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So You Want to Write/Tweet Something About the The Communist Manifesto’s High Rank in the OS Dataset

May 23, 2022 |  4 min read

The 4th place rank of The Communist Manifesto among all assigned titles in the OS collection (in the 2.5 dataset) has been written about and referenced frequently. Is this high ranking weird? Suspicious? What’s the story here?

To save ourselves some time responding on Twitter, we’ve decided to create a resource for authors and tweeters interested in engaging with this datapoint. The list of tips below doesn’t exhaust the topic of Marx’s role in the curriculum, but hopefully it will help you avoid some common misinterpretations of OS data related to Marx and the Manifesto. Let’s go!

  • Why does The Communist Manifesto rank 4th overall? Because it is frequently assigned in multiple fields. It’s 5th in History, 5th in Political Science, 5th in Sociology, 49th in Philosophy, and 153rd in English, 200th in Anthropology. Many titles achieve high rank in one or sometimes two fields. Very few have relevance in three or more. If you study 19th and 20th century history, politics, or social thought, you will at some point be assigned The Communist Manifesto–maybe more than once.

  • Let’s consider this talking point: “Marx is the most assigned economist in U.S. college classes.” Be careful with this one. Whether Marx is properly classified as an economist or not, he is not widely assigned in Economics, where the Manifesto ranks 192nd. Nor is his major work of economics, Capital, a top title. It ranks 378th overall and 182nd in Economics. For those who worry that Marx has displaced Adam Smith, he hasn’t. The Wealth of Nations is the top-ranked non-textbook title in Economics at #13. It also does well in History and Political Science.

  • In teaching, assigning something is not the same as endorsing it. This should go without saying, but the assumption that The Communist Manifesto is assigned primarily for the purposes of indoctrinating students is a frequent theme in these pieces. We don’t know all the contexts in which the Manifesto is assigned, but a look at the most common ‘co-assignments‘–i.e. the titles it is most frequently assigned with–strongly suggests that its primary teaching role is in classes that explore the canonical texts of Western political thought. What are the top co-assigned titles? Locke’s Second Treatise on Government; Hobbes’ Leviathan; Smith’s Wealth of Nations; Mill’s On Liberty; Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Machiavelli’s The Prince; Plato’s Republic. And so on.

  • The Manifesto has two other features that don’t come up much in these pieces but which probably significantly affect its rank. First, it’s a famous exercise in rhetoric rather than a treatise. Spend five minutes with it in comparison to any of the titles above and it’s clear why, even in translation, it has a role in literature and writing classes. Second–and probably more important–it’s short. At around 30 pages, it’s very easy to assign in a single class. Compare to the work of excerpting from the 1200 pages of Wealth of Nations, or the 650 pages of Leviathan, or the 450 of The Protestant Ethic and the classroom advantages are clear.

  • Comparative arguments: We urge caution. For those of you who, like the Marketwatch author linked above, want to compare the ubiquity of the Manifesto to the relative invisibility of the Bible in OS data, be aware that we identify works based on title/author combinations, and so struggle with titles that lack attributable authors. All the major religious texts and most of the foundational political documents are in the same boat. For those of you who want to argue that Author X (say, Friedrich Hayek) is a superior thinker to Marx who should be more widely assigned, be aware of the risks of simply reversing the indoctrination argument. The teaching data surrounding The Communist Manifesto pretty clearly describes an effort to understand its historical influence, not increase it.