Guest Observation: Marx and Engels

What with the socialists hungry to spread the wealth around (and probably force us all to wear Mao jackets–but that plan won’t be made public until after inauguration day), I picked up the copy of The Communist Manifesto that I alway keep at hand (though have never until just now managed to open). Anyway, we all know that socialism and its forefathers have long since been consigned to the dustbin of history. But there are a few things in the opening pages of the Marx-Engels tract that you kind of have to admire. If not for their political insights, at least for their abilities as reporters and interpreters of the world around them. Take note of the fact they were writing in 1847. The Industrial Revolution was already mature in Great Britain, but in much of the rest of Europe and in the United States, it was still an incipient development. So Marx and Engels were describing a world they saw coming into being, not one that was even close to fully formed.

And there’s a surprising durability to their description of that world. If you let yourself substitute more modern terms for “bourgeoisie”–the word grew out of a term meaning “people of the town” (bourg, in French), representative of the first non-heredity, non-aristocratic mercantile and moneyed classes as Europe emerged from feudalism–the Manifesto actually describes a process that many pundits and prognosticators of global capitalism might approve of today; although most all of them would likely go out of their way to tell you that Marx and Engels were stunted and short-sighted in their thinking.

Here are a couple passages (my copy is the Penguin Books “Great Ideas” edition; you can also find the complete text on Project Gutenberg):

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. …

“… The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. … [I]t has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. …

“… The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

I’ll stop before I get to the genesis of the proletariat. I’m not ready for that yet. And if you need to clear your palate, I offer this musical aperitif (you’ve got nothing to lose but your chains).

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