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All Left, Half Right 

Prescience and error in The Communist Manifesto

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THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO By KARL MARX and FRIEDRICH ENGELS, with an introduction by Eric Hobsbawm
Verso
87 pages
$13 hardcover

The revolution has left the building.

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No more do "the ruling classes tremble at a communistic revolution," as two young German social philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, predicted in 1848. On the contrary, with the Soviet Union vanished, Western social democracy directionless and unions gasping for breath, the very idea of revolution has become so retro that it's chic. And Verso, in its promotion of this 150th-anniversary edition of Marx and Engels' epochal pamphlet, has not been above attempting to exploit this nouveau-retro-chicness just a bit, even proposing to mount a red-banner display in the Barney's department-store window. As any ad man will tell you, the end justifies the means.

So why does this period curio, The Communist Manifesto, re-read for the first time in a couple of decades, come across as the single most acute and profound description of the political economy of 1998? Hell, of the past two weeks?

Consider, for instance, the following passage:

" 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."

How did Marx and Engels, writing in 1848, know about HMOs? About scientists signing non-disclosure forms when they work for corporations? About the effect of tort litigation and corporate law on the souls of attorneys?

Or the following passages, which deal with events covered in any recent Business Week:

"The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionists [they're talking Pat Buchanan here], it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood . . .

National differences . . . are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production . . . The bourgeoisie . . . compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production . . ."

And:

". . . [U]ninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned . . ."

Well, all right, I included the last couple of sentences because I find the writing so wonderfully biblical. But take a close look at what Marx and Engels are addressing in the two paragraphs above that. What's happened to the world in the past three years is that the Anglo-American version of capitalism, where the shareholder is supreme and the value of stocks the only value that matters, has eclipsed its two rival models: East Asian capitalism, with its semipermanent business networks and its corporate paternalism rooted in the region's feudal past; and Western European social democracy, with its social protections wrested from capital by a socialist movement. Now, the forces of global investment have rendered such economies indefensible, and Korea, Scandinavia and France are "compelled on pain of extinction" (or disinvestment, the modern form of extinction) to move to a type of capitalism that maximizes quick profits at the expense of job security and social harmony.

The world described in the Manifesto is the world of electronic fund transfers and maquiladoras, of banks merging and Indonesian sweatshops sending Nikes to Van Nuys, of the International Monetary Fund compelling Korea to discharge its workers, of the management of Mercedes relocating its plants to cheaper climes, forcing Germany to lower its wages. It is, in short, the world of 1998, much more than it is the world in which Marx and Engels were writing. In 1848, as Eric Hobsbawm, doyen of Marxist historians, notes in his brilliant introduction, not even Britain, then the world's most economically advanced nation, had a predominantly industrial economy. In 1932, that most desperate of Depression years - during which, Hobsbawm tells us, more English-language copies of the Manifesto were printed than ever before or since - economies were still almost entirely national.

It is only today that the acuity of the Manifesto's appreciation of capitalism is fully apparent. Marx and Engels saw an acorn and described an oak - before anyone had ever seen an oak. Which is why the Manifesto stands, today more than ever, as the greatest work of social extrapolation and imagination ever written - in what it says about capitalism, that is, not in what it says about socialism. About capitalism it is prophetic, in both senses of the word. It foresees the future: family dissolution, global monopoly, centralization of communications, Michael Eisner, Rupert Murdoch. And, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Marx and Engels display both the pose and the prose of prophecy: the boiling rage at avoidable inequity; the piling on of short, elegant, condemnatory phrases, so biblical, so un-Germanic.

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