A Spectre, Haunting: On The Communist Manifesto by China Miéville

 Review by Karen Langley

It’s hard to think of a book or political system more reviled nowadays than The Communist Manifesto and the various regimes it spawned. A political tract authored by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, it was first published in 1848 and went through numerous revisions as the century unfolded with its many revolutions and upheavals. Communism is today a dirty word, thanks to its debasing by the totalitarian Soviet dictatorships; and few who criticise the Manifesto or its blueprints for a better future have actually read it. Now, award-winning author China Miéville steps into the fray to explore the Manifesto and give a modern take on it; the results are breathtaking!

Marx and Engels were politically charged German émigrés and their creative partnership lasted from 1844 until Marx’s death in 1883. After that, Engels continued to fly the flag for Marx and his work, revisiting the Manifesto regularly to provide new thoughts and introductions. The Communist Manifesto was perhaps the strangest political tract you might come across, a cry for revolt and a vision of the Capitalist system as something evil, reducing everything to profit and ensuring the privileged few have plenty while the rest of the population are ground down by daily work. Not much has changed, then, which is why the Manifesto is still so relevant today. 

Yet the Manifesto, and Communism in general, are mocked and given a hard time in the media nowadays; but where is the wrong in wanting equality for all human beings? The Communist experiments in various countries have failed, and the whole concept is derided. Yet the central idea is still a valid one, and the book itself, with its rage against the machine and the forces of control, takes the idea of Communism seriously – and in a very eloquent fashion. Miéville argues for a nuanced reading of the text instead of blanket dismissal, and his arguments are convincing. 

The only reasonable way to read the Manifesto – or anything – is to be as flexible as the text itself. To proceed with rigour that’s both sympathetic and suspicious, allowing for grey areas, uncertainties and good-faith disagreements.

So in Spectre…, Miéville takes what could be a complex subject and breaks it down into manageable themed chapters, exploring not only the Manifesto in its historical position, the criticisms of it and its relevance today, but also looking at the whole concept of the manifesto form. This makes for fascinating reading and gives the reader context; references to the text itself are always given, to be checked against the version at the end; and the book is obviously rigorously researched.

You might wonder why an author like Miéville, best known for his fantasy/sci fi novels, would want to tackle this subject. In fact, he makes no secret of his left-wing beliefs, and wrote a fine book on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, October, which was published in 2017. It seems natural, therefore that he would turn his intellect towards Communism’s founding text; but although it’s clear where his sympathies lie, he aims to be as even-handed as possible, looking at the criticisms levelled at the Manifesto and discussing how fair they are. He also explores wider issues in society, from the need for unionisation, the human tendency to think of the self rather than the community, and even issues of race and climate. Truly, the application of the Manifesto is wider than might initially appear. 

Capitalism is unbearable and yet, mostly, it’s borne. For lifetimes, and by millions. The strongest weapon against revolution, or any hankering for it, isn’t positive but negative: it’s not any claim that the world in which we live is good enough, but that capitalist-realist common sense that it’s impossible, even laughable, to struggle or hope for change.

Make no mistake, this book deals with difficult and sometimes abstruse topics, but Miéville is a brilliant communicator and able to get across a complex subject clearly. His exploration of class differences, of the evils of Capitalism and our options going forward is never less than fascinating and absorbing. He disputes and debunks criticisms and reductionism, although is honest in his appraisals, accepting that the Manifesto is by no means perfect; and he’s clear that it’s a document which is still relevant and has much to teach us today.

Spectre… is rounded off not only with the Manifesto itself in full, but also prefaces to various editions over the years. One of the most stirring parts of the book, however, is the ‘Afterword – A Communist Catechism’ where Miéville makes clear his searing criticisms of our current late Capitalist world with its deep divisions and inequalities. His anger at the state of the modern world is palpable, and this is powerful and inspiring reading.

It’s easy in our modern society, riddled with inequality and suffering, to lose hope and think that nothing will change; however, A Spectre, Haunting provides a clear modern reading of a text which has stimulated revolution since its first publication and continues to offer hope. It’s an inspirational work which will have you re-thinking your place in the world and what you can do to improve things. Approach it with an open mind, guided by Miéville’s wonderful analysis, and you may well find your thinking changing!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is convinced that we need change NOW!

China Miéville, A Spectre, Haunting; On The Communist Manifesto (Head of Zeus, 2022). 978-1787333376. 341pp, hardback.

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Comments

  1. This sounds absolutely fascinating, and a whole different side of Melville – something I hadn’t known about before. Thanks for an excellent review, as ever.

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