Book Review: The Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the twelve months following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the best-selling book around the world was not Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey, but in fact a very short book written in 1848. You read that right. As the world contemplated the potential collapse of global capitalism, people turned in droves for a crash course in the world’s first ever theory of economic collapse: The Communist Manifesto.
There is perhaps no other text written in the mid-nineteenth century that has held up quite as well as the Manifesto. Even today, entire paragraphs of the text correspond to contemporary reality better than they ever could have back when it was written in February of that year. One could also argue that no document written since, has had such a profound effect on the course of world history. And if we limit it to only political history, then that case may be strengthened even further.
Starting from premises that were hardly visible in their era, Marx and Engels drew the conclusions that the developments of 172 years of history have now fully verified. As Marx writes: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Throughout history we have seen the oppressor and oppressed in constant opposition with one another. This fight is sometimes hidden and sometimes open. Yet, each time the fight ends in either a revolutionary reconstruction of society or each classes' common ruin.
Thus, it was in the spring of 1847, that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels made the decision to join the so-called League of the Just (Bund der Gerechten), an offshoot of the earlier League of the Outlaws (Bund der Geachteten), a revolutionary secret society formed in Paris in the 1830s under French Revolutionary influence by German journeymen --- mostly tailors and woodworkers --- and still mainly composed of such expatriate artisan radicals. The League, convinced by their ‘critical communism’, offered to publish a Manifesto drafted by Marx and Engels as its policy document, and also to modernize its organization along their lines. Indeed, it was so reorganized in the summer of 1847, renamed League of the Communists (Bund der Kommunisten) and committed to the object of the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the ending of the old society which rests on class contradiction (Klassengegensatzen).
Within months of its publication, revolutions began to break out across Europe. Causing terrified elites to think that the two young authors must have immense powers, either to prophesy uprisings or to create them. In reality, Marx and Engels had no idea that 1848 would become such an historic year, but they did know that change was in the air because they had been spending a lot of time with pissed-off workers, which, was and still is, an unusual habit for intellectuals.
But as we know, capitalism did not die after 1848, and the crisis did not usher in new Marxist regimes across Europe. Views are divided on why this was so. Some say that communism was rejected as too radical, particularly the idea of abolishing private property. Others argue that, by 1850, the Industrial Revolution had instilled hope among workers of being lifted out of subsistence by hard work and ingenuity. Some say this was encouraged by social reforms, a broad-based rise in real wages and a reduction in the average working week in manufacturing from over 62 hours to around 54 hours. But, economist Richard Heilbroner has argued that while Marx gave society a prognosis of revolution, he left no blueprint for an alternative world, void of class and property rights. Who would determine how the means of production would be put to use and how the spoils would be divided? It would be another sixty years before this question would be picked up by other thinkers, notably, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his alias Lenin.
Before even opening this book, however, the reader will almost inevitably be faced with some kind of prejudice. Because of what almost any educated person will know about communism and its checkered past, one might come to this document seeking an affirmation of their political point of view. Others may come to it with a wholly critical attitude, determined to disagree with every aspect. I myself came to it expecting to disagree with some aspects and agree with others, though I expected to agree with more than I disagreed with. The language is especially galvanizing and I found myself swept up in the revolutionary fervor in which it was written.
It’s also important to realize that while most Americans hate communism, they remain simultaneously are incapable of defining it. Most people have heard of The Communist Manifesto, yet few have ever read it. Which is really an indictment of American society itself. What would we say about the USSR if Adam Smith was never taught? Never discussed? What would we say if Soviet citizens hated capitalism without reading capitalist thinkers? We'd call it indoctrination, censorship, and propaganda, would we not? This same bias is alive and well with regards to communism.
But, how exactly will the Manifesto strike the reader who comes to it for the first time in 2020? It’s a curious question. Perhaps it will be the eloquent exposé of the exploitation of the working class by the privileged, wife-swapping, bourgeoisie. Perhaps it will be the eeriness of its death knell for capitalism. Or perhaps it will simply be the thunderous tone with which its lead author, Karl Marx, issued his proletariat call to arms. Whatever it may be will of course depend on who is reading it. But, I think more intelligent readers will find it to be very prescient and highly relatable. If you think about it for more than two seconds you realize, how could it not be, since we still live and die within the very capitalist system Marx and Engels were critiquing. And their Manifesto still has plenty left to say to the world, if only people would listen. Because the writers of this Manifesto foresaw the predatory and polarized global capitalism of the 21st century better than anyone else. But more importantly, Marx and Engels showed us that we have the power to create a better world. That social relations are not predetermined, regardless of how much it may seem to the contrary. Which is a lesson well worth cultivating.


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