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June 27, 1998

For Many, Marx's 'Manifesto' Remains Relevant

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    Karl Marx may have been right after all.

    As readers revisit "The Communist Manifesto" on its 150th anniversary, those on the left and the right have been struck by the eerie way in which its 1848 description of capitalism resembles the restless, anxious and competitive world of today's global economy.

    Economists and political scientists note how the manifesto, written by Marx and Friedrich Engels, recognized the unstoppable wealth-creating power of capitalism, predicted it would conquer the world, and warned that this inevitable globalization of national economies and cultures would have divisive and painful consequences.

    "The manifesto speaks to our time," says Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard University. "Marx saw capitalism as the driving force of history. But he also warns of the divisions that capitalism's spread would bring, of the social orders destroyed."

    The British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm describes the manifesto's portrait of capitalism as "recognizably the world we live in 150 years later" in his introduction to the elegant little edition brought out by the British-based publisher Verso to mark the anniversary.

    Marx and Engels probably would not wish to be remembered today for having predicted capitalism's success. The manifesto is a quintessentially revolutionary document that calls for the abolition of private property, the replacement of marriage by a "community of women," concentration of political power in the hands of the proletariat and the replacement of the state by "an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

    None of that occurred. The capital-owning bourgeoisie did not become their own gravediggers by driving an increasingly pauperized proletariat to revolution. And far from "withering away" as class conflict subsides, the Soviet state became a monstrous instrument of oppression and then collapsed of its own weight.

    "Marx underestimated capitalism's ability to buy proletarian support by gradually enfranchising them," Rodrik said, adding, "A series of implicit social contracts underpins capitalism, of which the most recent was probably the creation of welfare states and social security systems after the Second World War."

    In "The Communist Manifesto: New Interpretations" (Edinburgh University Press), one of several studies published this year, the late Wal Suchting of Sydney University reverses the pamphlet's famous opening sentence to conclude that "the specter of communism has ceased to haunt Europe."

    What remains, however, is the manifesto's vivid, even visionary presentation of capitalism as an untamable force that could sweep away the Middle Ages and anything else in its way.

    "All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries whose introduction becomes a life or death question for all civilized nations ... industries whose products are consumed not only at home but in every quarter of the globe."

    Or: "Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones."

    The manifesto's warnings about capitalism's periodic crises foreshadowed the Great Depression of the 1930s and the more recent cataclysms in Mexico and Asia.

    And despite the dire language, readers may be reminded of the recent layoff of 15,000 workers at Motorola to meet mounting competition, the 18 million unemployed in Europe, the growing disparity in income throughout the world and workers' increasing insecurity as companies shift production to countries with lower wages.

    The manifesto also foresaw that the spread of capitalism would bring a steady alignment of national cultures: "The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises world literature."

    Here is a foretaste of the dominance of English and of the Americanization of life elsewhere as Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola and McDonald's become universal symbols.

    In "The Cultures of Globalization," to be published in August by Duke University Press, Frederick Jameson offers two contrasting visions of the world literature that Marx and Engels predicted. What Jameson hopes cultural globalization creates is "an immense global urban intercultural festival without a center or even any longer a dominant cultural mode." What he fears is that it might come to mean "increasing standardization on an unparalleled scale" as human history becomes "a tortuous progression toward the American consumer as a climax."

    Concerns about the darker side of capitalism's success is prompting writers to offer their own updated prescriptions. For the far left, the social strains and tensions that the emergence of a global economy is now creating are an added reason for nationalizing private property.

    In "The Communist Manifesto Now: Socialist Register 1998" (Monthly Review Press, New York) Leo Panitch of York University in Toronto and Colin Leys, an emeritus professor of politics at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, argue that "the irreconcilability of democracy with private property" must "come clearly back on the agenda." They insist, however, that this does not mean abolishing "personal possessions."

    "Socialist parties and Communist parties may have run their course, but the strains of globalization will throw up new institutions demanding change," Panitch says.

    Other political scientists and sociologists have called for a new social contract to restrain the disruption global capitalism is causing in ordinary people's lives. "We're neglecting this. We need a new social insurance to soften world capitalism," argues Rodrik, who set out his ideas last year in a book called "Has Globalization Gone Too Far?"

    William Greider, author of "One World, Ready or Not" (Simon & Schuster, 1997) suggests steps to "moderate the pace of industrial revolution" and reduce the "danger of a tragic breakdown," including controls on capital movements around the world, debt forgiveness for poorer nations, higher taxes on wealth and lower ones on labor.

    In "False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism" (Granta Books, 1998) John Grey, a politics professor at Oxford University and a disillusioned conservative, denounces moderate leftist and right-wing parties for supporting free trade and a single global market, "a utopia that can never be realized but which already produced social dislocation and economic and political instability on a large scale."

    Of course, not everyone is a doomsayer. Saskia Sassen of Columbia University argues that globalization does not necessarily mean an unregulated economic free-for-all. In "Globalization and Its Discontent" (The New Press, 1998), she points out that big multinational corporations typically prefer doing business in countries where the rule of law is strong.

    She adds, however, that new regulatory frameworks "need to be discovered and invented, as does the meaning of accountability and democratization in the new global information economy."

    Not everyone agrees that the manifesto was really that visionary. In the current issue of "Foreign Policy," Helen Milner of Columbia University says that although globalization is said to weaken governments, foster unemployment and promote profitability as the universal yardstick of achievement, government spending remains fairly constant and nations are preserving very different kinds of welfare states. This suggests "globalization is neither producing convergence nor undermining labor and may not be irreversible."

    Take that, Karl.

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