Saturday, February 03, 2024

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, All That Is Holy Is Profaned

I've enjoyed China Mieville's fiction for some time, and recently have started digging into his non-fiction work as well. He is a dedicated socialist, and his nonfiction seems particularly interested in the history of communism and how we might relate to it today. October was a fantastic novelistic (but completely historical) retelling of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. More recently I finished "A Spectre, Haunting", which is a critical analysis of The Communist Manifesto.


I kind of laughed at myself while reading this; in some ways it feels like penance for or a corrective to my recent reading of the very pro-free-trade books of William Bernstein that I was absorbing last year. There's a fun little bit of synchronicity in these books. Bernstein identifies 1820 as roughly the point where the modern economy of plentiful increase began, and The Communist Manifesto was written just a few decades after that, as people were grappling with the enormous shifts that had occurred within their lifetime. It seems like Marx and Bernstein are writing about the same things, but Bernstein takes the perspective of the capitalist bourgeoisie while Marx and Engels argue from the perspective of the proletariat.

I'm not sure if I've ever read The Communist Manifesto before. I own a pocket copy, which I bought back in the 1990s. I definitely wouldn't have identified as a leftist at that time; I was a card-carrying member of the Libertarian Party. But I think I picked it up as a sort of vaguely defiant pro-free-speech act, exercising my right to consume information that might be considered dangerous and that I didn't agree with. A Spectre, Haunting includes as an appendix the complete text of the Communist Manifesto, and other than the beginning and the end it didn't seem familiar at all to me, so I suspect I just bought the book to have on my bookshelf and never actually read it.

There have been many translations of the Manifesto over the years, from its original German into almost every other language. The first English translation came in the 1850s, but this book uses a preferred translation from 1888, with some very minor noted tweaks. It also includes several introductions from Marx and Engels for subsequent editions; significantly, in these introductions they point out areas where the Manifesto had become outdated. Marxists often have a reputation of being dogmatic and inflexible, and I thought it was cool that the original authors were basically like, "Yeah, turns out we were wrong about this specific point, you can disregard it." But they make the astute point that the Manifesto itself has now entered history, and it would be wrong to modify it; in doing so, they avoid the revisionism that would later define Stalin and subsequent Soviet chicanery.

A Spectre, Haunting sort of circles around the Manifesto, looking at it from various perspectives and using it as a tool to look at history. Mieville writes about the specific history in which the Manifesto was written, both Marx and Engels' prior experiences and writings and the broader social and economic upheavals of the time. Interestingly, the Chartists prominently figure here - a year ago I didn't know who they were, now they're popping up in all of my books! Later chapters do section-by-section glosses of the Manifesto text, explaining references that might escape us today and analyzing what the authors are doing. Mieville also addresses the various criticisms made of the Manifesto over the years, covering both right-wing attacks on its fundamental arguments as well as left-wing concerns that it paid insufficient attention to other areas like gender, race or imperialism. The last main section of the book sort of muses on what the Manifesto means for leftists (and humans) today: which of its principles are worth holding on to, and how they might be applied to the historical context we find ourselves in in the 2020s.

My favorite part of this book was probably Mieville looking at the Manifesto as an author: analyzing what Marx is doing with language. He insists on treating the Manifesto as a manifesto: not as a scholarly treatise or a work of journalism. A manifesto seeks to stir action in its readers, and should be viewed and judged in that light. Mieville uses an analogy that I absolutely love: Imagine that, the eve before a battle, a commander is speaking to her officers. She rolls out a map and explains the features of the terrain: good sighting locations, chokepoints, marshes and fields. She points out where the enemy is located and how they will be approaching. She finishes with an exhortation: "We will fight them, and we will win!" Now, the commander is making a lot of different statements during that speech, and there are different levels of certainty and truth associated with them. She probably feels extremely confident that the terrain is as she describes. She believes that her intelligence regarding enemy movement is accurate, but she also knows that intelligence can be flawed, and the actual movement tomorrow may be different. And while she projects confidence in victory, she privately may have reservations. But, we really shouldn't judge her negatively for saying "We will win!" - her job is to inspire her troops, and if she is effective enough at sparking fervor among her followers, that might cause them to fight harder and, yes, win.

The point is, we can't really assess the effectiveness of a pre-battle speech in the same way we would assess the effectiveness of a weather forecast. They're different forms of communication, trying to do different things, and should be judged at how well they do what they're trying to do. Throughout the book, Mieville insists that in reading the Manifesto, we should remain focused on its Manifesto-ness: trying to create change in the world, not just reporting how things are or predicting how things will be.

Similarly, Mieville admires what Marx is doing with language on an artistic level. In an early preview of internecine leftist disagreements, he recounts how one scholar has sought to broaden the application of the concept of "Revolution" in the Manifesto: besides the clear political and economic revolution, we can also revolutionize how we think as individuals and how we can remain open to new thoughts and experiences. A dissenter grouses that "Revolution" clearly has one and only one meaning, that of a political rupture, the replacement of an old regime with a new one; if you expand the definition of Revolution to encompass everything, then it means nothing. Mieville notes that, for Marx, Revolution clearly did not just have one meaning: that, in fact, in all of writing, we're expressing multiplicities of meaning through our words. "Revolution" does explicitly reference political rupture, but there's a playfulness in how Marx uses it, so it also slyly alludes to, say, the revolution of one body around another, or the movement of a cycle. Again, I like how this sort of yanks analysis from the joyless single-mindedness of stereotypically dogmatic Marxists and brings these discussions back to the messy and complex historical situations in which they occurred.

As for the Manifesto itself: It's pretty interesting, rhetorically. Marx actually spends quite a lot of time praising the bourgeoisie and the role they had recently played in overthrowing the old medieval system of monarchs and nobles. There's quite a fusion of admiration and outrage towards this class. Marx's overall thrust seems to be, "we must destroy the bourgeoisie, but on the path towards that destruction, we may occasionally ally with them." As later introductions to the Manifesto would make clear, Marx and Engels rapidly lost that sense of potential collaboration: the nascent capital class was far more terrified of empowered workers than of old nobility, and didn't hesitate to make common cause with their former lords whenever the threat of revolution started to loom.

In writing about the Manifesto, Mieville covers a good number of what feel like inside-baseball disputes: even back in the 1840s, leftists were far more passionate about denouncing and arguing against one another than in taking on the organized power of the right. A good amount of energy in The Communist Manifesto is directed towards various factions that occupy a similar space to the Communists but have different strategies or goals, like the Utopians or the so-called True Socialists. Many of these groups disappeared entirely shortly after the Manifesto's original publication, and it's weird to think that they seemed worthy of such sustained ire when nobody even remembers them now.

The name "Communist" itself is fairly explained, at length in the Manifesto (building on Engels' earlier work) and in Mieville's glosses. To put it in the most succinct form, communists believe in the community of property; in other words, the abolition of private property. This does not necessarily mean the loss of personal property, but rather, wealth-generating sources (like agricultural lands, mines, factories, and so on) must be seen as commonly owned by the society as a whole, and their fruits must accrue to the whole society, rather than the narrow band of private owners.

At the time of the Manifesto's writing, it was important to differentiate them from "Socialists". Marx and Engels later came to accept the socialist label, but at the time, "socialism" was mostly used to indicate an interest in social reform: think the temperance movement. They wanted a new term to more clearly denote that they demanded the complete dismantling of the existing free-trade property-rights regime, which could be compatible with social reforms but could not in any way accept them as substitutions.

While Mieville aptly points out Marx's inside-baseball digressions, I couldn't help but think that some of Mieville's commentary falls into this category as well. As the book goes on, there's a lot of quoting of various leftist writers, leaders and activists, introducing me to feuds that I didn't know existed and still struggle to recognize the significance of.

I think that one of Mieville's biggest goals for A Spectre, Haunting is to argue that we should still pay attention to The Communist Manifesto even though a lot of it seems to be self-evidently wrong. Communism isn't inevitable. Workers' lives haven't continually gotten worse under capitalism. We don't seem to be heading towards a post-scarcity society. The capitalists have not been forced to ally with their workers. So, why read the Manifesto? It does seem to be important as a symbol, as a point in history, stating battle lines and trying to create class consciousness. Even though Marx's confident predictions mostly failed to materialize (with some notable exceptions, like progressive income taxes and universal education), it feels like he's correctly identified the prime cleavage in the world, between the owners and the workers, and that's still the main tension at work in the world today. He does so with a decently compelling framework, depicting this as a moment in history and explaining how these tensions have driven changes in the past. He also writes with passion and force, seeking to create and instill a sense of destined revolutionary purpose.

That gets at another kind of awkward thing about the Manifesto, both as it was written and, increasingly, as it recedes into the past. On the one hand, Marx famously asserts (or, to use Mieville's framing, exhorts) the inevitability of communist triumph. The ineluctable forces will inevitably lead to the downfall of the bourgeoisie and the eternal reign of the proletariat. If it's inevitable, though, then why should I as an individual do anything? Why expose myself to hardship, discomfort, ridicule, pain, death, when it's all going to happen anyways? And now, from 175 years in the future, we ask ourselves: if it isn't inevitable, is it even possible? Or is the struggle doomed? And if it's doomed, why should I do anything?

Mieville directly addresses this. As with a lot of the, erm, "complicated" parts of the Manifesto, it can be helpful to look at what Marx and Engels wrote in their later books. And we also shouldn't necessarily take them at their word: Marx might be saying that triumph is inevitable, but if he actually, truly believed that, then he wouldn't be writing so passionately to convince people to take a stand. Once again, how he writes carries meaning, and is something we should consider along with the literal content of his prose.

This argument, and others like it, made me think a lot of religion. Growing up in Protestant churches, I've spent a lot of my life reading the Bible and reading writings about the Bible, seeking to explain it, contextualize it, apply it, to reconcile apparent contradictions, to highlight easily-missed asides. And, well, that makes me think a lot of how people write about the Manifesto: having a text that's very important to your movement, but that has a lot in it that seems wrong or irrelevant, and trying to figure out how to relate to it and how your movement as a whole should address it.

I was glad to see that Mieville directly addresses this religious aspect occasionally ascribed to the Manifesto, and a little surprised that he eventually sort of embraces it: there is a religious tinge to what Marx is doing, even though a lot of people (and, heck, Marx himself) would deny it. Religion is ultimately about faith, and it does take a certain degree of faith to hold fast to the idea of proletarian victory in the face of endless setbacks.

The book ends with some urgent words for the present day. Without directly naming them, Mieville seems to endorse a DSA style of strategy, seeing politics and parties as only one potential avenue for struggle. History has shown that workers' movements will likely be betrayed at any opportunity, and it's foolish to pin all hopes on any political organization. The movement should build power wherever it's possible. Sometimes that will mean aligning with other factions to promote the interests of the capital class, but it must do so intentionally. For historical context, Mieville points to the various reforms in England in the late 1800s that shortened the working day and abolished child labor. From one perspective, these changes benefited the capital class by making work more tolerable and reducing the fires of revolution, thus allowing them to keep their comfortable position at the top of the pyramid. But Marx and Engels still supported those movements, as they directly benefited the working class, and, incidentally, provided them with more time and energy for education, organization and action. Likewise, movements like today's "Fight for $20" don't disrupt the existing power structures and arguably legitimize the continued exploitation of marginal workers; but they're still worth pushing for, as they improve lives, make people less desperate and sustenance-driven, and, incidentally, put more dollars into working pockets that could be used to build worker power.

He also writes about the importance of breaking away from the idea of the "party line" and purity tests. For most of the time since the Manifesto was written, there's been a kind of obsession with defining what the one correct position is to take on any specific issue, and browbeating any dissenters into either embracing that position or leaving the movement. Mieville promotes the idea of a "band" rather than a "line", a range of reasonable ideas that reasonable people might have, and embracing internal discussions and debate without turning every dispute into a do-or-die ultimatum. Reading this reminded me of an old church motto that I've always loved: "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity." Leftists must agree on certain core principles: the importance of peoples' needs over oligarchs' luxuries; the right of individuals to control their own destiny so long as they don't interfere with others' rights to do the same; the right of a society to govern itself; that all human being have equal worth. But some leftists might prioritize individual action over collective action, some might feel primarily motivated from spiritual feelings while others are committed atheists, some might seek political alliances while others eschew them. When we see these kind of intra-familial disagreements, we should approach them with an attitude of curiosity and humility, and engage in honest dialogue. Who knows, maybe we'll learn that our own prior beliefs were wrong; and if not, we can still remain in fellowship with our comrades so long as we agree on the big picture, while agreeing to disagree on this or that point.

Mieville sees the modern socialist movement as being too obsessed with optimism, and I realized that I'm personally guilty of that. When people tell me that they're worried a bad trend will continue or a good movement will end, I have a knee-jerk reaction to emphasize the positive and to state that we are in control of our collective destiny, and a better future is possible if enough people are willing to work for it. It is kind of cruel to berate people for not believing that things will turn out well: they have one level of mild trauma for thinking darkly of the future, likely caused by more trauma in the past where they personally saw bad outcomes, and then you're (I'm) suggesting that their reasoning is flawed and piling on more trauma. I do think it's important for us to have hope - again, why bother fighting this fight if we don't think there's a chance we can win? - but hope doesn't mean that everything will turn out the way we want in the time we'd like. We should be prepared for setbacks and backsliding, and more importantly, not dismiss those among us who warn of them.

The book ends with a kind of weird call to hate. He explains it pretty well; quoting Aristotle, he says that when you're angry at someone you wish revenge upon them, but when you hate someone you wish for them to not exist. Like many (most?) people, I think of hate as an unalloyed evil, something to be completely eliminated. Mieville argues that in order to complete the great project suggested by the Manifesto, we need to hate the evil institutions that we'll have to eliminate: the hierarchical class system, the exploitation of workers. We can't impassionately analyze and critique and offer compromises and reforms: we must see them as wrong and strive to eliminate them completely. In Marx's analysis, the bourgeoisie loathes the proletariat, but they don't completely hate them, because they need them: without the value extracted from the working class, the capitalist class would cease to exist. So they can deride their manners and fashions and poverty, but not seek to eliminate them. In the other direction, though, the proletariat can absolutely hate the capitalists: they're the ones doing the work, and could get along just fine without their profits being extracted. And so they're free to push for the complete elimination of the other class. They have nothing to lose but their chains.

That was sort of an odd note to end the book on, which I guess is in keeping with the book as a whole. It's varied and challenging, thoughtfully provocative and grounded, straddling history and the present. I left it with a much better understanding of what actually is and isn't in the Manifesto, a better appreciation for Marx's rhetoric, and a much better context into the endless internecine feuds within the Left. It feels weird to keep bouncing between pro-capitalist and anti-capitalist books, but I like to think that this helps keep my mind sharp and my politics actively engaged.

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