Book review: Karl Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto”

Also sitting next to my collection of Hugh Nibley is a complete set of The Great Books, including Karl Marx’s Capital and The Communist Manifesto (how bourgeois! Karl Marx in such a collection!) I chose to just read The Manifesto, because I wanted something short, and Capital looked intimidatingly long, at 400 pages in fine print two-columned text. I have wanted to tackle Marx at some point, because as a Mormon, most everything I encountered about Communism was polemical (for instance, check out Benson’s A Witness and a Warning):

Since that day, I have seen the Soviet Union, under its godless leaders, spread its ideology throughout the world. Every stratagem is used—trade, war, revolution, violence, hate, detente, and immorality—to accomplish its purposes. Many nations are now under its oppressive control.

Other conservative venues that I also frequent, such as Prager University, similarly bring up the specters of Maoist China and Stalinist Russia and the millions killed in gulags and labor camps as the ultimate condemnation of Communism. I don’t necessarily disagree. I think these are horrible atrocities, and regardless of the historical circumstances, it must be admitted that they came as a result of Communist ideology. But I also think it is of great importance to deal with ideas, if for the only reason of being able to refute them. Communism is, after all, an ideology and can be judged by its merits. This is my initial attempt at engaging with The Communist Manifesto.

Christmas with Karl

Other conservative venues that I also frequent, such as Prager University, similarly bring up the specters of Maoist China and Stalinist Russia and the millions killed in gulags and labor camps as the ultimate condemnation of Communism. I don’t necessarily disagree. I think these are horrible atrocities, and regardless of the historical circumstances, it must be admitted that they came as a result of Communist ideology. But I also think it is of great importance to deal with ideas, if for the only reason of being able to refute them. Communism is, after all, an ideology and can be judged by its merits. This is my initial attempt at engaging with The Communist Manifesto.

Legitimate critiques of capitalism

The Manifesto begins with a searing critique of capitalism that puts quite bluntly its many failings and hypocrisies. Those who champion market solutions like to minimize these, pretend they don’t exist, or justify them as necessary evils. They do exist. They aren’t fabricated from Marx’s imagination. And this bitter commentary sadly still feels very applicable today. I wanted to point out a few critiques that I find particularly jolting. The first is what Marx refers to as “the icy water of egotistical calculation,” an acid that eats away at virtually everything it touches:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms has set up that single, unconscionable freedom– Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has 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 labourers.

And it is true. Have you ever perhaps, echoed the Grinch’s hatred of “the glitter of commercialism”? does Christmas truly not come “with ribbons.. tags.. packages, boxes, or bags”? Universities are driven by money, and seem to have lost their telos. Small communities are being eaten away in a monotonous monoculture. And this isn’t limited to America: thanks to globalism and expanding markets, everything is becoming one drab gray:

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all nations, even the most barbarian, into civilization. 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 civilization into their midst i.e. to become bourgeois themselves. In a word, it creates a world after its own image.

These first arguments didn’t sound new to me actually: they seem very akin to Patrick Deneen’s critiques of liberalism in Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen points of the two prongs of liberalism: the market, on the one hand, and the state. Here’s one passage that sounds somewhat similar to Marx:

Individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive, and always at the expense of lived and vital relations that stand in contrast to both the starkness of the autonomous individual and the abstraction of our membership in the state. In distinct but related ways, the right and left cooperate in the expansion of both statism and individualism, although from different perspectives, using different means, and claiming different agendas. This deeper cooperation helps to explain how it has happened that contemporary liberal states—whether in Europe or America—have become simultaneously both more statist, with ever more powers and activity vested in central authority, and more individualistic, with people becoming less associated and involved with such mediating institutions as voluntary associations, political parties, churches, communities, and even family. For both “liberals” and “conservatives,” the state becomes the main driver of individualism, while individualism becomes the main source of expanding power and authority of the state.

Deneen proposes his own solutions, and having 200 years hindsight that Marx doesn’t, witnessed the massive failures of Communism in the 20th century. But no time for those solutions here.

Finally, the hypocrisy and even evil of the economic crises caused by, of all things, over-production:

It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on trial, each time more threateningly… In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed absurd– the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation has cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem destroyed. And why? Because there is too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce…

Can we really be burning excess crops to stabilize prices, while others are starving? And yet, these are fixed by more exploitation:

And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.

Capitalism is depicted at a cancer that is eating away at the very substrate on which it sustains itself; eventually it will collapse, unable to rein in its voracious hunger. Can such a system be morally justified?

Binarization of society into oppressor and oppressed

I own up to these fair criticisms of capitalism. But I also believe that Marx’s whole outline of history on which he bases his theory in fundamentally flawed. The Manifesto begins:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

and later

Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.

Marx divides all societies into two groups: the oppressors and the oppressed. You just need to figure out which is which, and then join the power struggle on the side of the oppressed, because that’s the way history bends in the long run. But I find such a binary system irresponsible and frankly, not rooted in truth. While there are some families rooted in power, modern liberal states such as the United States also had a broad middle class with a large measure of upward mobility. Both the existence of a stable middle class, and the ability to move up and down in said strata conflict with the binarization into capitalists and proletariat. Even his definitions seem a bit clunky, and don’t mold well onto society:

By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production, and employers of wage labour by proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers, who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.

By this definition, I suppose I am a member of the proletariat? I don’t own any means of production, and yes, as a graduate student, I am forced to sell my labour power to live, and will also likely do so as a teacher. I do not feel victimized by society, and I feel no urge to call for revolution. But perhaps I would fit better in an unstable middle group that Marx refers to as “the petty bourgeiusie”:

In countries where modern civilization has become fully developed, a new class of petty bourgeois has been formed, and ever renewing itself as a supplementary part of bourgeois society. The individual members of this class, however, are constantly being hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition, and, as modern industry develops, they even see the moment approaching when they will completely disappear as an independent section of modern society, to be replaced, in manufactures, agriculture, and commerce, by overlookers, bailiffs and shopmen.

Marx doesn’t have a lot of respect for this class, and believes that are doomed to non-existence sooner or later. But they have been doggedly persistent throughout the ages, and despite the doom-sayers who predict the coming collapse of the middle class, we’re still around. I do agree with Marx’s assertion though that any society that fails to, as he puts it, assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, is no longer compatible with society.

Marx also seems intent on burning bridges with anyone who insists on a less extreme version of communism or socialism. He characterizes five socialistic groups, all of which he condescendingly dismisses, such as this one:

The socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat… It is summed up in the phrase: the bourgeois are bourgeois– for the benefit of the working class.

Only Communism brings to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, the one true gospel and flag-bearer. Any working class who disagrees isn’t voting with their own interests in mind.

I view such binarization as dangerous. I do not believe history to be nothing but a series of class struggles. This will reduce humanity to nothing but a series of never-ending warring tribes. Communism will, and has already, produce its own oppressors and oppressed.

Dismissal of all other arguments as bourgeois

The second bone I have to pick is Marx’s dodging of any criticism. Marx labels virtually any and all criticisms as “bourgeois”, and doesn’t give them the time of day in his Manifesto:

The charges against Communism made from a religious, a philosophical, and, generally, from an ideological standpoint are not deserving serious examination. Do it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conceptions– in one word, man’s consciousness- changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life? What else does the history of ideas prove than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.

and in another passage:

But don’t wrangle with us so long as you apply to our intended abolition of bourgeois property the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, etc. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economic conditions of existence of your class.

It sounds familiar, because such dismissals are made regularly today in the political arena as well: just replace “bourgeois” with “white privilege”, and you have the same thing. Because of your privileged identity, your background, your upbringing, you cannot have anything legitimate to add to the conversation. Hence I don’t have to address them. Such ideas are dangerous, and stop progression of ideas.

Justification of violence

Finally, and perhaps most chilling of all, is Marx’s justification of violence. Marx starts off easy, by explaining that in order to get the necessary changes effected, some property rights will need to be infringed (I mean, this will be inevitable if private property is to be abolished, right?)

Of course, in teh beginning this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.

Marx has already given himself rein to use extra-legal measures. After all, if political power is nothing else than organized power used to oppress another group, then certainly the oppressed-now-oppressors will be using it similarly. Perhaps it doesn’t say it directly here, but giving yourself such loopholes is foreboding.

His next incitation to violence is similarly indirect, but perhaps a little more clear than the previous one. In this case, Marx mocks and condemns any Communists who renounce the use of violence:

Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavour by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social gospel… They, therefore, endeavour, and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms… to realize all these castles in the air they are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois. By degrees they sink into the category of the reactionary conservative Socialists, differing from these only by more systematic pedantry and by their fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science.

It is no wonder that such a doctrine led to millions of deaths: the ideology that abolishes all eternal truths, abolishes all religion and all morality doesn’t leave any checks on its own power. For an idea that on the surface seeks justice for the oppressed, seems to be nothing but a justification for never-ending oppression and violence.

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