The Communist Manifesto – Book Review

Review by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

The Communist Manifesto
by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
Originally published February 21, 1848

Marx_and_Engels“There is still a compulsive quality to its prose as it provides insight after insight into the society in which we live, where it comes from and where its going to. It is still able to explain, as mainstream economists and sociologists cannot, today's world of recurrent wars and repeated economic crisis, of hunger for hundreds of millions on the one hand and 'overproduction' on the other. There are passages that could have come from the most recent writings on globalization.” writes the English Marxist Chris Harman in 2003 and one cannot disagree with that at all.

As The Communist Manifesto has, in early 2015, experienced somewhat of a revival and has become a best seller in the newly released Penguin Classics series I decided to re-read it and reacquaint myself with it once again as well.

What does “The Communist Manifesto” have to offer more than 165 years after its publication?

The answer must be: “A great deal and then some”.

Reading the words by Marx and Engels made me thing with almost every sentence, at least in the first parts, “has no one read it?” as they describe so very well what is going on in our world and society (again) today. And this is not just about the economic state of affairs, though they are definitely spot on in that department.

While one may not agree – necessarily – with everything as I, for one, do not believe in political parties any more than I believe in religions and I also believe that we must return to a much different life and society, much of what Marx and Engels wrote in the Manifesto is as valid today as it was in their days.

Why a review of The Communist Manifesto seeing that it is that old already?

One reason is that it has, as said already, recently – in early 2015 – become rather a best seller since it was releases as part of the newly released Penguin Classics series in the style of the old paperback of the range of bygone years.

The second is because the message – with some caveats, I like to add – is today as important – more so probably even – as it was in the days when it was first published in the first half of the 19th century.

Marx and Engels were well ahead of their times in many aspects in their analysis of the problems of and with capitalism but, as with Orwell's “1984”, no one seems to have read the writings or, if they did, they did not heed the messages and warnings.

Overproduction, of which Marx and Engels speak in the Manifesto has gone berserk to such an extent that products are made to be tossed out in six months to a year and all of it in order to keep the economy artificially growing, by forcing people to buy new every so often.

This overproduction is also rather frequently mentioned and exposed as a major problem for the situation of the working class in the book “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” and that book too should be read by all.

Marx and Engels write about the vision of “Utopian” Socialism of Robert Owen and others – a return to a simple life with equal status for all – as something almost disdainful. I, for one, however, believe that today that may just be the way forward. Industrial production is almost history and if all indicators are correct has but a short time left to live.

The “means of production in the hands of the state”, as espoused in the Manifesto is not the original ethos of “the means of production in the hands of the workers”. The state and the workers are not one and the same and by no stretch of imagination can they be seen interchangeable, even if the means of productions are nationalized. No, not even under communism. This leads and has lead to state capitalism masquerading as communism where the worker exchanges but the state as master over the corporate boss. Only when truly the means of productions are in the hands of the workers, physically and not just “on paper”, will the wage slave system and the slavery of the working class cease.

While Marx and Engels, maybe rightly so, rant – for lack of a better word – against what the call Bourgeois Socialism the fact remains that political change without social change, in the same way as social change without political change, as many later communists realized, will not help the proletariat much either. Both need to go hand-in-hand together. Political change on its own may not lead to social change in the same way as social change will not – necessarily – lead to political change.

When it comes to Robert Owen, et all, the harshness, I believe, is not justified as they and the Levellers – and yes, there was, maybe, no real working class in existence then if we see the working class only as the industrial factory workers – had in mind a society where all are equal and live and work under equal conditions. Should that not be our aim and goal?

If the dictatorship of the proletariat is to mean that only the proletariat will have the real rights and the rest, especially the former owners of the means of production, the landowners, and others, will be treated as second class people, then communism will never sit easy with all but the most violent of the working class, who would like to see all those that once held power be lead to the guillotine.

Also, and this was recognized to well by Ernst Thaelmann, the working class or not only those who work in manufacturing industry but the working class are all, theoretically, who work for an employer, for a master, be that the state, whether in the service of the state or in nationalized industries, or for a private or corporate boss.

He or she who works on the farms, as employee of the farmer, in the forests, and in public service, is as much a member of the working class as the miner or the factory worker at the production line.

Apart from the Bible, “The Communist Manifesto” has become the most widely read book in the world. Whenever there is trouble, anywhere in the world, the book becomes an item; when things quiet down, the book drops out of sight; when there is trouble again, the people who forgot remember. When fascist-type regimes seize power, it is always on the list of books to burn. When people dream of resistance “even if they are not Communists”it provides music for their dreams.

So, what would we then conclude from this about the fact that, in the beginning of 2015 the book is seeing a revival as far as purchases of copies are concerned, not that it cannot be gotten, nowadays, for free from sources on the Internet?

The nineties began with the mass destruction of Marx effigies. It was the “postmodern” age: We were not supposed to need big ideas. As the nineties end, we find ourselves in a dynamic global society ever more unified by downsizing, de-skilling and dread” just like Marx said. All of a sudden, the iconic looks more convincing than the ironic; that classic bearded presence, the atheist as biblical prophet, was back just in time for the millennium and times beyond. At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were workers who were ready to die with The Communist Manifesto. Now, in the first part of the twenty-first, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.

Marx saw the modern working class as an immense worldwide community waiting to happen. Such large possibilities give the story of organizing a permanent gravity and grandeur. The process of creating trade and labor unions is not just an item in interest-group politics but it is a vital part of what Lessing called “the education of the human race.”

It is not just educational either but existential: the process of people individually and collectively discovering who they are. And, as they learn who they are, they will come to see that they need one another in order to be themselves. They will see, because workers are smart: Bourgeois society has forced them to be, in order to survive its constant upheavals. Marx knows they will get it by and by. Solidarity is not sacrifice of yourself but the self's fulfillment. Learning to give yourself to other workers, who may look and sound very different from you but are like you in depth, gives a man or woman a place in the world and delivers the self from dread.

But the one important thing also to consider, as I have mentioned before, is to what actually is the “working class”?

Marx (and Engels) apparently only saw the working class as being those that were industrial workers and it took Lenin and Thaelmann in Germany to make the point that all workers are part of the working class and not just those working in heavy industry and the mines, for instance. In today's world the working class is far broader than what Marx and Engels envisaged and we must recognize that.

© 2015