Communism on your coffee table!

Barbara Ehrenreich on how all-conquering capitalism has turned Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto" into a glossy adornment that goes with most decorating schemes.

By Barbara Ehrenreich
Published April 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Ah, Karl! You thought those frantic scratchings and snortings were the sounds of capitalism digging its own grave, but all it was doing was preparing a nice niche for you -- a market niche, in fact. The leftish British press Verso has seized upon the 150th anniversary of "The Communist Manifesto" to re-issue that rousing old tract in an upscale version, suitable for display at the cash register. "It's very chic and looks like something for the sybaritic classes," Verso's PR person observes proudly, adding that it should "get us some great displays in the book chains." Adding impenetrable levels of irony, the cover has been designed by those playful ex-Soviet artists Komar and Melamid, whose gorgeously rippling red banner against a black background should be readily accessorizable with the cashmeres in primary tones coming to us for fall.

Why didn't Marx, or his co-author, Friedrich Engels, who knew a thing or two about running a business himself, think of this long ago? As Eric Hobsbawm tells us in his introduction to the Verso edition, sales of the original manifesto were pathetically sub-mid-list for decades after it was written. As for foreign rights, forget about it until well into the 1860s, when the International Working Men's Association began to take off. One can imagine their editor taking the authors to lunch and saying, "Karl, Fred, you've got some great stuff in here. That part about 'nothing to lose but your chains' just blew me away. I mean, the prose rocks. But we have to think packaging too. Like what about a pop-up version? A collectible bourgeois-piggie figures tie-in with Taco Bell? Or the movie version with Kate Winslet as the factory gal and Anthony Hopkins as the specter-that-is-haunting-Europe?"

But of course back in those days it would have been at least unwise for members of the "sybaritic classes" to go mincing about with their designer copies of "The Communist Manifesto" in hand. In the mid-19th century, fat cats could still recall the whistle of the guillotine blade as it headed for an overprivileged neck; they had seen the delirious, underfed masses rise up -- in Germany, Italy, France and the Austrian Empire -- in 1848. So there's no use blaming Karl and Fred for their lack of entrepreneurial initiative. One hundred fifty years ago, the conditions -- both "objective" and "subjective," as they would have put it -- were not yet ripe for the commodification of revolution itself.

First the world had to be made safe for irony on this scale and complexity. Communism -- or at least something superficially resembling the manifesto's prescription -- had to be attempted, road-tested and rejected worldwide. "Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State": Been there, done that. "Centralization of credit in the hands of the State": No danger that that's going to catch on among America's gun-bearing blue-collar class. In its naive faith that "the State" could be commandeered overnight to serve the workers as loyally as it normally serves the rich, "The Communist Manifesto" is as much an antique as those darling little Lenin pins that are available by the fistful at the flea markets in Berlin today. Post 1989, the manifesto bears the implicit warning label: Fun as it may sound, you don't want to try this at home.

But it was not enough for communism to fail. Before it could contemplate marketing Marx, capitalism itself had to change: It had to evolve to the point where it fully conformed to its own description in the manifesto. For a sizable stretch of the 20th century, in at least the "advanced" parts of the globe, only crackpots and subscribers to Monthly Review believed that the workers were being ground down to pauperdom. Anyone could see that machinists and truck drivers were buying houses in Levittown, second cars and college educations for their kids. "In rapidly changing modern urban America," a 1964 sociology text triumphantly declared, "traditional social classes are nonexistent." As for the destruction of "all old-established national industries," as predicted in the manifesto, and their replacement by a global system of production and consumption: Sure, but you had to wait until the 1990s to find Benneton in Beijing or Kentucky Fried Chicken in New Delhi.

So for a while there, in the golden age after World War II, capitalism sought to spite communism by treating the workers as if they might be useful as consumers too, and hence worthy of a living wage. It was not until some time in the 1970s that capitalism decided to take "The Communist Manifesto" as its personal self-improvement guide -- going global with a vengeance, treating the workers (including increasing numbers of doctors, teachers, scientists and writers as well as the old-fashioned heavy-lifting and lug-turning proles) like so many disposable "factors of production." The Great Polarization between rich and poor, predicted so long ago in the manifesto, now dominates the social contours of the world, from Los Angeles to Johannesburg, from London to Santiago.

And it is of course this deepening polarization and "immiserization" that gives the up-market new manifesto its delightfully up-to-date frisson and leads book dealers to believe that stockbrokers will want to display it in their corner offices as a sign of terminal cockiness. They can buy it on their lunch hour just a few blocks from Wall Street, at the World Trade Center Borders, for example, which is planning a colorful window display, and where the workers ($7 an hour) exist in what one of them described to me as a "culture of absolute hopelessness," thanks to management's obsessive wage-busting campaign. Or they can take it home to the coffee table and insist that the maid ($8 an hour and zero benefits) dust it daily so that the red banner on the cover maintains its high gleam. Commie chic is no end of fun once the commies are dead and the workers of the world have been beaten into submission.

So, thanks to the inner Hegelian workings of capitalism, "The Communist Manifesto" finally works as an accessory, a stocking-stuffer, a badge of consummate capitalist cool. But what about its "use value," as Karl himself might have asked? Does it work, in other words, as a manifesto? Well, there are a few problems, and not just the obvious one that real-and-existing communism let Marx and Engels down so unkindly. The other disappointment is capitalism. There is not and has never been a social system as brilliantly dynamic and relentlessly all-consuming as the capitalism of "The Communist Manifesto." It was, according to its authors, slated to destroy every vestige of the feudal and patriarchal past and, with one big steam-powered whoosh, propel humankind into the bleak cold world of the Modern, where our true options -- socialism or barbarism -- would finally be disclosed:

"All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

Faced with the capitalist leviathan, religion was supposed to wither away, gender differences disappear and nationalism -- the most successful religion of all -- was supposed to be smashed by globalization, along with its peculiar object of worship, the nation-state. Then and only then, without the distractions of jingoism, superstition and patriarchy, would the working class be ready to address itself full time to the business of class war.

Still, "The Communist Manifesto" is well worth the $12 that Verso is asking. Despite the hype, its message is a timeless one that bears repeating every century or so: The meek shall triumph and the mighty shall fall; the hungry and exhausted will get restless and someday -- someday! -- rise up against their oppressors. The prophet Isaiah said something like this, and so, a little more recently, did Jesus. At a mere 96 pages, you can think of it as a greeting card, or even a kind of wake-up call, for that special person in your life -- such as, for example, your boss.

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of a number of books including "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" and "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America."

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