Book Review: 'A Spectre, Haunting: on the Communist Manifesto'

Review of A Spectre, Haunting: on the Communist Manifesto. By China Miéville. Haymarket Books, 2022.

The acclaimed science fiction writer China Miéville, whose meticulous account of the Bolshevik triumph in his October was a surprise best-seller, has tackled the founding public document of Marxism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto.

His account, A Spectre, Haunting, is sprawling and rich, ostensibly organized by discrete chapters but also clearly shaped by the ur-text’s almost hallucinatory effect, rhetorical and prophetic as well as self-representing as “scientific” and factual.

Miéville’s study is loosely arranged to consider the Manifesto as rhetorical form, as expression of its historical moment, as (aspirationally) summarized in outline form, as the object of evaluation, as target of criticism and, finally, as it stands “today” (roughly, at the beginning of the pandemic). These chapter headings signal a well-managed and distinct process that provides a good deal of pleasure in its zigs and zags across a terrain that itself shifts. 

Miéville is at his best when parsing out the Manifesto’s rhetorical accomplishments, especially the ones that successfully pair up contradictions and demystify the way those contradictions infuse the everyday working and home lives of the proletarians that Marx and Engels (and their sponsor, the Communist League) are principally addressing. 

When the late-20th-century college poli sci student first encountered the Manifesto, it was believably presented as “how they did it in those days”: a numbered, metronomic text pairing opposites in perhaps pseudo-scientific mode. It was taught as a one-off oddity intended to show the superiority of Locke and Burke, as neoliberal thought oozed from the classroom to the trading floor. At some point the seeker, if they were lucky, would catch on to the rhythms of the mesmeric, “incantatory” text that Miéville highlights and see how its intended audience, working men and women, might respond to a sermon that pointed to a transformed life in the now, not the post-suffering bye and bye. 

Every generation has to re-encounter the Manifesto in the context of its moment’s capitalist conditions  — a sense of winning or of defense against loss, growing or shrinking public provision, etc. As we will see, Miéville tracks (though not completely) the various reprintings of the 12,000-word blockbuster and ranges back and forth along the timeline to show both the immediate impact of the 1847 version (mixed) and its long life as a call to revolution even as Marx and Engels flesh out in later writings the economic, political and social framework that scaffolds their full legacy. Included in Miéville’s book, along with the approved English text of 1888, are the prefaces Marx and Engels (and then only Engels) attached to reprintings and translations of 1872, 1882, 1883 and 1888. They help give the Manifesto continuing life through the 19th century as they trace historical changes, including Marx’s death between the 1882 and 1883 prefaces.

The Manifesto Form. So-named “Manifestoes” came before this one, but this is the “ur-manifesto” that set the form, mixing analysis and exhortation, “a spell… a performative speech act that attempts to bring a new reality into existence” said Julian Hanna — shifting registers for effect, unabashedly poetic. In a later section, Miéville approvingly notes the text’s “catechism-derived rhythms and techniques.” It is Marx and Engels’ most flamboyant collaboration, having a polysemic impact rather than single meaning, a “vibrating aboutness cluster” around the actual text. In a modern debate, Marshall Berman and Perry Anderson contest on whether the Manifesto’s concrete terms are enhanced (Berman) or obscured and muddled (Anderson) by its rhetorical lushness. Rhetoric is continually suspected of ulterior, PR-inflected motives, but Miéville declares that “Marx and Engels are, rightly or wrongly, convinced by their own claims” and not embellishing them cynically. 

In its moment. So what was going on in the world to create this rush job for the League of the Just in 1847-48?

The material backdrop of the Manifesto was the “Hungry 40s” in Europe: Bad harvests and restless workers. Marx and Engels had collaborated on The German Ideology and developed their notion of ruling class ideology as becoming the epoch’s ideology — having power to numb the workers to their own plight, an early version of capitalist realism or “circumscription of possible thought.”

Marx, exiled to London by then, and Engels, comfortably in his family’s business in Manchester as the Chartists gained numbers in Britain, set up a communist correspondence committee (1846) to link British and continental radicals like the innocuously-named League of the Just, which commissioned the Manifesto and subsequently renamed itself the Communist League. They built on a “didactic” catechism-like metronomic dialogue by Engels to, as Engels said, “bring in a certain amount of history.” Marx, almost certainly (per Miéville) the principal author of the final product, was typically slow to deliver, but as events erupted across Europe it was finally rushed into print.

But in ’48, “Far from cementing middle-class rule… the bourgeoisie across Europe proved considerably more fearful of the revolutionary threats from below to the status quo than they were to the status quo itself.” So “a palpable wave of reaction set in” in the latter part of 1848, dashing communist hopes. Later editions and translations increasingly reflected the growing popularity of working-class parties — mainly in the prefaces, since the authors didn’t want to alter the now-canonical original text of the Communist Manifesto.

The cycle of events often helped revive the Manifesto. The Paris Commune of 1871 — an actual two-month experiment in worker control of the city — and Marx’s support for it via the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA) brought some new scrutiny and popularity. From 1870, four decades of the rise of working-class political parties kept the pamphlet in circulation, until World War I showed that mass working-class solidarity across national borders was, in the first age of globalism, still something of an illusion. In a time of growing worker power, however, the last preface jointly signed by Marx and Engels (Marx died in 1883) compared “what a limited field the proletarian movement occupied” on first publication in 1847 compared to this, the 1882 Russian translation. Since then, Russia and America had shifted from royalist or oligarchic “pillars of the European system” to revolutionary prospects, they crowed.


From the pamphlet’s original political context, Miéville moves to a deft outline of the text.

Just as we socialists often must today, the Manifesto starts out defending the political label/epithet, in this case communism. But — in a neat bit of prefatory judo from which we might learn — the authors note that if the ruling powers are so scared of any opposition that they paste the label “communism” indiscriminately on those they fear, then: “communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power.” So, they continue, it is time for us to declare our principles. 

They begin with the famously unequivocal declaration that all of history after primitive communism has been a history of class struggle. Each epoch has seen disruptive change and that is on the horizon in this new-ish era of bourgeois relations of production. By declaring primacy of class struggle, “from the start Marx and Engels invite readers to activism” and set the stage for explaining recurrent crises, Miéville says.

As many commentators have observed, Marx and Engels are full of praise for the bourgeoisie as the engine of technological capitalist advances. Nevertheless, the first section’s praise of bourgeois success ends, famously with the bourgeoisie successful at being their own grave-diggers, all that is solid melting into air once again.

Miéville, in summarizing the lengthy second section of the Manifesto, focuses on the quick shift in register that suddenly addresses the bourgeoisie and their class relations directly – “you” extol private property but through post-enclosure destruction of the commons gather it to yourselves at the expense of workers till they have only their labor power to sell; “you” extol the family but destroy it by keeping wages low enough to drag women and children into the workplace too.

Miéville acutely observes, that “while the Manifesto is a rallying call for proletarians and radicals, it is also written to be overheard, as it were, by the bourgeoisie.”

The second section concludes with the call for a “radical rupture” in both “property relations” and “traditional ideas” so that the proletariat can “win the battle of democracy” — despite the clear fact, as Miéville points out, that “the parliamentary democracy that is the only version on offer is not nearly democratic enough.” The representative systems created to keep kings and nobles at bay has, even by 1848, been co-opted by bourgeois financial power and populated by bourgeois potentates and their entourages (sound familiar?).

The Manifesto’s bullet points for change — jobs guarantees, higher taxes on the rich, public ownership of transportation and core industries, free public schools, and more — sound both depressingly familiar and (today, often) recognizably co-opted by adaptive aspects of capital. In 1848, of course, they were outrageous. In Miéville’s wistful summation, “class society will be replaced by a society fit for humans” once the working class has seized power and rationally used growing productivity to achieve post-scarcity communism. His summation of the tedious Section 3, where the authors systematically declare their superiority to the forms of radicalism that are communism’s current competitors, may impart more history of the warring left factions of the day than many might feel they need. 

Miéville’s analysis moves quickly into the following chapter, “Evaluating the Manifesto.” There, he begins with the Paris Commune of 1871, a genuine insurrection of two months’ duration before it was brutally suppressed by military forces of erstwhile enemies France and Germany, and how it resembles, for good and ill, the Manifesto’s hopes for the wet firecracker of 1848. 

Miéville acknowledges that Marx’s formulation (uttered in an interview) “dictatorship of the proletariat” has caused “embarrassment” to leftists ever since. It was not Marx’s phrase originally but formulated by his friend Joseph Weydemeyer, a Prussian artillery officer turned socialist journalist who fled Germany after 1848’s debacle to New York, where he published German-language radical periodicals, and would later serve as a Union army officer. 

Miéville tramps through evaluative categories including economics and morality and shows himself ready to reach far forward in time to touch on Marx and Engels’ later work and that of its proponents, then to double back and attempt to find implications of their later insights in the structure or phrases of the Manifesto. Sometimes that is a stretch.

Miéville plants his flags in the subsequent chapters — criticisms of the Manifesto, the Manifesto today — in a dazzling homage that persistently tries to find evidence of more contemporary themes of  intersectionality within the class struggle, of globalism beyond the crude forms of cross national trade of 1848, of complex moral justifications implicit in the Manifesto despite the authors’ disclaimers. The successive sections have different chapter headings but, more and more, apply similar analytic schemes.

This allows Miéville to create a prismatic view of the Manifesto and its sources and effects that portrays the 12,000-word pamphlet’s “vibrating aboutness cluster” of 1848 as transcending space-time constraints — and doing so in a rich and register-shifting language that felicitously echoes his own style as a sci-fi writer of considerable acclaim. It leaves his chapter-heading organization in somewhat of a shambles, though.

In Miéville’s chapter on “Criticisms of the Manifesto,” three common criticisms, apparently aimed at wearing out the enthusiast with unfalsifiable whatabouts, are dismissed perhaps a little more quickly than they should. They include “capitalist realism” (elsewhere he also pegs it as the Thatcherian “there is no alternative” or TINA). It’s a fact that capitalism’s adaptability (Miéville addresses this in numerous different chapters) means the elements of common capitalist practices are mirrored in individuals’ coping behavior, amounting to weary collaboration. This can clearly be attacked through collective action, but in the 21st century, even more than in the mid-19th, it is hard to push the individual’s horizon ahead further than one’s next meal, let alone to the individual’s actual, actionable location in a class. More easily dismissed are the appeal to human nature’s supposed selfishness and the vivid and catastrophic examples of incomplete or botched one-country socialist governance with the Soviet Union as the emblematic example. 

Tougher criticisms of the Manifesto often start with the brash, prophetic “inevitability of the revolution.”  This critique is always primary among those farther down the timeline from 1847 who can second-guess the ebullient Manifesto.

Miéville examines the qualifications that are embedded in Marx and Engels’ text and points out that the potential victory of the working class in the class struggle could also result, instead, in “the common ruin of the contending classes” as had occurred in previous epochs. (CM 1.28) But Miéville acknowledges the core predictive failure — that the immiseration of the working class would continue steadily, especially as the (equally shaky) diagnosis of the falling rate of profit demanded it as a rational response from the ruling class. That was the missing motor of any inevitable revolution and is perhaps still awaited, delayed by Sombart’s infusion (at least in the US) of “roast beef and apple pie.”

From his perch conveniently further down the timeline, Leon Trotsky provided his own qualification: a capitalist crisis offers the opportunity for the transition to a socialist society, but “presupposes the activity of living men [sic] who are the makers of their own history … our entire epoch and above all the present crisis imperiously command the proletariat: ‘seize power’.” The failure to make this capitalist crisis “the last one,” Trotsky observes glumly, and to allow instead repeated failures, could bring the “complete disintegration of European civilization.” (Whither France, 1934-36 – h/t Hadas Thier, People’s Guide to Capitalism.)

Though in “The Manifesto Today” Miéville temporizes on democratic austerity measures during a transition, he insists almost throughout on “a communism of plenty.” In a 2015 article in the communist journal Salvage (which he co-founded), he urges “we should utopia as hard as we can.”

“We read the Manifesto now considerably more aware than were its authors of capitalism’s sheer adaptability” — a core observation for the web of “capitalist realism” that shortens our stride as radicals in many directions. 

Nevertheless, by Miéville’s view the bourgeoisie gets off easy; the Manifesto “admires the bourgeois class too much” and is no more scornful of the class than it is of its left-wing opponents. Instead, “the working class not only can, but must, hate… its class enemy, and capitalism itself.” An important perspective, if well managed. But Miéville’s fellow sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow, reviewing the book in the New York Times, seems to accurately capture its whole distillation as “the inspiration for a very big tent, one where class and race, gender, ability, sexuality and origins are all part of a single revolutionary movement, not ceding priority to one another, but insisting that no liberation worth its name would exclude any of these elements.

The reader who marches through Miéville’s book in page-order must wait till he has had his say about the Manifesto before encountering the text (in the Moore English translation), a pyrotechnic 44 pages of this 291-page book, as an appendix. 

Assessing the power of the Manifesto today, Miéville skillfully illuminates the document’s power as prediction, prophecy and call to revolution while presenting itself as a scientific, not utopian or religiously based approach to the declared history of class struggle that remains its lasting major theme. Reaffirmation of this aspect of the Manifesto is more than due, even though “the line between claim, prediction and exhortation remains hazy.” But though Miéville (sometimes excessively) labors to link the Manifesto to today’s internationalist issues and problems, those clearly were not top of mind for two youngish revolutionaries who — vainly — hoped this sermon-in-a-pamphlet would push the workers of the German principalities to seize power. 

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