The Communist Manifesto is one of the cornerstones of Marxism. Neil Rogall celebrates a compelling new account of its importance today by author and activist China Miéville.
I first read the Communist Manifesto sometime in 1968, when I was still at school and involved in a School Students Union in Leeds. It was the first Marx and Engels I read that was unedited, unlike the 1960s collections from Penguin like Marx on Economics edited by Robert Freedman. My copy of the Manifesto was one of the many cheap little Russian editions that were everywhere until the collapse of the USSR.
From its opening line, ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ the Manifesto raises its banner high. It swept me away with its rhetorical flair, alternately ‘prophetic, poetic, melodramatic and tragic’ – I cannot say I read it critically. I mean, this was 1968, and I thought revolution was, if not round the corner, certainly down at the end of the road. Of course, there was much I misunderstood or that made little sense to me. But like millions who have read it, since it was first published in 1848, and ‘dreamed through it’, it profoundly affected my life. Since then, I have read and reread it several times.
So, I was intrigued when China Miéville’s study of it came out, which includes the Manifesto in its entirety, as his first book since the wonderful, joyous, and critical account of the October Revolution, October.
His account of the Manifesto starts with an interrogation of the manifesto ‘form’. What is a manifesto? How does a manifesto communicate? What is its purpose? This particular manifesto, is as Miéville states, is short, rude and eccentrically organised and was written hurriedly under pressure. It was published in February 1848 on the eve of the Europe-wide revolutionary explosion, after being commissioned by the Communist League, an émigré group of German workers in Paris whose name had recently changed under Marx’s influence from the Justice League.
This confused me when I first read it back in 1968. The full title is The Manifesto of the Communist Party but there was no communist party. In 1968, the term ‘communist party’ meant the string of parties formed around the world after the Russian Revolution. But as Miéville explains carefully, in the mid 19th century the term ‘party’ did not mean what it means today, but instead a wider tendency or a current of opinion. In fact, the organisation that had commissioned it, the Communist League with its few hundred members, did not survive the defeats of the 1848 revolutions. The Manifesto itself almost disappeared for similarly reasons, only returning to a wider readership in the wake of the Paris Commune. Readership of the Manifesto has since tended to rise dramatically in years of mass struggle and revolution, such as 1917 or 1968 when I first engaged with it.
The chapter ‘An Outline of the Manifesto’, provides a guide to understanding the structure and content of the Manifesto. I wish I had had this guide when I first read it. One particularly theme that Miéville picks up on and returns to on several occasions is the Manifesto’s lauding of the bourgeoisie as a class for accomplishing ‘wonders far surpassing the Egyptian pyramids’. He points out that this praise of the bourgeoisie far surpasses anything the ‘boosters’ of the bourgeoisie have ever written. But he also notes that 1848 showed that the heroic days of the bourgeoisie were now over – the events in Germany, France and elsewhere showed that the capitalist class were now more frightened of the proletariat than the old regime as they snuggled up to the established order. Such events of course deeply influenced the thinking of Marx and Engels after 1848, but the Manifesto reflected their thinking before that year.
The following two chapters ‘Evaluating’ and ‘Criticisms’ of the Manifesto were the most interesting part of the book. After briefly dismissing what Miéville calls ‘a few exhausted anti-Communist bromides’ such as ‘Russia proves communism is tyranny’ or that common sense and human nature shows we cannot change society and if we do it will lead to ‘disaster’ he moves on to more serious criticisms.
Critics often highlight the apparent determinism of the Manifesto, such as that ‘the workers’ revolution is inevitable’ or that ‘capitalism will inevitably collapse’. But of course, within it, there are other formulations that are the very opposite of determinism. Miéville points out this is because the Manifesto operates on a number of different registers: analytical, rhetorical, poetic, full of exhortations to battle, predictive.
There is a very good discussion of the notion that Marx and Engels reduce everything to ‘class’. And yes, while they obviously do foreground class – ‘The Manifesto excoriates capitalism’s oppression of women in ferocious terms’. Yet Miéville points out that Marx and Engels did ‘not develop their critical views on sex and gendered oppression as far as they could have’ in the Manifesto and there is a failure to gender their discussion of class. Engels, of course does return to this elsewhere in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Similarly, Miéville looks at the argument that Marx and Engels underestimated the hold of nationalism and that they lauded the idea that the bourgeoisie would bring modernity to the rest of the world, through a top-down globalisation. But of course, Marx changed his views – from a naïve belief that Britain would bring ‘progress’ to India, he became an ardent supporter of the Indian rebellion of 1857-58. Similarly on questions of ‘race’ he came to see that ‘labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded’. The chapter then goes on to discuss the debates and arguments over ‘race’ and ‘imperialism’ within the Marxist movement.
The book’s final chapter considers the Manifesto today. In an era where we are hurtling ever faster to environmental extinction, where the social sadism of neoliberal capitalism is unbearable but where rebellions, even in the miserable heart of the pandemic, emerged. The book finishes with a return to the argument that the Manifesto was far too generous to the bourgeoisie, that for all its rage against the system there was too much eulogy to capitalism’s energetic and transformational properties, that it is ‘too much a hymn to the glory of capitalist modernity’ and that it does not hate enough. As Miéville writes:
‘We should hate this world, with and through and beyond and even more than does the Manifesto. We should hate this hateful and hating and hatemongering system of cruelty, that exhausts, and withers and kills us’.
The book is beautifully written, in Miéville’s vivid prose. At times he does use terms that you might not be familiar with, but good writing is always demanding. The conclusion, like that of the Manifesto is a call to rebellion. We still have a world to win, and it is more urgent than ever. Miéville in this book gives us all a lot to dwell on, it is both a serious account of the Manifesto, but also a weapon that we can use in the struggle to overthrow this horrible, horrible world