Introduction to the Activist Manifesto

Alan D. Morrison

Professor of Law and Finance,
Saïd Business School,
University of Oxford

In 1837, an interest rate rise in England precipitated a financial panic in the United States. A speculative cotton price bubble burst, there were widespread bank failures, and many states defaulted on their bonds. Trust in bankers plumbed new depths. George Peabody was blackballed by the Reform Club because he was a citizen of a nation that did not pay its debts. The following recession lasted for most of the succeeding decade. And, at the end of that decade, two Prussian intellectuals living in Brussels published a pamphlet whose reverberations we still feel in our intellectual and social life more than a century and a half later.

The Communist Manifesto was written in under two months. When it was published, in February 1848, Karl Marx was 29 years old and his friend Friedrich Engels was 28. They wrote at a time of massive social upheaval: 1848 saw a “Spring of Revolutions,” with uprisings in France, Germany, Denmark, the Habsburg Empire, Sweden, Poland and Ireland. None of these revolutions can be attributed to the Manifesto, but its authors appear to have captured something of the spirit of their times; later uprisings have, of course, been more closely associated with the 1848 pamphlet.

It is now eleven years since problems in the US subprime mortgage market triggered a global financial crisis. That crisis saw numerous bank failures and the resultant recession lasted for most of the following decade. Sovereign borrowers in Europe experienced a crisis whose fiscal and social consequences will be felt for decades. And, of course, trust in bankers has plumbed new depths. Fred Goodwin, Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland from 2001 to 2009, lost his knighthood in 2012.

The years since the financial crisis have seen numerous revolutions. The Arab Spring of 2010—2012 was a wave of demonstrations, protests, and coups in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. The Occupy Movement has pitched tents in New York, London, and in cities around the world. In June 2016 almost 52% of the British public voted to leave the European Union; in November of the same year, Donald J. Trump was elected 45th President of the United States with 279 electoral college votes. The socialist Bernie Saunders was an important presence throughout the presidential race. Even in the corporate world, traditional governance models are under fire from activist investors: the CEO of Blackrock recently impressed upon business leaders the importance of social contributions that go beyond the generation of profits.

Like the inhabitants of mid-nineteenth century Europe, then, we live in the wake of a calamitous financial crisis and in the midst of whirlwind social change, a popular distaste of financial capitalists, and widespread revolutionary activity. We could use a coherent explanation of the forces that buffet us, and a hint as to their likely resolution. The Victorians had Marx and Engels; we have Rupert Younger and Frank Partnoy. Younger identifies himself with the lower-middle-class Marx, at least in his early poetic Hegelian incarnation, while Partnoy feels an affinity with the wealthy party animal and fox-hunter Engels. Neither Younger nor Partnoy has a beard.

Younger and Partnoy’s Activist Manifesto closely follows the format of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, to the extent that the two have a lot of common text. Indeed, anyone familiar with the earlier pamphlet will have to read Younger and Partnoy very carefully to spot the minor textual changes that have a substantial effect upon their meaning.

In light of the close similarity between the two manifestos, the easiest way to interpret Younger and Partnoy’s work may be to start from an understanding of the Communist Manifesto. I present below a rapid, and also contestable and personal, summary of its argument.

The Communist Manifesto was commissioned by the Communist League, the first party to espouse the position that would later be characterised as “Marxist.” The Manifesto laid out the bare bones of the Marxist position, and it distinguished the Communist League from other parties with similar views. Its first section, “Bourgeouis and Proletarians,” discusses the class system, famously claiming that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” What distinguishes the Communist Manifesto is its emphasis upon the technological determinants of that struggle. Marx and Engels claim that the technologies used in production establish the contours of the social classes. In particular, as markets expand and economies of scale become increasingly important, the people who control productive capital become increasingly powerful. Those people are the bourgeoisie, who are “the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and technology.”

The ability to service a huge and growing marketplace gives the bourgeoisie enormous social power. They wrest that power from the old feudal landlords, and from the small shop keepers, neither of whom is able to compete in the new capital-intensive marketplace. The acquisition of bourgeois power is accompanied by what Schumpeter would later, in a rather different context, call creative destruction: “[a]ll old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.” Indeed, as this quote suggests, the bourgeoisie’s activities transcend the nation state.

The capital controlled by the bourgeoisie requires human labour. That labour is provided by the proletariat. In the long run, anyone who is not a member of the bourgeoisie will either become a member of the proletariat or will drop out of mainstream society (and so will join the lumpenproletariat, “that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society”). And, over time, the smaller members of the bourgeoisie will be absorbed by the proletariat, so that capital and social power will become concentrated in a smaller and smaller number of hands. In the struggle to survive, the bourgeoisie compete by “constantly revolutionising the instruments of production,” so as to produce more and more. The consequence is periodic crises, caused by over-production, leading to hardship and to a thinning out of the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Ultimately, the whole system must fail, brought down under the weight of its own contradictions.

Marx and Engels identify the important role of the proletariat in precipitating the end of bourgeois capitalism. The proletariat are dis-empowered under the capitalists. They work at the pleasure of the capitalists for subsistence wages, and they are alienated from their own humanity by the division of labour and by the factory system. The system cannot change until the proletariat become aware of their shared interests, and of their capacity to re-capture their humanity by changing society: that is, to employ a phrase that does not appear in the Manifesto, change will occur when the proletariat develop class consciousness. Class consciousness will emerge as the proletariat gather together, and when they become better able to communicate with one another. Both of these criteria are increasingly satisfied as capitalism develops: the massed proletariat in large factories can easily see their common plight, and modern industry creates “improved means of communication.” Hence, as capitalism develops, it creates class consciousness and so sows the seeds of its own destruction.

The second section of the Communist Manifesto, “Proletarians and Communists,” explains how the Communist League’s activities relate to the materialist progression identified in the first section. By Marx and Engels’ account, the proletariat have common class interests, if they could only appreciate them. It is therefore logically possible to represent those common interests, and this is what the communists claim to do. They will advance proletariat interests by abolishing bourgeois property, which is a contingent feature of the capitalist society and not an eternal and necessary fact. That abolition will change other contingent features of society: for example, the Manifesto anticipates elements of a feminism that will not properly emerge for another century by arguing (or at least implying) that capitalist power structures render wives a form of property for the male bourgeoisie. Hence, claim Marx and Engels, capitalism engenders “prostitution, both public and private.” Capitalism also supports the exploitation of nation by nation, but, because “[t]he working men have no country,” and because workers everywhere have a common interest in preventing the exploitation to which they are subject, communists are happy to abolish nationality: communism is international.

This is heady stuff, but it is hardly a programme of action. Marx and Engels provide one towards the end of the second section of the Manifesto. It comprises ten demands that include measures that are now viewed as commonsensical (“free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form”), that are familiar from many European social democratic programmes (“a heavy progressive or graduated income tax”), that appear in hard-left manifestos (“abolition of all right of inheritance”) and hard-right manifestos (“confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels”), and that are frankly fantastic (“equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture”). All of them appear consistent with the central thesis that bourgeois modes of production, and the power relations that go with them, must be phased out. And almost all of them appeared in political manifestos in the century-and-a-half after 1848 publication of the Manifesto.

Section III of the Manifesto contrasts the communists with other socialist movements, all of which it dismisses. Marx and Engels identify three types of socialists. A first group of reactionary socialists opposes the bourgeoisie because it wishes to restore the pre-industrial class system. A second group of conservative socialists hopes, by improving the material conditions of the working poor, to maintain the status quo; this will avert for a while the collapse of the capitalist system, the abolition of bourgeois property, and the dismantling of the bourgeois family and the nation state. A third group of utopian socialists promulgate fantastic systems of social design that, because they pre-empt the emergence of proletariat class consciousness, are unworkable.

The Communist Manifesto concludes by outlining contemporary radical parties and with the famous claim that “[t]he proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

The Communist Manifesto is much-debated and is hard-to-interpret. The Activist Manifesto uses the same structure to make rather different claims. This makes the Activist Manifesto a very entertaining read, but it also renders it even harder-to-interpret than the Communist Manifesto. The remainder of this Introduction attempts a brief summary of its main points, and provides some suggestion as to their interpretation.

The Activist Manifesto was not commissioned but, had it been, the commission would have come from the Activist League. Younger and Partnoy discuss the role of Activists as a vehicle for social change that mirrors the corresponding role that Marx and Engels identify for communists and, indeed, Younger and Partnoy reproduce a lot of the Communist Manifesto’s text. But, while Marx and Engels are concerned with the historic development of the proletariat and its interests, Younger and Partnoy write about a class of Have-Nots, who are engaged in a struggle with the Haves. Indeed, with the exception of a passing reference to the lumpenhavenots that is included for literary reasons, Younger and Partnoy mention no other social classes.

The organisation of the Activist Manifesto mirrors that of the Communist Manifesto. Section I presents a materialist conception of the Haves and the Have-Nots, whose struggles comprise the history of all hitherto existing society. Section II introduces the activists and relates them to the interests of the Have-Nots; like Section II of the Communist Manifesto, the Activist Manifesto here includes a list of immediate measures to be taken by the activists. Section III discusses the relationship between the activists, as conceived by Younger and Partnoy, and other groups that claim to represent the interests of the Have-Nots. Section IV concludes: like the proletariat, the Have-Nots have nothing to lose but their chains, and they have a world to win.

While the two Manifestos share a good deal of text, they differ in significant ways. Section I of the Communist Manifesto adumbrates a materialist account of society that claims to highlight inherent contradictions whose resolution must eventually change property rights, the institutions of the family, and the nation state in profound ways. By my reading, the Activist Manifesto does not make such strong claims. To be sure, it lays a variety of sins at the feet of the Haves. They exploit the Have-Nots in their own generation and, through their abuse of the environment, those of future generations. They undermine the political process by making the absurd assertion that corporate political expenditure is a form of protected free speech. Like the bourgeoisie of 1848, the Haves appropriate new technologies and so as better to exploit the Have-Nots. They also over-produce, creating “too many extravagant properties and toys.” Marx and Engels note that the bourgeoisie strip “the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science” of the “reverent awe” that they were once afforded; Younger and Partnoy add to this list of hitherto honoured professions that of “IT consultant,” who, in 2018, are denied any reverence at all, and, like the others, are “mere wage labourers.”

Marx and Engels can see some good in the bourgeois revolution, and Younger and Partnoy are similarly willing to acknowledge worth in the actions of the Haves. Both the bourgeois and the Haves have rendered “[n]ational one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness […] more and more impossible.” The Haves and the bourgeoisie have both “created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” But, while Marx and Engels celebrate our rescue by the bourgeois “from the idiocy of rural life,” Younger and Partnoy claim that the Haves have “created permanent economic and social ghettos of the countryside and the rural towns.”

But the implications of Haves behaviour in 2018 appears different to that of bourgeois hegemony in 1848. Marx and Engels believed that, as a proletariat class consciousness emerged, capitalism would collapse under the weight of its contradictions. Younger and Partnoy appear, rather, to believe that the Have-Nots will be able to ensure that the system works for them without going so far as completely to destroy it. Hence, while their access to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media enables the type of Have-Not coordination that the Communist Manifesto predicts for the proletariat in the final stages of capitalism, Younger and Partnoy do not believe that the consequence will be a total revolution; that the “Haves are unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society” does not mean that the basic institutions of society must be overthrown; rather, it means that members of the Have-Nots should ultimately assume a more important role.

That Younger and Partnoy subscribe to this evolutionary view of society is clearer from Section II of the Activist Manifesto than it is from Section I. In Section II, Younger and Partnoy explicitly contrast the communist belief that property is a bourgeois institution that cannot outlive the bourgeois with their own position that activists should “provide security and protect private property, including intellectual property.”

If Younger and Partnoy’s activists do not aim for the abolition of bourgeois property, then the power systems that it reflects will presumably also survive the onslaught of the activists; those systems will simply provide a better deal for the Have-Nots. Are Younger and Partnoy simply promulgating the sort of conservative socialism excoriated in Section III of the Communist Manifesto?

Younger and Partnoy are prevented by the straightjacket of the Manifesto format from addressing this question head-on. We can get some traction on it by considering two questions. First, precisely who are the Haves and the Have-Nots? Second, what do the Activists really stand for?

The natural answer to the first question would appear to be that Haves own a lot more stuff than Have-Nots. But a system that retains the social institution of property in its current form will inevitably exhibit material inequality. A careful reading of Section II of the Activist Manifesto indicates that, in fact, Younger and Partnoy’s Have-Nots are those who are dispossessed of power. A similar observation could be made of the proletarians in the Communist Manifesto, of course. But in the 1848 Manifesto, the distribution of power is governed by the distribution of capital and, hence, reflects productive relations in society. Section II of the 2018 Manifesto avoids reference to capital in this context: it focuses directly upon the distribution of power in a property-owning society. If power can be returned from the Haves to the Have-Nots, then it can be done so without the abolition of property.

Of course, if one is possessed of property, then one has powers denied to someone who lacks possessions. But one should not be denied the respect that is due to any person: that is, one should have the power to form opinions and to be heard on an equal footing with others.  One should have the power to form moral judgements, and to act upon them without fear of retribution from others, whether they have property or not. I believe that, if we interpret “power” in this way as the possession of the rights to deliberate, to be heard, and to act, then one can characterise the Haves and the Have-Nots of Younger and Partnoy’s Manifesto as being those who have, and those who have not, this type of power. Section I of the Activist Manifesto indicates that the Haves attempt to retain their monopoly on this type of respect by denying it wherever possible to the Have-Nots.

Hence, for example, Younger and Partnoy argue that abolition of property cannot on its own resolve the Have-Nots problems, because it could “be co-opted by the Haves for their own benefit.” Younger and Partnoy do not expand upon this point. But I think it means that, in a system within which some people (the Haves) are able to restrict the moral agency of others (the Have-Nots), abolition of property will simply involve greater restriction of the Have-Nots’ agency: as the Bonzo Dog Doo Da Band have it, “No matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.” More prosaically, Younger and Partnoy appear, as I do, to subscribe to the position that a well-structured system of property rights protects the personal space and the moral agency of the unpowerful. Centralised state power is unlikely to accomplish either goal: Younger and Partnoy cleverly make this point by inserting the word “not” into Marx and Engels’s statement that the proletariat (the Haves in the 2018 document) will wrest power to centralise production in the hands of the state.

We can attempt to interpret the Younger and Partnoy version of activism in light of this vision of the Have/Have-Not divide. Activists should attempt to protect the freedom to reason, the right to be heard, and the moral agency of the dispossessed Have-Nots. This, at least, is how I wish to interpret Younger and Partnoy’s statement that activists should “[f]ight inequality and vested interests.” By my account, a vested interest is a lobby with the power to suppress the ability to reason (for example, by misleading the Have-Nots), to deny people the right to be heard respectfully (for example by misrepresenting or dismissing their views in the print media), or to prevent people from exercising moral agency (for example, by compelling them to mis-sell retail financial products against the threat of job loss).

This interpretation resolves a problem raised by a casual reading of Younger and Partnoy. If the Have-Nots were simply those with few material possessions, or those with less social power, than the Haves, then it is not clear why we should view the Have-Nots as speaking with one voice. And yet Younger and Partnoy follow Marx and Engels in their claim that the Have-Nots have a collective interest. That collective interest emerges in the Communist Manifesto because the proletarians have a common interest in the abolition of the bourgeois system of production that alienates and suppresses them. But, as I have already noted, the Have-Nots have no natural interest in revolution, nor in the abolition of property, religion, or the family. It is perfectly feasible that one class of Have-Nots may be antagonistic towards another: the recent history of the Middle East appears to support this conclusion as, for that matter, did the 2016 US presidential race. Giving way to this type of antagonism is wrong insofar as it denies others the rights to reason, to be heard, and to act: if one Have-Not believes that he ought to deny another those rights, then he suffers from a sort of Younger and Partnoy version of “false consciousness” that relates to our shared humanity rather than, in the Marxian sense, to our shared class interests.

Section II of Younger and Partnoy’s Manifesto follows the 1848 pamphlet by enumerating ten measures that the activists will enact. All seem completely reasonable to a liberal member of the bourgeois such as myself. Younger and Partnoy call for minimum standards of living, for a respect for the environment, for diversity, and for affordable health care. They support education and something that they refer to as “knowledge creation.” They wish to protect private property, to ensure that the financial sector enables economic growth, and to decentralise power. They want to improve internet access, and they aim to “root out and pursue corruption and the entrenchment of power, both in government and in the private sector.” All of these measures can be viewed as steps along the path towards a society in which all have a meaningful voice. In a longer document, Younger and Partnoy would surely have expanded upon the relationship of each measure to the ultimate goal of the activists.

Like Marx and Engels, Younger and Partnoy devote Section III of their Manifesto to a discussion of ill-conceived and false activism. For example, they dismiss financial activism as “profoundly selfish,” arguing that it “lacks a social or moral compass.” Doubtless this is frequently true. But financial activists form a view, express an opinion, and attempt to act upon it. They are at least due the respect that any other person is due in attempting to exercise his or her agency. A longer discussion of the faults in financial activism would be helpful: are Younger and Partnoy concerned that financial activists attempt to suppress the agency of workers, or of trades unionists, for example?

One could deploy the same response to Younger and Partnoy’s statement that environmentalism “is both reactionary and Utopian,” although I must admit to enjoying their conclusion that the last words of environmentalism are “the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, Swampy, Earth Day, Greenham Common, and composting.” And, while Younger and Partnoy believe that community activist concerns over speeding motorbikes, fly-tippers and dangerous playgrounds are “as noble as the grand aims and ambitions of those who seek to change a country or the planet,” they also worry that local activists simply impose externalities upon other communities. Are local activists acting on their moral reasoning, or are they denying the moral agency of their neighbours? Younger and Partnoy appear to draw the latter conclusion; I favour the former. And I have a similar concern with respect to Younger and Partnoy’s criticism of the Occupy movement’s utopianism. In the Communist Manifesto, that utopianism is an attempt to design a proletarian society before history has advanced sufficiently far to accommodate it; but, by my reading of the 2018 Manifesto, we should not wait for history to ripen before affording people the power and respect to which they are due. What, then, is morally wrong with a utopian position, however misguided one may believe it to be?

The Activist Manifesto is both great fun and also a timely call to action. Large minorities of national populations all over the developed world feel ignored and voiceless. They believe that they are denied the information they need to make informed choices and to act morally. They are the Have-Nots. Have-Nots believe that they are not being accorded the basic respect that is due to them and, of late, they have expressed their frustration at the ballot box and elsewhere. A Have who expresses her belief that Have-Not behaviour is irrational, misguided and stupid merely compounds the problem by denying the Have-Nots the respectful hearing that is due to them. What the Have-Nots need is activism. Younger and Partnoy provide a brief blueprint that may help us to provide it.

The Russian Revolution erupted sixty-nine years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, and it shaped our politics and our public discourse for the rest of the twentieth century. Marx, of course, felt that the first time that history repeats itself, it does so as tragedy. An activist revolution would not, however, be a tragedy. It would be an opportunity to repair some of the deepest fractures in our current polity. One can only hope that we do not have to wait until 2087* to witness it.






* Let CT be the date on which the Communist Manifesto was published, AT be the publication date for the Activist Manifesto and RR be the date of the Russian Revolution. Then 2087 = AT + (RR-CT).


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