A Spectre, Haunting

'Barricade, Paris 1871' by Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg.
'Barricade, Paris 1871' by Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg.

( A review of A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto by China Miéville)


“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.” So opens The Communist Manifesto, penned in the spring of 1848 by two fervent if little known radicals, whose names are now almost synonymous with revolution: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Simultaneous with the Manifesto’s composition, forces were stirring across Europe, then the seat of the world’s most avaricious colonial and industrial powers, which soon would explode to life, as long-simmering grievances came to the boil, and the masses – nationalist, republican, mercantile, and proletarian – struck back against the repressive regimes that ruled them, setting, however momentarily, empires and monarchies a-tremble. 


As China Miéville demonstrates in his new commentary, if the 1848 insurrections were defeated, the spirit of boundary-shattering outrage and revolt that flickered at their core abides, still, in the pages of the Manifesto. “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims”, thunders the closing act of this most dramatic of documents: “They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” Present-day radicals can only gain from revisiting this levellers’ credo, with its promise, at once utopian and determinedly precise, of world-historical transformation.


Perhaps curiously, Marx and Engels viewed the bourgeoisie with a propulsive mixture of admiration and disdain. In the wake of the European revolutions, as leaders self-servingly abandoned the ideals of liberalism and democracy asserted by the surging masses with whom they were initially allied, the authors of the Manifesto would treat this ascendant class with sharper skepticism. But the Manifesto itself, as Miéville notes, celebrates “the revolutionary nature and Promethean power of the bourgeoisie”, awed by the relentlessness with which it had “pitilessly torn asunder” the feudal customs and hierarchies of preceding centuries: 


The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.


If it was the bourgeoisie who had re-written history in their own image, however, for the authors of the Manifesto it was the labouring poor – the most dehumanised and seemingly expendable of society’s denizens – who built modernity, and so had the power to change it. By freeing themselves as a collectivity, they argued, the rebel proletariat would in-so-doing liberate society, upending all social privileges and breaking apart the shackles with which the majority of its inhabitants were burdened. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains”, the Manifesto famously declares: “They have a world to win.”


In one sense, there is a powerful accuracy to this political paradigm. These days, we’re accustomed to analysing and reflecting on the position of the ‘precariat’, for example, that mass of downwardly mobile workers (or, very often, ‘service providers’) forced into insecure contracts and a life without guarantees by an economic system in which the mercurial imperatives of globalised big capital reign supreme. Broadly, the Manifesto may be seen to anticipate such developments. As Marx and Engels perceived, “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe”, and leaves a trail of waste and degradation in its wake, depleting the finite resources of the natural world, while adding swathes of workers to the ranks of the dispossessed: so that, over time, they argued, the “proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population”. In the words of acclaimed science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin: “Capitalism, which ceases to exist if it is not expanding its empire, establishes an ever-expanding frontier, and its young conquistadors forever pursue El Dorado”, ultimately in vain. As the Manifesto memorably asserts: “What the bourgeoisie… produces are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” 


A century and a half later – as we stand on the brink of climate collapse, and with neo-authoritarianism looming – to read the Manifesto is to remind ourselves not only of its utility to anti-capitalists in the 21st century, but also (as above) of the disarmingly optimistic tenor of Engels and Marx’s early projections. The inevitability of proletarian revolt, unity, and victory, can seem almost blithely misguided in present-day conditions. “Even allowing for the unusual brittleness of US capitalism,” as Miévilles observes, “we read the Manifesto now considerably more aware than were its authors of capitalism’s sheer adaptability.” One of the many merits of Miéville’s analysis, however, is his refusal to settle for cynicism, either towards the Manifesto or with regard to our current cascade of collective predicaments. “We must hate harder than did the Manifesto”, he writes, “for the sake of humanity.” As our imperilled planet, riven by exploitation and wracked by injustice, grows warmer, and the forecasted apocalypses attendant on further capitalist growth come home, apathy is not an option: we have to fight for a livable future.


As the extracts above suggest, Miéville brings both cogency and passion to his subject, weighing the strengths and limitations of the Manifesto as an historical text, even as he celebrates its rapturous power as both a “rallying cry” for the downtrodden and a repository (he insists) of still-salvageable revolutionary insights. In “its extraordinary exigent rhetoric, its rushing hypnotic prose”, the Manifesto retains an alchemical aura, galvanising our hopes and organisational energies into motion. As Marshall Berman once put it: “When people dream of resistance – even if they’re not Communists – it provides music for their dreams.” Miéville is also methodical and dextrous in his engagement with Marx’s critics. “Capitalism repeatedly, obsessively, promises freedom”, he notes in summary, and “inevitably, it fails to provide it. Crushes it.” By contrast, “[it] is towards freedom”, he asserts, “a freedom worthy of the name, that communism cleaves.”


For the most part, the commentary resists the urge to define the form and contours of that “freedom” prescriptively, although Miéville admits an allegiance to that troupe of the global anti-capitalist insurgency “for whom a wager on some kind of party seems necessary” to the project of revolutionary change. As such he makes reference more than once to the Russian events of 1917 (and after) as forming an imperfect but nevertheless inspired, and clarifying, example of Marxist fight-back against empire, hunger, and systemic exploitation. The decisive error of the Bolsheviks, he suggests, came “in 1925”, when their “official line” 


… shifted from an insistence on the necessarily international nature of socialism to the disastrous position of ‘Socialism In One Country’. From this defensive theoretical volte-face, in the context of the collapse of the working class and the working-class movement, and of civil war, emerged a top-down and authoritarian politics diametrically opposed to the grassroots democracy of socialism.


There’s a Trotskyist hue to this account, although it’s to Miéville’s credit that he also writes with nuance and rigour of that tendency in the West. To “stress the repeated failures of the Left”, he states, with refreshing candour, “is a necessary corrective, given its history of boosterism and bullshit”. And again: “when it comes to those ideas that communists do forge and defend, as thoughtfully and empathetically as we can, a degree of humility is urgently required.” 


Given the subtlety and integrity of this approach, and Miéville’s ethically probing sense of history in general, it’s perhaps surprising that his analysis and bibliography make no mention, for example, of Rosa Luxemburg, who warned the Bolsheviks in 1918 against the folly of establishing “a dictatorship [of] a party or of a clique” rather than “a dictatorship of the class”, the latter, in her view, signifying a revolutionary regime built “on the basis of the most active, unlimited participation of the mass of the people, of unlimited democracy.” Luxemburg’s critique of the Bolsheviks arguably echoes and extends Marx’s self-revision in 1871, after the Paris Commune, when he argued that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”: a deeper and more widespread change was needed. Also missing from these pages is Emma Goldman, whose horrified witness of the Red Army’s repression of the Kronstadt Soviet, in 1921, led her to conclude, three years after the event, that “the crime against Kronstadt was far more enormous than the slaughter of the Communards in 1871”. We might likewise mention Victor Serge, absent here, for whom the establishment and conduct of the Cheka, the secret-police instituted by the Bolshevik executive authorities in December 1917, signalled an unnerving precedent, corrosive to the ideals and progress of the revolution proper.


Needless to say, but there is a long list of radicals, like these, who assessed the Bolshevik revolution from the left of its most famous leaders, whom Miéville quotes, even as he insists on the need to recognise and transcend the limitations of the models they bequeathed to later generations. The point here is not to resurrect, gratuitously, long-standing factional disputes, but to admit the possibility that the criticisms articulated by the socialists and anarchists above speak, today, to that project which Miéville embraces: in his words, how to develop “a habitable organisation adequate and appropriate to ruptural politics under capitalism”, while bearing in mind the open-endedness of such a task, subject as it is, and should be, to “urgent and ongoing debate”. In attempting to assess the failures of Marxist political formations in recent years, in brief, we might begin by consulting the – sometimes vigorous – prior critiques of similar, or historically generative, movements in the past. (Although the figures I’ve named above do appear, glancingly, in Miéville’s enthralling and insightful account of the Russian revolution, October, the force and resonance of their break/s from the political trajectories set in motion by Lenin and Trotsky, for instance, have yet to receive the full acknowledgement they deserve.)


Incidentally, Victor Serge’s interpretation of Marx and Engels chimes, in important aspects, with Miéville’s own. With their re-forging of the dialectic, Serge suggested,


… historical vision suddenly acquired a kind of plenitude. In Marx it is coupled with a will to dynamic, objective, and passionate action, and one might ask if the enormous spiritual magnetism of Marx’s work can’t to a large extent be explained by this revelation of the historical sense [....] Compare in this regard Marx’s fertile power with the healthy and sometimes vigorous mediocrity of historians of the French revolution [who] made what were, all in all, the same discoveries as Marx in the realm of historical methodology, but without passion, without dynamism in action; in a word, as men of the library for whom history is a scholarly autopsy and not the study of a living continuity.


Miéville, too, is alive to the “magnetism” and “dynamism” of the Manifesto, and indeed his own commentary glows with the kind of heat and clarity, the sense of collective agency and historical possibility, that Serge identifies in Marx’s work. As Miéville shows, while Marx and Engels formulated one of the most memorable and oft-cited documents in modern times, they insisted on a thorough-going examination of all existing historical conditions and political presumptions. The Manifesto is in part a product of this impulse, beaconing a new tomorrow, even as it illuminates and dissects the vast oppressions of its moment, in all their intimate effects. And Miéville, too, tends the same flame: his book is a stirring reminder of the rich traditions – of dream and praxis, resistance and rupture – we might yet use to break the chains of capitalism, once and for all.

Ciarán O'Rourke // November 2022