Selling the Communist Manifesto at Barneys

How I learned to stop worrying about marketing the class struggle.

Looking north across 60th Street at Barneys, April 17, 2010. Jim Henderson / Wikimedia

Everything can be commodified. Back in 1998, when the eagle of free enterprise still soared unchallenged above the global marketplace, the idea was a truism. Love, power, humanity — all could be bought, sold, transformed into mere exchange value with a ubiquity that seemed as inevitable as the daily rising of the sun or the stock exchange. And if there was an irony in the fact that the notion of commodification had its origins in the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, it was lost on most, even in the year of the Communist Manifesto’s 150th birthday.

At Verso, the leftist book publishing house in whose New York office I worked, we’d decided that it was time to wake people up to the significance of Marx’s world-shaking philippic with a new edition marking the anniversary. The prospect of bringing such a project to the market was intriguing. Could the purest critique of commodity culture, now freed of much of the opprobrium that had attached to it in the dark days of Stalinism and the Cold War, find a place in the brutal exchange of the modern cash nexus?

Recent precedents provided some encouragement. “Who would have thought,” a senior editor at Penguin Books had mused openly over lunch some months before our publication, “that 1997 would turn out to be the year of Che Guevara?” It was true. The stern, handsome features of the Argentine revolutionary had, that year, glared out as a marketing pitch for everything from Swatch watches to Fischer skis. The style mavens at the New Yorker had registered their languid interest with pieces by Paul Berman and John Cassidy. No less than three broadly sympathetic biographies had appeared on the lists of major trade houses. And Michael Hutchence, the recently deceased lead singer of INXS, had been photographed reading a copy of Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries on a beach.

We were presenting our version of the Manifesto as a “modern edition” but it was, in fact, the standard Samuel Moore translation of 1888. This was unquestionably an improvement on the original rendering, serialized in the magazine Red Republican four decades earlier, which had opened not with the now-famous “specter,” but with an altogether more colorful “frightful hobgoblin” haunting Europe. Marxists who wished to be taken seriously owed an enormous debt to Mr Moore for this vital reinterpretation.

Our edition did, however, strike a contemporary note. New Left Review editor Robin Blackburn had persuaded the distinguished Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm to give us the introduction he had written for a recent Spanish edition, in which he observed that “the world described by Marx and Engels in 1848, in passages of dark, laconic eloquence, is recognizably the world we live in 150 years later.”

Hobsbawm’s name on the cover would certainly help us get attention. But if we were to make an impact, we felt we had to look at presentation as well as content. The irony of mounting a serious marketing campaign to sell the foundational document of worldwide communism did not escape us, but neither did it hold us back.

My career in publishing has coincided pretty much precisely with an era when the world has been ruled by the numbers and markets that swim to the surface under the mystifying and ugly name of neoliberalism. The ascendancy of Reagan and Thatcher in the early 1980s set an agenda that has played out over four decades and may only now be drawing to a close. The confidence of the brash new mandarins of neoliberalism, from Chicago to Cato, had great momentum; it wasn’t until the crash of 2008 that it began to judder and slow. Today, enthusiastic obeisance to the free market’s ability to sort out everything is evidently disintegrating. Perhaps it will reconstitute itself; it’s certainly shown extraordinary durability in the past. But the old order appears to be dying while a new one has not yet been born. In this interregnum, as Antonio Gramsci put it, all sorts of morbid symptoms appear, not least at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Consumerism has always been the beating heart of the neoliberal project. The most difficult issue for the system in a time of exuberant inequality, as Marx himself identified, is how to get workers to buy things they make but can’t afford. Credit and speculative bubbles have been the enablers, but the driving force in overcoming this contradiction has been the relentless exhortation to shop. Over the period of neoliberalism’s rule, the primary reason for making purchases has shifted from the supposed pursuit of happiness to that of simple survival. George W. Bush’s presidential decree that the public should respond to the attacks of 9/11 by getting out their credit cards and heading to the malls was a concise expression of this.

As the wheels of neoliberalism wobble, ideas like solidarity and cooperation may come to replace the shallower satisfactions of buying and owning things. If disenchantment with consumer society deepens, and the vapid bromides of advertising executives and robotic politicians are greeted with increasing skepticism, the world will surely be a better place. Once the jaws that clamp us to the snares of marketing have been prized open, politics will be freer and arguments from the Left will more easily persuade. But the tropes of consumerism are so deeply ingrained that those advocating their rejection will be required, along the way, to make use of the very practices they wish to see ultimately abandoned. The monster will have to eat itself.

The Left has always struggled with this. Traditionally, it has a deeply ambiguous attitude to the very idea of marketing, regarding it as an activity that involves selling people something they don’t want. A suspicion of packaging and advertising reinforces the conviction that the intrinsic value of the radical line will suffice to attract its audience. Content always triumphs over form, and to suggest otherwise is to lack seriousness. The result has been a dreary and generally unsuccessful tradition of hoisting the people’s flag and waiting for the masses to appear over the horizon, which they rarely do.

This reluctance to engage with the marketplace makes it more difficult for the Left’s message to be heard. After all, it’s not as though our product is intrinsically easy to sell; in fact it is rather abstract. For many, the desirability of things like equality or liberty are harder to grasp, in an immediate way, than things like Caramel Frappuccino or Lexus Four Wheel Drive. This is not to suggest that the marketplace of ideas is the same thing as the marketplace for commodities. Nor is it the case that traditional approaches to selling are feasible or appropriate for progressives. First, there’s the question of resources: progressives will never be able to compete with the high-budget advertising campaigns of Madison Avenue. In addition, a fundamentally different attitude towards the cash nexus factors here: for the Left, the ideal customer is not a passive consumer, in fact it’s the passive consumer that we’re trying to get rid of. We’re looking instead to close a deal that not only makes the customer more aware of their inferior position in the exchanges of capitalism, but also ends their identification with being a consumer altogether. This is tricky. How is it possible to sell an idea that torpedoes the idea of selling? Mightn’t the messenger end up shooting the message?

These questions hung thick in the air as we developed our plans for the anniversary edition of the Manifesto. We were intent on trying something sharply different from conventional left strategies for finding an audience; something beyond earnest exhortations that there was work to be done, that the struggle was only just beginning. On the contrary, we wanted to convey the idea that even if the struggle wasn’t yet over, there was at least still time, now and then, to sit down with a glass of wine and read something inspiring and poetic. Its packaging needed to suggest refined elegance rather than table thumping.

We settled on a small-format hardback, which allowed for luxury touches like end papers (red, of course), head and tail bands, and even a little scarlet ribbon to keep one’s place. A cloth binding allowed for the more expansive design of a dust jacket and die stamping of the boards beneath with the legend WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE! But what image could capture the playful ambiguity of a sybaritic presentation of communism’s founding truths? The work of Komar and Melamid immediately sprung to mind. These two expatriate Russian artists had an ironic approach that poked fun at the grimly serious cast of socialist realism by using its own techniques. Their catalog included a memorable painting of Stalin in conference at Yalta with Steven Spielberg’s E.T.

A phone call to their studio in New Jersey established a ready willingness to be involved and, soon afterward, a bag of transparencies arrived at the office. It included a finely rendered painting of an enormous red flag, rippling heroically in the wind of revolution against a somber black background. The discerning eye could pick out an anguished face etched in the folds at the foot of the banner. When I called Alexander Melamid to tell him we wanted to use it he laughed and, in a still-thick Moscow accent, said “Better than Jasper Johns don’t you think?”


The packaging decided, we now needed a complementary sales pitch. We agreed that the audience we were seeking was not the traditional readership for communist literature. The Michael Moore, baseball-cap-wearing, industrial working class had been severely winnowed by deindustrialization. The politics of Reaganism had reduced much of the old working class to a reactionary rump that Karl and Frederick would have described as “lumpen.” If the audience we were after was wearing workers’ shirts, they had Banana Republic labels sewn inside, a group more at home with Quark Express than a metal press. They were, as described by the leftist journalist Alexander Cockburn in a piece attacking Moore’s overly narrow definition of workers in contemporary America, people “who knew that burgundy was Bourgogne and enjoyed an occasional slice of Camembert.”

Product placement seemed an important element in reaching this crowd. Finding a big budget movie to feature the book — for instance getting “The Dude” to roll a joint on a copy in that year’s cult favorite The Big Lebowski — would have been ideal. But Hollywood seemed an impossibly long shot. Getting the Manifesto on display in upscale stores and hotels, maybe even the environs of Wall Street — that seemed more realizable.

We included the idea in a press release announcing the book. The following day a young journalist at New York magazine got in touch. She wanted to know which upscale fashion and furniture stores we had in mind. This was a challenge: As a penurious radical publisher my knowledge of tony retailers was not extensive. I tried to sound breezily familiar with the high-end retail sector but ran out of names after Barneys, which I had never visited, let alone shopped in. The young journalist asked if I would mind if she called the store for their reaction to the idea of stocking the book. My heart sank at this suggestion: their response would surely kill the story. But I know bravado when it’s called for. “Be my guest.” I said cheerily, “Tell them I’m waiting for a call.”

In the event, it was the journalist, rather than a store, who rang back. “I just spoke to Barneys’s creative director, a guy called Simon Doonan,” she said. “He’s actually quite interested. You should get in touch with him.” I practically dropped the phone with astonishment.

The following Tuesday, I was shown into Doonan’s office by an assistant who informed me he would be arriving shortly. The ambience of Barneys’s headquarters, located above the store on Madison and 60th, was ‘70s corporate modern, with lots of stripped wood and neon lighting. A glass wall, covered by a partially drawn Venetian blind, gave on to a busy corridor behind Doonan’s desk. Photographs and correspondence littered all available surfaces, including the floor. I was admiring a large picture pinned to the wall of a man with David Cassidy hair and polyester flares when Doonan rushed in, breathless, with a sheaf of papers under one arm and a limp handshake at the end of the other. He turned out to be English, with a rich accent that one could imagine Americans thinking sounded like Ian McKellen. I silently congratulated myself on not dressing up for the occasion; my best jacket from Club Monaco would not pass muster here. Doonan sported a dark brown suit that gleamed under the neon, with a matching brown shirt and a yellow silk tie. His spectacle frames were bold tortoiseshell, giving a callow face a serious demeanor

We got down to business. Doonan wanted to know what I had in mind. I’d thought about this in some detail and now set out the vision of a dozen militant mannequins marching across one of the store’s large Madison Avenue window, fists in the air, beneath streaming banners proclaiming YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR CHAINS! Peeping out from their dress pockets or clutch bags, I suggested, could be copies of the Manifesto. The question of the particular brand of dresses or bags to be featured would, I recognized, be best left to the greater authority of Doonan and his colleagues. But if necessary, we could supply the banners.

Doonan looked across the disarray on his desk, attempting to focus his attention on me rather than the various fashion types who were ducking in and out of the room with questions. His face screwed with concentration. “This is all ironic, isn’t it?” he asked with deliberation. I explained that, well, it was and it wasn’t. It was the play between the ironic and the sincere that would create a tension likely to attract shoppers who, I offered confidently, would surely gather in large spellbound crowds on the sidewalk outside his store. I had no idea what I was talking about.

Doonan appeared doubtful. He explained, with what seemed a forced patience, that shop windows had to be didactic. Unlike theater, where the players moved around and the audience was stationary, in window dressing the display was static whilst the audience moved. That left little space for nuance. He folded his hands neatly on the desk and sat back. I thought for a moment that was the end of the conversation and contemplated whether any items in the men’s department might be sufficiently inexpensive for me to purchase on my way out, rescuing at least something from an otherwise pointless trip. It seemed unlikely.

But just as I was about to offer my thanks for his time, Doonan’s mood seemed to change. “I can see there might be something in this” he said, brightening suddenly, though in a wistful manner that suggested he still wasn’t sure what it was. His hands turned over the dummy of the Manifesto which I had brought with me, its simple elegant jacket designed by Lisa Billard, wrapped around a copy of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries as an approximate simulation of the finished product. “Vitale and Alexander do such brilliant work,” he said with gathering enthusiasm. “If we can’t find a large space, then maybe a corner window — where the book is surrounded by a big fan of bright red lipstick — could look lovely, don’t you think?” I nodded enthusiastically.

I was already eagerly anticipating getting outside, smoking a cigarette, and reflecting on the outlandishly improbable success of the visit. But, as I headed for the door, Doonan’s disposition shifted yet again. He was clearly a man of swiftly changing moods. “Before I can commit to anything,” he raised a finger as if to remind himself as much as to inform me, “I have to talk to the owners.” I nodded once more. “I don’t know what they’ll say.” His eyes were invisible beneath the neon reflecting in his glasses as he stared upwards. He rubbed his forehead briskly. The serious retail executive had taken over from the jejune Mayakovsky enthusing about the drama of street art. I got out quickly, before he entirely changed his mind.

Despite my sending a letter setting out what we had tentatively agreed, that was the last I heard from Doonan. But the story of our meeting was too good to keep to myself and I soon mentioned it to a couple of journalist friends. Doonan confirmed to them that Barneys was considering the idea. Before long, the surreal notion of a high-end fashion store promoting Marx and Engels’ most famous work began popping up in news stories all over the place. There was New York magazine, of course, as well as items in other mainstream venues like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New Republic. Thanks to an Associated Press release, there was also coverage in an impressive catalog of territory where concerns of the metropolitan elite rarely ruffled the surface, places such as the Kansas City Star, the Gazette in Kalamazoo, and the Trentonian. The Staten Island Advance, a Newhouse publication, proclaimed on its front page, without evident irony, “Retailers See a Craze in Marxism.”

One journalist to whom I spoke asked if we were going to try the same approach with other upscale stores. “Absolutely” I confirmed, trying to sound confident as I mentioned the only other name I knew: “Bergdorf and Goodman will be our next stop.” “I don’t think there’s an ‘and’ in their name,” the journalist said drily. “You might want get that right before you call.” It wasn’t long before a haughty woman from Bergdorf was on the phone, complaining icily about the rumors that we were in discussion with them. I said I would be happy to put out a statement publicly denying the connection. “No, no,” she countered, close to shouting. “Just don’t say ANYTHING!”

Now a debate about what was happening to the book sprang up in the pages of the New York Observer. Actually, it wasn’t much of a debate. A range of correspondents assailed Barneys for its insensitivity in endorsing a text that had been responsible for the Gulag. Occasionally the dreadful fate of someone’s great-grandparents was invoked. I feared that this would not sit well with the directors of Barneys, and that Doonan’s initial enthusiasm would be insufficient to see the window display become a reality. This proved an accurate assessment. Without ever saying anything explicitly, Barney’s quietly dropped the idea. But by then we didn’t care. Our campaign was under way.

Emboldened by this initial success, we wracked our brains for other appropriate venues for our unusual luxury product. High-class hotels seemed a possibility. Here, again, we had very little firsthand experience. However, after presenting Verso’s books at the Norton sales conferences, which were held in the Yale Club on 44th Street, we often popped into the elegant Philippe Stark-designed lobby of the Royalton, handily placed next door, to unwind over a martini. In their jet-black, high-necked tunics, the waiters who served us looked like the young cadre of Madame Mao’s bodyguard. Perhaps their manager would be interested in our approach.

I called the hotel and was put through to the press department. The young male voice at the other end of the line was disappointingly unexcited when I suggested they might consider placing copies of the Manifesto on bedside tables which, in less adventurous establishments, might feature a Gideon’s bible. “I need to talk to management about this” was all the flat-voiced publicist could offer.

It occurred to me that André Balazs, the proprietor of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and the newly opened Mercer in SoHo, might be a better bet. Though his Hungarian origins were unlikely to have endeared him to the precepts of Eastern European Communism, Balazs was renowned throughout the hotel business for his sophistication and taste. Perhaps the rich, red, socialist-realist folds of the people’s banner on our book jacket would prove irresistible. His assistant, when I called, sounded considerably more curious than the man at the Royalton and, having checked with his boss, requested that six copies be sent over.

The idea of a room full of hotel executives perusing the Manifesto was very entertaining. And of course we were able to let journalists know that the copies had been sent, promoting another flurry of coverage. A national television channel visited the Revolutionary Communist Party’s midtown bookstore to get their views about the idea. This was an establishment I always felt anxious visiting. The store’s manager, a middle-aged woman who spoke in the flat but emphatic manner of a militant hardened by decades of being almost entirely ignored, never failed to complain to me about a book on the history of US Marxism that I had published more than a decade previously; it had seriously undervalued the contribution of Maoism, she always insisted. But now here she was on national network television, unrecognizable from her usual earnest self, bubbling enthusiastically about how she would certainly consider checking into hotels carrying the book.

Again, though media coverage was extensive, nothing in the real world resulted from our discussions with hotels. But, again, this didn’t bother us at all; we were moving on. Wall Street was our next port of call. We wanted to bring the Manifesto to the attention of those who worked in the financial center. They, after all, were running the capitalist system at which the book took aim. We mailed copies to the CEOs of a number of the largest banks and investment houses with a cover letter explaining that we believed it to be vital reading for any well-informed financier at a time when the market was soaring to vertiginous and likely unsustainable heights. The suggestion that they might like to make bulk purchases for their managers was universally ignored, but I did receive two thank-you notes on bank letterheads.

We weren’t surprised at being unable to get the banks themselves to circulate the book. But perhaps we could find a bookstore in the environs of Wall Street that would mount a display capable of attracting that attention of their employees. We first approached the now-defunct Borders chain, which owned a large flagship store at the foot of what was then the World Trade Center. The tepid response we received to the idea of putting a sign in their window announcing, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” may have been connected to the fact that the store was in the midst of a widely publicized unionization battle.

Borders’s lack of enthusiasm was in sharp contrast with their supposedly more conservative rivals over at Barnes and Noble. I had recently appeared on a panel at the New York Media Center alongside Steve Riggio, the chain’s CFO, and two independent booksellers from the city. I was far from uncritical of B&N, which had showed no scruples about using its substantial heft to put independent stores out of business. But in contrast to the booksellers on the panel, who furiously accused the CFO of working illegally in collusion with real-estate companies to reinforce his company’s monopoly, I ended up as a voice of moderation. This was sufficiently appreciated by Riggio for me to receive an invitation to lunch, an occasion at which I was able to set out our hopes for the Manifesto. To my considerable surprise, the B&N boss expressed enthusiasm for the project and promised displays of the book alongside cash registers in the chain’s major branches.

I acknowledged B&N’s support in an article that appeared in the New York Times. This infuriated the proprietor of the renowned East Village independent bookstore, St Mark’s Books, a man I knew quite well. He wrote in scalding terms, expressing his displeasure at our dealings with the behemoth. He was placated only after we sent over a version of our promotional poster for the book, which had been amended with some careful cutting and pasting so that instead of reading “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains,” it read “Shoppers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but the chains.” This initiative was certainly vulnerable to the accusation of having it both ways, but in the publishing class struggle, that, on occasion, is required. The poster remained in the St Mark’s window for several years.

Unfortunately B&N did not own a store in the Financial District, so recruiting them to help in our pitch to Wall Street was impossible. But there was an alternative: Walden Books, a down-market chain owned, ironically, by Borders, had a location at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street itself. Here the manager was much more receptive than his colleagues at the World Trade Center and it wasn’t long before a prominent display of the Manifesto occupied one of his largest windows. With an appeal to the passing financiers firmly in mind, we had produced large display boards featuring passages from book in which Marx and Engels praised the capitalist system for its modernizing influence. There are a surprising number of these; for instance: “The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization.”

If the cleverness of this approach was a source of considerable self-congratulation in the office, it did little to attract the attention of Wall Street’s denizens, let alone persuade them to buy copies. Financiers, we concluded, are a single-minded crowd who don’t read much, for fear of diluting the relentless drive for margin. The display did, however, attract the attention of the television networks. NBC and the CBC both sent camera crews to record vox-pop interviews with passing bankers on the sidewalk outside. These largely featured stares of incomprehension and mutterings that the Manifesto was surely well past its sell-by date.

New York Stock Exchange, Wall Street, New York, July 25, 2012.
Carlos Delgado / Wikimedia

Dissatisfied with the paucity of response on Wall Street, the CBC team, which had flow down especially from Toronto that morning, decided to head out across the city in pursuit of livelier interviewees. The crew comprised a young woman journalist and her earnest, bearded cameraman. On their return to our office after several hours stopping shoppers in SoHo and the West Village, I was keen to find out how they had got on. “We’ve been asking if anyone thinks that being seen with a copy of the Manifesto might improve their chances of getting laid,” the young journalist reported, chucking a copy of the book on the table and her leather jacket on a chair. “Quite a number thought it would.” I said this was thrilling and somewhat surprising news. “Less surprising,” the cameraman interjected nodding at his colleague, “when you consider she was prominently holding a copy of the book when asking the question.”

By the spring of 2001 sales of the Manifesto had reached more than 50,000 — this for a title available from the Communist Party for one dollar. Paradoxically, while the mainstream response to the book had been generally positive, the Left seemed much more ambivalent; even, in some instances, downright hostile.

I related the story of its publication to the audience at an event Verso hosted in Modern Times, the venerable independent store in San Francisco’s Mission District. The crowd, who had primarily turned out to see Michael Parenti, a well-known Bay Area Marxist, was comprised in the main of muscular leftists, happy to hear the West’s bombing of Serbia described as an act of imperialist aggression. At the end of the evening an elderly man came up to me and demanded to know, in an insistent manner, if I thought what we had done with the Manifesto hadn’t contributed to making Marxism kitsch, something to be laughed at rather than be taken with the seriousness it deserved. It reminded him, he said, of the way energy companies in the 1970s had marketed their services under the slogan “Power to the People.”

It was an issue I’d thought about quite a bit, not least because the Verso board had been divided on the matter, with concern among the directors about the tongue-in-cheek approach we had adopted. Luminaries such as Barbara Ehrenreich had also sounded a disapproving note. “The gorgeously rippling red banner,” she had deadpanned, describing the book’s jacket in a radio interview, “should be readily accessorizable with the cashmeres in primary tones coming to us for the fall.” Clearly, in a culture that renders almost everything ironic, the danger that our approach subsumed substance under style was a real one.

If this issue bothered Marxists, then I’ll take it as an affirmation that I remain one of them. But I believe our experience in marketing Marx indicates the limits of such co-optation rather than its boundlessness. After all, Barneys did not stock the book, the Royalton did not offer its guests copies, and the window displays on Wall Street did not attract much attention from passing bankers. But by approaching these unlikely venues, and imaginatively publicizing our attempts to do so, we attracted a wider audience. And once the book got into purchasers’ hands, its marvelous words, described by Eric Hobsbawm as “lapidary,” would surely do their work. Certainly the venerable historian was not among those on the Left who doubted the effectiveness of what we had achieved. “Thank you for a brilliant marketing job on the Communist Manifesto,” he wrote in a signed copy of the book.

Later that year I was involved in the New York Brecht Forum’s “Manifestivity” celebration where, to a packed Cooper Union, Wally Shawn and Tony Kushner read out passages of the book. Their delivery, precise and evocative, conveyed not just the richness of the Manifesto’s language but the shocking power of its argument. As the cheers of the crowd rang out around the pillars of a hall where, a century earlier, the largest of all the memorial services marking the death of the founder of communism had taken place, it was easy to imagine that Marxism, and maybe even revolution, was once again in the air.