The Manifesto Revisited (Transitions to and from Capitalism)

(Remarks for a panel on The Communist Manifesto Today at Left Forum, New York City, 18 March 2012)

On occasions such as these it would be tempting to pastiche a great reactionary, Friedrich Nietzsche, and propose a reflection on the uses and abuses of the history of the Left and its founding texts. The Left too has its monumental histories, proposing timeless examples for imitation, its antiquarian histories, poring over the minutiae of past experiences, however distant or irrelevant, and, perhaps more rarely, its critical histories, what Nietzsche called, ‘history which sits in judgment and passes judgment’. The temptation to monumentalise the Manifesto is enormous, its signal phrases now woven, sometimes unconsciously, into the lexicon of the Left. But all of the reverence lavished on this and other texts is at a price, to forget that communist theory is also a partisan, strategic, conjunctural, and thus in many ways ephemeral science, which can suffer at being treated as some kind of eternal verity. The many strata of its political history and the congealing into slogans and clichés of some of its most cutting phrases make it particularly difficult to think of the Manifesto in the present in a non-complacent, non-congratulatory way. Even its celebration must be a bitter one. To adapt what Adorno said of philosophy, the Manifesto is still necessary to the extent that the chance to realise it was missed, or defeated.

I want to propose that it is in the tensions between its poetry of revolution and the garbled prose of our present, in the gap between its declaration of communist futurity and our experience of capital’s enduring domination, that we should tarry with this text, not, as has so often been the case, in celebrating Marx’s supposedly ‘prophetic’ anticipations of globalised capitalism. Such prophecies, which unsurprisingly capitalist apologists have always been more than happy to concede, are ultimately not worth much for the kind of communist theory that doesn’t want to sever its ties from communist practice – especially if, severing part I of the Manifesto from the rest, they transmute it into a lyrical account of the transition to rather than from capitalism.

Or rather, we should perhaps take our cue from the simultaneous success and failure of the prophetic dimension of the Manifesto – taking prophecy here as a discourse that is at once rational and radical, in which an analysis of the logic and tendencies of capital is wedded to a wager which seeks to anticipate and invoke, and thus in a sense create, its nemesis. The success lies in forecasting the conjoined processes of proletarianisation – with waged work being the lot of over two billion human beings in the present – and of the subsumption of the planet by capitalist relations. The failure is in the correlation posited between these two processes, a correlation which takes a number of forms in the Manifesto but above all, through the famous figure of the gravedigger, the idea of a more or less linear relationship between the processes of capitalist ascendancy – from the division of labour to the centralisation of production, from the deskilling of labour to the concentration of workers in cities and factories – and the conditions for its revolutionary overthrow.

It is this correlation between the laws of motion of capital and the laws of motion of the working class, so to speak, that has long rendered problematic the schema of social and political change posited by the Manifesto. While I think we can still pose a dialectic between capitalist development and proletarian challenge, this is anything but a linear one. Looking back at the Manifesto through the dense layers of history that separates us from the time of its writing (now that, oddly enough, many opt to see our political conjuncture by analogy with 1848, for instance with reference to the Arab revolts), cannot but involve rethinking its very image of time, since its communist future is, alas, neither our past nor our present.

Indeed, perhaps one of the most challenging dimensions of the Manifesto is precisely what some have seen as its unabashed modernism, its celebration of novelty and creation as inextricably wedded to destruction, upheaval and the obliteration of past customs and communities. It is both tonic and disconcerting today to experience in this founding text the absence of any wish to conserve, any attempt to defend pre-existing ways of life, rather assuming the most devastating dimensions of bourgeois society as the very element and resource for emancipatory transformation. We could wonder if it is still possible in these times of a nostalgia for slowness to write so lyrically about acceleration, dislocation, destruction. Fredric Jameson has recently alluded to this question, forcefully recalling Marx’s modernism by contrast with a contemporary Left which suffers from the tendency of, as he puts it, ‘being reduced to protecting things. It is a kind of conservatism; saving all the things that capitalism destroys which range from nature to communities, cities, culture and so on. The Left is placed in a very self-defeating nostalgic position, just trying to slow down the movement of history. There is a line by Walter Benjamin that epitomizes that – though I don’t know how he thought of that himself – revolutions are “pulling the emergency cord,” stopping the onrush of the train. I don’t think Marx thought about it like that at all. It seems to me that Marx thought that productivity would increase by getting rid of capitalism. On the level of organization, technology and production, Marx did not want a return to handicraft labour, but to go on into all kinds of complex forms of automation and computerization’. Turning to the Manifesto itself, we could also note the dialectical irony whereby the future-orientation of bourgeois society, turns out, when looked at from the standpoint of the despotism of dead over living labour, to turn into a domination of the past. As Marx writes: ‘In bourgeois society, living labour is but a means to increase accumulated labour. In communist society, accumulated labour is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer. In bourgeois society, therefore, the past dominates the present; in communist society, the present dominates the past’.

Now, I’d like to argue that one of the ways in which we can gain some clarity on the force and the limitations of the Manifesto is to read it through the prism of a notion that plays a significant role in Marx’s relation to Hegel and to Left Hegelianism, as well as in his conception of method, that of abstraction. For the logic of bourgeois society, of the triumph of the bourgeoisie as a revolutionising subject of history, as well as the political prophecy of proletarian power, are in significant ways stories of abstraction. Not of abstraction as the hypostasis of alienated powers, from God to the State, Money to Law, the critique of which the young Marx inherited from Feuerbach, but abstraction as a process of actually emptying out the social world of a whole set of qualitative, customary, substantive, concrete, or communal relations. Bourgeois society, to the very extent that it drowns religious fervour, national belonging, or patriarchal relations, in the icy waters of calculation, and the indifference of money and value manifests a form of abstract domination different in kind from those which preceded it.

More, according to the narrative of the Manifesto, this process of abstraction undermines those previous modes of domination, or at least renders them vestigial and subservient – as Marx notes in his quip about priests becoming wage workers. I would like to suggest, drawing on commentaries about the geographical dimensions of the Manifesto by David Harvey, and on its temporal aspects by Peter Osborne,2 that it is incumbent upon us, in light of the past and present features of actually-existing capitalism, to maintain Marx’s focus on abstract domination while undoing the association of capitalist abstraction with temporal linearity and spatial homogeneity (or, to bring them together, with a diffusionist model of capital subsuming the world as it moves from the centre to the periphery). Though ‘naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation’ is everywhere to be seen, the story of the sheer dissolution of prior modes of domination, and the homogenisation of the conditions of labour and struggle, which could be drawn from the Manifesto, is one that jars with the maintenance and intensification of seemingly pre-capitalist modes of domination, which have in many ways been refunctioned by capital, but which remain its often indispensable accompaniments. As Osborne notes: ‘The social forms that Marx would have capitalism destroy live on within it, transformed, as both points of identification and functioning relations, suffused with fantasy in ways which cannot be fully comprehended apart from their “non-capitalistic dimensions”.’ (‘Remember the Future? The Communist Manifesto as Historical and Cultural Form’, Socialist Register 1998. Consider too the four problems that Osborne identifies in the Manifesto: it ‘(1) conflates the bourgeoisie with capital; while (2) placing the proletariat outside of capital (neglecting its existence as variable capital); thereby (3) enabling a conflation of the proletariat with communism; while (4) reducing capitalism to the logic of capital (neglecting its articulations with other, historically received social forms).’)

The compulsion, as the Manifesto has it, to face with sober senses real social relations is thus perisstently deferred and displaced. This question of the functional survival of pre- and non-capitalist features within capitalism, which complicates the narrative of the subsumption of all social life under the corrosive and revolutionary abstractions of bourgeois society, should be thought alongside those tendencies, which Harvey has considered in a spatial register, which make it so that capital, while it continues its proletarianising thrust, pushing ever more people into forms of waged labour and specifically capitalist unemployment, also relies on a mutable system of spatial differentiations in terms of strategies of accumulation and forms of exploitation. The upshot is that the thesis whereby capitalism of necessity organises the working class through the centralisation of production and the equalisation of the conditions of labour for the vast majority, is offset by its critical reliance on the differences between different labour markets and its compulsion to spatial fixes which, in the overall context of capitalist imperatives, work against the tendency towards unity which the Manifesto appears to posit. As Harvey observes in Spaces of Hope: “There is a potentially dangerous underestimation within the Manifesto of the powers of capital to fragment, divide and differentiate, to absorb, transform, and even exacerbate ancient cultural divisions, to produce spatial differentiations, to mobilize geopolitically, within the overall homogenization achieved through wage labor and market exchange”.

Without attention to the differentiating, rather than homogenising, dimensions of capital, we lose touch with the crucial importance of its role not just in making the working class, but also in unmaking, displacing and segmenting it – thus breaking any clear correlation between the extension and intensification of capitalist relations, on the one hand, and the emergence of a class challenge to those relations, on the other. To read the Manifesto today is also to read it in a time when the euphoric celebrations of capitalism’s global success – which were in the background of Harvey and Osborne’s reflections, both written in the 1990s – have been undone by the most recent crisis, when capital’s own narrative about itself seems to be about precarious endurance rather than glorious triumph.

In 1945, as the carnage of World War Two came to an end, Bertolt Brecht, tried to put some of the Manifesto into verse, dramatising especially what he called the ‘enormous contentions of power’ between the bourgeoisie, the ‘all-upsetting class’ and the proletariat. His rendering of the theory of crisis in the Manifesto speaks to the present. He wrote: Yet their God of Profit is smitten with blindness. He never sees / The victims. He’s ignorant. While he counsels believers he mumbles / Formulas nobody grasps. The laws of economics / Are revealed as the law of gravity at the time the house collapses / Crashing on our heads. In panic torment the bourgeoisie / Starts cutting to pieces its goods & wildly runs with the remains / Around the globe, searching for newer & larger markets / (The plague-stricken thus flees but only carries the plague / Along & infects the places of shelter!). In new & larger / Crises it wakes up staggered. But upon the impoverished people— / Whose multitudes the bourgeoisie is whirling around / In planless plans, now thrown into saunas now onto icy / Streets again—it dawns that the Springtime of the bourgeois class / Is over: its constricting world can’t grasp the riches created. But though the Springtime may have been over the autumn or winter of the bourgeoisie is a grimly protracted affair, as the whole global strategy of ‘austerity’ demonstrates.

The current moment seems to endorse Marx’s narratives of constant revolutionising under the aegis of the abstract domination of capital, but it does so in a manner which severely qualifies the figures of historical subjectivity that drive the Manifesto – as concerns both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – in particular in terms of capital’s differentiating and divisive capacities, which forestall any clear tendency towards unity of social condition and political purpose. To the extent that capital proceeds through a dialectic of homogenisation and differentiation, spatial expansion and division, corrosion of tradition and its cynical refunctioning for the purpose of shoring up domination, the tasks of working class unity and internationalism set by the Manifesto become all the more politically pressing, and anything but inevitable.

On this basis, we could perhaps propose that one of the most pressing intellectual tasks is perhaps that of reviving the critique of other socialisms that Marx laid out in the third section of the Manifesto. In particular, I would propose that we need to find in our own present those forms of reactionary and bourgeois anti-capitalisms which want to confront the ‘all-upsetting’ abstractions of capital either by returning to some fantasised communal life or by producing a kind of capitalism without capitalism. Marx’s acerbic description of the latter still resonates with the present: ‘The socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat’. This wish, I would argue, still infects much left thinking today, and though the more triumphant tonalities of the Manifesto might not be in tune with our present, I think we can only gain from reviving the connection between the need to analyse and anticipate the tendencies of capital, on the one hand, and the unsparing critique of the illusions of conservatism and reformism, on the other.


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