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All Left, Half Right

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

The revolution has left the building.

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 . . ."


". . . [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.  

But if Marx and Engels remain the supreme analysts (at times, lyricists) of the bourgeoisie and capitalism's rise, they turn out to have been a good deal weaker on the proletariat and capitalism's fall. Hobsbawm notes that Marx entertained two seemingly contradictory views of the pending revolution. Much of the Manifesto reads as if the revolution was just around the corner - as in fact it was, for the tumultuous upheavals of 1848, which racked nearly all of Western Europe, broke out within two weeks of the Manifesto's publication (no causal relationship implied). But in other passages, the Manifesto suggests that the coming struggle will be protracted and often incremental.

On the economics of capitalist collapse, Marx was similarly conflicted. In the Manifesto and other writings, he insists that capitalism produces mass pauperization. In his later writings, however, and in Capital most particularly, he describes a boom-and-bust cycle of capitalism that suggests there will be periods in which immiserization is not the order of the day, and that intermediary classes may emerge between the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

On two crucial points, however, Marx and Engels were emphatic - first, that "the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class," and second, that "[the bourgeoisie's] fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable." The problem with their view of this particular oak, however, is that it wasn't even based on an acorn. When they sat down to write the Manifesto, Engels had already studied English industry firsthand, and Marx was beginning to study economic cycles. But the notion that the proletariat was a revolutionary class that would liberate humankind appears in Marx's pre-Manifesto writings "as a philosophic deduction rather than a product of observation," as the socialist writer Leszek Kolakowski has noted.

In practice, of course, the proletarians have turned out to be not a revolutionary but at most a reformist class. As reformists, they've known considerable success - and, currently, considerable confusion. Social-democratic parties with labor and socialist roots govern nearly all of Western Europe today, though none with a program any more radical than saving a portion of the welfare state from the clutches of American-style capitalism.

If the eschatological duty with which Marx and Engels saddled the proles seems today just so much groundless expectation, their charge to the communists is almost impossible to read without fear and wonderment over how other communists in later times construed their meaning. When the Manifesto was written, of course, there were no communists as we have come to understand the term: Leninists (or Stalinists) who believed in the rightness of the party's course and dismissed the need for democracy within socialist society or even the party itself. For Marx and Engels, communists were socialists who believed that the proletariat was the force in which they should root their efforts, the force that would overthrow capitalism and abolish bourgeois property.

But it's easy to see how a Stalinist student in the middle of this century could read a passage from the Manifesto and take it as validating the idea of the party's rule over, rather than through, the working class. "[T]heoretically," Marx and Engels write of the communists, "they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement." In setting out a party platform, the Manifesto calls for some social reforms that would have problematic consequences, such as the "gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country." Who knows what the young Pol Pot, taking his studies in the sewer of postwar Parisian Stalinism, made of that?

Today, of course, the manifestoes come from the right. The market, we are told, is not merely the revolutionary force that Marx and Engels described, but a civilizing one as well. Never mind that medicine by Frederick Taylor's time clock diminishes the public health, or that politics in the age of Al Checchi runs by the rule of one-dollar/one-vote, or that the destruction of unionized industry in the age of global investment has brought a new-age Dickensianism to urban life.

What the market actually produces, of course, is not public goods but shareholder profits - no more, no less. (And so the conflict between bourgeois and proletarian, in a period when 401-K's are turning workers into shareholders as well, can become a conflict not just within a people but within a person.) But if our millennial shareholder is thriving and our millennial worker just keeping up, our millennial citizen should view the unchecked rule of the market with alarm.  

The competitiveness of global capital, after all, means competitiveness against the nation-state, which, like the national union, has proved fairly powerless to defend those post-World War II policies that led to the creation, for the first time in human history, of middle-class majorities. Thus there are sectors of the Euroleft that are beginning to view the European Union as a starting point to reconstruct on a transnational level the kinds of egalitarian reforms they enacted nationally after 1945. Thus the new-model AFL-CIO is beginning to foster the difficult task of cross-border organizing.

Could it be that the immediate political program of the moment, freed from that badly dated dictum about workers having nothing to lose but their chains, is that the workers of the world must unite? Is that, too, one of those Manifesto cliches that, at the end of the 20th century, is now more prescient, and urgent, than it has ever been before?


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