Monday, December 23, 2013

The Communist Manifesto [Norton Critical Edition]

So now that I’ve finished the Worth Literary Classics, my next project intended to get me to read something besides genre fiction is to start going through Norton Critical Editions.  A wide variety of classic books in literature, history, and philosophy have been published as NCEs, and the reason I’m a big fan is that they come with thorough introductions and a nice selection of background materials such as extracts from scholarly articles on the main text.  Instead of reading and forgetting, you’re revisiting the text through several and sometimes divergent angles, which is a great way to think more deeply about it. 

I’ve already picked up a handful of random NCEs at used book stores, and to get the project started I chose a relatively short one: Karl Marx’ The Communist Manifesto.  The editor, Frederic Bender, does a fantastic job setting the Manifesto in its historical context as a piece written at the request of and designed to serve as a statement of principles for a small group of activists named the Communist League in 1848.  Largely ignored upon publication, it wasn’t until a couple of decades later that “Marx’s little pamphlet” came to be seen as an influential and important exposition of the tenets of communism.  Bender’s introduction also clearly explains that the Manifesto’s role as a short essay to declare Marx’s (and the League’s) views, and convert others to the cause, meant that it was not intended to serve as a full theoretical argument for communism.  This can be seen by the rhetorical strategies employed and the devotion of one section to explaining why other perceived alternatives (varieties of communist and socialist organizations, now mostly long forgotten) were inferior or mistaken.

There were several things that I found quite useful in this edition in improving my understanding of Marx and The Communist Manifesto. First, a better understanding that Marx was not advocating the complete abolition of private property, but instead the abolition of private control over the means of production (p. 68).  A couple of the scholarly essays after the text (one by Michael Harrington and one by Bertram Wolfe) involved quite interesting discussions of Marx’s often-unclear (“schizophrenic” according on one writer) views on whether the proletarian revolution could be achieved through democratic means (on the whole, Marx seems inclined towards democratic means in countries that had advanced democratic systems like England and the U.S., while also acknowledging that in most other countries other means will be necessary for the proletariat to achieve control).  An essay by Rondel Davidson persuasively argues that much of the historical argument in the Manifesto is indebted to the work of a thinker I had never heard of before, Victor Considérant; however, Marx and Considérant had very different views on how the problems of exploited workers should be solved.  The book includes some very brief extracts from works by Lenin and Trotsky, and I wish this would have been an aspect fleshed out more; the various historical strands, movements, and counter-movements in the history of communism are not clear to me, and I can’t understand the difference between a Bolshevik, a Trotskyite, a Stalinist, etc.  (I suppose I could do a lot of Googling and some Wikipedia-ing, but that seems like too much work!) 

I suppose my final takeaway, and one of the essays (I forget which) talks about this point as well, involves Marx’ description of the state of the worker in the Manifesto as, of course, a very evocative and grim one, such that the reader can’t help but feel sympathy and a desire for justice.  How much of this alienated and downtrodden state of labor is contingent in terms of the evolution of capitalism, trade unionism, the legal system, geography, etc.?  In other words, has something Marx seemed to deride as simply stalling the inevitable proletariat revolution, labor reform, ameliorated the condition of the “working man” to such a degree that no revolution is necessary?  Of course, even if working conditions have improved dramatically in some contexts, the problems of vast income inequality have only increased, along with additional problems of privatization, corporatization, environmental injustice, etc.

Anyway, much to think about and a good sign that the NCE project was a good one for me to pursue!

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