David Farrar is one
of New Zealand’s better-known political commentators, as well as a pollster for
the National Party and an advisor to John Key, but his grasp of political history seems rather uncertain.
In a recent post to his blog, Farrar reproduced several passages from the ‘original 1872’ text of Karl
Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist
Manifesto, and drew parallels between them and statements by New
Zealand’s Labour Party. Farrar said that the passages from the Manifesto were sent to him by a reader
of his blog.
It is hard to believe
that either Farrar or his anonymous helper has ever looked at the Communist Manifesto with any care,
because the text was written not in 1872 but nearly two and a half decades earlier, during
the revolutionary year of 1848.
As a young journalist
in Germany, Marx both reported on and encouraged the uprisings against absolute
monarchs and dogmatic churches that began in February 1848 and spread across
Europe and into Latin America. By the end of 1849 the so-called ‘springtime of
the peoples’ had given way to a winter of reaction, and Marx had been forced into an exile that became permanent.
Although it did not
achieve a mass readership for many years, the Communist Manifesto had been aimed at the revolutionary movement of
1848, and includes a list of demands for ten reforms, like the creation of a heavy
and progressive income tax and the establishment of a system of free education,
that Marx and Engels wanted the revolutionary movement to echo. These demands
were intended to create a bridge between the Europe of 1848 and a socialist
David Farrar’s interpretation
of the Communist Manifesto is not
much more reliable than his dating of the text. He apparently sees the Manifesto as a blueprint for Stalin’s
Soviet Union, and assumes that any parallels between Marx’s text and Labour’s
statements must be a terrible embarrassment to David Cunliffe.
But the Communist Manifesto is not a simple
blueprint for any latter-day political movement or state. It is a fascinating
and in many ways very contradictory text, which is capable of making both the left and the right uncomfortable.
To read the Manifesto itself, as opposed to some
summary or parody of it, is to be confronted with the tremendous complexity, creativity,
and instability of Marx’s thought.
Conservatives who venture
into the Manifesto are often surprised
to find that much of its opening section is given over to a paean to
capitalism. Marx celebrates the dynamism of capitalist industry and the spread
of capitalist markets, and alludes favourably to the penetration of societies
like India and China by the capitalist West. His remarks about the 'idiocy and
backwardness' of rural life and his celebration of industrial technology, which causes 'everything that is solid' to melt 'into air', make the Manifesto a classic document of modernist thought.
But Marx’s praise for
capitalism is mixed with a vision of the system’s contradictions and limits. Marx
modelled the Communist Manifesto on
his favourite play, Goethe’s Faust,
and he makes capitalism, like Faust, into a heroic character who ends up doomed
by a mixture of hubris and fate. In the story that Marx tells, capitalism’s
dynamism leads it into crisis, as the products of its factories struggle to find
buyers, and as the working class it has created begins to organise across
It is easy enough to
find mistaken predictions and misplaced optimism in the Communist Manifesto. Marx’s vision of an international working
class revolution, for instance, has gone unrealised, partly because the
national and religious differences which he thought capitalist expansion would
destroy have persisted.
But Marx was
prescient, as well as over-optimistic. In the middle of the nineteenth century
capitalism had only recently begun to spread out of its stronghold in northern
Europe, and only the tiniest fraction of the world’s population was employed
by capitalists. The global trade networks and trade unions that we take for granted today were almost unthinkable. It is no wonder that, in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, a new generation of intellectuals is exploring Marx's vast and tangled oeuvre.
Scholars like Teodor Shanin and James D White have argued convincingly that the mature Marx moved
away from the heroic vision of capitalism and contempt for pre-capitalist
societies that are a feature of the Communist
Manifesto. In 1871 Marx watched the world’s first working class revolution,
the Paris Commune, fail to spread through Europe, and felt acutely disappointed
with the continent. In the remaining twelve years of his life he spent
thousands of hours studying peoples like the Russians, Javanese, Iroquois, Arabs,
and Polynesians, who lived on the fringes of capitalism, and made a series of
statements expressing solidarity with the efforts of these peoples to resist
colonisation and the break-up of their communally owned lands.
In a preface to the Communist Manifesto written in 1882, the
year before his death, Marx argued, rather tendentiously, that the text had not
been intended as a prediction of the path that capitalism would take everywhere
in the world, but was instead a record of the way the system had developed in
Western Europe. He also stated that Russia, which was at the time still a largely
pre-capitalist society, could avoid passing through a stage of capitalist
development and build socialism directly on agrarian, communal foundations, if
it got help from a socialist Western Europe. The elderly Marx’s positive view
of peasant Russia differs astonishingly from his earlier celebration of the destruction
of pre-capitalist societies by colonialism.
In the 1950s and ‘60s,
when Keynesianism ruled supreme in the West and advocates of market liberalism
like Hayek grumped from the fringes of political life, it was common for social
democratic politicians to dig up the list of short-term demands Marx included
in the Communist Manifesto and claim
that most, if not all, of them had been achieved as a result of Labour
governments. In the twenty-first century, though, the Labour Parties of
countries like New Zealand and Britain are less ready to align themselves with
Marx’s most famous text.
A number of David
Farrar’s readers used his post as an opportunity to brand the Green Party as a ‘commie’
organisation, but it is surely hard to connect the likes of Metiria Turei and
Russel Norman to the Communist Manifesto.
Where Marx’s text celebrated economic expansion in almost febrile language, the
Greens have talked about a ‘limit to growth’. The young Marx’s support for the
colonisation of non-capitalist societies sits uneasily beside the Greens’
support for Maori land claims and the Treaty process.
The Communist Manifesto has a complexity
that defeats attempts at cheap political propaganda. David Farrar might want to
consider reading the text before he blogs about it again.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]