The Poetry of The Communist Manifesto: a combination of past and present

IMG_4662

What would have happened if Karl Marx had become a poet? In this article, Peter Raynard takes The Communist Manifesto to new, poetic levels. 

The Foundation

“Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.”

As many readers will know, Karl Marx wrote these words, but used the term ‘bourgeoisie’ instead of capitalism. The words were swapped in a 2012 lecture by John Lanchester (he of Whoops, and Capital) marking Marx’s 193rd birthday, to show how prescient he was in describing the structure of capitalism and the way in which it changes the landscape.

But as well as Marx’s prescience, he has also been lauded for his literary style of writing. In Robert Paul Wolff’s book, ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’, he references Edmund Wilson who likens Marx to the great ironist, Swift.

“Compare the logic of Swift’s ‘modest proposal’ for curing the misery of Ireland by inducing the starving people to eat their surplus babies with the argument in defence of crime which Marx urges on the bourgeois philosophers…: crime he suggests, is produced by the criminal just as ‘the philosophers produce ideas, the poet verses, the professor manuals,’ and practising it is useful to society because it takes care of the superfluous population at the same time that putting it down gives employment to many worthy citizens.”

Where Marx may have used satire in Capital, The Communist Manifesto is more of a Promethean tragedy; or as has been argued, Marx is more of a dialectical Promethean;

“the idea or practical conviction that what is made can be unmade, what is bound can be unbound by purposeful action. It is the sober acceptance that stealing fire from the gods will have serious consequences that will ultimately lead either to the emancipation, or the annihilation, of humanity.”

The Combination

Karl Marx had two great loves in his late teens, which he put into practice by joining two social clubs when at the University in Bonn; the first was the Tavern Club, which his father disapproved of because of the prevalence of drunken duels (it’s said that Marx did in fact engage in a duel); the second, was the Poets’ Club, of which his father did approve. Writing to his father however, his love of poetry was superseded by the events around him, ‘I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.’ I wonder what impact he would have had, if he became a poet.

But as we all know, he didn’t and some twelve years later, he wrote The Communist Manifesto. However, the mix of prescience, satire, and tragedy in theses writings seemed to me to be the perfect ingredients for a poetic response.

In January this year, I was introduced to the poetic form of coupling by Karen McCarthy Woolf. The form is a poetic response to a piece of text, where the poet divides up lines of prose and responds with lines that include rhyme, repetition and assonance. I took a paragraph of the Communist Manifesto. I decided to explore the form further; writing the Preface, then Part One, and so on, until three months later I had matched 12,000 words of Marx’s masterpiece with roughly the same amount of my poetic own.

Drawing on a wide range of references, I have tried to situate the Manifesto in a variety of contemporary cultural places, in particular to emphasise the dialectic nature of the text, in the form I am presenting. This is complemented by a series of images, again matching the bound with the unbound. As far as I am aware, this is only the second poetic response (after Brecht) to the Communist Manifesto.

Below is a sample of the book, where Marx is describing the rise of the bourgeoisie:

Extract from The Combination

(rise of the bourgeoisie)

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production
a set of pipes excavated from the intestines of serfs

was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed
because the human body parts were too emaciated

for the growing wants of the new markets
who were still yet to discover the delights of the flesh

The manufacturing system took its place.
robots of various stomach sizes, blustered and bulged their way ahead

The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class
something the middle class did very passively aggressive like

division of labour between the different corporate guilds
confraternity contracts between belligerents, some say

vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop
atomising systems turning the metal of men into powder

Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising.
man-sized tissues no longer required, as it was nothing to be sneezed at

Even manufacture no longer sufficed
hands took to the machine not the article of craft

Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production
playthings of the mind, exponential change in fortunes, spin the wheel

The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry
all hail the shibboleths of mammon and their bloody tongues

the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires
poor souls in the middle playing catch and missing

the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois
come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough

Modern industry has established the world market
connecting cracked palms that never shake hands

for which the discovery of America paved the way
with their independent isolationist do-what-I-say

This market has given an immense development to commerce
so fly high my sweet nightingales of the east, you bulbul song birds

to navigation, to communication by land
enabling the troops of civilisation and Sodom to rape for progress

This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry;
a cleaning up if you will of virulent middle-aged faces

and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended
like a pop-up book with a mind of its own

in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed
maturing like cancerous cheese on a wood-rot board

increased its capital, and pushed into the background
its nodules of self-aggrandisement, displacing

every class handed down from the Middle Ages
and so say some of us, and so say some of us, for

We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie
the one percent to you and me

is itself the product of a long course of development
yes, yes, yes, we know what you meant

of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange
round and round we go, where will we stop – hold on, I know!

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied
by the ‘gertcha’ of Chas and Dave eulogising the end of days and

by a corresponding political advance of that class
who still dance on this parliamentary isle to Milton’s ‘light fantastick’

An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility
as it was, as it is, as it was always meant to be

an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune
oh for those lazy, crazy anarchistic days, sat around a smoky haze

here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany)
where townsmen gave purchase to their rights with moneyed fists

there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France)
the 98% of us scrapping over a share of bronze medal

afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper
the threads of stratification began to untwine

serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy
the Naxalites of India can tell you a thing or two here

as a counterpoise against the nobility,
it always comes down to standing, back straight!

and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general
whose spines were now curving to the submittal

the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry
with all its rising fallacies and clocking on palaces

and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State
the porous borders of innovative disorder

exclusive political sway.
you turn if you want to, but the old lady of England, is not for turning

The executive of the modern state is but a committee
with their bingo numbers to hand & Saturday night covers band

for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie
so not the main party to make us all free

About the author of this post

Peter Raynard Photo (6)

Peter Raynard is the editor of Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working-class Lives (www.proletarianpoetry.com). He has written two books of poetry, his debut collection Precarious (Smokestack Books, 2018) and The Combination, a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters, 2018), available here.

 

References:

Barker, Jason (2016) EPIC OR TRAGEDY? KARL MARX AND POETIC FORM IN THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, (sourced here)

Lanchester, John (2012) Marx at 193 (LRB podcast)

Nicolaievsky, Boris & Maenchen-Helfen, Otto (1933) Karl Marx: man and fighter (Pelican Books)

Wolff, Robert Paul (1988) ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’ (University of Massachusetts Press)

Advertisements

Explosion in sales of left-wing literature accompanies Corbyn’s rise

Jeremy Corbyn colouring book

The winds of change are turning through the publishing industry, as bookstores across the UK report huge spikes in the sales of socialist and left-wing literature.

It is believed the increase in sales is linked to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn – the left-wing leader of the UK’s opposition Labour Party.

Books like Karl Marx’s Capital used to be the preserve of politics students, political theorists and veteran activists; but not anymore. Andrea Butcher, of Bookmarks, a socialist bookshop at the heart of Bloomsbury, central London, said: “We’re already out of Capital, Volume I, because people have been buying it so much. For other people, it’s books like The little rebel’s guide to Marx – which we’re having to reprint because we’re almost out of it.”

And Ms Butcher is clear that she believes the rise in sales is linked to Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to leader of the UK’s main opposition party.

“I think one of the things that the Jeremy Corbyn victory has done is that it’s given people a shot in the arm; it’s building up confidence and people are now looking to the books that can help them in the fights they are facing,” she said.

“Those fights could be around housing, or increased private debt due to government austerity measures – and we have books on housing and austerity that are flying off the shelves,” she added.

But it’s not just niche bookstores registering a spike in sales of Marxist and other left-wing literature.

Vivian Archer, manager of Newham Bookshop, which stocks a wide variety of literature, says that interest from consumers has clearly shifted to the left.

“Basic things like the Communist Manifesto have been the biggest sellers,” Ms Archer said. “It’s people trying to find out about the history of the Labour movement; the trade union movement; and there are also a lot of new books on the NHS and the NHS has been a major issue. And, of course, anything on austerity.”

The publishing industry at large has clearly recognised the shift toward left-wing ideals, too, and bookstores across the UK are now eagerly awaiting the arrival of a much-anticipated Jeremy Corbyn-themed Adult Colouring Book.

The book, the creation of illustrator James Nunn, features images of Jeremy Corbyn sitting down for tea with the queen, and squaring off with David Cameron in the boxing ring.

On his creation, Nunn says he came up with the idea based on the fact that “Corbyn is a massive part of our cultural consciousness at the moment.”

“I’m trying to reach out to everyone across the political spectrum,” Nunn added. “So if you want to pick one up and draw horns on Jeremy, that’s fine; but there’s this centre-right zeitgeist that is currently trundling on that has not previously been checked with proper opposition, and I think it’s important to have a voice on the left that Jeremy provides that can hold these right-wing ideas to account. I think these differences of opinions are good.”

Nunn also admitted that Corbyn was an illustrator’s “dream” to draw, noting that “his eyes hold you, and he has these great laughter lines. The beard helps you shape things […] he’s so much easier to draw than David Cameron with his big dough face who has no markings, no sign of life on his face.”

“Of course I’m a fan of Corbyn,” Nunn said. “He’s been making people’s lives better for 40 years rather than being an overprivileged ball of dough.”

And it’s not just people over voting age getting caught up in the literary Corbynmania: sales of left-wing children’s books, like Click Clack Moo are also on the rise. These books include cows going on strike when the farmer refuses to improve working conditions, with support from the chickens, who get involved with secondary picketing.

Analysis

Professor Wu says: “At a time when the mainstream media is continually trying to paint Corbyn in a negative light – as Paul Myerscough excellently details here – it’s great to see this isn’t impacting real public perception of a man who inspired hundreds of thousands of people over the summer with his honesty, his integrity, and his popular policies, such as support for the arts and creative industries, and his resistance to austerity – which has been shown time and time again to be, simply, the worst way to deal with an economic crisis caused by an over-reliance on an unregulated financial sector.”

“Just because many bookshelves of bookstores are now dominated by the latest memoir of your premier league footballer, or other minor celebrity, doesn’t mean that British readers don’t still demand – and in fact actively crave – intellectual literature. The ideas of Marx and other left-wing philosophers haven’t disappeared, and are actually perhaps more relevant today than they have ever been. As we wrote in a recent article, books have the capacity to break down walls and help us better understand the world around us – and so this explosion in sales of left-wing books is testament to the innate human curiosity in ideas, and an intrinsic willingness to learn about life and question the authority of those in power, who, because of self-interest, would rather we didn’t have exposure to any alternative ideas, and seek to suppress creativity and original thought with every attempt.”

“It was the printing press that first helped spread the ideas of Marx and other left-wing philosophers, so it is fitting that the new revolution will not be televised; but will be printed on the page.”