Tyee Books

How's that New Communist Manifesto Coming?

Meet Ernie Peshkov-Chow whose book asks: What would Karl do?

By Ernesto (Ernie) Raj Peshkov-Chow 9 Aug 2013 | TheTyee.ca

The website for The New Commune-ist Manifesto is here. Gary Engler, currently an elected full-time union officer with British Columbia's Media Union, is the author of The Year We Became Us, a novel about the 1962 Saskatchewan doctors strike. Al Engler is a retired former maritime workers union local president and the author of Economic Democracy: a working class alternative to capitalism. Jean Rands was a founder in the 1970s of the first feminist union in Canada. Yves Engler, who currently works for one of Canada's largest national unions, is the author of seven books, including Stop Signs: cars and capitalism on the road to economic, social and ecological decay and The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper's foreign policy.

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'Capitalism may be the best system at producing more. More and more. But often we don't need more. We need less, but better.'

[Editor's note: "If Karl Marx were alive today and asked to write a new edition of The Communist Manifesto, how would it be different from the original, composed 165 years ago?" That question is tackled in a new book authored by Ernesto (Ernie) Raj Peshkov-Chow -- who isn't really a person. The pseudonym is meant to be "an avatar of today's international working class," explains long-time unionist and journalist Gary Engler, who, in seeking a penname for his previous political book The Great Multicultural North, conjured Ernie Raj Peshkov-Chow to be "all of us and yet none of us." This time Engler joined with Al Engler, Yves Engler and Jean Rands in crafting The New Commune-ist Manifesto, the website for which includes this "Conversation with Ernie," conducted by the avatar's own creator.]

Gary Engler: Do you consider yourself a Marxist?

Ernie Raj Peshkov-Chow: I think Karl Marx was a great thinker who was on the side of common people. Every person who wants to improve the lives of working people and get rid of capitalism should read and carefully consider what he wrote.

GE: Did you ever study Marxism?

ERPC: No, but I know a lot from hanging around with communists of all brands, especially back in the '70s when there was a Trotskyist arguing with a Maoist of one sort or another on every corner. Plus I've read everything he wrote and a hell of a lot more that other people wrote about him. Some people collect baseball cards, I collect and read left-wing books.

GE: What do you like and not like about Marx?

ERPC: Well, some of his stuff is hard to read until you get used to it. The single best thing is that he forces you to look at the big picture. That's what he was all about. Kind of like an ecologist studying the whole forest, rather than just looking at a single tree. Marx teaches you to think about the interconnections, the totality, so you get a better idea of how things really work.

GE: How would you define a Marxist?

ERPC: I wouldn't. The truth is that people calling themselves Marxists do not agree on what it means to be a Marxist. Entire political and academic careers have been built around differing interpretations. Sometimes these "Marxists" sound more like religious fundamentalists arguing over the Word of God.

GE: What do you think of that kind of Marxist?

ERPC: Well, let's just say this new Communist Manifesto will not be written for that kind of Marxist. In fact it won't be written for self-identified Marxists at all, although maybe they'll want to read it. This new Communist Manifesto will be written for working people who believe we should and can make a better world. It will be written for the employed and unemployed, students and seniors who are looking for an alternative to the inequality of capitalism, and for a way out of the environmental destruction that comes from an economic system demanding ever more profit and growth. It will be written for the victims of a system that uses violence, racism, sexism and other divide-and-conquer techniques to maintain and expand its power. It will be written for the victims of a system that uses brainwashing (also called marketing) to expand its power through ever more addictions to various forms of consumption. It will be written for those victims who no longer want to be victims.

GE: You'll be writing for the working class?

ERPC: Exactly. The same basic audience that Marx and Engels wrote for in 1848 and there were no Marxists around then.

GE: Do you agree with all the stuff that Engels and Marx wrote in 1848?

ERPC: Times have changed, human relations and social entitlements have changed, science and technology have advanced.

GE: You know that some people are sensitive about changing the original?

ERPC: I never read anything by Karl or Freddy to suggest they were the least bit religious, let alone prophets setting in stone the Word of the Communist God.

GE: Meaning?

ERPC: Meaning they were reality-based thinkers. They followed evidence. They learned from history. They used the scientific method: probably too crudely: and changed their minds when evidence proved them wrong. Like when Marx by the 1870s was attacking the "iron law of wages" even though something like it was in the original Manifesto.

GE: So where they write that workers will never be paid above the bare minimum that ensures they can reproduce, history proved them wrong?

ERPC: I prefer to say that, in 1848, Karl and Fred underestimated the power of the organized working class, especially with regards to reforms.

GE: Underestimated the power of the working class? That's a fairly provocative statement.

ERPC: Perhaps, but they were relying on the evidence available to them.

GE: Let me repeat that just to make sure I heard you right. You're saying that, if anything, the Communist Manifesto underestimated, not overestimated, the power of the working class?

ERPC: Exactly.

GE: Most critics have claimed the opposite. They say history proves Marx and Engels overestimated the power of the working class.

ERPC: Well that's just plain stupid. They never foresaw that 90 percent of the population would become working class. Well, they did sort of predict it: they saw that the working class would become the majority: but from their perspective in 1848 they couldn't possibly have known that billions of people across the planet would become wage workers. Or that pretty much every conceivable occupation would become part of the working class. Or that there'd be as many women workers as men. Or that a shitload of what used to be management work would go to wage workers. How could they have figured all that out in 1848?

GE: If the working class has become even more powerful than Marx and Engels foresaw why has there been no revolution?

ERPC: Because the vast majority of workers weren't interested in revolution: at least not in the sense of a violent overthrow of the existing order. They wanted reforms and that's what they achieved. The early Marx and Engels underestimated the power of the working class to achieve reforms.

GE: The power to achieve reforms?

ERPC: Marx and Engels didn't see that workers would have the power to win reforms like public education, the eight-hour day, pensions, unemployment insurance, vacations, stat holidays, public healthcare, graduated income tax … the list is very long. In 1848 Marx and Engels didn't think workers could even achieve decent wages, let alone all that other stuff.

GE: Without a revolution you mean? Marx and Engels thought it would take a revolution to get that stuff.

ERPC: In 1848 they thought it would take a revolution. Later they saw more possibilities for reform.

GE: But you're saying something more than reforms have worked. You're saying workers don't like revolution. Why?

ERPC: Because our experience shows most revolutions don't turn out well for ordinary people. Because any sane person prefers peaceful reform over violent revolution, if you can achieve the same end.

GE: That's a pretty big if.

ERPC: I'd say the working-class experience so far is that reforms work a hell of a lot better than violent revolution. The places where we are the best off are precisely the places where unions and working-class political parties were most successful at getting reforms.

GE: But, recent history shows all of the reforms workers have won are at risk if we don't end the power of capitalists.

ERPC: Absolutely right. Capitalists always want it all for themselves and try to get it. So long as capitalists have power, they will keep trying to screw us.

GE: But you think we can break their power without a revolution?

ERPC: It will be the revolution when we end their power.

GE: So you are in favor of revolution?

ERPC: Of course. But changing from one economic system to another takes a long time. Just look at the transition between capitalism and feudalism. How long did that take? Centuries. How many reforms were there over the few hundred years it took? Can you point to a time or place where there was feudalism one day and capitalism the next? No, because that's not the way real change happens.

GE: There was a lot of violence in the transition between feudalism and capitalism.

ERPC: A lot. That's because the change from feudalism to capitalism was one form of minority rule taking over from another. All minority rule is violent. It has to be to achieve and maintain power. It's a small group using terror to rule a much larger group. The goal of the working class is to end minority rule, to replace capitalist title with economic democracy, to build a world based on human cooperation, democracy and equality.

GE: So, you're saying that because the working-class goal is economic democracy, violence won't be necessary?

ERPC: Exactly. Violence on our part isn't necessary and certainly not desirable. Of course, there has been violence to repress us and will be more. But it will come from the ruling class protecting its minority rule. Capitalists control wealth, means of transportation and communications. They use the police and armed forces to protect their property rights, so anytime we resort to violence we get clobbered. In fact, violence suits the ruling class because they know they almost always win.

GE: So your objection is tactical, not a principle?

ERPC: It's both. All the evidence shows that capitalism has a nearly limitless capacity for violence. It's a stupid tactic to fight them on a field where they have most of the advantages. With non-violent mass action it's our numbers that count. Non-violence is the tactic of the majority. But there's also an important principle. If you want to create a society where the majority really rules, where there is no more war and where we live in balance with nature, violence is our enemy. It can't be the source of our liberation. The society we want is against violence in principle.

GE: But just so I'm clear on this, you do acknowledge that there will be violent resistance to change?

ERPC: Yes. There is and will be war. There's police violence. There's the violence of poverty. There's the masked violence of master-servant relations in corporate workplaces.

GE: How do you expect people to react to that?

ERPC: Lots of people will react as they always have. They will be violent in return. I understand the reaction. I played hockey. But that reaction is the loser's reaction. It's defensive. We'll know we're getting close to winning when we can meet their violence with non-violence. After that it won't take long for people to understand that the ruling class's hold on society rests on violence. And once the vast majority of people understand that, the end is near for capitalism. The working-class uprising will be a general strike that becomes a lockout of the bosses. A permanent lockout. That will be the revolution.

GE: You're sure there will be an end to capitalism? Lots of people think capitalism is the best system in history or at least the best system possible today.

ERPC: That's stupid. Where's the evidence for that?

GE: Supporters of capitalism say people live longer, have more freedoms, better housing, are more educated …

ERPC: It's cynical bullshit for capitalists to take credit for stuff they hate. People living longer, being better educated and having more freedoms are all the result of the organized working class fighting for reforms that capitalists opposed. Public health, public utilities, public education, the fight for voting rights for men with no property and then women's right to vote, civil rights, pensions, unemployment insurance: who fought for all these things? Us, the organized working class. It sure as hell wasn't capitalists. They fought against them all the way and continue to try to overturn the gains we've made.

GE: So you don't give capitalists credit for anything?

ERPC: I give them credit for creating the working class.

GE: That's it?

ERPC: They're good at waging war. And capitalism may be the best system at producing more. More and more. But often we don't need more. We need less, but better. More is killing us. It's spewing carbon into the atmosphere and warming up the planet. In some places it's giving us two or three cars per family and junk food, which is making us fat and also destroying the environment. More has been completely disconnected from what's good for us. It's really about more profit for capitalists.

GE: A lot of people like more.

ERPC: They think they do, until they realize what it's doing to them and their families. Anybody with half a brain knows that over-consumption is bad and that capitalism is stupid. The best you can say about capitalism is that it gave us a lot of stuff and the most destructive wars in history, atomic bombs, obesity and global warming. We can do one hell of a lot better if we just come together and try.

GE: How would you say your views differ from what most people would consider typical Marxism?

ERPC: Most people confuse Marxism with Leninism. Karl Marx would not have been a Leninist. He would have ridiculed the idea of a "vanguard" of revolutionaries who presume to lead the working class. That is not to say he rejected political parties with programs etc., but the idea of claiming a party could somehow permanently represent the interests of the class would have struck him as non-materialist, utopian at best and reactionary at worst.

GE: You're a longtime union activist. How is your version of Marxism connected to unions?

ERPC: Marx spent the most intense political period of his life working to build the First International, which was a worldwide union federation. If he were alive today he'd still believe the best way to change the world is through building unions and other organizations of workers. Marx believed that positive change would come through a working-class revolution. He believed that working people had the power to challenge the strength of the minority who ruled the world. He believed the job of the communist was to educate workers to understand their power and their common interest in creating a better system, one that would end minority rule and be better for all.

GE: Are unions the only way to change the world?

ERPC: Marx believed that workers need their own political party. That's more true today than ever. Marx wasn't a wage worker, but that didn't stop him from helping out. He believed in creating a world that offered every person the chance to lead a fulfilling life. He was convinced that minority class rule was responsible for stifling the creativity inherent in all of us. Throughout his life he campaigned for the expansion of democracy and human entitlement. If he were alive today, he would campaign for economic democracy. This includes the right of everyone to participate in economic decision-making, not just workers. Marx focused on wage workers, but he would see the value in getting the unemployed, the self-employed, stay-at-home parents, students and the retired involved in confronting capitalism.

GE: What would Marx think of current electoral politics.

ERPC: He would be disgusted. Parties that call themselves Labor, Social Democratic and Socialist now rarely criticize capitalism. Once in office, they insist that they have to govern for everyone, including capitalists and warmongers. They adopt domestic policies that widen disparities and support destructive military interventions abroad. Yes, Marx would likely look for ways to effect legislation that would improve the lives of common people. He'd be on the streets and in legislatures fighting against all forms of sexism, racism and homophobia. He'd be there with people defending immigrants' rights, with the housing advocates and the environmentalists. He would campaign for the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, resources and ways of life. He'd see value in nationalism in the sense of belonging to a larger group, but he'd be a post-ethnic, internationalist nationalist, who fights for the rights of all nations to be respected.

GE: He'd be just like you?

ERPC: You created me, so you would know.

GE: You said that capitalism is not compatible with environmental sustainability. Why do you say that?

ERPC: Capitalism requires constant growth because it always needs more profit. More profit is the point of capitalism. If all you care about is making more stuff, capitalism is the best system ever. But what happens when the environment needs a smaller human footprint? When, at least in wealthier countries, we must learn to live with much less stuff? All the evidence shows capitalism is really lousy at dealing with declining markets. Every time the economy shrinks for a sustained period capitalism goes into a crisis. Banks crash, unemployment rises and wars are often necessary to get capitalism out of its crisis.

GE: But many people look to capitalism for solutions to our environmental problems.

ERPC: That's like asking the fox to fix the henhouse. You can't be a serious environmentalist and support capitalism. A sustainable economy is incompatible with capitalism.

GE: Many environmentalists would disagree.

ERPC: Sure, just like some so-called union leaders say they don't have any problem with capitalism. There's two possible explanations: One, they're just trying to work as best they can within the system, even if they hate it, because no alternative has been on offer that appeals to them. Or two, they're sellouts. Same goes for environmentalists who claim to support capitalism.

GE: So you write off most environmental groups?

ERPC: Some existing environmental groups do good work to expose unsustainable industrial practices. But because they do not oppose capitalism they promote cap and trade, which leaves the adoption of sustainable practices to capitalist markets and that is ultimately a dead end. To be successful, environmental groups depend on funding. Because the rich have most of that, environmental groups avoid pointing to capitalism as the source of the problem. That will change as opposition to capitalism grows.

GE: You haven't even started writing the book and you've already pissed off three-quarters of the potential readers. No Marxists or mainstream environmentalists allowed.

ERPC: I'm just being clear about my views. My biases. Let people know who I am and what I stand for. It's called honesty. I want everyone to read the book, but I don't want to fool anybody into thinking it's something other than what it is.

GE: Maybe we should get into how you plan to go about this: rewriting the Communist Manifesto in a way that makes it current, but also keeps it true to the essence of what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in 1848?

ERPC: First off, a lot has changed since the original Manifesto was written. In 1848 there were still feudal lords running most of the world. Slavery was still legal in most places. The First Opium War had ended a few years earlier during which Britain invaded China to force it to accept the importation of opium. The East India Company administered most of the Indian subcontinent. The carving up of Africa into European colonies had barely even begun. 1848 was more than a decade before Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species. The vast majority of people everywhere worked on the land. Racism was just about to become a dominant ideology. The New Manifesto has to reflect all that's happened since 1848.

GE: Given how old it is, do you think the original Communist Manifesto is still relevant?

ERPC: It's one of the most influential pamphlets ever written. It inspired workers' movements, unions and political parties all over the world. To this day the Manifesto is probably the best easy-to-read criticism of capitalism. To understand the past 165 years of opposition to capitalism, you have to read it. Anybody who decides there's something wrong with capitalism owes it to herself to read it. Every person who has ever wondered why going to work feels so shitty owes it to himself to read it. Everybody who comes to believe a better system is possible simply must take a look at what a 30-year-old Karl Marx and 28-year-old Freddy Engels wrote in 1848. Not bad for two young German intellectuals who never had a working-class job in their entire lives.

GE: If it's so good, why bother updating it?

ERPC: Exactly what I thought at first. How can the Communist Manifesto be "improved" anymore than Picasso's painting Guernica or Diego Rivera's mural in the Mexican national palace be "updated" or in any way made better? But then it occurred to me that today's Pakistani artists should try to capture the horror of U.S. drone missile attacks on village wedding parties just like Picasso exposed the inhumanity of German bombs falling on the small Basque city. And Rivera's work did inspire others to tell the story of their communities on walls around the world.

GE: Picasso's picture, Rivera's mural and the Communist Manifesto were all calls to action. The creators wanted to change the world.

ERPC: And so do I.

GE: How do you want to change the world?

ERPC: Well, as I wrote in the Great Multicultural North, I believe in a post-ethnic, internationalist nationalism and economic democracy. I want a world where one person, one vote rules all social aspects of our lives. I want to get rid of capitalism's one dollar, one vote. I believe capitalism is neither democratic nor compatible with environmental sustainability. I think all that is in the tradition of the Communist Manifesto.

GE: What parts of the old Manifesto need to be changed to make it current? And what needs to be added?

ERPC: Like I said, a lot has happened in 165 years, the working class has had a lot of experience. This needs to be reflected. There's stuff to get rid of, but you can't throw the political baby out with the historical bathwater. Things must be added. Environmentalism is the big one. What would Karl and Freddy have said about that, if they had the benefit of the last 165 years of science and working-class experience?

GE: There's a lot to think about. Maybe you should get at it.

ERPC: Since when are you my boss?

GE: You only exist when I let you.

ERPC: Said the worker to the capitalist.

GE: And the capitalist to the worker. Which one is right?

ERPC: Both are right from their points of view.

GE: How can both be right?

ERPC: They're talking about different things. The worker is saying that under a different system she wouldn't need the capitalist. The capitalist is saying capitalism gives him the power to determine whether the worker has a job or not.

GE: Please stop talking and start writing.

ERPC: Fine, okay. We'll talk again when I'm done.  [Tyee]

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