60 in 60: #13 – Marx and Engels – The Communist Manifesto (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

The Communist Manifesto
by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels (1818-1883, 1820-1895)

Memorable Line
“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, canalization of 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?”

The Skinny
A slim book that has had a wide and deep effect: fomenting rebellion against dictatorship and oppression in the modern era, while ultimately inflicting upon the masses that which it sought to obliterate. This excellent edition also includes the prefaces to various foreign editions and “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (sections I and VII)”.

Relevance? Argument?
In re-reading The Communist Manifesto, my foremost thought was how directly this little text had affected the lives of millions of people–given them hope, given them an honest living, and given them death and suffering on a grand scale. I kept thinking about Vasily Grossman’s amazing novel Life and Fate, which chronicles the lives of Russians caught up in the battle of Stalingrad, including frequent flashbacks to more peaceful but just as difficult times. Hitler and Stalin are evoked skillfully, without the usual baggage that accompanies such portrayals. Grossman was a Soviet journalist during the siege of Stalingrad, and it shows in the writing–his details, such as flocks of starlings that begin to mimic the sounds of mortar fire, are haunting. His portrayal of communism at its worst is heartbreaking and complete. When during a period of reform, Grossman lobbied for the publication of his novel, he was told it would harm the Soviet Union more severely than Doctor Zhivago and could not possibly be made public for at least 250 years. It was finally published when snuck out on microfiche to the West. By then, Grossman had been dead for almost 20 years. There is, then, the human cost of this little book–both as documented by Grossman and lived by Grossman.

At the same time, it is hard to argue that the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were ever truly communist, having killed off the grand ideas put forth by Marx and Engels with large doses of fascism, despotism, and dictatorship. And the appeal of the text is clear: it offers up a kind of utopian equality for those willing to work hard. It provides concrete details and commonsense discussion to support the struggle to reach that shining, soft-lit future. Indeed, almost everything in the book about capitalism has been proven true, except that Marx and Engels were not seeing the Big Picture (how could they?). They could not imagine a future in which capitalism could actually bring about the death of the planet. Thus, there’s now a kind of antiquated whimsy to a passage like “…not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons.” The focus of the line “forged the weapons that bring death to itself” should be more universal.

That much set forth in this book is not actually achievable by actual human beings simply means that neither Marx nor Engels were Absurdists, nor understood that they were contributing evidence to the Documenters of Absurdism with what amounts to an insane future vision based on a fallacy: the basic goodness of human beings. Had they been pragmatists, perhaps it would have been different. Had they lived in a world of specific detail rather than abstract theory, perhaps it would have been different. Had they recognized that human beings are basically animals, and often trick their brains into thinking they are acting out of logic when actually they are acting out of emotion and instinct…well, then, perhaps things would have been different. (Darwin is still downstream, at least in this series…)

As an exercise in discussing the conflict between different classes of people, The Communist Manifesto is more useful despite its generalities: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on in an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” This statement provides the framework for a discussion that has been ongoing ever since–and one that has led to fascinating permutations of theory and opinion.

However, what it does not do is recognize that although we are in fact types, bound by environment and heredity, we are also individuals. A binary system that automatically infers that one class is no good will eventually require conflict with that class–in this case, eradication or dissolution of that class.

In this way, ironically, The Communist Manifesto is no different than those various religious, usually Christian, tracts that also use a binary system to describe the world and the people in it. (Kempis in The Inner Life, for example, setting up an opposition between nature and grace.) This essential opposition is created by starting from a simplification, a new paradigm: “Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” Too simple, too pat. Too easy to manipulate–and here, too, The Communist Manifesto breaks bread with religion, in that arguably no other text other than the Bible has brought such misdirected violence down upon the world.

Despite these generalizations, I am impressed by how well Marx and Engels diagnosed the problems with industrialization and anticipated the problems with modern capitalism (especially this idea of constant consumption and consolidation of means of production), magnified by scale since their own times–and also struck dumb by how that accuracy clashes so violently with a certain naiveté and myopia in their suggestions for treatment. In the communistic future, there will be no property, massive centralization, the evaporation of class distinctions: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association,* in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Yes, and there will be a shining light on a hill, and a white rhino shall ride out from under the mountain, and Frodo will destroy the one ring and all of the hobbits will live happily ever after in the big bad world. It’s audacious, this manifesto. It makes me think of Marx and Engels as idealistic, starry-eyed dreamers who would’ve sat in the back of the theater weeping at sentimental films like Beaches. Gawky kids playing capitalists and communists in the backyard.

All of this said, there’s no victory here, of one system over another, no matter that we live in an era in which we believe capitalism and free markets have triumphed over communism and its ideas.** Pure capitalism is as absurd an idea as pure communism, because it too is an absolute that makes ridiculous generalities about human behavior. No matter what negative can be said about it, The Communist Manifesto offered a window onto a better place for people who were and are still being oppressed by ruling elites. It may not have worked, for a variety of reasons, on the grandest scale, but its influence is still felt in certain countries in South America and elsewhere. A person–that specific of all details–can read this text and internalize ideas that do not have to be enacted on a country-wide scale.

Meanwhile, capitalism, as we now experience it in the United States, provides nothing but the succor of materialism–that swift-fleeting joy in our hearts over purchasing the next new thing, and of being told, in fact, that purchasing that next new thing will not only bring us happiness but also save our country. Although the physical and psychic damage inflicted by this state of affairs is not as systematic or as brutal as the tactics of, for example, the Soviets, it is more insidious, because we do not understand that it is happening to us and cannot recognize the ways in which it is killing us. At the very least, The Communist Manifesto, read in combination with a heavy dose of Grossman, begins to open our eyes.

* An association that is impossible on that grand scale. The only way in which such a system might work would be to break the world into thousands of small, homogenous countries, and even then there would be a hundred ethnic brushfire wars within a week.

** My own preference is for a democratic system informed by both socialism and communism, which understands where people are more likely to perform for the common good and suppress their more selfish impulses. A system, furthermore, that does not tout the glories of the free market and globalization in all cases. A system that promotes both individual and personal responsibility in all things.

Today, The Communist Manifesto serves more as a warning about the dangers of capitalism than as a compelling argument for communism.

Question for Readers
If you had final say on a system of government for your country, what would it look like?

Next up, Arthur Schopenhauer’s uplifting musical On the Suffering of the World…


  1. says

    Confession time: I am pretty much a Marxist. Not one of a political nature (Lord knows I’m not a member of the American Communist Party, for example), but rather a historian who has been influenced heavily by the Hegelian via Marx model of studying history. Hegel (and later Marx and Engels) postulated a view of history as being a series of conflicts and interactions between various substratum groups in regions over time. Over the years, this basic model has been informed and revised by various critiques, including second and third-wave feminist thought on gender relations and the struggles between those. Even though Marx and Engels were a bit naive (to put it bluntly) about the political dimension, their ideas have led to a rather sound historical theory that influences almost all social and cultural historians today.

    Historically, The Communist Manifesto was published just weeks before the events of the 1848 Revolutions in France, the German Confederation, and the Habsburg Empire. That “spectre haunting Europe” certainly was a call to arms and the two men had to flee to Great Britain from France (after an earlier exile from the German states) due to the fierceness of their rhetoric. Your points on the appeal and weaknesses of their arguments is spot-on. Some who are more socialist than I am (I’m merely a Democratic Socialist at heart) would note that Marx’s opinions evolved over time and those more mature opinions led to an interesting debate at the Second International. (Dammit, I’m regurgitating my MA exam info! Gotta stop it!). Curious to know if you’ve read Lenin’s statement in regards to the association of imperialism with the last stages of capitalism and how apt you think that might be in light of what you said above about the more universal threats that capitalism unfettered poses to the world at large.

    As for what type of government I’d like here in the US, it would be a Democratic Socialist one, one that places a higher emphasis on research, more actively promotes education among its populace (rather than saying education is good, then winking at the people and encouraging them to engage in more vapid activities), as well as working to develop policies that would encourage greater cooperation and less of the competition that results in environment degradation.

    As for the Schopenhauer, perhaps if you were to dust off your Predator opera and write one for that writing? ;)

  2. Nicole Cushing says

    I define myself as a small-l libertarian (not a member of the Libertarian party). I think the universe is essentially libertarian. Government is incapable of enforcing even the most basic, common sense laws. Life is not fair. Efforts to to make it fair end up warped and often perpetuating more harm than had nothing been done at all.

  3. says

    Larry: That all makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the context.

    Nicole–I am not as cynical about government, but think the Founding Fathers were wise in their system of checks and balances. It wasn’t enough, but it was something that has to be part of any governmental system. It’s just been warped all out of recognition over the last few years.

  4. says

    No problem! I was just worried that I would end up sounding a bit pedantic since this pamphlet has been so influential in my field of study.

  5. says

    “Life” is not “not fair” so much as indifferent — it doesn’t care, and there isn’t any it to care or not care. This doesn’t mean we can’t try to be fairer. At the same time, trying to enforce fairness on the entirety of humanity usually involves tanks and jackboots. And *that* isn’t fair.

  6. says

    That’s good, because my only defense are those horrid YouTube videos with which I tortured her during her term as guest blogger.

  7. says

    I should have said earlier, congratulations on your reading project. Good for you, and well done to date. I am following with interest. I’ve been working on a project to read through the stuff worth reading since my college days, or perhaps earlier. I don’t have your capacity to get through a whole book as dense as these in a day. But I trudge.

    I was trudging through “The Federalist Papers” during this last election, which made a very interesting contrast. I was struck by the immense pragmatism of the system. Not aspiration and soaring rhetoric, but methodically puzzling through: “How to organize this so it will work in aid of our greater aspirations, despite our limitations as humans?”

    The pragmatic “capitalists”* I have read (although not enough) – Adam Smith, Hayeck & Mises to start – seem to me to be arguing in a similar way. I haven’t found a proposal that stands up for “How to we get there from here?” in any of the the more idealistic political and economic thought. This goes even to very modern writers. Lester Thurow’s “Zero Sum Society” makes a brilliant analysis of several failure modes in allocating regulation, economic activity and government resources in a representative democracy. He doesn’t use the term “failure modes” himself. His observations are dead-on, his model illuminating and it all fits. I have rarely read a book so tightly argued. Then his last few chapters amount to “nationalize everything” skipping how he got from the problem to this as a solution, and without any argument about why that will work. I was disappointed.

    So, what’s more useful, an idealized speculation (Leaving aside that the “communist” label seems to be chosen for great amounts of mischief and worse.) or a skeptically grounded prescription? And where do I find one of the latter?

    * Unfortunately, any term in politics, government, economics or policy pretty much must be treated as suspect. The “right wing” Bush “conservatives” are no more in line with Goldwater-era, or frankly even Reagan-era “conservatives” in the US, than, well than any of the Soviet premieres were in line with idealized “communism.” So, we’re left with the burden of defining our own terms if an actual conversation is the goal.

  8. Brian says

    This ‘graph:

    “Meanwhile, capitalism, as we now experience it in the United States, provides nothing but the succor of materialism–that swift-fleeting joy in our hearts over purchasing the next new thing, and of being told, in fact, that purchasing that next new thing will not only bring us happiness but also save our country. Although the physical and psychic damage inflicted by this state of affairs is not as systematic or as brutal as the tactics of, for example, the Soviets, it is more insidious, because we do not understand that it is happening to us and cannot recognize the ways in which it is killing us. At the very least, The Communist Manifesto, read in combination with a heavy dose of Grossman, begins to open our eyes.”

    seems like a bloated burgar comparing the pain of spiritual emptiness to the emptiness of the bellies of his people.

    Provides nothing but the succor of materialism? You mean like food and such, as opposed to mass starvation as during the Great Leap Forwards? What’s amazing is that you seem to have such short shrift for the Christian’s claim that God is deeply involved with their sin. And yet, you embrace this silly critique of capatalism as if the idle ennui of the wealthy of the world should discredit the means by which they became wealthy.

    Perhaps a wealthy man has less chance of getting into heaven that a camel through the eye of a needle – but that has not exactly been a persuasive argument for chasing wealthy among people in the past. Moreover, this experience of humanity that wealth, ease, and leisure are desirably is simply not appropriate for one who enjoys them to dismiss. At least become an aescetic before you start preaching about ‘shallow materialism’.

  9. says

    The Communist Manifesto remains to be one of the most powerful and illuminating literary works that not only sought to analyze the roots behind the global capitalist system but also compel its readers to fight for an alternative way of organizing human civilization.

    In spite of the errors and excesses of the socialist regimes in Russia under Lenin and Stalin and in China under Mao, one cannot simplistically sweep all of these under the rug and present as one more proof of the “evil” consequences of Marx and Engel’s Manifesto.

    One should never forget that the Chinese revolution as led by Mao liberated millions of poor Chinese peasants and workers from the shackles of imperialist domination and feudal subjugation. It saw the victorious advance of a poor war-torn country relying solely on its own people and resources in order to develop step by step its agriculture and industry and raise the standard of living of its people.

    In fact, Mao’s socialist regime also presided over the emancipation of women and minorities from gender and national oppression, the elimination of exploitation by the old comprador-landlord classes, and the provision of the material needs of the people, including food, healthcare, water, shelter, and education.

    The conscious struggle against the capitalist-roaders in the state bureaucracy and the party hierarchy empowered millions of Chinese masses, a process that was unfortunately reversed with the death of Mao and the capitalist restoration.

    Stalin meanwhile did commit errors in the form of a tendency towards an overgrown bureaucracy, the premature announcement of the withering away of classes and class struggle, and grave excesses in the struggle against enemies of the people.

    But the Žižekian “only negative” verdict ignores real gains in the construction of socialism, the gigantic leaps in the soviet economy, the social welfare system, and the heroic defense against fascism in the Second World War.

    The two states never claimed to be “communist” as described by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto.

    They were socialist regimes led by Communist Parties that worked for the attainment of Communism on a worldwide scale, that is before the real revolutionaries were outmaneuvered by the revisionists who then paved the way for the restoration of capitalism in the two countries.

    Contrary to the claim “That much set forth in this book is not actually achievable by actual human beings,” the events in the world in the 20th Century and continuing march of History in the present conjuncture confirms the continued validity of the fundamental principles laid down by Marx and Engels.

    To say that the following passage is antiquated because of the way capitalism is destroying not only itself but also the entire world through ecological catastrophe is to miss the point:

    “…not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons.”

    Global capitalism breeds poverty and destitution and it is exactly the millions upon millions of the oppressed and the exploited toiling masses that will one day break the foundations of this unjust order.

    Marx and Engels begins with the observation that as individuals we cannot but participate in society and our existence depend primarily on a particular society’s productive system which produces for our daily needs. We are, in a word social animals, and even language cannot have developed without diverging forms of social relations.

    More than environment and heredity, what determines us as individuals significantly is our place in the productive process, that is on our ownership of means of production, our participation in the process of production, and how we benefit from this productive process –in short, on our class standing.

    Far from the naive notion of Marx’s analysis of classes as another religious binary system superimposed by a bunch of prophets over the real world, what Marx proposes is in fact based on actual, material realities derived from real social investigation.

    What Marx and Engels uncovered in the Manifesto is the observation that throughout history, there are irreconcilable antagonisms between contending classes who have conflicting interests. Those who own the means of production, the elites, seek to protect their power and wealth while the exploited majority seek for better terms of existence.

    Thus, the class struggle and this struggle is the driving force in the development of all socieities from one form to another. This is also the basis from which Marx and Engels concluded that capitalism can and will be superseded. As Rosa Luxembourg eloquently puts it: the choice is between socialism or barbarism.

    Class antagonisms abound. But what Marxists aim for is not some other version of a “misdirected biblical jihad” but a redirection of the oftentimes random violence generated by such conflict towards the proper class enemies.

    The problem with many individualistic and leisured intellectuals is their inability to see beyond the confines of the immediate horizon as defined by the present social order.

    As Fredric Jameson once said, it is for them easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. This is a function of their class’ benefiting from the present class system.

    The outbreak of the greatest crisis since the Great Depression has shown the emptiness of the much-vaunted hype on the victory of capitalism. It remains crisis-ridden, moribund, and decaying and is bound to lead to revolution of the masses against exploitation and oppression.

    To conclude, the Communist Manifesto remains not only a succinct “warning about the dangers of capitalism” but more so a most “compelling argument for communism.”