APU Everyday Scholar Podcast

Is “The Communist Manifesto” Still Relevant Today?

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Artsand
Dr. Terrence Threadwell, Faculty Member, Religion and Philosophy

What key points from “The Communist Manifesto” can be applied to modern society? In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to religion and philosophy professor Dr. Terrence Threadwell about how some of the issues that Marx discusses are often misunderstood or taken out of context. Learn why this document is often used by politicians to illicit fear, but many of the issues around social disparities, poverty, and power are still very relevant in today’s world. 

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Today we’re talking with Dr. Terrence Threadwell, religion and philosophy faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities and Education. And today, our conversation is about “The Communist Manifesto.” Welcome, Terrence.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Thank you for having me. It’s good to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m excited. And I’m excited to talk about this because if there’s one thing in today’s political sphere that is, say, not understood, or just used as a political football, it is Marx and “The Communist Manifesto.” So I’m excited to learn more about it. So let’s jump into the first question. In around five minutes, or however long it takes, what does “The Communist Manifesto” communicate to its reader?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Okay. So let me give you a number of points, which I think are key points. Marx says in the manifesto, the class that controls the economy controls the society. In other words, controls the whole thing. And for Marx, it was definitely, what he called, the bourgeoisie; the rich and powerful.

Marx goes on to talk about power in a sense that, if you can unify or bring unification to the working class, then they can take back control or at least share control. And actually, in another paper, because he wrote this manifesto in 1847, but in 1844, he’d done a draft copy, which he called the Paris Manuscripts. And in that Paris Manuscripts, he talks about alienation, how the bourgeoisie seek to alienate the working classes. But we can come to that later.

So he talks about the abolition of private property, something here that has some reflections onto the utilitarianism of John Locke. He didn’t believe that anyone should own property. It should be owned by everybody. So he was against private property, collective ownership was a means of production.

Because he realized that going back to the old serf system, that the serf was tied to the property that he rented and was required to produce goods. So in a sense, could never get out of that trap, could never actually make money for himself and prove himself. He was always tied under the control of the law or the land owner.

He believed in central planning, he believed that the government should plan everything out and set the goals. He wanted to eliminate, in the manifesto there, the unfair gaps of income. In other words, you’ve got the boss earning a huge chunk of the pie and leaving nothing behind for the workers. So he wanted to narrow that gap.

And then the provisions of life; for Marx, it was about, we would say healthcare, education, all that being free, in a sense. Marx had this thing about utopia. He draws a lot of criticism as being a utopian, but he wasn’t really. He just saw that the working man and woman should have ample time in their working week to improve themselves and to enjoy life.

So I’m so glad that you chose the manifesto and not Das Kapital.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, for sure. And I think most people are familiar, if even just in name, of “The Communist Manifesto” versus Das Kapital.

So here’s a question. For those who don’t know, where was Marx from and how do you think that guided his views on things?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Well, Marx was from Germany originally, or from Prussia in those days. And he was born into a very middle-class family, a very pretty upper-middle-class family. His father was a lawyer and his grandparents on both sides of the family were rabbis. So very wealthy family. He married into the German aristocracy. His wife was from the aristocracy. So he does really good, but I think he senses the sense of injustice in society at that time.

And we’ve got to remember, this is what I say about Marx, it’s all contextual, really. We don’t live under those kinds of conditions of absolute poverty, hunger, the feeling of worthlessness. I mean, literally, if you were a peasant, you were worthless. It was only while you were producing something that they would value you, in a sense. But tremendous poverty, tremendous social ills.

He moved from Germany. Actually, he got kicked out of Germany into France. And then from France, got pushed out into London. And it was really in London that he starts to formulate his thinking.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: We’re going to get into this a little more, but yeah, context is everything, just like you said. And I think Marx is living in a time when he and other people still remembered serfdom. There were large swaths of the population that were desperately poor. And even during his time, there were still large swaths of the population that were desperately poor. And again, today, especially in America and in Europe, and even how it’s changed, say, example, in China, is that our concept of poverty is nothing like it was 150 years ago.

So everything is contextual, especially when it comes to Marx. And that’s one of the funny things about how Marx is used today, because it’s just, and we’ll get to this a little later, he’s used as a boogeyman. And so this goes to the next question; does Marx, Engels, and “The Communist Manifesto” advocate violence and authoritarianism?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: I suppose the answer to that is yes and no, in the sense that he certainly didn’t promote violence, despite what others have said, but I think he was aware of the fact that revolution brings violence. For him, it was mainly the counter-revolutionaries that caused the violence rather than the people themselves. For example, in the Paris Commune of 1871, the counter-revolution killed 30,000 men, women and children.

So I think Marx was aware of the fact that if there’s going to be a revolution that’s going to be successful, there’s going to be bloodshed. It’s inevitable. And of course, in the American Revolution, we know that there was a war.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, for sure. And again, we’ll go into this more in depth, but just like you said, I mean, within Marx’s lifetime, especially the older generation of Marx, you know, people who are older than Marx, they would have remembered the Napoleonic Wars.

And for those who don’t quite know the Napoleonic Wars, it started with the French Revolution in the late 18th century, which killed countless peoples. And then the Napoleonic Wars raged throughout all of Europe for a good 25 years, in which millions of people died, not even talking in any depth about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, which of course was just a complete and utter failure and cost the lives of countless, countless people. And not even just talking about military, just regular civilians.

So at the time, there’s just so much change. And then, like you were saying, with the Paris Commune of 1871 and the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, there was a lot of upheaval that was going on during that time. So this transitions perfectly to the next question. What historical and cultural changes did “The Communist Manifesto” originate from?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: I think really it is that sense of the growing industrialization of Europe, primarily in the beginning, primarily in the UK, in England. It was seen to be sort of the workhouse of the world, or the known world in those days.

And so I think Marx saw a change in society from this kind of farming, agrarian culture. People were flocking into the big cities where there were these mills, paper mills and cotton mills, and the mines and machines were beginning to take over. And I think Marx saw a red flag when he saw all these machines. He thought to himself, “This could go either way. It could be a blessing to the people, less work, more free time,” I think we’ve heard that argument in modern days as well, “Or it could go the other way round. It could be a very oppressive society.”

So I think his concern was, “We need to get control of this. We need to take charge of this and not allow the bourgeoisie to just use people and cast them off when they’re no longer any use.” The machines were beginning to dictate the culture of the society.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I don’t know if this is a good analysis, but I mean, 150 years later, I would say that the machines do dictate culture and society to a point, especially moving forward with AI. I mean, we are potentially going into a generation where scores more jobs will disappear and then be replaced by robots. So what are millions of people going to do?

So one of the questions that I have is, now, “The Communist Manifesto” was taken, and then, of course, the first place it really was successful was in Russia. This is after Marx’s lifetime. So the communists then created the USSR after the horrible, horrible revolution after World War I.

Now, as far as the Soviets, did they take “The Communist Manifesto” and did they apply it in a “pure form?” Did they alter it? Because I think when we think of communism, we always think of the USSR, and then of course, China. China still exists, but it’s very different than it was originally. And just the absolute authoritarianism of the USSR under Stalin is horrible. So did they take his ideas and run with them or did they have their own ideas? I mean, what happened there?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: I think they took the basic framework to start with. In a sense, you’ve got to see Marx as being, you know, his socialism, which in its purest form, I think he was a little bit naive, but his thinking and his thoughts were changed to perhaps more of a utilitarian thinking under perhaps Lenin and Trotsky. And then it changes again with Stalin, and there, you’ve got a totalitarian system.

So I think Lenin perhaps and Trotsky were very much Marxists. I think Stalin just saw Marx as a means to an end and really changed the whole concept completely. So I think that’s why we tend to look and say, “Well, the USSR, no, they’re not really Marxist. It’s very authoritarian.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And for the listeners, can you give us an idea of what you mean by authoritarianism versus totalitarianism, and then also utilitarianism? All of these isms. But I think that’s one of the things when people have a discussion about socialism and Marx, is they use terms however they think they mean to them. And I’m glad you’ve talked about totalitarianism with Stalin, because I mean, without saying, he’s one of the top three worst people ever.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Yeah, I think so. When we look at the utilitarian model, and I personally think that America is wanting to be modeled after a utilitarian model. People like James Mill, for instance, his view was that, if there was an apple pie, for instance, he doesn’t mind you, as the boss, taking a larger chunk of the pie as long as there’s enough pie left for everybody else. And that was his view.

And John Locke was, I mean, John Locke is involved, we even have a quote almost in the Declaration of Independence from John Locke: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which is almost a utilitarian phrase.

But then we come on to the likes of Stalin and authoritarianism, then we have the gulags and we have the oppression. And if you speak up against Stalin, you are gone. I mean, he murdered countless numbers of people to get his own way. And if you were part of that political system in the top levels, you weren’t in poverty. In fact, they had their own shops for the party members to buy all the luxury goods and whatever else.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. The history of course, the USSR is fascinating. And going from a Tsarist Russia and then to a Soviet Russia is just heartbreaking. What the Russian people went through during that time is just terrible. And then transitioning, like you said, from Lenin and then Stalin’s takeover.

And then something like the Holodomor in the Ukraine, is just, again, heartbreaking. The Holodomor was something that was absolutely preventable, but then it happened. Millions of people died and then they didn’t want it to get out. And then, of course, you know, all the gulags, as you said, in the ‘30s. Just constant, constant totalitarianism. And it’s the kind of thing that we can’t even comprehend, luckily, here, and it’s something that we, of course, have to avoid at all costs. With that, does “The Communist Manifesto” still apply today?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Okay. Good question. I think the answer is going to be yes and no. I think no in terms of a unit, as a document, it’s never going to rise again as being of any value. But there are certain things in the manifesto which are important, or certainly within the Paris Manuscripts.

The Paris Manuscripts were written in 1844, but were not published until 1935. Then they became a huge success. But in that, there is the theory of alienation. So we’re both working for the university, Bjorn earns X number of dollars, Terry earns X number of dollars, and we are told by our bosses, “Do not talk to each other and do not share what you earn. It’s between the boss and you.”

And that way, we actually encourage the individual rather than a corporate dialogue, where we have, say, a union negotiating the wage for professors at the university, or whatever. Though I’m not sure there is a professor’s union.

So you’ve got that in there. And I think that is still prevalent today. We still have the bosses or corporations trying to alienate the workers; keeping them individual, keeping them separate so that they never come together as a unified movement. It was that form of control.

The other thing was, if I can very quickly, was that Marx saw, if I worked as a miner in the mines or in a mill, the boss would employ me and say, “Well, Terry, we’re going to pay you X number of dollars per week,” and I’d say, “Wow, that’s fantastic.”

And then a month down the road, my boss is going to say, “Well, I’m paying for all these machines. I need to keep them working. So I’m going to increase your working day by four hours and you’re going to work a longer week.” And I’d say, “That’s not fair.” And he would say, “Well, if you don’t like it, you can always quit.” So I think that was one of the things that Marx was so passionate about; the exploitation of the worker.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Right. And I’m really glad you hit on that, because the exploitation of the worker is something that applies today. It has not gone away. And again, where we think of the 40 hour work week, the 40 hour work week was something that workers had to fight for.

So what we expect today, again, wasn’t around a hundred years ago. You know, child labor; that was a norm 120 years ago. Easy; 10, 12 hour work days, that was a norm a 100 years ago. So all of these different things that occurred that people don’t quite realize that we completely take for granted.

And I really like how you talked about the alienation of the worker, because again, that is there. When you have a large corporation and they have workers, they don’t want those workers to talk to each other, just like you said, because then they’ll realize that there’s a huge disparity between how much people get paid.

Now, there’s many reasons why there’s different disparities between what people get paid, but then also, when you look at, as you said, the bosses and the VPs and the presidents at any organization, they make so much more than the average worker.

Now, from my perspective, it’s good to have regular people making big money as long as we don’t have kings and queens. I’m 100% anti-monarchy through and through. There’s no feudalism, there’s no this and that, which is great.

But you also get this huge disparity, and essentially, you get an elitist class, which might as well be royal because it acts in the same way. So there has to be some sort of, and I’m not going to say checks and balances, but some sort of way in which the average worker is able to have a life and work hard and have some safety. And I still think that Marx applies to that.

You know, this last time when I was reading through “The Communist Manifesto,” there’s a lot in there that applies today about the alienation, about safety, just about fair treatment. And of course, you can take all the different things that happened in the USSR and China, and those are all things that are horrible, but when you go back 150 years ago, “The Communist Manifesto” came from real, real problems. And I will often give a full-throated defense of capitalism with a huge asterisk that there are some serious problems that need to be dealt.

So this leads us to our last question; why is socialism, why is communism, why is it today used as the boogeyman, in the sense that when you watch cable news, which, on an aside, I don’t recommend anybody to watch cable news, but communism and cultural Marxists, this country, we’re slipping towards this horrible socialist, communist state in which X, Y, and Z is going to happen and it’s going to be terrible. So why is it that Marx is used as the boogeyman?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: I think it’s because they are scared of Marx. I think they’re frightened of Marx. Marx presents an alternative to capitalism. They don’t want the people to realize that there is another world.

People talk about socialism, but we don’t have, I don’t think, anywhere really in the world now, a socialist government. We do have a democratic socialism in places like in Scandinavia, in Norway. But if you sit down and do a comparison, I mean, we always say America is the greatest country in the world, but, honestly, if we sit down and do a comparison, like for like, education for education, healthcare for healthcare, we are not anywhere near the top. We’re about two thirds down the list somewhere, because other countries have got better healthcare, they’ve got better education, and they’ve got a better lifestyle.

We have that top 1%, or perhaps even the top 3%, they turn around and say, “Well, I want 90% of the pie. I don’t want to give you anything.” And to do that, they try and divert people’s attention; “Oh, he’s a Marxist. He’s a socialist. He’s this, he’s that.” And it’s just a diversion tactic to take the attention off of them and put it onto the boogeyman.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s absolutely wonderful, because the political arena right now in the US is really annoying, for lack of a better description. I always like to say that when you live in the provinces, I always like to describe all those states in between DC and LA and San Francisco, you know, we’re in the flyover areas, we’re the provinces. But everybody out here, they just want to live. They just want the government to work and they want the roads to work, they want the water to be clean. And that is one of the things.

But if there’s also this fear and this boogeyman that these politicians can get people to fear, then those politicians can say, “Look, vote for me because I’m going to protect you from this threat.” Now, in reality, that threat doesn’t actually exist. And you can find that throughout history, that there will be leaders who very wisefully create this threat that makes people fear; fear their neighbors, fear the unknown; when in reality, that threat was not actually there.

And so, especially today, if you go on Twitter, and I don’t recommend anybody go on Twitter, you can find people tweet stuff that are full-throated communists wanting X, Y, and Z in this country. And oftentimes, people who say you need to fear Marx, they’ll say, “Look, look at this tweet.” And the reality is that you can find any one tweet that will advocate anything, but that’s not the common goal of people.

So when it comes to terms, “socialism,” how is it that the US is already partially socialist? And if you want to, could you compare it to, say, England, which of course has a slightly different country, I know England has the NHS. It’s NHS, correct?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: We do have some kind of socialist background, I suppose, in the US. Obviously pensions and welfare would be part of a socialist system. So yeah, there are parts there, but I mean, we are a long way away.

And I think it’s not a perfect system either, when you think about it. The UK has free healthcare, but you might have to wait two years to get an appointment for a knee replacement of some sort. So it’s not perfect in that sense. They do have subsidized education.

So I think there’s got to be a happy medium somewhere in between the two, but I think we’ve got to encourage people. I mean, we have students these days that are leaving college with huge amounts of debt.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, completely. And what would you say to people who would push back and say, “Well, America’s great because it’s a meritocracy, and if you work hard enough, you can achieve whatever you want to achieve?”

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Yeah. I think it depends, doesn’t it, really? I mean, we have a huge problem with racism in America, where you have black and brown communities, the schools that they go into are not the best schools. They’re not funded equally, their education isn’t as good, they don’t come out with a GPA that’s worth anything, they don’t get into a college. Where do they go from there? They’re never going to make Harvard and Princeton, in that sense.

So we, to use an old slave term, we hobble people. They start out being at the bottom of the rung, and perhaps even lower than that, and they’re never going to make it up. I always think of Abraham Lincoln’s promise of 40 acres and a mule for the slaves when they were declared free. What would that 40 acres be worth now, if that was the case? So I think it’s not a question really of equality, it’s a question of equity. And our system doesn’t create equity.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And it’s such an interesting, again, the political elite try to change the conversation so people are distracted. So Marx is over there and cultural Marxists are changing the world you live in and your world is going to change. And, of course, one of the realities is that, as we all get older, the world changes. The world that we were born into changes and that’s okay. Every generation changes.

And you’ll go through history and you’ll find an old person saying, “Oh, this young generation.” You’ll find that in Roman times, you’ll find that 500 years ago, you’ll find it today, in which there’s generational changes and those generational changes, for the most part, are okay. Things change.

And I’m glad you brought up slavery and how there’s a large swath of people in America today that are just five steps back. So if you look at the income summary in the US, and I’m looking at it from government stats, the median household income of a white family, non-Hispanic, is around $70,000. That’s every year, they make somewhere around $70,000. And for Black, it’s $40,000. So they are making around $30,000 less every year. And if you can imagine that year after year, and this is today, where incomes have gone up, that has created such a disparency between your “average” white and black and Hispanic families.

And so I believe that, yes, American to a point is a meritocracy, there are wonderful examples of people going from absolutely nothing to making millions. But then there’s a huge swath of just average people, where they’re born into a poor area, unfortunately, they will most likely stay in a poor area, versus if you’re born into a rich family, you will stay rich. And both people can work hard and hard and hard, but it’s not because of how hard they work, it’s just because of where they were born. And so how can the conversation today go from Marx being a boogeyman to, how can we pick and choose certain aspects of “The Communist Manifesto” to just try to make the world better?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Well, the problem is, when you think back to the French Revolution and through Marx, some of the people that were the most vocal in terms of society, in their day, were the academics. I think that’s why whenever there is a revolution, the first ones to go are the academics, you know? Put them into a gulag somewhere or into a camp because they’re the troublemakers, they’re the ones that are going to constantly bring up the question, “No, you can’t do that. That’s not right.”

And I think, for us as academics, we’ve got to regain our territory again. We’ve got to be the voice of reason, the voice of justice in our society. That doesn’t mean we’re going to start a revolution tomorrow, or even the day after, but at least we’re going to speak up for what is right and for what is just for our society.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that. And I would love to see really good discussions on Fox and MSNBC about Marx and Marxism, and what was bad and what was good, and again, what can be used for good, but you won’t see that because the financial incentives for Fox News and the financial incentives for MSNBC and CNN are to not do that. They’re to just stay in their lanes. And they all make enough money by not talking to reasonable people, I’ll say that, reasonable people who will have a good conversation, because really, all they want is just shouting. They want to be able to politically dunk on their opponents. And that does nothing to help the country. Zero.

Where a good conversation about “The Communist Manifesto,” the things that need to be thrown out and the things that can be still saved today and talked about, should happen, versus just the rhetoric of fear. I always talk about the rhetoric of fear, and that’s the boogeyman. It’s just the rhetoric of fear; you need to fear your neighbor and you need to fear this concept. When in reality, you just need to know about it. So at this point, great conversation. Any final words, Terrence?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: No, I think, hopefully, we can affect change in our society in which we live for the better.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer:

Excellent. Thank you. And absolutely wonderful conversation. The tough thing about “The Communist Manifesto” and Marx is that this is barely like dipping our toes into it. There’s so much to learn about. And I would just hope that, if there’s people out there who say stuff like, “You need to fear Marx,” or, “Cultural Marxist,” or stuff like this, just read some, just read and talk about and have an open mind. I’m not saying become a Marxist, and I’m definitely not saying, really don’t approve of anything that the Soviet Union did, because that was a horrible, horrible experience for people. Of course, there’s a side note of, you know, many other things that happened at the time. But just learn about different things, and then, as with anything, figure out what we can use today.

Today we were speaking with Dr. Terrence Threadwell about “The Communist Manifesto.” My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Thank you for listening,

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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