In an interview, author China Miéville explains why Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto is such a remarkable work, defending the book against its detractors and arguing that it remains urgently inspiring and deeply relevant.
Statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Shanghai, China. (Pictures From History / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Critics of Karl Marx and and Friedrich Engels sometimes dismiss their landmark work The Communist Manifesto on the basis that capitalism has proven remarkably resilient — contrary to their prediction that the proletariat would put capitalism in the grave on a rather short timescale. But industrial capitalism is still relatively young in epochal terms, its period of dominance still shorter than feudalism’s. While Marx and Engels may have failed to anticipate capitalism’s multiform capacities to stabilize itself through reforms and interventions, it’s also still far too early to declare them wrong.
In 1848, writes China Miéville in his 2022 book A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto, “Bourgeois civilization wasn’t firmly established. Rather than the nature of today’s ‘late capitalism’ . . . it was its ‘earliness’ that was a complication for Marx and Engels, those fascinated critics.” This early anticapitalist work still provides us with resources to clarify the terrain of struggle, alongside a compass that can guide us beyond the horizon.
In this interview, transcribed from an episode of the Jacobin podcast the Dig, host Daniel Denvir spoke to Miéville about the meaning, legacy, and utility of Marx and Engels’s most famous work. Indeed, by some accounts, The Communist Manifesto is the most influential twelve thousand words ever written, making it a worthy candidate of close reading and critical inquiry this many years later.
We can’t predict the future. The very notion of late capitalism is itself beset by a certain optimism — an optimism that we must fight to earn. It’s up to us and the struggles we build together to ensure that we are indeed living through capitalism’s twilight years, and The Communist Manifesto remains relevant to and instructive for that effort.
What is a manifesto, and how does the answer to that question shape how we should read The Communist Manifesto? One important point that you make is that it can be unfair or misleading to evaluate everything in this text as though it’s a truth proposition. Many passages are not so much statements of fact as exhortations — just as we might chant at a protest rally, “I believe that we will win,” even though we know we might lose.
That’s exactly it. It’s no coincidence that I start the book with a discussion of the manifesto as a form, a genre. Partly that’s because I think so much of the discussion around The Communist Manifesto has been hamstrung by this error, which in some cases is bad faith and at other times just a mistaken way of reading.
Part of the point is performance. Its performance is exhortation, almost incantation to some extent. The language itself is very important in terms of rhythm and urgency. It’s also a recruitment, it’s a warning, it’s an attempt to bolster people. And all of this is combined with truth claims in various ways. The manifesto form predates The Communist Manifesto, but it can be quite hard to relate to it because The Communist Manifesto has become the urtext of the manifesto. It simultaneously inherited and transformed the form of the manifesto.
In your formulation, you suggest we shouldn’t read it in terms of truth claims, and I would slightly tweak that. For me, the key point about a manifesto is that it’s doing all these things at once. And what that doesn’t mean, and should never mean, is that it’s beyond criticism. There is a bad faith way of relating to this, which is to say, any time anyone levels a criticism, “Well, it doesn’t really mean that. It’s doing a different thing.” That’s obviously bullshit. But at the same time, what’s true and what’s interesting about any text — but particularly a performative text like this — is the way it’s doing more than one thing at once, and sometimes with contradictory pulls.
There are certainly places where the Manifesto does make a claim about the future, where it really is arguing that this is the way things are going. And then there are other points where it’s saying, “If we are not careful, this is the way things are going.” And then there are other points where it’s saying, “If we do our job right, this is the way things are going. This isn’t a counsel of despair, quite the opposite.”
The way it uses language is absolutely vital to its job of sweeping up passions, not at the expense of of analytical rigor, but imbricated with it.
Part of the job of critical reading of any text is to be able to tease those things apart and say that the criticism that the Manifesto is wrong about x or y has some traction in this case, but in this other case it’s predicated on a misunderstanding of what this text is doing. And maybe in a third case, both are true. There are various places in my discussion of The Communist Manifesto where I try to say that Marx and Engels are saying two slightly contradictory things in the same sentence, and it’s our job to try and understand the weight between the two of them and to evaluate them.
One of the key points of a manifesto is that it is performance, and it is performance that is designed in part to bring about what it is describing. The way it uses language is absolutely vital to its job of sweeping up passions, not at the expense of of analytical rigor, but imbricated with it.
And at a very simple level, that means one of the pleasures of reading the Manifesto is that it’s beautiful. It’s remarkable. Whether one agrees or not with some of its claims and its positions, it is just a joy to read this incantatory prose. Marshall Berman famously really stresses this, and it’s something that even critics of Marx will often allow. This is a remarkable piece of almost apocalyptic literature.
Sometimes there’s a bit of an arms race over which complex and obscure Marx text one is supposed to read to be counted as a true Marxist. There’s an implicit sense among the real Marx-heads that the Manifesto is for college kids. Why should we read the Manifesto?
Well, just to establish my bona fides among the Marx-heads, let me start by saying that as a real Marx bro my favorite volume of Capital is actually Capital Vol. 2. So, deep cut.
As for The Communist Manifesto, it has been argued by many people, including enemies, that it’s the single most influential twelve-ish thousand words written in history. So simply out of curiosity, I think it’s worth looking at it. There are some clunky bits, but at its best, it’s an astounding piece of work. It’s a beautiful thing to read.
Additionally it does indeed embed a certain set of positions — politically and economically, but particularly politically and historically — that are still incredibly powerful. It was one of the things that made me into a leftist. Not the only thing, but it is an incredibly powerful text. And it is not just a museum piece. If you read it critically, of course, but also generously and thoughtfully, you may gain, as I did, a great deal more out of it politically and intellectually than you might assume if you only think of it as an introductory text.
The final reason to read the Manifesto, which became an increasingly important motivator to me in writing the book, is because so much of the discussion around it is so utterly boneheaded and stupid — mostly from its critics, but I have to say I don’t exonerate all of its supposed friends, particularly those who have approached it like a piece of sacred writ, like a series of truth claims, like a mass textbook. What you end up with are either generally critiques or occasionally paeans of praise which are both predicated on a magisterial misunderstanding of what this book is and what it’s doing. And so I wouldn’t underestimate the extent to which one of the motivations for reading the book is irritation with how needlessly stupid what could be an interesting and productive and inspiring conversation can be.
The Manifesto was published in 1848 on the eve of earthshaking, continent-wide revolutions — though, to be clear, it was published too late to have any real impact on them. You write that the Manifesto spoke for this mass communist movement that did not yet exist. What was happening in the years and decades leading up to 1848?
The magic of a manifesto is that it brings about what it claims is the case. And there is an argument that The Communist Manifesto helped to do that.
Although, I’m being slightly provocative here. I wouldn’t say that, as a document only, it had this immense influence early on. Later it did. But the context was one of the living memory of two enormous and world-historical revolutionary changes: one being the revolution in France, which also had effects around the world, and the other being the more extended process of the Industrial Revolution and the extraordinary change in relations of production in the most advanced economies.
You have accelerating capitalism, and you have an accelerating process of class polarization around the 1840s, along with increasing immiseration of poor and working-class people. It was sometimes called “the hungry ’40s,” and it was generally a time in which not only people on the Left but also plenty of perspicacious bourgeois and liberal figures were saying very explicitly that we are on the verge of an immense upheaval or revolution — or a political catastrophe, as they would see it.
In that context, you’re starting to get mass working-class movements, most famously the Chartists in England. And within those, you have a far-left fringe who are developing ideas from, in various combinations, the very radical wing of the French Revolution, anti-hierarchical ideas from liberation-oriented religious faiths, utopian dreams of previous eras of socialists, and so on.
At the time of writing, as Engels would later make clear, this far-left cluster called themselves communists as opposed to socialists. To them socialists were essentially the left wing of the liberal middle classes, whereas the hard left of the working classes called themselves communists. Now, this distinction became much less important quite quickly afterward, and you see Marx and Engels fairly happy to call themselves either, depending on context. But at the time of the Manifesto, this was very determinedly a communist manifesto, as opposed to any other reformist or critical position.
The magic of a manifesto is that it brings about what it claims is the case. And there is an argument that The Communist Manifesto helped to do that.
And it was the voice not even really of the far left of the workers’ movement — it was the voice of a tiny sliver of the far left of a broader working-class current that was speaking as if it were the voice of an insurgent mass. Marx and Engels, in this performative mode, were commissioned by their comrades to basically lay out their positions. They wrote this tract that was essentially designed to speak as if it were the voice of the mass, to act as a pole of attraction and to assert certain things as almost fait accompli in a political movement — all on what turned out to be the eve of this incredible Europe-wide, and to a lesser degree worldwide, revolutionary moment.
In terms of the impact that it could have had, it’s bleakly amusing — Marx was dreadful with deadlines, and this book appeared too late to really impact 1848. By the time it came out, the crest was already on a downward trajectory. For weeks his comrades in the Communist League were saying, “Your book is late, put it out, put it out.” In the end, the last chapter is incredibly truncated. It was Marx who did the last draft, and there’s something amazing about the fact that even the actually existing revolution around him in the world could not quite bring him, as committed an activist as he was, to meet his deadline with a book that could have been designed to speak to this revolution happening at that moment. And this is the point at which one says something wryly about how all writers can identify with this.
It’s the manifesto of the Communist Party, broadly speaking, but we should note here that “party” here does not refer to a modern political party. There were not modern mass political parties as we would come to understand them at the time, and certainly no communist parties. It was a moment when communist and radical politics tended to take place in small, clandestine societies. Essentially what it means by party is the social force, the organized political force, the self-conscious grouping, the current. That said, it wasn’t too long before the word came to mean something much more like political parties, as we would now understand them, to the point that my own suspicion is that there are already threads of that within the word as it’s used.
So the Manifesto was making two different tendentious claims, which I think of as wagers against the future. One was that it was saying, this is the voice and the position of this grouping of working-class activists that is powerful and meaningful enough in the world to consider itself a “party” in that earlier sense. It was not the case at the time, but it was an urgent aspiration. And then I think there are also the the germ seeds of a slightly more modern iteration that folds out from that organized grouping. But that’s a little bit more distant at this point.
My own feeling is that it’s both, and that there’s a degree of cheekiness to it, that Marx and Engels were trying to create facts on the ground by making these claims. These are two writers who are very good at deploying swagger. There are political contexts in which dissident swagger can be an underrated tactical tool. For example, in the Manifesto they talk to the bourgeoisie rather than to the workers in this amazingly vinegary way. They’re swaggering to assert what they hope to be true, or what they hope to become true, which is that they are speaking for a mass movement.
It’s worth bearing in mind that they had just essentially won a political battle within the Communist League about its direction, and they had moved it in a less quasi-religious or moralist mode into something more akin to what we would now think of as Marxist socialism, moving away from like, “We must do this because of the brotherhood of man,” as they would have said, toward speaking of the historical dynamics and tendencies of economics and politics. So I think in declaring this the manifesto of the Communist Party they’re also flushed from the success of having won over this group to their position. And in a way they’re trying to do that with this document on more of a mass scale.
Let’s turn to the text starting from the beginning. Marx and Engels write, “A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcize this specter: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”
They continue noting that everyone is trying to red-bait, tarring political enemies as communists even when they’re not — something that’s really remarkably contemporary feeling. And then they continue, “It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself.”
Why start by invoking the specter, mocking their enemies, and reveling in their fear in the way that they do?
Yeah, it’s an incredibly fecund and strange beginning. And as you say, talk about history repeating itself: first as tragedy, then as farce, and now as, I don’t know, very degraded reality TV.
They’re doing several different things at once. One is diagnosing this fact of red-baiting as a go-to attack of the Right and that their class enemies and the reactionaries and bourgeoisie are throwing around this accusation, talking about how terrifying this is and how this has to be nipped in the bud.
There are political contexts in which dissident swagger can be an underrated tactical tool.
Marx and Engels are mocking them for this. They’re saying, essentially, “These people are telling nursery stories. They’re telling a scary fairy tale, and they’re so ridiculous.” But then they do this amazing switchback, which is, having essentially teased and mocked them for this over dramatization, they then take it seriously and speak as the hobgoblin they’ve already mocked as an imaginary creature. They’re like, “As that specter” — or as Helen McFarlane, the first translator of the Manifesto into English, put it, the frightful hobgoblin — “we will now tell you what in fact our position is.”
So they go from saying they’re invoking this imaginary thing to saying, “This thing is real, but they’re misrepresenting it. So speaking as that thing, we will now tell you what we think.” The manifesto form is so rich because they get to mock their enemies as being hyperbolic and ridiculous, and then they also get to switch around and use their own terms against them — a rhetorically scintillating way into laying out their political propositions.
And of course, as there is now a — I was going to say a cottage industry, but it’s more like a townhouse industry in talking about ghosts in the manifesto, largely because of [Jacques] Derrida. I do think that whole project of looking at Marx in a gothic mode is interesting, as someone who writes and reads and loves science fiction and horror and so on. But one of the things I’m always careful about is essentially surrendering to fan service for myself. I would love nothing more than to just talk about ghost stories all day. And for that very reason, I am sometimes a bit skeptical of some of the exaggerated fascination with the “hauntology” of Marx. I’m not saying there’s nothing there, but let’s not overexaggerate it.
It seems like they were having some fun there.
They were having so much fun. You can only read so much into that. These guys are trolls, and we have to relate to that.
They would have known how to post.
It is to my constant delight that they do not live in an era of social media, because I think it would be utterly catastrophic. They would be canceled so many times, and they would shitpost and waste their time. But it is true that they are trolls of the Left, among other things, and when they get into that mode, they’re really good at it. And they have a great time, and it’s hard not to be swept up in that as a reader.
Let’s turn to the Manifesto‘s theory of history. They write, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Marks and Engels don’t mean that there’s been this constant self-conscious class conflict throughout all time. What then do they mean? And why is it so important for them to state this theory of history right at the beginning?
I think you’re right. And you’ve also pointed out something really important, which is they nowhere say that this means that in every moment of history, different classes have been at daggers drawn with a conscious sense of opposition.
And this is important to say, because one of the common criticisms of the Manifesto, and frankly of Marxism in general, is that Marx and Engels say that class struggle has always been there while in actual fact, these critics say, the classes on the whole get along fine and there’s lots of cooperation. Again, this is just such a stupid reading, and I find it very frustrating. And you see it from writers who should really know better. You see it from critics of Marx who are not stupid, but for some reason it’s very important to them to read this particular claim in a very reductive way.
What Marx and Engels are saying is that from epochs ago, the dynamic shape of history has been pushed forward at a fundamental level by the relations between those who have power over the productive resources of a society and the distribution that follows from them, and those who do not have power over those things — those decisions, that distribution, and in many cases the people who are actually doing the work to use those resources. That is a claim about the nature of history, not just in capitalism but in any nonsystematically egalitarian society.
So they start not with a criticism of capitalism, but with a claim about the nature of history, and then they talk about the specific shape that that historical tendency is taking under capitalism.
When they’re commenting on the Manifesto later on, they say of various claims, “This no longer holds water, ignore this bit,” and so on. But one of the things that they stress is that the key contribution that stands the test of time is this theory of history. And from that stem, one can conclude a whole lot of other things about class interests and about how much change and amelioration of a situation can come from within an existing organization of society on that class basis.
So they start not with a criticism of capitalism, but with a claim about the nature of history, and then they talk about the specific shape that that historical tendency is taking under capitalism. And they specifically zero in on how that class-conflict motor of history pushes these more epochal shifts from one mode of production to another, and specifically, how feudalism transitioned to capitalism.
They write, “The feudal organization of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.”
What’s this contradiction between the relations of property and the organization of production that they’re identifying as causing this shift? And where would Marx and Engels have fit into contemporary debates?
This is such a vast question, whether or not one can as a Marxist — or indeed in any other way — talk meaningfully and usefully about a mode of production, and the relationship between that and political upheaval and revolution.
Within the context of the Manifesto, which is a very short and polemical and performative document, I think it would be unfair and unrealistic to say that they lay out a systematic theory of this here. But certainly what they gesture toward is that these structures of societies aren’t just thrown up willy-nilly. They’re thrown up because of certain relations of class forces, to some extent in mediated ways, such that those at the top of society, the ruling class, are gaining certain key benefits from the decisions that they are making that the other people can’t make about what to do with the productive resources of society. And this is all predicated very firmly on a non- and indeed anti-democracy.
When Marx and Engels talk about bursting the fetters of the old mode and so on, what they’re essentially saying is that history and productive technology are not static. They change. And as you accumulate more and more stuff and more and more resources and you put them into doing the same job as they have been doing previously within this society, there reaches a point where the very organization of that society is in a certain tension with the tendencies of the productive resources itself.
This is a highly contested claim in various different ways, one of the natures of their claim is that it isn’t merely an ethical position that they’re taking. “Merely” is doing a lot of work there; I’m sure we’ll talk about ethics later. In any case, they’re not saying that we need to change things, or indeed that feudalism had to change into capitalism, because what comes next is a better system because it’s nicer for people. Rather it’s that the way the society had been set up has actually become a fetter pulling back on the capacities that that very society had put forward.
And so there’s an internal struggle. The people who’ve made the decisions, who’ve set up this society, definitionally their class interests are opposed to fundamentally changing this system. It literally exists because they were in control of it, which means that they find themselves in many cases opposed to the overthrow and the rupture that the social forces and the productive forces are pushing toward. And this is why it isn’t the aristocracy that overthrow feudalism, because feudalism was doing a particular job for them. It’s a different class — or under the leadership of a different class — that has a different relationship to these productive forces, which are now being constrained by the very system that originally set in motion the forces that got us here.
The manifesto is remarkably full of praise for the bourgeoisie, given that it is after all a communist and thus anti-bourgeois manifesto. They write:
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. . . . It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. . . .
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
These are probably the most evocative and powerful passages in the whole Manifesto. Is this praise for capitalism’s economic dynamism — that is, for the productive forces that the bourgeoisie has unleashed, forces that at present immiserate but under communism would liberate? Marx and Engels mock and threaten the bourgeoisie, but they’re also just so in awe of them.
The passage you read is, as you say, probably not just the most evocative but, in my mind, the most beautiful and the most well-known passage in the Manifesto. And it is fairly frequently observed that when people first read the Manifesto, if they don’t know much about it, one of the most extraordinary things about it is how fulsome and repeatedly Marx and Engels praise the bourgeoisie, in almost religious awe of its achievements.
This is something I wrestle with. I’m torn about this, because I think broadly speaking you are right that this is an almost ecstatic amazement at the achievements of what you could loosely call capitalist society. Remember the milieu in which these guys were growing up and the living memory of the early Industrial Revolution and the changes that had been wrought and so on. You really are talking about absolutely planet-shaking changes. And I think to some extent they are focusing on that and relating to that.
One of the key things that 1848 taught them, brutally, is that the bourgeoisie as a class and as an organized social force will always take the side of reaction against radical change.
But it goes a little deeper as well. I think that they’re both exhilarated and discombobulated by this way of experiencing capitalist civilization, and that when they invoke this pell-mell sense of rush, they do see this as both liberating and also atomizing.
All of that said, it is also my contention that there are certainly places within the Manifesto where they tie this into an unearned appreciation for the bourgeoisie itself as a class and as a group of people. And my own hunch and contention is that had Marx and Engels written this document six months later, a lot of this praise would have been far less fulsome and far more specifically about the epochal changes of capitalist civilization rather than the bourgeoisie.
Because one of the key things that 1848 taught them, brutally, is that the bourgeoisie as a class and as an organized social force — one is not necessarily talking here about individuals — will always take the side of reaction against radical change under capitalism and will always stab the working class in the back. Now, some of its members may do so with tears, some of them may regret it, but the point is that as an organized force, it will always do this.
And I think Marx and Engels had this notion that what they wanted was for the bourgeoisie to be Promethean heroes and usher in a truly liberal democracy that would allow more space for the radical left and the working-class movement. And what they learned was that this wouldn’t happen. This won’t happen. And so there’s a paradox, which is that this seminal document of communism is actually the last gasp of an excessive optimism and admiration for the bourgeoisie as a class.
While it’s very powerful in terms of diagnosing the experience of living under capitalism, particularly early capitalism, I think it does underplay the other side of things. In these early stages, they didn’t talk enough (and not systemically enough) about imperialism and about the extractive nature of capitalism. They do talk about it, though incomplete, and it’s a canard to say they don’t. But I do think it’s fair to say that in certain respects it’s not integrated into their theory as well as it would come to be, and as well as one might like it to be.
But particularly when one’s talking about the bourgeoisie as a class, I think there’s almost something tragic to me as an admirer of Marx and Engels reading this document, because what you’re reading are the words of two people who are about to get their hearts broken.
They write that a key feature of capitalism is that “[w]hat the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”
I think what’s key here is that they emphasize that it will be the self-activity of the proletariat, of the oppressed, as it comes into collective consciousness of its position and historical role, that will overthrow the capitalist mode of production. This is a major distinction they draw against other currents of socialism.
There are obviously big questions to ask here about this presumed inevitability, but I think what’s more interesting maybe is that Marx and Engels see it as so critical to identify the proletariat as not only the beneficiaries of the coming communist revolution, but also as necessarily its protagonists.
What do you make of that? Why is it the self-activity of the proletariat that’s so key for them?
It’s important to say, having stressed how much they’re full of praise for the bourgeoisie, that they’re also full of piss and vinegar about them. They’re hardly unremitting fans. And, as you say, their vision of change is predicated on the self-activity of the working class.
They do allow in the Manifesto, in a way that I don’t recall them doing in any other document, that individual members of the bourgeoisie or other classes may come to see the necessity of working-class revolution.
It’s a little autobiographical for Engels there.
Oh my God, so much, yeah. The anxiety of class position is really obvious. [laughs]
I think you’re right that they are doing this partly out of a sense of their own position. But they only do that as an aside. And I think it’s an interesting aside because it does stress that what we’re talking about here are organized currents. The bourgeoisie, as the ruling class, as an organized or even a disorganized current, cannot overthrow capitalism. They cannot even ameliorate it beyond certain very limited forms, because they are a class defined by a their exploitive relationship to another class within this system, which is the system that, among other things, replicates their class power.
So if you say that the way that you want to change society is to basically appeal to the better nature of the bourgeoisie, you’re on a hiding to nothing, because the system doesn’t give a damn about their better nature. The system is predicated on a certain way of arranging resources and resource management, and to fundamentally change that would be to fundamentally eradicate the fact of a bourgeoisie at all. So it’s just a logical fallacy from them.
And then in terms of the focus on workers’ self-activity, this has nothing to do with saying that workers are better people. Nor is it just about saying democracy would be nice. What it’s saying is that if you see the ills of society as basically concomitant on this way of organizing production for profit rather than for human need — and for profit that is in the control of a certain small group — then there’s a certain definitional way to move beyond. The way is to organize a society that turns these resources to human need rather than profit, with the production and the distribution decided by the very people who are doing it.
If you say that the way that you want to change society is to basically appeal to the better nature of the bourgeoisie, you’re on a hiding to nothing, because the system doesn’t give a damn about their better nature.
That’s not just nice to have. That’s literally definitional to where you are going, because how can you organize for need unless you have the people who need the things being the people who are telling you what is needed? And if they’re telling you what is needed, they’re essentially making the decisions.
It’s been pointed out by many people on whose shoulders I stand that communism worthy of the name is not about the eradication of democracy, but rather an incredible flowering of democracy on a much more systemic level.
That’s important because there are currents of leftism, some very well-intentioned and completely sincere, which essentially have this notion that you can, with a well-thinking but small radical group, organize society in such a way that you’ve moved beyond capitalism and toward something that you can call communism worthy of the name.
We can debate what societies you can create like that, but let’s shelve that for the moment. Within the model of the Manifesto, what that cannot be is communism, definitionally. And this is where my variably comradely argument with certain traditions of socialism from above would stem. The emphasis on worker self-activity isn’t just a left-populist rah rah. It’s about a rigorous relationship to an organized mode of production and society called communism, and how it has to be to be itself.
They describe how capitalism remakes class relations, and really makes class. They write, “Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”
And they seem to suggest — though I think you unpack this a bit — that other classes gradually disappear or at least become less relevant. I think it’s important to emphasize that this was a moment when the vast majority of even Europe’s population remained rural, let alone the rest of the world.
What did they see taking shape at the time? And to what extent were they right? Could they foresee, for example, the rise of all these sorts of intermediary class forces such as professionals and managers in the twentieth century, or the progressive differentiation of the proletariat by gender, race, nationality, educational status, immigration status, housing, and so many other different factors?
Because I think a key lesson from the nineteenth and early twentieth century seems to be that industrialization alone does not make class formation. It requires politics and organizations. So is there a more dialectical way to make sense of Marx and Engels’s analysis of class formation here that points to the ways that the working class is both made and unmade in all these various ways?
That claim about the two great classes is fairly regularly interpreted by critics as saying that, as you gesture toward, the other classes will disappear. But this is a bullshit criticism that is not supported by the text. And again, most of those who level it should really know better. It’s a very lazy reading at best, because the fact is within the text itself it also talks about other classes like the petty bourgeoisie, people thrown into different class positions, and so on.
Nowhere in the text do Marx and Engels either say or, in my opinion, mean that what you’re doing is eradicating all the intermediary classes and what you end up with under “pure capitalism,” which is a chimera, is just the bourgeoisie and the proletarians. They don’t say it. They don’t think it. They don’t mean it.
What they are getting at I think fairly clearly is that these are increasingly powerful centers of gravity, and that therefore all the other activity that takes place within a society, including the class activity of other classes, will increasingly be determined by the wrangling of these two gravitational forces.
And so if you are a member of the petty bourgeoisie, or you are a surviving aristocrat, your field of operations and the pulls on you are going to be increasingly defined by what is a much more fundamental systemic dynamic within this society, which is that polar opposition.
That’s what they’re talking about. And when they talk about other classes and the dynamics of other classes — like when they talk about members of the bourgeoisie coming over to the side of the workers, or when they talk about the social pressures on the petty bourgeoisie and what it might lead them to do — they are talking about in the context of this fundamental opposition of gravitational pulls. So when people say, “Well, we have loads of other classes now, so Marx and Engels are wrong,” this is not really a criticism worthy of the interlocutor.
Now, in the context of a situation in which you still have a very large rural population, like 80 percent of Europe or something at that time, the majority of whom would still be experiencing life in a way that would be essentially pretty recognizable to a feudal peasant, what they’re doing is they’re making a prediction, based on their read of the class dynamics, about what’s going to happen in terms of the relationship of people on the land to productive capitalism. They’re predicting the diminution of the peasantry, both in terms of numbers but also as a social force, and the pull of those groups within the field of the bourgeoisie and proletariat. On those terms, I think they’re fairly trivially obviously correct.
They’re predicting the diminution of the peasantry, both in terms of numbers but also as a social force, and the pull of those groups within the field of the bourgeoisie and proletariat.
Now, my hunch is that Marx and Engels would be astonished and probably pretty appalled in most cases by, among other things, the proliferation of these people with what Erik Olin Wright called contradictory class positions — the professional managerial classes (PMCs) and these endless debates about what exactly is the class position of a working-class person who owns shares in the company, and all the intermediary levels of managerial specialists and so on. So I think it is true that one of the many things that Marx and Engels probably underestimated as activists themselves was the space for that proliferation of intermediaries and other classes.
Still, the fundamental dynamic that they identified, for my money, remains not just persuasive but indispensable. Because the point is that all of those other groups — important as they are, meaningful as they are, humans as they are — all of their relationship to society is predicated on that pull between those in charge, the ruling class who are making the decisions at an aggregate level about the production and distribution in society, and those who are doing the work for them and who are producing the profit without any control over it.
That fundamental dynamic remains as strong as ever. And in a sense, if all you focus on is the fact of other classes, you’re not doing anything but the most snapshot vulgar sociology. But once you start to say, “How do these classes work, and to what ends, for what purposes, with what tendencies?” then I don’t think you can do that without identifying a fundamental class opposition under capitalism. That’s why I think whatever the intentions and beliefs of the authors, the actual philosophical claims made and historical claims made hold water very rigorously.
They argue that the capitalist mode of production tends toward a particular form of crisis, one that ultimately lays the groundwork for its overthrow. They write, “In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of overproduction.” These crises are then provisionally resolved “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.”
What is overproduction? And were Marx and Engels correct to diagnose this as capitalism’s signal crisis tendency, or has the long sweep of capitalist history over the past century and three quarters since they wrote this revealed that other forms of crisis are also at play?
What they are trying to identify are tendencies over the long duration. So to merely point at something that doesn’t fit this model and say “this exists and therefore they’re wrong” would be silly. You’ve got to look at it on an aggregate level. It’s also important to caveat that the economic theories embedded in the Manifesto are probably the least developed of the things that it does. There certainly are economic positions and theories in the Manifesto, but I think they need more teasing apart, and they can more fruitfully be built up with other things that they said elsewhere to get a full picture.
On the question of history and politics, one can relatively uncontroversially, even from within the Left, say they were wrong about certain things. For example, famously, they talk about the absolute immiseration of the worker, the idea that things are just going to get worse and worse on an absolute level, which even they themselves disputed later. As an aside, I would stress that they also dispute it within the Manifesto, although they don’t fully seem to realize they’re doing it. I mention this because, as with any text, we need to be able to deploy the text against itself and identify the fundamental philosophies within it.
Now, what you’re talking about is this paradox, which, to put it very simply, is that under for example feudalism, an economic crisis would probably manifest as, “We have a certain number of goods and we don’t have enough of them for everyone who wants them.” This is to simplify to a point that would make a historian scream, no doubt, but broadly speaking this is their claim. Under capitalism, what you have instead is too many goods to make a viable profit on, and therefore a crisis of overproduction. And as this economic theory gets fleshed out, you also end up with related inextricable problems, such as an overproduction of goods that people need but which they can’t buy because they don’t have enough money.
Once you start thinking of it like that, it feels much less paradoxical, because that is a situation we see all around us every day. We live in an unbelievably debased reality. It is one of the most common things in the world for people to die of hunger in markets where there is a grain surplus because they don’t have enough money.
We live in an unbelievably debased reality. It is one of the most common things in the world for people to die of hunger in markets where there is a grain surplus because they don’t have enough money.
There’s a combination here of two phenomena. The reason that things are produced under capitalism is not because they’re needed, but because they make a profit. If no one needed any of them, they would never make a profit, so this isn’t saying that they’re random. But it is saying that if it’s more profitable to make torture instruments than baby formula, then the logic of capitalism is to make as many torture instruments as possible, irrespective of what the individual capitalists think. Some of them may decry this situation, but the logic of the system is profit maximization. And that means that you will get more torture instruments than baby formula. And then you will reach a point where there are so many torture instruments that there’s a glut, and even the people who enthusiastically want to torture their enemies can’t afford to sweep them all up, and oh, by the way, we haven’t produced enough baby formula.
The crisis of insufficient commodities of a particular type is always inextricable from a crisis of overproduction in another sector and on a localized level. What this also means is that you’re never talking under capitalism about lack of demand. What you’re talking about is a lack of effective demand. An effective demand means demand backed up with the money to buy the goods, and that’s why you can end up with grain ships throwing their silos overboard because the price is too low to bother going to the next port, at the same time as people within a day’s drive of the next port are dying of starvation.
It says something about what’s happened to us as human beings, that this is a widely known reality and yet somehow the society is still considered viable.
And this is not an insight that’s unique to Marx. It’s the sort of thing that that [John Maynard] Keynes was looking at as well.
Yeah, and every time there’s an economic crisis it will be manifested by people suffering these exact situations and dying, and pilings up of surplus in some areas that are rotting, which then means the collapse of other industries, which means you’re then not getting the production of other things.
And one of the things that happens regular as clockwork is that every time there is an economic crisis, a section of mainstream bourgeois economics, generally liberal but sometimes even right-wing, will delightfully try to scandalize its followers by saying that in fact we can learn quite a bit here from Karl Marx. And there’s this utterly tedious return to Marx that happens every few years because the crises return every few years, and then the more farsighted or perspicacious or indeed edgelord wing of mainstream economics will point out that this is hardly news.
According to the Manifesto, this process of crisis and provisional resolution ultimately leads to some breaking point “by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.” Did Marx and Engels fail to see how many provisional resolutions capitalism would manage to conjure up over time, or maybe is it too soon to tell?
Yeah, give it another three, four hundred years. We’ll see. [laughs] No, I think they did. But again, let’s distinguish between what they thought, what they said, and what what they said meant. We have to be able to tease these apart.
Now, I don’t think it’s controversial — and in fact it’s been a mainstay of a lot of the socialist movement, perhaps most famously being that [Leon] Trotsky said this ninety years after the Manifesto — to say that Marx and Engels would be astonished and appalled by the adaptability of capitalism. And if there’s one thing that I think we on the Left have to really take into our souls, it’s quite how adaptable capitalism is. Tragically, it is eminently possible that capitalism can and will adapt itself to death, by which I mean the death of it and everyone else. I don’t think this is controversial. Well, it’s clearly controversial, but it’s not controversial to me among me.
Now the Manifesto itself is interestingly contradictory on this, because they are often accused of being what some people call inevitablist, and basically saying that certain things will definitely happen. There is a traditional leftist defense of them, which is to say, “No, they don’t say that these things will definitely happen.” I don’t think that’s true. I think there are certain things they did say will definitely happen, which didn’t happen. What’s interesting, though, is that they also said within the same text that they might not happen.
You have repeated references to the inevitable victory of the proletarians, producing its own gravediggers, the victory is inevitable, etc. This is pretty clear, and I think it takes quite a lot of gymnastics to pretend that they’re not making those claims.
If there’s one thing that I think we on the Left have to really take into our souls, it’s quite how adaptable capitalism is.
But within the same text, they say that one of the outcomes of struggle between classes can be the mutual ruination of the contending classes. You can end up with a catastrophe in which no one comes out on top. And then I would go further and say that within their very exhortations, within the very eagerness and urgency of the tenor in which they make their writing, there is an implicit sense that this is a deeply, deeply important job. They’re desperately trying to recruit people to this. And if you see it as straightforwardly inevitable, why are you bothering to recruit people? It just doesn’t follow.
This isn’t an attempt to exonerate them from criticism, but rather to say that there’s a contradiction here. Everything in the Manifesto, in the way they talk to their working-class readers, says that they are desperate for them to get on board. And part of the reason they’re desperate for them to get on board is because they’re not at all sure it’s all going to be okay — even as in other parts, they clearly do think that the victory is inevitable. As an aside, I don’t think this contradiction is unique. I think you find it in loads and loads of texts.
I think they were excessively optimistic about the way that once you reach a certain point at which the property relations of capitalism are standing in the way of the productive capacities of capitalism — which for me would include the capacities culturally and spiritually and in terms of all other spheres, not merely in terms of the production of stuff — there’s a certain inevitability that it’s going to be overthrown. It will be overthrown in a political and ideological sense as well.
One key piece of this argument is that a virtue of capitalism is that it’s rendered all these forms of oppression, hierarchy and domination stark and clear, and thus prone to being delegitimized and revolted against. They write:
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 remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment” . . . for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
On one level, there is an aspect of capitalism that’s like this. But on the other, they didn’t seem to take into account the coming role to be played by new and powerful superstructures, the ideologies that [Antonio] Gramsci identified, forces that would mystify and relegitimize capitalism again and again. But perhaps they really didn’t exist in that way at the time, and what they really were seeing before them was just this demystifying process underway.
As with so much in the Manifesto, I think what they’re identifying here with a polemical and performative formulation is a real tendency. We have indeed seen, at various points of history, certain kinds of old-school, patriarchal, traditional authorities overthrown by the cash nexus. And even within societies or places where they aren’t — which, in other words, is everywhere in the world in various ways — there are times and contexts in which that becomes much clearer, and the the primacy of the cash nexus will assert itself in many cases.
But what I don’t think Marx and Engels recognize is two things: a) the tenacity of some of these tendencies of differentiation, and b) the way they intersect with the class and power dynamics within capitalism. In some cases this is entirely cynical and conscious, as in the deployment of racism, for example, by ruling classes as a way to keep workers on side in certain contexts. But it doesn’t have to be a cynical decision. These can be completely sincere beliefs, but beliefs that are nonetheless able to sustain themselves because they are operating within a certain ideological niche within capitalism, with its underlying gravitational pulls.
And so what they see as capitalism’s capacity to act like historical and social bleach, which just effaces everything, is actually more like a reagent. Capitalism has a fundamental dynamic that is always there, some of these other dynamics will continue to operate, albeit in new ways. I don’t think this is something that can’t be brought within the purview that the Manifesto lays out, but I do think it’s fair to say that they have a much too one-sided view of capitalism as a flattening force.
What you say about the newer ideological apparatuses, mentioning Gramsci and so on, I 100 percent agree with that. And I think that it is important to say that one of the things they underestimated is the power of ideology and ideological apparatuses. And in the eras of mass media and social media and so on, these take on very dramatic new forms.
One of the things they underestimated is the power of ideology and ideological apparatuses.
There is also an interesting discussion to be had here at a much wider historical level, which isn’t capitalism-specific, asking the question: Why do some of these ideological things work in the ways they do? Why do they work on human beings? I don’t think this is a crisis that we need to give up all hope about, but when people say, for example, that the mass media or the right-wing media whip up demonization of immigrants or trans people or whatever — clearly they do, it’s true. But it doesn’t follow automatically that that would work. Why does it work? There are loads of people out there doing incredibly good work to pick apart the chains of logic and political antagonism and interest and so on that make it so that these individual things work in these particular circumstances. But I do still think sometimes there’s an unanswered question about the way human beings relate in certain fundamental ways.
For example, look back to Byzantium and the chariot races. Loads of people today are screaming at the radio or a podcast right now. But long before capitalism, you’ve got these competitive chariot races with various teams identified by colors, and these became dynamics that led to riots and deaths and people killing each other, like a protofootball hooliganism. There is a certain right-wing argument that says, “Well, that happens, and therefore socialism won’t work.” I’m not that guy, and I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that it is surely of interest to us that these semiautonomously thrown up situations can lead to violent agonism within and against different groups.
Again I’m not at all saying that racism is inevitable or anything like that. What I’m saying is that we have work to do to understand the ways that, to put it tendentiously, the human soul acts in certain different historical contexts and under certain political pressures. These are the questions anthropologists, theologians, and psychoanalysts with a historical bent might try to answer. I’m learning increasing amounts from them, and it seems to me that what’s happening now is an exaggerated and dramatically accelerated version of things that have happened in various contexts throughout history, but now with a new class dynamic behind them that leads to increasing exploitation and oppression.
Along those lines, Marx and Engels write, “Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labor, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex.” Speaking of reading the text against itself, those two sentences side by side have, I think, an incredibly productive tension.
And they don’t address race here, though it is addressed in other works. But does this analysis point to something important about the way that classes are lived under capitalism, in terms of sex or race or other social forms? It’s the idea that these forms of difference are, under capitalism, simultaneously flattened into a money relation, like a worker labor widget, and also — at least implicitly here, which is where the tension comes in — intensified. In other words, the difference is intensified through that very same flattening process.
Yes, I think that’s beautifully put and I think you’re 100 percent right. It’s one of the most remarkable sections. It is not true to say, as some have, that race and gender are lacunae that are not addressed in the Manifesto. Flatly false. What is true is that the observations are not systemically integrated into the theory that is being developed. And that’s a shame, not because it would have proved the theory wrong, but because I think it would have enriched the theory that is laid out in incomplete form. And this is the difference between the add-and-stir model — as in, add gender to class analysis and stir — and a more constitutive and systematic model so that this isn’t a question of adding gender to class, but rather a question of gender and class.
It’s not a matter of saying, “Well, according to some obligatory checklist of a graduate school, I have to mention the following axes of oppression.” It’s that some of these axes of oppression are literally and systemically having an impact on the fundamental dynamics at play, how they are experienced and how they replicate themselves.
In the case of gender, you have Marx and Engels saying capitalism eradicates differences of gender, and then mentioning that different workers get paid differently depending on their gender. But what workers get paid is a key constituent of their entire theory, the labor theory of value that they lay out, which is present in nascent form in the Manifesto but then gets developed later on in other works. So you’re not just saying that race and gender and other axes of oppression are “the modalities by which class is lived,” which they are also, but that they are constitutive of all of those categories, such as surplus value, at the level of the systemic replication of the system itself.
In other words, it’s not just a question of saying, “Well, we’re going to integrate these things because they give us a more nuanced understanding of the way people live in class society and experience class society,” though there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s an important thing to do. But it’s not only that, it’s also about saying, “And beyond that, it’s going to give us a more rigorous and a better understanding of the way that class society works and replicates itself and makes it profit and distributes its profit.”
It is not true to say that race and gender are lacunae that are not addressed in the Manifesto.
This is one of the things that’s very frustrating sometimes about the debates on the Left between, to use grossly unhelpful forms, “class-first” Marxism versus intersectional Marxism. Sometimes if you allow that these modalities are in fact experience, you can say, “Well, sure, but I’m not talking about experience. I’m talking about the fundamental dynamics of capitalism itself. And this other stuff is for sociology or psychology or whatever. And I’m interested in Marx, the laws of motion.”
The point is, if you approach this without the add-and-stir model — if you actually approach it the way, as you pointed out, it is indicated within the Communist Manifesto itself — those laws of motion on which you peg such Marx bro credentials are indeed raced and gendered as part of being classed. And that’s the point about a nuanced understanding of class. You’re not just adding things. You’re understanding class and class society better, including those laws of motion, I would say.
Yeah, it’s simultaneously about the social and economic reality of capitalism, and it turns out they’re inextricable because the ideological alibi for capitalism — race, sex, gender, nationality — also fundamentally structures capitalism as an economic system.
And as capitalism does with so many things, it either creates or in a lot of cases inherits a set of oppressions. And then even if on a surface experience level it leaves them almost exactly the same — which it rarely does, but even if it does — by virtue of doing that in a different systemic context, it’s doing a fundamentally different systemic thing. The replication of the same in a new context is not the same.
People who haven’t read the Manifesto, or perhaps who haven’t read it since their youth, might be surprised by how much is dedicated to the question of the family. They write, “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” And:
Abolition [Aufhebung] of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.
On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.
The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.
They write that the proletarianization of working-class women and children means that no such hallowed family form exists among the working class. They do not see the bourgeois family as something to be emulated and universalized as some sort of, like, trad-normie socialist might believe. Indeed, they assert that the bourgeois family will be abolished alongside capitalism.
So what is the family for Marx and Engels? And what does it reveal about their theorization of sex, sexuality, and kinship under capitalism? And I should add that there is a rather trolling and hard for me to parse line about free love that I think may relate to this general argument.
It’s very difficult to tell the extent to which they really mean this.
One of the things they mean, and I think this is perfectly true and reasonable, is that capitalism doesn’t give you any space to breathe. Capitalism doesn’t give you any space to love each other in the way that you deserve to be loved and the way you deserve to love. Everyone who gets up on a Monday morning and wants to spend the day with their kids or their partner or partners and is like, “I gotta go to fucking work” — at one level, this is what they’re saying.
I think that the distinction between the bourgeois and the working-class family here is exaggerated partly for polemical effect. But what makes it really interesting to me is how, with other tendencies in the Manifesto, they’re arguing that capitalism has laid things bare. But when they’re talking about the family, particularly the bourgeois family, they actually do something different: they say we are now in an era of systemic hypocrisy, where the claims that are made are systematically broken at every point. You make a claim about fidelity and monogamy, and then you have widespread prostitution and bed-hopping. They have this thing about the bourgeoisie jumping into bed with each other’s wives and so on.
And yes, partly what they’re doing is trolling, sure, but I think they’re also doing something really interesting. They don’t flesh this out, but I think one of the things this does is get at the way ideology works. There’s something that Denise Riley says, which is really fantastic, in her book War in the Nursery. She says that it doesn’t make any sense to think that an ideology only has effect if it is believed. That’s not how it works at all. And what Marx and Engels are saying is these are the ideas you propagate, and this is what you do — you break them systematically.
One of the things they mean is that capitalism doesn’t give you any space to breathe. Capitalism doesn’t give you any space to love each other in the way that you deserve to be loved.
And it’s not enough to say, “Oh, well, they’re all liars and hypocrites.” Rather it’s important that this system puts out these ideas and then systematically breaks them. I would relate this to a variety of other things under bourgeois society, which is the putting forward certain liberal ideas that capitalism itself cannot deliver on.
Here what they’re essentially saying in a more direct way is that these moralist, sanctimonious ideas of an essentially misogynist view of the purity of womanhood and the family and so on — you purport to believe them, and not only are those ideas questionable in themselves, but actually the system itself undermines them at every turn. So it puts forward something baleful and then undermines it in a baleful way. I find that very rich.
In terms of family abolition, I know this has become a bit of a tussle between leftists in recent years. And I’m not on social media, so I miss a lot of this stuff, but I feel like for me, family abolition worthy of the name doesn’t mean like we are going to rip you from the bosom of these people who are your family, who I don’t care whether or not you love them, you’re a communist so abolish them. This is ridiculous. And in a sense, maybe it would have helped if they talked about the withering away of the family. The point is that this institution isn’t given by God, and it isn’t given by history universally. And even if you think it predated capitalism, under capitalism it is doing certain jobs, and they are not jobs that you want done.
Therefore to be a family abolitionist, to me, is simply to say that this particular version of this institution that is doing these jobs as it has to structurally under capitalism cannot stand, and part of the destruction of capitalism is throwing all these supposed givens up in the air and saying, “There’s absolutely nothing inevitable about these things.”
And letting kinship be liberated from the constraints imposed upon it by capitalism.
Yeah. Kinship, families of choice, kithship — I really don’t care what it’s going to be like on the assumption that it’s going to be better. Which, I think, if you don’t follow that wager, then why would you be a socialist? This is like, after a hundred years of communism, if someone finds that other special someone and they really want to have, as a fully flowered human being in a situation of grassroots democracy, what looks from the outside like a traditional family, I don’t care. The point is it would be doing something very different because the situation would be very different.
It wouldn’t be like so compulsory, or compulsory at all.
Yeah. Compulsory or even given, because a lot of the compulsory things we have, we don’t think of them as compulsory. We just think, how could it be any other way?
A lot of the compulsory things we have, we don’t think of them as compulsory. We just think, how could it be any other way?
I hope I do a better job of this in the book, but in the day-to-day I’m not very good at having this argument, because I simply don’t understand why people get so worked up about it. And I know there’s a tactical question, which is, “Don’t say family abolition in front of the liberals because it scares them,” which I think is just ridiculous. Like, we’re going to get all kinds of shit thrown at us no matter what we say. But at least I understand the logic of the tactical position. The debates about family abolition, when they get into a much more vituperative existential question of socialism, I just don’t really understand the depth of the concerns to be frank.
The point you made a few minutes back about Marx and Engels’s emphasis on the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie — I just want to underline that, the point being that hypocrisy is constitutive of power systems. So many examples come to mind, from like Ron DeSantis getting married at Disney World or Jerry Falwell Jr getting into all kinds of swinger type stuff, to just like liberal American power brokers claiming that America has been this force for spreading democracy and freedom around the world.
It’s constant. It the first draft of the book, I tried to go into this a bit more. And to be honest, it became so much of a separate thing that, with a slightly heavy heart, I had to cut it out. But I feel like a lot of the discussion around ideology revolves around the stated ideas and what they do, or hypocrisy understood almost as a somewhat individualized transgression. Like, “Not only do these people put forward these ideas, they don’t even believe it themselves,” or whatever.
Well, fine, but how do we understand a system that both takes its own ideas very seriously and also constitutively and systemically creates structural hypocrisy? That is something I would like to think about more.
Colonialism and globalization are key to Marx and Engels’s analysis, both causally in terms of what propelled the rise of capitalism in Europe, and also, I think in terms of the inherent movement toward the constitution of a capitalist world system. They write,
The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonization of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.
They also write, “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. . . .” It’s a system, they write, that relies on
raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.
The cheap prices of 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 one word, it creates a world after its own image. . . .
Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.
What’s this importance they assign to capitalism’s inherently globalizing character, and do they indeed see its globalization vis-à-vis European colonialism as a progressive force in world history? Because there’s some ambivalence here. The essential scare quotes that they put around European civilization raises some questions about just how civilized the European bourgeoisie are.
A lot has been made by some commentators about the moments of the Manifesto that seem to condone European conquest, but others have documented how much Marx’s own positions on questions of colonialism changed and shifted as it escalated alongside the resistance of colonial subjects. So what is the assessment? Because there does seem to be both an awe of the dynamism of the bourgeoisie that’s required to lay the groundwork for communism to actually come, but at the same time a sense that it is the European bourgeoisie who are the true barbarians.
So-called civilization is another formulation that they use, and let’s not underestimate quite how radical that was. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about certain kinds of Eurocentric predicates in Marx and Engels, and to be clear I think that’s perfectly fair. But I also think it’s worth stressing how radical the mere fact of using those scare quotes at that time was. That’s not to be sniffed at.
I think it’s true that their anti-colonialism at a political level became much stronger and more developed and theoretically fleshed-out later on than it was in the Manifesto. So I certainly wouldn’t want to say that there are no problems here, or that they had a position that they followed through all the way. That isn’t true at all, and the later Marx and Engels are more nuanced about this. At the same time, I would find it hard to really sign off on the idea that they justify colonialism. That’s a loaded term, predicated on ethical philosophy. I think what is fair to say is that at certain points in the Manifesto, they see it as inevitable.
They don’t celebrate the fact, but they do see it as inevitable. And ultimately it’s an invidious term to say “historically progressive,” so let’s avoid putting it that way. But there was a sense that like having done this task, we will now be in a better place for global communism. I think that’s a position they move away from, and you can see that even in the afterword to the Manifesto in later editions, where they start to entertain the notion of essentially moving beyond capitalism without passing through bourgeois society based on different premises. But even early on, that sense of inevitability isn’t a celebration, and they are never less than clear-faced about the brutality of what’s going on here.
Even if at certain moments there may be a heavy-heart sense that this is simply something that is going to happen, and we have to get through it so that we can get to a better world, that doesn’t mean that they efface the crimes of colonialism. It doesn’t mean that they have dewy eyes about the “civilizing mission” of colonialism. And that, again, puts them radically ahead of even the left wing of the workers’ movement at this point — tragically, even ahead of many of the Paris Communards in 1871, who even after the overthrow of the commune still supported some version of the civilizing mission.
I would find it hard to really sign off on the idea that they justify colonialism.
Those famous scare quotes, they’re not just a stylistic flourish. They’re making an important point there. Let’s stress that section you quoted about cheap prices being the heavy artillery which knocks down the Chinese walls. Now, what might be missed by some modern readers is the fact that on the one hand they’re making a point about the vigor of capitalism, which by this relentless search for profits means lowering the prices of commodities, and that’s one of the ways by which it spreads into the rest of the world. But what they’re also doing there is making a very direct analogy with the Opium Wars, so called, by which Britain basically opened up the Chinese market to its opium — Britain being the great drug pusher of the nineteenth century. And to open up one of the key cities to the opium trade that the Chinese authorities did not want it in, the British Navy literally used heavy artillery on a city, bombed the shit out of a city, killed loads of people.
I think this is doing two different things. First Marx and Engels, in a highly unusual way, are constantly stressing the sheer murderous barbarity of colonialism, even if they see it as inevitable. They’re certainly not justifying or celebrating it. And second they’re pointing out the brutality and murder with which it happened. Now I would go further and I would say one of the other things that’s really interesting about this, and that could be really fleshed out, is that they see — in a way that even many of their followers today, I think, don’t — the inextricability of violence and market relations, of political state force and a notionally free market.
When they talk about the inevitability of colonialism, I think even that has has two faces, because they have a sense of communism as very much not an ascetic moment. They see it as built on plenty. It’s designed to be a radical grassroots democracy up, not down. Because of that, they have an analysis where they see communism as only possible to emerge out of developed capitalism. And for that reason, you can read some of their inevitability talk as saying that this has to happen so that the world is ready. And this is where there’s almost a certain ethical bravery in their position, which is to say these terrible things, we don’t deny the fact that these terrible things are going to happen, and we’re going to keep talking about them because ultimately we’re going to move to a better position.
Let’s be clear, they moved away from this. And I think it’s wrong. But they aren’t doing what a lot of people, and particularly a lot of liberals, do, which is if you see something as inevitable you make a virtue of it and you try to integrate it into your program. So there is a certain bleak rigor about that. But there’s also merely an analytical thing, which is that they are saying that this is what capitalism is going to do. This is how it works. And on that level, they were right.
Now, they were wrong about a lot of the details. They did have this sense about the flattening down and the creation of a world culture, and they were wrong about that. And they very clearly acknowledge that later on, and not even very long afterward. I think Marx’s positions on these started to shift very early.
Marx and Engels, in a highly unusual way, are constantly stressing the sheer murderous barbarity of colonialism, even if they see it as inevitable.
But this isn’t a question of special pleading. It’s a question of trying to understand the model. And part of what they’re doing, which can be glossed as “justifying colonialism,” is saying, “Hey, this is how capitalism works. And this is what it’s going to do. And it’s going to do it by racing remorselessly and brutally through all these other nations. And it’s not going to care how much blood it spills.” I don’t think that’s justifying it at all. I think that’s about saying, “These are the real fruits of your capitalist so-called civilization, and this is why we need to move beyond it.”
Yeah, it’s exposing capitalism. It’s saying this purportedly free contract of exploitation relies on this relentless expropriation or primitive accumulation, this violence of colonialism. This is the actual reality. And there’s a lot of other great lines in other Marx texts about that as well.
Exactly. Now, for all that, it is true that there is not enough of a sense of agency of people within these societies that are being subsumed into capitalism. It doesn’t have enough of a sense of the way that that will be an uneven process, and the way formal subsumption doesn’t mean that you’re not really capitalist and may mean the changing of certain preexisting situations. Nor do they integrate enough of a sense in which the ways people might fight back against this, the political resistance they can put up, and ultimately different roads through or beyond to a different social setup rather than through their model of industrial capitalism.
So I don’t want to come away from this discussion suggesting that this is a flawless passage. It absolutely isn’t. And it’s no coincidence that this is one of the longer sections of my book. But I do think a lot of the criticism of it is wrongheaded and underestimates the extent to which this was a position based on an excoriating rage at the brutality of colonialism as inextricable from capitalism.
There’s a remarkable line where they write:
The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
It seems like one and two are making the same point that communists act as a leading and cohering force of the larger working-class movement, and the way that they do that is by articulating the fundamental internationalism of the communist movement and the workers’ movement.
Why for Marx and Engels does the global nature of the capitalist mode of production require an internationalist struggle to overcome it? And why is this such an overriding priority? It should be noted, especially for someone writing at the time, just how relentlessly universalist this is.
Famously when they say that workers have no country, or the working man has no country, this is sometimes read as meaning that they think that nationalism has no hold over the working class. Now, I follow Hal Draper, who rather says that actually this is a stern instruction to the working-class activist to stop identifying with your nation-state. Stop identifying with your country. This is not your friend, you know.
This is this a stern instruction to the working-class activist to stop identifying with your nation-state. Stop identifying with your country.
Or like they say at the end, “Workers of all countries unite.”
Absolutely. And there is a very simple sense in which they see communism and the revolution as necessarily international, because they also see capitalism that way. One of the things that they stress almost from the word go is that the dynamism of capital is not only internal, but also external, meaning it spreads throughout the globe. It goes everywhere because of this dynamic of maximization and exploitation.
Now, I think there’s partly an ethical injunction here, which is, what’s the point of having an incompletely liberated world? But I think at a more systemically necessary level, they don’t deny that national economies exist, but they are inextricable from a global system. That global system is going to be predicated on these class relations and this accumulation that has been identified, and therefore you’re not actually talking about a self-contained economic and class system anywhere in any one place that doesn’t extend into all the other places.
That doesn’t mean that everything has to happen everywhere all at once, to riff off the film. But what it does mean is that if what we’re talking about a systemic transformation, which is absolutely what they’re talking about, then we’re necessarily talking about a systemic transformation everywhere, because these things are all interrelated. And the system itself is international. So the rupture with that system also has to be international, and has to be total.
Let’s turn to Marx and Engels’s theory of the capitalist state. They write, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”
What are they arguing here about the connection between the economic revolution of industrial capitalism and the political revolution of liberalism? And is their assertion that the state merely reflects bourgeois interests? This of course would prove to be the object of considerable debate in Marxist theory, and remains so today.
It does remain so, as I can attest from the somewhat testy not-exactly fan mail I’ve received from some quarters about my deviations from certain classical positions. I think, again, this is a polemical and performative utterance. To the extent that what they are saying is that the capitalist state is about the replication of capital and capital accumulation — and that is pushed by and in the service of the bourgeoisie, who war among themselves but are all committed to this question of accumulation — you can certainly understand what they’re gesturing at.
That formulation can be considered in opposition to those people who might have had a desire to turn to the state to request reforms to make things better, to sand the rough edges of capitalism, or even do something more fundamental. What they’re partly saying is that it will never do that, because that’s not what it’s for.
Now, the formulation also lends itself to a rather reductive and conspiratorial reading of, like, a smoke-filled room where a certain group of people decide on a line in a very reductive way to maximize their profits. The moment you say that, you have to bear in mind: that exactly happens a lot of the time. There are plenty of smoke-filled rooms in which conspiracies of capitalists get together to decide, like a committee, their interests and what the laws should be. So even that parodic vision is hardly without some traction today.
But there are also other modes of the state, and I think it’s very important to stress that. The bourgeoisie, not only do they not agree on everything, but they are always fundamentally at war with each other. And Marx and Engels are very clear about this. So what can a committee for their interests mean, given that they’re constantly at war? All it can really mean, at some level, is a situation to maintain the conditions for the replication of capital.
But to say that once you’ve nailed that you’ve really got down to the fundamental secret of the state and there’s not much left to be said about the details is just not very helpful. To the extent that one wants to criticize Marx and Engels’s model and say, “Well, actually you can use the state to reform or even get rid of capitalism,” I don’t agree with that. In the final instance, in the last analysis, I do think that the actually-existing state under capitalism is indeed inextricable from capitalism itself. And that does ultimately mean bourgeois interests.
Interestingly though, Marx and Engles do in the Manifesto put forward a minimum program — what one might call, maybe sloppily and retroactively, of nonreformist reforms.
Yeah. Transitional program.
Yeah. Including the “concentrating means of communication and transportation in the hands of the state” or “a heavily progressive or graduated income tax.”
For them, communism is presented as this fundamentally ruptural program that will not only be a rupture with capitalism, but with all hitherto known modes of production, because it will be the first ever to not have one group oppressing another. What do you make of that existing alongside, in the Manifesto, these things that look like reforms?
One of the things that’s interesting about Marx and Engels’s minimum program is that it’s quite minimal. Some of the propositions are incredibly mild and really startling. I don’t think one should get too in the weeds on the specific proposals that they made. They were very clear, almost immediately and from all the future editions on, saying, “Look, don’t focus on these specifically. Some of these still work. Some of them were superseded by history. That’s not really their point.”
Their point, as you say, is to try to embody nonreformist reforms, by which one means reforms that can be undertaken under the existing situation of capitalism, but that in their logic push so far against the defining logic and dynamics of capitalism, that they end up opening up a space and creating a fissure which makes it more likely that further and more radical demands and movements will push through. So it’s a reform in capitalism to weaken capitalism itself.
What we can learn from that is Marx and Engels’s position on the state didn’t preclude them having a day-to-day horse trading relationship with the state. It was very rough horse-trading, but that didn’t do that which some might call ultraleftists do, which is essentially say that any engagement with actually existing capitalism or the capitalist state is just propping up capitalism, so we’re not gonna have any part of it. They didn’t do that.
Their point is to try to embody nonreformist reforms, by which one means reforms that weaken capitalism itself.
Now, there’s the model of the nonreformist reform, and then there’s the specific nonreformist reforms. You can say Marx and Engels were wrong about their specific forms. Their argument was like, “These were right at the time and in the context in which we put them. They would be different country to country, year to year.” But the model itself is one that I find quite compelling because it seems to me to cut with the way that people’s lives work, the way that the state works across a variety of different forms. It is always mindful of the fact that this can become merely reformism and also always mindful of the fact that there can always be a reasonable disagreement about what is and is not a reform that pushes against reformism, and that if people disagree with that it doesn’t necessarily mean that one or other is a traitor.
I find that a fairly compelling model of a way to do day-to-day politics as someone who is committed to ruptural politics, as in a complete rupture with the everyday logic of how we do things under capitalism. To me, almost more than revolution — which is not to resile from the word revolution, but because I find it more productive — the word rupture, which recurs in the Manifesto, is the word that I keep returning to that keeps being important to me.
They talk about the most radical rupture, and I find that very moving and almost breathtaking. Because there is a paradox of this politics, which is that what you’re ultimately seeking here is what you could call a red sublime — the absolute overturning of the everyday, the absolute reconfiguring of the everyday, and the construction of and by, as Engels said, an entirely different “human material.”
You’re not talking here about us changing what we do. In the changing, we change ourselves. The scale of this is so moving, and this is partly what makes them part of a millenarian tradition, almost a religious tradition, which some leftists don’t like. They consider it a canard or a slur. I’m fine with that because I think these are very noble aspirations.
But this red sublime, how do you do it? Progressive income tax — talk about bathos, talk about underwhelming! And that is the lived reality.
But it feels real, as someone who does political organizing.
Exactly. This is what it is to be a revolutionary socialist. To be a communist is to spend your life in this occasionally joyful, mostly melancholy oscillation between these like ecstatic senses of alterity and potentiality and the most tedious day-to-day minutiae of drab little reforms, because there’s no other way to do it.
So I find it funny, and I find it sweet, and I find it poignant, and I find it moving, and I find it convincing.
Let’s talk about what communism would look like, which Marx and Engels are famously rather vague about. They write, “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
Is this where we see a move from Marx and Engels the cold-blooded analysts of history to just a fundamentally ethical position?
Marx and Engels throughout the Manifesto, and indeed beyond, are fairly adamant that they don’t have an ethics. This is not an ethical position. They don’t know. And as you know, you read the book, and think they’re wrong about that. I think they absolutely do have an ethical position.
Normative claims are being made.
Right. And it’s not only an ethical position. And also there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having an ethical position. Normative claims should be made. Is can indeed imply ought under certain circumstances.
So in terms of like the actual question of to what extent this is an ethics, I think it is. And I think that in their eagerness to to differentiate themselves from moralistic socialism, they somewhat bent the stick too far and said, “There’s no such thing as morals.” And also there’s an edgelord thing. They’re like, “You keep talking about ethics, man, we don’t care about ethics.” It’s like, okay, all right, calm down.
So I think they do have an ethics and I think you’re absolutely right. It is not an ethics of equality. That’s not what concerns them. What it is is an ethics of liberation. It’s an ethics of full human freedom. Equality is in the service of that, rather than the other way around.
Their ethics horizon is a liberated humanity, which comes with a set of concomitant claims. We are not liberated people. I agree with them. It is not impossible that we could be liberated. I agree with them, which doesn’t mean that everything is therefore fine and perfect, no one is saying that. And that it would be better to be liberated than not be liberated.
In terms of what that means for a vision of communism, I’m going to follow Marx and Engels and refuse to speculate. Actually it should be said Engels got a bit agitated with Marx and he asked him to spell it out a couple of times. He was like, “I really wish you would describe communism more because people keep asking for it,” and Marx wouldn’t do it and he, famously, said he wouldn’t preempt the cookbooks of the future.
It would be the process of liberating ourselves that would make us fit to live in the world for liberated people that we would make.
For me, and I am well aware that there are people who I would stand in comradeship with who really disagree with me on this and that’s fine, I have no problem with speculating. I have no problem with dreams of what might be nice, of what one would like, and so on. But I do have an analytical problem with extrapolating that into, not even just blueprints, but trying to formulate how it might work.
And the reason for that is not out of a cowardly evasion. It’s to do with the red sublime, by which I mean that our whole minds are constructed in the context of the reality we live in. We are creatures of racial capitalism. Whether we oppose it or not, that’s not the point. The point is, our structures of opposition, our structures of feeling are all predicated on it. One of the wages of being a communist is that that doesn’t mean we can never escape it — but it does mean that in the escaping of it, finding those fissures within our own mind and within society and pushing through them, we would transform ourselves, as Engels says, just as much as we would transform society.
We would become “material” capable of living in a liberated world. It would be the process of liberating ourselves that would make us fit to live in the world for liberated people that we would make. And what that means is that it is literally impossible for us to really imagine communism, not because of some fiat of God or something, but from a very simple point of social psychology, which is that it is beyond our ken. And it is in the process of getting from here to there that we would be able to imagine what we need.
So I can say in very abstract terms, this would be predicated on a liberated humanity. It would not be predicated on very much asceticism. It would be predicated on a reasonable proliferation of comforts of food and shelter and so on.
What it would mean culturally and politically and so on, I don’t know. And I’m aware that when I say this, some people feel like it’s just a real evasion or whatever, that it’s just ducking the question. But the thing is, I think this model of things happens all the time. Imagine someone who is very prejudiced against a particular group, someone who’s very homophobic or whatever. Think about the famous cases of the miner strike in the UK and the support of the miners by large sections of the queer community. In one year you could have people with strongly homophobic opinions, partly because it would just be unthinkable that they would believe they know anyone gay, or that there’s anything other than “disgusting” about being gay. And then two years later, in the context of having struggled together with certain people, of simply meeting people, of changing their own relationship to their own politics and the politics of other people, of standing in comradeship with ACT UP or whatever, that changes.
This is not rocket science. It happens all the time. And all we’re talking about is doing that on a mass global systemic level. So it is out of fidelity to the necessity of a better world that I refuse to speculate too exactly about what that would be. All I need to know is that there’s a chance that the effort could work, and that there’s a reasonable chance it would be better than this.
And let’s look the fuck around us. I think that wager is worth taking.Original post