Monday, November 20, 2023

What revolution? (2008)

Book Review from the November 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Communist Manifesto’, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Introduction by David Harvey, Pluto Press, 2008. £7.99.

The publisher’s blurb on the back says: “This book truly changed the world, inspiring millions to revolution.” Unfortunately, this is not true: this book has not changed the world, nor has it inspired millions to revolution. The Manifesto of the Communist Party (to give it its original title) has been republished many times since its first publication in 1848. And now, 160 years later, in this edition it has a new Introduction by David Harvey. The Manifesto needs to be understood in its historical context, in order to sift out the immediate demands of 1848 from its timeless communist content. Marx and Engels emphasised this point in their 1872 Preface where they argued that already part of the Manifesto dealing with immediate demands (at the end of Section Two) had become “antiquated”, a point which was repeated in the 1888 Preface.

Harvey acknowledges this point but then goes on to claim that some of these immediate demands – such as free education for all children in state schools, a heavy progressive or graduated income tax – are still “wholly sensible proposals … to rid ourselves of the appalling social and economic inequalities that now surround us”. But that was then and this is now: however progressive those reforms appeared then, it is clear now that reforms of capitalism do not reduce social and economic inequalities. Harvey argues that eradicating class privilege requires an organised association of workers backed by democratic control of the state, and then adds in brackets “this is as far as the Manifesto goes”. But this is untrue: in the paragraphs preceding the immediate demands the Manifesto calls for the revolutionary “communistic abolition of buying and selling” and other specifically communist demands. Astonishingly, Harvey has nothing to say about this.

Harvey refers to the collapse after 1989 of “actually existing communisms” without irony and asserts that the former Soviet Union succumbed to “capitalist counter-revolution”. But there is nothing in the Manifesto which would warrant such claims. The Soviet Union and similar regimes did not institute the abolition of buying and selling and are best characterised as state capitalist dictatorships over the proletariat. Harvey has an online course “Reading Marx’s Capital” (, but in this Introduction he alleges that crises can be brought about through underconsumption (lack of effective demand), an economics theory which Marx emphatically rejected. Harvey’s Introduction is very disappointing, but the Manifesto itself is still an inspiring read.
Lew Higgins

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