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Why Capitalism Still Fears ‘The Communist Manifesto’

Yolanda Díaz
Eoghan Gilmartin

Spain's Second Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz writes about the enduring relevance of 'The Communist Manifesto' – a critique from which capitalism, for all its longevity, has not managed to escape.

Diego Rivera's 1935 mural 'Mexico: Today and Tomorrow' features a depiction of Karl Marx and a quote from the Manifesto. (Credit: Palacio Nacional)

Publishing a new edition and translation of a canonical work is one way in which a dialogue with the original text and its author can be kept alive. This is particularly the case with a work as controversial and, at the same time, as fundamental to the contemporary world as The Communist Manifesto. In overseeing the new Spanish edition, I have sought to foster such a dialogue along two major lines.  

First, in approaching the translation, I needed to reflect on how previous translations have helped or hindered comprehension, as well as asking if certain terms needed revising (even if they have already penetrated popular culture). This requires a mix of deep respect for the original text and its historic translators and daring when it comes to raising new solutions that, whether more accurate or not, can help us to discuss and think through the key concepts of the book.

Second, I sought to create space for a range of contemporary thinkers to engage with the Manifesto, with the new edition including a series of responses to the text. As my intention was to produce an edition for a general audience, I did not look to academic specialists, but to writers, thinkers, and public figures who, from different perspectives and ideological positions, could tell us what the book means to them. In this respect I have been fortunate that the current Minister of Labour and Deputy Prime Minister of Spain, Yolanda Díaz, has generously written a prologue – the one you are going to read now.

For an English-speaking audience, it is important to note that this edition is being published in a Spain in which the political right refuses to openly condemn the Francoist dictatorship, and in which many in its ranks equate socialism with fascism and the Manifesto with Mein Kampf. In this context of ideological manipulation, Yolanda Díaz’s words are at once illuminating and inspiring.

— José Ovejero, editor and translator

The thought of Karl Marx seems written in indelible ink on the winds of History. It always reappears in the context of economic and social crises, with all its lucidity and its ability to stimulate reflection. His insights on the mechanisms of capitalist production continue to shed light on the major problems facing our world.

There are many Marxisms in Marx, many incongruities and recoveries. His work can be read through a postcolonial or orthodox lens, with simultaneous interpretations that condemn his patriarchal bias or that celebrate his relationship with nature and the environment. Above all, as a social theorist, Marx succeeded in disrupting the ideological structures of the bourgeois class and of capitalism, bursting their seams and the traps of their language – thus contesting their ability to dominate.

In Galicia we use the phrase ‘moving the markings’ to refer to a much maligned practice of altering, under the cover of darkness, the physical boundaries that surround a field or farm land. Sometimes those markings no longer exist: the stone, the tree, or the small stream that demarcated the property have long since disappeared or dried up. But that ancestral wisdom of the border survives in oral memory, almost as part of the collective unconscious.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels shifted the invisible boundaries framing Western thought, doing so, moreover, in broad daylight and before all the world. Together they opened a new conversation that, with a hopeful, revolutionary spirit, disrupted conventions and denounced atavistic injustices.

Marx has been constantly caricatured and simplified, with the very language that he helped dismantle returning to be used against him. The translations, for example, carried out over the years on the German original, have employed phrases and clichés, such as ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which do not correspond to the exact core of his thesis. At times, the metaphors he and Engels employed overshadowed the categories to which they were alluding.

The Communist Manifesto is a text of political propaganda, and this is something that should not be forgotten. And yet its literary soul is always a shock. It has a clear, assertive style, in which the four hands of the two friends are revealed, with their judgments and their desires intertwining. It is a fraternal text, not only because of its shared voice, but also because it is written as an open letter to humanity and the working classes.

Marx spoke several languages and regularly read Homer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes in the original, as well as Dante. He could recite entire passages of The Divine Comedy, a passion he shared with Engels. ‘Will Italy provide us with a new Dante who will announce the birth of the proletarian age?’ asks Engels in the foreword to the Italian edition of The Communist Manifesto in February 1893. Marx also admired Balzac’s ability to explore the depths of the human soul and chart the social transformations of the age.

Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue (the author of that visionary essay ‘The Right to Laziness’), once cited old Karl’s predilection for Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, in which Marx saw his own self miraculously captured. Lafargue said: ‘In this work a brilliant painter is tormented to such a degree by his desire to reproduce things as exactly as they are reflected in his mind, that he polishes and retouches his painting over and over again until finally it turns out that he has created a formless mass of colours, which nevertheless represents to his bleary eyes the most perfect reproduction of reality.’

Perhaps, it is through this prism, i.e. that of a work in constant growth and transformation, that we should today approach reading The Communist Manifesto. Rather than as some fixed monochrome dogma, anchored in its own reason, it can be seen as an interpretative key, as blurred as it is exact, that allows us to polish and retouch, over and over again, our vision of the world and of its objects.

In this respect, The Communist Manifesto is one of those magical and inexhaustible books, born to endure, which manages to capture reality and, at the same time, transfigure it. I believe that Marx and Engels were themselves aware of the transformational nature of their work, or at least of the unpredictable variability of its equation, which in the name of communism and a revolutionary ideal, resolved to overturn eternal truths and conquer a genuine democracy. This is also reflected in the various different prologues to the international editions that are included in this book: a set of Russian dolls concealed inside the various subtexts and paratexts.

Adding to this interpretative tradition with my own prologue is not only a responsibility but also a source of pride, particularly given my deep respect and admiration for the likes of Marta Sanz, Wendy Lynne Lee, José Saramago, Santiago Alba Rico, Iván de la Nuez, and José Ovejero, whose texts are also included in this new edition.

In 1872 José Mesa y Leompart, editor of La Emancipación de Madrid—a weekly magazine in which [PSOE founder] Pablo Iglesias also collaborated—oversaw the first version of The Communist Manifesto published in Spain. This translation was not undertaken directly from the German original, but relied on the French and English editions to relay The Manifesto to our language.

The editorial offices of El Socialista on Calle Hernán Cortés in Madrid saw the publication in 1886 of another of the first editions of The Communist Manifesto in Spain. That building no longer exists, and nothing on the narrow street, perpendicular to Calle Fuencarral, commemorates this act. Claiming such memory is a political task, apparently unthinkable in a capital troubled by amnesia and whose municipal authorities have not hesitated to remove a memorial to the [Civil War-era] socialist Francisco Largo Caballero from a public street.

It is moving to think of those first copies, sheets of paper, flying from hand to hand, stored, like gold on cloth, under work clothes or in the folds of a skirt. Words forever engraved on the pupils and in the hearts of those women and men whose hope must still challenge us today, because their hope is, after all, the same as ours.

The ‘now-moment’, affirmed Walter Benjamin, is that specific moment in which the past collides with the present and resurfaces in it – like a great wave that takes shape far from the shore, where you cannot see it and that ends up breaking on the rocks under our feet. Here-and-now.

In this sense the new edition of the Manifesto serves as both an act of memory and of redemption, coinciding as it does with the celebrations for the Communist Party of Spain’s centenary. Founded in 1921, PCE would suffer throughout its difficult existence: wars, repression, exile, and decades of clandestine organisation.

Throughout all this time, The Communist Manifesto has continued to develop its programmatic character to the tempo of the century, with its global economic crises and great revolutions. Capitalism has been ever present in all of its diverse and voracious mutations, ready to engulf, corrupt, and disintegrate the very reality that constitutes it, but without ever being able to escape the theories of Marx and the transforming power of this text. A book that speaks to us of utopias encrypted in our present and in which beats, today as yesterday, a vital and passionate defence of democracy and freedom.

José Ovejero’s edited collection of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and selected commentaries is available in Spanish from Galaxia Gutenberg.

About the Author

Yolanda Díaz the Spanish Minister of Labour and Social Economy and the Second Deputy Prime Minister of Spain.

About the Translator

Eoghan Gilmartin is a writer and translator who covers Spanish politics for Tribune and Jacobin.