I actually finished reading The Communist Manifesto a few weeks ago, but have not got around to writing about it just yet. Fortunately, I do not live in the 1950’s when admitting that I have read the book would get me prosecuted due to a certain junior senator from Wisconsin. However, I certainly got a lot of weird looks when I was reading it at work during lunch breaks. This brings up the question that I got asked a lot. Why are you reading The Communist Manifesto?
For a few reasons. No matter what your political ideology is, you have to admit that the Manifesto has had a huge effect on history as we know it. As a purely historical document, it is important to read a book that influenced one of the most widespread and influential political movements of the 20th century. I like history, so I read it. Another reason is more practical. I believe that in order for a person to be well informed about politics and history, he or she needs to take the time to read or listen to all points of view, even those that might be contrary to what they believe. In this way, a person can better discuss the issues with people who may believe differently than them because they have been able to see the opposite point of view. People who refuse to read ideologically charged books like The Communist Manifesto or Atlas Shrugged (for example) end up being as ignorant as religious people who refuse to read the writings of other religions. You cannot fully appreciate your point of view until you have gained at least a basic understanding of the other points of view around you. The third reason that I read the Manifesto is that I believe that you can find some good things in any political ideology. After study, a person must choose an ideology where the amount of good things outweighs the bad. There is not a perfectly good ideology and there is not a perfectly bad ideology.
So here are my impressions of the Manifesto. First and foremost, I think that Karl Marx was an effective observer of the world around him and was highly capable of diagnosing problems when he saw them. In the Manifesto he warns of certain dangers that will eventually cause uprisings, many of which we can agree with. He warns that if the bourgeois are allowed to flourish unchecked then the jobs of the working man will disappear as large companies hire people overseas due to the cheapness of outsourcing labor. Marx also warns that as a whole, the rich bourgeois are more concerned with securing cheaper commodities and using them to open more international markets, even if that means getting rid of the jobs that the proletariat usually has (mostly manufacturing jobs). Both of these problems are problems that have grown as time has gone on, and Marx was able to see that they would cause future unrest even while writing in the 1840’s.
The Marxist philosophy of history is also interesting. Marx theorizes that history is really a history of class struggles. In his opinion, the wheels of history are turned by disenfranchised parts of the population fighting against oppression or groups of people working to give themselves more rights. This interpretation of history has remained relevant even today and is one of the main reasons that the writings of Marx are still deemed important.
Now onto communism. Although I think Marx was very good at diagnosing society’s problems, I do not think that he was as good at providing solutions. It is important to note though that Marx did not invent communism, he simply helped organize it and give it direction. Most of the Manifesto is geared towards getting the proletariat together as one body and helping them gain a voice in oppressive imperial societies. Marx did not advocate a revolutionary take over (that is a philosophy called Marxism-Leninism), he advocated the communist becoming a party and attempting to gain greater rights and eventually a part of the ruling party slowly through little victories over time. It was interesting to read what Marx actually wanted to happen, compared to what did happen.
The actual philosophy of communism would take too much time to discuss here. In essence Marx advocates a classless society without any private property. Everything is shared by the people. The ultimate goal of communism is actually the eradication of government. Eventually the government is supposed to wither away, leaving only the communist society to run on its own. Those are the long term goals, but in short term, Marx insisted that the proletariat gain power, and use this power to implement changes in society. Among those are the dissolution of royal blood lines, the implementation of public schools, and the gradual relocation of city-dwellers to the country in order to use all of the available land with all production controlled by a central government. Interestingly enough Marx viewed Christianity as a necessary tool because in his opinion Christianity represented a form of socialist society. Marx also admits that in order for communism to be fully implemented, a dictatorship would have to be founded.
So there are good things and there are bad things with communism in its most ideological form. The question is then: Does the failure of communist states (which tend to be the most repressive) disqualify Marx’s political theories. I believe that the answer is a yes, with a caveat. It has been shown time and again that communism does not work for a society and ends up giving rise to repressive, dictator states. However, it should be noted that Marxism in its purest form has never been implemented. Countries like the Soviet Union and China use their own form of Marxism that differs in key ways. That being said, this just shows that pure Marxism is not sufficient enough to really change a country, and must be modified for individual needs. The fact of the matter is that although Marxism has some good ideas, it is not a viable political ideology and never will be effectively implemented.
Is there a point to reading The Communist Manifesto then? Yes. The Manifesto is an interesting and historical document that can help us understand history. It can also help us understand contemporary problems. When the Tea Party is yelling about our President being a communist, it is important to know what communism actually is so that we do not fall prey to unsupported hysteria. Conversely we can also use it to learn from history in order to not repeat the same mistakes that the communists did. I will say that I did not become a communist after reading it, but I believe that for any serious student of politics or history, the Manifesto is a book that should be read.