Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media. This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Over the course of a century of what Naomi Oreskes exposed to the previous segment as free market propaganda, there have been periodic spasms of resistance efforts of the disaffected to rouse themselves from the fever dream and often the instrument of that arousal is yet another doctrine, another piece of propaganda even older than the one it seeks to displace.
Karl Marx: On college campuses, a communist manifesto is one of the most frequently assigned texts.
Brooke Gladstone: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel's slender volume appeared in 1848 for many of those betrayed by the so-called free market in the years since. The pamphlet has offered refuge inspiration and argument. So many arguments still.
Speaker 9: In 2012, the Guardian reported on Marx's growing influence in popularity across Western Europe, noting the continued rise in book sales and the incredibly ironic fact that a bank in Germany issued a credit card with Marx's image.
Brooke Gladstone: Like Hamlet's ghost, the manifesto is both impossible and imperative in its call for action.
Speaker 10: Joe Biden, that's where he is gone. He signed on to Bernie Sander's crazy 110-page Communist Manifesto that will absolutely destroy America, 4 trillion in new taxes, a green new deal.
Brooke Gladstone: China Miéville writes stunning speculative fiction but his latest book, A Specter, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto is a non-fiction rumination on that [unintelligible 00:34:12] to text and its place in the world, and how best to read it today. When I spoke to him earlier this year, he told me that one of the few gripes he has with the book is that its authors are rather too admiring of the bourgeoisie.
China Miéville: It is often a surprise to the newcomer to the manifesto quite how much praise they heap on the bourgeoisie. It became very quickly evident in the revolutions of 1848 that much of the bourgeoisie of Europe was more afraid of the working class than it was of the [unintelligible 00:34:42] regime. Across Europe, the middle class made their peace with these old reactionary powers, and there was a period of immense reaction through the 1850s. If they had written the pamphlet even a year later, I think it would've had a much darker and more pessimistic tone.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's talk a little more about the text then. It is stirring. It scans. Some of its critics call that a weakness.
China Miéville: The argument is because this is written in such a style that is almost evidence in and of itself that its arguments don't hold up is straightforwardly absurd. One of the things that has frustrated me a lot, one of the main reasons I wrote the book is the lack of curiosity among a lot of its critics about the nature of the manifesto form itself. There is a notorious bit in which the manifesto says the working class has no country. This is often read as saying that the working class movement has to be internationalist which is right and that Marx and Engels grossly underestimate the power of nationalism.
There is an element of truth to that. I think they were too sanguine about how powerful nationalism was but what they are doing in that moment is grabbing the working class by the lapel and shaking them and saying, stop identifying with your countries. You have to be an internationalist. That's the nature of that sentence and if you cannot in good faith engage with the way that the substance and the style are working together and that sometimes a claim in the book is a prophecy or is a plea or is a treaty or is an encouragement.
If you can't seriously engage with that, you will never understand what book this is.
Brooke Gladstone: It is exhortation, prediction, assessment.
China Miéville: Exactly.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's take off the three most prevalent arguments made by critics of the manifesto. The first is something called capitalist realism. The notion that it really can't be any other way.
China Miéville: Exactly. This is a term that was coined by Mark Fisher, a very brilliant cultural critic, and the interesting thing about capitalist realism is that all it requires is to disseminate the idea that nothing can be done. Therefore, even if you think that this is a terrible system, there's no point fighting against it, and this is never been more clearly put than with Margaret Thatcher's notorious and famous phrase that there is no alternative.
Brooke Gladstone: Tina.
China Miéville: Exactly. We all call it Tina. That is the most pure propagandistic expression. It's absolutely vacuous and empty. Ursula Le Guin, the great writer has a beautiful formulation about capitalism, that its power seems inescapable but then so did the divine right of kings.
Brooke Gladstone: Onto the next argument, human nature. With regard to the manifesto, you quote biologist E.O. Wilson writing, it's a lovely theory, wrong species. In other words, it can't work because human nature is just too base. I've changed my view of human nature from thinking it'll always go low to a belief that it's more plastic. It can be manipulated to dwell with the devils or respond to its better angels.
China Miéville: Conservatives often accuse socialists of having a duey-eyed view of human nature but to have a sense of the potential for a radical reconfiguring of the everyday, you don't need to believe that people dwell with the angels. All you need to believe is that whether people dwell with the angels or the devils depends on an awful lot of complicated circumstances. Capitalism is a system that quite explicitly rewards selfishness. It's hardly a surprise that precisely that dog-eat-dog behavior is very often valorized and very often the way people live in some cases because they have to.
We know that people behave incredibly differently throughout history and throughout different societies.
Brooke Gladstone: How about the last criticism of the manifesto? In one word, Stalin.
China Miéville: It marshals the existence of the Stalinist regimes against communism, both because they were awful and not sustainable. I completely agree but the problem is if you were to only listen to them, you would not know that there have literally for over a hundred years been very serious debates within Marxism, within the left, precisely criticizing those regimes. Not just that these are not desirable and not sustainable but that they are also not in any meaningful way communism.
If you look at Marx and Engle's writing, this is why these regimes cannot be considered legitimate representations of this political program. I want to be very clear about this. I'm not saying you have to agree with that but to simply act as if the mere fact that there were these unpleasant regimes that called themselves communist is therefore evidence that communism is doomed and to have no curiosity about the internal debate. Again, it's just not serious. That idea that Stalinism disapproves communism, rings very hollow if you are someone who has spent a long time reading the communist critiques of Stalinism.
Brooke Gladstone: You quote Marshall Berman, the late great humanist modernist Marxist, who observed that whenever there's trouble anywhere in the world, the book becomes an item. It provides music for their dreams.
China Miéville: This really kicked off after 1871 with the Paris Commune. Then, of course, it exploded again after 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. For the first time, you had this powerful nation identifying with the communist project. That led to interest and also a plethora of cheap additions, the Soviet Union turning it out in various translations. Even in 2008, 2009, when the Great Financial Crush occurred, it was reported, often with a wry amusement in the business press, that sales of The Communist Manifesto had spiked.
I actually find it incredibly poignant and incredibly moving that in this moment in which, for a lot of people, their retirement funds, their life plans have been destroyed, that one of the things that happened in that moment is this yearning sense of, surely there has to be a better way of organizing things than this. I think that ebb and flow of interest is something that we are going to continue to see.
Brooke Gladstone: You also observed that in the aftermath of 2008 and in the rise of social media, you had a very strong right and a much weaker but more vocally unbound left that punched above its weight. The result was the right starts to hallucinate enemies.
China Miéville: Yes, the right has always hallucinated enemies. A friend of mine, the writer Richard Seymour, has called this the era of anti-communism without communism. Yet you still have supposedly mainstream American politicians denouncing Obama and Biden as communist. This is so absurd that you have to understand it as a lazy slogan hearing and as a fever dream. I like to hope that overblown, febrile attack might actually encourage a certain degree of curiosity about what this bogeyman is.
Particularly because, although on a much smaller scale, you have various young leftists, even though their numbers are not particularly big, talking about communism in that online way, which is somewhere between a joke and a provocation. It's very unstable, but as you said, it punches above its weight. When that's happening in the context of a generationally unprecedented up surge of interest in socialism and the left in Britain and in the US, the explosion of membership of the Democratic Socialists of America and Bernie Sanders's campaign, and Corbyn in the UK, there is, I think, a real good faith fascination with these radical traditions.
Brooke Gladstone: You've observed that there's a sense in which every generation reads it anew and that certain things come up quite sharply. What's coming up now?
China Miéville: The planetary crisis. That famous phrase, you have nothing to lose but your chains and we have a world to win. The fact is that the world that we have to win is deeply wounded. Even were capitalism to be done away with tomorrow, how do we salvage and repair a livable world? Even a radical program has, I think, to approach that with a serious sense of humility. Secondly, I think the rise of an iteration of the far right, of terrifying strength and a particular overt sadism, provides a very strong sense of the dangers facing us.
I think they are, in fact, inevitable of a system predicated on profit over need, built on the bones of a system of patriarchy and white supremacy and so on. If you see this new sadistic hard right as an inevitable feature of capitalism, then the stakes of moving beyond capitalism become ever more urgent.
Brooke Gladstone: You wrote at the end of your introduction that a specter hams your text, a hunch that, in fact, the manifesto now looms more than ever. I'd suggest the enforced isolation of the recent lockdowns that enabled us to look through our computer screens at the world and to think more in terms of systems. You make a very persuasive case that the totality of capitalism, it's not just an economic system, but one with its own philosophy, principles, worldview, culture, everything, is very hard to dislodge.
I don't think it's seen now through a glass quite so darkly.
China Miéville: I think you're right and I hope you're right. One of the things that is interesting as capitalism enters this doddering and dangerous phase is that it has spent so long saying that there is no alternative and so on, that when it is forced to do things that it said for decades it couldn't do, like this enormous influx of public funds into furlough schemes during the pandemic, having said it couldn't possibly do that, it starts to make people think, "If it's not true that that couldn't be done, what else couldn't be done?"
American business for decades said universal health care is impossible. It's not a question of whether or not we want it. It cannot be set up. If that demand becomes loud enough that people at the top start to feel that continuing to deny it will put their position in jeopardy, you can absolutely bet your bottom dollar they will grudgingly allow a universal health care system. The point is, all these things that they say are impossible are not impossible. What they are is not desired by capital.
Brooke Gladstone: Capitalism, as you note, is enormously adaptable.
China Miéville: It is incredibly adaptable.
Brooke Gladstone: Something not anticipated by Marx and Engels.
China Miéville: No, indeed. This is one of the things that I think they got wrong. They underestimated the extent to which it can accommodate certain reforms as a way to continue. The manifesto and the tradition have to be read today with a much sharper sense of how adaptable capitalism is. Now, I do think that that flexibility is diminishing as it becomes more and more shaky, and these moments of outright sadistic hard right are symptoms of that shakiness.
Brooke Gladstone: People of goodwill are frightened by violence and by hate, which can spread so quickly out of control. These aren't intellectual arguments against revolution, but visceral ones. In your book, you build up to a discussion of the utility, the necessity even of hate.
China Miéville: I had a debate with a friend. She basically said to me that she always felt uncomfortable when I talked about hating capitalism. I understand that. All I can say is I look at the cruelty and the waste and the violence and the sadism, who would I be, ethically, not to hate this system? If that hatred is one of the things that can help us to be motivated to overthrow this system of iniquity, surely that is hate in the service of love.
Brooke Gladstone: Overthrow how?
China Miéville: People think that they are fundamentally opposed to the use of force in any situation, but actually very, very few people are. Do we really think that the fighting of slaves on the slave ship or the activists in the Warsaw Ghetto was not justified? The question then becomes, if you think like me that this is a world built on oppression, exploitation, racism, homophobia, sexism, then it becomes an ethical urgency to see its end.
One of the reasons that I think it's so important to build socialism as a mass movement is that the more people who simply say, "We deserve better than this," the less likely any coercion or force becomes necessary. I'm not interested in 100 people with guns saying, "Right, we now have socialism." There's no point at all. I am interested in the mass of people simply turning around and saying, "We will no longer be treated like this by this system." Overthrow, for me, is the point at which the majority of people simply say, "No more."
Brooke Gladstone: That could happen by the system adapting itself to the point where it is no longer that system.
China Miéville: I'm not interested in reforms of trying to make capitalism a little bit better. Don't get me wrong, I'll take them if they come along because I'm not indifferent to life being better for people along the way. Any reform within the context of a system that is fundamentally about prioritizing profit over human need will always be embattled and endangered. You say, overthrow how, change how. The point is, I don't have a blueprint.
People do sometimes imply if you can't lay out a point by point planned alternative, somehow your demand for change is illegitimate. I think that's just complete nonsense. You look throughout history, whole social situations have been overthrown and changed because a critical mass of people could no longer live with the world the way it was.
Brooke Gladstone: Tell me, what did you want to accomplish with this book?
China Miéville: I want this book to be an introduction to the manifesto for the curious reader to actually find out what this notorious document is all about. I want to talk to the critics of the manifesto and to say, "By all means, let's actually have a serious debate." One of the starting points for that is you're going to have to acknowledge that most of the stuff you say about this text is embarrassingly weak. If you want to be taken seriously, bring your A game instead of this D game you've been bringing for decades.
Brooke Gladstone: China, thank you very much.
China Miéville: Thank you so much for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: China Miéville is the author of A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto.
Brooke Gladstone: On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang, and Suzanne Gaber with help from Shaan Merchant. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Nerviano. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.