Book Review: The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

As usual with my book reviews, I will examine the main arguments of the book and then try to apply its ideas to self-development and our own lives.

At some point in the pamphlet, Marx jumps off the deep end and demands that workers everywhere revolt and declares that such a revolution is inevitable. Either one would be fine - historians are allowed to make predictions and political thinkers are allowed to call for revolution. But if he indeed believes the revolution is inevitable, there would be no logical reason to call for it. It would happen anyways. One has to take the arguments in the pamphlet with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, the fact that Marx is illogical in one respect does not mean that he's wrong about everything else.

The cornerstone assumption of Marx philosophy is that the work we do changes us. Good work can change us for the better, bad work can change us for the worse, almost by definition. Then he extrapolates from there that when workers are forced, on threat of hunger or poverty, to do bad work--which is an inevitable consequence of their labor being commodified--they become terribly unhappy and seek a way out of the system that exploited them. The Luddites, Chartists, unionists, and communists were all trying out different ways of managing the exploitation of their labor.

Marx differed with the other counter-industrial movements by finding root causes for the ills of industrialism in capitalist theory. The Luddites were anti-industrial. Marx wasn't anti-industrial. He was anti-capitalist, fundamentally so.

Can we find any worthwhile lessons in the Manifesto if we are unwilling to denounce capitalism as a great evil? Maybe, though not without making Marx roll over in his grave.

For Marx, the sheer number of hours one works is not the problem. The very nature of being forced to do meaningless, uninteresting work is what corrupts man. No amount of money or vacation days could change that. I think he's right. For work to be good - that is, for it make its performer better, one has to choose it, be suited for it, and learn from it. There are all sorts of other ethical arguments that could invalidate working for Phillip Morris or Raytheon, but the actual work one does for them could still make one a better person. Thus, it would be good work.

Capitalism assumes that an individual can use any amount of capital combined with labor to create more capital. Marx counters that there's a threshold below which one does not have enough capital to get started, because machines are too expensive. Only a former landowner can afford to construct the machinery necessary to build a business. Whether or not he was right about the nature of capital in the mid-19th century, I don't think that's the case today. One needs only access to a computer to build a multi-billion dollar business -- if one already has the intellectual capital. Don't be discouraged by how little savings you have. Whatever it is, it's enough to get going.

I don't like Marx's fatalism. I don't believe capitalism is the source of our day-to-day problems, nor that overthrowing it would be a solution. There is not one course of action for workers who feel exploited by their companies, even if he's right that we're being sucked dry so that shareholders can amass even more capital and exploit even more people even more.

If you feel like you're being squeezed for your labor for someone else's benefit, what should you do about it?
  • Start your own company.
  • Negotiate a raise.
  • Find a way to do higher value work.
  • Buy some mutual funds so you're the one benefiting from others' getting squeezed.
I don't think overhauling the entire economic system is really a good option. When you try to do that, millions of people die.