Seeing Red: Graphic Treatment of the Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto is repeatedly heralded as ‘the most widely read and influential pamphlet in the history of the world’, making it apparent that not all books are judged by their covers.  A cursory examination of some of the early cover designs of the classic text reveals the conspicuous absence of revolutionary punch. Rather than the strident call to revolution one might expect – flags and workmen, hammers and sickles – a different symbolism is at work: one which emphasizes a connection to the past, rather than a break from it.

Many of the symbols so synonymous with Communism were not adopted until some 60 years after the first publication of the Manifesto, thus explaining their conspicuous absence from early cover designs.  In their absence, Marx and Engels frequently stage toga parties. Though the men that penned the Manifesto were young radicals, Manifesto covers invariably depict them with silvery Socratic beards and piercing eyes. Medallion-like portraits are adorned with laurels. The laurel, thought to be a remedy against poison in ancient times, is a familiar heraldic symbol denoting fame and triumph. This depiction not only lends the young radicals a philosophical heft, but also posits the principles of the Manifesto as the rightful evolution of great civilizations. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, states the opening line of the Manifesto: Communism is to be seen as the aim to which the whole of mankind is tending.

A different historical symbolism can be seen at work within the International Publisher’s ‘Little Marx Library’ edition. At first glance, the New York cover – which depicts a Manifesto title page pinned, notice-like, to a wall – seems to represent a socialist work: written by the people for the people.  But further consideration reveals a more nuanced theme at work. With over 50% of Americans declared Protestant, it is not an unreasonable stretch to assume that the cover’s design would bring the Protestant Reformation to mind for many of its viewers. Over the course of the 19th century, more than 8 million Germans emigrated from Europe to the United States- primarily to New York and Pennsylvania.  They were pulled to America because it offered an attractive alternative to the land shortages and oppression, both religious and political, that plagued Europe. Taken in concert, these facts indicate that the design’s subtle allusion to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses would not have been lost on many. Arguing against the power and efficacy of indulgences, Luther’s words, when pinned to the doors of Castle Church, insighted the Protestant Reformation.  Three centuries later, Marx, with his own theses against indulgence, would make his own plea for radical change.

The cover becomes even more interesting with the realization that these are not the only religious parallels that can be drawn. Communism has not always been secular. Indeed, prior to Marx, all Communism was rooted in religious principles.  Plymouth Colony, the first sizable permanent settlement in the New England region, was a vibrant example of a Communist Christian community.  Established by Separatist Pilgrims in 1620, the colony operated on the principle of common ownership of property and profits, with harvest equally divided amongst the settlers. Communism became secular in the mid-nineteenth century under the influence of Marx and Engels, then members of the League of the Just, the largest Communist organization in Europe. With the establishment of new principles and a new name, the Communist League invited Marx and Engels to pen a document that would express their new program: thus, the Manifesto was born.  The profound influence of the Manifesto meant that within a few decades secular Communists far out-numbered their Christian counterparts. The subtle reference to religion on the New York edition thus can be seen to tie this radical work to the historical roots of all Americans.  It is a quiet reminder that the United States was born of radicals who sacrificed everything for their belief in a better way: one fundamentally tied to Communism.  As Communists within the United States came under increasing attack for being ‘foreign’ agents in the post World War II era, the Little Marx Library edition’s graphic symbolism is successful in the bold simplicity with which it pins the Manifesto to the familiar.

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