The End of Idiocy on a Planetary Scale

Stephen Holmes

  • The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
    Verso, 82 pp, £8.00, April 1998, ISBN 1 85984 898 2

If Communism is only sketchily described, then post-Communism is simply unthinkable in Marx’s philosophy of history. So how can we make sense of his remarkable masterpiece in the 150th anniversary year of its original publication? The Communist Manifesto still feels alive to the touch. But what does a ‘modern edition’ of the work have to teach those inhabiting a world which Marx himself could not conceivably have anticipated? Generations of scholars have sifted the archives to unearth ‘Marx before Marxism’. But who is Marx after Marxism?

Cold War reflexes may still make it difficult to reread the Manifesto with fresh eyes. But the world is no longer divided into lethally armed Marxist and anti-Marxist camps. Somnambulant cadres have ceased reciting the work as a secular catechism, while upright anti-Communists no longer trawl the text for inklings of totalitarianism, focusing excessive attention on the ‘Hitlerian items’ (in Joseph Schumpeter’s barbed phrase), such as Marx’s proposal to introduce ‘industrial armies, especially for agriculture’. Reacting to this fundamentally novel situation and the interpretative freedom it offers, Eric Hobsbawm urges us to experience the work as a stirring piece of ‘literature’. Admitting that it is ‘a historical document, out of date in many respects’, he invites us to appreciate its rhetorical élan and even to feel its ‘Biblical force’. Like many others, Hobsbawm is keyed up by the intoxicating blend of celebration and denunciation with which Marx depicts the unstoppable capitalist dynamo, the maniacal hustle for profit and innovation which made economic uncertainty into a permanent condition and ‘created more massive, more colossal productive forces’ than all previous human efforts put together.

Hobsbawm also emphasises the Manifesto’s dazzling style: ‘It is written, as though in a single creative burst, in lapidary sentences almost naturally transforming themselves into the memorable aphorisms which have become known far beyond the world of political debate.’ With benefit of hindsight, other commentators have dismissed these ‘pithy’ catch-phrases as polemical simplifications. But coining a slogan as unforgettable as ‘You have nothing to lose but your chains!’ is not a trifling achievement. That, at any rate, is the way Hobsbawm pitches the Manifesto, apparently conveying how the publisher, too, wants us to regard this stylish red-ribboned edition of the work. It is designed as a sweet keepsake, an exquisite collector’s item. In Manhattan, a prominent Fifth Avenue store put copies of this choice new edition in the hands of shop-window mannequins, displayed in come-hither poses and fashionable décolletage. So the Cold War is over, and all that is solid melts into air.

Despite his ample share of teutonic earnestness, Marx himself was not above frivolity. That comes through, for instance, in the Manifesto’s facetious aside: why is the bourgeoisie so afraid of Communism? It already practises a system of wives in common! Such light-heartedness, however, is far from characteristic of the combative little tract. Not that the verbal delivery is dryly academic, far from it. Hobsbawm is right: the muscular prose (especially in the original) remains a delight.

Readers of the Manifesto have naturally probed beneath Marx’s word-choice, however, to ask how he could repeatedly correlate capitalism with deprivation and loss, even while clearly stating that pre-capitalist conditions were just as bad, if not humanly worse. Marx denounces pre-modern values as sheer hypocrisy and relishes seeing them ground to a pulp by capitalist development. He takes no prisoners among ‘socialist’ writers who criticise capitalism from a precapitalist point of view. Yet his rhetoric (which calls attention to itself) invokes pre-modern values, underscoring the inhumanity of capitalism by pointing out the way it desecrates, without remorse, traditional moral codes.

Should Marx not applaud the fact that ‘all that is solid melts into air’? Perhaps. But the Manifesto does not consistently adopt an anti-nostalgic outlook. Not only have modern poets sunk so low as to write poems for a fee, but other professionals, too, have been stripped of their ‘halos’, becoming ‘paid wage labourers’. Marx did not mean to imply that lawyers and doctors received piddling salaries: rather that they had been dehumanised by the labour contracts into which they were ensnared, which is to say, contrary to what he elsewhere assumes, that pre-capitalist arrangements fostered, in some cogent sense, more human dignity than capitalist ones, just as pre-capitalist labour had more charm.

Admittedly, part of the problem here may stem from plagiarism, for some passages in the Manifesto were lifted from Victor Considérant and other writers somewhat less committed to the idea of capitalist ‘progress’ than Marx himself. Perhaps Marx invokes pre-modern values when he is copying French sources and denounces them when thinking on his own. In any case, the incoherence cannot be easily wished or explained away.

Moreover, the ‘ice water of calculation’ did not rinse from modern life every last vestige of religious faith, family feeling, artistic inspiration and national attachment. Capitalist modernity is not nearly so one-dimensional as the Manifesto’s phraseology entreats its readers to imagine. The wage labourers of Europe did not wholly lose their fatherlands. Members of the bourgeoisie were not uniformly debased and some occasionally saw more, when contemplating their wives, than commercially serviceable tools of production.

But while readers attuned to Marx’s language cannot miss his penchant for memorable exaggeration, they will have a harder time defining, say, his attitude towards hypocrisy. Is capitalism’s frontal assault on inherited morality good or bad? ‘The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.’ But does ripping off the veil of pre-modern values imply a gain or a loss? Perhaps Marx wanted to say that naked exploitation was more brutal than exploitation wrapped in sanctimonious dissimulation and is therefore more likely to incite, at long last, implacable resistance and rebellion. But the Manifesto does not make this case directly; and the passage in question appears more cryptic still when we realise that Marx does not think of capitalism as ‘naked’ exploitation at all, but rather as exploitation cloaked in the hypocritical pretence that the labour contract is a form of thoroughly just exchange.

The principal challenge to today’s reader lies, however, not in the occasionally contradictory way that Marx presents his subject-matter, but rather in the disturbingly consistent way he presents himself – in his existential pose of intrepid impartiality. He introduces himself as the wholly non-partisan spokesman for a wholly inexorable cause. It is not easy to empathise with this swollen demeanour, especially when Marx heedlessly refers to himself in the third-person plural. Speaking of ‘the Communist Party’, he writes: ‘They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.’

Cynics should be reminded, however, that Marx wrote the Manifesto before European workers had the vote. In the absence of universal suffrage, who could be totally sure that the tiny and obscure Communist League did not really speak for the immense majority? The conceit was not nearly so outrageous at the time as it would be today. Moreover, Marx’s inability to relativise his own stance, to see it as one-sided or partial, while somewhat surprising for such a restless and searching mind, may well have boosted his moral tenacity under practically trying circumstances. Such mitigating considerations do not mean that we should simply feel entertained by Marx’s apparent belief that he had escaped all the illusions under which the rest of mankind had blindly laboured for millennia. His unjustifiable self-assurance remains noteworthy because it proved so eminently transmissible, helping his philosophy attract ardent devotion, after 1890 or so, often from those who (in Adorno’s diagnosis) suffered from acute insecurity in decision-making and therefore demanded superhuman clarity and certainty.

The Manifesto, in effect, offers certitude by aphorism: a stylised sketch of ‘the history of all hitherto existing societies’, which reveals the origins of evil in the world, fingers the enemy, explains why no soft-edged compromises with him are possible, and tells the downtrodden (vaguely) what to do. While superficially various, mankind’s history actually discloses a monotonous pattern: ‘one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other.’ This insight, while hardly original, is unquestionably true. If Marx had stopped here, his countless critics would have been silenced, for the powerful have always abused the weak, and always will. But Marx is Marx because he refused to stop here, at the gloomy recognition of human partiality, injustice, unscrupulousness and cruelty. He adds, inviting us to share his exhilaration, that the past is no longer an accurate predictor of the future. We are on the edge of a world that is utterly new, like nothing anyone has ever seen before.

Only two classes are worth watching in the modern social melodrama: the capitalists and the proletarians. All the other groups in contemporary Europe (peasants, artisans, landowners, state bureaucrats, unemployed drifters, urban riff-raff etc) are supernumeraries, spear-carriers in the third act. For a showdown is coming between the ‘two great hostile camps’. The ‘decisive hour’ is about to strike. The oppressors and the oppressed will soon face off in a critical battle that will decide the destiny of mankind. And, for the first time in recorded history, the good will definitively vanquish the bad. Thus will the bitter bifurcation of society be healed. Thus will mankind be reconciled to itself. Capitalism will collapse as a civilisation, but not on the unhappy model of the Roman Empire, for it will leave no ruins behind and no wave of barbarism will ensue.

Reflecting on this fantasy, Raymond Aron gently and wisely remarked that Marx was apparently unable to distinguish between the desirable and the likely. The Manifesto’s philosophy of history denies the Law of the Conservation of Trouble, assuming that fundamental problems can be solved without spawning equally troublesome fundamental problems. But the weakness of the cheerful story-line is normative as well as descriptive.

There is something perverse about the suggestion that we should strive only for what has never been seen, love only that which has never had a chance to disappoint us. Safely hugging the shore of the present, Marx says little about the Communist future, except that scarcity and selfishness will disappear and social harmony and fellowship will prevail. Indeed, the remarkably broad appeal of Marxism stems also from this strategic lack of detail, because it is easier to rally the frustrated and afflicted around a negative than a positive. Formulated in Weberian language, the ‘ethics of conscience’ involves denouncing a few especially odious features of the present social order in the light of vague, beautiful, problem-free and untested ideals, while the ‘ethics of responsibility’ requires us to compare the advantages and disadvantages of a relatively complete array or package of present social arrangements with the advantages and disadvantages of a known, well-specified, comprehensively described and realistically achievable alternative set of arrangements, taking the costs of transition into account. No one would mistake Marx for a hero of the ethics of responsibility.

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