Retro Review: The Communist Manifesto (1848)

The manifesto of the Communist party, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1847 and first published the next year, has a legendary pair of rhetorical bookends—“A spectre is haunting Europe” and “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” Between that salutation and valediction, though, is a lot of less-well remembered theorizing. While not particularly long, I suspect that the Communist Manifesto nevertheless ranks high on the list of Mark Twain-style literary classics—that is, works that are frequently cited but rarely read.

Which it too bad, because the language of that 19th century declaration is at times eerily similar to how people still talk about class, wealth, and government power today. From the beginning, the authors assert that communism is a significant political force, already used as a way of demonizing one’s political opponents as outside the mainstream. “Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism?” Sounds kind of like modern Democrats in the U.S complaining that Republicans label every policy they don’t like as “socialism,” whether the label qualifies or not, and Democrats claiming that Republicans are for socializing risk and privatizing profits.

Marx and Engels famously claimed that they had identified the universal framework of human society, and insisted that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” They do allow, though, that the structure and hierarchy of that struggle has changed over time. The passing of ancient and medieval times had, by the 19th century, “simplified class antagonisms” and yielded just two classes: bourgeoisie and proletariat. That dichotomy has been the basis for socialist theory of all kinds since then—but has always struggled to gain traction in American society.

For a long time, American culture has tended to recognize at least three classes: blue-collar workers, white-collar professionals, and the independently wealthy—whether self-made or via trust fund. Trying to fit the roundness of actual society into the square hole of Marxist theory has led to some odd juxtapositions. One is that class warriors have tried to convince everyone below the financial level of multimillionaire that they share all of the same class interests and therefore should be politically aligned. We might call this the What’s the Matter with Kansas or Occupy Wall Street “We Are the 99%” theory, by which farmers in the Midwest are expected to vote in lock step with university-educated intellectuals simply because neither is living off of the interest of an expansive investment portfolio.

Conversely, more doctrinaire Marxists have tried to push in the opposite direction, insisting that anyone who is not a wage employee is part of the oppressor class, meaning that a management trainee at a fast food franchise and a billionaire are both playing for the same team, and everyone else is in opposition to them. We can see this in the lively debate over who qualifies as “rich” in America, and at what level it is fair to tax or not tax someone based on their income and professional status. President-Elect Biden promised during the 2020 general election campaign that no one who makes less than $400,000 a year would see their taxes go up, consistent with pledges to “support the middle class” and only tax the rich. But there is widespread derision directed at such a high cutoff, with many people in effect defining the entire middle class as merely petit bourgeoisie, and thus handmaidens of exploitation. Marx and Engels write, for example, that even when the lower middle class is in conflict with the haute bourgeoisie, they are still fighting only for their own interests, and are thus inherently conservative and reactionary rather than revolutionary.

Another topic that seems ironically contemporary is Marx and Engels’s accusations against bourgeois businesspeople for disrupting the traditional fabric of society and ruining the respect and deferential place of people with certain occupations—just the kind of complaint one expects to hear from the conservative populists and nationalists of today. The money-hungry business types have “stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.” Marco Rubio may not be lamenting the decline of the social status of poets, but he might agree that “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”

The current populist critique of free trade and a market economy often emphasizes the destabilizing nature of economic freedom, and frets over the Schumpeterian churn of old enterprises failing and newly successful ones rising. Marx and Engels are right there with them, insisting that “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” People who today claim to be worried about automation and robots taking our jobs descend from a much longer lineage than most of them realize. Karl Marx didn’t think we could handle the fast pace of life in a competitive industrial economy either.

Today’s conservative populists are saying many of the things that Marx did, but for different reasons, of course. Marx didn’t want to preserve the traditions of an earlier era the way today’s paleoconservatives would like to, but he did want to paint the 19th century’s emerging liberal society in as negative a light as he could. Our own 21st century nationalists’ attack on “neoliberalism” is similar. Anyone with a love for red state living and a contempt for coastal elites would no doubt agree that “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns.” They might just take offense at that part about being saved from “the idiocy of rural life.”

Text from The Best of Karl Marx, edited, with an introduction, by Phillip W. Magness (American Institute for Economic Research, 2019).

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