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Marx and Manifesto: A Beginner's Review by Phillip Sutcliffe-Mott

I didn’t finish The Communist Manifesto when I first read it. Despite its short length, I knew within ten pages that I was too immature. Something stuck with me though. An observation which hardened, some years later, when I started university. It was how in awe with capitalism Marx was. How complementary and excitable his tone. There are pages of passages that marvel at capitalism’s capacity as an all-consuming global force.

This goes some way to explaining how odd a text Manifesto is. The whole thing is delivered by two voices at once, each oppositional to the other. The critic and the fan. This, as we’ll see, is fitting indeed.

To pull sense from Manifesto, you have to read it with at least two other works: Das Kapital and Marx’s Contribution to Hegel’s Critique of Right. For this reason, it is necessary to flounce indeterminately between discussing Marx the scholar and discussing Marx and Engels, Communist co-conspirators. These texts exist together as a progression of the same important ideas and should be understood as a collective. Not doing so, I think, is the first mistake students make. Which isn’t to say they should read all of Das Kapital. Christ. But some critical explanations would be useful.

Marx may have wanted a socialist revolution, but he was first and foremost a political speculator. He argued that a socialist revolution, rather than preferential to capitalism, was its inevitable resolution. For Marx, the forces that made capitalism dominate are the forces that would bring its end, like the engine of a powerful car making it explode.

This he derived from Hegel’s dialectical philosophy. Hegel believed knowledge gathering wasn’t a linear path. For him, contradictions and paradoxes are, rather than merely wrong, necessary components of incomplete truths. For Hegel, the journey from being alienated from the Self to achieving Mind (aka God or a total philosophy) is the story of society. Each step of this journey—each realisation to a higher level of knowledge—is called synthesis. For his PhD thesis, Marx applied this model to material history. Hence: dialectical materialism.

He came to argue that enforced skill specialisation, ever-developing industrial technologies, and a lack of personal investment would alienate workers from their labour. The working class, chained to what began as the security of the nuclear family, would be forced to support them via craftless jobs that mechanisation would eventually make redundant. Exponential specialisation would allow only the young to retrain.

This and the eventual acquisition of all property by the middle class would in turn leave the proletariat with nothing. Except, importantly, for dependent families and the desire for self-determination. These material circumstances, Marx argues, would make revolution inevitable. Capitalism would have paved the road to its own demise.

This inevitability is the spectre over Europe to which Marx and Engels refer in their opening statement (The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, p. 218). In their closing one, they call for worker of the world to unite, but it is not to change the course of history (Marx & Engels, p. 258). Rather, it is in preparation for history itself. A call to reaction. Alas, this model has a few problems.

The first is that it presumes guarantees. There have been umpteen rebellions throughout history, always occurring alongside mass kneeling. The latter—propitiation—is significantly more common, ending only when tiny minorities break the spell. In the scenario that Marx and Engels refer to—the total monopolisation of property and market forces by the bourgeoisie—it is possible that humanity will just accept the superficial safety of chains. Marx, we might argue, is too generous about how slavish our species can be when preserving ourselves. Tyrants like Hitler and Caesar were handed their power by peoples seeking certainty and safety.

There is also a structural issue with this logic. That knowledge can be synthesised from contradictions and the inevitability of revolution are poor hypotheses. They both rest on statements that can’t be disproven. The history of scepticism—from Plato to Karl Popper—is based on trying to disprove precise, reasonable statements. This cycle of conjecture and refutation is the basis of Western philosophy and the scientific method. It is the means by which we derive theories.

You can’t disprove the inevitability of Communism or Hegel’s epistemological models while history is ongoing. Since Marx published his work, discourse has been able only to move around Marx, expanding on his methodology without ever progressing to the next step. There has been, ironically, no higher synthesis. Theorists obsess over the “end of history”, whatever and whenever that might be, but, until it happens, we’re all stuck in that Sisyphean frame of reference, with every logical step requiring three more.

We do not live in the same conditions as Marx’s contemporaries did. The great failure of postmodernism is that is has not coherently fed modern characteristics—gender and sexual fluidity, neoliberalism, and the Internet, for just a few examples—into the idea of revolution as a consequence of historical processes. Do the chain of events Marx and Engels set out look likely to still occur under twenty-first century conditions?

Yet, this doesn’t devalue Manifesto. Marx’s answer to these problems may be problematic, but his analysis of historical and material processes have given us valuable sociological viewpoints. Without them, we would not have progressed workers or civil rights to the extent we have today. Progressivism itself has branched from this model of subjugator and subjugated.

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