Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

A must read, but not necessarily a must like
Though originally written in 1848, The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels ended up exerting its greatest influence in the following century. No other book had a more profound effect on 20th-century history in terms of lives affected, governments overthrown, nations transformed, people killed or displaced, and the expenditure of time, money, and energy either for or against it. Given the fact that America was so preoccupied with the threat of Communism for decades, it’s surprising how few Americans ever took the time to read the actual battle cry of their nemesis. Due to its historical importance, Communism is a political philosophy that must either be accepted or refuted, but cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, my intention here is not to critique Communism as a philosophy but rather to critique the Manifesto as a book.

A common misconception is that this book is the founding document of Communism, but in reality Communism was well-known as an active political school in Europe at the time the Manifesto was published. The purpose of the Manifesto was to ignite and unite the faithful, recruit the curious, and frighten the bourgeoisie. The authors assumed a prior knowledge of Communism on the part of the reader, and as such the text spends more time clarifying the doctrine of Communism than it does declaring it outright. Because it’s a manifesto rather than a full-fledged philosophical treatise, it’s full of bold, undefended statements. Here you won’t find well-reasoned arguments extolling the virtues of Communism, nor detailed explanations as to how exactly the world would be run following the triumph of the Revolution. For that you’ll have to look elsewhere in Marx’s oeuvre. The subject matter of the Manifesto is restricted to a description of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, along with some general statements about the abolition of private property. There’s also some discussion of how Communism differs from earlier forms of Socialism, and the state of its activity in Europe in the mid-19th century.

The Kindle file that’s offered for free on Amazon was originally created by Project Gutenberg. It’s a very short file, and one-fifth of it is taken up by the Project Gutenberg license agreement. The entire Manifesto can be read in under an hour. This is a no-frills file; it contains no introduction, commentary, or footnotes. There’s no table of contents, but a file this small doesn’t really need one. The English translation is from the 1888 edition edited by Engels. For the modern audience it’s a bit of a clunky read. There are a few grammatical errors, subject-verb disagreements for example. Absent from this volume, however, are the annoying typographical errors often found in Project Gutenberg files created by optical character recognition of scanned books. In that respect the text is clean and user-friendly.

As a historical document, The Communist Manifesto is an invaluable artifact. As a philosophical text, it’s brevity undermines its necessity. For any in-depth knowledge of the subject, you’ll have to dive into Marx’s Das Kapital.

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