On the Communist Manifesto and the 21st Century

However, what will undoubtedly also strike the contemporary reader is the Manifesto‘s remarkable diagnosis of the revolutionary character and impact of ‘bourgeois society’. The point is not simply that Marx recognised and proclaimed the extraordinary achievements and dynamism of a society he detested, to the surprise of more than one later defender of capitalism against the red menace. It is that the world transformed by capitalism which he described in 1848, in passages of dark, laconic eloquence, is recognisably the world of the early twenty-first century. Curiously, the politically quite unrealistic optimism of two revolutionaries of twenty-eight and thirty years has proved to be the Manifesto‘s most lasting strength. For though the ‘spectre of communism’ did indeed haunt politicians, and though Europe was living through a major period of economic and social crisis, and was about to erupt in the greatest continent-wide revolution of its history, there was plainly no adequate ground for the Manifesto‘s belief that the moment for the overthrow of capitalism was approaching (‘the bourgeois revolution in Germany can only be the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution’). On the contrary. As we now know, capitalism was poised for its first era of triumphant global advance.

What gives the Manifesto its force is two things. The first is its vision, even at the outset of the triumphal march of capitalism, that this mode of production was not permanent, stable, ‘the end of history’, but a temporary phase in the history of humanity, and, like its predecessors, one due to be superseded by another kind of society (unless – the Manifesto‘s phrase has not been much noted – it founders ‘in the common ruin of the contending classes’).

—Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World, (London: Little, Brown, 2011), 110-111.

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