This pamphlet is an imagining of what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would write today – 170 years after publication of The Communist Manifesto. We stumbled onto this idea after nearly a decade of conversations about activism, not only in politics – where, as we write here, “Activists have threatened the established world order, in Tunisia and Egypt and Syria and Indonesia, in defeating Hillary Clinton, in the Brexit vote, and in elections throughout the world.” – but also in the markets and in society more generally.
Our main expertise has been in shareholder activism, where we have advised many of the largest hedge funds and have publishing leading academic studies. But as the two of us discussed activism conceptually over the years, we imagined what might happen if shareholder activists joined with political and social activists as a united front.
We speculated that pensioners might join with hedge funds and community activists to press a company for social change. We didn’t imagine specifically that the massive pension fund for California teachers would partner with a multi-billion dollar hedge fund to press Apple to reform the way children interact with their phones (as is happening now), but that kind of union was what we have had in mind: activists of various types emerging from their separate silos to press for change together.
On April 13, 2017, we were having a wide-ranging telephone conversation about our ideas, and Frank (who plays the role of Engels in our story) asked Rupert (Marx) the following radical question: “What do you think Marx and Engels would say about the various financial, political, and social movements today?” (Engels was the more empirically-minded of the two, while Marx was more of a poet-philosopher.)
While Rupert was laughing at the seemingly preposterous idea, Frank downloaded a copy of The Communist Manifesto, copied its text into a shared Google docs file, and the two of us began reading aloud. What we saw on the page, in our new reimagined context, took our breath away. The Manifesto spoke to us directly and germanely, as if Marx and Engels had anticipated the revolutionary movements of the twenty-first century. The words were surprisingly resonant, even though neither of us had been particularly sympathetic to communist economics or philosophy.
As we read through the document, we saw many paragraphs that needed an updating. Some notions were no longer relevant, or had been proved wrong. But still, the document had bones. It just needed a few tweaks and tucks. We quickly edited and supplemented the famous first paragraph:
A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.
So that it became:
A spectre is haunting the world – the spectre of activism. All the powers of the old world order have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: the corporate Haves, the elites, the billionaires, the establishment politicians of the Republican and Democratic Parties, Conservatives and Labour, the talking heads at Davos, the echo chambers of online media and fake news.
And then we continued during the next weeks and months, word by word, keeping the text where it still sang, but repairing and reconstructing, just as we would renovate an old house. We cut out many of their specific proposals, which needed to be modernized. But the vast majority of their language – 74 percent of the original words – remained intact.
We felt justified in our renovation based on Marx and Engels’s own reflections from 1872, twenty-five years after they first began the discussions following the First Congress of the Communist League. They wrote:
The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II.
We agree. Historical conditions have changed. The world is in need of new revolutionary measures, the ones we believe Marx and Engels would have advocated if they were alive today. This is their new manifesto. The Activist Manifesto.