Revisiting the Communist Manifesto

Against the Current, No. 72, January/February 1998

Christopher Phelps

THE EXPERIENCE OF reading the Communist Manifesto is to Marxists what the experience of watching “Casablanca” is for movie buffs.  Let us call it the surprise of the familiar.

The pulse quickens upon coming across long-familiar lines with the realization that here, right here, is where a certain phrase first appeared!  (“Here’s looking at you, kid,”  “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,”  “We’ll always have Paris.”)  Then, too, there are surprising absences, the cliches one half-expects that never quite materialize..  (“Play it, Sam,” runs the line in the film, never “Play it again, Sam.”)  The dual sensations of vindicated reputation and rediscovered authenticity can be heady, indeed.

This year many socialists—and many others as well, including perhaps not a few who only a few years ago were beguiled by talk of an “end of history”—will re-experience those sensations as they revisit the Communist Manifesto (1848), by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, a document which has now reached the august age of 150 years.  Few writings have withstood the test of time as well.

To commemorate this anniversary and assess the Manifesto’s enduring meaning, we selected telling and time-tested phrases from the Manifesto, arranged in topical sets, and paired each passage with a writer we thought particularly qualified to address the issue posed.

The result, as we hope readers will agree, is a spirited, compelling demonstration of the enduring relevance of Marxism after 150 years, conducted without piety or self-satisfaction.  In the critical tradition of this periodical, we encouraged contributors to use the Manifesto’s anniversary as a chance for us, as socialists, to ask ourselves the tough questions, the ones our tradition must find ways to answer at the end of the twentieth century should we ever hope to achieve “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

We find the resulting symposium quite compelling.  We offer it in the understanding that the aim of studying history, from the Marxist standpoint, is to better enable us to comprehend the present and change the world—and not to cultivate nostalgic sentimentalities, as time goes by.

—Christopher Phelps, for the ATC Editorial Board

ATC 72, January-February 1998