Karl Marx

Karl Marx Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 M.E. Sharpe Inc. I had the good fortune of meeting Eric Hobsbawm in London while I was writing this review. He gave me a copy of the edition cited above with his striking introduction. It is one of several pieces that I have come across commemorating the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of The Communist Manifesto.

Probably there are many more. Marx and Engels were thirty and twenty-eight when the Manifesto was published in an infinitesimal German edition in February 1848. A tiny group of workers and intellectuals, the League of the Communists, had commissioned a statement of principles late in 1847. It was approved at a meeting in London a few months later. These small beginnings were no measure of the later impact of the Manifesto. By the 1870s it had become the most influential revolutionary document written in the nineteenth century.

The reasons for its impact are self-evident. The explosive force of the prose, the concision, the sweeping indictment of exploitation, the near eschatological promise of a humane future for mankind – these elements combine in a statement of messianic conviction. The Manifesto reflects Marx and Engels’ historical conception of capitalism as the most recent in a succession of societies that create the conditions for their own replacement. It also reflects the mindset of the moment. The authors had grounds to think that a proletarian revolution was imminent. A depression, unemployment, hunger, and fear swept the working classes throughout Europe and pushed them into open revolt almost as the Manifesto was being published.

Most of the governments on that continent, cobbled together in 1815, were overthrown. Within eighteen months, except for the monarchy of Louis Philippe in France, every one of them was restored. Marx and Engels had witnessed the first and last Europe-wide revolution, although the expectation of another one gained mythical force. But instead of opening Europe to socialism, the insurrections of 1848 led to a vast expansion of capitalism and ultimately to limited liberal democracy. We are all a hundred and fifty years older than Marx and Engels in 1848, so we can review the Manifesto with the accumulated knowledge of those years.

Both truth and error are mercilessly revealed to us as a kind of unearned income just for showing up during Act II after Act I is over. The celebrated characterization of mid-century capitalism as an enormously expansive but unstable system of production can be accepted by every reasonable person, regardless of political persuasion. Marx and Engels’ description of a global market created by railroads, steamships, the telegraph, and cheap goods is a bravura performance, and uncannily familiar. Substitute jet planes, the fax, e-mail, and overnight delivery by FedEx, and we are talking about today’s headlines. Previous ruling classes thrived on stability and calm. But the bourgeoisie are constantly driven by competition to find new, more productive machinery to replace the machinery already in their factories; new, more productive industries to replace the old ones; and to race around the world frenetically looking for new markets.

But all this amazing expansion is too powerful for the narrow confines of the bourgeois social system. Crises of overproduction break out. Capital destroys the wealth it has already created, only to rise from each period of destruction with even more prodigious feats of production. I can attest as a capitalist publisher that in the course of forty years I have progressed from using now antique Linotype machines to the latest desktop computers, any one of which can outperform the entire array of processors used at Los Alamos in the early 1940s to make the atomic bomb. Correspondingly I have had to find ever more sophisticated methods of selling the increasing number of books and journals that we are capable of producing, reaching out to every country in the world, only to be faced with the need to put all those millions of words on CD-ROMs and the Internet and find a way to get paid for doing so. Along with capital came the proletariat, the factory wage-laborers, men, women, and children, without property, desperately ill-paid, overworked, used up, and cast out when they were maimed, sick, or became redundant.

These sullen work-slaves found themselves thrown together in increasingly large numbers in the factories of the cities and towns and began to form unions and political parties in self-defense. As in all previous societies, two classes stood opposed to each other. The bourgeoisie had created its own nemesis: the proletariat. The middle strata – the petty capitalists, shopkeepers, and professionals – fought to survive but were increasingly pushed into the ranks of the proletariat. Out of desperation, the great mass of workers, finally understanding that there was no alternative, would have to rise up and overthrow the few remaining masters of capital and convert their private property into the property of all, administered by a public authority in the interests of all.

After the passage of one hundred and fifty years, we know that there a lot of things wrong with these declarations. Marx and Engels did not so much as consider the possibility that the conditions of the working class could be improved within the prevailing system, even though they understood and extolled the astonishing productive powers of capitalism. They did not consider that capitalists as a class might prefer to compromise on such issues as wages and working conditions rather than fight to the death. They did not envisage a capitalist state providing pensions, sickness insurance, and other measures of social support. Nor did they consider the plausible case that the middle classes of shopkeepers, salespeople, teachers, doctors, and bureaucrats would grow as the powers of production increased. In the end, as Eric Hobsbawm observes, the propositions that the proletariat would overthrow capitalism and establish communism did not flow from Marx and Engels’ actual analysis, but from a philosophical tenet that was smuggled into their pages as a hope.

They deduced that history proceeds as a contradiction of opposites followed by a resolution, a deduction borrowed from Hegeljan dialectics. The outlook of Marx and Engels in the 1840s seemed to be confirmed by the French Revolution, a violent break with the past. The prospect of gradual change of a fundamental sort was beyond their ken. The assumption that workers of the world would unite unjustifiably ignores the fact that work …