A spectre is haunting Europe...." So begins The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Those words were true when The Manifesto first appeared in 1848. Communism then was just an idea, not a palpable and embodied institution. Today, as we empty the attic of the 20th century, communism is a ghost again. Now it haunts Europe mostly as a bad odor left by mass graves and spoiled dreams.
Still, this year’s 150th anniversary of The Manifesto turned into a fair-sized media event. Reissued editions sold well throughout Europe. The Verso edition in the United States moved more than 20,000 copies its first month out, which is pretty good for any book not about pop psychology, home decor, or angels. The Manifesto got a glowing, full-page review in, of all places, The New York Times Book Review.
The old dog still hunts, and the old specter still haunts. A quick reread will tell you why. Most of The Manifesto is a bunch of junk, but its opening section contains a searing description of global capitalism that is actually more accurate now than it was in 1848.
But first consider the junk. Much of The Manifesto is hopelessly outdated. The very terms "bourgeois" and "proletarian" simply don’t signify much anymore. They point to real class distinctions and conflicts, but the reality of class structures is now infinitely more layered and complex. Also, Marx and Engels expected a massive crisis of overproduction to send capitalism into an irreversible downward spiral. That nearly happened in the 1930s. But the "bourgeoisie" bounced back, and they’ve been bouncing ever since.
Other items in The Manifesto were wrong-headed to begin with. The idea that private property is only a bourgeois construct was wrong in principle and in analysis. People rightly want a little corner of the world to call their own, and in this century capitalism grew enlightened enough to let many of us have it.
Marx and Engels’ claim that the working class has no national identity or allegiance probably felt good to say. But ethnic identities can’t, and shouldn’t, be wished away. The Manifesto also congratulates capitalism for rescuing masses of people from "the idiocy of rural life. " And obviously Marx, and his followers, never understood the permanent reality of religious faith and religious values.
BUT CHECK OUT the good stuff. Capitalism, The Manifesto claims, "has left remaining no other nexus between man and man [sic] than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor...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." Think about that one on your next trip to the mall.
And read on: "The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation." As this column is written, there’s a flurry of Labor Day stories in the media about the hours Americans put in at work. The stories are drawn from a report by the Economic Policy Institute which shows that, in this era of declining real wages, American families have kept up, first by sending more members into the workforce, and now by having them spend more hours there. And we wonder why "family relations" are reduced.
Did you ever figure out the whole NAFTA and GATT thing? Here it is in a nutshell: "All old-established national industries have been...dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands."
"All that is solid melts into air," The Manifesto sings. "[A]ll that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." Middle-class Americans increasingly feel that their whole lives, and those of their children, are sacrificed on the altar of commerce. The dual incomes, the long workdays, the harried pursuit of stuff, the cross-country career moves, the leisure time lost to TV all amount to a heap of ashes.
In the midst of this reality, many people long for lost roots and mythical stability. So the marketplace these days is flooded with "country lifestyle" and "simple living" publications and commodities.
Many people intuitively know that something is wrong when their lives are devoid of anything solid or holy. It’s a systemic condition. Dr. Marx’s cure for it failed miserably, but the diagnosis stands.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.