What would Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write today? Perhaps something like this:
“A spectre is haunting the world — the spectre of activism. All the powers of the old world order have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre . . . It is high time that Activists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views.”
These sentences faithfully echo the opening words of The Communist Manifesto. The original famously declared: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” For Marx and Engels, in a capitalist system a sequence of widening splits between the classes was inevitable. The bourgeoisie would become more powerful as markets expanded, until the disenfranchised labourers in the proletarian class booted them out. Ultimately a revolution would end capitalism’s reign.
As a partner in a corporate advisory firm and a professor of law and finance, we are true believers in free-market capitalism — hardly natural latter-day communists, let alone successors to Marx and Engels. But we do believe the time is ripe for a rewrite of their Manifesto. Like the inhabitants of mid-19th century Europe, we live, according to Oxford University’s Professor Alan Morrison, “in the wake of a calamitous financial crisis and in the midst of whirlwind social change, a popular distaste of financial capitalists, and widespread revolutionary activity”.
We have imagined what Marx and Engels would have written in 2018, naming the new, updated version “The Activist Manifesto”. After all, as Morrison writes in the introduction to our work, “we could use a coherent explanation of the forces that buffet us, and a hint as to their likely resolution”.
The original had a long gestation. Marx first met his friend and collaborator briefly in 1842, and then again in a café in Paris in 1844. Marx, a journalist for a radical leftist newspaper, had just read Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, and was taken with his argument that the working class could become agents of radical change. The two became friends and began writing together, critiquing various philosophies circulating at the time. The first edition of The Manifesto of the Communist Party, a 23-page pamphlet, was published in February 1848. For more than two decades it languished in obscurity, but in the early 1870s it resurfaced and, from that point on, Marx and Engels updated it repeatedly, in various editions and languages.
In our redrafting, we have had to go far beyond merely substituting “communism” with “activism”. The “Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies” and others in Marx’s and Engels’ sights have gone. We have introduced their modern counterparts: “the corporate Haves, the elites, the billionaires, the establishment politicians of the Republican and Democratic parties, Conservatives and Labour, the talking heads at Davos, the echo chambers of online media and fake news.” But we have kept much of the rhetoric along with Marx’s and Engels’ relentless focus on economic inequality. Two centuries after Marx’s birth, and however much communism has rightly been discredited, a great deal of the argument is as relevant now as it was then.
The Manifesto’s theories about the problems of capitalism and the capitalist mode of production continue to be cited in critiques of unfettered markets, and the document’s historical analysis is cited by modern scholars and taught in universities today. Some historians have cited it as the most influential text of the 19th century. Its reverberations are still felt today.
So how did the two of us come to take on the renovation of the Manifesto? The answer, improbably perhaps, is our interest in a linchpin of modern free-market capitalism: shareholder activism. We have published academic studies on the phenomenon. We have advised many of the largest hedge funds as they take substantial stakes in hundreds of companies, shaking up complacent boards and advocating for changes in corporate strategy and capital structure. And we have advised companies that themselves have pursued change. These activists may not be what Marx and Engels had in mind, but they are revolutionaries of a kind.
We have also imagined what might happen if shareholder activists joined forces with political, social and corporate activists as a united front. As in Marx’s and Engels’ time, economic inequality is rising, wages are stagnating, and the owners of productive capital are reaping the benefits of technological advances. Yet likewise, today as then, the separate grassroots movements of various factions in various countries have not yet united under a single umbrella.
Then last year we posed the question: what would Marx and Engels say about the financial, political and social movements of today? We downloaded a copy of the original Manifesto, copied its text into a shared document and began reading aloud, changing words as we went. What we heard, in our newly reimagined context, spoke to us as if Marx and Engels had anticipated the movements of the 21st century.
Some notions were no longer relevant, of course, or had been proved appallingly wrong, underpinning murderous tyrannies across the world. We don’t advocate the confiscation of private property or the abolition of inheritance, and we think the notion of “equal liability of all to labour” has been unworkable, even for communist governments. But still, the document had bones. We edited and supplemented the famous first section so that it became the version above. And then we continued, word by word, keeping the text where it sang, but repairing and reconstructing, just as you would renovate an old house.
We cut many of their specific proposals. The 193 mentions of “bourgeois” and 93 of “proletariat” — all had to go. We substituted “Have-Not” in place of “proletariat”, which refers to workers and wage-earners, because we want to address more broadly the poor, the unemployed and those lacking a voice in how society operates. We substituted “Have” in place of “bourgeois”, which some commentators and politicians continue to use unironically but which we see as too ambiguous for 2018. We also revised the original’s treatment of gender roles and the plight of “men”, updating the last sentence — “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!” — to reflect modern sensibilities. But the vast majority of their language — 74 per cent of the original words — remained intact.
We felt justified in our renovation, based on Marx’s and Engels’ own reflections from 1872 — some 25 years after they first began their discussions, after the First Congress of the Communist League. They wrote: “The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures . . .”
We agree. The original Manifesto’s top 10 “pretty generally applicable” proposals wouldn’t get a passing grade today in any setting. Left and right alike reject its arguments on labour and property. Even leaders of so-called communist states embrace markets and decentralisation. Take North Korea, the country that has most resisted capitalism: since 2012, it has started to encourage entrepreneurship and a formal (if reluctant) acceptance of brand-led marketplaces.
However, one aspect of the original still resonates: the document was, fundamentally, an attack on inequality. We think it is obvious that Marx and Engels would be appalled by the present-day distribution of wealth. We imagine they would write something like this.
“By the start of our 21st century, we are faced with the extraordinary fact that the top one per cent of the world’s population own the same resources as the remaining 99 per cent. Those at the bottom are less upwardly mobile than in previous generations; entrance to wealthy gated communities is blocked, not only by private security forces, but also by the increasingly prohibitive costs of healthcare, technology and education. There is the dominant force of mass incarceration, with millions of poor, minorities and powerless walled off from the rulers they might threaten. The Haves have never in history held so much advantage over the Have-Nots.”
If Marx and Engels had been active readers of this newspaper, we think they would have been critics of financial innovation and would have seized on the financial crisis in particular, perhaps writing something along the lines of:
“As with the manias, panics, and crashes of history, the dislocations arising from the financial crisis created new opportunities for the Haves to benefit from seizing the political response. The use and abuse of complex financial innovation — derivatives, structured products, credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations — have extended the financial system beyond its primary purpose of facilitating economic growth and matching borrowers and savers to secondary and more dubious purposes.”
The four-part structure of the original Manifesto also continues to work, so we have preserved it.
First is “Haves and Have-Nots” (formerly “bourgeois and proletarians”). Here, the original language and arguments focused on the history of class struggle and the technological developments that led to the widening gap between workers and the owners of capital. We have added some perspective that we think Marx and Engels would have found important, including the impact of internet access, social media and other technologies that brought power and transparency to social movements such as Occupy Wall Street.
We also think Marx and Engels would update their views about private property. While the abolition of private property was their first and most prominent demand, we think they would recognise that Have-Nots have benefited from property rights. Moreover, we argue that state-held property is problematic, leading to waste, inefficiency and the likelihood of being co-opted by the Haves in our societies today. As the role of the state has grown, inequality has also grown. And the Have-Nots have been the ones who have paid for it. Banks have been bailed out, being deemed too big to fail, and public services have suffered when public-private partnerships fail. As we write in our Manifesto “ . . . the complete power of the Haves is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating wealth and influence, deriving from the ruthless and cynical exploitation of the Have-Nots by the Haves”.
In the third section, “Socialist vs Activist in Practice” (previously “Socialist and Communist Literature”), our reimagined Marx and Engels update their perspective on ideological change given the realities of a hyper-connected world. The original Manifesto outlined three types of socialist approaches and the weakness of each. A modern incarnation of Marx and Engels also would surely call out the shortcomings of financial activists, environmental activists and local political activists with their “siloed” mentalities and approaches. We call out each, lamenting, for example, that the last words of environmentalism are sadly limited to “Swampy, Earth Day, Greenham Common and composting”.
But we think a modern Marx and Engels would be less philosophically minded and more focused on dramatic changes in technology. They would probably have disparaged inequalities arising from modern technologies, just as they bemoaned the effects of 19th-century manufacturing, commerce and navigation. We also think they would have been open to the protection of intellectual property rights and would have favoured more equal distribution of high-speed connectivity.
Although inequality is a dominant theme in both the old and new Manifestos, we determined early on in our reimagining that Marx and Engels would need to update their specific proposals in order to be taken seriously today. Even the most radical or reactionary members of modern society are likely to cringe at some portion of the 10 substantive planks in the original platform of the Communist Manifesto.
If Marx and Engels were alive today, they would almost certainly be nostalgic for their proposals, but we think they also would recognise the benefit of a wholesale reimagining. (For our revised top 10, a list we think they would endorse today, see Life & Arts.)
Marx and Engels were revolutionaries, but also pragmatic. They wanted their ideas to be discussed as real alternatives. If they were alive today we are convinced they would promote activism as a powerful social force, if only the activists in various areas — financial, environmental, political, corporate and social — could unite. There is a strand of activism running through not only the Arab Spring, Trump, Brexit and Macron, but also through hedge funds pressuring underperforming companies, companies themselves advocating for change, environmental groups targeting polluters and social platforms such as Change.org and so on.
Moreover, many Haves too are activists already today, often pushing for various of our 10 listed policies. Think of the billionaires such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg, who already support philanthropic efforts to alleviate inequality. Likewise, many corporations already advocate for environmental and social causes; state-of-the-art approaches to corporate governance already take into account pay inequality, workers’ rights and more.
To be clear, we are not expecting, or campaigning for, revolution. We certainly are not arguing for the overthrow of free-market capitalism. But we think there are lessons from our reimagining, especially in our age of an increasingly fractured society. The original Manifesto was born out of disparate social movements that needed a unifying set of propositions to come together. We face a similar situation today.
Many, if not most, FT readers will see a potential rebirth of Marx and Engels as idealistic fancy — if not downright dangerous. Nearly 200 years after Marx’s birth, many of his views have become mere caricatures. But in our close reading of The Communist Manifesto, roughly three-quarters of the original prose deserves to survive. Anyone with an activist bent would benefit from taking the historical journey we have taken, walking through those words, feeling their reverberations, picking out the wisdom even as we discard the error.
Our broad message is that in general, in these polarised times, we should take seriously the opposing view. We imagine a world in which all of us, including the most radical of activists, peek outside of our comfortable silos. It wouldn’t hurt if such a view struck a chord of fear, as well as hope.
Here is our final paragraph, just before “Activists of All Countries, Unite!” Again, we echo the original:
“The activists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the Haves tremble at an Activist revolution. The Have-Nots have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
Rupert Younger is the co-author of ‘The Reputation Game’ and director of Oxford University’s Centre for Corporate Reputation. Frank Partnoy is a writer and professor of law and finance who is joining the faculty at UC Berkeley this summer
The Activist Manifesto can be downloaded from their website (activistmanifesto.org). It has a ‘rollover’ function so that you can compare and contrast the two manifestos
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published