CULTURE

An odd pairing: A revolutionary tract from another time and place, in an apolitical era

The endurance of capitalism and the defeat of Karl Marx’s eschatological prophecy should not obscure his more prescient intellectual legacy – his powerful exposition of the flaws of the capitalist system. Although written over a century and a half ago, its analysis of inequality, monopolization, corruption, alienation, the debasement of popular culture, and even of what is today known as globalization remains inspired and forceful. The poverty of capitalism is beautifully captured in «The Communist Manifesto,» a book which captivates the reader with its vivid, often fiery, prose. The Manifesto was first published in February 1848. The same year Europe was swept by a wave of political and economic revolts. Few people, of course, had heard of Marx at the time, and even fewer had read the Manifesto. Nor would anyone have ever read it at all had Marx not been pressured by his colleagues in the Communist League – an assemblage of working-class parties based in London – to pen the document. The League actually threatened to expel Marx from the organization should he fail to meet the deadline set for him to complete the paper, which was meant to be a statement of their collective principles, a draft of which had already been written by his friend Friedrich Engels. Once published, the document was destined to become one of the most influential – if not the most influential – books in the last 150 and more years. The first Greek translation of «The Communist Manifesto» appeared about a century ago. A new edition was published this year by Nefeli publishers with a new translation by Costas Koutsourelis, who has also written an addendum to the book. The new edition also hosts an interesting introduction by British historian Mark Mazower, the author of such well-known works as «Dark Continent: Europe’s 20th Century,» «Inside Hitler’s Greece: the Experience of Occupation, 1941-44,» and, more recently, «The Balkans.» A pragmatic approach Mazower views the past and the present through no rose-colored lenses. He has said before that Europe suffers from ideological exhaustion, a result of its war-ridden historical legacy and disillusionment with unfulfilled visions or utopias that got a nightmare twist. «Democracy,» he once wrote, «suits Europeans today… because it involves less commitment or intrusion into their lives than any of the alternatives.» And at his most heretical: «Europeans accept democracy because they no longer believe in politics.» Not surprisingly then, one reads in the British historian’s introduction to a new edition of «The Communist Manifesto» that the retreat from a belief in revolution is part of a much wider story: «that of the postwar retreat from utopian politics of any kind.» «Few today find it easy to relieve the incendiary appeal of that vision first outlined by Marx,» he says. Whether this really represents a form of moral progress, Mazower cannot say. This does not mean Mazower is a big fan of the Manifesto. The book, he says, reads both as a philosophy of history and a philosophy of political action. The writer is, of course, skeptical of deterministic theories while he finds the Manifesto lacking as a call for political mobilization. «This was no blueprint for political action, still less a strategy for acquiring power,» he says. For all the political threat contained in the Manifesto, the book «is in some ways a rather unpolitical tract.» Marx warns the communist masses against setting up a party of their own and as a result he does not touch upon the issue of party organization. Nor does he raise the issue of the state, its role in history, in politics, or in the conquest of power: «Marxists would have to wait for Lenin to address the specifically political dimensions of revolutionary action.» The author also demystifies the significance held by 1848, the «year of revolutions» in Europe, which came right after the publication of the Manifesto, and which are often interpreted as a verification of Marx’s apocalyptic prophecies. «From our perspective,» Mazower contends, the revolutions of 1848 were «not the harbingers of world revolutions but the first symptoms of revolutionary failure.» Far from verifying Marx’s grasp of the laws of historical evolution, these uprisings revealed the strong grip of nationalism which left no room for a working-class movement. Soon, the liberal bourgeoisie was forced to concede defeat or to form «a new conservative alliance with their former enemies.» Capitalism, on the other hand, did spread after 1848 and «from that point of view Marx’s historical sketch remained useful» – albeit in a decreasingly internationalist world. Still, the writer points out, the most successful revolutions were liberal constitutional ones, what Marx’s followers referred to as «bourgeois» revolutions, in Portugal, Greece and Constantinople. ‘A strange triumph’ The historical watershed that seemed to actualize Marx’s eschatological vision was, no doubt, the October Revolution in 1917. «This was the point when Marxism achieved world historical significance.» But this «was a strange triumph for Marxian thought,» Mazower asserts. According to Marx’s metaphor, communism should have matured within the womb of capitalist society, requiring only a brief period of transition thereafter. The revolution would occur where the socialization of production and a large working class were already in place. But Russia at the time was far from being an industrialized country. The country was mired in poverty, it had little industry and was populated by a largely illiterate peasantry. Like many before him, Mazower claims that the Bolshevik insurrection «happened in the wrong country, at the wrong time, and only happened at all because Lenin was willing to espouse a very strongly activist interpretation of Marx’s own writings in which a party rather than a movement or society launched the overthrow of the existing order of property relations.» The ensuing War Communism that was implemented by Marx’s successors derailed his vision from the «road to freedom» to the catacombs of millions of dead, with the help of a revolutionary secret police whose killing potential, Mazower notes, surpassed even that of 19th-century autocracies. «Revolution and repression were as intimately conjoined as revolution and emancipation had been in Marx’s mind.»