This is the first in a series of four blogs – all to be posted in the next week – each of which falls under the heading of “Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis.”
It could reasonably be argued that no prose piece ever has had the persuasive power of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s small, slender volume, the Communist Manifesto. It took time for the Manifesto to have a major political impact. Originally it was published in 1848, but the Russian Revolution was not until the first half of the twentieth century, and Communism in full throttle was not until the second half of the twentieth century. (For several decades, beginning in the 1950s, Communists were in control of one-third of the world’s people – in Europe and Asia, in South and Central America, and in Africa.)
But it took no time at all for the Manifesto to have a major ideological impact. In consequence of social, political, and intellectual ferment – the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the French revolution, and the European revolutions of 1848 – was fertile ground for the radicalisms propagated throughout the nineteenth century by, most famously, Karl Marx. Above all were the fervent, fevered, and tireless argumentations about what rightly belonged to the haves and what to the have-nots.
Nor is the Manifesto simply an historical artifact. To this day the tensions between the haves and have-nots are everywhere in evidence. In fact, even in the United States, which since its inception had remained an exception – neither communism nor even socialism ever took root – some of the ideas that underpin both communism and socialism have become part of the national discourse. Bernie Sanders, one of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for president, freely describes himself as a socialist and has done so for years. His success at the national level – not only this year but in the previous presidential campaign – is of itself remarkable. As well it is testimony to the enduring influence of, yes, The Communist Manifesto.
Essentially the Manifesto sees human history as a contest between competing groups that include among others, “freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, and lord and serf.” More generally, the “oppressor and the oppressed” have “stood in constant opposition to one another.” This opposition was ultimately not reconcilable and so, invariably, it ended according to Marx and Engels, “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
The contest that Marx and Engels focused on in their treatise was one to which they bore witness: between the bourgeoisie (owners, employers) on the one side and the proletariat (renters, workers) on the other. To be sure, in Europe in the 1840s the word “proletariat” was associated not so much with the “working class” as it was with those who had no employment at all or only casual employment – and who were, therefore, as miserable as impoverished.
But make no mistake about it. In the Communist Manifesto the battle lines were forevermore drawn, between those with money (capital) and power and those without. There was, moreover, a connection between them, a direct connection. Those that had money had power. Those without money had no power. They were powerless. In other words, those with money and power were leaders. Those without money and power were followers.