Manifestos announce the entry of a new force onto the historical stage. 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.

But if the importance of the manifesto as a form is written all over the political and cultural history of the past couple of centuries, there has been curiously little analysis of it. Martin Puchner’s Poetry of the Revolution is therefore to be welcomed as a bold venture into relatively unexplored terrain. What Puchner offers us is both an attempt at defining the manifesto as a rhetorical form, and a history of its origins and diffusion, ending with some reflections on its status today. The key formal characteristic of the manifesto, he suggests, is a peculiar combination of ‘self-authorization’ and ‘open agonism’: manifestos create their authors and addressees as agents, without reference to any pre-existent tradition or authority, and target those that stand in their way expressly as enemies. After briefly invoking the German reformer Thomas Münzer in the sixteenth century and English Levellers in the seventeenth century as episodes in the pre-history of the form, Puchner effectively begins his story with Marx and Engels, taking the Communist Manifesto as the hinge of his narrative—‘the manifesto through which all preceding manifestos are retrospectively constituted as manifestos and against which their participation in the genre of the manifesto must be measured.’ Somewhat unexpectedly, however, after emphasizing the novelty of its revolutionary enactment of what it announced, he delivers no detailed rhetorical analysis of the Manifesto as a text, focusing rather on the history of its reception—the long gap between its initial, extremely obscure appearance in 1848 and eventual translation into the principal languages of Europe from the 1880s onwards—and the geographical patterns of its spread.

After this reconstruction of the fortunes of Marx and Engels’s incendiary masterpiece, Puchner shifts his attention to the aesthetic manifestos of the twentieth century avant-gardes. Here pride of place is occupied by Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909—retrospectively so named, as Puchner notes—as the model of successive later movements. Marinetti, though subsequently a fascist, was at the time close in many of his ideas to socialism, and as a thoroughly political artist more directly subject to the impact of the Communist Manifesto than his French or German contemporaries. Distilling from the manifesto ‘its pure gesture: the rupture with the past and the invocation of the future’, he made of its form ‘the very content of futurism’. Although Marinetti took care to launch his programme not in Turin or Milan, but in Paris, in the consecrating pages of Le Figaro, it was not in France that it gained any adherents or immediate imitators, but in Russia, to which Puchner’s attention then turns. In a society yet more backward and peripheral than Italy, artists—as Trotsky would point out—were no less eager to embrace a doctrine proclaiming itself the last word in modernity. Even in Britain, however, Marinetti’s proselytism had a certain, if in this case more ironic, impact, goading Pound and Lewis into a more aggressively programmatic stance, to ward off the competition. Puchner shows how, in one of the more original moves in the repertory of the twentieth-century avant-gardes, Lewis parodied the manifesto form in Blast, in the service of his own, cantankerously idiosyncratic, modernism—treated without much sympathy by Puchner as essentially reactionary in its inspiration.

Thereafter, the scene shifts to Dada, whose chronological and geographical intersection with Russian exiles in Switzerland, and avowedly international vocation, placed it in strange parallel to the revolutionary socialism brewing during the First World War, and to Surrealism in inter-war France, with its more direct connections to the campaigns and conflicts of the Communism of the period. Contrasting the playfulness of the ferment around Tzara to the self-important solemnity with which Breton issued his ukases, Puchner stresses the tension between Breton’s aesthetic of oneiric spontaneity—‘dream-writing’—and the increasingly stiff, academic tone of his successive manifestos (in the end complete with footnotes). Attributing the contradiction to a need to fend off Stalinist criticisms of Surrealism as a mere petty-bourgeois bohemia, he underestimates Breton’s personal lack of humour, commented on by all contemporaries, in the matter. A discussion of Artaud’s theatre rounds off this part of the book, which then jumps forward to the 1960s and the Situationists. Debord’s merit, in Puchner’s account, was to appreciate the peculiar literary force of the Communist Manifesto—as distinct from its political substance, which other segments of the Left might dispute—and to try to recreate it as the poetry of insurgency, in Situationist texts and interventions. In making the spectacle the central category of his theory of late capitalism, Debord could never simply appropriate the manifesto as a form, since a certain theatricality is inherent in it. But nor could he simply repudiate it, his own Society of the Spectacle displaying nearly all its rhetorical hallmarks. The film Debord made of his text, Puchner argues, was his attempt to resolve the contradiction—words and images played off each other in a double détournement. After noting the eclipse of Debord’s critical legacy in re-theatricalized spectacles, such as a stage version of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, Puchner concludes with some cautious pages on the prospects for the manifesto today.

Poetry of the Revolution is an intelligent and informative work, offering by far the best survey of its subject now available. But it is not without some significant shortcomings. Its author, who teaches literature at Columbia, where he is a specialist in theatre, is less at home with the political than the aesthetic side of his story. Touching at one point on Althusser’s discussion of Machiavelli’s The Prince as a manifesto, Puchner remarks that it cannot be regarded as a true case of the form, since it appeals to the ruler as agent of the political change—the passionately desired unity of an independent Italy. Yet he fails to draw the obvious contrast with Münzer’s virtually contemporary Sermon Before the Princes (1524), in which the preacher thundered to Duke John of Saxony that he should furnish him, like the prophet Daniel, with an army to battle against the incestuous union of church and state in the Holy Roman Empire:

We see before our discerning eyes—vain, pretentious schemes of hypocrisy which writhe and wriggle over the whole earth. For whoever cannot detect the ruses must be indeed an imbecile. One sees nicely now how the eels and the vipers all in a heap abandon themselves to obscenities. The priests and all the wicked clerics are the vipers . . . and the temporal lords and princes are the eels.

The Duke, unlike Lorenzo di Medici, is not the addressee of an appeal of last resort. On the contrary, he is told in no uncertain terms: ‘The poor laity of the towns and the peasants see it much more clearly than you’. The nobles may be best equipped to topple this regime; ‘If, however, they do not do it, the sword will be taken from them’. The peasants’ yet-to-be-realized collective power conveys the real sense of menace—they could strike at any moment. More threat than advice, the sermon shatters the traditional mirror for princes: its author would sign himself ‘Thomas Münzer with the hammer’.