The Poetry of The Communist Manifesto: a Combination of past and present
“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 ‘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.
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 Writing to his father however, his love of poetry was superseded by the events around him, ‘I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.’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 – which 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
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.
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)