Newsletter #78: The Relevance of The Communist Manifesto Today w/ China Mieville

By Ben Mabie

When the storm clouds gathered over mid-century Europe, Karl Marx affiliated himself with the small, often clandestine groupings of bearded German exiles, artisans hardened by the struggle against European absolutism, who had taken up living in Paris and then London after defeated revolutions brought them into exile. He and Friedrich Engels traveled in these far-left edges of the emerging workers’ movement, with the League of Just and then the Communists. These groups and others hewed close to the organizational culture of the day: the conspiratorial and insurrectionary traditions of François-Noël Babuf or Louis Blanqui, stamped by intense repression and shaped by the habits of street fighting. If they railed against Owenite utopianism or the do-gooder socialism of bourgeois reformism, Marx and Engels would come to appreciate the limits of this tradition, too. Still, these workers asked the philosophers to draft a manifesto for their tendency, although it would arrive too late to have a serious impact on the revolutions of 1848.

Surprisingly, it was not a terribly popular text after the revolutions, either. By the time the organizational basis of the workers’ movement changed, with the advent of the Second International and the first great mass socialist parties developing in the capitalist heartlands of Western and Central Europe, historian Geoff Eley says that the Manifesto’s status was again eclipsed by other texts, particularly August Bebel’s Women and Socialism or the German Social Democratic Party’s Erfurt Program. The rank and file was an eclectic mosaic of working-class autodidacticism; Marxism, only then being systemized as a distinctive worldview, was only one persuasive and powerful socialist idea among many.

If the text was later canonized, it wasn’t always for the better. As China Miéville explains in this episode, the Manifesto is a performative text, one that aims to produce the political forces that it addresses. In writing it, Marx and Engels worked through a theoretical challenge that their earlier work had produced: if market society has reduced popular classes to atomized individuals, how could they possibly achieve the requisite levels of unity and coordination to carry out a task as ambitious as revolution itself?

The Manifesto provides an answer in the development of the productive forces: “At this stage, the labourers still form an incoherent mass scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition… But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.” It is the military discipline and hierarchies that characterize the relations of production within the emerging factory system that seems to promise the possibility of an ever-greater unity of working-class people.

Such a faith in the productive forces would be misplaced, both because it prescribed an alliance with the progressive bourgeoise against the forces of absolutist reaction (a set of alliances which the revolutions of 1848 confirmed were dubious, when those bourgeois forces let down or betrayed the working class). But also, because such an analysis obscured the real process of working-class political formation, which passed less through the discipline of waged work and more through self-organized networks of social reproduction — forms of organization that often cut against the divisions inscribed with the factory’s divisions of labor and relations of command.

The communist philosopher Louis Althusser argued in an essay “On Marxist Thought” that although Marx’s own thinking on politics and organization departed from these early efforts, the Manifesto’s new status in the latter-day Communist Parties — often sclerotic and moribund by the second half of the twentieth century — provided theoretical coverage for political programs that no longer spoke to working-class formation, and perhaps no longer aspired to be a political vehicle for the whole of the working class.

Yet these ambiguous political effects of the Manifesto help us understand the indisputable political form of the Manifesto, braiding together “exaltation. . . recruitment, warning, an attempt to bolster people” with specific truth claims about the world that we live. The Manifesto, like other texts in the Marxist tradition, was born of a particular time and place and spoke to a specific set of political concerns. It aimed less at being a text for all of posterity than in staging an intervention in the thought of militants and organizers on the Left at its time — a time that seemed to promise a quick journey to shores of a new socialist society.

As China’s book and interview on The Dig drive home, the Manifesto is riven with this tension between, on the one hand, spelling out general political principles — positions and ideas which continue to animate Left political activity today — and then highly conjunctural analysis which are no longer strategically useful for political practice now. Positions that Marx and Engles strike here, regarding the progressive nature of the bourgeoisie or the character of European colonialism, were less important in the years that followed the Manifesto’s publication, and so much of its animating thrust is critiquing currents of socialism that are no longer with us.

Still other positions, like tendencies of the laws of motion of capitalism or particular thinking about the nature of the state, would be subject to revision again and again in the history of Marxism. As the nineteenth century wore on and the authors witnessed the miracle of the Paris Commune, new kinds of struggles — waged by artisans and the nascent world of industrial laborers, and peasants and colonized subjects alike — changed their sense of political possibility in capitalism, and Marx and Engels’s political priorities shifted. The text can teach us about ever-changing tactical and strategic positions that serve leftist politics — and the point of those leftist politics itself. In other words, the Manifesto becomes a way into the complex and changing relationship between Marxist theory and the organizational forms of a workers’ movement that is recomposing itself unceasingly.

Plutarch once described a boat that set sail from Crete and, in the course of its sailing, replaced each and every oar and plank and piece of canvas with a newer bit of wood and fabric, rebuilding the ship even in the course of its journey. “This ship became a standing example among the philosophers,” Plutarch wrote, “for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” Perhaps we could say the same about Marxism.

Further reading

Geoff Eley’s Forging Democracy is an unrivaled historical resource on the history of European left in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and its first chapters help clear away the calcified mythology of working-class formation at the advent of the Marxist tradition, that political class formation would follow almost automatically from the development of the productive forces.