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Commie Chic

All great books appear twice -- the first time as agitprop, the second time as prop.

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A specter is haunting leftist book publishing -- the specter of irony. Verso, the committed radical publisher of weighty political tomes, is bringing out a special edition of The Communist Manifesto to coincide with the tract’s 150th anniversary. Make that a very special edition: the publishers commissioned a new introduction and selected a painting by Komar and Melamid, the trendy post-modern artist-pranksters, to adorn the stylish cover. Come May Day, you’ll find the new art-designed version of Marx and Engels’s 1848 call to arms, along with promotional red flags and playful commie banners, getting front-of-store treatment at Borders and Barnes & Noble. And if bookstores aren’t your thing, you might just catch a glimpse of the volume in the hands of forward-thinking mannequins at Prada or Vivienne Westwood.

The plan, according to Verso’s publisher Colin Robinson, is to produce an “upscale edition” of the revolutionary classic, “self-consciously marketed towards sybarites” by any means necessary, including tie-ins with expensive boutiques in London and New York. Robinson is confident that the text will succeed as fashion as well as politics, but he’s well aware of the delicacies of marketing the book as yet another fetishized commodity: “The left’s attitude is usually enormously earnest,” he says.

Nevertheless, even Marxist hard-liners consider it a nifty idea. “Cool,” exclaims Terrie Albano, spokesperson of the Communist Party USA. “People are getting radicalized again. Our membership is up, too.” Stanley Aronowitz, a labor sociologist at CUNY, says, “This is the name of the game for knowledge and distribution. I don’t cry over that stuff.”

“There’s no way to avoid commodification,” says Arno Mayor, a labor historian at Princeton. “The left wing can be rather drab, so if we can produce glitz with an appealing message, all the better. We can beat them at their own game.”

The fashion world seems just as excited. “People are forgetting the Gulag and Stalin and the negative imagery,” says Simon Doonan, creative director at Barneys. “So it could be time for it to come back as pure style.”

As far as the accessorized class is concerned, the book’s only drawback might be its content. No matter how good it looks, it’s still about the deprivations of the working man, the confiscation of private property, the injustice of inherited wealth. But Doonan believes that the truly stylish will take to it, anyway. “It’s a great idea,” says Doonan. “The idea of carrying a book instead of a handbag. Hmm . . . does it have a string or a wrist wrap? No? That’s okay. An accessory that requires a high level of motivation. I like it.”


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