There are some books which are recognised as having shaped the world we live in, for better or worse, yet which it seems few people have actually read, at least in their entirety, beyond those with a direct interest or obligation to do so. Books such as The Bible and Qur’an. Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto.
The fact that I have until now not read the last of these is inexcusable. When I was born roughly half of the world’s population still lived in Communist countries. I have lived in one of the few that remain (China), visited another (Vietnam) and travelled through numerous former Soviet states. I studied twentieth century Russian history at school and university, as well as interwar Europe (defined by the contesting rise of Fascism and Communism), and the industrial revolution that produced a mass urban proletariat and a new form of class politics – yet at no point throughout my education was I required to read the common link, the book at the heart of all these historical webs.
When I reflect upon it, it is astonishing that The Communist Manifesto does not feature on the national curriculum. It is not a very long work, it is literary yet not a difficult read. We live now in a post-Cold War world, but one that is still coming out of its shadow, and a basic familiarity with the first and definitive programme of the Communist Party might go far in helping students understand much about the society and political systems we have inherited, not to mention many societies, upheavals and conflicts of the past century.
Perhaps, if I may venture a contentious theory, school children in the West are not required to read it because it is still regarded as a ‘dangerous’ text. I felt almost absurdly subversive every time I took the Manifesto out of my bag in public this week, and I regard the implicit message of my history teaching as being that communism was something other, something bad, and an experiment doomed to failure. The degeneration of communist regimes to authoritarianism, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, China’s opening to capitalism; all this was taught with a winner’s view of history as inevitable, which in a way is how we receive all history – though it is an approach sublimely ironical when considering a theory whose core is historical inevitability. Perhaps it is not irony; perhaps it is smugness.
Elsewhere, the message is less implicit. If you listen to the right-of-centre media output in the USA for too long, you might be mistaken for believing ‘communism’ is a synonym for ‘evil’, or that all communists are hell-bent on tyrannical rule. Yet this is surely to confuse the theory of communism with the authoritarian systems that took its name. Now, I am not blind to the abhorrent manifestations of those systems. I have stood on the skull-littered Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, I have visited memorials to torture and terror from Budapest to St Petersburg. I have heard the stories of relatives who lived on the other side of the Wall.
Yet knowing communist regimes are responsible for countless atrocities is precisely why I thought it a good idea to go back to the start, to read the book that may hold the answers to so many questions. Could a communistic society have been realised differently? Or was the Gulag, the Stasi, the Khmer Rouge, the Cultural Revolution inevitable? What was it in this book that motivated so many to sacrifice themselves, to overthrow old regimes and attempt to build new worlds? What was it that so scared others, that warranted so much animosity from capitalist countries, so much wasted life? And above all, what was understood or misunderstood in this book to engender the deaths of so many millions of people at the hands of regimes ostensibly ruling for the people?
Obviously I did not find my answers. The Manifesto is a call to arms and an incitement to violence. The “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions” is stated as the only means of establishing true proletarian rule, and it is one of the clearest and clearly logical pronouncements of the whole manifesto: no wonder the ruling classes trembled. Yet the continuance of violence after the establishment of communist rule seems to me to be based not in what Marx and Engels got right, but in what they got wrong. They do admit that, in the beginning, the need for the proletariat to wrest capital from the bourgeoisie “cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of capital” – yet I hope the authors would be horrified to see how such despotism escalated into the mass slaughters of the 20th century. For Marx and Engels predict, after the triumph of the proletarian world revolution, a peaceful utopian future, a classless society which allows the free development of all.
Here we have in a nutshell my overriding impression of the book: it is naïve, yet it is nobly idealistic. Naïve, because the authors put too much faith in human nature, they underestimated man’s capacity for greed and self-aggrandisement and banked on a false hope that equality for all is a goal to satisfy all. A key passage of the manifesto predicts:
“If the proletariat […] makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class”
In actuality, the ruling classes of pre-communist societies were merely replaced, after revolutions in Russia, China and elsewhere, by a new ruling class: the party.
Yet the failure of man to live up to the ambitious ideals set by Marx and Engels does not make those ideals any less noble. For surely a society without exploitation, without grinding poverty, a society in which a person is no longer a commodity but able to freely develop to their full potential – surely all these are wonderful aspirations? And especially understandable when considered that they were expressed at a time when the conditions of the working classes were truly deplorable, and in a year (1848) when the desperation of people to better their lives resulted in the most widespread revolutions in European history.
This blog is not the suitable place to summarise The Communist Manifesto in full, but were you to ask if I recommend you read it, I would say, no matter your political leanings, “Yes”. Of course, it oversimplifies history and arrogantly dismisses any alternatives to a future that proved ultimately unfeasible. Its acceptance of violence is horrifying and hard to square with the sympathy the authors clearly felt for the down-trodden. And yes, its ambiguities have allowed it to be hijacked by different people in different ways to justify different agendas. But it holds some human truth, and although it produced more tragedy than utopia, when you separate the book from what followed it stands as a testament to the ability of people to look at the world around them and dare to imagine one better.