Hands up, all of you who have talked about Marx, Engels, Marxism, and communism. And hands up, all of you who have read Marx and Engel’s works. Betcha lot of hands went up the first time around. Now, Marx’ masterpiece Capital, volumes 1-3 clocks in at 2500 or so pages of dense nineteenth century prose. No thanks. But then there is Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto. There’s a nice little Penguin edition at the library with an introduction and notes by Gareth Stedman Jones. The Penguin edition reprints the Samuel Moore translation of 1888 (The Communist Manifesto was first published in 1848). Moore was a Manchester barrister and manufacturer. The translation plays fast and loose in some parts. But the Moore translation is seen as being canonical in some quarters, as Moore was Engel’s friend and Engels had approved the translation. If you strip away Jones’ 276 page introduction, Engel’s 7 prefaces, you are left with the final 53 page distillation known as The Communist Manifesto. 53 vs. 2500 pages. You know which one I’ll be reading.
And it’s a good thing it’s a short work. I’ve been borrowing books from the Greater Victoria Public Library for decades. I’ve borrowed literally thousands of books. All 21 day loan period. Except this book. It’s a 14 day loan period. If there’s such a high demand, why not get another copy?
Well, what did I learn?
Marx and Engels Anticipate the American Century
The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonization of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development … Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacure no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionized industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry, the place of the industrial middle class,by industrial millionaires, the leaders of whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.
There is a powerful dynamism in their writing. You can see why this communism thing caught on. Very charismatic
Marx and Engels Anticipate Free Trade
The bourgeoisie are on fire, nothing can stop them now that they have their ultimate weapon called Free Trade, which converts physician, lawyer, priest, poet, and scientist into wage-labourers:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom–Free Trade.
Today, we have NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the EU and these larger and larger supranational trading blocks. The rise of free trade even calls into question the sovereign nation as the final arbiter, as by joining up with a free trade block, a sovereign nation in effect gives up some of its rights to levy taxes and raise tariffs. Funny thing, Marx and Engels foresaw the rise of free trade as well. Pretty prescient. Remember, they were writing The Communist Manifesto just before 1850, around the same time Melville was writing Moby-Dick and talking about the whaling trade.
Marx and Engels Anticipate the Increasing Division of Labour
In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed–a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.
Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production.
Sounds like they also anticipated the impact on the division of labour on entry-level or less skilled workers. Minimum wage is an ongoing debate. In the last provincial election, the NDP proposed raising minimum wage from $11.35 to $15 per hour. They eventually won the election after teaming up with the Green Party and scrapped the “living wage” platform. The proletariat class today, however, is smaller than what Marx and Engels envisioned. In the province of BC, Canada, under 5% of the workforce makes minimum wage. They don’t give exact numbers in The Communist Manifesto, but from the argument, it sounds like they were expecting most people to be in the proletariat, or the subsistence or minimum wage class, i.e. >50%, maybe closer to 80 or 90%.
Capitalism is a Snake that Eats Its Own Tail
Here’s the famous paragraph that closes the first section. In this passage, Marx and Engels describe how capitalism dooms itself:
The essential condition for the existence, and for the sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage labour. Wage labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. 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.
The argument is that capitalism, because it needs labour, unites the previously desultory proletariat class. After uniting the proles, it squashes them so bad that the only way they can survive is by rising up and declaring private property void: without private property, the bourgeoisie have no reason to exist. So, the communist revolution is really a late stage of capitalism. Capitalism has to stick to its first principles to such a degree that it destroys the labour on which it depends for communism to become practical. Where are the trade unions? Where are the leaders of the proletariat. Why would the trade unions and the leaders of the proletariat allow things to reach such a stage–that part is not entirely clear to me.
Would Canada and the USA be Considered Capitalist Countries?
Or for that matter, have there been any capitalist countries, if we use Marx and Engels’ understanding of the condition of the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie?–
It has been objected that upon the abolition of private property all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us.
According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work. The whole of this objection is but another expression of the tautology: that there can no loner be any wage labour when there is no longer any capital.
In this passage, they’re saying that in bourgeois society, it’s impossible for proles to save anything to claw their way up the food chain and those who have capital mooch off of the proles labour instead of putting in an honest day of work. Pretty black and white.
Marx and Engels write with conviction. That’s because they had skin in the game: they were more than armchair communists, they were out there blazing the campaign. For a small book written 170 years ago, it’s still very prescient today. One interesting stat: Marx and Engels writes that one in ten or 10% of the people hold private property. I take it that that means they own their own homes. According to the 2011 census, about 69% of Canadian households (9.2 of 13.3 million) owned their own dwelling. Times have changed. Perhaps for the better?
One last thing: for people who are so anti-capital, they sure spend a lot of time thinking about capital. There is a strange understanding between a hero and his nemesis.