Revolutionary credo turns 150 Communism: "The Communist Manifesto" was written in 1848, but its observations seem remarkably up-to-date today. Only its predictions went awry.

Sun Journal

May 01, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

It was a 23-page ticking bomb of a document, penned by an odd couple of European exiles, virtually unnoticed upon its publication, that would inspire some of the bloodiest dictatorships of the 20th century. It would also motivate some of the century's notable social achievements.

"A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of Communism," "The Communist Manifesto" famously begins. On this 150th May Day since its writing, the spectre has pretty much lost its power to spook.

Yet much of this dense little essay, written by Karl Marx with a little help from Friedrich Engels, sounds strikingly contemporary. its arresting prose the reader of 1998 can find a tribute to the transforming power of the market, a prescient description of globalization and technology -- and a ruthless tone that hints of terror to come.

On the 100th anniversary of "The Communist Manifesto," in 1948, the Marxist regime in the Soviet Union had survived invasion by fascist Germany and was consolidating its grip on Eastern Europe. Mao Tse-tung was a year away from seizing power in China. Still ahead were African independence movements and Latin American rebellions in the name of Marx.

In the United States, Whittaker Chambers was accusing Alger Hiss of being a Communist agent. It was a label that carried supernatural force in American politics then, derailing careers and destroying reputations.

A half-century later, the Soviet Union is no more, its satellites are free, and China frightens the West less with Marxist rhetoric than with capitalist economic power. Doctrinaire Communist regimes rule almost nothing beyond North Korea and Cuba, sad outposts of ideology where the real specters today are poverty and famine.

But Marxist believers can take heart from the ugly face of capitalism in the old Soviet bloc, where plutocrats and mobsters thrive and workers and pensioners pine for the social guarantees of the good old days. Communists hold the largest bloc in the Russian Duma; post-Soviet Communist parties have been returned to power by voters in Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and Mongolia.

"If you had talked to me five years ago, I would have said, 'Yes, history is at an end,' " says Tim Wheeler, 58, a Baltimorean who commutes to New York four days each week to edit People's Weekly World, the newspaper of the Communist Party-USA. "But I'm over that now. I'm filled with great expectations of the party becoming a mass party."

Wheeler's mother handed him a copy of "The Communist Manifesto" when he was 12 on the family's dairy farm in Washington state. "Even as a teen-ager, I was struck by the power of it, by this powerful idea that the motive of history is class struggle," Wheeler says.

"I just reread it, and it sounds so modern," he says. "I said, 'My God, they're talking about a globalized economy.' These geniuses were able to see the direction the world would go."

Eternal optimists, Wheeler and his colleagues still await revolution at the party's modest Manhattan headquarters. The CP-USA lately has been "growing at kind of an overwhelming rate -- 100 or 150 new members a week," says public relations director Terrie Albano. She attributes this to "basic insecurity about capitalism," though she admits the party's recent addition of a membership form to its Internet site hasn't hurt.

"When we run candidates, we win," Albano insists. She offers as proof the victory last November of a CP-USA member, Denise Winebrenner Edwards, 46, in a borough council race in Wilkinsburg, Pa.

A city council seat in Ohio went to another Communist -- but this one is still in the closet, Albano says, so she can't reveal town or name. "Even 50 years after McCarthy, there's still fear," she says.

That may be, but capitalism has shown an awesome capability to assimilate its ostensible enemies. Angela Davis, the fiery revolutionary Communist once on the FBI's 10 most wanted list, is today comfortably seated in the department of the history of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

At her "booking office," the answering machine informs callers that Davis is not available for personal appearances until fall and can accept no writing assignments until after June 1999.

"The Communist Manifesto" itself threatens to be reduced to the status of a fashion accessory. The publisher Verso Press is out today with an elegant new $12 pocket edition, with red-ribbon bookmark and art by the New York duo Komar and Melamid, who themselves fled Soviet communism.

What Marx would make of such commercialization can only be imagined. The son of a German lawyer, Karl Marx made a name in school as an author of satirical verses. His work as a young newspaper writer and editor got him expelled from Germany.

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