Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

March 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

“A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of Communism.”  With this line, one of the most famous and enduring political pamphlets, the 1848 The Communist Manifesto, co-written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, begins. So much is associated with Marx and Engel’s names, ranging from wars to authoritarian regimes to revolutionary zeal.  Leaving aside what was (and still is) inspired by their political writings, The Communist Manifesto may be the most important literary work of the 19th century in terms of its impact on socio-political thinking.

I want to begin with a few quotes from Section I of the Manifesto:

“Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power?  Where the Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?” (p. 8)

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (p. 9)

“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored 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-laborers.” (p. 11)

“The ‘dangerous class,’ the social scum (Lumpenproletariat), that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.” (p. 20)

With just a few twists in phrasing, each of these statements can find their mirror images in current political discourse.  From accusations tossed about by conservative Anglo-American political parties to their opponents who seek to establish/maintain national health care to the 2011 Occupy movements to the plight of teachers (and their occasional demonization by certain elements of society) to the xenophobic rhetoric that rises in times of economic hardship, each of these find a faint echo in Marx and Engel’s Manifesto.  Although Marx and Engels were influenced by Hegel’s thoughts on thesis/antithesis=synthesis, they altered this dialectic approach to fit in with the materialistic age in which they lived.  While The Communist Manifesto is more of a précis than a substantive thesis (for that, see the various volumes of Marx’s Capital), its concise, energetically-written summary of the plight of worker (proletariat) in the early Industrial Age introduced several concepts, especially that of class struggle, that have been influential ever since.

When I was studying history at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, it was impossible to avoid using Hegelian/Marxist dialetics in explaining what was transpiring in a particular age/country/village.  From the struggle to establish an official “language” to the use of riot as a symbolic and material expression of class discontent to evolving gender roles to the erosion of belief in the divine right of rulers, Marx’s marriage of change to material matters has proven to be enduring because it is the simplest and most effective means of describing what had transpired.  Even the weakest parts of the Manifesto, Sections II and III, are valuable in outlining the historical divisions of those who sought to change the emerging bourgeois model of power/production.  Although these sections were not as germane to my studies, they too were important in outlining the modes of opposition that Marx and Engels experienced in their lifetimes.

Should readers read The Communist Manifesto today?  It depends on how open-minded they are.  If they are able to divorce Marxism from the Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist warpings of Marx and Engel’s thoughts on how class struggle would proceed to proletariat revolution, then within their concise yet elegant arguments those readers might find elements of comparison to what is transpiring today on the streets and boardrooms of every major city (and most minor ones) in the world.  One does not have to agree wholeheartedly (or at all) with their prescriptions to see that their diagnosis of industrial society’s ills has had a profound influence on how we view those issues nearly two centuries later.

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