Reviewed by Garrett Pierman
Peter Lamb, in his Reader’s Guide to the Manifesto of the Communist Party seeks not only to give the reader a simplified summary of this revolutionary pamphlet, but to accomplish several other goals as well. First, the author gives succinct but not incomplete biographical sketches of Marx and Engels from their early lives as students, drawing important links to the thinking of Hegel as well as the writings that preceded the Manifesto itself. Following the biographical section, Lamb goes on to give fairly broad and understandable summaries of themes important to the understanding of the Manifesto and Marxism more broadly, including historical materialism, class struggle (and accompanying terms, of course) as well as making clear the shortcomings of Marx’s own writings and the lack of a clear program for the continuation of praxis after the proletarian revolution. Concluding his explicitly thematic section, the author dives into his analysis of the Manifesto, which covers the work more or less paragraph by paragraph. Each section of the analysis concludes with study questions which may aid students in checking their understanding or provide instructors with ideas for quiz questions. This analysis concludes with treatments of the various Prefaces of versions of the Manifesto that have been printed over the years which essentially present the early critiques of the body of the work, especially the lack of a clear revolutionary plan to accompany the fervor. A final analytical section gives the reader a history of the work, from its slow reception into European thinking of the late nineteenth century to its being co-opted into Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution. The concluding remarks consist of a `further reading’ section that includes biographies of Marx and Engels, other translations of the Manifesto and a limited selection of works on Marxism more broadly.
As a reader’s guide, Lamb clearly intends the book to be an instructional companion to the Manifesto: it should be clearly noted that the work is not meant to stand alone. In fact, the author explicitly specifies an edition of the Manifesto that he recommends as a companion and makes references to the pagination of the edition published by the Yale University Press in 2012. The work makes limited mentions to other works of communist thought, most notably in a passing reference to Lenin’s work on imperialism, but does not attempt to further a research agenda per se. Simply put, Lamb intends his work to help students who are new to Marxism to navigate the sometimes confusing theoretical waters. In doing so, the work is largely successful. The language used is accessible without venturing into the realm of condescension. After a careful reading of the book, I would expect a neophyte undergraduate to be able to explain Marx and Engels’ view of history as well as the roles of the proletariat and bourgeoisie both in industrial capitalism as well as the revolutionary recommendations made by the authors of the Manifesto. In that sense, no new ground is broken and that is no disparaging remark. Rather, the book serves to formalize into writing what a good lecture introducing students to Marxism ought to cover and leaves the reader with a clear idea of the major themes at work within classical Marxism.
Some of the finer points of the book are deserving of special attention and praise. In his chapter overviewing the major themes, Lamb makes sure to outline the concepts of the bourgeoisie, proletariat, and capital early on in the work (17). This gives students a strong basis upon which to base the rest of their reading. Additionally, Lamb provides instructors with questions that would be perfectly suited for a short-answer type of quiz, such as “In the series of epochs through which history progressed what did Marx suggest was different about the one which he was experiencing” (59)? In addition, the author’s treatment of the influence of Lenin on what would become the Bolshevik revolution, in which he discusses Lenin’s development of the idea of a professional revolutionary class and explicit revolutionary program, give astute students a better idea of how Marx’s ideas could be transformed to a commentary on the working class into a revolution in an agrarian state, though there is little on Lenin’s rejection of the idea that the revolutionary class needed to be urban in nature as Marx himself specifies.
As it stands, the book provides a useful framework in getting a basic understanding of classical Marxism. There are several areas of the book, however, that could use reorganization for the sake of clarity in making students conversant with Marxist thought beyond the Manifesto. Two examples illustrate my point nicely. The first is in Lamb’s explanation of the materialist conception of history, which appears early on in the book (13-15). While this short section does a nice job explaining that Marx conceived of different epochs as differing sets of relations of production and modes of production, but does not clearly differentiate between the two either in this section or the book as a whole. This theoretical muddiness could be easily rectified in a footnote, but without such an annotation, a student without a careful professor guiding his or her learning could remain unclear. Similarly, the ideas of base and superstructure are discussed in this early section but the terms themselves do not appear until much later in the book (60). Though this particular critique is mostly an editorial one, a slightly more fleshed-out introductory section may alleviate possible theoretical missteps on behalf of students not already familiar with the relevant terminology. Additionally, the difference between private and public property is never explained as such, though a careful reader could infer it; I firmly believe that such a distinction is necessary in dispelling the myths common to those not yet exposed to a serious student of Marx, especially the idea prevalent in the Western world that Marx would have us give up material possessions such as homes.
The second section which I find to be slightly underwhelming given the overall high quality of the book as a whole is the chapter dedicated to further reading. The section is essentially a listing of other works seeking to help a student understand Marx’s own work. To this end, it is highly successful. I would suggest, however, making several additions. For instance, Lenin is cited often in the notes at the end of the book. Making explicit to the students that reading the works of Lenin are also key to an understanding of the first application (albeit a perverse one) of Marxist ideas to the real world on a national level would be a boon to placing Lamb’s work within a larger field of study. Additionally, there is precious little said about specifics of economics in the book. With that in mind, recommending Ernest Mandel’s Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory may give students who liked Lamb’s book for its parsimony a similarly tight but deeper understanding of the more technical details of Marxist economics. Finally, suggesting that students read some of the writings by Stalin and Mao may also help in placing the book in a broader context of study.
In considering Lamb’s contribution to the field of Marxist scholarship, one must constantly keep in mind that the book is meant to be a companion text to the original work of Marx and Engels. Lamb, therefore, makes no major attempts at adding any additional theoretical posits beyond that of classical Marxism. Given the purpose of the work, I find the lack of theoretical contribution to be no hindrance to the quality of the work as a whole. Rather than attempting to posit new theory, Lamb explains, with a great deal of success, the major themes and ideas present in the Manifesto. Essentially, the author sets out to give students a look into the world of early Marxist thought through clear language and mostly careful structuring of the book. Overall, I find Lamb’s contribution to be useful in the context of a possible companion to primary texts in undergraduate courses intended to introduce students to political theories. Lamb’s reader’s guide to Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto is a fairly good supplement to, but not replacement for, a solid undergraduate lecture series on classical Marxism. Instructors who feel as though their current syllabi do not spend enough time explaining Marxism may do well to consider adding Lamb’s book as a recommended reading.
24 July 2015