The second bestselling book ever written, The Communist Manifesto, has had an enormous impact on millions of people around the world. Pithy, powerful, packed with striking verbal images and agitational passion to back its historical and economic analysis, it is a brilliant place for anyone wanting to start not just understanding the world we live in, but also fighting to change it. And, despite being written over one long weekend, it has helped inspire and guide struggles spanning three centuries.
Martin Rowson, the creator of this graphic novel version of the Communist Manifesto, recalls his 16 year old self being “liberated” by reading the book. Many of us could say the same thing. After 170 years, it still speaks directly and potently to young people today.
Given this, you might wonder why the need for a graphic novel?
Well first of all, it’s worth saying that Rowson’s trademark razor sharp draughtsmanship and satirical wit give his production of the Manifesto an energy and urgency which matches its original intention. The first part of the book is reimagined as a lecture delivered by the bearded authors as they amble though a nightmarish landscape which gives form to the hellish existence created for the masses by the system the authors describe. Out of control machines dominate human beings, sucking them in, grinding them down and spitting them out as powerless profit. The grim backdrops recall Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with workers being hammered into place by an inhumane system.
This remorselessly dark world, while accurately depicting the heartlessness of capitalism as described by Marx and Engels, does imply that it is all conquering and all crushing: there is no chance of anyone fighting to change things. Instead, perhaps we should wait for the “inevitable” liberation of the masses through the remorseless march of history and economics, an interpretation of the book Rowson calls “comforting”, but which many readers of this magazine would contest.
By contrast, the chapter “Proletarians and Communists” is set in a “Kapitalist Komedy Club”, an open-mic night with Marx and Engels defending their ideas from a sceptical, heckling audience. Needless to say, the authors get the last laugh.
Rowson then transforms Marx and Engels’s original polemic against earlier forms of “Socialist and Communist Literature” into witty and biting caricatures, which for me are one of the highlights of the book.
The book ends with a section called “Aftermath” where Rowson presents us with some macabre images of the way the liberating message of the Manifesto has been corrupted and inverted to serve the sort of slavery and oppression it railed against. Drawings of enormous statues of Marx and Engels protected by “Red” Guards, Orwellian out of control technology stamping on thought crime, and a mind-manacling mass media subjugating through inanity and lies represent familiar arguments to those trying to act on the vision described in the Manifesto.
However the book ends the way it starts, with a defiant dauntless spectre, ready to stalk the palaces and profit margins of the 21st century. Hopefully by presenting this work in a new and vibrant format, it will continue to be accessible to new audiences, and help the spectre of communism to continue to haunt the world.