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  • Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei/The Communist Manifesto
  • Len Findlay (bio)
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei/The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Why should students of the Victorian period consider the most famous collaborative work by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels a key text to be read or reread today? For one thing, it already enjoys canonical or classical status. However, we know that such works can be invoked by people who have not necessarily read them or have given them only the most cursory scrutiny. Status is no defence against misreading, lip service, or glib dismissal. Reading for oneself is a democratic activity, an invaluable locus of autonomy and critique that nurtures ideas of difference and agency. This activity cannot escape from the mediatedness of all experience, but can at least subject textual [End Page 23] mediations to careful study. Thus a work lives on in the registers and inflections of the present and the personal, both recognizably itself and also, to a degree, the reader's own.

The question of how a work enters or remains in the canon never goes away. The Communist Manifesto is a classic by every measure associated with that term. It is read worldwide; it has been translated into many different languages (Andréas passim); it is still in print in multiple versions; and its authority is regularly appealed to or disputed through quotation and allusion. But the case still has to be made for its relevance, despite the fact that this short work, published in German in February 1848 in London, is often referred to simply as "the Manifesto," the one that set the standard by which all other manifestos will be judged. In arguing here for the need to read the Manifesto, I make two principal claims: for the need to read it for the first time as part of the education of any serious student of nineteenth-century British and European history, culture, and politics; and for the need for novices and experts alike to read it both in and for our times. This clarion call to political action has long committed me as a teacher, scholar, and public intellectual to encouraging reading of all kinds as a dual endeavour: reading justly and reading for justice.

For the first-time reader, the Manifesto provides an avenue into the hydra-headed year of revolutions, 1848, a time when Europe witnessed the resurgence of political business unfinished since 1789. As well as trenchant analysis, the text incorporates a significant strain of prediction, revealing how any representation of any historical moment blends what Paul Ricoeur calls prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration (passim). This work reminds us productively of the multiple temporalities and plots at play in and around texts and how expressions such as "of its time" or "for all time" need to be firmly anchored in historical particulars that inevitably mix challenge and inconvenience with confirmation and agreeable surprise. It is a work emphatically occasional yet enduring. It retains—as its authors insisted—all the marks of an intellectual commission undertaken to redeem a faltering political movement and completed while the authorities as well as the authors' comrades snapped at their heels. Unlike the first volume of Capital with its thirty-some sets of preliminary proofs, this text was never revised. Its imperfections are part of its meaning, requiring and rewarding historical reconstruction.

The Politics and Poetics of Genre

The Manifesto attests to the double infinity of texts, internally inexhaustible and constantly changing according to the promptings of ever-changing contexts. And this double-nature plays out in part as the doubling of genre: as both creative compliance with formal requirements and the favoured vehicle of particular social forces. Genre is always apprehensible as referential and aesthetic meaning, hence it always carries the challenge to arbitrate the claims of creativity and social determination. Different critical schools may emphasize one or the other, but the reader new to a text has to decide for him or herself [End Page 24] where the stress should fall—on unique creation or social documentation—and why. Whatever the emphasis, the Manifesto insists that there is always more than one canon, that every such canon...


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pp. 23-27
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