The importance of The Manifesto of the Communist Party nearly 200 years after it was written is surprising. It didn’t begin as a powerful statement by important people. In the first published version, neither the name of the group commissioning the manifesto nor those of its authors appeared on its cover. A manuscript handed in late, with no author, sponsored by no one, in the name of a non-existent party, changed the world.
The event that most profoundly registers this change is the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks, the more militant faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), led a movement of workers, soldiers and peasants in overthrowing tsarism and establishing the world’s first socialist workers’ republic. Just as the Manifesto predicted, the oppressed overthrew the oppressors. The class struggle at the basis of history once again resulted in the revolutionary reconstitution of society. The working class seized political power. After the revolution, the RSDLP changed its name to the Communist Party, occupying the space opened up by the Manifesto. This re-issue of The Communist Manifesto one hundred years after this revolutionary event pushes us to occupy this space again and take the perspective of revolution.
Is this a perspective we can take now? The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. For some, this means the time of revolution has passed. They claim that capitalism and democracy won. Capitalism and democracy, blended together and practically the same, proved themselves to be better, preferable, more efficient. Communism doesn’t work, we are told, handed the end of the USSR as evidence, as if history is always and forever the endless repetition of the same. Instead of revolution, we should direct our energies toward incremental changes. We should work for capitalism with a human face. We can’t change the world, but we can focus on ourselves, on the self-transformation that comes from self-work, self-love, self-care. We can even resist, carving out little moments of freedom when we spit on the burger before serving it with a smile. But, the defenders of the status quo insist, there is no need here and now for socialists, much less critical communists who ‘everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.’
Don’t believe it. The uprisings, demonstrations, occupations and revolts of the first decades of the twenty-first century indicate that capitalist democracy claimed victory too soon. These days the failure of the system into which capitalism and democracy have converged is clear. Dramatic increases in economic inequality have convinced millions of people across the globe of the inability of capitalism to meet basic needs for food, housing, health, clean water and education. Planetary warming, mass extinctions, sea level rise and desertification point to the capitalist system’s threat to life on earth. Corporations, financial institutions and international organisations and agreements block the people from political arenas that claim to be democratic, pushing those who want to be heard onto online networks and into the streets. One hundred years since the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, political movements across the globe are taking the perspective of revolution. A new generation is returning to communism. It is an idea whose time has come again.
Jodi Dean is an American political philosopher and professor in the Political Science department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York state. She is the author of The Communist Horizon (Verso, 2012) and the introduction to The Communist Manifesto (Pluto, 2017).
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and with a foreword by Jodi Dean and David Harvey is available from Pluto Press.