Books & Literature

Book Review: A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto, by China Miéville

POLITICAL THEORY: China Miéville’s brilliant reading of the modern world’s most controversial and enduring political document: the Communist Manifesto.

As brilliant, eccentric, and insightful as the work it examines.

In 1848 two German political theorists, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published what would become one of the most seminal tracts in modern politics: The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Although a fully structured political party in the modern sense didn’t yet exist, this document became the backbone of what was to be the Communist Party. Mis-read, misunderstood, and often sorely mis-used, The Manifesto has remained one of the most, if not THE most, literate, and detailed foundations of any socio-political movement.

A Spectre, Haunting, is author China Miéville’s contemporary reading of The Manifesto. An explanation, a discussion, a deconstruction, and an appreciation, it is a work of soaring ambition, and uncompromising intellect.

Miéville has written nearly 20 works, both of fiction and non-fiction. His fiction sits within the speculative field, and he has won countless prizes including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Hugo Award, and the British Science Fiction Award. So there is no doubting that he knows how to string a sentence together. He is also a socialist, and therefore is well placed to help the modern reader access the poetry, wisdom, and passion of The Manifesto.

The work is divided into six chapters, each one taking a different approach to the subject matter. Chapter one provides a fascinating discussion of the manifesto form: an important perquisite to understanding THIS manifesto in its particularities. Other chapters place The Manifesto in its time, give an outline of it, evaluate it, criticise it (or at least evaluate criticisms of it), and finally re-place it in our current time. Miéville includes a complete English translation of The Manifesto itself, original prefaces to various language versions, and a delightful afterword, where he gives us a contemporary version of Engels’s Communist Catechism. This is certainly a thorough Manifesto text-book, even before it becomes something else.

And although there is rigorous exploration of the substantive content, perhaps the most refreshing and unexpectedly delightful aspect of A Spectre, Haunting is Miéville’s examination of The Manifesto as a piece of literature, or at the very least, political poetry. Repetition, rhythmic structure, and unusual vocabulary are all, according to Miéville, deliberate choices designed to draw in the reader, and to inspire the passions. For those readers who originally read it a long time ago, stylistic features may not have been on their radar. Now comes a chance to re-examine this writing as an historico-political and literary document. As Miéville says in his introduction:

“The Manifesto … is short and rude and vivid and eccentrically organised—and its impact has been utterly epochal.”

A Spectre, Haunting is a not a light read. It is closer to being an academic work than a populist one, yet still remains highly accessible to the general reader. It is, as was The Manifesto itself, something of a call-to-arms, and very much a chance to re-examine our ideas of democracy, freedom, and equal rights.

“…the Manifesto is no mere historical curio, but a restless, urgent, vital document.”

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Bloomsbury, published by Head of Zeus
Released: May 2022
RRP: $29.99

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