Aijaz Ahmad the Communist Manifesto and World Literature

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The Communist Manifesto and 'World Literature' Aijaz Ahmad Social Scientist, Vol. 28, No. 7/8. (Jul. - Aug., 2000), pp. 3-30.Stable URL: Social Scientist is currently published by Social Scientist.

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The Communist Manifesto and 'World Literature'

Marx was twelve years old at the time of the revolutions of 1830 and thirty when he drafted the Manifesto, with some assistance from Engels, barely a few weeks before the revolutions of 1848 broke out first in Paris and then across much of Europe. The originality of the Manifesto is that Marx sought for the revolution a clearly proletarian orientation. For the rest, the idea of a revolution, of one kind or another, seemed, as he was growing up, as natural as the prospect that the sun would set in the evening and rise in the morning. Even 'socialism' was something of a password among many of those whom the Manifesto calls "would-be universal reformers". Part of the purpose in drafting the document in fact was to spell out the ways in which the Communist League, whose manifesto it was to be, thought itself different from those other tendencies in the democratic movements which also considered themselves socialist. This is important to remember in a time such as ours, when a whole new generation is growing up in an environment where, perhaps for the first time in roughly two hundred years, the idea of revolution has been made to seem implausible, however much there might be aspirations for liberal democracy, social change and the like. That there would be revolution was clear to everyone in Marx's generation of students, intellectuals and activists who identified themselves with the spirit of 1789. In deed, a careful reading of the main documents of the French Revolution, notably the famous 'Declaration of Man and the Citizen', had been crucial in Marx's own philosophical and political evolution.' It was here, well before drafting the Manifesto that he had drawn two conclusions: that the abstract universal rights contained in the 'Declaration' were everywhere sacrosanct in theoryTill recently fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

Social Scientist, Vol. 29, Nos. 7- 8, July-August 2000



but always denied in practice; and that it could not be otherwise because the 'Declaration' itself guaranteed inequality when it guaranteed the right to property. Paraphrasing Article 1 6 of the Constitution of 1793, the youthful Marx wrote: "The right of property is therefore the right to enjoy and dispose of one's resources as one wills, without regard for other men and independently of society: the right of self-interesteV2 triumph of possessive individualism within This the ideology of the revolution itself explained, in his view, the fact that although it was the militancy and the social weight of the proletariat that accounted for the success of revolutionary movements in France, it was always the possessing classes that led those movements and benefited from them.3 Immanent in that critique is the idea that the revolution that the young Marx envisages would transcend the logic of the French Revolution by incorporating it, radicalizing it and taking it to the very end of this logic by emancipating humanity in general, irrespective of class or nationality. Hence the emphatic stress on universality rather than on individual rights, which are seen as building blocs of universal rights; hence, also, the definition of socialist politics as 'the fullest form of democracy'. 4That, then, is the first point. Drafted some sixty years after the storming of the Bastille in France, some seventy years before the taking of the Winter Palace in Russia, the Manifesto assumes the reality, the necessityindeed, something resembling permanence-of revolution in the long-term dynamic of modern history, even as it serves as something of a connecting link between the democratic revolution that it had inherited and the proletarian one that it was groping toward: the link that eventually came to connect 1789 with 1917, fleetingly as it were, considering that revolutionary visions were quickly reversed within the USSR as doggedly as revolutionary potentials had been sapped earlier in postrevolutionary France, first under the Napoleonic monarchy and then, more fully, with the Restoration of 1815. Between the revolutions of 1830 and those of 1848, Marx had undergone an arduous apprenticeship. The last five of those years had yielded, even before his partnership with Engels got going in 1844, quite an array of formidable texts: Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: An Introduction, The Jewish Question, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, and the famous Theses on Feuerbach.* The main collaborative work of Marx and Engels in the next few years was of course to be the German Ideology, which they considered unfit for publication, but Marx himself went on, soon after they had



met, t o expand Engels' brief draft of fifteen pages into a major book, The Holy Family, in 1845 and wrote-two years later, in FrenchPoverty of Philosophy which he regarded as the first scientific exposition of his theory. With all this achievement behind him, the Communist Manifesto was not only the first relatively mature text of this very young man who had nevertheless written thousands of pages before turning thirty, but also a text that distilled, in prose of great brevity and beauty, a wide range of themes-from history, philosophy, political economy, philosophy of history, socialist theory, and much else besides-that had preoccupied him at much length previously. This greater maturity would be evident from even a cursory comparison of this text with, let us say, "Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith" and "Principles of Communism", which Engels had drafted in June and October 1947, respectively, as obvious prelude t o the drafting of the Manifesto itself which began in December that year.6 Yet, it would be wrong t o treat this as the text of some final illumination. For, if we judge the Manifesto from the standpoint of his own more mature texts-Capital, The Eighteenth Brumaire and Civil War in France, or Critique of the Gotha Program-it turns out t o be more of a transitional text. It is very well known, and we therefore need not offer any extended comment on the fact, that for all the originality and magisterial sweep of the materialist conception of history which M a r x had worked out in his earlier texts and which is stated in the Manifesto with such brevity and brilliance, the essential categories of his economic analysis had not until then gone much beyond the familiar categories inherited from classical political economy. It was only during the next fifteen years that some of the distinctive categories of Marxist economic analyses, such as the distinction between 'labour' and 'labour power', or the shifting balance between absolute and relative surplus value in the history of capitalism, fully emerged.' It is equally worth emphasizing t h a t until well into the 1 8 5 0 s M a r x understood colonialism in the most general terms, simply (though crucially) as a globalizing tendency in the capitalist mode of production but with virtually n o understanding of what it was t o eventually mean for the objects of this globalization in the colonized world. Prabhat Patnaik puts the matter succinctly: The Manifesto, notwithstanding a reference to the United States, was addressed essentially to Europe. Moreover, it was addressed not even



to the whole of Europe, but only to Western Europe where the four big countries were Germany, England, France and Italy. . . . let alone the vast expanse of colonies, semi-colonies, dependencies and other 'Third World' countries, it did not even stretch to Russia. . . Marx's analysis of capitalism had still not been carried to the point where its interaction with pre-capitalist modes, as in the colonies, or its appearance in the form of a backward capitalism, as in Russia, could be theoretically c~mprehended.~ N o r did that analysis yet anticipate that capitalism's 'interaction with precapitalist modes' in the colonies would be fundamentally of a different, much more distorting and devastating order than had been the case within Western Europe, precisely because the nature of t h a t 'interaction' in the colonies w a s determined, even overdetermine