A Spectre, Haunting
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Head of Zeus (via Bloomsbury), at no cost. It’s out now; $29.99.
It’s a joke some people make to say that I’m basically a Communist. I’m not; I’m not dedicated enough. I am happy to wear ‘vaguely socialist’; there are a lot of things within the ideals of socialism – and, yes, communism, depending on how you talk about it – that I absolutely subscribe to. And yes, of course I know that the whole concept of communism is now utterly tied up with the various 20th century versions that claimed to putting it into practise. I am a history teacher.
Mieville, too, is open about his context. In the introduction he explains that he’s trying to present the historical aspects in such a way that a reader of any political persuasion will be able to read it (without frothing in a rage is, I think, the subtext). He is clear that the final chapter is much more subjective but again hopes that people will be able to engage thoughtfully. I deeply appreciate that he’s not pretending to be neutral, which is something that would be impossible (and that anyone who knows his background wouldn’t believe anyway).
All of that is context around the fact that I think this book is incredible and anyone who wants to make any claims for or against communism in the 21st century absolutely needs to read it.
First, it contains the entire text of the Communist Manifesto. I’ve read bits and pieces but I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and read the whole thing from cover to cover (it’s an honours thesis in length! Only 12,000 words!). And every paragraph is numbered and every time Mieville refers to something from the Manifesto, it’s right there for you to refer to. I present: integrity. Bits that shook me: reading about workers being alienated from the products of their labour while watching Severance; also that the bourgeoisie / capitalism “has resolved personal worth into exchange value” and nothing else.
Second, I am deeply appreciative of Mieville giving the historical context not just of Marx and Engels, and not just of Communism (not completely comprehensive, which Mieville acknowledges) but also the context of manifestos as a genre. That’s pretty great and something I’ve not seen before. He also examines various criticisms of the Manifesto, from different times and perspectives, and discusses their validity or not. Mieville is in no way suggesting that the Manifesto is perfect, and accepts some of the problems quite readily; those he doesn’t, I think he deals with thoughtfully.
Finally, the bit that may well have some people frothing at the mouth and that particularly struck me is the chapter in which Mieville examines the utility of the Manifesto for the 21st century. And the important thing here is that Mieville comes across as angry. Really quite angry about the piles and multitudes of inequality and despair and awfulness in the world today. I can’t adequately give an overview of this chapter, because he has several points and I haven’t entirely decided whether I agree with all of them. But what I am is convinced that this rushed (although still missing its deadline), somewhat incomplete, more than 150 year old document still has something to offer – even if it’s largely as a starting point, and it’s definitely not perfect.