The 'Communist Manifesto' and the Problem of Universality

By Ahmad, Aijaz | Monthly Review, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The 'Communist Manifesto' and the Problem of Universality


Ahmad, Aijaz, Monthly Review


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The 'Communist Manifesto' and the Problem of Universality
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.