Tract of a cult leader whose disciples lost their religion

The Communist Manifesto
November 28, 2003

Poor Marx! Celebrated for much of the 20th century as the founder of a new religion, he now seems a relic, his disciples, once heroic and eager revolutionaries, reduced to a band of ageing professors in elite universities where his doctrines still seem to have resonance. The Communist Manifesto , once a sacred text, is now textbook fodder in The THES .

The Communist Manifesto has been called many things, but never a textbook. It is, in Isaiah Berlin's words, "the greatest of all socialist pamphlets. As an instrument of destructive propaganda it has no equal anywhere; its effect upon succeeding generations is unparalleled outside religious history". This new Penguin edition has a long introduction by Gareth Stedman Jones, professor of political science at King's College, Cambridge. Stedman Jones was himself once a true believer, and still sees Marx as something of a prophet, the first to chart the process of globalisation. It is as if an Anglican cleric were to hail Christ for having foreseen the advent of Aids.

Fortunately, there is not too much of this in the introduction. Stedman Jones has the sense to confront Marx not as the founder of a cult, but as a major figure in the history of ideas, whose philosophy deserves as much consideration as that of, for example, Hobbes or Rousseau. He seeks to locate the Manifesto as the culmination of debates among the followers of Hegel seeking to define a new post-Christian philosophy of the world.

Stedman Jones argues that Marx did not, as Engels supposed, discover the "law of development of human history", for there is no such law. On the contrary, the manifesto is, behind its socioeconomic facade, a philosophical or quasi-religious work. Moreover, the decline of communism, and of socialism, is, Stedman Jones believes, to be explained as much by the secularisation of political belief as by economic and social change.

He has written a distinguished essay in the history of ideas, providing a fine account of the origins of the Manifesto , but as an introduction it is is both too short and too long; too short since there is not enough about its effect on succeeding generations; too long since its 187 pages are more than four times the length of the Manifesto itself. Moreover, much of the introduction would be uninformative to anyone not already steeped in the complexities of early 19th-century political thought, and it is rather heavy-going in parts. The best and liveliest preliminary to a reading of the Manifesto remains A. J. P. Taylor's sparkling introduction, wrong-headed though much of it is, written for an earlier Penguin edition in 1967. Penguin should perhaps have reprinted this and offered to publish Stedman Jones's researches as a separate volume. In introducing a student to a topic, it is better to mislead than to outstay one's welcome.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, University of Oxford.

The Communist Manifesto: New edition

Author - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Editor - Gareth Stedman Jones
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 5
Price - £4.99
ISBN - 0 14 044757 1

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