In 1999, why should we read the Communist Manifesto? If we should read the Manifesto, then how should we read it?
Before I try to answer those questions, let me ask another: Have you ever read the Bible? I've read the Old Testament and sections of the New. The Good Book does contain spasms of sad beauty: the story of Eden, the destruction of Sodom, the song of Solomon, and the betrayal of Christ by his disciples, to name a few. But let's face it: Most of the Bible is written in the most turgid style imaginable, built on endless lists, archaic references, and pointless repetition.
When I ride the Boston subway every morning, who do you think I see reading that difficult text, the Bible? Professors? Lawyers? Software engineers? No.
By and large, those reading that hoary book are women on their way to work as cleaning ladies, retail clerks, and secretaries. Even without formal education to ease the Bible's difficult language, most Christians I know recreate its stories and ideas from within their lived experience'- a profoundly creative and social activity. They do not struggle with the Bible and other religious texts in isolation. They have study groups, Sunday schools, weekly sermons, priests, ministers, rabbis, and mass media. Entire movements, communities, and nations have arisen from the soil they till.
Which brings us back to the Communist Manifesto, 150 years young as of 1998. Published by two twenty somethings named Marx and Engels in 1848, the Manifesto has sold nearly as many copies as the Bible - and it's a much better read.
As the millennium ends, the Manifesto is sexy again. Versa's coffee table edition sells like hotcakes. The Manifesto is favorably quoted in a Star Trek episode in which alien employees organize a labor union, and by rebellious worker ants in the film Antz. Academic, free-market economists frequently quote the Manifesto and rank Marx among the great prophets of capitalism.
As John Cassidy writes in The New Yorker "[Marx] wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress ... issues that economists are now confronting anew, sometimes without realizing that they are walking in Marx's footsteps,"
Of course, the recognition of the Manifesto's importance comes with a very important, highly ritualized caveat: Marx was right about capitalism, but wrong about the alternative. Indeed, say the modern bourgeoisie, we live in the best of all possible worlds.
Are they right to say so? This is not an idle question. Before capitalism, incomes doubled every 630 years. From the advent of the first industrial revolution until today, incomes have multiplied 10 times in Great Britain, 18 in the United States, and an astonishing 25 in Japan. Life expectancy grew, while communication became instantaneous and transportation cheap and fast. Agriculture developed the capacity to feed the world (even if politics and the market held it back from doing so), and economies began to suffer from an absurd predicament- crises of overproduction.
In short, capitalism eradicated scarcity. But at a well-documented price: decimated cultures, deracinated populations, astounding inequality, a damaged environment, and famines and wars without end, on a scale without precedent.
Marx predicted this, of course. Communism is predicated on the success of capitalism, and the bloody contradictions that its success would entail. Those who work for a living, he argued, would supplant the power of those who live by owning, to create a society based on equality, cooperation, and production for use instead of profit.
But somehow, miserably, slowly, the credibility of Marx's alternative has been chipped away. Capitalism has not, as Marx predicted, "simplified the class antagonisms," with "two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat." Rather, society atomized into a hundred contending subcultures and occupations, each of its members identifying with a consumer niche instead of a "class." The "advanced proletariats" of the USA and western Europe did not revolutionize the means of production, but instead plunked down in front of the TV, beer in hand, to watch the peasants of Asia, Africa, and Latin America wage nationalist wars against their colonial oppressors, and then against each other.
Millions have died, and yet in no country has a worker's paradise come into being, the very violence of its birth precluding the technological, industrial, civil, and moral basis of a "good society." The ruins of "revolutionary" socialism are all around for everyone to see. Only Scandinavian social democracy remains as a viable model and alternative, one that is under threat from globalization. Since the Manifesto's publication, historical experience has chastened leftists across the world.
In this kind of historical moment, where are serious, thoughtful people committed to building a good society supposed to go?
Feeling that we aimed too high and fell too far, many of the left's best organizers eschew any analysis of both the past and the future, in exchange for the comforts of concretely local issues: running homeless and battered women's shelters, labor-community coalitions, grassroots environmental groups, and hundreds of other types of organizations, A second left, meanwhile, passes through graduate schools into university faculties, think tanks, government agencies, and the research/policy division of the labor movement, frequently substituting what they call "pragmatism" for hope.
Both groups are mired in debates over daily tactics and institutional reform, but rarely do they exchange ideas, let alone work together to acquire and exercise power. Many on the left want an identity, but not a history; a vision, but not an analysis. We want change, but are afraid of power. The result is a long, cold, still night, when few actual leftists wield public power and influence.
Why? Let's go back to the Bible. It's no secret how Christianity has spread itself so far and wide, despite the difficulty and antiquity of its central text not to mention a history of war, persecution, and corrupt bureaucracy. Countless missionaries preached almost two thousand years in every popular forum available, joining mind with body, ideas with action, mass with elite.
This understanding of the need to join ideas with action must be recaptured by those critical of capitalism, in the institutions and at the grassroots. If "ordinary" people can read, understand, and apply the Bible to their lives, we are certainly capable of doing the same with the Communist Manifesto and other alternative takes on capitalism. Successful left-wing movements all over the world have understood this simple fact, from the Social Democrats of Sweden to the Communists of South Africa to the Worker's Party of Brazil.
The Manifesto is not a Bible, however, and we can never read it that way again. While Marx remains the most time-tested, definitive analyst of capitalism, the real value of his work in 1999 is in the questions he chose to ask questions which we must answer anew if we are to move beyond mere protest to actually governing our society.
Can nature and human community survive under capitalism? Is it necessary for the dispossessed to first acquire power through unions, parties, and civic organizations, before any justice is possible? Can capitalism eventually be displaced by another economic system in which the majority of people control industry and agriculture, as well as government? How can capital accumulation, technology, and growth be managed to liberate the majority of people, instead of oppress them?
To be made new, to be once again useful the Manifesto must be read creatively, critically, doubtfully, with a sense of community and deep attachment to the world and people around us. The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels is too powerful to be left to the stockbrokers.