A Spectre, Haunting
By China Miéville
Head of Zeus, 2022
Reviewed by Eddie McCabe
The Communist Manifesto is the paramount revolutionary pamphlet. And that’s not just because it’s had such a profound effect on so many revolutionary movements and events in history. Rather, it’s because it will have such a profound effect on so many revolutionary movements and events in the future.
Over 500 million copies have been sold since its first publication in 1848, with countless editions available. And as China Miéville notes, sales of the Manifesto spike with every new crisis of the capitalist system. And given the certainty of such crises recurring, it needs no additional promotion from the likes of Miéville. Nonetheless Miéville has produced a work of value in A Spectre, Haunting, which is all about the Communist Manifesto and includes the full text of the Manifesto as well as the four prefaces written by the authors in subsequent editions from 1872 to 1888.
“Every political generation must encounter the Manifesto anew”, Miéville writes in the introduction, noting the resurging interest in socialism and even ‘communism’ among young people. In a world in which the supposed superiority of capitalism is less convincing by the day, it’s hardly surprising that increasing numbers are inquiring about the system’s old enemy, socialism, whose demise was evidently greatly exaggerated. Even the Stalinist model, bureaucratic dictatorship and all, is oddly proving attractive to some by comparison with what capitalism has on offer.
And for anyone questioning capitalism or looking for alternatives, the Communist Manifesto is an obvious place to start, and a pretty good one. It remains a blistering but incredibly insightful critique of the capitalist system – a fact even acknowledged by many right-wing economists, who will at the same time dismiss its revolutionary theory and programme, however nervously.
The Manifesto was written for a broad audience of workers and radicals of the mid-19th century, so is short and accessible, but still weighty. For new readers, an edition such as the annotated version edited by Phil Gasper is particularly useful, but as any socialist activist of any longevity can attest, returning to the Manifesto – in light of new experiences – never fails to bear fruit. It’s arguably for such readers that Miéville’s book is best suited.
Chapter one is a discussion on the ‘Manifesto Form’, which looks at the influence of other manifestos on Marx and Engels’, as well as theirs on subsequent ones. It also looks at the effectiveness of the stylistic flourishes in the Manifesto alongside its penetrating analysis, which compliment each other, but need to be understood for what they are, i.e. it’s foolish to scrutinise their calls to action (including statements and predictions that have proven inaccurate) in the same way as you might their historical overview – as so many disingenuous critics do.
Chapter two discusses the Manifesto ‘in its time’, placing it in the context of Europe post-French Revolution, into which Marx and Engels were born and in which they formed their ideas. The Manifesto’s clarity is a product of their collaboration over the preceding years critically engaging with other socialist and revolutionary ideas, as well as those of the most insightful political economists.
Chapters three, four and five titled ‘An Outline of the Manifesto’, ‘Evaluating the Manifesto’ and ‘Criticisms of the Manifesto’ respectively, cover an in-depth engagement with the text and its key themes. In relation to criticisms, Miéville gives short shrift to the right-wing criticisms, which are generally too disingenuous to be taken seriously. Far more space is given to shortcomings in the Manifesto that have been pointed to by those more sympathetic to its purpose.
In many cases these are shortcomings that could only really be seen in light of developments in the history of capitalism and the socialist movement in the decades following the Manifesto, for example the underestimation of the influence of nationalism on the working class, or on the importance of the patriarchal family to the functioning of the system. Others are issues that Marx and Engels themselves corrected in subsequent writings, for example the theory of immiseration – which sees wages as continually declining.
Grappling with questions such as these is essential for those who seek to use the Manifesto for revolutionary purposes today, which is the subject of the final chapter.
Anyone who’s read any of Miéville’s other works will know that he’s an excellent writer, which makes for enjoyable reading even when disagreeing with certain political takes, or when he gets a bit carried away – such as in his concluding section on the importance or otherwise of ‘hate’ as a political motivator. But for those who, in Miéville’s words, have “fidelity” to the Manifesto, there’s not a lot to take issue with. Partly due to Miéville’s approach in the book of posing and probing problems, referring to other writers’ positions, often without coming to very firm conclusions.
You get the slight impression that Miéville set out with the intention (given his clear distaste for what he sees as dogmatism on the left – often manifested in an overly optimistic disposition) of being more critical of the Manifesto than he turned out to be. With a possibly semi-conscious example of the ability of Manifesto to continue to inspire, Miéville concludes his afterword (‘A Communist Catechism’):
“Yes we will change the existing state of things. Not we will in the sense of it is inevitable but in the sense of it is not impossible, in the sense that it is necessary, that it is utterly worth the wager and the fight. In the sense that living with that Yes smouldering at the core of you, next to, as strong as, ultimately stronger than the also smouldering No of necessary hate, is the only way to come close to existing, to living as a human, in so foul and monstrous and in- and anti-human a system. Yes. Yes we will change the existing state of things.”
A final point worth making is that anyone who wants a physical copy of the book should try to get their hands on the Head of Zues version, with its attractive cover and printing on the fore edge, rather than the version with a ugly new cover being published by Haymarket Books in September 2022.