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The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
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Jun 01, 12

Read on June 01, 2012

Under the influence of Marilynne Robinson's defense of Calvinism, I tried returning to a primary texts to extrapolate some semblance of undiluted truth – undiluted, at least, by the incessant flow of uninformed hysteria, apathetic dismissiveness, or compulsive simplification we call “public discourse” – and I managed to read the short yet infamous Communist Manifesto, and naturally, the reputation its garnered as “saying this” or “saying that” is grossly off the mark. I would say it misses many marks, but the phonetics get punny.

The first and most surprising inaccuracy is that Communism wants to do away with any notions of ownership. The manifesto asserts this to a degree, but it’s careful to define what is meant by property. To quote:

The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products,that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of themany by the few…[Does] wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Nota bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation…We by no means intend to abolish this personal appropriation of the products of labour, an appropriation that is made for the maintenance and reproduction of human life, and that leaves no surplus wherewith to command the labour of others. All that we want to do away with, is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it.

The passage discusses not the fruits on your fruit tree garden, or your sculpture, or the clothes one mends for oneself. At this point it’s probably more in line with confiscating high-definition televisions bought on that credit card that keeps you forever in the servitude of debt. The nuances between what’s what aren’t adequately fleshed out in such a manifesto, but these are the sacrifices of making nuanced arguments when simultaneously demanding broad consumption. Things will get misconstrued and oversimplified to the point where the public depicts Communism as a menacing bearded man that confiscates all those macaroni valentines your retarded daughter makes every Mother’s Day.

The cultural criticism of The Communist Manifesto is still salient and provocative if a little too arrogant in the macrohistorical perspective it takes. It is such a sweeping evaluation of history and people as forces and movements that it doesn’t quite delve into the specific and fascinating ways people will manage to fuck each other up on a face-to-face level. The cultural criticism I find refreshing if only because it’s socially conservative – and yes, it defines itself as such. It is amazing that social conservatives often find themselves in fiscally conservative circuits. Listen to this “end-is-nigh” call for tradition and family values:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an
end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has
pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to
his "natural superiors," and has left remaining no other nexus
between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash
payment." It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of
religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine
sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It
has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of
the numberless and indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that
single, unconscionable freedom--Free Trade…The bourgeoisie has stripped
of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers…The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

The passage reeks of those values that progressive liberals find revolting – this need to hearken back to familial quaintness, to rediscover the reverence and importance of priests, and to bring back those sentimental traditions that are being disgraced by a climate of heartless calculation. Shouldn’t this paragraph be quoted, or at least paid tribute, in the next year’s War on Christmas? What about the war on family values? I really think Focus on the Family does itself a disservice by simultaneously attacking their governments and slashing funds for their Parks & Recreation departments. It blames homosexuals and feminists personally instead of performing a more reasonable, systemic examination. If there could be any ground between economic liberals and social conservatives, it’s that a free market system without state intervention would crush wages to the point of forcing two parents (whether both male or female) to work more than one job. By “would crush,” I think I mean “did.” This is all probably quite obvious – the hypocrisy of right-wing organizations being a whipping boy for armchair Internet faux-intellectuals like myself – but I do mean it sincerely that Marx deserves a little credit for putting his finger on the pulse of a problem that even those who despise what he represents can recognize to this day. The man is terrified of “family ties…being torn asunder.” These are not issues that should be relegated to backroom niches of the political underground.

I am comforted by his thoughts on religion; Marx gets downgraded to “religion is the opiate of the masses,” which, given how he seems to bemoan the slow moral decay to the reverence and community brought about by religious congregation, is very reductive, a little out of context, and less complicated to process than much of what he says. I’m not scholarly enough of this point, but of what I can surmise here, the impression one may get of Marx by hearing this quote sort of blindly thrown around in a Liberal Arts 101 circle-jerk is not one that merits $160,000 of debt that, in this day and age, becomes more difficult to justify.

There’s also another little bipartisan ditty we can all agree on: the propensity for Americans to side with small businesses. Pinko commie bastards or capitalist suits can both get behind the spirit of entrepreneurship; not a lot of working-class people will fault the small business in principle. It’s a moderate stance to advocate them, and not one that’s egregiously offensive to those on the political fringes. Well, Marx fights for them too:

The lower strata of the middle class--the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants--all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by the new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes
of the population…The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the
shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative.

Ah, there’s that word “conservative” again. I’m not trying to make Marx into a uniter here; the third section of the book levies some scathing criticisms to different branches of Communist philosophy, and even though he attempts to rectify it by putting a nice little “we still have the power together” Captain Planet-type coda at the end, it doesn’t fully alleviate the sting. But Marx has crafted a laundry list of concerns and cultural critiques that span the worries of anyone that remotely possess a political opinion, and that facet of the book, at least, is still timely.

The problem of course is that Communism didn’t really work in practice. This is the thing a lot of folks who haven’t read the book – they say simply that it’s “great in theory, awful in practice.” There’s something lazy about this assessment, because it gives too much credit to the contents of this book. That accusation assumes that the Communism of The Communist Manifesto was the one that was practiced. It also assumes that the Communism of The Communist Manifesto was the text that established the theory. It also assumes that there is a Communism that is strictly defined in its pages. There’s a neat little list of rules about how Marx would attack communism, perhaps some means of execution (no pun on the Stalinist purges intended), but a good third of the book is a critique of other schools of thought in the matter. Clearly, the theory had been thrown around; Marx was more or less begging for a call to action, and I’m not informed enough to say whether or not he single-handedly succeeded. The difference here is that some people aren’t informed enough, but they say it anyway.

Again, reading The Communist Manifesto is quite an education; it builds mistrust for one’s preconceptions. Communism is also one of those topics prone to priggishness and paranoia; one can’t talk about it really without seeming unpatriotic or threatening, the notion of which is so absurd because at this point the document has been so thoroughly disgraced, misinterpreted, and ignored that it has a weight of benign antiquity. I was expecting something to which I’d stand in diametric opposition, or something outdated and rife with clearly disproven, foam-in-the-mouth ideology. To a certain extent, I did. But I also found something quite interesting: a measured yet passionate cultural criticism that is surprisingly conservative, even nostalgic for the older times when family was important and so was church. The book also includes its scholarly attempt to unite separate branches of previously established Communist text, with a nice few jabs at Thomas More’s Utopia on the side. I mention that if only because Marx wasn’t seeking to create a utopia. I love his barb with regard to what he calls “Utopian socialists”:

[…]All these proposals, point solely to the disappearance of class
antagonisms which were, at that time, only just cropping up, and
which, in these publications, are recognised in their earliest,
indistinct and undefined forms only. These proposals, therefore,
are of a purely Utopian character.

This reading experiment was a means to practice some of the tools put forth in Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam. She condemns the current discourse for its hasty disregard and smug condemnation of figures and ideas past and present. She dislikes that people don’t return to the primary texts to evaluate what they read for themselves; she doesn’t like the pressure of consensus levied on people, and is alarmed that a nation so hard-sold on democracy wouldn’t welcome some semblance of contrarianism. I’ve expressed my boundless admiration for her in the past, but I’d never really thrown that experiment into action. This is what I’ve more or less done with The Communist Manifesto, and reading it allowed me to discover more obscure means to extract value from a beleaguered text. He's not pardoned from any of the atrocities for which he is held just a tad responsible, but I can see much clearer now how fiscally liberal values are more adequately aligned with socially conservative values. To want a free market and a strong nuclear family seems downright contradictory given the numbers. I like to theorize sometimes – and this is just my mind meandering romantically – that perhaps our cherished, hyper-globalized American capitalism (whatever that means) turned equal rights for women back on itself in a cruel way; in other words, it should have been “women can work while the guy can stay home”, when it turned into “now both parents have to work to be able to afford the same home.” The point being that I think there’s a common ground here that can be mined between the leftiest of lefties and the rightiest of righties, and it’s worth having an honest and positive conversation about that opportunity. Sadly, no one would ever jump on that opportunity, because the world would shudder to think the inspiration may have been something as lowly as a pinko’s complaint.

I immensely enjoyed the journey that The Communist Manifesto put me through, but I think I have to allocate the credit to Marilynne Robinson's education; she has echoed some of its points in a more coherent and plausible manner. The aspects of the book I enjoyed were parts that re-awakened me to pieces of her work, which break down the tenets of Marxism with a little bit more of an empirical, practical, real-life application. The text itself is overwrought and not as illuminating about the philosophy itself as I would like - and its last third is entrenched in academic, hypocritical squabbling - but I enjoyed wrestling with the text and salvaging something meaningful from it. The solution of the book is absent, but the problem it presents is something to behold; its intrinsic qualities are in opposition to the minor revelations it left to my disposal (vis-a-vis Ms. Robinson), and how to capture that accurately with a couple of stars is pretty difficult. Possessing newfound analytic skills to think about these fundamental texts differently certainly helped, and for those I must again thank Marilynne for her truly singular individuality. With that, I must close with a Marx quote about individuality:

From the moment when labour can no longer be converted into capital, money, or rent, into a social power capable of being monopolised, i.e., from the moment when individual property can no longer be transformed into bourgeois property, into capital, from that moment, you say individuality vanishes.

You must, therefore, confess that by "individual" you mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property. This person must, indeed, be swept out of the way, and made impossible.

Is not the relentless pursuit of individuality so gloriously and distinctly American? Would not every adherent to the constitution want to pursue any solution to uphold our inalienable rights as, ahem, “individuals”? Perhaps there is not a satisfying answer to this question through this particular mobilization pamphlet. But imagine a world where no one hearkens back to the source, and never poses the question.

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