The Communist Manifesto, Revisited (Again!)

February 21 marks the 175th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. The video above is here only as a supplement what’s below, as DL’s Paul Buhle talks to Miéville about his new book about the Manifesto. (Ed.)

A Spectre, Haunting: On The Communist Manifesto

By China Miéville, Haymarket Books, 2022

Every leftwinger across at least four generations, in a bewildering number of global locations and languages, was likely to have a story about an early personal encounter with “the manifesto.” A falloff in recent generations may have created a sort of gap, making the book at hand all the more useful in educating any interested reader today. 

My own first copy, a hand-me-down extra from an ethnic oldtimer, had a handful of translated words in the margins, in what I took to be Slovenian. Or Bulgarian. This edition had been published by the Socialist Labor Party sometime in the 1910s, and obviously meant something important to blue-collar immigrant readers along the way. It certainly meant a lot to me.  Never mind that U.S. prosperity and the discrediting of the Soviet Union had seemingly undercut any near time claims of relevance. The phrases burned again with significance for a host of 1960s experiences, from the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War. A spectre….was haunting. Again and again. In recent decades, reprints assigned by college instructors have kept several small leftwing publishers in business. But did the message sink in?

China Miéville is a most unique writer and personality. A veteran of the British Left, Miéville has made himself known as a novelist of speculative fiction. He thereby occupies a space alongside  Kim Stanley Robinson, the late Ursula Le Guinn, Octavia E. Butler, and the never-to-be forgotten Jack London, among others. They saw the future and they explained to the common reader what Capitalism had done; was still doing; and, if not halted, would go on doing to human beings and to the planet, ever closer to the point of total destruction.

Miéville usefully reprints the Manifesto itself and introductions to various versions as a kind of appendix. Many new readers may want to shift back and forth from Miéville’s own text. Among the most useful of his commentaries—among many and varied, too varied to be described thoroughly here—he explains how the Manifesto appeared, amid the 1848 revolutionary uprisings across Europe, became somewhat lost until the creation of the First International and the Paris Commune, and found its mass readership, across borders and continents, after 1880, with the formation of grand socialist parties and socialist-affiliated unions. 

Miéville is at pains to explore the origins and meaning of many phrases in the original text and the Ideas behind them. This illumination has been undertaken before, often as “new introductions” to fresh editions—Eric Hobsbawm’s essay in the 1998 edition comes readily to mind—but not perhaps with the precision or current value of Miéville’s text-centered reading. Not that he is de-constructing in the 1980s manner of making up new and confusing words to demonstrate his analytical dexterity. Quite the contrary. He is humbly seeking to explode, for instance, the conservative or neoliberal charge that the Manifesto’s insistence upon capitalism’s revolutionary nature in transforming society was somehow an endorsement of the capitalist system itself, or an indifference to its effect upon colonized societies. As he shows, the authors here and in their other writings (the first volume of Capital comes clearly to mind) curse the devastating effects upon the pre-industrial order that impoverished and degraded the population horribly. Marx and Engels had more than a little of what would later be called eco-consciousness.

Miéville seeks, more positively, to explain why the revolutionary vision at the core of the Manifesto is not even slightly outdated and may in fact be more relevant now than earlier. Marx and Engels saw the germ of today’s capitalism and carefully analyzed something that escapes even today’s socialists, at our common peril. The writers of the key historic document of the modern Left pinpointed wage slavery as the essence of industrial capitalism and, consequently, the struggle to abolish it the essence of the struggle for socialism. 

They most certainly appended to the Manifesto some carefully chosen “immediate demands,” useful reforms that would uplift the condition of the working class. But no consistent disciple of Marx and Engels would accept the idea that a larger social state in itself, or, for that matter, state ownership, would eclipse the centrality of wage slavery and the burden that it imposes upon its victims. No one knows that better today than the workers at Starbucks or Amazon. Abolition of the wage system: why would they dream of anything less?

A good bit more of Miéville’s text is devoted to batting off foolish criticisms of the Manifesto by famous critics, including some on the Left. This is, for many of us, fun reading, but also useful in the sense that whatever socialists think or write, the liberal and conservative essayists will attack as outdated, thus exposing their foolishness to those who read the Manifesto closely.

More could be said about the stirring way that Miéville the novelist treats the creation of the Manifesto. Earlier historical accounts of the process—the two men meet, don’t exactly hit it off, then find each other and engage in one of history’s great partnerships—have been numerous and sometimes useful. Some of them are certainly longer than Miéville’s effort. But none seem to me more incisive, a point that can only be appreciated in reading and re-reading his text. The writer, the thinker who is China Miéville has give us a gift, let us  ponder it carefully and use it well.

Historian Paul Buhle interviewed Eric Hobsbawm (by phone) in 1998 for the Village Voice. The interview below with China Miéville was conducted by email in January 2023.

PB: Would you say something about what it means for a fantasy novelist or a novelist of any kind, to take on the Manifesto and write a whole book about it? Why now? 

CM: The question of the relations between the imagination and speculation and the future and radical politics is clearly important and interesting. But I want to start with two caveats: 

First, I’m antagonistic to the artistic exceptionalism that underpins many –not all, but many–of these sorts of questions. I mean there’s often an implication that there is something particularly special and/or interesting about novelists, and often about artists in general; that is to say, people who have any kind of creative practice, particularly a professional one. This is obviously wrong: it should go without saying that plenty of artists, including people whose work one might like a lot, have nothing interesting to say about lots of the stuff about which they say things. The weirdly shabby culture of minor celebrity around writers often means we get to read essays on this or that cultural or political phenomenon by a writer, for example, who’s been convinced (and it’s often pushing at an open door) that because they wrote a good novel about X, they should write something about, say, the war in Ukraine, and other people should read it. I’d advocate for a different logic. Maybe, just maybe, a higher proportion of the sub-par writings that result are better written than those by people who don’t string words together for a living, but even that I’d be cautious of. This doesn’t preclude that they “might” have something interesting to say: just that we all know they very often don’t, and if they do, it’s not because they are a writer.  

Which is all to say, secondly, that I’d be very cautious about generalizing: I think it surely depends on the novelist. 

All of which is to say that I can’t say what it means for a novelist to write about the Manifesto, only what it means for me to write about the Manifesto. And even then, writers are often wrong about their own work, so I’d tread hesitantly there. 

What I think is that for me, in ways I can’t quite put into words, my fascination for the non-real and what philosophers call the “Sublime” is expressed in the fiction I write (and read), and is also inextricable from my political commitment to fundamental change. So I believe there’s a connection, but I’d be cautious about saying exactly what it is. 

Sometimes it feels like everyone who encounters Marx’s most celebrated texts–particularly Capital and the Manifesto–is compelled to talk about it. And maybe one of the reasons for this book now is just that. But I think there are also three particular drives behind writing it now. One is that we live in a weird moment that Richard Seymour has called “anti-communism without communism,” where the Right, globally, and with particular fever-dream intensity in the United States,, is focusing on an enemy called “communism” that does not, at any kind of serious or mass level, exist. So, it seems that it might be worthwhile to examine what in particular the most celebrated example of communist literature actually says, and how.  

Second, and related, is that I have reached critical mass of exasperation with the bad-faith and/or stupid criticisms of the Manifesto. I want to be clear: I’m not saying there are no criticisms to be made, or that there isn’t space for a serious critical discussion. I get into this in the book, including pointing out various areas in which I think the Manifesto has its aporia and lacunae and fallacies. And I’ve said repeatedly that a serious engagement, including with a smart, serious, thoughtful non- or anti-communist interlocutor would be really welcome. But the point is that the great majority of the criticisms, including from those who should know better, are just unthinking and crude intellectually inadequate nostrums, characterized by a complete lack of curiosity. (As a counterpoint, I want to give a grateful shout-out here to Chris Hayes, who interviewed me about the book on the podcast “Why Is This Happening?”: I found this a serious, thoughtful, curious engagement, from someone by no means embedded within the tradition. That struck me precisely because of its rarity.)

Third, I think given the scale of the planetary crisis that faces us in this epoch of sadistic and senescent capitalism, those of us inspired by the Manifesto have to wrestle with the specific questions of what it means to have fidelity to ruptural politics, let alone ruptural communist politics, in a world in such need of repair.

I think that one of the key ways to move beyond the smug uninterest of the least interesting critics, and the dialogue of the deaf that characterizes even some of the more serious engagements, is to get at precisely what kind of text the Manifesto is, and indeed what manifestos in general are. And on that, even many of the Manifesto’s putative friends have not engaged with the specificities of the manifesto form, that congelation of analysis, rhetoric, exhortation, warning, recruitment, and prophecy. So I do my best to really examine the manifesto form, as an admirer of the Manifesto, of manifestos as a form, and of apocalypses. 

PB:We live at a scary time in which SciFi/dystopian fantasies seem to be  coming true before our dreading eyes. Is there anything to be said about how your precursors saw the emerging societies in their gloomy prospects [interviewer’s limited knowledge here: Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin come to mind, but you have others] and how your take on the Manifesto might reshape that vision in your mind?

CM: I always feel a little bit guilty when I’m asked about the relationship of science fiction or dystopian literature of speculative fiction to politics and the future. Because I think such a relationship–and I’m not saying that it can’t or doesn’t exist, and I’ve already mentioned that I am aware that the two are related in me–is far less systematic than many people think. One reason for this is because I don’t think, for the most part, that science fiction works at the level of prediction. It makes  predictions, often, of course, and sometimes they even come true, to some degree, which is pretty remarkable. But of course the mass of literature the predictions of which don’t come true isn’t a failure on that basis, and more pertinently even when they do come true, I don’t think that’s because the book has worked, because whatever the author thinks, I don’t believe science fiction is primarily a fiction of prediction. I think speculative literature in general operates (like all fiction, to some degree, but perhaps with a heightened intensity) as a kind of refracted expression of the anxieties of the present. So I’m much less interested in reading any fiction as either blueprint or warning than I am–again, irrespective of what the author may think–as an expression of the psychic terrain of the current moment. That hardly means it’s not political, of course, but it does mean that, for me at least, it isn’t very helpful to read it as “warning.” 

Sometimes this leads to what I think is tendentious reading. For example, I’ve seen [J.G.] Ballard’s The Drowned World described more than once as a terrifying warning about global warming and rising water levels. Here’s the thing: obviously the book (which is amazing) depicts a London in which the city has been submerged under water. And it’s also true that today,  in the context of the climate crisis, that can’t but register with us in a certain minatory way. But I don’t at all think that what makes the book so extraordinary is that it is such a warning: it is a hallucination, it is a fraught and overdetermined image of deliquescence far more about a destabilizing and permeable model of subjectivity than it is “about” climate change. 

At a strategic level, I don’t think many people become activists because they read particular fiction, certainly not at a systematic level. To be clear: I’m not saying that activists and leftists don’t find, for example, particular power and even inspiration in The Left Hand of Darkness, say, or The Dispossessed. I’m saying that the line of causality between their love–my love–of that literature and their– my– politics is complex and mediated. There are, after all, plenty of reactionaries and enemies who love the work of Ursula Le Guin and who may be nuanced and thoughtful readers of it. So I read her work as, among other things, a leftist, and relate to it, including with inspiration, in a certain way. But then, I am also profoundly inspired, including politically, by the work of Beatrix Potter. I couldn’t exactly express how, but I know that for me the image of Mrs Tiggy-winkle at the bottom of a mountain path is inextricable from my yearning for a better world. 

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I just don’t think fiction, even fiction that thinks it does, works primarily in the “predictive” mode (let alone a “‘recruiting” mode) that sometimes we, as leftists, would like to think, or pretend, it does.  This is not  an argument that there is no politics in art, or, at least as important, in the readings of art. There absolutely is. And because of and beyond that fiction, and art in general, are wonderful (and crap) and part of the play that is essential and can indeed be inspirations, but it is a sign of profound weakness on the left that we are so anxious to find in them politics, whether liberatory or reactionary, of direct traction.

Which, of course, is another, key, reason to return to the Manifesto. Because it is about demanding that real project of liberation. Of social rupture. Of the transformation of the world. Into one we deserve.