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What’s Wrong With The Communist Manifesto?

By Nachiket Midha

The Communist Manifesto was first published almost two centuries ago in 1848. Though it has lost its earlier relevance, its echoes are felt even today. In the latter part of the 19th century and for a greater part of the 20th century, this book, and the ideas that Marx and Engels laid in it, dominated the political and societal discourse. From the Bolshevik revolution in Czarist Russia to anti-colonial communist movements in South/Southeast Asia and Africa, this book became a rallying point. Reverberations of Marx’s ideas (mixed with political Islam) also came to the fore during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Notwithstanding its reputation, one must note that every text/theory has its problems, and The Communist Manifesto is no exception. To that end, this article aims at discerning some of the problematical aspects of this text that often remain obscure behind the more extensive themes it tries to extrapolate.

To begin with, the first point of contention in the text appears at the very end of the first chapter of the manifesto “Bourgeois and Proletarians”, precisely in the last paragraph . In this chapter, Marx and Engels describe the historical background that gave rise to the bourgeoisie. And, they simultaneously explicate a comparable process that will give rise to the proletarians as a united force, eventually overcoming the bourgeoisie. In the last paragraph of the said chapter, Marx and Engels talk about how “The advance of industry… [has replaced] the isolation of the laborers…by their revolutionary combination.” In other words, they talk about the imminent indefensibility of the bourgeoisie vis-à-vis the rise of the proletariat. Now, in the text, a conspicuous statement follows this assertion of the shift from ‘competition to an association,’ i.e., “Its [(the bourgeoisie’s)] fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” This claim becomes problematic for two broad reasons. First, by stressing the “inevitability” of something, Marx and Engels are downplaying or, to use a more hefty term, neglecting human agency/choice. Previously, in arguing that the bourgeoisie has been the most revolutionary class, the authors base this claim on the interaction between historical processes and choice (or agency). 

         Now, one might argue that this criticism focuses excessively on a mere semantic vagueness that appears in the text. However, the second shows that it is not merely semantic but a logical contradiction in the authors’ claim itself. The second concern  is that by downplaying the role of human agency through this weightage on the “inevitability” aspect, Marx and Engels contradict their earlier claim regarding the proletarian consciousness. Their claim that “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious…movement of the immense majority”  runs contrary to this claim about the inevitability of the parallel rise and fall of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, respectively. It is contradictory in the sense that while claiming that the proletarian movement is “self-conscious,” they attribute a distinguished agency to this movement but, they later seemingly take away this agency by their undue emphasis on inevitability. This contradiction becomes relevant because the authors leave some questions unanswered, namely, why do they believe that the situation of simultaneous rise and fall in their epoch is inevitable? Does that inevitability grow out of societal processes? Or does it grow out of human agency? Or both? Thus, these problems are not merely semantical irritations but hint at a broader unresolved theoretical contradiction in the manifesto. 

         Moving on,  towards the end of chapter two, entitled “Proletarians and the Communists,” after addressing the criticisms against the communists, the authors move towards laying a predictive plan of how a communist society might come to being. In other words, at the end of this chapter, the authors concretize their main objectives vis-à-vis the formulation of a system that they advocate. Colloquially, they argue here about ‘what they stand for’ in this movement of the communists. In producing this system/plan, Marx and Engels initially give primacy to democratic means. They maintain that the proletariat must win “the battle of democracy” as a first step followed by wresting “all capital from the bourgeoisie” to “centralize all instruments of production.” The problem becomes apparent when the authors argue that In the beginning, this [centralized production] cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads” . The problem is not only with their promotion of despotic means but also with the ambiguous phrase, “In the beginning” that hints at very pernicious political possibilities. Here too, the authors leave some questions unaddressed, namely, what is this beginning? What is the duration of this beginning? Retrospectively it is easier to claim now that this ambiguity, regarding the contours of this “beginning,” lasted for more than eight decades in the communist USSR that remained largely despotic before its dismantling. In addition to this ambiguity, the fact that the authors are necessitating despotism word-for-word runs counter to the tone initially set by them. The initial expression of “democratic battle” is the exact opposite of “despotic inroads.” Although they attribute the necessity of despotic means to the creation of the supposed centralized state, the fact that the authors radically invert their plan’s initial compatibility with democracy is, to an extent, perceivably ominous.

         Marx and Engels now proceed towards sketching a ‘Ten Point Programme’ for its future implementation in their supposed communist society. In this programme, the authors, as a corollary of the above mentioned ‘despotic inroads,’ mention ten crucial points regarding the management of a communist society. The first eight points are not very contestable since they fit well in the authors’ broader arguments regarding the abolition of private property and the setting up of a strong centralized state. However, the ninth point is distasteful since it states that “…[the] gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.” This point is indicative of the undue power and control that Marx and Engels want to give to this supposed communist state by giving it the authority to relocate its citizens. The point is problematic due to the two main issues discussed below.. 

To begin with, by providing this communist state such vast authority over its citizenry, the authors are deepening those perceivably ominous “despotic inroads.” Furthermore, by giving the state autonomy to choose over ‘who lives where,’ the authors are legitimating the appropriation of individual agency of the people by the state. These problems, when twinned together, are bound to have pernicious ramificationsThe tenth point, if not more, is equally ominous as the previous ninth point. In the second sentence of the tenth point, Marx and Engels promote the “Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form.” Superficially this point cannot be contested since Marx and Engels are arguing for a necessary and genuine thing. But their specific emphasis on the abolition of child labour solely in the factories as opposed to the complete abolition of it everywhere is concerning. Then, some troubling questions arise, namely, do Marx and Engels only want the abolition of child labour in factories? Are they not troubled by other forms of child labour? More importantly, and quite speculatively, do they prefer child labour in the production processes elsewhere? The tenth point could well be considered a vague and unaddressed point. Nonetheless, these unresolved queries also mean that it is equally problematic.

Conclusion:

         Notwithstanding The Communist Manifesto’s importance and influence, it is imperative that readers critically engage with the manifesto and not disregard some of the problematic aspects beneath the abundant reasonable and genuine approaches it provides. To that end, this essay was a modest attempt at tracing some of those problematical aspects of the manifesto. In doing so, this essay highlighted some vague, ominous, and contentious ideas that were problematic both at the broader societal and individual levels under the supposed communist regime that Marx and Engels theorized. Nevertheless, The Communist Manifesto is one of the most (perhaps, the most) widely-read books. It is persuasive, political and propagandist (3Ps). It is one of the most influential texts, and as Gareth Steadman Jones puts it, “Through most of the twentieth century…it was important not because of its intrinsic merits, but because of the brute facts of world politics.” This also circles back to the initial claim regarding Marx’s ideas being transnational and global. Then, we add another “P” to our earlier 3Ps in this respect, The Communist Manifesto is pervasive too, or to use a more endearing term, it is permeable. 

This article to that extent did something counterintuitive by tapping on this ubiquitousness to critically assess one of the most widely read texts: The Communist Manifesto. The text thus becomes “international” with this level of permeability. Though it is noted that Marx’s writings are generally ascribed to a broader theme of “political” writings. This ascription, in some ways, is a highly reductive one for Marx is an international figure whose ideas transcends not only class boundaries but also national boundaries. Thus, Marx becomes a figure not only to understand quotidian, local, and context-specific issues but also larger geopolitical and international ones. The Communist Manifesto in this regard has become as much a topic of discussion in the field of IR as it is in theory circles.

Nachiket is a second-year undergraduate at Ashoka University majoring in Political Science with a double minor in International Relations and History. nachiket.midha_ug23@ashoka.edu.in
Nachiket Midha | LinkedIn

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