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Tearing away the Veils: The Communist Manifesto

Marshall Berman

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:

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….Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. 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 forced to face his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

This first section of the Manifesto contains many passages like these, asserted in major chords. Marx’s contemporaries didn’t miss them, and some of his fellow radicals, like Proudhon and Bakunin, saw his appreciation of capitalism as a betrayal of its victims. This charge is still heard today, and deserves serious response. Marx hates capitalism, but he also thinks it has brought immense real benefits, spiritual as well as material, and he wants the benefits to be spread around and enjoyed by everybody, rather than monopolized by a small ruling class. This is very different from the totalitarian rage that typifies radicals who want to blow it all away. Sometimes, as with Proudhon, it is just modern times they hate: they dream of golden-age peasant villages where everyone was happily in his place (or in her place just behind him). For other radicals, from the author of the Book of Revelation to Thomas Müntzer to Joseph Conrad’s Verloc to the Unabomber, it goes over the edge into something like rage against reality, against human life itself. Apocalyptic rage offers immediate, sensational cheap thrills. Marx’s perspective is more complex and nuanced, and hard to sustain if you’re not grown up. On the other hand, if you are grown up, and attuned to a world full of complexity and ambiguity, Marx may fit you better than you thought.

Marx is not the first communist to admire capitalism for its creativity. This attitude can be found in some of the great “utopian socialists” of the generation before him, like Robert Owen and Saint-Simon and their brilliant followers. But Marx is the first writer to invent a style that brings this creativity to light before the early-twentieth century. (In French, with Baudelaire and Rimbaud, poetic language was a few decades ahead.) For readers who have grown up on T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and their successors, it shouldn’t be a problem to see how the Manifesto is a great piece of poetry. It throws together an enormous range of things and ideas that no one ever thought to throw together before. If you can get a feeling for Marx’s horizon, it will help to make the modern world make sense.

We could call the Manifesto’s style a kind of expressionist lyricism. Paragraphs break over us like waves that leave us shaking from the impact and wet with thought. This prose evokes breathless momentum, plunging ahead without guides or maps, breaking boundaries, piling up and layering things, ideas, experiences. Catalogues play a big role for Marx—as they do for his contemporaries Dickens and Whitman. Part of the enchantment of this style is the feeling that the lists are never exhausted, the catalogue is open to the present and the future, we are invited to pile on things, ideas, and experiences of our own, to pile ourselves on if we can find a way. But the items in the pile often seem to clash, and sometimes it feels like the whole aggregation could crash. From paragraph to paragraph, Marx makes readers feel like we are riding the fastest and grandest nineteenth-century train through the roughest and most perilous nineteenth-century terrain, and though we have splendid light, we are pushing through to where there is no track.

ONE FEATURE of modern capitalism that Marx most admires is its global horizon and cosmopolitan texture. Many people today talk about the global economy as if it had only just come into being. Marx helps us see the ways in which it has been operating all along.

The need for a constantly expanding market chases the bourgeois over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The bourgeoisie, through its exploitation of the world market, has given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption everywhere….All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are being daily destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every corner of the globe…

This global spread, Marx believed, offered a spectacular display of history’s ironies. The modern bourgeois were generally banal in their desires, yet their unremitting quest for profit forced on them the same insatiable drive-structure and infinite horizon as any of the great romantic heroes—as Don Giovanni, as Childe Harold, as Goethe’s Faust. They may think of only one thing, but their narrow focus opens up the broadest integrations; their shallow outlook wreaks the most profound transformations; their peaceful economic activity devastates every human society like a bomb, from the most primitive tribes to the mighty USSR. Marx was appalled at the human costs of capitalist development, but he always believed the world horizon it created was a great human achievement, on which socialist and communist movements must build. Remember, the grand appeal to unite, with which the Manifesto ends, is addressed to the “workers of all countries.”

One of the crucial events of modern times has been the unfolding of the first-ever world culture. Marx was writing at an historical moment when mass media were just developing. Marx worked in the vein of Goethe, who in his last year, speaking to Eckermann, described it as “world literature.” Writing more than a hundred and fifty years later, I think it is legitimate to call the new thing “world culture.” Marx shows how this culture evolves spontaneously from the world market:

In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants requiring for their satisfaction products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property…and from the numerous national and local literatures, there rises a world literature.

Marx believed that Shakespeare, writing at the very start of modernity, was the world’s first thoroughly modern writer. As a student, he learned many Shakespearean plays by heart. He didn’t realize, in the 1840s, how deeply involved with the English language he would become. After the failed 1848 Revolution in Germany, he spent about half his life in exile in London. He wrote hundreds of articles through the years, at first translated by Engels but increasingly in English, especially for the New York Daily Tribune, as “Our European Correspondent.” And he never stopped working on Capital, a book with footnotes from different languages and cultures on every page. In London his wife Jenny became a drama critic, writing for German papers about the London stage. His daughter Eleanor, the first English translator of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and one of the inventors of “community organizing,” remembered growing up with the whole family on Hampstead Heath on Sundays, acting Shakespeare out. Meanwhile they were broke, desperate, evicted from apartments, unable to go out in the winter because so many of their clothes were in the pawnshop. But they kept on inventing the world.

Marx’s vision of world culture brings together several complex ideas. First, the expansion of human needs: the increasingly complex world market at once shapes and expands everybody’s desires. Marx wants us to imagine what it might mean in food, clothes, religion, love, and in our most intimate fantasies as well as our public presentations. Next, the idea of culture as “common property”: anything created by anyone anywhere is open and available to everyone everywhere. Entrepreneurs publish books (and e-books), produce plays and concerts, display visual art, and, in post-Marx centuries, create hardware and software for movies, radio, TV, and computers, in order to make money. Still, in this as in other ways, history slips through their fingers, so that people can possess culture—an idea, a poetic image, musical sound, Plato, Shakespeare, a Negro spiritual (his whole family learned them in the 1860s)—even if they can’t own it. If we can think about modern culture as “common property,” and the ways in which popular music, movies, literature, and TV can all make us feel more at home in the world, it can help us imagine how people all over the world could share the world’s resources someday.

This is a vision of culture rarely discussed, but it is one of the most expansive and hopeful things Marx ever wrote. In the last century or so, the development of movies, television, video, and computers have created a global visual language that brings the idea of world culture closer to home than ever, and the world beat comes through in the best of our music and books. That’s the good news. The bad news is how sour and bitter most left writing on culture has become. Sometimes it sounds as if culture were just one more Department of Exploitation and Oppression, containing nothing luminous or valuable in itself. At other times, it sounds as if people’s minds were empty vessels with nothing inside except what Capital put there. Read, or try to read, a few articles on “hegemonic/counterhegemonic discourse.”

BUT IF capitalism is a triumph in so many ways, what’s wrong with it? What makes it worth spending your life as Marx did, trying to fight it? In the twentieth century, Marxist movements have concentrated on the argument, made most elaborately in Capital, that workers in bourgeois society had been or were being pauperized. There were times and places (the Great Depression, for instance) where it was absurd to deny that claim. In other times and places (North America and Western Europe when I was young), it was pretty tenuous. Many Marxist economists went through dialectical gyrations to make the numbers come out. But the problem with that whole discussion was that it converted questions of human experience into questions of numbers; it led Marxism to think and talk exactly like capitalism.

The Manifesto occasionally makes some version of this claim. But it offers what strikes me as a much more trenchant indictment, one that holds up even at the top of the business cycle, when the bourgeoisie and its apologists are drowning in complacency. That indictment is Marx’s vision of what modern bourgeois society forces people to be: they have to freeze their feelings for each other to find a place in a cold world. Bourgeois society “has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash payment.” It has “drowned every form of sentimental value in the icy waters of egotistical calculation.” It has “resolved personal worth into exchange-value.” It has collapsed every idea of freedom “into that single, unconscionable freedom—free trade.” It has “torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” It has “converted the doctor, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers.” “In one word, for exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” It forces people to degrade themselves in order to survive.

Twentieth-century works in Marxist traditions tend to imagine a bourgeoisie with super-controlling powers: everything that happens is so the bourgeoisie can “accumulate more capital.” It is worth noticing that Marx’s vision of them is far more volatile. He compares them to a “sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world that he has called up by his spells.” Marx is reminding us of Goethe’s Faust, of course, but also of venerable traditions of magic that were supposed to make the bearers spectacularly rich. The magic never worked, of course. What happened instead, Marx said, only “pav[ed] the way for more expensive and more destructive crises, and diminish[ed] the means whereby crises are prevented.” Survivors of the fiscal crises of 2008 will remember the sense of magical power that seduced millions of people into giving up more than they had. It will be fascinating to see whether people learn anything from all the weird practices that names like Madoff came to signify. Marx feared they wouldn’t learn: in modern capitalism, the most sophisticated minds could be primitivized overnight; people who have the power to reconstruct the world still seem bound to deconstruct themselves. Marx was animated by great hopes, but driven by serious worries.

For more than 150 years, we have seen a huge literature that attacks the brutality of a class where those who are most comfortable with brutality are most likely to succeed. But those same social forces are also pressing on the members of that immense group that Marx calls “the modern working class.” This class has always been afflicted with a case of mistaken identity. Many of Marx’s readers have always thought that “working class” meant only men in boots—in factories, in industry, with blue collars, with calloused hands, lean and hungry. These readers then note the changing nature of the workforce: increasingly educated, white-collar, working in human services (rather than in growing food or making things), in or near the middle class—and they infer the Death of the Subject, and conclude that the working class is disappearing and all hopes for it are doomed. Marx did not think the working class was shrinking: in all industrial countries it was already, or in the process of becoming, “the immense majority.” Its swelling numbers, Marx thought, would enable it to “win the battle of democracy.” The basis for his political arithmetic was a concept that was both simple and highly inclusive:

The modern working class developed…a class of laborers who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These workers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are commodities, like every other article of commerce, and are constantly exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition and the fluctuations of the market.

The crucial factor for Marx is not working in a factory, or working with your hands, or being poor. All these things can change with fluctuating supplies and demands in technology and politics. The crucial reality is the need to sell your labor in order to live, to carve up your personality for sale, to look at yourself in the mirror and think, “Now what have I got that I can sell?” and an unending dread and anxiety that even if you are OK today, you won’t find anybody willing to buy what you have or what you are tomorrow; that the changing market will declare you (as it has already declared so many) worthless; that you will find yourself physically as well as metaphysically out in the cold. Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949), one of the great pieces of American writing, brings to life the consuming dread that may be the condition of most members of the working class in modern times. Existentialist writing, which I grew up on half a century ago, dramatizes this tradition with great depth and beauty; yet its visions tend to be weirdly unembodied. Its visionaries could learn from the Manifesto, which gives modern anguish an address.

Marx understands that many people in this class don’t know their address. They wear elegant clothes and return to nice houses, because there is great demand for their labor right now, and they are doing well. They may identify happily with the owners of capital, and have no idea how contingent and fleeting their benefits are. They may not discover who they are, and where they belong, until they are laid-off or fired—or outsourced, or deskilled, or downsized. And other workers, lacking credentials, not dressed so nicely, may not get the fact that many who push them around are really in their class, and, despite their pretentions, share their vulnerability. How can this reality be put across to people who don’t get it, or can’t bear it? The complexity of these ideas helped to create a new vocation, central to modern society: the organizer.

One group whose identity as workers was crucial for Marx was his own class: intellectuals.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to in reverent awe. It has converted the doctor, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers.

This does not mean that these activities lose meaning or value. If anything, they become more urgently meaningful. But the only way people can get the freedom to do what they can do is by working for capital. Marx himself had to live this way. Over a forty-year span, he wrote brilliant journalism. Sometimes he was paid, often not. Marx was brilliant in figuring out how workers could organize, and how their capacity to organize could make nineteenth-century life a great deal more human than it had been in the 1840s, the days of the Manifesto, when he was just starting out. But nobody then had figured out how the creators of culture could organize. When Marx, and every other writer and artist of those days, went up against capital, he went alone.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the scale of culture has immensely expanded. Intellectuals need to work for drug companies, movie studios, media conglomerates, HMOs, boards of education, politicians, and so on, always using their creative skills to help capital accumulate more capital. This makes intellectuals subject not only to the stresses that afflict all modern workers, but to a dread zone all their own. The more they care about their work and want it to mean something, the more they will find themselves in permanent conflict with the keepers of spreadsheets. In the twentieth century, the creators of culture started to get it, and to organize. But, as has happened repeatedly in capitalist history, technology learned to organize itself on a far vaster scale. In the twenty-first century, the Internet opened up a whole new dimension of conflict; publishers, newspapers and magazines began to collapse. Intellectuals today are forced to fight what we can see now is going to be a permanent “battle of democracy”: they are fighting to keep culture alive. We don’t know how this struggle is going to turn out. Many intellectuals have come to see the connections, and to recognize ourselves as workers—but plenty still don’t. Most of us can think of plenty of things we would much rather do. Marx argues that unless we learn to organize—and stay organized—and learn to fight this fight, there is a pretty good chance that neither we nor anybody else will be able to do these nice things anymore.

MARX HAD a wide horizon: he could imagine how life would unfold thousands of miles from anywhere he had ever been. Living in London, in what was then the most dynamic economy in the world, he was especially sensitive to the ambiguities of growth. Over the last twenty years, the word’s most dynamic economy has been China’s. A great deal of its power emanates from a working class with immense energy and yet, until very recently, total passivity. I spent a perplexing month in China in 2005. I attended a conference, at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. I walked through streets in many cities, met intellectuals of different ages. My conference included about thirty Chinese and three Americans; the Americans were the only ones willing to give the Chinese Revolution credit for accomplishing anything. Chinese talking about the country’s own history seemed to have dropped to an America-1950 level. They spoke as if “the Chinese Communists” were Martians, rather than their own parents and grandparents and sometimes themselves. I learned, too, that school and college courses in Western thought were forbidden to speak Marx’s name. I spoke about his life and work in late-nineteenth-century England, and I compared England to China today. I talked about the metamorphoses of the British working class, and argued that in a dynamic modern society, class passivity was not likely to last. I argued that a time like now in China was exactly the kind of moment when the explosive parts of the Manifesto might be prophetic. Most people I spoke with said China had no class system, no stratification, so Marx’s categories were meaningless there. A few suggested that no one believed this, but that today as in the past, Chinese people knew what they had to say.

Students told me, sadly, that my paper was being left out of the conference proceedings. Some said they would love to read Marx if they could. I told them the crucial idea was that they too were part of the working class, and the working class had the capacity to organize. I gave them some titles and websites, and wished them well. Now, in 2010, a collection has appeared in which not only am I included, but, more important, Marx is included. I saw this as a sign that Chinese workers had probably begun to organize and to act on a large scale. Who knows with what success? But it may be that another front in “the battle of democracy” has opened up.

MARX SEES the modern working class as an immense worldwide community waiting to happen. Such large possibilities give the history of organizing a permanent gravity and grandeur. The process of creating unions is not just an item in interest-group politics, but a vital part of what Lessing called “The Education of the Human Race.” As workers gradually come to learn who they are, Marx thinks they will see they need one another in order to be themselves. Workers will get it eventually, because bourgeois society forces them to get smart, in order to survive its constant upheavals. Learning to give yourself to other workers who may look and sound very different from you, but who turn out to be like you in depth, delivers the soul from dread and gives a man or a woman a permanent address in the world.

This is a vital part of the moral vision that underlies the Manifesto. But there is another moral dimension, asserted in a different key but humanly just as urgent. Many communist movements in history, starting with Plato, have aimed at social orders in which the individual self is crushed by some form of communal whole. The radical world of the 1840s, in which Marx grew up, was full of people who thought that way. His early writing is full of abuse toward what he called “crude, mindless communism.” He always insisted that communism meant liberation of the self. And this meant the Revolution of the future will end classes and class struggle, and will make it possible to enjoy a world where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Marx is imagining communism as a way to make people happy. The first aspect of happiness, for him, is “development”—that is, an experience that doesn’t simply repeat itself endlessly, but that goes through endless phases of change and growth. This form of happiness is distinctively modern, informed by the incessantly developing bourgeois economy. But modern bourgeois society forces people to develop in accord with market demands: what can sell gets developed; what can’t sell gets repressed, or else never comes to life at all. Against the twisted development enforced by the market, he fights for “free development,” a mode of development that the self can control.

This insistence on free development, rather than development enforced by the market, is a theme that Marx shares with the smartest and noblest liberal of the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill. Like Marx, Mill came to see “free development” as a basic human value. But as he grew older, he became convinced that the capitalist form of modernization—featuring cutthroat competition, social conformity, and cruelty to the losers—blocked its best potentialities. The world’s greatest liberal proclaimed himself a socialist in his old age.

Ironically, the ground that liberalism and socialism share might be a problem for both of them. What if Mister Kurtz isn’t dead after all? What if authentically “free development” brings out horrific depths in human nature? Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Freud all forced us to face the horrors. Marx and Mill might both say that until we have overcome social domination, there is no way to tell how deep our inner degradation goes. The process of reaching that point—where Raskolnikovs won’t rot on Avenue D, and where Svidrigailovs won’t possess thousands of bodies and souls—should be enough to give us all steady work. And even if we do reach that point, and come to see our inner bad guys will never go away, we will have learned how to cooperate for our mutual defense. Trotsky in the 1920s came to believe that psychotherapy was a revolutionary right, to protect us from ourselves.

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.