Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tearing Away the Veils: The Communist Manifesto

Marshall Berman, The City Univ. of New York
Dissent, May 2011

The following essay is the introduction to the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the Communist Manifesto, published this March.

TODAY, IN the early-twenty-first century, the Communist Manifesto is far less read than it once was. It is hard for people who are just growing up to grasp the way in which, for most of the twentieth century, Communist governments dominated much of the world. Communist educational systems were powerful and successful in many ways. But they were twisted in the way they canonized Marx and Engels as official patron saints. It is hard for people who have grown up without patron saints—Americans should not be too hasty to include themselves—to grasp this idea. But for decades, all over the world, any candidate for advancement in a Communist organization was expected to know certain passages and themes from Marx’s writings by heart, and to quote them fluently. (And expected not to know many other Marxian ideas: ideas of alienated labor, ideas of domination by the state, ideas of freedom.)

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the communist political system came apart remarkably fast. All over Central and Eastern Europe, Marx and Engels monuments were torn down. Pictures of people doing this were page-one material for a while. Some people noted skeptically that tearing down public monuments requires lots of organization, and wondered who was doing this organizing. Whatever the answers, it seems certain that, at the end of the twentieth century, there were plenty of ex-citizens of Communist police states who felt that life without Marx was liberation.

Ironically, this thrill was shared by people who were most devoted to Marx. Readers who love writers do not want to see them erected as Sunday-school sages. They can—I should say we can—only be thrilled by this loss of sanctity. Marx’s canonization after 1917 by Communist governments was a disaster. A thinker needs beatification like a hole in the head!

Intellectuals all over the world have welcomed this end-of-the-century crash as a fortunate fall. One of my old bosses at City College, who had grown up under Communist governments in Eastern Europe, said now that the Wall was down, I shouldn’t be allowed to teach Marx anymore, because “1989 proves that courses in Marxism are obsolete.” I told him today’s Marx, without police states, was a lot more exciting than yesterday’s patron saint. Now we could have direct access to a thinker who could lead us through the dynamics and contradictions of capitalist life. He laughed then. But by the end of the century, it seemed that the thrill had caught on. John Cassidy, the New Yorker magazine’s financial correspondent, told us in 1997 that Wall Street itself was full of study groups going through Marx’s writings, trying to grasp and synthesize many of the ideas that are central to his work: “globalization, inequality, political corruption, modernization, impoverishment, technological progress…the enervating nature of modern existence….” He was “the next great thinker” on the Street.

We can learn more about these things from the Communist Manifesto than from any book ever written. Much of its excitement derives from the idea that an enormous range of modern phenomena are connected. Sometimes Marx tries to explain the connections; other times, he just puts some things close to others, and leaves it for us to work it out.

What are Marx’s connections like? First—and startling when you’re not prepared for it—is praise for capitalism so extravagant, it skirts the edge of awe. Very early on, in “Part One: Bourgeois and Proletarians,” Marx describes the processes of material construction that it perpetrates, and the emotions that go with them. He is distinctive in the way he connects historical processes and emotions. He highlights the sense of being caught up in something magical, uncanny:

The bourgeoisie has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways…clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of he ground—what earlier century had any idea that such productive powers slumbered in the womb of social labor?
Or, a page before, on an innate dynamism that is spiritual as well as material:


I’VE SAVED my favorite Manifesto story for the end. It comes from Hans Morgenthau, the great theorist of international relations who came to America as a refugee from the Nazis. I heard him tell it in the early 1970s, at the City University of New York. He was reminiscing about his childhood in Bavaria before the First World War. Morgenthau’s father, a doctor in a working-class neighborhood of the town of Coburg (mostly miners, he said), had begun to take his son along on house calls. Many of his patients were dying of TB; a doctor in those years couldn’t do much to save their lives, but might help them die with dignity. Coburg was a place where many people who were dying asked to have the Bible buried with them. But when Morgenthau’s father asked his workers for last requests, many said they wanted to be buried with the Manifesto instead. They implored the doctor to see that they got fresh copies of the book, and that priests didn’t sneak in and make last-minute switches. Morgenthau was too young to “get” the book, he said. But it became his first political task to make sure that the workers’ families should get it. He wanted to be sure we would get it, too.

The twentieth century ended with the mass destruction of Marx effigies. It was said to be the “post-modern age”: we weren’t supposed to need grand narratives or big ideas. Twenty years later, we find ourselves in the grip of very different narratives: stories of a dynamic global society ever more unified by downsizing and deskilling—real work disappearing so company stocks can rise, so the rich can get richer and congratulate themselves on what they have done to our world. Few of us today share Marx’s feeling that a clear alternative to capitalism is there, right there. But many of us can embrace, or at least imagine, his radical perspective, his indignation, his belief that modern men and women have the capacity to create a better world. All of a sudden, the iconic may look more convincing than the ironic; that classic bearded presence, that atheist as biblical prophet, still has plenty to say. At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were workers who were ready to die with the Communist Manifesto. At the dawn of the twenty-first, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.

Marshall Berman teaches political theory and urbanism at CCNY/CUNY. He is the author of, among other books, Adventures in Marxism.

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