S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 16 June 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Manifest Destiny

 

[the sun -]


"He'd nearly persuaded
Barneys (New York) to do
a window display of
fashionable models, all
with copies of the
Manifesto poking from
their handbags or
pockets. On his desk, he
boasted, were great piles
of excited articles that
had run in the U.S.
press, touting the new
Marx craze."

-"Commie Manifesto,"
Alexander Cockburn,
The Nation, 6.15.98

 

For the serious reader of

press releases today, a

shocking irony: The Communist

Manifesto, the most influential

anti-capitalist document ever

published, is touted by a

Marxist press as - get this -

just another commodity. Not a

secret plan to subvert the

system but a gambit to sell

5,000 to 10,000 more copies.

After all, the copyright has

expired on the English

translation, so there are no

fees.

 

Besides, nobody's going to read

it. The point of the marketing

campaign - and the press

releases - isn't to sell a text

that says anything in

particular, but a novelty item

going under the brand name

Communist Manifesto. In Verso's

burnished and neutered package -

more, as Alexander Cockburn

points out, of a memento than a

manifesto - Marx and Engels'

little book emerges after 150

years of tumultuous history as

nothing more than a cloying

little fetish.

 

Cockburn does his best to

further enrich the irony: "The

old Moscow publishing-house

booklet I read back in the late

'50s looked like it meant

business. It was aimed at people

who wanted to overthrow

capitalism and said so right

away."

 

Of course, in those days we all

had to get up before dawn to

walk to cell meetings over

broken glass in our bare feet;

we were young, and I was strong,

and she was not unwilling, says

the poet before pitching over

face-first in his soup. Too bad

about the broken glass, too bad

about the girl, too bad about

the failed revolution. Failed,

in fact, so often and so

miserably in the past 150 years

that nobody can even talk about

Marxist "science," if they even

remember such hokey jargon, with

a straight face anymore.

 

[nothing matches the feeling of the sun warming your skin (no tanning bed certainly)]

Let's look at this book again

and the science.

 

The Situationist Guy Debord once

wrote a book bound in rough

sandpaper; an act of

intolerance, it was designed

never to be shelved, or it would

destroy the books around it in

retribution. The Boston

Institute of Contemporary Art's

useful Situationist Exhibit

catalog, on the other hand, is

bound in sandpaper smooth enough

to rub against your face.

Debord's main theoretical work,

The Society of the Spectacle,

has been kept in print for

decades without copyright at a

cover price lower than TV

Guide; its American friends

wanted it to stay alive.

Recently, Zone books brought out

a better, prettier translation;

it's cheap, but copyrighted.

 

No matter the writer's brilliance

or venom, books revert to mere

books - the only thing that can

rescue them is readers. The

astonishing thing about the

Manifesto's history is the

unpredictable and explosive way

readers have rescued it for

their purposes - and for Marx's

- over and over again.

 

The Communist Manifesto was

published in February 1848 in

London and went out of date

almost instantly - viz., the

knowing references to the

Silesian Weavers' Revolt of 1844

(the what? of when?). But this

was the point: It was a

pamphlet, written to address the

facts on the ground in a time of

crisis and a mood of such rapid

intellectual cut-and-thrust that

Marx could write The Poverty of

Philosophy in 1847, savaging

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's 1846

The Philosophy of Poverty and

then lay into Proudhon again the

next year in the Manifesto.

 

As a vigorous leap into history,

the Manifesto was sucked into

history's tide. Engels, wiser

than Debord here, wrote "But

then, the manifesto has become a

historical document which we

have no longer any right to

alter" [p. 87]. And it must be

seen as a historical document,

embodying a brilliant critique

of mid-19th-century conditions.

 

[what it does for the plants amd people spirits,]

Yet Marx has gotten his best

press of late as a prophet of

late-20th-century capitalism.

Here, Marshall Berman breaks us

off a piece: "Every paragraph

breaks over us like a wave that

leaves us shaking from the

impact and wet with thought....

[Marx] wants us to imagine what

[capitalism] might mean in food,

clothes, religion, music, love,

and in our most intimate

fantasies, as well as our public

presentations."

 

Sweeping under the rug our

suspicions that this is the

Manifesto as sex manual not

political tract, we continue.

"Anything created by anyone

anywhere is open and available

to everyone everywhere....

History slips through the

owners' fingers, so that poor

people get to possess culture -

an idea, a poetic image, a

musical sound, Plato,

Shakespeare, a Negro spiritual

(Marx loved them) - even if they

can't own it." Berman has

thereby succeeded in proving

nothing more than that Karl Marx

was the first Wired hack.

 

[but be wary of how your sun-loving friends look after 10 years of enjoying it's effects]

But as a prophet, Marx's biggest

achievement was that he

predicted the end of the 19th

century. "In 1890 a total of

32,000 pianos were marketed; by

1904 it was 374,000. There was

an equally voluminous output of

cheap sheet music.... In the

words of Veblen, the corporation

had by 1900 'come not only to

dominate the economic structure,

but to be the master institution

of civilized life.'" [Wm. Leach,

Land of Desirepp. 16, 19].

 

Sound familiar? The reason Marx

sounds so prescient today isn't

that he was predicting our time,

but that our time isn't as

unique as it thinks. Pace

Marshall Berman and Oral

Roberts, prophecy is everywhere

and always only relevant to the

prophet's own immediate future.

The prophet's vision consists

not in seeing the future but his

or her own present.

 

No, what's most valuable about

the Manifesto is precisely where

Marx was wrong. What stays with

the receptive reader is not a

set of conclusions but a method

for exploring, which only

becomes clearer when we're not

checking each conclusion for

prescience, trying to interpret

whether each crack in the

plaster was somehow foretold.

 

Marx and Engels described what

they did as Wissenschaft,

woodenly translated as

"science," but meaning "a

principled search for truth."

Everything else - the big

bellies, the bigger beards, the

carbuncles dwarfing them both,

and the faded 19th-century

English - needs to be swept

away. As Marx predicted it

would: "German philosophers ...

eagerly seized on [French

communist] literature, only

forgetting that when these

writings immigrated from France

into Germany, French social

conditions had not immigrated

along with them. In contact with

German social conditions, this

French literature lost all its

immediate practical

significance." All the

predictions and contexts have

turned to junk. Indeed, today we

can see that the Manifesto needs

to have turned into a stocking

stuffer in order for us to be

able to read it. The one

indispensible tool for the

serious Marxist today: shocking

irony.




courtesy of Hypatia