I’ve had a copy of The Communist Manifesto on my e-reader for years. In the first year of my Economics and Economic & Social History degree, I did a module on political philosophy. I work at a museum that documents the times that Marx and Engels were writing in/against/for/about. Somehow I have lived for more than half a century without reading this prime text for anyone who claims to be socialist.
It’s perhaps one of those texts that feels familiar even when you haven’t read it. The opening question of its third paragraph speaks directly to the times we are living in, where the politicians of the right only need mention the S or the C or the M word to scare the general public and keep the politicians of the centre left from unapologetically embracing the issues of those who need to stand against the society-crushing ideologies of the right.
Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as Communistic by its opponents in power?
I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but I was surprised that the first chapter is a history lesson in how the end of feudalism didn’t effect any true societal change, but instead created a middle layer of wealth and power between rich and poor that exploits the workers in a mercantile way and keeps them under through a different set of lies about knowing your place. That change allowed the middle class to turn workshops into factories and people into cogs in the machine. Across the text, Marx and Engels make clear that the struggle to remove the ruling class and transform society into a classless collective is a long one, with stages. The Communist Manifesto is a call to move things forward, to take the final step and demolish the social structures that hold people down once and for all.
I know as a left-leaning individual that I’m a captive audience, but as I was reading it struck me that everyone should read this text rather than assume that they know what’s within its pages, because it might surprise them and make them think differently. Perhaps it won’t change their minds, but it might help to stop people feeling scared of certain words and ideas associated with the manifesto and weaponised by the right. You can access it for free via Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/61.
It was interesting to see Marx and Engels’ suggestion that the proletariat can only exist as a product of modern industry, the factory system that was prevalent at the time they wrote their manifesto. Britain no longer has this type of economy. We have left behind mass production, seen it taken on by countries such as China and India, and the nature of work has changed. Our factories now are warehouses and call centres. The middle class, who saw the benefit in educating the working class when it was to their advantage in developing the capitalist economy and competing with other capitalist economies, don’t need us to be as well educated any longer. Hence the increasing costs of further and higher education and the narrowing of the curriculum. We are fragmented, sold the lie of individualism, comfortable and no longer what Marx and Engels perceived the proletariat to be, a “self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.”
On the subject of China, that nation that threw off feudalism under Mao and became Communist, I wonder what Marx and Engels would make of its present transformation into a capitalist industrialised nation and its consequent establishment of a new proletariat.
The second chapter refutes the many accusations levelled against Communism by those who believe they are set to lose the most at Communism’s hands – although that notion, too, is refuted as the aim of Communism is to make life fairer and better for everyone, bringing to an end all notion of class. Arguments that Communism will bring about the end of property, family, monogamy, nationality are refuted one by one. The language is polemical, but the central truth is that the ruling class doesn’t want anyone but themselves to have the things they accuse the Communists of wanting to do away with, whereas the Communists want everyone to have the same as the ruling class keeps for itself. It sounds familiar because it’s the same argument used by the right against anything they find unpalatable. The EU wanted to take things off us. Immigrants want to take things off us. A fair tax system is about taking things off us. But ‘us’ is very narrowly defined. In the post modern era, from Harold Macmillan’s “we’ve never had it so good” to the trick pulled by Thatcherism that said we could have it all if we just looked out for number one, capitalism keeps us just comfortable enough to not want to change things so they’re better for everyone. I include myself in that. It’s engrained in the national character. Why else do we keep returning the nasty party to power? Why else did Labour only get in in 1997 by embracing some of the neoliberalism of Thatcherism?
There’s an idealism to the text that fails to take into account human nature. It made me think of Rick in The Young Ones, railing against the world, reactionary in his own way. It fails to acknowledge that we are not an altruistic species, that the reason capitalism exists and Communist projects have failed to live up to Marx and Engels’ ideals is because we have a sense of self-worth that sways us to believe that, if we hold a certain level of responsibility, we should be recompensed accordingly and that we should then be free to accumulate and use our recompense as we see fit. At best, we can accept that there’s a social contract through which we ensure that nobody falls through the cracks, but most often we operate below our best. At best, we’re a mix of what Marx and Engels term German Socialists, Bourgeois Socialists and Critical-Utopian Socialists – we want the world to be better but not at the expense of existing social structures. The sections on each of these classes of Socialism gave me pause. I grew up working class. My parents’ every desire for their children was to improve their lot in life. Through education and the work I have chosen to make my career, I am now middle class. Marx and Engels would say that I’m bourgeois. I have enough money to be comfortable, I’m a (mortgaged) homeowner not a renter, I’m increasingly conventional and small-c conservative the older and more comfortable I become. Before I started to read The Communist Manifesto, I wondered whether it would reawaken the anger of my youth, but I think I’m too far gone to be engaged by an idealism that is unrealistic. How depressing!
On that lack of realism, the acknowledgement that political power “is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another” twinned with the notion that when the proletariat organise to become a political power and take control, they won’t oppress anyone, they’ll instead abolish class made me laugh. Oh, Marx. Oh, Engels.
Some of the language is a bit choice – the idea that women only get to work because labour has been devalued, and the notion of “the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society”. Equality for all has its limits, then. We’re a species that needs to demonise someone in order to feel good about ourselves.
My conclusion about this tract is that it is specific to a moment in time, is idealistic in a way that has been proven by the failed attempts nations have made to follow it, needs something new to update it, but for all that is an interesting read and nothing to be scared of. Whenever a populist shouts about this or that proposal being tantamount to Communism or Marxism, this text reminds us to bear in mind that they’re trying to protect something that they don’t want to lose and they don’t really care about the greater good.
This is my first read for Novellas in November. My Project Gutenberg transcription is only 32 pages long, but it has chapters so I’m taking it to be short non-fiction rather than an essay. It took me three days to read because I was on holiday, enjoying the recompense of my bourgeois job. 😉
Rating 3 stars