Review: The Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto
The Communist Manifesto: The sesquicentennial edition with an introduction by Martin Malia.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Penguin Putnam, New York, 1998

Review Copyright © 1999 Garret Wilson — January 16, 1999, 11:30am

The ideas of Karl Marx are forever present on the contemporary landscape. It’s not just that Lenin, Stalin, and Mao used (or misused) his ideas when they created what has become to the West the personifications of communism. His influence has reached farther, invading theories of international relations and being essential to (depending on the decade) ideas of social theory.

The Communist Manifesto is not the definitive rendition of Marx’s ideals meant for academic study; rather, it is more of a piece of propaganda meant to carry the essence of the Marxist message to the masses. Hence, its relevance to the modern reader (indeed, everyone should read it at one time) is not so much that for its content as for its role in history.

This particular "sesquicentenial edition" (150 years, apparently) of the Manifesto includes an introduction by Martin Malia, an introduction which shows Malia as being anything but a Marxist. Although its wording surely reflects bias, it provides some interesting viewpoints. First of all, Malia asserts that the main thrust of Marxism is not "a critique of capitalism, as is usually supposed, but... a theory of revolution to overcome German backwardness" (xii). I’m sure there is an important point being made here, but it seems to me that a critique of capitalism is still an essential part of the Manifesto, something which becomes important in the Russian situation.

It seems that, in the Marxist version of the Hegalian scheme of things, a communist revolution would take place after a post-feudal industrialization stage of history. Therefore, the fact that Marxism was applied to Russia (which wasn’t a capitalist, but still largely feudal, society) seems to Malia to go against the message of Marxism (xix). The extent to which Marxism was molded to fit Russia is illustrated by the fact that one Russian, Plekhanov, believed that there would therefore have to be two revolutions, one bourgeois to bring in industrialization and to form a proletarian body, and a subsequent one that was proletarian (xxi).

Malia portrays the "party" referenced in the Manifesto as an "ideological commitment" to which, in 1848, only Marx and Engels could truly be said to belong (xv). Lenin’s later formation of the Communist Party is seen as an exploitative twisting of the more idealistic "party" of the Manifesto (xxi). Malia sees Lenin further using Marxism to his advantage when he originally hailed the soviets (councils) as essential democratic organs, but when the soviets later showed support for the Mensheviks they were reduced to an "administrative apparatus" and the government began to look very much like a "plain party dictatorship" (xxii).

The Manifesto itself has been read and commented upon time and time again. I believe that I have read it, or at least a part of it, at some time or another. Now that I’m more acquainted with the background of Marxism, including history, Hegel, and economics, some things make a bit more sense. Here, then, are a few things I gathered this time around.

Marx proclaims that, "In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases" (58). Is this always, or even often, true? Wouldn't a garbage collector make more than a pizza delivery boy? Wouldn't a truck driver hauling fuel get paid more than a truck driver hauling grain?

Marx sees that several developments, including new methods of communication and travel (such as railways), will make it easier for the proletarians to communicate and travel (61). This in turn will make a proletariat uprising more feasible and therefore more likely. Although the likelihood of such an event has diminished, his observation of the changes brought about by advances in communication and travel were timely. "National differences and antagonism between peoples 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 and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto" (73). Marx in 1848 already saw what we would today call globalization.

Between the bourgeois and the proletariat Marx saw a lower middle class (sort of a small-time bourgeois) that fought against the bourgeois. The difference is that, unlike the communist who look to a new scheme of things in the future brought about by revolution, this lower middle class instead tries to roll back time to the age of feudalism (63).

Several conditions that made, in Marx’s mind, a communist revolution inevitable are no longer present today. Marx mentions that the average price of wage labor is the minimum wage needed to keep the worker alive (68). This isn't the case anymore. Marx says that "private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population..." (69). That's not true anymore, either, if it ever was.

Marx’s advocation of the abolition of the family (71) at first seems extreme, but the role of the family at the time must be considered. Women were certainly forced to do mundane labor for much less (if any) compensation. Child labor, which has since been banned in many industrialized countries, was widespread (76). Marx seems to be saying that, in many cases, the family only existed to provide laborers.

It would be interesting to learn more about Marx’s feelings towards women as to their status in society. In the Manifesto, it’s clear that Marx saw the labor of the bourgeoisie as reducing values of age and sex (59). Maybe this means he doesn't want women to be able to work. Or at least not as much. He also portrays communism as advocating a "community of women," the women of society being shared by the men. Apparently, this was part of the abolition of the family, since wives were exploited for labor at the time. After Marx’s contention that the bourgeoisie "take the greatest pleasure in seducing each others wives," making bourgeois marriage "in reality a system of wives in common," he claims that a community of women would be no different than the situation with the bourgeoisie, just less hypocritical (72). A "community of men," however, is not considered.

[April 1, 1999: After rereading this passage, it seems that Marx is responding to burgeoisie charges of a "community of women" with the abolishment of the family, to which Marx responds that the bourgeoisie have "a reality a system of wives in common" but that communists "desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women," which does not really seem to dispute the charges. He goes further and claims that communism would abolish "the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private" (72). How can a community of women abolish prostitution unless this community of women, like capital, is treated as a commodity to be distributed equally against their will? If the women were to have a choice in the matter, this would reintroduce inequalities (i.e. likes/dislikes) that would be exploited by the payment of capital: prostitution. His solution therefore seems to be incompatible with free choice of the women involved.]

Even in the Manifesto, Hegel’s influence can clearly be seen. Marx asks, "Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life" (73)? This seems to be pure Hegel, and in such a propagandistic work it is strange to think that the average proletariat of the time could in anyway appreciate the background of this idea. Perhaps this is why Marx tries to psychologically force the reader to accept the concept without having to explain volumes of Hegel by implying that the concept itself does not "require deep intuition." Following Hegel’s idea of an inevitable path of history, Marx apparently saw a bourgeois revolution in German that would take place (at a more advanced level than that of England and France) before a proletarian revolution (90), from which Plekhanov possibly formed his opinion about the same situation in Russia.

The Communist Manifesto is meant for those who have no knowledge of Hegel or economics. For this reason, it is accessible to most readers, and indeed is something that most should read, if for nothing else but the place it holds in the history of society. A knowledge of Hegel and economics will make some things clearer, although I suspect that Marx’s other writings will be of more value in finding out exactly what Marxism is.