From Manchester to Moscow

Lenin’s April Theses and Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (Verso)

Here’s one to ponder for our more local readers: If you go to Parsonage Gardens, just off Deansgate in Manchester, and look at the greyish building overlooking the lawn, the Ermen & Engels office was once in there. We don’t really know, but it might not be stretching credulity to suggest that Engels frequented that office to salt away petty cash to send to Marx in London, so that he could write Capital. We know that he did it, but not all of the exact details.

Stand there then, and try to take in the full weight of the facts. Manchester Capitalism was created here and exported to the world. Capital was partly paid for here and based on the city, the trilogy was encouraged and finished by a man sometimes working in that office.

Capital was translated first into Russian, where it later exploded in the 1917 Bolshevik takeover, for the intellectuals who oversaw it. Then comes the huge historical arc of WW2, the Cold War and the fall of the wall separating East and West Germany: Capitalism triumphed at the cost of millions of lives.

Stand there, in your ordinary shoes, and look and think about all of that.

The Communist Manifesto and what became known as Lenin’s April Theses are clearly linked. When Karl Marx died, in 1883, Russian revolutionary exile Pyotr Lavrov wrote from Paris on March 15:

‘In the name of all Russian socialists I send a last farewell greeting to the outstanding Master among all the socialists of our times. One of the greatest minds has passed away, one of the most energetic fighters against the exploiters of the proletariat has died. The Russian socialists bow before the grave of the man who sympathised with their strivings in all the fluctuations of their terrible struggle, a struggle which they shall continue until the final victory of the principles of the social revolution. The Russian language was the first to have a translation of Capital, that gospel of contemporary socialism.’

These Russian copies of Capital were unexploded ordnance, waiting for the trigger of the Global Imperialist Wars, which in Britain we really only know via the dates 1914-1918. Tariq Ali, who introduces both texts here, understands and explains this well. But those books also lay obscure for nearly a quarter century.

There has been too much written on the Manifesto and not enough on the April Theses. The later postscript to the Manifesto by Engels is also included, which is great, but to have the Manifesto clearly placed in a lineage that goes even further forwards, rather than looking backwards to the text as a monument of past struggles, is refreshing.

This beautifully designed edition has one text beginning one way, flip the book over and the other text starts the other way. In the middle, then, is a kind of no-man’s land that I think is the most interesting space of all: Two pages, facing each other, upside-down.

This odd space is important. There is a clear line from Marx’s graveside in London in 1883 to the Bolshevik takeover in Russia in 1917, but there is also a huge gap and the texts do have an inverted symbiotic relationship in some ways. Marx’s death and revolution in Russia were only 24 years apart, but in some ways they may as well have occurred in different dimensions. In 1917, Lenin and others, also exiled, boarded a sealed train to Russia as the Czar and family were placed under house arrest. Lenin went back to Marx to ask the now-famous question ‘What, then, is to be done?’

But the answer to the question was not obvious at that moment. Its response, socialist statism based around the Soviets, would have to be fully enacted later. This inverted gap between the two texts is poetic because Marx only ever threw in a token line about the Russian struggle. He never envisioned the Revolution beginning in a largely agrarian country with low literacy levels, he assumed it would come through more ‘advanced’ urban societies experiencing the sheer polarising contradictions of accelerated, hyper-catalysed history.

This book performs the dialectic, formally. This place in the middle where the end of the following text comes in, upside-down, is the middle point where the helix comes together and then steadily diverges, away, into the future…

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