Thursday, February 21, 2008

Happy birthday to...

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

Today, the 21st of February, is the 160th anniversary of the first publication of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. I think it’s safe to say this has been one of the most influential books in the world we know today. Over the course of 16 decades, a lot has changed. But I think the basic argument of the Manifesto is still incredibly salient in the world today. This isn't the communism that we know from China or the USSR. This is a critique of capitalism, and a hope for a better world.

As is pointed out by Marx and Engels in the text as well as in prefaces to several editions, “the practical application of the principles will depend … on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II” (from the Preface to the German edition of 1872). So, if the idea of all workers of the world uniting in the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie sounds a bit far-fetched, fret not, the nuts and bolts of the revolution isn't the important part of the Manifesto.

Despite the change in conditions, much of the critique still remains pertinent. For example, the Manifesto argues that capitalism reduces humans to their monetary value [I would argue that it does the same to animals, as well]. It argues that capitalism is out of control, no longer led by the bourgeoisie--it's become an entity of its own volition.

One of the things that I find the most appealing about the Manifesto is that it doesn’t just critique; it also offers a vision for the future: Communism, that is, the abolition of bourgeois property (not property generally). Marx and Engels saw a world in which no one can make profit from the work of others. In fact, the whole notion of profit would be thrown out the window. Exploitation of men and women alike would become extinct, and likewise, “the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to.” As vegans, let's take that one step further and make exploitation of animals extinct.

The other great thing is that Marx and Engels wrote with the average joe as the target audience. The argument is clearly laid out, and though the critique is incredibly potent, it isn’t hidden amongst high-fallutin’ theoretical jargon. The point of the manifesto was to incite a revolution, and that won't happen if everyone is left scratching their heads and searching for a dictionary.

Sure, there are problems with Marx and Engels and the Manifesto. It is very andro- and euro-centric (though some of these issues are addressed through footnotes added later, mainly by Engels). Marx’s idea that every society must go through very specific stages is narrow and has been argued against by many, especially third world scholars. And the notion of violence and bloodshed doesn’t really appeal to me, nor to most people.

But still, the idea that there is a better way for the world breathes life into my inner idealist and revitalises my commitment to ending exploitation and injustice—to animals, to women, to black people, to poor people, to all people.

Happy birthday, Communist Manifesto. Whether you’ve ever read The Communist Manifesto or not, get thee to the nearest library and check out a copy today!

All of my quotes come from the version of the Manifesto which was printed in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker (1978). I highly recommend this book.


Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday indeed. We own a copy in our house (it's featured), and I have read it a few times, and it's a great work, that is often overlooked because of peoples' fear of communism as an evil. I wish people would open their minds and realize that despite it being 160 years old, it's still relevant today, and very innovative. There's so much wrong in this world, and if people would open their eyes, they could see that there is something we can all do. Unfortunately I don't think I will live to see that day, but maybe in the future, humanity will learn to embrace this book.

Liz² said...

I sincerely need to find a copy of the Manifesto. I've read some books on Marx, Engels, Mao and so on, and I started into The Marxist Reader (excellent, though somewhat heavy). But I want to read this. Happy birthday revolutionary lit! Thanks for posting about this!

Oh, and I edited my blog entry to indicate that the cake was a V-con recipe, it wasn't your eyes playing tricks!

Monika K said...

I guess my biggest problem with the "Communist Manifesto" is the snowballing effect it had when Stalin (who claimed his political philosophy was related to/based on Marxism) came to power and caused the deaths of millions of people. I'm still a bit of a newbie when it comes to political philosophy, so bear with me, but I think communism sounds good in principle and fails in practice. Does that make any sense? How's that for provocative, eh? (-:

pleasantly plump vegan said...

yes, Happy Birthdy!

Theresa said...

Monika--I agree with you about the communism that we know about. Especially Stalinism. The trouble is, though he may have been influenced by Marx, I don't know how closely he read any of the texts written by ol' Karl. Dictatorship and class repression are definitely not part of the ideal society put forward by Marx. I think part of the discrepancy is that the majority of communist states have tried to fit into a framework of global capitalism--being communist on the inside and capitalist on the outside doesn't seem to work very well.

But, I don't think communism *can't* work in practice. There are loads of small-scale examples. I would consider any undertaking which doesn't have profit as it's bottom line as 'communistic'--so, a hippy commune, a food co-op, community supported agriculture, food not bombs... These things value people more than money, and I think that is what Marx is getting at.

I know these things aren't a large-scale, societal change the way Marx predicted it, but I think apocalyptic marxism (and anarchism) are yesterday's news. I think we create small pockets of our ideal, and the system will be weakened because of it. For a really good book about this, check out 'Beyond Civilization' by Daniel Quinn.

Anyone is welcome to refute what I've said, though!

vko said...

Well, I am intrigued and definitely on my list now!

the little one said...

I would agree with Theresa. Communism (often called socialism too because people are scared to use the C-word)has been practiced in a variety of small contexts. We can't say definitely at this point if Marx and Engel's view of communism can work on a large scale because it has never come remotely to being practiced on a large scale. The U.S. educational system teaches us that Marx had the theory and Stalin put it in practice, but that is simply not true.

vegan blog tracker said...

Any system... capitalism, communism, etc... is going to have pros and cons. There are things I really like about our current system and there are things I wish were different.

I've been wanting to read Communist Manifesto to see what Marx himself had to say.

Urban Vegan said...

Interesting. I think the ideas were good ones at heart and came from a good place.

Funny that many European countries have legtimate communist parties. In this country, communism has such an incredibly negative connotations (nderstandably, to a point, with Cubam USSR and China). But the theory itself is absolutely relevent, in its purest form.

As they say, power corrupts. Power, in my opinion, can get to be its own form of capitalism.

David J said...

I wonder if schools promote the reading of this book/pamphlet.
I have to confess I have only read a little of it. I think I put it down one day and got the library fine before I could finish it. No excuse really it isn't very long.

Oh by the way I believe the 21st was Nina Simone's Birthday. She is also a great commentator on issues of humanity.

Monika K said...

I see your point and I guess what I was trying to convey was the idea that Urban Vegan brings up - that power corrupts. Communism, socialism etc in their purest forms are Utopian ideas that I don't think will work in the long run because they rely heavily on the goodwill of humankind. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, humans are inevitably more interested in their own good than that of their peers. But again, that's my opinion and I appreciate the open discussion.

Oh, and to answer David J's question - I studied the CM in both high school and college.

Theresa said...

I see what you're saying completely. I don't disagree. While I would love to think that people are *not* inherently bad, there is no denying the fact that power corrupts in a big way. I think the same can be seen in 'democracies' like the US and Australia, though it's less obvious than with dictatorships. For that reason, I consider myself an anarchist and not a communist--I have no faith in large-scale governments and the corruption that inevitably comes with it!

David J--communism and socialism were both very dirty words in my oh-so-conservative high school, but a fair few classes used the manifesto as a text when I was in uni. I don't think many do here at JCU in Townsville. It's a shame, really. Not that I expect everyone to agree with Marx, but to at least be exposed to it is important.

bazu said...

I'm actually re-reading Capital for my dissertation research now. And a book about it is becoming one of my favorites- have you ever checked out Rancière's "Night of the Proletariat"? He imagines what it must have been like to have been a 19th c. laborer, coming home from an 18-hour shift and reading Capital in the candle light- very moving.

Happy birthday to it!