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No matter what side of the political spectrum you believe you fall on, whether it be as far to the left, right, or in the middle as possible; you have heard of Karl Marx and The Communist Manifesto. Published in 1848, The Communist Manifesto is a piece of writing that has been translated into dozens of languages and has reached almost every corner of the globe in one way or another. No matter what side of the political spectrum you believe you fall on, whether it be as far to the left, right, or in the middle as possible; you have heard of Karl Marx and The Communist Manifesto. Published in 1848, The Communist Manifesto is a piece of writing that has been translated into dozens of languages and has reached almost every corner of the globe in one way or another. While some documents that fall within the same category as Marx’ Manifesto often become nothing more than minor relics of the past, only to be discussed or acknowledged in passing by those who have ultra-focused historical interests, that could not be farther from the reality of what The Communist Manifesto has remained to be throughout the course of history.
The ideas behind this piece have found themselves at the heart of numerous global struggles such as (though I realize this sounds like I am simplifying things) The Cold War, where the Free Market Capitalist Westerners faced off against the Communist Easterners. Although The Cold War reached its end some 30 years ago, the issues of communism vs. capitalism, labor rights, and working class vs. ruling class remain all too prominent. Furthermore, in part with the proverbial fallout of The Cold War, Karl Marx and his ideas have remained at the center of a lot of discourse. Without any reasoning, I’m sure many of you reading this have been called a Marxist due to voicing a criticism of capitalism, whether that criticism was small or large. You may very well be an actual Marxist too! However, the point here is that while Karl Marx and his magnum opus have clearly influenced a staggering amount of our past and present discourse, not many people seem to have actually read his manifesto. If you search online: “Important Books for Leftists to Read” (or something of the sort), The Communist Manifesto will surely appear on every list. It is still regarded as one of the most important documents in left-wing thought, and even those who distance themselves as much as possible from the left-wing can’t seem to stop talking about it or its author either. Why? Why is a document that is 173 years old still so prominent, and if it is still so; why is it that not a lot of people seem to be truly aware of its message? Today, we are going to be breaking down what Karl Marx put on paper nearly 180 years ago, in the hopes that we can contextualize his message for the year 2021 and why it is still so relevant today. First however, let’s take a look at who Karl Marx was.
Karl Marx, born May 5, 1818 in Trier Germany to parents Heinrich and Henrietta, would go on to live a very eventful life. Moving throughout parts of Europe, such as Brussels, Paris, and Cologne, he would eventually come to London where he would also live until his death in 1883. In 1843, whilst living in Paris, Marx became an editor for a left-wing newspaper by the name of Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher which had been started with the help of another German activist named Arnold Ruge. It was also in Paris that Marx met Friedrich Engels, both of which, after joining the Communist League, were tasked with creating a “party program” for the league. That program would become The Communist Manifesto and it was first sent to the publisher in 1848 only a couple of weeks before the French Revolution of February 24th. The manifesto was then translated from its original German into French shortly after being published and then into English in 1850. As time moved on, numerous translations were made into other languages and the impact of Marx and Engels' work began to be more apparent.
But where does this leave us today? It is not crazy to say that the social and economic landscapes of 2021 operate much differently than those of the mid to late 1800s. While yes, things have changed, Engels says in his preface to the manifesto that: “Further, it is self-evident, that the criticism of socialist literature is deficient in relation to the present time, because it comes down only to 1847; also, that the remarks on the relation of the Communists to the various opposition-parties (Section IV.), although in principle still correct, yet in practice are antiquated, because the political situation has been entirely changed, and the progress of history has swept from off the earth the greater portion of the political parties there enumerated”. This preface was written in 1888, which was only 40 years after the original publishing of The Communist Manifesto. If the author of the very piece we are discussing notes that in 40 years certain aspects of his writing have changed due to the changes in the political environment, what must that mean after 173 years? Furthermore, it is not just that political environments have changed, but also the very fabric of industry and production has also. Industry has become more massive and oppressive and by way of population growth, it now exploits even more people than it did back in the 1800s. In the very first section of the manifesto, Marx and Engels state that there is a constant need to expand the market, and that this need chases the ruling class over the entire planet, and because of this-any and all established national industries are being destroyed daily by new industries that satiate the needs of this ever expanding market. While the scale of this statement has changed with our contemporary industry, the sentiment has not. Take a moment to think about the impact that Amazon has had on industry within the past 20 years in the United States alone. According to ISLR.org, the number of small retailers (small being described as less than 500 employees) in the United States has fallen by 65,000, and 40% of small toy, apparel and sporting goods businesses have ceased to operate along with 1/3 of our nation’s small book publishers. Now, while I realize that my support of this specific statement by Marx might seem too radical, and by linking my support to the statistics above might also seem too radical, I can assure you it is not. In fact, a recent study showed that 80% of voters believe that Amazon should be more closely regulated, and half of those voters stated that they think Amazon should be broken up entirely. It is not just the “radicals” who believe that modern industry has a compulsive tendency to exploit and change the market, but rather a stark majority of us believe that to be true too. This statement by Marx is still referencing people like you and me. We, as workers, are the ones feeling the repercussions of modern industry and are forced to deal with the constant radical change of the market.
Now, onto the workers being the majority. In section I of the manifesto, Marx and Engels write: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”. This statement is also one that has continued to prove itself to be relevant. In regards to the public feeling on industry we can see that this is true. Most Americans understand that massive corporations like Amazon are creating oppressive conditions for the regular worker, but how we have chosen to deal with this understanding is very complicated and what we should do moving forward to actually deal with this, is another task entirely.
The next installment of this article will tackle sections III and IV of The Communist Manifesto, furthering our discussion into its validity in the modern day. If you would like, I highly encourage any readers who are so inclined to read through the manifesto and engage with us in ways that you think it either does or does not remain relevant to the struggle of the working class in 2021. You can find free PDF copies of The Communist Manifesto online if purchasing a physical copy is not within your means.
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