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April 26, 1998
Marx's Masterpiece at 150

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. It was prepared in its early stages collaboratively by Marx and Engels, but the final version was almost certainly composed by Marx. It was published in February 1848 in London as a 23-page pamphlet. Its appearance coincided with the eruption of the revolutions of 1848, which began in Paris and spread rapidly across Europe before they all in one way or another failed or were put down.

The document dropped into obscurity along with Marx himself, but began to be widely read after 1870, when important working-class parties emerged in Germany and then elsewhere. By the outbreak of World War I, it had been translated into more than 30 languages. After the Russian Revolution, it was printed and reprinted in larger and cheaper mass editions, for it could no longer be regarded as a treatise of chiefly historical interest but had become a text that was considered to be ideologically foundational and current in the life of a great multinational state that was also at the head of an expanding international movement. As such it was widely incorporated after 1945 into university courses in history, political science and other disciplines, and attracted still more readers in the West during the Marxizing 1960's and 70's.

Yet even as the Manifesto was being pored over as a document of sustained doctrinal guidance, it had become unmistakably clear that it was much more than that. The Manifesto was and is a work of immense, autonomous historical importance. It marks the accession of social and intellectual consciousness to a new stage of inclusiveness. It has become part of an integral modern sensibility, whose interest and appeal have altered along with the prevailing conditions of contemporary life. And it remains so, after the demise of Soviet Communism and its satellite regimes, the descent into moribundity of Marxist movements in the world and the end of the cold war. A decade after those world-historical occurrences, the Manifesto continues to yield itself to our reading in the new light that its enduring insights into social existence generate. It emerges ever more distinctly as an unsurpassed dramatic representation, diagnosis and prophetic array of visionary judgments on the modern world.

That world was thought of by Marx, in a term that he appropriated from his European intellectual forebears, as ''bourgeois society,'' the generic social formation described by modern capitalism. Today, in the deepening twilight of the 20th century, in a fin de siecle culture that finds curious pleasure in inventing ''post-'' phenomena for its characteristic phases of experience, one grand matter that appears not to have passed into the quaint status of being post-itself is bourgeois society. Whether it is regarded as capitalist democracy, as civil society, as the welfare state in transition or as the modern social contract, bourgeois society remains alive and well -- which means of course, as it always has, that it is in a hell of a state.

The Manifesto is among much else an extraordinary piece of writing, an enduring masterpiece that immediately catches up readers in its transpersonal force and sweep. The compressed formulations of its compacted paragraphs survive as aphorisms far beyond their original context: ''A specter is haunting Europe -- the specter of Communism. . . . The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. . . . The bourgeoisie . . . has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment.' . . . What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. . . . The working men have no country. . . . We shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. . . . The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.''

The detonating power and conceptual fullness of these utterances constitute a species of dramatic performance. Like the biblical prophecies with which they have something in common, such statements are intended to startle and alarm their audience (in this instance thought of largely throughout as the bourgeoisie), and to proclaim impending catastrophe. But they are more than that; the Manifesto is a singular kind of action writing as well.

This astonishing document also possesses a structural complexity and a denseness of thematic play that we ordinarily associate with great works of the literary imagination -- with the imagination of art. For example, several series or cycles of connected images run threadlike through the different portions of the work and form part of its transformative historical vision. The Manifesto begins as a Gothic tale -- a specter or ghost is on the loose in Europe; all the powers that be, from the Pope to the Czar, have banded together to hunt it down. By the end of the first page, however, this spook prowling the ruined castle of the old regime has been transformed into a ''nursery tale,'' the kind of ghost story that nurses or grandmothers tell us as children to frighten us and make us obedient.

The fairy tale returns within a page in a new version created by triumphant industrial capitalism and its creation and slave, ''the giant, Modern Industry.'' This ''massive'' and ''colossal'' agglomeration of ''productive forces'' is unprecedented. The application of science and technology to ''industry and agriculture'' in the Arabian Nights fantasies of ''steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs'' has brought about the ''canalization of rivers'' and the ''clearing of whole continents.'' Even more, it has resulted in ''whole populations conjured out of the ground -- what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?'' The giant is a genie as well, commanding creative energies that act along an exponential curve: the dead are resurrected as country churchyards become part of urban and suburban development; the earth gives up the Seven Sleepers, Frederick Barbarossa and the trolls and Nibelungs that guard its wealth and treasure; censuses reveal growth that surpasses Malthusian projections. And this generative fecundity all began as a child slipping off by the fireside while listening, say, to ''Jack and the Beanstalk.'' (Or perhaps we can interpret the forces slumbering in the lap of social labor even more freely.)

The power to call up spirits from the deep and the giant, Industry, return transformed once again. Modern capitalist society ''is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.'' The immediate reference here is to Goethe's poem ''The Sorcerer's Apprentice,'' but Marx has replaced the magician's apprentice with the master sorcerer himself. And hence, behind the figure of the conjurer who has lost command, we recognize as well Goethe's Faust, Byron's Manfred, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and a host of other modern and mythological dramatizations. Capitalism has called up and created these embodied energies, yet its (or his) masterful ''spells'' cannot indefinitely keep them in ''fetters.'' In a final metamorphosis, the populations, powers and demons called up out of the earth, ''the giant, Modern Industry'' and the Proletariat itself all coalesce into the ''gravediggers'' who will bury the bourgeoisie that brought them to life.

Such trains of metaphoric figures and images are part of the dense local entwinements that constitute the microstructure of the Manifesto's linguistic fabric and argument. The macrostructure is equally complex and tightly interwoven. In a brief commemorative salute one can only gesture in passing at one or two of its larger elements and motifs. Readers who come to it freshly today will find much that remains striking and pertinent, and nothing more so than Marx and Engels's vision of capitalism's triumphant globalization:

''Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. . . . The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. . . . In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands. . . . In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have . . . universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production.''

This was written in 1848. What more can one ask for? As Eric Hobsbawm remarks in his useful introduction to the new Verso edition of the Manifesto, this is no description of the capitalist world as it existed at the time, but a prediction of how the world was ''logically destined'' to be transformed by capitalism. Prediction, vision, prophecy -- all are fused together in the incandescence of the Manifesto's account.

The account is never more telling than when it represents the epic, world-revolutionizing exploits of the capitalist imperium: ''It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations.'' Yet in its unlimited appetite for ever-increasing production and profits, this system creates at the same time a social universe of turmoil and self-destabilization. ''Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations . . . and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.''

Those ''real conditions'' remain to be reckoned with. There is much of importance the Manifesto did not get right: the revolution it hailed was not successful; the proletariat did not become the gravediggers of the bourgeoisie; the ever-deeper pauperization of the working class was not part of the system's ''inevitable tendencies.'' Nevertheless, it got certain things right as no other work of its time, or any other time, did. A century and a half afterward, it remains a classic expression of the society it anatomized and whose doom it prematurely announced.

Steven Marcus is the George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University.

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