No. 20: The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

So… The Communist Manifesto…

It must be said, I was nervous about reading and discussing this heavyweight.

My friend Thom chose it. We studied Joyce, Conrad and other intimidating (in my mind) literary giants together at uni. It’s accurate to say that Thom carried me through that particular module.

Today he’s my bohemian friend, living and freelancing n Barcelona, speaking umpteen languages (predominantly self-taught) and is constantly popping over to another European city to take the waters (/ local booze) and see the sights.

I wasn’t particularly surprised when he chose The Communist Manifesto. He read it just a couple of months ago, and so it seemed appropriate.

The Communist Manifesto comprises four parts. Bear with me here…

The first outlines Communist theory, and how the working classes are historically oppressed by the upper classes, referred to throughout as the Bourgeoisie. The second looks at how Communism would better benefit the working classes, or Proletarians. The third (which is where I lost the plot) seems to offer a critique of alternative Socialist writings. And the fourth looks as Communism in relation to other socialist parties.

Phew!

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I found the first section of particular interest. It really sets the scene, carefully explaining how and why the working classes suffer, and outlining why socialism is essential as a result. It argues that class systems mean that one class, the Proletariat, will inevitably endure hardship, and this is the case worldwide. This suffering is obviously economical ,and less tangible, as core family values are in danger as well as personal finances.

It’s a big and relevant topic.

Labourers are essentially described as commodities, like goods on the stock market – they can be valuable one day and worthless the next, depending on the development of the world around them.

“The unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious.”

This industrial threat often drives labourers to joining Trade Unions, which organises strikes, and “Here and there the contest breaks out into riots.” You only need to read Victorian literature by writers such as Gaskell to appreciate this.

The revolution that Marx and Engels hope to trigger here would remove all ownership of private property, destroy all notions of class and effectively level the playing field.

The result = a Communist society.

There are some brilliant lines here. In particular, “every class struggle is a political struggle” struck me.

The Manifesto also points out that “every form of society has been based … on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes.”

This is, of course, entirely accurate.

Importantly, the writers’ representation of the working classes is regardless of nationality – they state that they are a worldwide movement, representing all. Their 10 point plan lays out the foundations of this “tribe” (I’ve made the images extra big in the hope that you can read them – best done on a desktop):

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It must be said, I did not find this Little Black Classic the easiest, particularly the second half, when I was distracted by the scent of a Sunday roast my housemate, Daisy, was preparing.

Elements were enthralling, others a little dry. It’s a tangle of emotive rhetoric, a trusted tool for enticing a revolution, and specific political comments relevant to that time, which I couldn’t help but glaze over when reading.

Oops.

But it is articulate, intelligent, researched and convincing in its presentation. It holds a mirror up to world, and it’s not just the past looking back at us, but the modern world too.

All in all I didn’t not enjoy this read, but it took a certain frame of mind and level of brain power to read. Its political edge reminded my of Henry Mayhew’s Of Street Piemen back in week one of my blog, which I thoroughly enjoyed, possibly because it was specifically set in London, which I could relate to. (I enjoyed that book FAR more than the pie I made in its honour, which was genuinely vile).

As Marx and Engels were united in their politics, I grabbed my partner in crime – Poppy, my housemate and friend of some twelve years. She chose Hardy, back in April 2015.

We set out on a brisk but sunny Sunday, much to my relief (my last blog having taken place on an utterly miserable day) and headed for Soho.

Disembarking at Tottenham Court Road, we wound through the alleys of Soho, stopping to read many a plaque commemorating individuals, locations and events that those streets have witnessed.

Our destination was an establishment on a corner of Great Windmill Street, once the Red Lion Pub, where the Communist League met in London.

It was upstairs here that Marx and Engels were asked to write an ‘action programme’ that outlined the League’s arguments and proposals – a meeting that is outlined in the opening of the Classic. In other words, it was in this room that Marx and Engels were commissioned to write The Communist Manifesto. Written in their native German, it went on to be translated into English, Danish, Italian and so on.

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It was pretty exciting to find the building, which today houses an underwhelming Be At One bar. It being a Sunday, it was closed – shame, as I was hoping to head upstairs and snoop around (poor planning on my part).

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We stopped to stare at the first floor windows (see above), where the Communist League would no doubt have looked out at the hubbub of Soho and, after snapping some photos, headed back into the thick of Soho for a drink and a toast to the revolution.

Working men (*ahem* and women) of all countries, unite!

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Thank you so much, Thom, for choosing this week’s Little Black Classic. We can discuss in more depth when we’re supping prosecco in Milan!

Next time I will be reading Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.

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3 thoughts on “No. 20: The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

  1. Alison says:

    A little light relief – thank you. I also have a connection to the Red Lion. When I joined Charringtons back in 1984 one of the District Managers I worked for , Jonathan, had the Red Lion in his West End patch. Small world!

    Like

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