Yanis Varoufakis was Minister of Finance in Greece 3 years ago, helping to organize a failed movement to escape from the austerity imposed by the European Union. He came away chastened about the present, but more hopeful than ever for the future.
“Inevitable are both the bourgeoisie’s fall and the victory of the proletariat.”
Writing for The Guardian, Varoufakis sees the predictions of Karl Marx playing out in the West of our lifetimes. The proletarian revolution has been held in check for a century more than Marx envisioned, by use of concessions, tricks, and deceptions that were beyond his imagination. But capitalism is collapsing before our eyes, just as he predicted more than a century and a half ago. Unless capital is socialised we are in for dystopic developments.
On the topic of dystopia, the sceptical reader will perk up: what of the manifesto’s own complicity in legitimising authoritarian regimes and steeling the spirit of gulag guards? We might respond defensively, pointing out that no one blames Adam Smith for the excesses of Wall Street, or the New Testament for the Spanish Inquisition.
In praise of The Communist Manifesto, Varoufakis says that the main thing that Marx failed to anticipate is his own influence, and the effect his thought would have both on the behavior of the working class revolutionaries and on the capitalists who have strategized to retain their power.
Anyone reading the manifesto today will be surprised to discover a picture of a world much like our own, teetering fearfully on the edge of technological innovation. In the manifesto’s time, it was the steam engine that posed the greatest challenge to the rhythms and routines of feudal life. The peasantry were swept into the cogs and wheels of this machinery and a new class of masters, the factory owners and the merchants, usurped the landed gentry’s control over society. Now, it is artificial intelligence and automation that loom as disruptive threats, promising to sweep away “all fixed, fast-frozen relations”. “Constantly revolutionising … instruments of production,” the manifesto proclaims, transform “the whole relations of society”, bringing about “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”.
Finally, Varoufakis offers us his suggestion for what we can do to hasten the Marxist utopia:
We need more robots, better solar panels, instant communication and sophisticated green transport networks. But equally, we need to organise politically to defend the weak, empower the many and prepare the ground for reversing the absurdities of capitalism. In practical terms, this means treating the idea that there is no alternative with the contempt it deserves while rejecting all calls for a “return” to a less modernised existence. There was nothing ethical about life under earlier forms of capitalism, just as capitalism today is devoid of human values.
Adapted from Yanis Varoufakis’s introduction to The Communist Manifesto, published by Vintage Classics on 26 April.