Editor's Note: Nineteen ninety-eight is the 150th anniversary of the publication of "The Communist Manifesto." Apart from Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species," Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' slim pamphlet is arguably the most important work of nonfiction written in the 19th century. The contours of our own century have incontestably been shaped by the ideas expressed in their immodest polemic.
Today, after the collapse of communism, what, if anything, is the legacy of the "Manifesto"? Book Review asked several distinguished writers to contribute their thoughts to a reconsideration of Marx on the eve of the millennium.
HANS MAGNUS ENZENSBERGER
Most manifestoes are boring. For a brief moment, they may create a flurry of excitement, but once their immediate cause is gone, they usually sound shrill, and their rhetoric seems overblown to the jaded ear of posterity. As a literary form, the manifesto is a modern invention with origins in the 17th century. Mass production started early in the 20th, when no self-respecting movement could do without one. The genre went into a cycle of inflation and subsequent decline.
The exceptions to the rule are quite rare. A document called "The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteenth United States of America" has retained much of its original impact, and even Emile Zola's famous letter is still quoted with respect. The most surprising survivor, however, is certainly the "Manifesto of the Communist Party," a masterpiece written by Messrs. Marx and Engels and published in 1848.
Read today, it is perhaps the most concise and thrilling account of a process that creates havoc in the contemporary world: the inexorable pressure of globalization. Of the four chapters of the "Manifesto," it is the first (and only the first) that can claim this resonance. Not only do the authors foresee and describe secular developments like urbanization and the rise of a female working force. They also analyze the crisis mechanism inherent in the capitalist economy with an accuracy unmatched by more recent gurus. They give an account of the vertiginous speed of change to which all modern societies are subject, and they foresee with a precision bordering on clairvoyance the consequences of "infinitely improved communications." They forecast the destruction of traditional basic industries, a catastrophe that has hit many regions and of which we have not yet seen the end. Finally, they see the political implications of a fully globalized economy: the inevitable loss of control on the part of national governments, which are reduced to the role of "a committee administrating the common business of the bourgeois class," represented today by the multinational corporations.
This is not to say that the authors of the "Manifesto" have proved to be infallible. In fact, their class analysis has turned out to be wide off the mark. The cornerstone of their argument is the claim that "the amount of [industrial] work is increasing." In fact, the opposite is true. The demand for [industrial] labor has declined in a dramatic way, and the classical working class is dwindling rapidly. A century ago, an enormous part of the working population was engaged in agriculture; today 2% to 3% of the work force is producing more food than the 60% to 80% traditionally occupied in the primary sector. Exactly the same process is now hitting the "proletariat" on which Marx and Engels pinned their revolutionary hope. The concomitant rise of an amorphous and multilayered middle class has disproved the notion that all intermediate strata are doomed to disappear. Instead, we witness the rapid growth of a new underclass, on both the national and the international scale: millions if not billions of unemployable people, not even deemed fit for exploitation by the forces of post-modern globalization.
Notwithstanding these flaws, the strength of the "Manifesto" is in its analysis and not in the remedies it offers. Much to the detriment of the Left, New and Old, Marxists have always been hypnotized by the affirmation and utopian side of their founding fathers' work. The disastrous results are by now a matter of record. I have always believed that the strength of Marxism lies in its ruthless negativity, its radical criticism of the status quo, and that in this capacity it is still an indispensable tool. As a prophet of "the realm of freedom," Marx shares the fate of many other utopian thinkers. As an artist of demolition, he is unsurpassed. What Walter Benjamin described as "the destructive character" may not be to the liking of people who prefer comfort to reason, but whoever wants to understand the world he lives in cannot do without "l'artiste demolisseur."