Joshua Nomen-Mutatio's Reviews > The Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
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Aug 23, 2009

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bookshelves: cultural-and-or-political, history, philosophy
Read in November, 1999 — I own a copy

The teleology implicit in the writing of Marx and his sugardaddy Engels is deeply flawed. In other words no revolution is inevitable -- the only things that are inevitable are entropy and taxation.

That's one complaint...for now...

I should mention that most of these three stars above are for how influential and therefore historically interesting this pamphlet was and is. I could go on about my stance on economic and governing systems but I've recently done this in other online venues and am currently drained and not interested in repeating myself at the moment...
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message 1: by Brad (last edited Aug 23, 2009 07:25AM) (new)

Brad Wouldn't Berman suggest, however, that revolution is inevitable? If only because someone always believes the ur-myth? So revolution is inevitable not for the reason Marx and Engels suggest, but because Marx and Engels name their own "chosen people" who will throw off the shackles of their oppressors. Of course, this doesn't change your complaint with Marx and Engels in any way. I just think it is interesting.

message 2: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Aug 23, 2009 01:51PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio But for it to be inevitable it would also have to be proven that ur-myths will always exist and a specific one would have to exist widely enough for long enough to make whatever specific wide-reaching revolution (like the global takeover of Marxist Communism). And there's no reason to think ur-myths will always exist--even though it seems likely that they will for as long as humans are around (but obviously plausibility and inevitability aren't synonyms). But even then I think there will always be competing and evolving ur-myths. If one could be guaranteed to remain on a steady course of propagation then in that sense Revolution would be inevitable.

Ok, that was a bit muddled...What I mean is that revolutions (in a much more literal sense) are inevitable in the sense that things change, but that Revolution as in sudden, drastic, 180 degree, ideological and political change on a global scale doesn't seem inevitable in any way to me. Or how about this: large-scale cultural shifts of any kind are not inevitable. Although I guess it's inevitable that people will stop using gasoline and I suppose that counts as a cultural shift. Anyway, I think we agree about the teleology of Marxism not making much sense.

message 3: by Brad (new)

Brad Inevitable and plausible are important distinctions, and you're right that it probably isn't inevitable, although it is plausible. After having watched your links and read your review I am going to have get the Berman book now. It really sounds fascinating.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Cool. I hope you enjoy it.

Anthony Buckley Actually, Karl and Fred weren't altogether off beam. The word "inevitable" was perhaps a bit strong. But it remains a fact that by the end of the century, there were huge (basically working class)socialist parties in every major European country all teetering on the brink of real power. Whereas in 1848, when Communist Manifesto was written, there were only a very few weak socialist groupings, and the very idea of them grabbing power must have seemed implausible.

Credit where credit is due. When it comes to prophecy, they were close to the mark.

message 6: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Aug 23, 2009 09:47AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio But the goal within the prophecy wasn't just for socialist parties to take hold of every major European country (which it didn't) but for capitalism to be utterly squelched from the entire planet. It's not the failure of meeting these goals that I take issue with either, it's that quasi-religious faith-based belief that the world itself is directed towards such an obviously humanly created goal (in this case, having one's economic and political theories carried out fully).

I feel this way about all forms of teleology: Hegelian, Marxist, the eschatologies of the major Abrahamic religions, etc. This notion that nothing will impede progress towards some grand end goal even if it appears that this goal is disasterous or impossible to meet (this is just seen as a lack of faith or conviction) is just intellectually indefensible for one thing and leads to a dangerous level of certainty in one's goals. This was the problem with Lenin, for instance. Believing that "history" or "god" is guiding these events allows one to view, say, sending people to the Gulag or murdering heretics as all being "part of the plan."

message 7: by Anthony (last edited Aug 23, 2009 09:52AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anthony Buckley I was only observing that in predicting the rise of massive working class movements devoted to socialism, M & E proved themselves to be moderately effective commentators.

Actually, I'm not much in favour of prophcy myself: it comes close to describing the world, whereas the point is, however, to change it.

message 8: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Aug 23, 2009 10:04AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Marx definitely had some ideas that really, really resonated with people and they took off with a serious intensity all around the world. He certainly was right about how the working class would run with these a point. The worker's rebellions died down when qualities of their working conditions arose (on their capitalist master's dime) and then The Revolution was no longer a top priority or one at all for those people. He certainly was right about some major things but clearly miscalculated others -- the gripe I have with the teleological aspects of his prophecy being a major one.

message 9: by Brad (last edited Aug 23, 2009 10:18AM) (new)

Brad I've never been entirely convinced that the teleology of the Manifesto was serious. It always seemed to me to be a tool to organize, a way to incite movement and purpose. Marx and Engels were canny enough to see, I think, that most people want that purpose. They want to be chosen. They want to have an end goal that is not only desirable but inevitable. And I think they used it to catalyze the philosophy they desired.

Das Kapital's argument doesn't stray from the idea that capital and capitalism must collapse, but their replacement by socialism is less dogmatic than it was in the Manifesto, and Marx's analysis remains an important read.

And I am with you, Anthony, on giving credit where it is due.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio That's a really good point, Brad, and I'd bet a large sum that you're right about it, too. A mobilizing tactic, for sure. I've not read Capital other than selections from it in The Marx-Engels Reader and that was about...five years ago. And I read the Manifesto in high school. I did recently watch that PBS documentary on socialism though, which is what reminded me to add this book to my shelf. I thought that I already had, but I guess I hadn't.

message 11: by Trevor (new)

Trevor I read this again a couple of years ago and was surprised by how much of the book is taken up with discussions of the family and discussions on the relationship of communists to other political movements (most of which no longer exist).

The most withering criticism, of course, is practice - Marx's highest criterion of truth - and 150 years later we are no closer to socialism than we were then.

However, I think that just because the telos is not right does not diminish the importance of this work. Their prediction that capitalism reduces society into two great classes has certainly come to pass. (even if we now refer to the non-Capitalist class as the 'middle-class' - something that always amuses me, much like those statistics that show 80% of people have above average children) What they had to say on the alienation of labour is still relevant (more so today than then) and I do tend to think that the contradiction between the public means of production and the private means of appropriation is the defining contradiction of capitalism. So, overall, I'm not sure this book can be tossed aside quite so glibly with a one-liner on teleology.

message 12: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Aug 23, 2009 03:10PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Trevor wrote: "So, overall, I'm not sure this book can be tossed aside quite so glibly with a one-liner on teleology."

I'm not doing that though. For one, I made it clear that I was only addressing this one aspect and never said anything about dismissing the book or Marx's ideas in general. And two, I didn't only make a one-liner remark about teleology. I think I made a pretty decent case (or summation of one) for why I find teleology in general to be problematic both on purely logical and empirical grounds and from an ethical stance. Had I given this book a one-star review or said something about this book being completely full of shit or the failure of socialism generally then your accusation of glib dismissal would be fair and accurate -- but since I did none of these things -- it isn't. In fact I clearly pointed out that Marx made many accurate predictions, so tacking on more of them doesn't really challenge any actual position I've put forth, instead it just knocks down a strawman -- the strawman of glib dismissal of everything Marx wrote.

message 13: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Aug 23, 2009 03:02PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio This is all just to say that I have a real problem with all serious convictions about grand-narratives concerning humanity's "final destiny" -- no matter what the particular ideological bent is. It's the opposite of the spirit of scientific inquiry, it's an obvious recipe for dogmatic thinking and all the damage this does in turn. If Ray Kurzweil was saying that "The Singularity" was inevitable (which he borders on saying) I would feel the same way about that, too.

message 14: by Jimmy (last edited Aug 23, 2009 07:33PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jimmy MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "This is all just to say that I have a real problem with all serious convictions about grand-narratives concerning humanity's "final destiny" -- no matter what the particular ideological bent is. I..."

Yeah, I'm with you on the anti-grand-narratives end of the things (hehe). Seriously, I'm opposed to teleological thinking for probably the same reasons that I'm opposed to religious thought. Maybe I'm reaching in drawing a relative comparison here. But this mode of thinking just seems to encourages nationalist sentiment (mind you, not the only motivation for such a thing), and it's, as Josh so aptly put it, "the opposite of the spirit of scientific inquiry".

Jimmy Jimmy wrote: "MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "This is all just to say that I have a real problem with all serious convictions about grand-narratives concerning humanity's "final destiny" -- no matter what the particular..."

To be clear here, I'm not connecting nationalism and religion right here. That's an entirely different can of worms.

message 16: by Trevor (new)

Trevor I'm not sure teleology is a completely fair criticism of Marx - I understand where you are coming from, but really, I think he wrote about three lines on what Communism would be like in all his multitudinous works - one of which was a line somewhere saying that it would be the beginning of human history. His point, I guess, being that we in the pre-history of humanity have no right to decide how those who come after us might live. Much the same as Nietzsche does with his Superman - although I feel Nietzsche could more aptly be criticised on the basis of quasi-religious motivations, given he was clearly seeking to make a new religion for a new age.

Marx's prediction for the necessity of a future Communist state was based on the idea that Capitalist relations to production would become a break on the further development of the productive forces and that whenever this had happened in the past (slave societies, feudalism, pre-agricultural societies) the relationship to production that hindered this development was invariably swept aside. This was clearly the case in the past and spotting this was an incredibly important contribution by Marx to social theory. That is, what you are taking to be Marx's teleology I'm taking to be his major contribution to social science.

I think much of the change that has occurred since Marx in the relations to production under Capitalism could probably be attributed to society seeking to resolve this contradiction in a way that does not tear Capitalism apart. He may have been wrong, but it is an odd sort of wrongness. I also see where you are coming from with Marxism being quasi-religious, but I'm not sure that the teleology is the main problem here. I feel that Marx proposed as a quasi-scientific hypothesis that society was seeking to resolve a fundamental contradiction and that this would be resolved in a particular way (by ending private accumulation and replacing it with social wealth). Popper believes that Marx created a view that was untestable, but I'm not sure that is the case. He was clearly wrong in this (I feel 150 years later we can say he was wrong) - but I still think spotting this fundamental contradiction of Capitalism was impressive in itself.

I'm sorry if I misread your criticism - I still think you are wrong in your original post. Clearly the Capitalist revolutions can now be said to have been inevitable - it is hard to imagine a feudal society still being possible in the middle of Europe, say.

message 17: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Sep 26, 2009 12:38PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Here's how I intended my criticisms to be read:

Believing in any form of teleology is at the very heart of dogmatism and is, as such, extremely dangerous. I consider myself a social democrat, for the record. I think that capitalism under the guise of corporatism is a terrible thing. I don't necessarily call for the destruction of all capitalist economic models, because I think there is something there to be gleaned and integrated into what one might loosley call a "mixed economy." Basically I take the economic models of modern day western Europe and Scandinavia to be my guiding examples of the most ideal socio-economic systems. I believe that many sectors of society should be ruled by socialist principles and that others, properly regulated, could continue in a freemarket type of manner.

I didn't intend to appear as someone merely knocking Marxism. I agreed with Brad's last post (as I said earlier) that perhaps the teleological language of The Manifesto was a mere mobilizing tactic to get people riled up and to become "true believers" in the goal of destroying capitalism/advancing Communism. How can one argue against a claim of inevitability? Well, they can do it rather easily as my criticisms are an example of, but if someone is generally in agreement with an ideology, one thing which will appeal to them additionally (especially if they're teleologically-minded as most human beings are want to be, generally) is a claim to knowledge about the longest of long runs about historical outcomes -- then it seems that grand proclamations about inevitability would be that extra push needed to inspire masses of discontented people.

What it comes down to is that I take serious issue with people claiming special knowledge about the future. Marx didn't formulate his predictions as hypotheses, no, instead he formulated them as The Grand Inevitable March of History. And that kind of hubris bothers me on at least two levels. First of all, no human being has that kind of psychic knowledge at their fingertips, and secondly, it's such an obvious prime-ingredient for utterly rigid convictions, which are -- no matter what flavor -- dangerous in potentia because they claim to have an Absolute Certainty about things that no mortal is conceivably in the position to have Absolute Certainty about. When science does this (Lamarckianism, for example, which was basically Christian metaphysics coupled with natural science), or anyone of any persuasion makes these types of claims we should be wary as hell and simply ask: "How on fucking earth do you know this??"

Teleology is problematic. I'm not suggesting in the least that because Marx fell victim to a type of teleological-thinking that his overall ideas were ruinous, that would be a total non-sequitur were I to hold it. I was taking a leap over particular doctrines in order to address a more fundamental problem with the hubris and potential dangers of teleology.

Sorry for the long explanation. I'm a bit sauced right now.

message 18: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Aug 29, 2009 09:30PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Trevor wrote: I still think you are wrong in your original post. Clearly the Capitalist revolutions can now be said to have been inevitable - it is hard to imagine a feudal society still being possible in the middle of Europe, say.

But inevitability can't be judged that way, in this circumstance. Marx didn't merely claim that socialism would catch on (which it obviously did more or less), rather he predicted, nay, asserted, that the entire globe would be free of capitalism and that his formulation of socialism would reign completely. Obviously this hasn't come true. But this is almost beside the point, because, yes, it still could come true. But my main gripe, again, is with instilling people with the idea that human society (or anything, really) is on some predetermined, one-way track (with the exception of certain physical trajectories, like entropy, or the irrefutable aspects of Newtonian physics). In short, that the universe, or history, or god, is guiding these things. Because the (most plausible, reasonable) reality is that human beings have to take personal responsibility in order to alter human societies in certain ways and that this doesn't come from somewhere external to human beings, rather, we must learn how to make our way essentially on our own, that history is essentially "dictated" by two main classes of things: human thought and actions and (of course) all of the random, contingent "environmental" factors.

message 19: by Trevor (last edited Aug 29, 2009 10:16PM) (new)

Trevor MFSO wrote: Because the (most plausible, reasonable) reality is that human beings have to take personal responsibility in order to alter human societies in certain ways and that this doesn't come from somewhere external to human beings, rather, we must learn how to make our way essentially on our own, that history is essentially "dictated" by two main classes of things: human thought and actions and (of course) all of the random, contingent "environmental" factors.

And this is where I feel the clear difference between your views and Marx’s are stated. Marx was not putting forward a moral philosophy, as you are – in fact, he was seeking to avoid precisely that. He wanted his historical materialism to be based on ‘objective’ criteria. He found these in the class struggle and in the economic circumstances in which people found themselves.

Marx in a nutshell might be that human thoughts do not determine how we live, but rather our environmental circumstances (and these, for Marx, were chiefly economic) determine how we will think about the world. His necessary revolution wasn’t really a world-wide revolution, but rather one that was necessary in the advanced capitalist economies. And this revolution was necessary due to the inherent contradictions manifest in those economies. Not in the sense that Dickens or Blake saw the horrors of capitalism, but in that Marx saw that capitalism stopped producing as soon as it could not make a profit and that capitalism was therefore the first form of social organisation that produced a crisis of ‘over-production’. In any previous form of social organisation over-production wasn’t the cause of a crisis – it was the cause of celebration. Under capitalism, that is, if too many people were making STUFF and supply outstripped demand then the people who make the STUFF stopped making it, as they couldn’t make profit from making it anymore. Marx, like Ricardo before him, could not foresee a time when the proletarian masses would not be forced to live in abject poverty, when they might be able to receive more than the absolute minimum required for them to be able to reproduce their labour power. For much of the time since the 1950s I believe we have lived in this world that Marx could not foresee.

I think there are two interesting features of the modern world that Marx failed to predict that have made his inevitable revolution not quite so inevitable. One is that the great class of proletarians have not been reduced to crushing poverty and the other is that the great class of proletarians is much less certain of the commonality of objective now than it clearly was in the past. The diminishing role and appeal of Trades Unions across the first world is symptomatic of this trend.

Somewhere Marx talks about the difference between the working class and the peasant class as the working class being truly united due to the commonality of the life they live and also that working in close proximity with other workers means they forge bonds as a class that peasants simply could never make. Peasants, he says, are a class in much the same way a sack of potatoes is a class – with each potato only connected with those it immediately touches, but the working class is truly international and forges links with others across the world blah, blah, blah. The problem is that today when workers do not work in factories, but in offices (even in open plan offices) those connections that once gave strength to the industrial working class have all but disappeared. Giving the property-less a crumb of property in the form of their own home has often been enough to wither away the ‘class consciousness’ of the proletariat.

Like I said, I’m not sure teleology is really the problem here – Marx’s hypothesis wasn’t really based on the moral victory of the working classes against their oppressors, rather his hypothesis was that objective economic conditions would force capitalism (in its own best interests) to stop producing things. This would then mean capitalism would NEED to be overthrown because it would be hindering economic development – just as Feudalism had to be overthrown because it was hindering economic development. This hypothesis – this vision – clearly has not come to pass. I think your criticism of teleology is more accurate against certain Marxists than it is against Marx himself.

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