Review of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
By: Michael A. Arnold

Few books have set the world on fire. This is one.

Written against the backdrop of revolutions, war, strikes and secret police, The Communist Manifesto is written with such a directness and force that it could even be called violent. We in the modern world have forgotten how complicated and turbulent the European revolutions of the 19th century were, but when the 20th century was born and started to find its momentum, Communism became a threat to the stability of the world.

It might be easy to see why Communism was so appealing if we forget about everything that has happened since the October Revolution in Russia. In response to the massive upheavals and industrialization, working people across Europe started to strike on a scale never seen before. They demanded more control over their lives, more identity, the right to vote, and for life to not be so 'nasty, brutish and short' - they wanted change. At the same time, number of new political ideologies started to emerge and develop. Most would fade into obscurity, like Christian Socialism or Blanquism. Two important ones survived: Socialism and Communism.

A lot has been said and written about Socialism and Communism and their relationship with each other. A lot of good and interesting things and a lot of nonsense. If you are interested in politics, a good way of cutting through all the weeds is to read the original theorists and see what they were saying in context. And despite its famous/infamous reputation, The Communist Manifesto is a strikingly thin book. Holding a physical copy, the bulk of it will probably be the introduction written by someone else, or the many forwards written by either Marx or Engels after the initial publication. In most copies, the actual text of the Manifesto is maybe around 70 pages.

A book this short simply cannot be an encapsulation of, or a good argument for, an entire political ideology. This book is a polemic, and it is written as one. Even from the first words:

A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of communism. All the powers of
old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter:
Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

It is difficult to not feel the energy and the passion with which it is written. A lot of the writing paints the image of a world sizzling with revolutionary fervor and almost ready to explode, and this is the book will be the light that ignites the fuse, lets the bomb explode.

But it is worth contextualizing even these opening words. Not just because names like Metternich and Guizot are not familiar anymore. Even though Communism has a long pre-Marx history it would be difficult to say that at the time the Manifesto was written that it actually was the major 'specter' haunting Europe. Because of the power of the language, we might accept as true what could be merely political bombast.

The Manifesto was written as a commission requested of Marx by the Communist League; a union of revolutionaries based in London. They needed a text that would install the ideological core of their movement. In the 1840s, everything to do with Communism was still being debated by a small circle of intellectuals and rebels, with the majority of people not even knowing about it. Because it was entirely underground, it should not be surprising that the post-publication history of this book, and the reception of The Communist Manifesto, is quite complicated. Intellectuals are often very quick to develop, refine, or simply change their ideas, and barely ten years after the publication (by the mid-1850s) it was seen by many Communists as outdated and overly simplistic. In publishing terms was not even initially a success. Even though the prelude to it says that the manifesto was 'to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages', it was originally just published in German, with Polish and Danish translations appearing shortly afterward. But this seems to have only been a formality; the Manifesto was an obscure book that almost no one read. So much so ,when it was published by Marx in an English magazine in the 1850s, for a mass readership, it did not even seem worth publishing the third and the final parts. It wasn't until the 1870s that the Communist Manifesto started to become the focus of the Communist movement. And not until after the October Revolution in Russia and the establishment of the Soviet Union that Marx and the Manifesto became as ubiquitous as it is today.

A good question to ask is how good is the Manifesto at delivering its political theory? It was said before that not terribly long after its initial publication, it was seen as outdated by communists - but this by itself is not an evaluation of its contents. Despite its short length the Manifesto touches on a number of different philosophical ideas, often just by allusion, but the most important two are also the first referenced. The opening line of the text proper is:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

There are actually two ideas here in one sentence, that of class struggle and of dialectical materialism. I will explain what these two things are shortly, but this should indicate how carefully the manifesto must be read to properly understand it. It is written rather like poetry: it is dense and subtly brimming with philosophical ideas and political arguments.

Class Struggle might be more familiar than dialectical materialism; it is the idea that society is divided into social classes which all have a rule in society. There is some debate to if Marx meant there was only two classes in society, proletariat, and bourgeoisie, or in his philosophy there were further sub classes within these two essential labels, but the essential thing to understand is that class antagonisms are the engine of societal progress – or at least societal change.

Dialectical materialism is related to class struggle, but it is a far broader and sweeping interpretation of history. It is basically the idea that all history progresses in broad sweeps because of dialectical wars (or 'wars' between ideas) between an initial state of being and the opposite of it. For example: imagine a farming village in the stone age, and the people just farm all day. Imagine it is constantly attacked by raiders – but eventually this farming village and a band of raiders agree to a deal 'we will give you food and you will stay here and defend us'. With this agreement, both 'parties' have changed, the village is now defended by warriors, and in a sense a new class has developed in the village's society. The point is through dialectics both groups have changed and became something new together.

Extrapolating this much more broadly, the monarchies of the middle ages saw the rise of early free market ideas and banking, for example the Medici in Florence – and eventually the 'conflict' between monarchy and the gilds and merchants developed further into mercantilism – an early form of capitalism. The idea the rich can dictate economics changed monarchies, but also changed the idea of wealth-directed economics. Of course, all changes like this are subject to the material conditions of the time, you cannot take a medieval society and expect them to develop something like the industrial revolution of the Victorian era even if you gave them all the technology to do it – they simply do not have the resources, and 'dialectically' they are not at that point either. First you must have the language and the practical methods to have capitalism and industrialization. This is dialectical materialism in basic, and Marx believed that all historical progress can be interpreted through a dialectical and a materialist lens.

The anti-capitalism that communism is so well known for was not just a simple disliking of an economic system's successes. In fact, Marx thought that capitalism was (instead of being too oppressive and unfair) was too successful for its own good. It could make things like luxury goods too quickly, too cheaply, and in such quantities, and ultimately creating too much wealth in a society. Then wealth would become far too concentrated in the hands of an unbelievably wealthy elite. This will lead not only to resentment from the poor, it will also create a society where there might not be as much work needed compared to past eras. What happens to capitalism when a smaller and smaller number of people are actually able to make money and buy things, and so move capital around? Because of things like this there is a fatal flaw in capitalism that will eventually lead to a dictatorship of the ultra-wealthy, which would be even worse and more tyrannical system than the kings and queens of old. This is a warning for our own times too.

However, as Orwell has it in Nineteen Eighty-Four, if there is hope it lies in the proletariat. Marx also thought that international trade will eventually unite the world in such a way that the working people of the world start to see themselves as having more in common collectively than they do with the rich of their own countries. The idea that the average German has more in common with the average American than either do with a wealthy American. That is partly why the last sentence of the manifesto is 'Working people of the world unite!', it is not just a call to revolution, it is a call to unity among the world's working class.

Communism as a political project has so far failed, but in many ways it is also misunderstood. How many of the people who talk about it have actually sat down and read Marx's writing or understand communism in theory? It is hard to say, but honestly The Communist Manifesto is such a densely written book that without proper contextualization and a study of all its ideas, it could be easily misinterpreted or poorly interpreted. Because of this it is a text that needs to be approached with serious interest, if not sympathy. However, it might even be said that The Communist Manifesto is not the best book to read as an introduction to Communism or Marxist thought. It is too probably too dense, and too subtle. There are far too many 'blink and you miss it' arguments here. While in essence it still might have a powerful argument to make, even for our modern world, and it is made very powerfully, it should also be treated with caution and a serious interest. Otherwise, its warnings about the dangers of capitalism will be missed.

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