IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Breaking down what 'The Communist Manifesto' means today with China Miéville: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with author China Miéville about the relevance of "The Communist Manifesto" today.

It’s been 174 years since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote “The Communist Manifesto.” How is it still relevant today and what makes it such a vital guide to understanding present-day struggles? That’s the subject of China Mieville’s latest work, “A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto.” Miéville, a self-proclaimed Marxist and socialist, is a New York Times-bestselling author of fiction and non-fiction. His most recent book offers an analysis of what arguably remains the modern world’s most influential political document. He joins WITHpod to discuss criticisms of “The Manifesto,” the precipitating factors and peculiar nature of the text, how it still profoundly influences contemporary discourse and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

China Miéville: Yeah. I constantly look around at the world and I think this cannot be as good as we can do. This can't be as good as we can do and there are only so many times we can say if you just let us tinker with that a little bit, it'll get better.

And when that keeps failing, and keeps failing and keeps failing, we have to save to ourselves there is something in this structure that is leading to this. And when the structure itself says our driving energy is profit, not human need, it is not rocket science to think this might be related to the problems of the world.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me your host, Chris Hayes.

You know, I wrote a piece for "The New York Times" last week about Twitter and about Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter. And one thing that (ph) I wrote about is the strangeness of having what feels like it should be a public good, which is the public fear being in the hands of a single private owner and this sort of inadequacy to that and the tensions of it.

There was some conservative who was very angry about this and accused me of being a communist. But I thought it was just sort of funny because it points to a larger aspect of conservative discourse which is constantly accusing people of being communists. And the communists are taking me over, the Democrat Party has become communist.

And it's just a very strange charge to level in 2022. I mean, it is true that there has been renewed interest in socialism and democratic socialism and there's been renewed identification of members of the sort of Democratic Party left as socialist, democratic socialist.

There's a number of them who are DSA members, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders calls himself socialist. So, that I get. But, you know, calling people communists in 2022 is a bit bizarre. Like, we don't have a Cold War anymore. We don't really have communism, I think, as a competing ideology.

There is, of course, the largest state on earth, the Chinese government, which is officially a communist state. We don't think of the U.S. and China in a kind of ideological competition, I think, in the way that we thought of the U.S. and, say, the Soviet Union ideological competition in say, you know, 1960, even though that's a sort of interesting question on its own.

I think we also don't think of China as a kind of doctrinaire Marxist state because of all the market reforms that were, you know, introduced by Deng Xiaoping and have been carried forward for decades now in which China is a strange sui generis state with, you know, a kind of market authoritarian state in its own way.

All that said, communism as threat, as insult, as a kind of presence, Marx and Marxism is a presence, you know, continue and endure throughout political discourse in a remarkable way; often, I think, by its enemies. It's wielded most often by its enemies.

I don't think you hear, like, sort of centrist Democrats talking about Marx very much at all. But Marx and Marxist thinking also endures and endures in all kinds of fascinating ways, both in the eyes of its foes and also in the people who find much to learn from or admire in Marx.

I've recently been rereading Marx for the book that I'm writing right now, particularly what he had to say about what he calls a surplus theory of value, and labor, and specifically the effects of alienation. And I had the occasion to go back and read "The Communist Manifesto," which is not very long, it's about 12,000 words, I think.

And it's just a remarkable document in many ways. A strange document, incredibly written, abrasive, inspiring, wrong in certain very obvious ways, but fascinating and sticky.

And it just so happens that I'm not the only person doing that rereading. A phenomenal writer named China Miéville, who you may know if you read his fiction. He's an author of a bunch of different speculative fiction books, including "The City & The City" which is, to me, probably one of the best novels I've read in the last decade.

He has a new book out and it's a fascinating work. It's a book-like exegesis on "The Communist Manifesto" and on Marx and Marxist thinking. It's called "A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto." He breaks down Marx and Engels' manifesto.

He's also one of the founding editors of the journal "Salvage" and just a fantastic writer overall. And so, it's a great pleasure to welcome China Miéville to the podcast.

Welcome to "Why Is This Happening?".

China Miéville: Thank you so much for having me.

Chris Hayes: I have to say before we get started that your novel "The City & The City" is, I think, like one of the most brilliant books that I've ever read in my life, has stuck with me forever. I think about it all the time. It's just an incredible work. So, I have to just get that --

China Miéville: Wow (ph) --

Chris Hayes: -- out of the way.

China Miéville: Thank you. Thank you for saying so.

Chris Hayes: And this is an incredibly great read and fascinating and lively in a way that you don't necessarily think, like, an exegesis on kind of this manifesto would be.

China Miéville: I'm glad to have surprised you.

Chris Hayes: Well, here's the thing, let's start with this. You know, here's what I was thinking about, sometimes in your life, you will return to a text that exists in some canonical form in your memory but you haven't actually been to the text.

So, like I remember at one point reading the entire New Testament, all four gospels, having, you know, growing up Catholic and, you know, having read it, right? But reading it all together, I was like, oh, this is a far stranger text than I had it in my head. Like, this is weirder, pricklier, more contradictory than I thought.

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And I recently had occasion to go back to "The Communist Manifesto" and had the kind of same reaction

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: You know, it has some sort of role, "A Specter Haunting Europe" that, you know. What drew you back to this text and its importance and what was your experience of the re-encounter?

China Miéville: Yeah. Well, I mean, to be honest, one of the things that drew me back to it was irritation and frustration because "The Communist Manifesto," you know, whether you like it or not, for good or ill is, you know, probably the single most influential few thousand words, you know, in the history of language.

I mean, it's this incredibly influential, world-changing tiny little pamphlet. So, simply in terms of the kind of history of ideas, bracket (ph), whether you agree with it or not, this is a world historic piece of writing. And yet, most of the discussion around it is of such bad faith, and such poor quality, and so misrepresentative of the document itself that, while I make no bones about the fact that I find it fascinating and, in many ways, very inspiring document, even if you're just a very harsh critic of it, surely you should do it in (ph) the kind of intellectual seriousness of engaging with it as it actually is in all its complexity, in all its complication, in all its rhetorical splendor.

And so, partly, it was just like, if we're going to have a conversation about this, let's have a serious conversation about what an extraordinary piece of work this is, whatever you think of its arguments, you know.

Chris Hayes: It is a rhetorically masterful text. And --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- probably, it's certainly, I think, Marx's best writing. I mean, I slogged (ph) through the German ideology and capital in my day. And it's a far cry from the kind of propulsive rhetorical --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- crescendo. You talk about what its rhetorical aims are and --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- its sort of public-facing nature. How would you describe its rhetorical mode?

China Miéville: Well, I mean, it is the quintessential manifesto. It is the echt (ph) manifesto. And as I try and say in the book, like, manifestoes preexisted it and they came after it. But it is kind of a hinge point where the manifesto starts to do a very specific set of things.

And one of the things that is very frustrating in terms of what I was saying is there's so little discussion about the specificities of the manifesto as a form, as a form of writing. And so, one of the things that is really important when you're reading it is when Marx and Engels say something, because I kind of attributed it to both of them, there's a whole debate about that. But --


Chris Hayes: Yes. Yes. Yes.

China Miéville: -- you know. But when they say something, I want to be clear here, I'm not saying it's beyond criticism at all, at all, and I make various criticisms of it. But --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

China Miéville: -- sometimes, the criticism will just say, well, they said this thing was going to happen and it didn't happen so the book is wrong.

And my feeling is, look, let's be serious about the way a manifesto works. This is a political intervention, and a poem, and an incantation, and an analysis, and the jeremiad, and a lament and an optimistic rant all at once. It's all these things.

So, if they say, you know, this is the nature of things, they're probably simultaneously making an analytical point and making an aspirational point, or they may be making a warning and they may be making a prophecy. And part of the job and part of the delight and the complexity of dealing with any manifesto, not just this one but this one as the hinge manifesto, is being able to kind of tease those different registers apart.

So, if they say, and I have a, you know, big discussion in the book, say (ph), you know, the overthrow of capitalism of inevitable. You can look at that and you can say, well, capitalism hasn’t been overthrown so the book is wrong.

That’s a very boring, very I think sort of very intellectually dullard way of looking at it because what that partly doing when they say that, as well as making a trut h claim about the future, they're also saying to the working-class reader, you have to overthrow capitalism.

So, in the nature of that claim is also a terrible anxiety that is not going to be overthrown and we have to be able to have that kind of discussion about the way texts work because all tests work this way. But manifestoes work that way with a succulence that no other form has.

Chris Hayes: You make a great comparison to a general telling gathered troops, you will win.

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Which is, you know, it's a prediction but it's also, it's more than that. It's a pep talk, right? So if --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- they lose the battle, it's not like, well, you got it wrong. Obviously (ph) --


China Miéville: Exactly.

Chris Hayes: -- they're not going to say you're going to lose.

China Miéville: Exactly. And there's a very famous notorious section when Marx and Engels say, you know, the working-class has no country and they're essentially saying, you know, nationalism will come to an end.

And to be clear, I think they were way too optimistic about that. So, I do think the truth claim elements of that is wrong. But you're not going to understand that statement unless you understand that they're also saying to their readers, do not trust your own countries, they do not have your own, you know, interests at heart. And they're also saying, you know, working people in other countries should be comrades. They're entreating their readers into something.

Chris Hayes: Let's talk about the context and milieu which I found super useful, I knew parts of it but had forgotten parts of it, just about what's going on. What is this document, and why it appears when it does and what the milieu and the historical circumstances into which it is published?

China Miéville: Yeah. So, you've got two, you’ve got a kind of medium term and a short term. In the medium term, you have 60 years of what are sometimes call the dual revolutions, where you’ve got the living memory of the French Revolution, this incredible political overthrow of a kind of, you know, absolutist monarchy.

And then you’ve also got the kind of long-grinding world transformation of the industrial revolution, which is completely shaking up the nature of the economy and the nature of class relations. And this, of course, as these always do, leads to increasing social conflict and so on.

And then very sharply, in 1848 itself, you have this European-wide and indeed to a certain degree global, like, revolutionary wave, and you've got like people on the streets in Paris, people on the streets in capitals all around the world and so on.

And Marx and Engels, who are both young men, Marx is 30 and Engels is 28. And they're like activists in this tiny little group of kind of squabbling many German working-class intellectuals and émigrés (ph) and they get commissioned to write this document to basically sort of set out the aims of the communists, of the far left, at this revolutionary moment.

And, you know, by the time the actual document appears, the organization itself is, I mean, it doesn't last very long. So, it's a peculiar document because it doesn't exist except for this tiny, historically unimportant group who are only really primary important because they gave birth to this document.

Chris Hayes: I mean, you say this, but it's really tiny. Like, it's --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- a few hundred people. This is a small group of radicals, basically.

China Miéville: Absolutely, absolutely, all of whom know each other. I mean, it's very boring. If you are on the left. The "Monty Python" jokes about the Judean Front and the People's Front --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

China Miéville: -- and then the (ph), kind of, the splits in the left, get very tired but they're not wholly false. And, you know, it is true that, you know, this milieu was, as you say, very, very small, constantly bickering, splitting over this and that and sometimes for good reasons, sometimes less so.

And this happened to be the organization that Marx and Engels, who were these two very brilliant writers, very committed activists, kind of, they basically tried to use it as that sort of launching point for these politics. And then they were very, Marx was notoriously bad at deadlines.

And so, even as what looks like it might be the global revolution to end capitalism is coming along, his comrades are constantly having to send him reminders saying, you are late with this and we need it. There are literally people on the street, which is partly why I think why the end of the manifesto quite amusingly, sort of, is abruptly truncated because he's just desperately rushing to get it out.

Chris Hayes: It's very relatable as a writer.


China Miéville: It's also, it's worth saying it's a document, there's a great pathos to is because although --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

China Miéville: -- in many ways it is, you know, the defining document of communist politics, which is very broad term (ph), as I'm sure we'll discuss.

But also, you know, at the time that it was written, they still had a certain hope in the kind of radical liberals and the radical middle class as basically being prepared to kind of usher in a certain kind of reformist capitalism. And that they were orienting towards the working-class, but they sort of saw this as part of a, kind of, that they wanted to push the bourgeoisie to the left. And almost as the document comes out, the revolutions in Europe are crushed in an appalling, in many ways, very brutal and deeply emotionally crushing for the left way.

And so, that final aspiration of, like, the potential radicalness, the potentially revolutionary role of the middle classes comes crashing down. So, there's this paradox, which this very document is more optimistic about the politics of the bourgeoisie than it would have been had it been written six months later.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And I mean, we don't really learn, I think, about the revolutions of 1848 in American history particularly, or even European history, right, because we learn about Napoleon, we learn about the --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- French Revolution, maybe a little Paris Commune, but you don't really get to '48. '48 is, for people that don't know this history and who've live through modern news, like there's a little bit of the Arab Spring feeling in '48, right? Like --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- this contagion spreads across national borders, uprisings, foment people on the streets. This sort of --

China Miéville: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- like, wow, is it all breaking apart, is it all coming apart. And then, no, it's not coming apart, like basically a reassertion of oppression and --

China Miéville: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- the old regimes emerge victorious.

China Miéville: I mean, this is not merely kind of, you know, 2020 hindsight. Like, some of the more perspicacious elements among the ruling classes of these countries were saying, we are on the edge of the precipice. This could be it, you know.

As you say, this went beyond borders, including to like, you know, Asia. I mean, it was mostly Europe, but there were rumbles in Asia as far away as Australia and so on, also, across, you know, many different linguistic communities. This wasn't one, sort of, linguistic culture if you like. This really was an international class insurgency that a lot of people, both on the left and on the right, thought might be like the end of an old way of doing things.

And then, as you say, pretty crushingly if you supported the revolution, it felt a pretty devastating defeat.

Chris Hayes: I want to talk about, so that's the sort of situation, and there's a kind of period of retreat and some --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- retrenchment. Marx would go on to write this much longer, much more academic texts that sort of develop a lot of the ideas that are present in the manifesto.

Let's sort of wrestle with critiques of it. So, the first one, I think the clearest, right, which is a critique of Marxism writ large but it's present in the manifesto, right?

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: There's sort of two ways, I think, of viewing the history of Marxism after Marx and the history of what would be called communism after Marx, which is that there were a series of attempts to use this model that defaulted into various forms of authoritarianism, sometimes, you know, worse or better, right.

Like, the most horrific being the sort of high Stalinist part, Mao during the mass starvation purges. There are those who say this was ascribable not to anything present in Marx in that text but other factors. And then, of course, anti-communists of various different ideological lineages will say, no, it's all there. It's present in Marx and it's present in the text itself.

And I'd like you to respond to that --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- critique that, actually, the vision that Marx and Engels lay out in the manifesto is in its own way because it envisions some sort of final state --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- of complete authority of the working-class that it is fundamentally authoritarian in its core.

China Miéville: Well, what's interesting to me, as someone who's, you know, very inspired, not uncritically but very --

Chris Hayes: Right, right.

China Miéville: -- inspired by the manifesto, is that you've already started to put that critique in what I think is a much more generous, much more intellectually serious way than it is normally put.

Chris Hayes: Yes. Right.


Yes. I'm trying to give it a, yes --

China Miéville: Well, I mean, I think that’s important. And one of the things I --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- say repeatedly throughout the book is like, you know, let's have a serious discussion. I would love a good-faith serious, you know, debate on some of these things.

But for the most part when people put this critique of the kind of, you know, the inevitability of authoritarianism, it's a kind of totally intellectually incurious yah boo. It's like, well, you know, go back to Russia, as if Russia is not now, you know --

Chris Hayes: Right (ph).

China Miéville: -- horrendous cowboy capitalism, you know, or go back to North Korea.

And this is frustrating to me because, you know, first of all, in my own, you know, reading of the manifesto, which comes from a whole lineage, it seems to me that two things are absolutely crucial to it. And I make this case as rigorously as --

Chris Hayes: Yep.

China Miéville: -- I can, one is freedom and one, as part of that, is democracy, a radical grassroots democracy.

And from that, you know, via various mediations, there is, as I'm sure you know, for many, many years, there's been a very vigorous anti-Stalinist, anti-authoritarian radical left current that criticizes these regimes precisely on the grounds of the politics --

Chris Hayes: Yep.

China Miéville: -- in the manifesto. Now, again, I need to be super clear about this. I'm not saying that everyone has to agree with it. What I'm saying is --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- if we're going to have an intellectually serious argument about it, then it is really frustrating when right-wing attacks act as if no one on the left has ever realized that Stalinism was horrible (ph) --

Chris Hayes: Totally.

China Miéville: This is bananas. So --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

China Miéville: And in terms of what you said, there's much more serious, I think, approach, you know. And I would disagree with it, but I think it's a much more rigorous and interesting position.

I think, you know, my position is probably close to what Victor Serge, who was a very kind of libertarian socialist, said about the relationship between Stalinism and Leninism which is, you know, he said, you know, when people see the germs of Stalinism and Leninism, it's not that I'm disagreeing with that but that I'm saying there we're also loads of other germs that it could have been.

So, there's one thing to say certain strands of politics move in a certain direction and, you know, had history been a bit different, had the balance of forces been a bit different, maybe things could have happened another way. And then it's another to say, inevitably, you try and do these politics, you're going to lead to this.

And that second position is the default position of critics, and I don't think it's intellectually serious. I don’t think it's engaging with the real lived history, not least the incredibly vibrant debates among the communist movements over exactly this.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. We should know. I mean, again, there's all sorts of incarnations of communists, socialists, leftists throughout this period. I think if the German Revolution had succeeded, we would have had a very different state than what the --

China Miéville: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: -- Bolsheviks end up. There's also remarkable Bolshevik dissension, and Kautsky and all sorts of tendencies --

China Miéville: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: -- that I've always found invigorating as genuinely sort of, like, left and liberatory but also, from the moment of inception, suspicious of the authoritarian --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- nature, particularly of Lenin, right? Like, there are people at that time who see part of what's going on.

China Miéville: Right.

Chris Hayes: Here's my question to you though.

China Miéville: Yeah (ph).

Chris Hayes: The manifesto's relationship to liberalism --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- right, and Marx's relationship with liberalism. And I think as I've gotten older, maybe I've gotten more conservative. But I do think that, like, let me give my defense of liberalism --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- or what I see present in the manifesto that leaves me feeling slightly colder than --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- it once did perhaps, which is just the notion that, I think, for its flaws in (ph) their manifest, part of the sort of foundational condition of liberalism is a conflict doesn't go away.

That conflict is sort of inherent, right, to society between different interests. Those could be class material interests, but they can also be ideological factions. They can be different pluralistic religious traditions, which, of course, is the real problem liberalism's first encountering, right, when it's like kind of coming up with liberalism.

And that you come up with a system that tries to mediate those conflicts with the understanding they're sort of always there. Whereas, what the manifesto lays out is there's a central ordering conflict and that conflict is actually at some state irradicable, right --

China Miéville: Yeah (ph).

Chris Hayes: And that, to me, is like the faith that animates it that is both inspiring but ultimately does leave me cold as a sort of theory of how human society functions.

China Miéville: And what I would say is that I don't think there's anything in "The Communist Manifesto" or the kind of rigorous and interesting elements of the Marxist tradition that denies that conflict, on some level, is kind of disputation if you like --

Chris Hayes: Right. Yeah. Right.

China Miéville: It's (ph) part of the process of any kind of complicated social life and indeed probably most simple social lives.

I think there is a claim, which is that there is something specific about the nature of class conflict. And, again, as I keep saying this --

Chris Hayes: Yeah (ph).

China Miéville: -- and I'm sorry to do it, but it's just, as you know, there's a lot of bad faith in this sphere of discussions, so I want to kind of cover --

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Yeah.

China Miéville: -- my back. We can agree or disagree about that, but (ph) --

Chris Hayes: Right (ph).

China Miéville: -- the argument is that, you know, there is something specific about the nature of class conflict whereby you have the control of society, its economy and, therefore, in most cases, relations of power by a small minority who are making decisions on the basis of profit rather than human need.

And then you have everyone else who has to sell their labor and has no control essentially of what is done with that labor and that that leads to a whole set of other kinds of --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- conflicts and so on. Now, it's perfectly true that, you know, what "The Communist Manifesto" and Marxism believes is that it is not inevitable that there will always be class conflict for the human species. And you say that that's a faith position. As someone who is increasingly very interested in, kind of, radical faith positions and certain --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- traditions of, kind of, radical theology, I'm not sure you necessarily meant it as a --

Chris Hayes: Oh, I don’t mean it pejoratively. No. No, I just --

China Miéville: Right. Right.

Chris Hayes: -- mean it's a faith I don't share.


China Miéville: OK. See, well, I would put it rather differently, I would call it a wager.

Chris Hayes: Ah (ph).

China Miéville: And there is a strong tradition within the left that relates to this as a wager.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

China Miéville: It's not a wager ex nihilo. I mean, it is --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- a wager based on an analysis of society. And this is where I always want to bring out my beloved Ursula Le Guin quote where she says, "We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable, but then, so did the divine right of kings."

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: "Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings." And at the very basic level, those people who have a fundamental skepticism that we can ever get rid of class society, that is also a faith position. That just says, I just think that's how things --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

China Miéville: -- are. And I don't think --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

China Miéville: -- how things inevitably are, and I have a body of theory as to why I think that. But it's not that, like, somehow those other people are being more realistic than me. It's just predicated on a different reading of reality.

Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.


Chris Hayes: So, here's one of the things that’s interesting that you write about in the manifesto, and is so present in the manifesto and I think it's really interesting to like modern years is, you know, I think people tend to have a little historical amnesia about whatever fight they're in now at this moment politically.

And particularly around social media, people are like, people are so nasty on social media. And it's true. But all those people did, all Marx did was fight. They just fought. They fought in letters. They fought over things --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- everyone in the tradition. The manifesto itself has a series of appendices that are literally just refutations of different ideological tendencies that he --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- wants to call out as incorrect. I mean, going down the line, including what I think is the most fascinating where he says, don't listen to the reactionaries who try to cultivate the lower classes out of a shared animus towards liberalism, which I think is quite actually astute in this moment.

How much was that factionalism that has been part of left history present in that moment and how much does it flow from this or is that just --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- politics?

China Miéville: It's a really good question, and I really don't know. I have a few hunches --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

China Miéville: -- but that’s kind of all I can say. I mean, I will say in terms of social media, I am constantly delighted that Marx and Engels were not --

Chris Hayes: Oh God.


China Miéville: -- alive. You know, in (ph) the twist that didn’t exist because I think they would have been unbearable --

Chris Hayes: It's all they would have done.

China Miéville: -- and extreme (ph) online.

Chris Hayes: That's all Karl Marx would have done. And he never would have finished, he never would have finished the books.

China Miéville: I think, you know, we mentioned the "Monty Python" thing. There is a very easy criticism which is to say, you know, all the left ever does is split and if it could just stop doing that, everything would be OK.

And I kind of want to have it both ways because it is absolutely true that a lot of, you know, we would call sectarianism, the focus on the differences is really, really unhelpful.

But I do also think there's sometimes a rather prim piety about that. Because sometimes, these divisions are important, or sometimes somebody with a very strong political radar can tell, and I think you could make a very strong case about Lenin in this instance, again, whether you agree with --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- him or not, he could see, OK, this particular political difference really doesn't look big. But reading about the way it's going to go, I think this actually bespeaks a really fundamental difference that’s going to lead to big problems later on in terms of if we don't kind of have this out now.

So, I kind of don't think I can have an overall argument. I think I have to take it case by case.

And there are some cases, particularly, I mean, the one I talk about a little bit in the book is there's this bit where Marx and Engels are talking about a group called the real socialists. And it makes almost no sense now. I mean, I find it fascinating from a historical perspective and I think it contains important things. But it does also feel that the spleen is disproportionate --

Chris Hayes: Yes.


China Miéville: -- to the current (ph), you know.

Chris Hayes: Yes. Yes.

China Miéville: But then there are others, like when they're talking about the sort of, what they call the bourgeois socialists, essentially kind of middle-class reformists who are deeply, deeply hostile to any actually radical --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

China Miéville: -- overturning, you know. Like, that, I think, is a bang on the money, you know. So, I kind of have to take it on a case-by-case basis, you know.

Chris Hayes: Well, what's fascinating to me about those parts of the manifesto is how enduring they are because these same --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- fights reoccur --

China Miéville: Absolutely (ph).

Chris Hayes: -- you know, into now, right? Like, these sort of --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- liberal left fights, the question of like sort of reform versus more radical change, these are enduring questions that --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- royal politics and all kinds of situations, even in very different, you know, technological or historical contexts.

China Miéville: I mean, absolutely. And, again, I think on all sides there can be a kind of parodying (ph) of the opponent. So, it is absolutely true that Marx and Engels were, you know, deeply, deeply committed to rupture. This is the word they kept using.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

China Miéville: Like, a fundamental radical overturning of the system that they saw as, you know, deeply hostile to human freedom and flowering. But it doesn't follow that they simply denounced old reformists as you know, you know, not at all.

And there's amazing thing which is, you know, when you read the manifesto, it has this incredible rhetoric about overthrowing capitalism, whatever, and then there's like the list of immediate demands. And some of them are incredibly mild, you know. They're sort of --

Chris Hayes: Minimum wage, and caps on hours and --

China Miéville: You know, they’re very clear about it. They say in later appendices like, you know, these are historically specific. We're not fixed on these things. You make different demands in the different contexts. But their idea being that, like, absolutely, you fight for everything that is going to make working-class life oppressed life, the life of the oppressed, any way better.

But what you particularly fight for is those things which are reforms, which capitalism can deliver but that it doesn't want to deliver because it actually challenges the fundamental logic --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- of capitalism. And then you push it that and you push it that. So, this is why the relationship to reformism is complicated. Can I just say one more thing about liberalism --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

China Miéville: -- in this context? This is something --

Chris Hayes: Please, yes.

China Miéville: When you were talking earlier about liberalism, I think this is really important because I want to make a distinction between liberalism as a current and liberals. You know, because, like, you're absolutely right. There's a deep and, for me, bracing an important critique from the left, which is very unusual for a lot of American readers of liberalism --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- from the left --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- within the Marxist tradition and within this manifesto.

But part of the criticism that they level, and I try to get into this in the book, is that liberalism as a current, and this is where I would distinguish between, you know, some liberals and liberalism as a current, liberalism as a current cannot deliver on the radical promises of liberalism.

Chris Hayes: Of its own. Right, yes.

China Miéville: Right --

Chris Hayes: Exactly, yes.

China Miéville: And this is, you know, one of my friends, Richard Seymour, he's a very, very brilliant writer about social media among other things. He has this lovely formulation that he has used more than once, which is there's a difference between liberals who are liberal because they have fidelity to liberal ideas and liberals who are liberal because they have fidelity to the liberal state. And the latter --

Chris Hayes: Ah (ph).

China Miéville: -- will always ultimately choose reaction. They may do so with tears in their eyes, but their fundamental relationship is to this. And they're liberals, this isn’t to say they're not liberals, but their --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- relationship with fidelity is different.

Whereas one of the things that you see that can be quite powerful is when people who do take, absolutely take liberal ideas seriously begin to sound like radicals because liberalism is not delivering these things. So, no part this is saying like --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

China Miéville: -- you know, I don't want to march with liberals, I don't see liberals as part of the same struggle. Not at all.

What it is saying is like, and I think Marx and Engels would say this as well, like you cannot trust liberalism as an overall structural current because of its imbrication within the power relations and the bureaucracies of the countries and the states and capitalism. And that's an important distinction.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And it gets back to one of the strange contradictions of the text, which is it is quite factional, right? I mean, there is, like, the different things about what different tendencies are wrong and why they're wrong.

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: But it is also ecumenical because he's very aware of the fact that there's only a few hundred of them. And that basically what it calls for is making broad common cause across, basically what we would now call the center left, with liberal reformers, with certain elements of the bourgeoisie to challenge the worst deprivations as a kind of crowbar into the structures, right, of authoritarianism that are extent (ph) at that time, right.

I mean, when you talk about the freedom part, the liberatory, I mean, my favorite Marx quote is the one where he talks about being, you know, a fisher in the morning and a critic at night and a poet. You know, and that basically, his position at the end point of all this is that you kind of get to do what you want to do with your one precious life, which is a beautiful and liberatory vision to me and one that I sort of hold dear to this --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- day. But he is calling at a practical level of politics for this kind of coalitional approach.

China Miéville: Yes. And I think the tragedy of the manifesto is precisely as we say that like scant months after it's written lot of the hopes that are embedded in this are collapsing because some of those currents that were not communists, were not socialists, but that he nonetheless wanted a degree of common cause with essentially, in his term, sort of failed their historic mission or like made --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- you know, again, as currents. We're not talking about necessarily all individuals. We're talking about as currents. But I think that that dialectic, if you like, between ecumenicalism and sort of hard positioning, in the abstract in principle, I think, is correct.

I mean, his position is to say you make common cause with absolutely everyone you can while not blunting the specific importance of your own reading of the situation and of how to get from where you are to where you want.

Where the problems inevitably get thrown up (ph), and I don't think this is unique to Marxism at all, is how you concretize that position --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

China Miéville: -- and there are, you know, the history of the left, and indeed the history of many movements, is littered with what I think a very poor concretization of that principle.

But that attempt to sort of have it both ways, you know, it's not a paradox. It's kind of the only way you can do politics with any honor and with any seriousness it seems to me.

Chris Hayes: How did you find yourself to Marx?

China Miéville: I was always on the left and I was involved in various kind of, you know, Anti-Apartheid Movement and, you know, so on. And I think when I was in my late teens, I started reading Marxism initially from a position of deep skepticism.

But the thing that really blew me away for me was the way this is a theory that understands the world not as like clockwork model but is nonetheless as interconnected. Like, Engels somewhere has a quote about, you know, everything is related to everything else.

And, again, this doesn't mean that, like, you know, it's like dominoes, you press one thing, you know exactly where it's going to go. There's space for contingency and randomness in this.

But Marxism and, in my intellectual and political experience, Marxism alone has something to say about, you know, the exchange rates between France and the U.S. in the 1970s, Mickey Mouse, women's oppression, professional baseball, the ecological catastrophe, you know, wages on the London underground, modern art. And not only does it have a way to read to these things but that it says, these things are connected.

And as an incredibly complicated and complex and (ph) level that involves an enormous amount of work and mediation, we are talking about the totality and we can relate to these things as imbricated and as comprehensible as part of a whole.

To me, that was so intellectually and politically liberating to say, you know, I'm not just faced with a massive disparate fact. Like actually, racism, and gender inequality, and class exploitation and, as I say, cartoons on a Saturday morning, they are related. That's an extraordinary epiphanic moment once that starts to make sense to you, I think.

And the other thing, of course, is that then, you know, this is not merely an analytical model. This is a model that is put to a political use and that has an ethical, although Marx himself likes to think he had no ethical position, this is clearly not true, I think, you know. And that it is predicated on a burning fury at the lack of human freedom. And that all of this --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

China Miéville: -- understanding is cleaving towards a world fit for humans to live in. And basically, I constantly look around at the world and I think this cannot be as good as we can do. This cannot be as good as we can do. And there are only so many times we can say, if you just let us tinker with that a little bit, it will get better.

And when that keeps failing, and keeps failing and keeps failing, we have to say to ourselves there is something in this structure that is leading to this. And when the structure itself says, our driving energy is profit, not human need, it is not rocket science to think this might be related to the problems of the world.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, it's probably worth just reasserting here, a core truth here, right, which is that the conditions of the proletariat, as they're being described by Marx and Engels here, is just unremittingly bleak at this point.

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: I mean, just grinding wage slavery, basically. And also, it's fresh and new enough, right, that it's --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- a new phenomenon, at least in the way that people have their lives. And I do think that, like, to me, the really important thing that I try to keep reconnecting myself, even though I'm not a Marxist and I'm basically a boring liberal, is to just keep remembering how radically wrong it is the contingencies into which people are born in and forced to live in 2022.

I mean, I was just thinking as you're talking about this, the Katherine Boo book, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" which is a --

China Miéville: Right (ph).

Chris Hayes: -- book about a slum in Mumbai where, you know, people pick through garbage all day. And it's like, we can do better than this, right. Like, that idea that like the human lottery has just declared that these people will be --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- inhaling toxic fumes and picking through a garbage heap and I will be sitting here in my, you know, Brooklyn home is fundamentally unjust and not --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- to be just sort of accepted.

China Miéville: Yes. It's fundamentally unjust. It's not to be accepted. And it is also, and this is where, you know, where the analytical thing comes in, it's not just a thing that happened like the weather. It's not --


Chris Hayes: Yes, right.

China Miéville: -- Like, there weren't some winds, and this occurred. Like, we have to start taking seriously the idea that we got to this situation that you described so eloquently because of a massively complicated, to be sure, but nonetheless, you know, movement of human decisions for particular ends. And as decisions made by humans for particular ends, they are also decisions and structures that can be dismantled and changed by humans.

And I think that, you know, one of the things that’s so interesting about these debates is that if you are someone who draws very strongly on Marx, if you are a Marxist of any kind, one of the things that you're often accused of, particularly by people who know a little bit about Marxism, is like, you know, you're an inevitablist (ph), you think that it's inevitably going to overthrow capitalism. Which, A, matter of fact, no. I wish I thought it was inevitable we --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- were going to overthrow capitalism because I don’t. And I think the manifesto itself is deeply ambivalent on that point.

But, B, no one is more inevitablist (ph) than the default liberal, not even like the right-wing capitalists but like the default liberal. And I say this with, you know, deep respect for some aspects of the liberal tradition. Essentially, its position is, you know, it sucks but --

Chris Hayes: That's just (ph) the way it is.

China Miéville: -- it's unchangeable. Now, there are some liberals who don’t take that position. I don’t want to see sectarian about this. But the default --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- is like, it's a tragedy here. And it may be like, on an individual level, I'm going to give loads of money and I'm going to try --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- and do what I can.

But like, what incredibly impoverished theory of the world that you think this is just the way things are. How did this happen? How is this psychic, not to (ph) you, you (ph), but like, how is this psychic violence done to people that intelligent people think this just has to be, and I don't like it but it just has to be, apart from anything else?

That is just an intellectual dereliction. I think, of course, is also a huge ethical dereliction. But like, this just makes no logical sense.

Chris Hayes: Talk about ethics. You just mentioned this before, there's just such a complicated relationship that Marx has to ethics because this, I mean, the idea that sort of scientific communism comes later when he, you know, writes at greater length. But this idea of, like, that this is essentially, the claims are not normative, they're descriptive --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Right? That they're, instead of descriptive claims, that this is a systematic description of the functioning of capital labor, the mechanisms of industrial processes, how a materialist account of history functions.

But what's present in the manifesto, again, is a radical ethics, right? I mean, it just --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- diffuses the entire thing, the outrage, the fire and brimstone of a preacher almost, about --

China Miéville: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- the hell on earth that this system has wrought for some people.

China Miéville: Yes. And I mean, again, I talk about this at some length in the book and I'm not going to be able to --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

China Miéville: -- go into the same kind of detail here. But I think, you know, Marx and Engels, particularly Marx, actually, more so than Engels, did like to say and like to, and I think believes in good faith that, like, you know, this was not an ethical position. This was a purely sort of analytical position.

And I think that one can be, to a degree, generous about this in the sense that what he's doing when he does this is partly, he is very antipathetic to moralizing. He's very --

Chris Hayes: Yes. Right.

China Miéville: -- you know, he wants to sort of get away from, you know, he's really keen on a structural analysis. So, he wants to get away from any notion that like, you know, bad and evil people are the reason that the world is the way it is and that good people can fix it and so on.

So, he's partly, you know, sort of overegging a correction on that course, I think. But I think one has to be, as I am in the book, I think one has to say like Marx is just wrong about this. And there's nothing wrong with being wrong on this basis, you know --

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Right.

China Miéville: He does, as you say, he has an ethics. You sometimes hear Marxists sort of, more so in the past, but they would sort of say, you know, the reason that there's an exhortation to join in the movement is because it's inevitable and you want to be on the right side of history. And even if you think it is inevitable, which I don’t and many us don’t, there's no philosophical or ethical reason you should therefore --

Chris Hayes: Right. That (ph) --


China Miéville: You know, because (ph) it makes no sense at all. It's a total Marx (inaudible) --

Chris Hayes: That’s right. Yes. Yes.

China Miéville: I think what exists in Marx is an ethics of freedom. And when you talk about that lovely quote about, you know, hunting in the morning and philosophizing and so on, like there's never a sense that they're always aware that like there is work that needs to be done to keep society taking (ph) over.

But they are very opposed, quite explicitly opposed, to ascetic communism. This is not a communism of lack. They're not talking about, like, everyone being equal in a kind of tiny little cell (ph). This is precisely about creating or attempting to create a system of adequate abundance that people can flower as individuals that have the liberty, the freedom to discover what they might be.

And this, I think, is key because Engels in particular stresses this but they both talked about it, which is like the process of changing the world is not just versus changing society. It's a process of changing ourselves, of changing the people who are doing the changing.

And I find that vision incredibly moving, this idea that, you know, Engels talks about seeking to create an entirely different kind of human material, like humans who are not predicated on this sense of like the constant grind, the constant exhaustion, the valorization of competition, the valorization of like so-called winners and the denigration of so-called losers. I mean, this is a sadistic psychopathic way to proceed.

And so, yes, I think you're right. I think there is an ethics, and the ethics is saying we can do better than this. There is space in this world with these resources for humans not to have absolute liberty but to have the liberty to collaboratively create themselves as well as the world with the real freedom to make choices, which very few people really have.

Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: I would like you to talk a little more on this question of freedom because you write about it in the book and in the American context, particularly the way that this tends to be shorthanded, I think particularly shorthanded by conservatives a little bit. But this kind of trade-off between freedom and equality, right, and that, you know, because the right in American, and I don't think this is quite the same in politics in the U.K., but in American context, freedom has this very particular right valence, like conservative valence of like. So like --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- you know, the hard-right members or the Republican caucus, for instance, are called the House Freedom Caucus.

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Right. And equality and justice have a very --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- like left valence, right? So, you don’t --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- see conservatives talking about equality. You don't see them talking about justice. You see leftists and liberals talking about equality and justice. You see right --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- conservatives talking about freedom. And, you know, you talked about Marxist conception of freedom as being core to the whole --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- thing. How do you understand freedom and how do you understand --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- that trajectory of that, the valence of that term particularly in modern politics?

China Miéville: Well, this is obviously a huge discussion. And we --


Chris Hayes: Yes, sorry (ph).

China Miéville: -- you know, we have about 10 minutes, but --

Chris Hayes: I know. I'm sorry. Sorry. Sorry --

China Miéville: So just to dip our toes, let's dip our toes. I mean, it's worth mentioning, by the way, that Marx, he absolutely is an egalitarian. But I don't think, and, again, I talk about this in the book, he doesn't valorize egalitarianism as an end in itself. What he sees as the end is this sense of freedom and because he sees the deep inequality of society as a block on freedom and that, you know, increasing egalitarianism maximizes freedom for most people.

So, the end is the freedom, not the egalitarianism for its own sake. I think to try and answer your question, my sense is that specifically American and/or libertarian sort of conception of freedom is predicated, it seems to me, on a fundamentally vacuous and totally unpersuasive philosophy of, kind of, social atomization, which is that, you know, you kind of emerge into the world as this kind of monad that like then has essentially sort of the power to interact on the world. And that, therefore, what you do is yours and you have done it. And if other people don't do it, that’s because they're losers and they didn't do it.

Now, in some ways, it's difficult for me to even have an argument about this because it seems to me so utterly boneheaded. But like, to try and, you know, to try and put it more kind of calmly, like I don't know the source of this quote but it's a quote about simians and it's like, there is no such thing as one chimpanzee.

And there is no such thing as one human. We don't get --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- to be human by --

Chris Hayes: Right.

China Miéville: -- you're not born into a void. Humans, we are what we are. Everything we know, everything we believe, everything we feel, everything we don't know about ourselves, our unconsciousness (ph), our desires, are inextricably the result of, among other things and among contingencies, the social structures that we grow up in, which means other people.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

China Miéville: We are individuals only to the extent that we are individuals in a matrix with other individuals and that we're part of a totality. And the right-wing conception of freedom basically wants to see individualism as distinct from totality, which is, apart from a lot of other things, very bad philosophy.

And so the moment we start to conceive of, you know, I am not an anti-individualist and I don't think Marx is an anti-individualist, as the quote you mentioned --

Chris Hayes: No, that quote is the, right, yes, which is the one I would come back to.

China Miéville: You know, the vision of justice, the vision of the way the world works in the "Critique of the Gotha Programme," you know, from each according to their ability to each according to their need.

It's, you know, you give what you can and what is given to you is the ability to do what you need to do. And that is a conception of need that includes aesthetic needs, and emotional needs, and, you know, communal needs, and needs of affect and love and all of those things. So, the moment you start to understand, it's not about saying, you know, well, you think individuals are this, you know, but I think you need add to this element. This is not an additive thing.

There is no such thing as an individual beyond a matrix of totality. We are nodes in a collective. And therefore, the moment you start to see freedom as a function of that, there is no such thing as one person's freedom. You know, freedom becomes something that is distributed, highly unequally, of course, and that's part of the problem --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

China Miéville: -- among a social totality.

And so, this is where, you know, it seems to me such a kind of ethical abomination and such bad faith that the hard-right manage to try to pose as, you know, the champions of freedom, because what they are actually the champions of, in some case explicitly, in some cases with bad faith disingenuity, is the unfreedom of the vast majority of people. And the philosophy of socialism says we want freedom for everyone.

Chris Hayes: Everyone. It's interesting because I think in the U.S., actually, in this kind of strange post-liberal turn that the right has taken, it's actually discarding more and more with freedom rhetoric and actually talking more openly about essentially control and domination. Basically --

China Miéville: Right.

Chris Hayes: -- that, you know, we will control the mechanisms, and we'll tell the corporations do what we want, and we'll tell the --

China Miéville: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- woke professors, yada, yada.

Are you working on a novel right now? Are you writing a novel?

China Miéville: Yes, I still love fiction. Fiction is, you know, my heart beats in fiction at least as much, if not, more than it does in non-fiction. So, I now have a little space and time and I'm, yes, this is a long-winded slightly nervous way of saying yes.

Chris Hayes: It's always dangerous. I tell my parents that, like, you never want to ask writers like, well, how's the book coming?


I'm working on my third book right now. It's like, well, how's the book coming? It's like, the answer to that is always like, it's brutal. It's a struggle. I guess it's coming.

China Miéville: Well, it's funny. I mean, there are some people who will happily tell you all about their work in prose (ph). My partner puts it, always, that like let's not open the oven door while it's baking, you know.

And so, it's not mere shyness. It's also a fear of sort of undermining whatever is going on in there --

Chris Hayes: Ah (ph).

China Miéville: -- to talk about it too much. But, yes, I am. Thank you for asking.

Chris Hayes: I got to say, this was such a delightful, it was so wonderful to have you on the show --

China Miéville: Thank you for having me. It's been --

Chris Hayes: -- and to get to talk to you as someone I've --

China Miéville: -- wonderful.

Chris Hayes: I've admired your writing for a very long time. And I just want to say for people that, you know, consider themselves strong anti-communist or people that consider themselves socialists, communists, liberals, whatever, it's just an incredible engagement with the text. And you'll get a lot of reward, I think, out of reading this. So I really, really recommend it.

China Miéville: Thank you for saying that. That means a lot to me because I really didn't want it just to be preaching to the choir. I want it to be a good faith discussion. I mean, no bones about my own positions but I'm really glad you think that. So, thank you for saying so.

Chris Hayes: China Miéville is a "New York Times" best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction. And the book that we were just discussing today It's called "A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto" in which he, it's a kind of extended essay on exegesis of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' "The Communist Manifesto."

He's one of the founding editors of the journal "Salvage" and you should read his speculative fiction, which is phenomenal. China, it was a great pleasure. Thank you.

China Miéville: Thank you for having me.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to China Miéville. I really found that super fascinating. I hope you did, too.

And I'm sure, look, I'm sure there's people listening to this who feel themselves committed anti-communists and think that Marx is the seed of the devil. You know, honestly, particularly people that are from enterprises and institutions and governments that call themselves Marxist-Leninist and were Marxist and were horribly oppressive, I, you know, 100 percent understand that.

But I do think the text is incredibly fascinating and really, really a worthwhile read for anyone across the political spectrum.

It is that time of year because it's coming up on the holidays, we're going to do our holiday mail bag. So, we would love to know what's on your mind. Send us your questions, thoughts and feedback. Tweet with the hashtag #WITHpod, e-mail with Be sure to follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod.

"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to