‘petty bourgeois’ socialism as well: utopian ideas about a better future that aren’t grounded in any realistic view of political forces or the deep conflicts in human society.
One can only imagine how they would rip into the pompous, self-deceptive ideas and theories with which our elites surround and comfort themselves today. The Asian Industrial Revolution, that enormous upheaval destroying the past social organizations and customs from China through India and Pakistan today, in reality is an affair of grinding poverty, immense human suffering and displacement, exploitation as naked and hideous as anything the London poor faced in the days of Charles Dickens, and vast contrasts between the lives of the working poor and the new rich. Yet in the view of what Marx might well call the ‘Davoisie’, the new international bourgeoisie of our times, all that ugliness and suffering disappears. It’s expected somehow that those struggling masses will go on ‘peacefully’ suffering and working without disturbing the peaceful stability of the comfortable and the rich.
Marx and Engels would mock and fillet the ideologies we have built around the word ‘development’ and they would demolish the inane models of development that our economists have been producing (and imposing on poor countries) since World War Two. Their bitter comments on the recent Wall Street bailouts contrasted with the programs of austerity forced on people around the world who had nothing to do with the financial crisis would leap off the page and grab the reader by the lapels.
Contemporary western leftists would rub their hands in joy as Marx and Engels ripped into the smug ideologies of the Davoisie and its closest allies; they would begin to squirm, though, as the two founders of the modern Communist movement turned their attention to the labor movements, Hollywood progressives and radical intellectuals of the advanced countries. (more…)