Book Review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

As promised at the end of my review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution, I will be following up this year with more reading of some key communist themes. And what could be a better place to start than with the communist manifesto? One could argue that no document written in the last 200 years has had such a profound effect on the course of world history. If we limit it to political history, then that case may be strengthened.

Before even opening it, though, the reader will almost inevitably be faced with some kind of prejudice. Because of what almost any educated person will know about communism and its chequered past, one might come to this document seeking an affirmation of their political point of view. Others may come with a wholly critical attitude, determined to disagree with every aspect. I came to this expecting to disagree with some aspects and agree with others, though I expected to agree with more than I disagreed with.

I refer to it as a document as it is only 34 pages long, so whether you consider this a real book review is up to you. Proportionally, it probably has the highest ratio of words in the review to words in what is being reviewed.

Published in 1848, it is clear from the start that this was a statement of a communism that already existed, albeit as a spectre. Written also before Marx’s Capital (which I hope to read and review later this year), it comes at the end of the period covered by Hobsbawm in his Age of Revolution. It opens with an assertion about history: that “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” This is the foundational principle on which the communist manifesto is built.

What Marx & Engels then go on to do is to describe the two classes which exist in all societies, the ruling class, the bourgeois, and the working class, the proletariat.

The approach to history is one that I don’t agree with. While, if you think through various aspects of history, one could adopt this very black and white methodology, it will ultimately fall short of being a true and fair description. In the 60 or so years leading up the publication of the communist manifesto, this may have been more apparent, which almost certainly had some level of influence on Marx & Engels, but it seems unreasonable to rewrite all history in this binary narrative. Yet that is precisely what they propose: to state history in terms of the present.

One could possibly look at the English Civil War or the Peasants’ Revolt in these terms without going too far wrong. But what if we look at early church history? Does the preaching of the gospel by Peter and Paul, the riots and imprisonments they faced fit this narrative? If one could construct such a narrative it would be highly forced and miss vitally important features.

As it is stated, therefore, I cannot agree unreservedly with the opening premise. That’s not to say it is wholly worthless. Given the historical and political background out of the communist manifesto came, it does help to put on this particular pair of glasses to see the metanarrative of what was going on in western Europe at the time. This is the task that Hobsbawm undertook, though it must be added that he was rather more sophisticated than the writers of the manifesto.

The feeling I got all the way through was one of anger. Not anger on my part, but that it was the product of disillusioned minds. It seemed easy to imagine that it might be the product of an intelligent, literate, but ultimately misguided teenager.

The argument roughly runs as thus: the bourgeois have been the rulers of Europe and that in spite of some obvious progress that has been made, they ultimately cannot be trusted and that since there are only two classes (according to the definition) then it is time for the proletariat to assume control. How this is to be achieved is muddled. At times, references are made to democratic elections, as there is an assumption that since the working classes outnumber the bourgeois that winning an election is inevitable. At other times, most famously at the end, there is a call for violent revolution.

There are many flaws in this analysis, not least the belief in the homogeneity of the working classes. It is quite patronising, even, to presume that because the communists wish for the working class to rule (though who, precisely, is never stated) that there should be universal support for the communist manifesto.

In fact, to call it a manifesto is a bit generous. There are very few proposals in it. Though there is a short list of 10 demands. One could go into more detail for each of these, though I may do that in a separate blog post. Oddly, the one that shocked me the most was the 10th: “Free education in all public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production &c., &c.” I am not certain as to whether the term “public schools” meant ‘public’ in the terms of being open to all or whether, as is peculiar in British history (remembering that Marx and Engels were both informed by the politics of Britain) of using the term ‘public’ when what it is actually meant is ‘private’. Perhaps one of you can enlighten me on this issue. Either way, to have the idea of free education to be thought of as radical makes me think how far we have come.

There are several issues I have with the vision that Marx & Engels proposed. It seems to me to be unrealistically ideal. They seem to hark back to some kind of ‘golden age’ of full employment, with a strong emphasis on agriculture. Whether such an age existed is dubious, yet their view of history prevents a sober assessment. I am also not a proponent of the revolutionary aspects of their proposal, in particular the idea of wresting property by force.

Though I could not wholly endorse them, that does not mean that I then fall back onto a default position of opposition. The critiques of the middle classes and the control of capital are not groundless. Yet the views which I hold to are roughly described, and criticised, by Marx and Engels. They refer to it as bourgeois socialism, where the emphasis is not about seizing political control, but about the improvement of the conditions of the working classes through reform rather than revolution.

It doesn’t take long to read, but there is much to ponder here. On the basis of what I have read, I could not consider myself, or be reasonably considered by others, to be a communist. I object to the hardline nature of the document but do agree with some of the points made.

I’ll let you make of it what you will.

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One response to “Book Review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

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