While reading the Communist Manifesto, I was particularly struck by the experience of reading this text in the present moment. In this text, Marx and Engels do a dangerous thing: they propose a future – and declare it a necessary future. Throughout the text are claims for predetermination, or at least for determinism: following a necessary path of evolution, economic systems have devised their own downfalls, and the end of capitalism is finally upon us; the conditions for its destruction are in the making, have been for years, and through revolution will come the guaranteed next step: communism. Very convincing. Except here I sit, over 150 years later, and the things Marx and Engels said will happen – no, must happen – have not.
Reading in the future that Marx and Engels have claimed to know and yet have, through history, proven themselves as incapable of foreseeing as the rest of us, I approach their manifesto with measured skepticism. At the same time, however, I find the connections between their descriptions of the consequences of capitalism and the realities of our current moment, particularly in terms of environmentalism, striking:
“The productive forces at the disposal of society…bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property…And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand, by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented” (215).
In a moment of heightened environmental awareness, I cannot help but read these words as a description of the ever-increasing resource abuse and environmental devastation brought about by capitalism. I find in the text the future I currently see as predetermined: (a hopeful escape from) environmental destruction. Engels himself acknowledges the Reader Response mentality of my present reading response when he states that “the Manifesto has become a historical document which we [(Marx and Engels)] have no longer any right to alter” (208).
Like Che’s image (to make too quick a jump to Che’s Afterlife), the Communist Manifesto has been reproduced and re-distributed, put in the hands of students who, to a certain degree, find in it what they will. In the words of Berger, “it is a question of a reproduction making it possible, even inevitable, that an image will be used for many different purposes and that the reproduced image, unlike an original work, can lend itself to them all” (25). But comparing the multiplicity of meanings that have latched onto Che’s image to my riff on a few sentences of the Communist Manifesto exposes a difference between image and text (or at least these kinds of texts and these kinds of images). This text has far less flexibility of meaning than Che’s image. It can only be altered and interpreted so far before Marx and Engels step in and attempt to re-assert their own meaning (as they do on page 225, for example). Perhaps this attempt is necessarily unsuccessful, but still the attempt exists. Che’s image, on the other hand – singular, without words – is defenseless.