Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Communist Manifesto - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Just to make it clear off the bat, it was pretty hard to read this as simply a piece of literature from the 19th century and not critique it based on historical events of the 20th century that basically showed that its theories don't work

It opens with a discussion of class conflicts, people above vs. people below or, as it summed up, oppressor vs. oppressed.  This turns into a discussion of the Bourgeoisie vs. the Proletariat or those owning capital vs. those who must sell their labor in order to survive.   It was published in 1848 by two German philosophers, which I think is important to keep in mind.  For one, according to them Germany had never reached the point of social development in which the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were formed enough for life to get bad enough to justify a revolutionary proletariat.  Germany political literature on socialism was a "schoolboy's lesson" of the French which the then aristocratic German government used to squelch the rising bourgeoisie, thus halting the growth of the proletariat.  That's not to say what the pamphlet had to say was irrelevant.

1848 was in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, which is why I say the date is important.  The problems addressed in regards to the oppression of the proletariat under the bourgeoisie were legitimate then.  Children were sent to work in mines and factories to help support the families who were underpaid, overworked, lived in awful workers' housing, and were generally exploited by those competing for profit from factories in the developing market.  There were no laws  protecting workers at the time, and any cursory review of history is bound to show that people, when they're not restricted by some form of law and when they're gaining some sort of profit, are nasty to each other.  Before the bourgeoisie came about, people in Europe lived under the rule of the aristocracy, those working the land paying taxes to the owner or lord of the land, those lords and owners owe allegiance to a monarchy.  This is also, in my opinion, a recipe for abuse of power, and the fact that it was violently overthrown in some countries is a pretty good indicator that power was being abused and people were unhappy.  Yet it seemed like this feudal set-up was almost idealized in the beginning sections of the pamphlet.

Later there is a discussion of Communism's relationship with the different forms of socialism and what the authors thought of the different forms, mostly concluding that they were Utopian or merely another way for the bourgeoisie to remain in control.  It did actually call in the end for social revolution, and seemed, in not so many words, to admit that any such revolution would necessitate violence.  What land owner is going to give up what they have peacefully?  It also called for an end to nations, since
The working men have no country.  We cannot take from them what they have not got.
For the sake of reference, and because I think it's interesting, I'm going to type out what the "measures of course" are that they talk about in reform.

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
8. Equal liability of all to labour.  Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.
10. Free education for all children in public schools.  Abolition of children's factory labor in its present form.  Combination of education with industrial production, &c.,&c.

(Emphasis in bold mine)
 There was also argument for dissolution of family as we know it (under the bourgeoisie class structure).  The argument presented was that families are a means of income, all members work to get money for the family and the children are exploited.
Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents?  To this crime we plead guilty.
  This is why I emphasized the bit about child factory labor in its present form, because no matter which way you cut it, if you're making kids work in factories, whether for the benefit of the family, the bourgeoisie, or the society as a whole, it's still exploitation.  It also argued for social education to be taken out of the hands of the ruling class, only that's one of the other parts I really don't understand (and that seems counter-intuitive) because the manifesto says that there will have to be a ruling body, a portion of the proletariat, so there would still be a ruling class.  Again, it doesn't really matter how you look at it, people in authority have influence over things they want to influence, and one of them will always be education.

In a further way of dissolving the family, it talks about creating a community of women, arguing that the bourgeoisie regard women as a means of production and employ prostitutes and the wives of other members of the bourgeoisie.  So in essence there already is one and the Communists would simply stop the hypocrisy of the current system and make it legal.

Later on it addressed forms of socialism it called Utopian and reactionary.  I know the intent of those words was probably meant differently, but to me they really fit my reaction to the theories presented here.  They're a reaction to the social changes that were taking place between between the 18th and 19th centuries.  Europe was feudalistic for centuries before, and before that parts were dominated by Rome.  It doesn't surprise me that people had such a strong reaction to what was going on around them at the time.  It also doesn't surprise me that they were impatient for change.

Parts of it struck me as opposed to progress, which I'm sure they would argue I say because I was raised as a part of the system they oppose.  This is part of why it strikes me as Utopian--it assumes human nature will gear itself toward sustaining mankind as a whole.  The arguments presented, about nations ceasing to exist, about hostilities between nations ceasing, assumes that the world, as a whole, has adopted Communism.  That would require all men (used in the sense of humankind) to be selfless.  There is no personal gain, and perhaps it isn't anti-progress, but in that case it assumes people will continue to advance without any personal reward, that they'll struggle through their education, that they'll build and discover and create completely selflessly.

I know The Communist Manifesto has been used by governments as a so-called framework for building societies, but any of the societies that come to mind as having used this fell far short of its intent, and the ones coming to mind are the U.S.S.R., China, and North Korea.  I'm not including countries that consider themselves Socialist.  Maybe they really did start out intending to make this ideal society, but I think people tend to get in the way of their own ideals.  In my Poli Sci classes in high school and college, my teachers talked about left wing and right wing meeting at their extremes, more like a circle than a 2D line.  It's not the only political theory, and it's not the newest one, but it's hard to deny that Hitler's version of Socialism (which could actually be considered Fascism), Stalin's version of Communism, and Mussolini's version of Fascism all look pretty similar.  Anyway, that was just to illustrate the fact that I think the ideas put forward in The Communist Manifesto were abused.

It's interesting to read as a historical text, though I think if you're going to read it with strong political opinions in mind you might as well not read it at all.  It was hard enough to get through under thirty pages with the events of the 20th century marching through my head and shouting "No, see that, they slaughtered people over that!" off and on.  The writing style is a bit too pretty, which made it hard to pay attention to what was actually being said.  There are contradictions in logic that take a lot of standing-in-someone-else's-shoes to puzzle out, and some that I was just unable to work through at all.  I think reading this you have to let go of whether you agree or disagree with its ideas.  It's pretty irrelevant, I think, whether or not you agree since in practice history has shown that it doesn't really work that way.  Of course, looking at it from that perspective doesn't do much for working through the text either.  It's a biased piece of literature, which, I think, makes it very difficult to read for anyone, because I think a lot of people are biased in one way or another.

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