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 Much of The Manifesto is hopelessly outdated.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.