The 'Communist Manifesto' and the Problem of Universality

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One can say without fear of refutation that the Manifesto has been more consequential in the actual making of the modern word than any other piece of political writing, be it Rousseau's Social Contract, the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, or the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen." The first reason is, of course, the power of its political message, which has reverberated throughout the world and determined the destinies of a large cross-section of humanity over the past one hundred fifty years. Then there is the style itself: no call to arms has ever been phrased in a language of such zest, beauty, and purity.

Third, there is the stunning combination of diagnosis and prediction. Marx describes the capitalism of his own times and predicts its trajectories into the indefinite future with such force and accuracy that every subsequent generation, in various parts of the world, has seen in the Manifesto the image of its own times and a premonition of the horrors yet to come. And, fourth, concealed in the direct simplicity of its prose, like the labor of the tailor that disappears into the coat, is the distillation of a multifaceted philosophical understanding that had arisen out of a series of confrontations with the thinkers most influential in the Germany of his time: Hegel, Feuerbach, Proudhon, Stimer, Sismondi, the "True Socialists" and all the rest whom the authors of the Manifesto broadly describe as "would-be universal reformers."

No single essay can ever do justice to all the thematic richness of the Manifesto, precisely because the document condenses themes drawn from a whole range of intellectual and political debates, from the philosophy of history to the fundamental principles of capitalist political economy. For this essay, therefore, I have chosen only one of the themes we find here: Marx's radically new way of approaching the very idea of universality. While this idea is very much under attack these days - from proponents of identity politics, multiculturalism, communitarianism, indigenism, anti-secularism etc. - it is an idea that has been with us for a long time, not only in religious metaphysics and premodern humanisms but also, very intensely, throughout the history of modernity. I shall be asking a rather simple question: what are the conceptions of universality that Marx inherits, grapples with, rebels against, rejects, and then reinvents, radically, by changing their most fundamental premises?

The Idea of Universality

It is really quite astonishing how often words like "universal" and "global" are used in the Manifesto. There are two principal reasons for this: the world in which Marx came of age was marked by a tendency toward increasing globalization of the capitalist mode of production, which was to occupy him for much of the rest of his life; and the intellectual climate of his time and place was marked by various philosophies that took universalism of one kind of another as their starting point. This we cannot discuss at any length here, but a few indicators may be useful.

Generally speaking, the process of secularization in philosophical thought, which is so much a part of the birth of the modern world, was very much a matter of thinking about the category of the "universal" in ways radically different from how it had been thought within the church and in ideologies narrowly defined in religious terms. Vico's famous dictum, that "men can understand only that which they themselves make," was designed as a materialist premise for comprehending the universal history of profane humanity and its institutions in terms not given in the history sanctioned by the universal church and its narrative of the world as God's design. By the time one gets to Hegel, of course, the single institution that signifies the principle of reconciliation and progress in the universal history of Man is the State, which embodies the "world-spirit." The state bureaucracy emerges as the universal class guaranteeing a universalist reconciliation of particular interests in society. …