- Created: Friday, 22 May 2009 16:14
- Written by FRFI
'A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of communism.'
Such words might seem odd to us eight years after the collapse of the socialist countries and nine months into the most reactionary Labour government. According to the ruling class, when the socialist bloc was destroyed, history ended, the ideas of communism were a failure and capitalism was here to stay. This triumphalism is no longer tenable as recessions and financial crises threaten the world with ruin. The 'tiger economies' of Asia have collapsed and imperialism has failed to reintroduce viable capitalism to Eastern Europe. It is in this context that The Communist Manifesto, published 150 years ago, gains renewed importance. ADAM SHERWOOD celebrates a document of such power and vision it can help us change the world. The Manifesto was published on the eve of revolutions that spread across Europe, overthrowing monarchies and bringing the bourgeoisie to power. In 1848, talk was not of stability but of revolution. As the Manifesto states: 'All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.' It was easy to see that the bourgeoisie had not always been the ruling class and its ideas had not always reigned supreme.
'The modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and exchange.'
At the very beginnings of bourgeois rule, Marx and Engels were able to foresee the failings of capitalist society and the way forward to a new society. This vision enraged the propertied elites:
'You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine tenths.'
At the time Europe's impoverished masses bore the brunt of a trade slump. The Manifesto exposes the bourgeois hypocrisy;
'All property relations in the past have continually been subject to historical change consequent upon the change in historical conditions. The French Revolution, for example, abolished feudal property in favour of bourgeois property.'
And it takes sides: '...you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.'
An alternative society
Marx and Engels envisaged a society based not on profit and ruthless competition but on co-operation and mutual development. They proposed a world in which workers would not be thrown on the scrap heap when they are no longer needed for production but where they have democratic control over their lives and are valued as individuals.
'In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.'
Cuba shows the superiority of socialist organisation even in the face of extreme economic hardship. Socialist organisation means that today in Cuba, a third world country blockaded by the US, not one single hospital or school has been closed. No one sleeps on the streets and Cuba has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Despite many shortages, what they have they share and no-one is rejected.
This is the alternative form of social organisation of which the Manifesto spoke. The consequences of not achieving this society are bleak indeed. This year 14 million children under the age of five will die from malnutrition and preventable diseases. Every day 25,000 people die from waterborne disease. The choice today, as in 1848, is socialism or barbarism, 'a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or...the common ruin of the contending classes.'
Where Marx and Engels made a great advance was that they did not just raise a moral indignation at the horrors of bourgeois rule. For the first time, the Manifesto charted the historic progress of humanity and provided a scientific analysis of the inevitability of the rise of capitalism from feudalism and its death in the birth of socialism. Twenty years before Capital, the Manifesto shows us how the capitalist economy is to develop. The colonial scramble of the late 19th century is foreseen:
'the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe'.
Eventually even the global domination by capital of resources and markets is not enough to support its insatiable drive to expand and the whole edifice comes tumbling down.
'Modern bourgeois society with its relations of productions, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.'
The destruction of society that occurs progressively in each crisis leaves capital less and less room to manoeuvre. With each crash, it becomes harder to re-establish profitable industry until the question of revolution can no longer be delayed.
'It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put on its trial, each time more threateningly the existence of the entire bourgeois society.'
The stock market crash of October 1987, the Mexican peso crisis of 1995 and most recently the currency and stock market crash of southeast Asia show what is in store.
The working class as agents of change
Along with the necessity for revolution, capitalist society produces the agents of revolution: the working class.
'What the bourgeoisie, therefore produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.'
Freed from any ties to property, the working class have nothing to sell but their labour power, forming a class in opposition to the capitalists. It is the working class, who have no stake in the capitalist system, who can give a lead to all the oppressed to throw off the yoke of capital and build socialist society.
'Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.'
The Communist Manifesto was written to give ideological expression to the working class as a whole and to organise it into politically independent parties.
'The Communists... have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own...The immediate aim of The Communists is the...formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.'
The seizure of state power
Marx and Engels understood that in this struggle the working class would have to confront all existing social relations.
'The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society cannot stir, cannot raise itself up without the whole super-incumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.'
The Manifesto warned against any illusions in the neutrality of the state in this conflict between classes.
'The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.'
During the miners' strike of 1984-5 the state organised the police into a paramilitary force to occupy mining towns, attack and imprison strikers and prevent them travelling to picket working pits. In the Six Counties of Ireland, the British Army's record of torture, murder, internment without trial and connivance with loyalist terrorism, belies any suggestion of impartiality.
Following the defeat of the first working class seizure of power in the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx and Engels were to make their only amendment to the Manifesto:
'One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz, that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes".'
The bourgeois state has to be smashed; it is unreformable.
False friends of the working class
For many petty-bourgeois commentators on the left today, this historic revolutionary role of the working class is denied or distorted by Eurocentrism.
Eric Hobsbawm, writing in The Guardian (28 February 1998) states: 'It is now evident that the bourgeoisie has not produced "above all its own grave-diggers" in the proletariat. "Its fall and the victory of the proletariat" have not proved "equally inevitable." ...why was it inevitable that it could not provide a livelihood, however miserable, for most of its working class, or alternatively, that it could not afford a welfare system?'
For sure, it could - in Western Europe. Yet today welfare systems are being dismantled, threatening extreme misery for the working class.
Martin Jacques, formerly of The Communist Party of Great Britain, speaking on Radio 4 on 7 March, said that the last workers who were arbiters of change were in Europe in the 1950s. What he thinks of the heroic struggles of the Korean, Cuban and Vietnamese working classes, we can only conjecture.
All these positions recognise only the more secure, better-paid sections of the working class. These workers, traditionally organised in the European labour movements have enjoyed a comfortable existence at the expense of the people of oppressed nations.
The more oppressed sections of the working class, 'the lowest stratum of our society', does not exist for these bourgeois commentators. They ignore the majority of the world's population, capitalism's victims, who live in abject poverty; the 1.2 billion who earn less than one dollar a day, the 180 million under-fives who suffer from malnutrition or the one in three who have no safe drinking water.
Yet it is precisely this section of the working class that is growing, drawing in other sections. As this process accelerates, conditions more akin to those of 1848 or of the third world today, will re-occur in Europe. Today in Britain, the largest differences in income levels have been recorded since records began in 1886. 13.7 million people live in poverty and 31% live in a household where nobody is in full-time employment.
It is not just that the poorer sections of the working class are suffering but that they are being joined by previously privileged layers of the population: 'Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great camps, into two great classes directly facing each other; Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.'
'The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers.'
As these middle class elements return to the ranks of the working class, they present the working class with great potential and great danger. Those who make common cause with the oppressed will contribute to the building of a new revolutionary movement. Those who try to preserve their privileges will be forced into ever more desperate attacks on the working class to do so. Social democracy - a middle ground - is increasingly untenable.
'The lower middle class...fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance they are revolutionary, they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat, they thus defend not their present but their future interests.'
Whatever the outcome of the great historic battle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat in the depth of the current crisis, one thing is certain. The more oppressed sections of the working class, from South Korea and Indonesia to Kurdistan and Turkey, from the Six Counties of Ireland to the heartland of British imperialism itself, will unite to resolutely oppose capitalism, for they 'have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.'