Yesterday, The Communist Manifesto arrived for me in the post, courtesy of ‘World of Books’, an accredited EBay seller. A little green package, all the way from Goring-by-Sea via Royal Mail. Which probably wasn’t the kind of thing Marx and Engels had in mind when they wrote it in 1848.
But it gets worse. I didn’t need The Communist Manifesto. After all, I’ve read it several times before. I don’t particularly agree with it, and never have. And I’ve already got an identical copy on my bookshelf.
So why buy it?
Well, it’s a very specific printing.
Let me explain. In 1983, when I was at university, I was interested in socialism. I agreed with some of it, but most of it seemed pipe-dreaming, and the Soviet Union wasn’t exactly inviting. On the other hand, socialism/communism/anarchism was quite trendy, and if you were a young student, you were obliged to at least doff your cap to it. I liked Marx and Engels, but I much preferred Nietzsche. I’d embarked on my amateur philosophical journey by admiring Jean-Paul Sartre, who’d turned to Marxism in the ‘50s. But I preferred his literary rival, Albert Camus, who’d abhorred it.
In Newcastle, where I was an undergraduate, there was a socialist bookshop. It sold left-wing magazines, books, posters, badges, idealistic tracts, radical ‘classics’ like Rousseau, Godwin and even (weirdly) Machiavelli. There were quite a lot of such bookshops in those days, one in every major city probably. I used to go in there occasionally, just to browse. I was a regular reader of The Socialist Standard (‘genuine, unadulterated Marxism, not that Leninism rubbish!’), but I could see it was starry-eyed ... And yet harmless.
In 1983, something new appeared on the shelves. A version of The Communist Manifesto, printed to commemorate one hundred years since the death of Marx. A petite hardback, cloth-bound, 7 x 5 inches, 80 pages, with a red and black typeface and illustrated with Frans Masereel woodcuts. Cost: £1.95. I bought three copies, partly believing it would become a collector’s item and so accumulate in value. Which also seems bitterly at odds with Marxism. (Although, to be honest, this entire story seems totally un- if not actually anti-Marxist.) And I also liked it because it appeared perfect in itself: a compact objet d’art.
Anyway, after I married, my wife and I moved from Newcastle to Canterbury, and I lost my three copies. I don’t know how or where. But I spent the next twenty years wishing I hadn’t.
And yet, I’ve no idea why I regretted losing them.
Even more strangely, when, in about 2005, I actually saw a copy of the same book in a second-hand shop, I had to have it. Cost? About £3, but then some IDIOT had highlighted it throughout with a yellow crayon! Might have been £4 (!) – maybe even 5!!! - had it been clean!!!
Still, better than nothing.
About a week ago today, I spotted another on EBay. ‘Very good condition’. Price £6.50, free P&P.
When it arrived yesterday morning, I neurotically put a protective plastic cover over the dust-jacket. Then I took down the old, highlighted copy from my bookshelf, and replaced it with the one I’d just bought. I put the old one in the shed to take to the local charity shop. Marx and Engels, if they’re alive in the afterlife, must have looked down on me with pleasure and pride.
Or maybe not. It had never become a collector’s item, nor (likely) will it in the future. I still don’t believe in The Communist Manifesto, although I do regard it with a kind of affection. I’ll probably never take it back off the shelf and read it. It’ll stay there gathering dust till the day I die, then my wife (if she outlives me) will get some book clearance people in, and they’ll ship it to the dump, as one of the many volumes I’ve accumulated over the years that’s not worth keeping.
Still, at least I’ve got it now. So: hooray.
Seriously, though: WHY?
Answer: to prove to myself that there isn’t a total discontinuity between the 1983 me and the 2018 me. I’m still me.
For what that’s worth. Which, I freely admit, may be nothing at all.
Worse: it might even be a bad thing.
I don’t know. Long live the revolution.