IT HAS BEEN HARDLY A DECADE since the statues of Lenin were toppled throughout the Soviet empire and the head of Karl Marx was severed once and for all from any connection to a body politic. Yet the lips of the severed head continue to move.
In the West leading intellectuals many who would not allow themselves to be called Marxists profess to hear a message they insist is relevant to our times. Thus they rush to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the only text that most of the millions of soldiers in Marxist vanguards around the world ever read.
The Manifesto was an incitement to totalitarian ambitions whose results were far bloodier than those inspired by Mein Kampf. In it Marx announced the doom of free market societies, declared the liberal bourgeoisie to be a “ruling class” and the democratic state its puppet, summoned proletarians and their intellectual vanguard to begin civil wars in their own countries, and thereby launched the most destructive movement in human history.
Yet this birthday celebration in the commanding heights of our political culture is marked not by judgments of its historical malevolence or even by cautionary admonitions to potential disciples, but by fulsome praise for its brilliant analyses and even more preposterously for its analytic profundity and prescience. Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, not to mention usual suspects like The Nation, have embarrassed themselves by asserting the indispensability of this tract for understanding the failings of the very system which brought Marxism to its kneescapitalism.
We might expect this of a former Communist and present-day Marxist like Eric Hobsbawm, who contributed the egregious introduction to an anniversary edition of the Manifesto published by the New Left Review’s Verso Press. But it is passing strange to be presented with so historically unconscious a statement from the New York Times. Given the current state of the intellectual culture, it is no doubt appropriate that the Times would pick a professor of English literature for the task (English departments being virtually the last redoubts of the Marxist faith this side of Havana). But it is ironic that the professor, Steven Marcus, should be a protégé of Lionel Trilling, one of the most perceptive liberal critics of Marxism. For Marcus has written nothing less than a birthday ode to the irascible and demonic genius from Trier, under the title “Marx’s Masterpiece at 150.”
Degeneration of the Academic Left According to Marcus and the Times: “The Manifesto was and is a work of immense autonomous historical importance. It marks the accession of social and intellectual consciousness to a new stage of inclusiveness. It has become part of an integral modern sensibility . . . and it remains so, after the demise of Soviet Communism and its satellite regimes, the descent into moribundity of Marxist movements in the world and the end of the cold war.”
To be sure, on America’s benighted college campuses, unfortunately and deplorably, this description of Marxism’s currency is accurate. Marxism, or some kitsch version of it, has indeed become “part of an integral modern sensibility.” But what about the real world, outside the ivory tower?
Of even more consequence is the Times’s endorsement of this degeneration of intellectual lifewhat should properly be regarded as a social disaster. Instead of digesting the lessons of the Communist holocaust, closing the Marxist tent, throwing the Manifesto in the intellectual garbage bin where it belongs, dusting off the volumes by Von Mises and Hayek, which actually predicted the Communist fall andfor the first time in one’s lifethinking about how to make bourgeois democracy work, the Times apparently would like its progressive readers to believe that none of this sordid revolutionary history has any relevance to the important and present task of continuing the civil war the Manifesto first incited:
A decade after those world-historical occurrences, the Manifesto continues to yield itself to our reading in the new light that its enduring insights into social existence generate. It emerges ever more distinctly as an unsurpassed dramatic representation, diagnosis and prophetic array of visionary judgments on the modern world . . . . A century and a half afterward, it remains a classic expression of the society it anatomized and whose doom it prematurely announced.
Prematurely! Are we to understand by this that the Times thinks the bloody apocalypse Marx gleefully hoped for is yet to come? The answer is obviously yes if the Manifesto has “enduring insights” into capitalist economy. And what exactly is it that the Manifesto is alleged to have diagnosed? This, after all, is the decisive issue. Is the Manifesto correct in what it says about “social existence”?
In fact the Manifesto is so self-evidently wrong in its fundamental analyses and judgments that its author could not begin to explain how the article praising his bankrupt and discredited war cry could appear in the Times at all. How is it that the leading institution of the “ruling class” press, in the principal bourgeois nation on the planet, could feature such Marxist tripe? Nor is this question incidental to the core problem of a text whose principal thesis claiming to analyze complex societies on the basis of a single structureeconomic classis announced in its very first line: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.”
The Manifesto’s Message is: Civil War This hypothesis is really the essence and sum of the Manifesto which is not a call to thought, butand this should never be forgottena call to arms. The striking (and reprehensible) thesis of the Manifesto is that democratic societies are not really different in kind from the aristocratic and slave societies that required revolutions to overthrow. Despite surface appearances, despite the fact that in contrast to all previous societies, democracy makes the people “sovereign”democratic capitalism is “unmasked” by Marx as an “oppressive” and tyrannical society like all the rest, and therefore requires extra-legal and violent means to liberate its victims from its yoke. That is why those who have been inspired by the Manifesto have declared war on the liberal societies of the West and have spilled so much blood and spread so much misery in our time.
The meaning of the first sentence of the Manifesto, then, is this: All (non-socialist) societies are divided into classes that are “oppressed” and those who oppress them. Capitalism is no different, even though its revolutions may have instituted democratic political structures designed to enfranchise the “oppressed.” For the very idea of democracy in a society where private property exists, according to the Manifesto, is an illusion: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” In other words, democratic elections are a sham. Civil war is the political answer to humanity’s problems: “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” The solution to all fundamental social problemsto war, to poverty, to economic inequalitylies in a conflict that will rip society apart and create a new revolutionary world from its ruins. This is the enduring and poisonous message of the Manifesto, and why its believers have left such a trail of human slaughter in their path as they set about to create a progressive future.
Almost every important analytic thesis of the Manifestoincluding its opening statementis patently false. History is not the history of class struggle, as defined by Marx, i.e., the struggle of economic oppressor and oppressed. Not even the historical event which provided the basis for Marx’s theoretical model, the French Revolution, is explicable in these terms. Historians like Simon Schama and Francis Furet have established, beyond any reasonable doubt, that capitalism was already thriving under the monarchy, and it was the nobility, not the bourgeoisie, that upended the ancien régime). When we look at the twentieth century, whose course has largely been determined by forces of nationalism and racism, which Marx utterly discounted, the hopeless inadequacy of his theories becomes impossible except for those blinded by faith to ignore.
According to Marx, the bourgeois epoch possesses a distinctive feature: “It has simplified the 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.” But, of course, it hasn’t. Which is one reason why Marxism has failed, as a program, in all the industrialized countries.
In fact, much of the Marxist critique of capitalism reflects nothing so much as a romantic longing for a feudal past in which social status was pre-ordained and irrevocable, and stamped every individual with a destiny and a grace:
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.
Of course, it has not exactly done this either. More likely it has turned physician, lawyer, scientist, and poet into entrepreneurs themselves. In the open societies created by capitalist revolutionaries, they can set up as independent contractors; they can incorporate themselves; and they can move up the social and economic scale to heights undreamed of when their status may have been “reverential” but where it was also fixed by the immutable relations of an authentic “class society,” which bourgeois society is not. The complexity and fluidity of class structure in developed capitalist societies has made a mockery of the core principles of Marxist belief.
The Manifesto’s False Vision of the Social Future Marx was a first-rate intellect and a brilliant writer, and his descriptions of the progressive economic expansion of market societies under the leadership of the “bourgeoisie” are memorable and provide most of the basis for claims that the Manifesto is an accurate and “prescient” work. Marx famously extolled the capitalist class for constantly “revolutionizing the forces of production,” concluding: “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.”
This sentence encapsulates both the seductive power of Marx’s writing and the sinister import of his theory. The description would seem to be an endorsement of capitalism, indicating the immense value to all members of society in the encouragement it has provided to an entrepreneurial class to create more social wealth than the world has ever known. It would hardly seem to provide an argument for the permanent war that Marx goes on to advocate against the bourgeoisie in the name of human progress. But even in the sentence quoted, one sees how the theory is designed to cancel the praise. Marx identifies the creative entrepreneurs as “rulers” in a sense designed to parallel that of absolutist monarchs and slave-owners, and thus to detach them from the reality of their achievement and from the fact that they earn the power they accumulate, and thus to incite social resentment and hatred against them. The theory further postulates that the productive forces these entrepreneurs have created have “outgrown” them, and make it necessary to destroy their “rule.”
In Marx’s colorful prose: “Modern bourgeois society . . . is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” Marx is referring here to the business cycle and its economic crises.
In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurditythe epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence.
According to Marx the bourgeoisie is at war with the very forces of production that it has called into being (“The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.”) And there is more. The forces of production called into being by the bourgeoisie have also created a class, the proletariat, which is its victim and its antagonist. The proletariat has no property itself, and therefore is in a position to abolish private property which is the “condition” of bourgeois production and bourgeois oppression, to remove the bourgeois “rulers” from their corporate thrones and to create a cooperative society in which the economy can be organized according to a “social plan.” This development emanating from the logic of History that Marx has discovered, has all the inevitability of a natural force:
The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.
Well, not really.
The Manifesto’s Poisonous Legacy Under the spell of prose like this, whole generations of “progressives” have been blinded to the obvious bounties of democratic capitalist societies and encouraged to make war on them, and with a nihilistic fury inspired by illusions of “social justice” producing human tragedy beyond measure. The heirs of Marx are still at it. In the wake of the Communist catastrophe, they are willing to acknowledge only that Marx’s economic categories are too narrow and that the proletariat has failed to make the revolution. But the core Marxist model, the model which proposes that democratic societies are oppressive and tyrannical, that they deserve not fundamental allegiance and constructive attention but venomous scorn and nihilistic rejection, that democratic processes and institutions are a sham, that the just solution to social problems lies along the path of civil confrontation and political warfarethis model is alive and well among radical feminists, racial separatists, queer nationalists, and the rag-tag intellectual army of post-modernists, critical theorists, and kitsch Marxists that inhabit our universities and evidently our editorial rooms as well.
Contrary to the Times, and other institutions of the “bourgeois” media that have followed its lead, what needs to be emphasized on this 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto is that Marx was totally, tragically, destructively wrong. He was wrong about the oppressive nature of the bourgeoisie and the outmoded nature of capitalist production, wrong about the increasing misery of the working class, and wrong about its liberating powers, wrong about the increasing concentration of wealth and the increasing polarization of class under capitalism, wrong about the labor theory of value and the falling rate of profit, and wrong about the possibility of creating an advanced and democratic industrial society by abolishing private property and the market in order to adopt a “social plan.”
If Marx’s economics were already outdated and false when he wrote the Manifesto, even worse was his political ignorance. He was, in particular, disastrously deaf to all the resonances of the Anglo-American constitutional tradition and the accumulated democratic wisdom ascending from the Magna Carta to the American Constitution. Here in its implacable arrogance is how the “visionary” prophet who wrote the Manifesto actually saw the political future:
When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
One billion people have been impounded in totalitarian states and gulags, and one hundred million people have been murdered in our lifetime by Marxists acting on these false premises. That they should be endorsed today by anyone at all is a moral disgrace. This is what we should remember on the 150th anniversary of Marx’s destructive work. Political power is not “merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.” In democratic market societies, where social mobility is fluid, the people are sovereign and the rule of law prevails, classes do not “oppress” one another, and those who inflame the passions of revolution are inciting their followers to criminal acts. Period.
Conclusion Private property may be the basis of class divisions, as Marxists claim, but private property has been proven by all history to be the indispensable bulwark of human liberty, the only basis for producing general economic prosperity and social wealth that human beings have yet discovered. There are no democratic societies, or industrial societies or post-industrial societies that are not based on private property and economic markets. Those who make war on private property, make war on human liberty and human well-being.
As noted above, the writer of the Times review is a professor of English literature. At any other moment in our intellectual history his choice for an assignment of this importance might be dismissed as mere happenstance. But Marcus’s views reflect the appalling state of literary studies in American colleges, which under the aegis of tenured radicals have become a pretext for teaching Marxist kitsch under rubrics like “post-modernism,” “post-structuralism,” and “critical” and “cultural” studies. These pseudo-Marxists share Marx’s hatred of all bourgeois societies like our own. As the professor, himself, put it in the Times: “Whether it is regarded as capitalist democracy as civil society, as the welfare state in transition or as the modern social contract, bourgeois society remains alive and well which means of course, as it always has, that it is in a hell of a state.”
The sub-text is that American society is a society to be rejected and despised as a social hell, that its institutions are institutions to be subverted and destroyed. This is the curriculum in all too many college classrooms today. This is the real meaning of The Communist Manifesto on its 150th anniversary, and of the celebrations of the Manifesto by an intellectual class whose own record in this bloodiest of centuries, is a sordid and sorry one of apology and support for the totalitarian enemies of America both abroad and within.