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 Admitting that it is ‘a historical document, out of date in many respects’, he invites us to appreciate its rhetorical élan and even to feel its ‘Biblical force’.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.

Nor for a hero of the science of prediction. As a set of forecasts, it is fruitless to reiterate, the Manifesto was simply wrong. Its obituary for capitalism was flagrantly premature. As Hobsbawm writes, ‘it is now evident that the bourgeoisie has not produced “above all ... its own gravediggers” in the proletariat.’ The working class has used trade unions to lift wages and living standards, and to reduce hours over the long term. Technical innovation has helped wages and profits to rise simultaneously. The middle class did not vanish, or fade into the background, but grew in size and became more dominant politically. And capitalism has generated enough wealth not only to feed its workers but even to fund welfare, health and pension programmes of varyingly generous scope.

The point is not that Marx’s prognostications were rebutted by events, but rather that history does not admit predictions of the sort to which Marx, following the Zeitgeist, was drawn. Since we all live under the shadow of humanity’s gruesome capacity for nuclear self-annihilation, not even cheerful-hearted prophets now pretend that history ‘guarantees’ the redemption of mankind. And the idea that human history has a single plot is manifestly preposterous. While history is not random or unintelligible, it remains unpredictable. For one thing, its course will be shaped by scientific discoveries that cannot, in principle, be predicted. And even the smuggest social scientists now admit that historical processes have ‘multiple equilibria’, the irreducible potential for settling, under conditions too complex and subtle for human observers to foresee, into more than one groove.

To be fair to Marx, his determinism can also be interpreted in a less carping manner. His references to ‘iron necessity’, too, can be partly excused or at least explained as a rhetorical ploy. He is seeking to win the co-operation of those Luddite artisans and peasants who, grieving at the eradication of traditional ways of life, ‘seek to restore by force the vanished status of the workman of the Middle Ages’. The vanguard cannot be a rearguard, he thunders. Give up your lost cause! The train has already left the station and, as that great neo-Marxist Mikhail Gorbachev was later to forewarn, those who have failed to board it will be punished by history.

Appeals to ‘iron necessity’ are also designed to counteract the immemorial tendency of the oppressed to capitulate in resignation. The workers need self-confidence more than bread, and Marx’s philosophy of history, however doubtful from a scientific point of view, is designed to encourage and inspire and even, by altering expectations, to act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, the ‘Biblical force’ of the Manifesto stressed by Hobsbawm is most palpable in Marx’s summons to the oppressed: you have been treated as subhuman beasts of burden since the beginning of recorded time. Rise up from the depths! You are no longer destined to be ruled. Act as men, march in unison, become milites Christi, militant soldiers not in the name of the nation but in the name of mankind. When you conquer, as you are foreordained to do, you will bring to an end the age-old humiliation of the weak by the strong.

It is helpful to interpret Marx’s determinism in this rhetorical-political way, as an attempt to encourage the oppressed to seize unseen possibilities and to rally potential allies behind a common strategy. But this reading generates problems of its own. For if Communism is not an ideal but an unconscious trend, as ‘historical materialism’ claims, then what is die purpose of publishing an inspiring proclamation and call-to-arms? Does the wheel of history need such a boisterous shove? And what if the midwives of social harmony provoke a premature birth?

In other words, how can the content of the Manifesto be reconciled with its form? No one would loose such a rousing trumpet-blast unless he believed that ideology and public sermonising mattered, that far-seeing thinkers must invigorate the grave-diggers and instruct them when and where to thrust in their shovels. Manifesto-writing assumes that faulty theory (such as the belief that peaceful compromise with the capitalist class is possible and will, in the long run, benefit the workers), if left unrefuted, will ‘deaden’ the class struggle and perhaps even derail the train of history. The effort undertaken also implies that the international solidarity of wage labourers, based on adherence to a common creed, is not an inevitable product of history but rather a goal to be achieved by tireless proselytisers and activists.

The Manifesto attempts to shake the downtrodden out of their habitual acquiescence and direct their attention to unnoticed possibilities. While honourable, this endeavour sorts ill with the allegedly iron necessity of historical progress. As a propagandist, Marx assumed that the power of the working class would stem from self-confidence, strategically shrewd decisions (including the weaving of opportunistic alliances), and capacity for organisation and co-ordination. The battlefields of history are strewn with the corpses of those who had more material resources than their opponents, but, lacking self-confidence and bereft of allies, with defective tactics and little capacity for co-ordinated action, were defeated by determined, clever and well-organised groups, alert and able to seize passing opportunities.

This is why ideas-in-the-head matter. This is why historical materialism, to the extent that it denies an independent causal role to commitments and beliefs, is such a poor guide to the political history of Marxism itself. It is fashionable, among political scientists, to note that ‘institutions reduce transaction costs.’ But while Marx may have had a poor grasp of that particular point, as a gifted manifesto-writer he knew that ideology reduces transaction costs, and also that shared belief, promulgated by a militant party, is an even more effective means than stable institutions for knocking down obstacles to co-operation and maintaining concerted action. He may have been committed, as a matter of doctrine or dogma, to the derivative nature of the superstructure. But he obviously understood the political significance of mind-gripping narratives which answer clearly the question ‘Who is to blame?’ and name the enemy in evocative language. So, the very forcefulness of the Manifesto, not to mention the subsequent sway of Marxism over countless minds and lives, shatters the conceptual framework of historical materialism.

Commentators usually discuss the alleged tension between voluntarism and determinism in the context of Marx’s emphasis on the developing forces of production, history’s ultimate unmoved mover. Who is the real revolutionary, according to the Manifesto, the working class or modern technology and industrial organisation? Is the real struggle between capitalists and proletarians or between evolving technology and antiquated property law? When Marx observes that bourgeois society ‘is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up’, he is referring not to the spectre of a working-class movement, to the Communist hobgoblin that purportedly spooked Metternich and Guizot, but to the forces of production. The latter, apparently unassisted by a revolutionary workers’ movement, will ‘burst asunder’ the integument of obsolete relations of production, and will do so at exactly the moment when existing property law ceases to be optimal for exploiting existing technology and promoting technical innovation. Needless to say, no Delacroix would ever paint such a cold and inhuman ‘revolutionary’ force in heroic pose.

But Marx did. Why? Why did he indulge in anthropomorphic metaphors, projecting heroic human traits onto technology itself? Ironists have suggested an unkind solution to this puzzle, based on Marx’s description of European workers as brutally enslaved to modern machinery, sick and starving from miserable wages, bought and sold piecemeal like base commodities, and living under the constant fear of cyclical unemployment. Might not 19th-century workers, whose plight he so poignantly describes, have been too debilitated and humiliated to storm a barricade, too broken-backed to shoulder the great historical tasks assigned them? If so, men small wonder that Marx ended up turning to an ‘inhuman’ revolutionary force to reoccupy the place disappointingly vacated by a human one.

Entertaining and irresistible speculations of this sort can be deeply misleading, however, especially if they distract attention from what remains the most fascinating twist of Marx’s argument: namely, his account of the process by which capitalist technology converts its mechanical heroism into the human heroism of the working class. For, alongside rival and contradictory claims, the Manifesto tells the following story: revolutionary technical innovations do not replace the revolutionary workers’ movement, but rather, for the first time, allow the workers to get their act together and ‘rise up’.

All class societies of the past have used divide-and-rule strategies to maintain the dominance of the privileged few over the multitude. The foundation of domination, we might say, is ‘rural idiocy’, which Hobsbawm helpfully defines as isolation from the wider society, and which boils down to a lack of organised communication and co-operation among the exploited. This pattern has been the pre-capitalist norm: the ruling class maintains its own communicative network and social solidarity across a broad swathe of territory, while the ruled languish impotently in geographically segmented and non-communicating sub-units. The breakdown of this old pattern, according to Marx, helps explain why capitalism represents a completely new social system. Capitalism replaces local markets with national and even international ones. By inadvertently knocking down barriers to co-operation among the exploited, and doing away with rural segmentation, capitalism deprives itself of the chance, essential to all dominant minorities in the past, to divide and rule. Being forced by competitive pressures to crowd workers together for factory production, it brings forth its own gravediggers by reducing the costs of transaction among, and solving the collective action problems of, the oppressed. Formulated differently, the capitalists are necessarily driven to arm their own destroyers, untying the proverbial sacks of potatoes and, wholly unintentionally, giving the oppressed an opportunity to pool their efforts and jointly seize their freedom.

Add to factory production the modern ‘means of communication and transport’ (especially steam navigation, canalisation, railways and the telegraph), and the role of modern innovation in fostering national and even international working-class solidarity comes into even sharper focus. The Manifesto begins by emphasising the discovery of America and die rounding of the Cape: such adventures opened the capitalist era. The ‘tottering feudal society’ was brought down not so much by modifications in the means of production as by improvements in the methods of shipbuilding and navigation. The manufacturing middle classes displaced the guild masters thanks to trade with the colonies and the Chinese and East Indian markets. This is one reason Marx says that ‘the weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.’ For the modern means of communication and transportation are destined, once again, to play a revolutionary role in triggering a new phase of world history, bringing disorder into bourgeois society and threatening the survival of bourgeois property.

The Manifesto does not merely describe the breakout of the exploited classes from their immemorial localism and mutual isolation, it exemplifies it. Marx’s idea of the railway-train of history coursed through Europe thanks to the advent of trains. In his attempt to rally the troops, Marx made full use of the new idiocy-destroying systems of transportation and communication. According to the Manifesto, capitalism subverts itself, not, as Marx elsewhere hypothesised, because it forces capitalists to replace workers with machinery (unbalancing the organic composition of capital and triggering the falling rate of profits), but because it necessarily accelerates the great trends of urbanisation and mass literacy on which the activities of manifesto-writing city-dwellers like Marx also depend. Urbanisation, mass literacy, industrialisation, and high-speed travel and exchange of information explain why human history will never be the same again. Technical change matters because of its revolutionary effect on the co-operative striving of the oppressed.

This emphasis brings us naturally to one of the Manifesto’s most memorable claims: ‘In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.’ Those who admire the thought, rather than merely the style, of the Manifesto and want to specify the pamphlet’s continuing relevance to the present have seized on this idea: Marx is still important because, with unbelievable prescience, he identified the new spectre which, after Communism’s demise, is now haunting the world. This spectre is globalisation. Hobsbawm wants us to notice ‘the acuteness of the Manifesto’s vision of the then remote future of a massively globalised capitalism’, adding that the work ‘can now be read as a concise characterisation of capitalism at the end of the 20th century’. Marx is no longer the prophet of class struggle and the end of exploitation but the soothsayer of the Weltmarkt, of international trade and the international division of labour. While his self-conscious attempts at prediction manifestly failed, he nevertheless had a clairvoyant premonition of the future, which for some reason he misleadingly presented as a portrait of his own times. In Hobsbawm’s words: ‘Marx and Engels did not describe the world as it had already been transformed by capitalism in 1848; they predicted how it was logically destined to be transformed by it.’

What exactly is the ‘universal interdependence of nations’ that Marx allegedly foretold? Because so many miscellaneous factors have now been associated with it, the concept of globalisation risks losing its contours and even becoming meaningless. But unprecedented and consequential processes are certainly underway. Today, national and regional markets are increasingly open to the outside world. Thanks to new technologies of communication, a uniformity of tastes in consumer goods and a standardisation of commodities are spreading. And the growth and consolidation of global corporations are also reshaping intranational economies. Many mega-corporations function outside the West with a local labour force that is so informal and disorganised as to resemble the pre-industrial putting-out system. To some observers, this trend breathes life back into otherwise moribund Marxist doctrines by making capitalism seem increasingly untamed and occasionally brutally savage once again.

How has the new organisation of production influenced political coalitions and institutional arrangements? One common hypothesis is that globalisation has paved the way for two decades of substantial and to some extent effective attacks on the regulatory and welfare state, not to mention a new polarisation of incomes. The increased clout and reach of multinationals is said to have seriously curtailed the bargaining power of national labour movements. Why should the new global capitalists make concessions to their obstreperous national proletariats if they can find more yielding and cooperative ones elsewhere? So global capital and labour markets have brought to a close the ‘century of labour’ (1875-1975) and corroborated the Wall Street reading of the Manifesto: capitalism has now become truly inexorable, having overcome all the obstacles in its path, including the working-class militancy and solidarity on which Marx naively relied.

Whatever the merit of this diagnosis, the Manifesto remains pertinent in at least one way to present-day problems and challenges. The greatest work of 19th-century propaganda still has something valuable to teach precisely because the postwar regulatory and welfare state has been discredited (not dismantled) by a libertarian ideology that emphasises efficiency and productivity, while downplaying distribution and participation. Those who denounce positive rights while exalting negative rights espouse a kind of property-owner’s liberalism remarkably similar to the bourgeois ideology that the Manifesto so brilliantly dissects.

Marx’s rebuttal of the incentive argument – the idea that private ownership encourages property owners to improve their property, or at least prevent its dilapidation, by allowing them to profit from its increased value – is flip and unconvincing. But his larger criticism remains valid and, however simple, quite profound. While property-owners throughout history have erroneously assumed that the rules of ownership with which they happen to be familiar are natural and eternal, property law varies significantly across jurisdictions and through time: ‘All property relations in the past have continually been subject to historical change.’ Who owns the inventions of an employee, the employee or his employer? Who should be paid for foreign translation rights, the author or his publisher? When a co-owner dies, who assumes ownership of the orphaned share, the second co-owner or the first co-owner’s heirs? These questions have no ‘natural and eternal’ answers. They are answered differently (i.e. law assigns ownership to different individuals) in different places at different times.

When Marx says that ‘capital is a collective product,’ he is referring to productive investment, not cash. But, in reality, private wealth itself is a political invention, the fruit of social co-operation managed by the public power. It is not merely that private ownership is defended by the police. Marx’s point is more basic and cuts deeper: property is defined as well as assigned by the state. It is not an individual achievement, co-operatively protected, but a collective achievement through and through. Private property means nothing if the state is not on your side, ready and able to enforce coercively a politically specified set of rules of access and exclusion. And the idea of the ‘autonomy’ of the private owner is not only an illusion, it is an illusion that patently serves the narrow and myopic interests of the owners. (Marx underscores the hypocrisy of the wealthy here by noting that they seldom complain about public education, where the state genuinely ‘interferes’ in private life, because they understand quite well, despite what they say, that autonomy is produced collectively, not autonomously.) While they would be propertyless without public co-operation, orchestrated by political authorities, the wealthy nevertheless trace their wealth to their ‘own efforts’ alone, celebrating their hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property. They deny that private ownership is a social power, deceitfully, to rebut suggestions that they should assume some fiduciary responsibilities, because they aim to profit materially thereby. But might not this undignified scramble for benefits and offloading of burdens be as short-sighted as it is mendacious? For if they sniff at any right that benefits the poor, while aggrandising every right that benefits the rich, will they not erode me plausibility of the liberal state’s claim, on which effective governance depends, to represent all citizens, not just a few? However we answer it, this question remains alive in current debates.

So Marx’s spiked criticisms of bourgeois ideology, as well as his lucid premonitions of globalisation, give the Manifesto a contemporary purchase. But this is far from being the whole story. Indeed, a slightly wider survey of recent trends suggests the radically diminished relevance, at the 20th century’s end, of the Manifesto’s grand 19th-century certainties.

For instance, today’s much-decried retreat into identity politics – especially the fanatical search for redemption in the name of one’s particular sect or ethnicity – could not clash more rudely with Marx’s Enlightenment hope for the redemption of all mankind. Moreover, the end of Communism has meant the collapse of the last world power officially founded on the Hegelian belief in capital-H History, loudly echoed by the Manifesto. The end of the Cold War means that, today, no single struggle spans the globe. The dramaturges of the Cold War assigned important roles, for instance, to both China and South America, while the succeeding struggles (say, between ‘American imperialism’ and ‘Islamic fundamentalism’) are not nearly so global in reach and scope.

From a storyteller’s perspective, the world may even seem less unified today than before, as high-speed communications technology brings the miscellaneousness and disconnectedness of local conflicts onto our TV and computer screens. Ethnic, tribal and sectarian wars cannot be sensibly reduced to class conflicts; and with the end of proxy wars, it is more obvious than ever that local conflicts do not mirror, or stem from, a single worldwide super-struggle. The Manifesto would have us believe that, in an age of world markets, localisms and parochialisms will die out. But even if we admitted, for the sake of argument, that ‘national differences, and antagonisms between peoples, are daily more and more vanishing’ we could not concede that, today, ‘national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible.’

Hobsbawm, John Gray and others have claimed that the Manifesto remains a momentous work because it foretold the inexorable course of globalisation. The problem is, Marx did not warn against globalisation: he welcomed it. Indeed he exalted it. It spelled, he thought, the end of idiocy on a planetary scale. Or perhaps he adopted the same attitude toward globalisation that he assumed in the face of those powerful machines, clanking in their industrial infernos. Mechanisation might have baleful results under capitalism, turning workers into cogs and so forth, but in the future its effects would be wholly favourable. Under Communism, all that is solid will continue to melt into air, vaporising at an even swifter pace, but ceaseless technical change will no longer have hurtful consequences. Admittedly, a more sober assessment might suggest that technology is inherently ambivalent in its effects, that mechanisation and technical innovation are likely to have both positive and negative consequences in all periods of their development. But Marx did not think in this even-handed way. The negative effects come first, he explained, the positive effects afterwards; and the consequence is that Marx was not bothered by mankind’s incapacity to control technical innovation politically, to decide collectively what inventions we want to develop and maintain. This is one more reason why he is not our contemporary.

His belief that globalisation would have no serious negative side-effects in the long run (which admittedly has something to do with his faith in proletarian internationalism), helps focus our attention on the Manifesto’s failure to come to grips with three basic realities: class compromise, bourgeois ideology and the nation-state.

One of the fundamental axioms of the Manifesto is that peaceful class compromise between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is basically untenable. The game is zero-sum: if profits rise, wages fall, and vice versa. So a mixed regime, respecting the basic interests of both capital and labour, simply cannot be cobbled together. In retrospect, of course, this seems a strangely dogmatic conviction, especially given the need of modern ruling groups for large numbers of healthy and educated soldiers to defend the homeland, not to mention their need for vigorous and literate workers to operate increasingly sophisticated machinery. The idea of giving the poor as well as the rich a stake in the regime, being ancient and venerable, could hardly have been unknown to Marx. For him to declare such an arrangement impossible in principle under modern conditions evinces a confidence in his own powers of foresight that was already unjustifiable at the time.

To the extent that the Manifesto successfully conveyed its central message, it may have contributed to its own spectacular predictive failure. Marx was not the only working-class spokesmen who helped raise the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie, making capitalists more acute, teaching them to play their cards more intelligently. His stirring rhetoric, we might say, stirred up the wrong people. One way to head off a full-fledged war of workers against owners, which the Manifesto makes aphoristically explicit, is to offer the workers something palpable to lose besides their chains. While Marx admits that the bourgeoisie has already purchased the co-operation of the lumpenproletariat, he flatly denies, without evidence or argument, that it could ever afford to buy off a significant segment of the working class.

But what if it is in the long-term interest of capitalists to teach the workers to read, write and learn their multiplication tables? What if everyone knows that the castle is unsafe so long as the cottage is insecure? And what if capitalists can read alarming manifestos and, on reflection, decide to deradicalise the workers by shortening working hours? Rather than the proletariat of each country violently ‘settling matters’ with its own bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie of each country can come to a peaceful settlement with its own proletariat. Concessions may be granted voluntarily or extracted by threats. A mixed regime, where workers obtain palpable benefits which they might fear to lose in a violent upheaval, may look like an attractive option, especially under conditions where the labouring classes are increasingly well-organised and hence capable of delivering plausible threats to withdraw co-operation, or worse.

The most economical way to summarise Marx’s predictive failure, in fact, is to say that he underestimated the potential of capitalist societies for developing and sustaining a mutually beneficial compromise between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Since he did not believe such a class compromise was possible in the first place, he did not reflect on the conditions under which it was likely to emerge. Nor did he give any thought to the conditions under which such a pact would eventually break down. He had no reason to ask whether the ‘globalisation’ of economic relations might weaken the bargaining power of national labour movements or parties, any more than he could have wondered whether the spread of nuclear arsenals might allay the concern of the rich for the health and literacy of the poor.

Just as the Manifesto did not predict the emergence and endurance of a social pact between the owners and the workers, so it did not grasp bourgeois ideology’s potential ability to justify and even foster such a pact. However penetrating, Marx’s understanding of liberalism was also one-sided. He conceived of bourgeois ideas as masks behind which lurk selfish bourgeois interests. And even though this was quite true, say, of the my-own-effort theory of the origins of private property, it was not true of basic bourgeois principles, which included individual responsibility, fairness, promise-keeping and meritocracy – principles that cannot be intelligently reduced, as Marx claims, to ‘freedom of trade deprived of moral conscience’ (‘eine gewissenlose Handelsfreiheit’).

The principles of 1789 are not only masks. They are also weapons which can be, and have been, wielded by the poor against the rich. Universal suffrage was, in part, brought about by widespread commitment to universalism and hostility to inherited monopolies and privileges. Similarly, the bourgeois notion that private property is ‘the ground work of all personal freedom, activity and independence’ does not necessarily lend legitimacy to an economic system where wealth is tightly concentrated and poverty endemic among nominally free citizens. Meritocracy does not sanctify a social order when the children of the rich, regardless of personal desert, race around in motorboats, while the children of the poor, through no fault of their own, freeze in squalid tenements. What Marx failed to grasp, in short, is that some strands of ‘bourgeois ideology’ may stimulate and justify class compromise, and may help create societies which, by historical standards, are fairly self-critical, programmed with a degree of dissatisfaction and modestly inclined to reform. To some extent, liberal ideals and values have guided the process of inclusion by which capitalism has been tamed and a modern mixed regime established. It therefore seems unwise to shout, as the Manifesto does, that such ideals and values simply mirror the nasty interests of the ruling class.

Bourgeois ideology, we might say, contains two fundamental strands: free-market liberalism and social-covenant liberalism. While these two strands always coexist, sometimes one becomes predominant, sending the other into eclipse. As a product of its time, Marx’s analysis of bourgeois ideology was not fine-grained enough to distinguish between them. He was therefore not in a position to ask another important question that interests many of us in the UK and US today: why, during the Eighties and Nineties, did free-market liberalism triumph over social-covenant liberalism? Because he could not, in principle, have asked this question, he did not give the answer that Hobsbawm, for example, wants him to give: globalisation.

Having abandoned Marxist ground, those who are nervous about ‘the ugly side of globalisation’ often point to the way global capital and labour markets diminish the capacity of officials within traditional, territorial nation-states to broker and encourage class compromises. Can liberal politics and liberal institutions continue to function effectively, when nation-states operating under liberal principles are being progressively weakened and besieged by forces beyond their borders and outside their control?

Since Marx denied the very feasibility of lasting compromise between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, he also, by implication, denied that the nation-state had a positive role to play in kindling or managing such a social pact. He had interesting things to say about the state-building process but nothing about the potential erosion of the powers of the nation-state by global economic change. Marx was rather inattentive to political life, perhaps because he mistakenly assumed that evil originates largely from greed and the desire for wealth rather than from pride and the desire for power. In the sweet future, or so he pretended, politics would wither away because, among other reasons, the conflicts of values and interests characterising all past human societies will vanish.

This was plainly too sanguine: conflicts between values and interests are bound to remain a permanent feature of the human condition; nor can politics be expected to wither away. Human life, moreover, has usually proved most decent and creative where political institutions and legal procedures have acquired enough resilience and social support to resolve (provisionally and reversibly but without resort to violence) inevitable conflicts of values and interests. This is why Marx’s neglect of liberal institutions and procedures – somewhat peculiar given where he spent the last three decades of his life – continues to attract understandable reproach.

The largely apolitical nature of Marx’s thinking comes across in other ways, too. Although he apparently knew a great deal about the French Revolution, for instance, Marx failed to draw the most prosaic conclusions from that convulsive event, implications that were abundantly clear to more politically discerning contemporaries such as Tocqueville. He did not seem to notice, for instance, that wholly unchecked centralised power exercised ‘in the name of the immense majority’ is likely to serve the whimsy and interests of a few, or that mass violence, once unleashed, will not be easily mastered by idealists invoking the norms of justice and equality.

One of the most famous sentences in the work declares that the liberal state is, and can be, nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. This statement, too, forces us to acknowledge the Manifesto’s radical discordance with current sensibilities and anxieties. So relentlessly, in recent decades, have libertarians knocked it for excessive welfare spending, that no one today would dogmatically assert that ‘the state’ is always and everywhere an instrument of the callous indifference of the wealthy towards the poor.

Inhabiting a wholly different world from ours, Marx flatly denied that liberal political institutions, such as periodic elections to a legislative assembly, could ever translate the interests and aspirations of workers into national policy. The working classes simply could not use such bourgeois institutions to improve their conditions. If they ever obtained the franchise, for instance, they would vote to confiscate the property of their employers, and their employers, in turn, would dispatch the army to smash the workers’ political rights.

Because it baldly asserts that bourgeois law will never be anything but a tool for promoting bourgeois interests, the Manifesto walks into a contradiction when it mentions contemporary legislation shortening working hours. The political movement of the workers, it turns out, ‘compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions of the bourgeoisie itself. Thus the Ten Hour Bill in England was carried.’ Marx could argue, convolutedly, that such a law reflects the interest of the employers in enlisting the voluntary co-operation of their employees. But such reasoning would boil down to an admission that bourgeois legislation – that is, the bourgeois state – can promote the interests of workers. What Marx presumably cannot do is advance the most straightforward interpretation: namely, that factory legislation reflects overlapping class interests, which means a trend toward a mixed regime.

As it turns out, Marx’s imperfect grasp of the way political actors, in the grip of powerful ideologies, may dominate and channel economic processes is brought into focus precisely by the Manifesto’s eloquent portrayal of globalisation. Describing ‘capitalism’ as an actor on the historical stage, he writes:

The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst.

While this passage is memorable, the prediction it contains, as Hobsbawm points out, did not begin to come true for more than 140 years – that is to say, after the Soviet Union collapsed. What this long delay strongly suggests is that, in human affairs, the logic of state power may occasionally subvert the logic of capitalist expansion. Joseph Stalin refuted the Manifesto’s principal prediction by his obstinate, ideologically-inspired war against foreign infiltration. By barricading the Eastern bloc behind xenophobic walls, he obstructed the otherwise non-stop tendency of capitalist ‘civilisation’ to metastasise across the surface of the earth. The global spread of capitalism is inevitable, in other words, so long as politics and ideology do not get in the way.

There are in fact two paradoxes buried here. The first is that only the collapse of the political movement that the Manifesto set in motion has allowed us to witness the economic development that it foretold. The second is that, because it apparently owed more to untheorised technical change than to the success of anti-Communist ideology, the collapse of Communism has posthumously corroborated what the Soviets called istmat (‘historical materialism’), while the rise of Leninism and consolidation of Stalinism make that theory seem deeply false.

Although the Manifesto foresees globalisation and advances a still valid criticism of (one sort of) liberal ideology, it remains ‘a historical document, out of date in many respects’. What really brings the book alive, in the end, is Marx’s failure to anticipate that the globalisation he foretold might, just possibly, bring some negative side-effects in its train. He felt no anxieties about the weakening of the nation-state, the unravelling of the social contract, or the eclipse of the kind of liberalism that stresses participation and distribution alongside productivity and efficiency. The Manifesto helps us focus on these developments, so critical to the contemporary world, not because it takes them seriously, but, on the contrary, because its ‘iron logic’ leaves them blankly out of account.