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Communist ManifestoOf all of the readings in volume one in The Great Ideas Program, by Mortimer Adler, an introduction to the Great Books toward a liberal education, possibly the one that many would be more likely to skip and yet should read now is the The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. You might ask why? Some state that communism is dead, so why bother. In truth, communism as an economic reality exists in other parts of the world, but the fundamental ideas of communism are strong in sectors of the United States of America. You may be surprised to find out that some of the most outspoken advocates of communism teach across this land at American universities where they are ironically paid through the fruit of the capitalist system to teach communism.

Adler begins with a quote from GK Chesterton who once said, “For a General about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy.” Based on that quote alone one can tell that Adler took very seriously the potential place that communism might ultimately have in the United States. (175) The Communist Manifesto is easy in some ways to read, but difficult to understand the full implications of the work.

Adler also adds that we maybe surprised to learn that capitalism as it exists in the United States and Great Britain today has been profoundly affected by the program set forth in The Communist Manifesto and that our understanding of contemporary capitalism requires us to understand the socialism or communism which existed in Russia and China. There have been some changes in both Russia and China and yet again one need not look any further than the Wall Street protesters of the fall of 2011 to see implications of communism and socialism.

The Communist Manifesto was written in 1847 and published the following year. Adler also talks about how a manifesto was soon partly outdated. Adler carefully works through the text for various threads within this important manifesto. There is a historical strain, a prophetic strain, a moral strain, and a revolutionary strain. (178) Taking notes of these strains is the key to understanding the philosophy of history present when the manifesto was composed and initially read.

While it is clear that Mortimer Adler did not advocate Communism, he does a very fine job of describing the contours of this philosophy. He talks about the pattern of class struggle in human history, he makes an emphasis on a point about justice that is found within communism and this manifesto. Additionally, he describes how Marxism warned about the exploitation of the laborer. (181) There are some points that Adler makes throughout the rest of this introduction that are well worth questioning. It is also worth noting how many of the items that are found on page 182 are present within the United States of America today. Here are just a few:

A heavy progressive or graduated income tax is in effect almost everywhere.

The third proposal for abolition of rights of inheritance is partially realized with inheritance taxes which diminish the power of passing on wealth through inheritance.

The fifth proposal calling for national Bank and centralization of credit in the hands of the state has not been put into effect in United States.

In his own reflections of The Communist Manifesto, Mortimer Adler wonders about the eminent future. (182) A key question Adler asked that is certainly well worth thinking about in our moment is what position do Marx and Engels take with regard to property? Another of the most brilliant questions that Mortimer Adler asked of this writing is what might Marx and Engels have said if they could have the possibility of the abolition of all private capital thereby making the state the only capitalist. Essentially, the capital would result in the most concentrated form of ownership and management of the instruments of production mainly by the bureaucrats who run the state.

The Communist Manifesto predicted the collapse of capitalism as a result of the ever widening gap between overproduction and under consumption. Why has this prediction not come true? What happened in the development of capitalism which would have made the prediction come true? What did not happen which the manifesto could not anticipate and falsely anticipated? One important concluding point that Adler makes is that Marx and Engels did not expect that in the course of 100 years since 1848, the real wages of labor would steadily rise and that a widely diffuse purchasing power would be created to sustain the market for the increasing quantities of consumable goods which capitalism is able to produce. (187)

Adler does not conclude with assertions, but with questions. What are the specific changes we have introduced into our capitalist economy which have so far succeeded in preventing the collapse of capitalism that The Communist Manifesto predicted? To what extent are the changes we have introduced in line with the ten specific measures proposed by Marx and Engels for the gradual overthrow of capitalism? Is capitalism thus being overthrown or strengthened?

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2 replies to this post
  1. Interesting post and interesting questions.

    At Hillsdale 35 years ago, I was taught that a major reason for the failure of Marx's predictions was the emergence of available credit, allowing renters to become home-owners and accrue capital, and for members of the working classes to become petty entrepreneurs and join the middle classes. This explains a lot in today's solidly middle-class Europe, the UK and the US, where Marx thought communism would first emerge (not in Russia).

    I also assume that improved transportation and labour mobility helped create a competitive market for workers that Marx did not foresee. So did public education and technical education driven by the needs of industry, inadequately foreseen in 1848.

    Lastly, these together permitted widespread consumption which fueled manufacturing and service industries into a spiral of growth, which in turn made labour more valuable still. In these ways, a poor worker of 1899 lived longer and materially better than a squire of 1799.

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