Class Notes

Teachers of the World, Unite!

How Marx and Engels can bring a class to life

By Paula Marantz Cohen | April 16, 2013


One of my favorite teaching texts is The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. It is an excellent addendum to most anything. If I assign a story, show a film, try to explain persuasion, or define the concept of ideology—this slim volume will invariably help illuminate the material. It has never failed to initiate an exciting and surprising discussion. One doesn’t need to be a Marxist—indeed, it’s better if one isn’t—to use the book creatively.

What is perhaps most impressive about The Communist Manifesto is its style—the schematic beauty of its structure and the simple eloquence of its language. I generally teach Books I, II, and IV (omitting the more topical material covered in Book III). Students are impressed by the way the argument thickens, as ideas presented early get fleshed out and amplified as they go along.

We invariably spend time savoring the following paragraph in Book I with its interplay of contraries and paradoxes:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

We parse the adjectives—“feudal, patriarchal, idyllic”—traversing the whole of Western history in the process. We talk about the use of quotation marks around “natural superiors” and “cash payment,” and analyze the nature of irony. We discuss the relationship between the phrases “religious fervour,” “chivalrous enthusiasm,” and “philistine sentimentalism,” and come to a better understanding of how meanings change as we apply different metaphors. I like to cite the line from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “For we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.”

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