Lunar New Year Reads, #44: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

While I did not technically “read” this text, I did spend more time listening to it than I would have spent eyeing the text. As it was, I downloaded it from Emule, but it’s a free audiobook available from Librivox.

I do not know whether it is legal yet in Korea to circulate this text, although I am quite certain it was on a list of banned texts not long ago — just as were Camus and Sartre in my mother’s childhood in Quebec. I suspect it probably is legal here, though, since I managed to buy a heavily abridged Penguin edition of Volume 1 of Marx’s Capital in Jeonju (and a used copy of his The Poverty of Philosophy in a second-hand bookshop in Seoul).

Even so, I considered posting this review of the text privately, and am still considering doing so even now as I write it. The problem with reviewing a text like this is that one never knows what idiot will make a big deal out of someone talking about a book like this, without bothering to check what exactly he (I) had to say about it.

It’s sad, because, aside from his notions of the inevitability of his theories coming true — which is bollocks — Marx did have a lot of intelligent things to say. His defiance in the face of those he considered the powerful enemies of his adopted class is stunning and somewhat inspiring; his diagnosis of the worst parts of capitalist society’s forms of oppression is quite intelligent and telling — for one could argue a lot of what Naomi Klein discusses in her No Logo are things that Marx warned us against.

Nobody thinks North Korea is a decent nation-state; nobody recognizes Kim Jong-Il as legitimate, or even sane. Nobody (except some Russians) longs for the USSR to be reinstated, and very few people are rooting for Cuba to remain communist forever. Most of the world is relieved that China is moving from totalitarian communism-with-Chinese-characteristics to totalitarian capitalism-with-Chinese-characteristics. So a review of this book does not entail some kind of blithe, brainless endorsement of communism, any more than a discussion of the Bible entails any kind of endorsement of the Spanish Inquisition, or the Crusades… or of George Bush.

Still, Marx’s point — that unless workers stand together and work in favour of their shared, communal interests, unless they have some say in the conditions of their work, unless some kind of stoppage is put into a system which flourishes more and more the less certain the life of workers becomes — stands, and whilst the Russians and the Chinese and the Cubans and certain the North Koreans cannot offer us anything worthwhile as a workable answer, the problems do not simply disappear. Keynes could not banish them, Adam Smith himself claimed that capitalism could do great evil if it were not subject to rule of law; and in the current state of affairs, where rule of law between nations, especially between a rich nation and a poor nation, is a precarious thing, millions of people worldwide are longing, aching, for something better than they have.

I’m not talking about people who work at McDonald’s in New York City; I mean people who work in sweatshops in Guatemala, kids who wander the street homeless in Kinshasa, who are beaten by their employers as I’ve heard Nigerian workers are in some factories in South Korea. For those people, the conditions of the world and of work are simply unlivable, and in large part for reasons that Marx himself described. While we can reject his prescribed solutions, we cannot reject the fact that once introduced into a society, money has a capacity to cause people to allow great evils to go on, to perpetuate those evils, for their own gain. To this, I hold up some words Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in his novel, The Years of Rice and Salt:

My feeling is that until the number of whole lives is greater than the number of shattered lives, we remain stuck in some kind of prehistory, unworthy of humanity’s great spirit. History as a story worth telling will only begin when the whole lives outnumber the wasted ones. That means we have many generations to go before history begins. All the inequalities must end; all the surplus wealth must be equitably distributed. Until then we are still only some kind of gibbering monkey, and humanity, as we usually like to think of it, does not yet exist.

As much as we may (and ought to) reject the already-explored and failed communist solutions to these problems that Marx pinpointed, we still have have a duty to face them head-on, to work for social justice (and ignore the claim that poverty can exist in a just society), to speak loudly when we see evil being perpetuated, to fight it whenever we can.

How I can do this in my life now, I know but little. But it is a growing, pressing necessity in my conscience that I do not simply ignore the facts of my world.

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