The best story I’ve heard about The Communist Manifesto came from Hans Morgenthau, the great theorist of international relations who died in 1980. It was the early seventies at CUNY, and he was reminiscing about his childhood in Bavaria before World War I. Morgenthau’s father, a doctor in a working-class neighborhood of Coburg, often took his son along on house calls. Many of his patients were dying of TB; a doctor could do nothing to save their lives, but might help them die with dignity. When his father asked about last requests, many workers said they wanted to have the Manifesto buried with them when they died. They implored the doctor to see that the priest didn’t sneak in and plant the Bible on them instead.
This spring, the Manifesto is 150 years old. Apart from the Bible, it has become the most widely read book in the world. Whenever there’s trouble, anywhere in the world, the book becomes an item; when things quiet down, the book drops out of sight; when there’s trouble again, the people who forgot remember. When fascist-type regimes seize power, it’s always on the list of books to burn. When people dream of resistance—even if they’re not Communists—it provides music for their dreams.
Yet literate people today, even people with left politics, are ignorant of what’s actually in the book. So what does [it] offer?
Marx sees the modern working class as an immense worldwide community waiting to happen. Such large possibilities give the story of organizing a permanent gravity and grandeur. The process of creating unions is not just an item in interest-group politics but a vital part of what Lessing called “the education of the human race.” And it is not just educational but existential: the process of people individually and collectively discovering who they are. As they learn who they are, they will come to see that they need one another in order to be themselves. They will see, because workers are smart: Bourgeois society has forced them to be, in order to survive its constant upheavals. Marx knows they will get it by and by. Solidarity is not sacrifice of yourself but the self’s fulfillment. Learning to give yourself to other workers, who may look and sound very different from you but are like you in depth, gives a man or woman a place in the world and delivers the self from dread.
The nineties began with the mass destruction of Marx effigies. It was the “postmodern” age: We weren’t supposed to need big ideas. As the nineties end, we find ourselves in a dynamic global society ever more unified by downsizing, de-skilling and dread—just like the old man said. All of a sudden, the iconic looks more convincing than the ironic; that classic bearded presence, the atheist as biblical prophet, is back just in time for the millennium. At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were workers who were ready to die with The Communist Manifesto. At the dawn of the twenty-first, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.
Marshall Berman (1940–2013), longtime professor of political science at CUNY, was the author of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982).