'All That Is Solid' after All These Years

Article excerpt

About the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I began to assign Marx and Engels Communist Manifesto to my first-year western civilization classes. I paired the Manifesto with John Stuart Mill's classic defence of liberalism, On Liberty, and asked students to write a comparative essay. I have found it a challenging way of getting students to comprehend two of the fundamental ideologies of the nineteenth century. As university students do, the students have felt free to volunteer their opinions in the course of writing these essays. In the first years of this assignment, the students expressed an overwhelming preference for the opinions of Mill. But in the course of this decade there has been a perceptible change, with about fifty per cent now saying they prefer Marx and Engels.

As we celebrate the 150th year since the publication of the Manifesto, the growing popularity of this document today is astonishing. It is hardly a surprise that the newspaper of the French Communist Party, L'humanite, recently republished the full text for its readers. Or that Against the Currents devoted its last issue to analysis of the text by a panel of scholars. The Manifesto, it is said, has become a virtual best-seller in Great Britain.

But it is noteworthy that the most recent annual report of the IMF is headed by a quotation from the same document.

In the case of the IMF, the quotation from the Manifesto is clearly an attempt to be clever. But it is more than that. With the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in Eastern Europe and the globalization process of recent years, capitalism as a world system is apparently enjoying an exuberant revival of its nineteenth-century vitality celebrated by Marx:

"Urged onward by the need for an ever-expanding market, the bourgeoisie invades every quarter of the globe. It occupies every corner, forms settlements and sets up means of communication here, there, and everywhere. By the exploitation of the world market, the bourgeoisie has given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every land...We see this in intellectual production no less than in material."

I know of no contemporary account that more exactly and concisely describes the globalizing economic and cultural forces at work in the world today than does this 150-year-old passage from the Manifesto. No wonder it is admired, even by the IMF! The revolutionary impact of an expansive global capitalism on political, social and cultural life has nowhere been more poetically captured than in the following passage: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without incessantly revolutionizing the instruments of production...and, therefore, the totality of social relationships ... All that is solid melts into air." Could anyone better express the traumatic shock being experienced by humanity as a whole under the impact of today's apparently triumphant world capitalism? In the Communist Manifesto, then, we have an incomparable description of the revolutionizing and universalizing dynamic of today's global capitalism.

But why is that a 150-year-old document composed by two obscure German revolutionary intellectuals retains so much of its intellectual power? The reason is that it is informed by a profound and enduring historical and philosophical analysis of the dynamics of the capitalist system. Much has happened since the Manifesto was written. But since the system whose essence is the continuous expansion of the forces of production, based on the exploitation of ever-larger pools of associated wage labour, remains as alive as ever, so, too, does this most perceptive analysis of it. Indeed, the pertinence of the document even for capitalists testifies to the ongoing validity of its assumptions.

Capitalist economists from the IMF, of course, make a very selective use of the Manifesto. They like to stress Marx's praise of the revolutionary accomplishments of capitalism. Ignored is Marx's point that the admittedly revolutionary nature of this system also makes it highly unstable, ready to fall into crisis literally at a moment's notice. …