Manifesto Destiny

MANIFESTO IS THE FORM THAT EATS AND REPEATS ITSELF. Always layered and paradoxical, it comes disguised as nakedness, directness, aggression. An artwork aspiring to be a speech act—like a threat, a promise, a joke, a spell, a dare. You can’t help but thrill to language that imagines it can get something done. You also can’t help noticing the similar demands and condemnations that ring out across the decades and the centuries—something will be swept away or conjured into being, and it must happen right this moment. While appearing to invent itself ex nihilo, the manifesto grabs whatever magpie trinkets it can find, including those that drew the eye in earlier manifestos. This is a form that asks readers to suspend their disbelief, and so like any piece of theater, it trades on its own vulnerability, invites our complicity, as if only the quality of our attention protects it from reality’s brutal puncture. A manifesto is a public declaration of intent, a laying out of the writer’s views (shared, it’s implied, by at least some vanguard “we”) on how things are and how they should be altered. Once the province of institutional authority, decrees from church or state, the manifesto later flowered as a mode of presumption and dissent. You assume the writer stands outside the halls of power (or else, occasionally, chooses to pose and speak from there). Today the US government, for example, does not issue manifestos, lest it sound both hectoring and weak. The manifesto is inherently quixotic—spoiling for a fight it’s unlikely to win, insisting on an outcome it lacks the authority to ensure.

Somewhere a manifesto is always being scrawled, but the ones that survive have usually proliferated at times of ferment and rebellion, like the pamphlets of the Diggers in seventeenth-century England, or the burst of exhortations that surrounded the French Revolution, including, most memorably, Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The manifesto is a creature of the Enlightenment: its logic depends on ideals of sovereign reason, social progress, a universal subject on whom equal rights should (must) be bestowed. Still unsurpassed as a model (for style, force, economy, ambition) is Marx and Engels’s 1848 Communist Manifesto, crammed with killer lines, which Marshall Berman called “the first great modernist work of art.” In its wake came the Futurists—“We wish to destroy museums, libraries, academies of any sort, and fight against moralism, feminism, and every kind of materialistic, self-serving cowardice”—and the great flood of manifestos by artists, activists, and other renegades in the decades after 1910, followed by another peak in the 1960s and ’70s.

After that point, fewer broke through the general noise, though those that have lasted cast a weird light back on what came before: Donna J. Haraway’s postmodern 1985 “A Cyborg Manifesto,” for instance, in refusing fantasies of wholeness, purity, full communication—“The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams . . . of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one”—presents the manifesto as a form that can speak from the corner of its mouth, that always says more and less than it appears to say, that teases and exaggerates, that usefully undermines itself. Haraway makes an explicit case for “serious play” and for irreconcilable contradictions, introducing her “effort to build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism. . . . More faithful as blasphemy is faithful, than as reverent worship and identification.” By directly announcing its own tricksiness (an extra contradiction in itself), “A Cyborg Manifesto” seems both to critique its predecessors and to hint that even the most overweening of them were never quite designed to be read straight.

And it’s true that a manifesto’s swagger, its impression of speed and fury, might lead its readers astray, allowing them to imagine a far simpler communication than is offered. Often the most basic premises of the text remain murky. There is a tension, in Marx and many of those who followed, between change that must be willed or seized, and that which is already in process and historically inevitable. Then there is the question of who is being addressed—an enemy establishment, an untapped army of comrades? And whose views or intentions are actually being represented? In his notes to my undergrad Penguin Classics edition of The Communist Manifesto, the British historian A. J. P. Taylor tactfully notes that “the Communist League was itself the creation, more or less imaginary, of Marx and Engels” (the specter, in other words, had in fact not gotten round to haunting much just yet). Likewise, Valerie Solanas’s rollicking Swiftian SCUM Manifesto (1967) invents a lethal cadre of “secure, freewheeling, independent, groovy female females” in her own image. Though sometimes accused of gender essentialism (“the male is an incomplete female,” Solanas writes, “a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage”), SCUM Manifesto envisions a world beyond binaries, in which boring, passive panderers of whatever sex are gone—and with them their pesky distractions, such as war, disease, marriage, religion, government, bullshit jobs, the money system, “Great Art,” politeness, etc.—leaving only “kookie, funky” revelers, which might be to say, only an array of mutually admiring Solanases. Biological femaleness explicitly doesn’t guarantee you membership in this groovier set, and so the reader feels encouraged to self-identify. If Solanas didn’t commit so seriously to what she’s saying, and deliver it with such palpable relish, SCUM Manifesto wouldn’t be as funny as it is. The destabilizing tone feels like a test of textual orientation: anyone willing to enjoy the joke is in; a reader who’s offended, confused, or scared might have good reason to be. (Or, if you look around and can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.)

Manifestos, explicitly or otherwise, always attempt to teach you how to read them. Virginia Woolf’s 1938 Three Guineas was an urgent feminist pacifist manifesto that in its circuitous imagery and form—its profusion of footnotes to sources then considered too frivolous or unauthorized for history, its delicate linguistic connections and repetitions—upset the expected boundaries of private and public life, traced the relationships between patriarchy, capital, colonialism, and war, and dragged the reader along, half-tricked into absorbing arguments and picking sides. Manifestos espouse violent metaphors and large abstractions that dare you not to take them literally: “All that is solid melts into air”; “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion,” The Woman Identified Woman (1970); “We’re not waiting for the rapture we are the apocalypse” Dyke Manifesto (1992); “If SCUM ever strikes, it will be in the dark with a six-inch blade.” Many contain an apt slippage between art and politics. June Jordan, in a 1973 essay called “Young People: Victims of Realism in Books and in Life,” links limitations of genre to the standard politician’s cop-out that transformative policy is “not realistic”: in a section titled “My Manifesto,” she pledges to “attempt, in all of my written work, to devise reasonable alternatives to this reality. . . . We are the ones who owe our children something else, right now.” If a manifesto has one job, it is, perhaps, to expand what may be imagined.

For obvious reasons, many manifestos have been more vivid and specific in condemning what is than in detailing the future they intend. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor puts it: “We have no idea what it would be like to live in a society free of exploitation and how that would change people.” In recent years, though, post-social-media, when the fantasy of a coherent public sphere to speak into has weakened and fragmented, there’s also been a renewed obligation to make clear precisely what isn’t being said. You may fear languishing unread but you are nonetheless always at risk of being overheard. Laboria Cuboniks’s “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation” (2015) proactively defends itself against so many pitfalls and misreadings (“This non-absolute, generic universality must guard against the facile tendency of conflation with bloated, unmarked particulars”; “Open, however, does not mean undirected”) that it risks losing some of the carefree brazenness of predecessors who invited attack or misinterpretation left and right. In other cases, writers take advantage of the palimpsest of possible readings that await them. The “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published in Harper’s Magazine in 2020, which argued against a climate of “ideological conformity,” was pitched to be either over- or under-read. To some readers it was a straightforward, even anodyne reassertion of the importance of free speech. To others, it was a strike back against those who’d expressed alarm at the reactionary ideas espoused by some of its signatories (who were accustomed to publishing their views without facing such loud, vehement public disagreement). In an intriguing reversal of the manifesto’s foundational irony, rather than outsiders usurping the tone of authority, many of those signatories were establishment figures sounding the plea of a persecuted minority.

Zoe Leonard, I want a president, 1992, wheat-pasted paper. Installation view, High Line, New York, 2016. Timothy Schenck; Courtesy the High Line
Zoe Leonard, I want a president, 1992, wheat-pasted paper. Installation view, High Line, New York, 2016. Timothy Schenck; Courtesy the High Line

Virginie Despentes’s 2006 King Kong Theory, recently reissued in Frank Wynne’s new English translation, takes a less sly approach, gulping down its many sources and belching them back out so freely that you almost forget how many people have spoken before her: “I write from the realms of the ugly, for the ugly, the old, the bull dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckable, the hysterics, the freaks, all those excluded from the great meat market of female flesh.” Despentes’s is a punk-feminist manifesto that swipes hard at many liberal pieties and blind spots regarding class, sex work, porn, rape, violence. On the one hand, she makes a performance of directness: “It’s not about pitting the miserable gains by women against the miserable gains by men, it’s about blowing the whole fucking thing sky-high.” On the other, she leaves her own many contradictions out there gleefully unresolved and unacknowledged. And as in many tricky, genre-fluid manifestos of the past, she expresses her vision for an alternative only in oblique, metaphorical fashion: near the end, in a short parable, King Kong and the blonde Beauty briefly escape their shackles and play together amid the ruins of civilization, enjoying an erotic, genderless, nonviolent love and comradeship.

That kind of imaginary space—one not organized by profit or by binary gender—now feels even further out of bounds (or at least more fiercely contested) than it was in the 1970s. Every era has its special provocations, and while it still seems surprisingly easy to shock now, it also remains just as difficult to be understood. Sophie Lewis’s anticapitalist queer manifesto Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (2019) lays out a case for abolishing the existing systems of reproductive isolation and exploitation in favor of more just and expansive arrangements by which we might all do the work of caring for each other; she often serves as a hated (and compulsively misread) fetish object online. In her book and other essays she likes to play with dissolving boundaries—stylistic and conceptual—including those between the author and her influences. Lewis, like Haraway before her, frequently makes her aims and experiments and joy in playfulness explicit. But the charged and divided reception of her work is especially interesting to watch: like a live case study of the risks and triumphs of the manifesto, Lewis is always being read too literally (her interpretation of the Oscar-winning 2020 documentary My Octopus Teacher as a frustrated or suppressed queer love story inspired waves of loathing from people who immediately fixated on the notion of a man putting his penis in a sea-creature), or else not literally enough. Her desire to rethink how we work and love and reproduce is a fairly intuitive and pragmatic one, given how dysfunctional existing conditions are—and in any case, that desire is nothing new.

Some of Lewis’s crucial influences are Black socialist, feminist, and abolitionist thinkers, and those traditions have produced manifestos, as plainspoken as they are transformative, that can read as utopian or as part of a step-by-step collective game-plan, or both, depending on the current social circumstance and the reader’s perspective. James Boggs’s Manifesto for a Black Revolutionary Party (1969), which notes that “there are no historical models for a revolution in a country as technologically advanced and as politically backward as the United States,” advocates neither “headlong confrontation with enemy forces, such as the police, the FBI, or the CIA” nor hoping that the advancement of Black elites will somehow eventually help the masses. Instead, it suggests strategies for first increasing the control ordinary people have over their immediate living conditions, so that they make gains and acquire skills and resources, while also expanding their sense of political possibility and deepening their commitment to resistance: “Thus, even if black parents join the struggle for community control of schools with the aim of raising the reading achievement level of their children to that of white children, they are led in the course of their struggle to challenge the fundamental philosophy and methods of contemporary American education.” The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977) also puts as much emphasis on what must be created as on what needs to be smashed or ripped away, and details pragmatic, small-scale organizing efforts, linking them directly to the horizon of social transformation. As Black women, the authors write: “We might use our position at the bottom . . . to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

In her new book Remake the World, Astra Taylor often quotes the people she meets while organizing, like a young man who describes his politics, derived from thinkers like W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Panthers, as directed toward freedom, “not just to live but thrive, to love who I want to love. To not have to work a soul-crushing job. To be free, but not the kind of freedom that depends on dominating others.” What could initially sound vague or abstract (freedom!) is nonetheless specific enough to work toward. In her own voice, Taylor writes: “Under capitalism, the power of capital, of money and markets, dominates. This is the current reality we all live and breathe. But what would change if social power . . . set society’s course?” The 2001 “Statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex” by INCITE! and Critical Resistance put forward its still-revolutionary ideas with a force, restraint, and clarity that excluded both performative anger and false apology:

Make connections between interpersonal violence, the violence inflicted by domestic state institutions (such as prisons, detention centers, mental hospitals, and child protective services), and international violence (such as war, military base prostitution, and nuclear testing). . . . Promote holistic political education at the everyday level within our communities, specifically how sexual violence helps reproduce the colonial, racist, capitalist, heterosexist, and patriarchal society we live in as well as how state violence produces interpersonal violence within communities.

This is a rhetorical method to connect the vast global scale to the immediate personal one—where some modernist manifestos suggested such links primarily through imagery and metaphor, these encourage readers to find those resonances and make the connections on the ground, in the world.

The organizer Mariame Kaba’s new book We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, while not technically a manifesto (it is compiled from speeches, interviews, op-eds, and other work), contains all the key elements of one. The New York Times editorial titled “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” again elegantly slices through the familiar, sometimes disabling conflict between reformist and revolutionary change: Kaba draws a sharp distinction between empty, harmful “reforms” that only help disguise and justify more state violence (cameras, trainings, hiring shifts) and valuable, constructive incremental steps (cutting funds from police departments and redirecting them to health care, housing, and other communal goods). Since these arguments already entail large-scale transformation and reimagining, Kaba doesn’t perform rhetorical excess. Instead, she invites you to take her words literally. Rather than shock, they inform, describing the concrete, collective tools and actions by which a different world might be manifested.

Lidija Haas is a writer living in New York City.