As a born again anti-communist, I cannot deny that I still find the Communist Manifesto to be a powerful, enchanting and intoxicating work. Although I now consider communism (in its Marxist manifestation, in contrast to nineteenth-century anarchist-communism which retrospectively might better be called something like anarchist-communalism) to be fundamentally corrupt – not just corrupt in application but in inception, a misbegotten evil contrary to providential natural order – I still consider the Communist Manifesto to be one of the most impressive, imaginative and seductive pieces of political propaganda ever to be composed.
I don’t know whether everybody else is as susceptible to its magic as I am, but the opening passages of the manifesto still electrify me with nostalgic trembles as like siren song the words “a spectre is haunting Europe…the spectre of communism” ring even more poignant when one reflects on the unspeakable tragedies that befell some hundred million victims, to say nothing of the survivors, of the ungodly communist experiments of the previous century.
A small fraction of the thousands of innocent children to pass through the
Khmer Rouge’s most pointless and pathological dungeon, S-21 prison, Cambodia
Marx and Engels did not create communism, but the manifesto surely did the most to summon and materialise the phantasm that already occupied the lusts of young revolutionaries and the nightmares of the bourgeoisie and landed aristocracy. And what form did communism take, prior to it’s codification in the form of Marxism? That of a spectre. Marxist Paul Hampton claims that the term communist, as distinct from socialist, distinguished those revolutionaries that “advocated the abolition of private property and had a working class orientation”. However, for the less temporally-inclined, this material distinction will not suffice, and the idea of communism as a spectre should be more closely examined. No less than three other references to communism as a spectre existed prior to Marx and Engels’ elucidation in 1848.
Lorenz Stein, 1842: “Communism, a dark, menacing spectre, in whose reality nobody wants to believe, and whose existence however everybody acknowledges and fears.”
Wilhelm Schulz, 1846: “For the last few years there has been talk about communism in Germany, and it has now become a menacing spectre, of which some take fright and which others use to inspire fright.”
Anonymous, 1847: “There is a growling of the thunder of discontent with the status quo, and…flashing lightning illumines the pale spectre of communism.”
Granting that communism was both dark and menacing at inception, it appears practically luciferian in contrast to the socialism of the era. Contrary to the claims of the more rigidly conservative commentators on socialist history, early socialism was plenty varied, optimistic and voluntary. The disciples of Fourier, Saint Simon and especially Robert Owen engaged in a great number of ambitious, consensual and anti-coercive experiments on private property with free and willing socialist volunteers, absolutely in line with the purest libertarian principles. That socialism was positive and “utopian” (more accurately idealistic, as it was Marx’s untested hypotheses and prophecies that were truly utopian, in contrast to the genuinely empirical experiments of the so-called ‘utopian’ socialists), and communism was foreboding and threatening in tone, seems to me to be the key distinction between the two terms that quickly came to be synonymous after 1848.
Despite what modern day Marxists (Trotskyists especially) will insist, that the Soviet Union and its children were “not really communist”, it is absolutely clear that this manifestation of communism was both anticipated and, for some, desired at least as early as 1847.
“We are not communists who want to destroy personal freedom and make the world over into a big barracks or big workhouse. There certainly are communists who take the easy way out and want to deny and abolish personal freedom, which in their opinion stands in the way of harmony; but we have no desire to purchase equality at the price of freedom. We are convinced and will seek to show…that in no society can personal freedom be greater than in one based on communality.”
This article was written anonymously for the official paper of the communist party, Kommunistische Zeitschraft in 1847, and is speculated to have been written by Karl Schapper or perhaps Karl Marx himself. What fascinates me is the date. This was a whole year before the manifesto was produced, meaning that communism had not been formalised and codified by the doctrine of Marxism yet. The only really significant Marxist works in circulation at the time were the Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts, The German Ideology (both complex (not written for a popular audience) and under-developed), The Condition of the Working Class in England (not a Marxist work necessarily) and The Holy Family (which could fairly be called a Marxist work, but still rather premature). There was no Capital, no First International, no conflict with Bakunin (the schism with Proudhon occurred the same year, possibly after the article itself) yet there was clearly already an acknowledged tendency amongst self-declared communists to militarise work and turn the world into a “big workhouse” or “big barracks”.
In the following instalments, I’d like to explore the idea that the Leninist, Stalinist, Soviet model of communism was already preconfigured in the most inchoate forms of communism, before Marx gave it form, and a long time before Lenin first put it into action. I cannot see how it could have resulted in anything but the Soviet Union, the cultural revolution and Democratic Kampuchea. It is my belief that this is due to the fact that communism, at least in part, was consciously corrupt and purposely fearsome, calculated to oppose inherited wisdom, providential unfolding and free, individualistic and spontaneous natural order.
Slaves of the Soviet gulag system, labouring on the Belomorkanal, 1932
This is not to say that Marx and his allies desired for the gulag system or Toul Sleng prison to ever come to be, but that they knowingly evoked a dark and rebellious spirit in order to draw in followers. Like the siren’s call, Marx and other early communists manipulated that haunting and mesmerising lust for wayward rebellion that stirs the blood of all mortal men. I am not speaking of rebellion against a particular overbearing government or illegitimate usurper, to restore natural order, the basis of so many motivational myths, and the legitimate grounds for revolution, literal revolution, that returns society back to the divine path of spontaneous order that every now and then becomes corrupted by a despotic, oppressive and unconstitutional government. I instead refer to that rebellion that de Maistre describes so well as “pure impurity”; against order, against history, against nature and against God, that Satanic parody of revolution that seeks only to smash the scales of reason and tradition, rendering both equal in their worthlessness, to begin again (figuratively and substantially) at that literal Hell on Earth known as Year Zero.
In 3-4 further instalments, I’m going to explore the ideological roots of communism, the unfolding of the Marxist philosophy in practice, and the differences between legitimate, “constitutional” revolution that has lead to the emancipation of many different peoples and nations throughout history, and the insurrectionary ‘revolutionary’ ideas of the frauds, imposters and false prophets that defined the most miserable, destitute and torturous episodes of modern history: not exclusive to communism (I’ll talk a little bit about about fascism and jacobinism too), but best illuminated by the legacies of Lenin, Stalin, Hoxha, Mao and Pol Pot, along with their ideological forebears.
Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin
Hampton, Paul (2006) The Communist Manifesto: A Study Guide
Maistre, Joseph de (1797) Considerations on France
Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich (1848) Manifesto of the Communist Party
Panh, Rithy (2003) S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (documentary)
Peterson, Jordan B. (1999) Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
Rothbard, Murray (1995) Marx as Utopian
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1973) The Gulag Archipelago