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New Left Review 54, November-December 2008


Kheya Bag on Martin Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution. The rules of the manifesto as a form, in revolutionary politics and in avant-garde art, and the history of its fortunes.

KHEYA BAG

WORDS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD

Manifestos announce the entry of a new force onto the historical stage. [1] Martin Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos and the Avant-Gardes, Princeton University Press: Princeton 2006, $24.95, paperback, 315 pp, 978 0 691 12260 1. Passionate appeals for the overthrow of an existing order, they are calls to action for a better one. Expressive but compact, they represent a distinctive literary genre whose emergence marks the beginning of insurgent mass politics and self-consciously iconoclastic art. As a modern form, the manifesto has inherited but transformed the features of a range of predecessors. Taxonomically, these include the collective pledge of pre-modern aristocratic risings, of which the Scottish Covenant of 1640 would be an example, bearing witness to a common cause; popular or parliamentary petitions, calling for the redress of grievances; declarations of political principle, the closest relative of the manifesto; constitutions that enshrine such principles, typically presenting them as timeless, universal truths; utopias that imagine an ideal condition without providing a route, stoking aspirations, rather than actions which are counterfactually presumed. Differences of agency, authority and temporality distinguish these forms. Pledges and petitions articulate an objective. Declarations signal a commencement. Utopias vault over the near future. Manifestos, by contrast, set out to direct its course. Their register is defiance, and—bristling with imperatives and injunctions—their logic is polarizing. They aim to do more than persuade: the measure of a manifesto is its ability to provoke and inspire.

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