Friday 20 February 2009

Teaching the Communist Manifesto

It's been some years since I last stood in front of a class, but times are hard and the funding's long since dried up, so needs must. But what better course for a Marxist to teach than an introduction to political sociology that also requires the students read and engage with a bit of Marx? This is how I've spent a few hours these last couple of Thursdays. For my classes I set the Communist Manifesto as their reading, and much to my delight, most of them appeared to have read it. So, how did it go?

Quite well actually. I always begin a session based on a reading with how the students got on with the text and pleasingly, it elicited a couple of very strong reactions from a LibDem and a Tory, respectively. The boy in the yellow corner objected to its general political thrust while the woman in the blue corner thundered about Marx's critique of charity, and tried to claim that because the Manifesto is for the workers it is "elitist". But there were a few positive responses as well - a dangerous subversive from Socialist Students praised it for predicting capitalism's line of march when it remained very much in its infancy, while another went on to praise China(!)

Below are the questions around which most of the discussion revolved:

Does class still matter? How does Marx define it? Is there a struggle between the classes? What is "special" about the working class?

Why, for Marx, is capitalism the best and the worst thing to have happened to the human race?

"The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie". What does Marx mean by this? Do you agree?

Is the spectre of communism abroad once again?

What did Marx mean by the abolition of private property? Do communists want to nationalise your telly?

The discussions also ranged over the materialist conception of history, the theory of surplus labour and surplus value, social mobility, whether we're all middle class now and the class location of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney.

Next time it will be Max Weber and the origins of capitalism. That's a recipe for a less passionate and wide-ranging a lesson but still, it could prove to be interesting.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

Perhaps the question is too complicated as might require additional reading, but something on how to interpret: 'the working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, it is, so far, national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word' would prove interesting

Phil said...

Hmmm ... I'll definitely incorporate that suggestion next time I do this lesson, which probably won't be for another year :(

Derek Wall said...

The manifesto is a literary classic, high quality prose.

Anonymous said...

I know it's not polite to be too tendentious but this really is an excellent introduction -
(I'm sure your class was equally excellent!)

Anonymous said...

The most interesting and relevant section for today's "left" is the stuff on "reactionary socialism", which nails most of today's "left" bang to rights.

Boffy said...

I was interested in your question, "How Does marx define class?", because of course, in fact, nowhere DOES Marx define class. At least, he doesn't say class is "Blah, blah, blah". And as some writers have said, nor could he have done so consistent with his method, because that requires historical specificity. That is why Marx's definiiton of class is true to his historical materialst method i.e. the truth is always concrete, and so his definitionS, of class are always historically located and specific, for example his lengthy description of the classes - and he lists far more than the two class model in the Manifesto - in The 18th Brumaire.

In fact, in Capital Marx began to write a definition of class, but gave it up, because he realised that it was leading him into a circular argument, it was leading him into a definition of class that put people into boxes, and that is completely alien to his method. The best statement of Marx and Engels definition of class I think is given in Engels Letter to Bloch where he writes.

"In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting force, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals — each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general) — do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it."

This is a far more individualistic concept than many Marxists would today, perhaps, be happy with, but it is clearly the mature view of Marx and Engels on the subject.

See: Engels to Bloch 1890

Boffy said...

I think Engels last paragraph from the above is worth reproducing too.

"Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-รก-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent "Marxists" from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too...."

Anonymous said...


Marx may not have done but Engels offers a brief definition of the classes in capitalist society in a footnote to a an edition of the Communist Manifesto published after Marx's death:

“By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour. By proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.

The latter part of this quote is important because it hints that a definition of class is not to be found in terms of what people actually do, i.e. sell their labour power, but what they are compelled to do, what Elster terms 'endowment-necessitated behaviour'.

Anonymous said...

At last year's Marxism, Lindsey German mentioned that the first English translation had a "frightful hobgoblin" haunting Europe.
It's such a simple work that it took me a long time to bother reading it.

Boffy said...

To Duncan,

The problem is that as Engels says in the letter to Bloch referred to above such an economic determinist definition of class is next to useless for practical application. For one thing no such pure classes exist in reality. Then we have to consider that although the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat are the two main historical classes in modern society confronting each other they are by no means the ONLY classes in modern society. Just look at the list that Marx gives in the 18th Brumaire, look at the role of the peasantry, of the petit-bouregoisie etc. that Trotsky had to try to theorise in understanding class conflicts in the USSR. What about the Landlords and the extent to which they are partly merged into the Capitalist class partly still dependent upon Rent? What about the Lumpenproletariat? In Capital Marx speaks of the growing number in Capitalist society who would be technicians and administrators forming an ever growing "Middle Class", how to account for them.

And simply on the basis of an economic determinist definition of class how account for working class Tories and so on. The economic determinst model leads leninists to have to account for such phenomena by the wholly inadequate "false conscioussness".

I think Engels more holistic approach to class in the Letter to Bloch is far more consistent with his and Marx's Historical Materialist method. As Engels begins that letter by saying economic factors are only "ultimately" the deciding factor they aimed to make no further claim. Understanding real living classes requires a detailed study of them in their specificity, which is precisley what Marx did in the quoted works. But, it is also why as can be seen from the small fragment on the topic in Capital, it is why he broke off the attempt to give some kind of "box" definition of class as being Quixotic. There is a good discussoin of this Here , which if I recall correctly also discusses why Marx does not give specific definitions for other key categories such as "forces of production", because such categories can only, consistent with his method be defined in their speciicity not as general a historical phenomena.

Joseph Dubonnet said...

I have thought Political Sociology as it was my major at the PHD level studying the role of the state in advanced capitalist societies (did not graduate though, I am a PHD drop out). It was fun and I can say that The Communist manifesto is a good choice for students in these times. A quick read and a good introduction to Marxism and Socialism. Have fun with the course!

Todd Krohn said...

Phil, kudos for assigning the Manifesto to today's students. As economies continue to circle the drain globally, Marx's critique seems more relevant than ever.