I’m sure most Americans think they know what Communism is. They’ve heard of Marx and Engels, and like most Americans, they accept the conventional characterization of Communism as a failed political system, the loser in an ideological struggle with western democracy. Perhaps they understand the distinction between Socialism, which has been implemented in various forms in countries around the world with some success, and Communism, which, practically by definition, results from violent revolution, as it did in Russia, China, and various other countries. But what you might fail to recognize is that the winner in the struggle was really capitalism, not western democracy, and those Communist countries have in fact become capitalist oligarchies, not Communist at all.
Most people have heard of Marx’s seminal work, Capital, which was published in 1867, and lays out his economic theories of capitalism and its effects, but I suspect that very few people realize that the Manifesto, which is the founding expression of Communism as a political theory, or system, and a call to action, was originally published in 1848, in the middle of the 19th century, almost twenty years earlier.
The late 18th and 19th century was a period of violent political disruption, from the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Chartist movement in England, the Paris Commune, various labor movements in Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe, and ultimately the Russian Revolution, all in reaction to the violent economic disruption that came with the industrial revolution and the abuse of the working class, toiling in horrifying conditions in the factories of the newly industrialized world producing massive profits that they did not share.
A Spectre Haunting begins the Manifesto, is in fact its first three words, referring to the perception of Communism as a spectre haunting Europe at that time, threatening the ruling powers in the countries of Europe.
This book is a scholarly analysis of this document and its context from the point of view of the present, and what is fascinating about it is how pertinent the conditions that gave rise to it are to the economic conditions of today, the pauperization of the working class, the commoditization of labor, the suppression of labor unions, the cynical fomentation of race hatred and competition among the disenfranchised, and so on. If those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, then this might be a good time to refresh our memories about what gave rise to the revolutionary movements of the industrial revolution and notice the parallels to the abuses of capitalism today, not least of which is the massive redistribution of wealth from almost everyone to a tiny overprivileged sliver of the population.
This is a short book, which also includes the original text of the Manifesto itself, which is a fascinating read, particularly when presented in historical context, and it may surprise you, as it did me, to see how relevant it still is, in spite of all the energy that has been expended over the years to discredit the principles on which it is based.