Local and Global Struggles in the Communist Manfesto

David Harvey spoke on the Communist Manifesto last night at NYC's Brecht Forum as part of a year-long celebration of its 150th anniversary. Harvey has some of the most interesting insights into the Marxist classics today, especially involving questions of their "spatial" dimension. Since he a geography professor, this is not surprising.

Harvey spent much of his talks discussing shortcomings or omissions in the Communist Manifesto. For example, the question of how the state comes into existence is only dealt with in a sketchy manner. Also, there is little discussion of how the world is "territorialized." Marx and Engels accepted the division of the world as it stood in 1848 pretty much on its own terms.

There is also very little consideration of the power of financial institutions, which Harvey found puzzling given the major role that the Rothschild and Baring banks were playing in Europe in those days. This oversight has been corrected by Doug Henwood, needless to say.

One of the presuppositions of the Communist Manifesto is that local struggles meld into national struggles, which culminate in proletarian revolution. Harvey wondered if this was a simplistic view in light of the tendencies to retain a stubbornly local character with their own dynamic. He also questioned whether the socialist movement has failed to develop a geographical strategy that is anywhere as comprehensive as the bourgeoisie's. The bosses have learned to divide up workers in such a manner that trade union and political struggles are weakened. They, for example, have calculated that 50 workers per plant in distances of 200 miles from each other has a powerful dampening effect on the ability to form unions. Workers need a geographical strategy of their own.

Another problem is the tendency of the Communist Manifesto to depict the working-class in much more homogenous terms than it has developed historically. This means that the problem of conceptualizing socialism is much more difficult than originally anticipated. Perhaps the key is to conceive of a form of socialism that embraces heterogeneity rather than struggling against it.

In almost a sidebar, Harvey developed some very interesting insights on the importance Marx and Engels attached to the question of colonialism. One of the goals of the Communist Manifesto was to develop a strategy for internationalism. The bourgeoisie had spread its tentacles world-wide and it was incumbent on the workers to forge ties across national boundaries.

Harvey pointed out that colonialism was embraced by Hegel in "The Philosophy of Right" in 1821. This work was of enormous significance to Marx and he felt the need to confront and overcome Hegel's imperialist world-view, as reflected in the following passage from Hegel's work:

"The principle of family life is dependence on the soil, on land, *terra firma*. Similarly, the natural element for industry, animating its outward movement, is the sea. Since the passion for gain involves risk, industry though bent on gain yet lifts itself above it; instead of remaining rooted to the soil and the limited circle of civil life with its pleasures and desires, it embraces the element of flux, danger and destruction. Furthermore, the sea is the greatest means of communication, and trade by sea creates commercial connections between distant countries and so relations involving contractual rights. At the same time, commerce of this kind is the most potent instrument of culture, and through it trade acquires its significance in the history of the world...

"To realize what an instrument of culture lies in the link with the sea, consider countries where industry flourishes and contrast their relation to the sea with that of countries which have eschewed sea-faring and which, like Egypt and India, have become stagnant and sunk in the most frightful and scandalous superstition. Notice also how all great progressive peoples press onward to the sea."

Marx was attempting to put these questions on the terrain of capital accumulation rather than philosophy when he wrote chapter 33 of volume one of Capital, titled "The Modern Theory of Colonization." He says:

"In Western Europe, the homeland of political economy, the process of primitive accumulation has more or less been accomplished...

"It is otherwise in the colonies There the capitalist regime constantly comes up against the obstacle presented by the producer, who, as owner of his own conditions of labour, employs that labour to enrich himself instead of the capitalist."

As such, Marx tends to see the spread of pure capitalist property relations as beneficial in colonized nations, which, more often than not, are socially and economically inferior to the European colonizer nations. This combination of theoretical imprecision and plain ignorance about the real history of India and African societies leads Marx to make the sort of unfortunate statement found in the Communist Manifesto:

"The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns.. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West."

Harvey does not mince words. This concept of "barbarism" is antiquated and reflects Eurocentrism of the crudest sort. It is instructive to remember that the term "barbarism" is derived from the Greek word "barbaroi", which means both "foreign" and "ignorant".

Louis Proyect