Literary Saturday: The Communist Manifesto
Published on: March 6, 2010
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  • Warren Wheeler

    Would that this were required reading in the groves of academe. Brussels has not changed much, save the sprinkling of white youths sporting dreadlocks and knitted caps, trying oh-so self-consciously to be “authentic.”

  • LuizdoPorto

    Mr. Mead, it may be possible to be too brutal in condemning the Davoisie, but I sincerely fail to see how to chastise enough the tenured radicals and their malthusian and authoritarian counterparts in government.
    Their ill thought out so called programs are too big a threat to solvency, to prosperity and to liberty.
    Also they are bound to fail, because they produce the type of politics that you dissected so well in your critique of the agw movement.

  • Luke Lea

    First off, excellent essay. Well-written, full of insight. You are at the top of your game.

    And I agree with you about the importance of The Communist Manifesto.

    Where I disagree is your take (or would it have been Marx’s take?) on the American labor movement and the issue of free trade. You write that “seeking to preserve the high living standards of a handful of privileged workers . . . they try to obstruct the growth of productive forces in developing countries that, for all the misery and horror connected with that process, represents the one hope of a human life for billions of people and their children across the planet.”

    No doubt this was the point-of-view of the late Paul Samuelson when he stood up in the East Room of the White House (this would be 1993 or 1994) and argued in favor of Nafta and Gatt. For in making his argument he was forced to engage in a disingenuous lie, one which he in fact knew to be a lie, namely, that free trade could be expected to automatically redound to the benefit of American working families. The truth was that this was, so far from being automatic, only a theoretical possibility which depended upon a radical redistribution of income from labor to capital. (See Heckscher, Eli F., “The Effects of World Trade on the Distribution of Income,” Ekonomisk Tidscrift 21: 497-512, (Upsala, 1920), English translation in Hekscher-Ohlin Trade Theory (MIT Press, 1991).

    Otherwise the process of “factor price equalization,” as Samuelson himself dubbed it, could be expected to steadily reduce American wages and working conditions to some point intermediate between their present position and that of workers in China (forget about India and Mexico). That will be considerably below where they are now.

    We are now witnessing the gradual unfolding of that process — a process that, absent a program of far-reaching income redistribution in the U.S. (fat chance), promises to destabilize American politics and ultimately undermine the new system of trade between the East and the West. That will have tragic consequences for the Eur-Asian continent. For once trade barriers are re-erected between China and the U.S., expect China to go on a military rampage with her neighbors, Russia above all. Her leaders will see this as the only way to maintain political and economic stability at home, given China’s 25 million unemployed bachelors of military age. Furthermore, it will gratify their sense of China’s new status as a major world power, constituting, in their all-too-human eyes, a suitable revenge for centuries of humiliation at the hands of the West.

    There is a grim inevitability as this historical process unfolds — an inevitability which Marx himself might have been able to appreciate had he had a better understanding of neo-classical wage theory. The only alternative would seem to be an unlikely turn towards FDR-style politics here in the U.S., a turn which President Obama seems incapable of leading. I therefore expect American troops to be on the front-lines in the Urals before this whole tragedy is over. Thanks, Paul Samuelson.


  • Mr. Mead: first I want to say that I wish we were neighbors. I’ve seen you on the News Hour and your wiriting confirms my impression that you are truly an affable fellow.

    If you read ‘The New Science of Politics’ by Eric Voegelin you will be changed forever. I won’t go on about him but I hope you will pick him up. He died an old man 25 years ago. Aside from a small following, he is virtually unknwon. He is to the philosophy of history as Bach was to music before Mendelsson came along. Perhaps you could be his Mendelsson.

    Every word of your essay on the Manifesto screams for a Voegelinian interpretation.

  • fahznab

    …and lest we not forget Red China Inc. where historical continuity dwarfs the West, and allows similar analogies to run parallel to our western political economic structures, yet having emerged much more rapidly, while remaining traditional yet demonstrating rapid “development” – oh, and suppling the rope!

  • peter38a

    Mr. Mead, a fine article. It reminded me of another I read many years ago wherein the author suggested that a great deal of the world’s views could be found in three books: the CM, the Bible and the Koran. He went on to suggest that in college, first year, all three books would be taught by a “conservative.” The next year by a “liberal” thinker in each area and finally by a “moderate.” It always struck me as an instructive curriculum.

  • fw

    It’s been a while since I looked at the Communist Manifesto, but Marx and Engels probably owe a debt to Nietzsche, with his argument that all morality is essentially self-serving, with the weak elevating the virtues of the humble and the strong celebrating power. For all I know, they acknowledged the genealogy of that idea.

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  • JLD

    “The Asian Industrial Revolution, that enormous upheaval destroying the past social organizations and customs from China through India and Pakistan today, in reality is an affair of grinding poverty, immense human suffering and displacement…”

    I feel this statement is not just wrong but wildly incorrect. Having spent most of the last 20 years in Asia, much of it in regional cities in China, I’ve seen up close how people’s lives have been transformed from grinding poverty into a hopeful future. Of course there are negatives (environment, social disruption), but they are overwhelmingly countered by positives (education, opportunity, wealth, diet, etc.).

    Sorry to be so pointed, but I feel disinformation like this is really unhelpful, and can have very negative consequences if widely believed.

  • John Barker

    You can get the Manifesto for free at Google books in a PDF file. Google books is an awesome site that every book lover should turn to first when looking for good deals, free samples and library locations.

  • SC Mike

    Did you really mean to write “the wit and wisdom of Joseph Stalin” instead of what would be the much longer work “Stalin’s Greatest Hits”? “We will Beria” — wait, that was from “The Survivor”… Nice lip-synching in the clip, BTW. Thank you.

    I think it’s wonderful that the Davoisie are able to get together annually, and we should all encourage them, even go so far as to recommend that they meet more frequently and in other venues. Why should the Swiss hospitality industry be the sole beneficiaries of the wise ones’ extravagance?

    The most important issue for those of us who do productive work is to keep the Davoisie away from any electoral office or appointed position where they might try to implement some sort of grand plan. (The great service the UN renders is to provide sinecures for folks no longer useful in the country of their origin: nice offices and allowances along with fine dining and great theater in a once great city.)

    The analysis in the Communist Manifesto is compelling but wrong in many details. It’s a pity that neither Luke Lea nor Marx nor Engels never met nor read de Tocqueville, but I guess they traveled in different circles and never crossed paths in Davos or elsewhere; such a meeting would have benefitted all parties. Not that M&E would have altered their recommendations, but they’d have had a bit less confidence after a more thorough look at Jacksonian America.

    What JLD mentions about the Yellow Hordes is true — they are improving their lot from misery to prosperity — and free trade, free markets, positive cultural traits, and highly motivated individuals are the key.

    Now before folks jump on China’s currency manipulations and South Korea’s trade restrictions, take a look at the gift Britain gave Hong Kong in appointing John Cowperthwaite, the epitome of anti- Davoisie, as the colony’s financial secretary. With millions streaming into the city from reddening China, Hong Kong was an isle of desperation and poverty. By 1960 average per capita income in Hong Kong was 28 percent of that in Great Britain according to statistics gathered by the evil economist, Milton Friedman.

    Cowperthwaite was a Scotsman and very much a disciple of Adam Smith. At the time, while Britain was moving to a socialist and welfare state, Cowperthwaite insisted that Hong Kong practice laissez-faire. He refused to impose any tariffs. He insisted on keeping taxes down.

    I met Cowperthwaite in 1963 on my next visit to Hong Kong. I remember asking him about the paucity of statistics. He answered, “If I let them compute those statistics, they’ll want to use them for planning.’’ How wise!

    By 1996, average per capita income in Hong Kong had risen to 137 percent of that in Britain.

    Planning for income redistribution is just a couple of steps away from our mess of tax credits, incentives, penalties, and other counterproductive complexities that drive otherwise sane folks mad. And that’s just the type of crapola that the Davoisie are up to when they’re not at meetings, so by all means, keep them meeting and eating day in, day out, just don’t let them be in charge of anything grander than their household.

    It strikes me that tea-partiers — indeed, most Americans — don’t hate the government. They are simply sick of the shenanigans our officeholders have been up to, knowing that the productive, responsible folks and their offspring will have to pay for the mess. The next hammer to pound the common nails is probably the public pension bailouts. Yet for an example of what not to do we have the once-golden state refusing to take action on outrageous pensions. Is there not even one program that can stand losing a buck or two?

    Even the great American foundations have shifted their focus to politics from effecting real change like they did seventy years ago by funding real heroes of the 20th century like Norman Borlaug or Fred Soper, midwesterners who saved millions of lives through inspiration, perspiration, and dedication. Where are the highways, bridges, and monuments to them? Probably in India and Brazil. Sheesh.

    Sorry to rant at your place, Mead. I hope you’ll find the time, wit, and energy to share your thoughts on Democracy in America, especially de Tocqueville’s speculations on the future of America.

  • Luke Lea

    SC Mike has some interesting comments, and I can see why he might write, “Planning for income redistribution is just a couple of steps away from our mess of tax credits, incentives, penalties, and other counterproductive complexities.” The truth is we don’t know how to do income redistribution, at least not in a way that is fair and efficient and that would not hamper the savings, investment, and entrepreneurial innovation upon which our future prosperity depends. Certainly the graduated income tax and means-tested welfare payments are not the answer; they both destroy the proportionality between effort and reward.

    But does this mean the goal is impossible? Have we reached the final end in our understanding of how market economies work and how they might be adjusted to maximize the general welfare?

  • SC Mike

    Luke Lee – I see in today’s WaPo and WSJ that the departments of Justice and Education are teaming up to go after schools for not taking “disparate impact” seriously. Some schools are still relying on grades, class standing, and SAT scores to the detriment of some minorities. I suspect that the minorities the civil servants and political appointees favor do no include the usual suspects, the Yellow Horde. Heck, without the Chinese, Japanese, folks from the Punjab, and so forth, we boomer white guys would really be at the bottom of the hate barrel, but we do recognize that some Asian compadres get screwed a little worse the we do.

    My point with that aside is why worry about artificial income distribution so much? Those folks wallowing in poverty in Hong Kong sixty years ago did the traditional “pull yourself up by your sandal straps” because they knew that it was their own effort, not a government credit or handout or patronage job that was going to get them ahead. So they took care of their aging relatives and worked hard for their kids, and their kids in turn did the same thing, and most of those folks became prosperous. On their own with some help from family and friends. The government’s role was to detain the bad guys, provide for public safety and health, and otherwise just let folks build their own futures.

    The same sort of thing used to happen here in Vespucciland. The native-born and new arrivals wanted the opportunity to achieve their potential based on their efforts, luck, savvy, and perseverance; that was their idea of fairness.

    Since then we’ve really managed to make a mess of the meritocracy ideal and the forecast is grim because the elites in government, the academy, and elsewhere think that they know what’s best and fair for each of us better than any of us can know.

  • Russ Wood

    Prof. Mead, great essay. While I would acknowledge problems, I think that you significantly understate the benefits in terms of pulling poor people, particularly in East Asia, from miserable poverty to something like a middle-class existence. (And the on-going growth of consumption by that large and ever-growing middle class is perhaps the biggest reason that global warming, if human-caused, is going to be such a difficult problem to solve.) Yes many have not made it up the ladder, but globalism and capitalism surely are the most powerful anti-poverty programs in human history.

  • Linnaeus~ Nature does not proceed by leaps.

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