China Miéville, A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto, Head of Zeus, 2022
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Reviewed by Ted Witham
For most bourgeois (and I have to admit to being bourgeois), becoming a Communist is a taboo, a step too far. Even for one with progressive politics, the idea of throwing out the whole system by which society governs itself, and starting again, is too, well, too revolutionary.
China Miéville is an English writer I look out for. His fantasy ‘steam punk’ novels explore the use of power and the experience of the underclass. His writing has vigour and joy, so A Spectre, Haunting appealed to me because of its author. If nothing else, it would be well written.
Miéville himself is active in socialist and communist circles in England, so his commitment was no surprise. A Spectre, Haunting is above all a masterly commentary on Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, written with humour and compassion. The book includes the whole text of the Manifesto and Engels’ prefaces to later editions. It is rounded out with a comprehensive bibliography.
Miéville assures us that Karl Marx was the main author of The Manifesto. The central problem that Karl Marx discerns is that too much wealth is in the hands of too few. In order to create a fairer society, in which everyone has enough and has opportunities to develop themselves, that 1% must be divested of its money and power, so that all can benefit: a commonwealth.
The French Revolution, say Marx and Miévelle, did not go far enough. It replaced the nobility’s hold on the bulk of the wealth in favour of the bourgeoisie. The paysans and the urban poor still missed out.
The difference today is that the wealth is held not only by Queen Elizabeth II and the Sultan of Brunei, but also by Elon Musk and Rupert Murdoch, bourgeois capitalists who, like their royal forebears, have no intention of sharing!
So, the solution to the inequality Marx discerned in 1848 is still the same in 2022: replace the hegemony of the capitalists with government by the workers and the underclasses. Miéville claims that Marx was not idealistic about this. The working classes still need to grow into that role, because as exploited human beings, they have been conditioned by the rich capitalists into the view that they do not have the capacity to build a fairer world.
In 1848, a year of aborted revolutions, Marx whimsically described communism as ‘a spectre, haunting … [a]ll the powers of Old Europe.’ The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Thirty-three years later, communism still seems to be a spectre, haunting the globalised world. Though technically dead, its persuasive analysis of capitalist society and its attractive vision of a world where everyone has enough to flourish, still sits in the back of our collective mind.
As Christians, we have a love-hate relationship with Communism. Our analysis agrees with that of Marx: that the greed of the very rich robs the poor of a dignified life. But we are suspicious of Marx’s non-violence. We know, right from the Cross, that non-violence resistance usually provokes the violence of the system, however, my reading is that The Communist Manifesto is too ready to condone that violence.
Maybe China Miéville, writing so compelling about the revolution, will be part of a movement to bring the haunting spectre back to life. Given the ravages of capitalism, we should arise, because ‘we have nothing to lose except our chains’.