The Communist Manifesto - a world still to win

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 120 - August/September 1994

As part of an occasional series re-evaluating major works of communist literature, EDDIE ABRAHAMS and MAXINE WILLIAMS ask whether the Communist Manifesto still has relevance for today.

'A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism.'

These are the opening words of the most influential political pamphlet of all time - the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, it was published on the outbreak of the European-wide 1848 revolutions. It was not merely a pamphlet but the programme of a revolutionary class. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, the Manifesto and the varied international attempts to put its ideas into practice enraged the wealthy ruling elite of every country. The Manifesto after all unashamedly declared:

' . . . you reproach us [Communists] with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.'

'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 nine-tenths.'

An alternative vision of society - based on communality not competition - was propounded with fierce confidence. But it was not merely a vision; there have after all been many Utopias in history. For the first time the Manifesto offered a scientific analysis of historical progress and an agency for bringing about the emancipation of humanity. Capitalism itself produces a revolutionary class, a class with nothing to sell but its labour power. Its historical mission is to bring about socialism so that:

'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.'

The struggle to put these ideas into action has proved harder than any-one could have predicted. The ruling class has often deliriously announced that it has finally vanquished this age-old enemy, sometimes by force, sometimes by claiming to have solved the problems associated with capitalism, usually by a combination of the two. Never have such calls been louder than since the collapse of the socialist countries in the 1980s. But despite 'the monotonous sound of the trumpet that indecently announces the perpetuity of liberalism and the end of utopias' (Tomas Barge) a reader can find much in the Manifesto as relevant today as in 1848.

Socialism or barbarism

Marx and Engels believed that the Manifesto was expressing the entrance onto the social stage of a new force, the working class, capable of liberating not just themselves but society as a whole. They were brimming with confidence that the bourgeoisie could be defeated: 'Its fall and the victory of the proletariat is inevitable.' But Marx and Engels did not believe that socialism was historically predetermined. The Manifesto warns of both the possibility of 'a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or . . . the common ruin of the contending classes.' Socialism or barbarism. Historical 'inevitability' was conditional on conscious human action. And the Manifesto's main aim was to rouse the working class to action, to highlight the objective course of capitalist development and chart the path to working class liberation. Thus the famous call 'The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries unite!'

The emancipation of society can come only from the action of the exploited and oppressed. If they do not take the decisive steps or are defeated in the attempt, then capitalism continues its barbarous course. In 1848, no one could envisage quite how barbarous that course would be, a course which has brought humanity and this planet to the brink of catastrophe.

Profit is all

No late 20th century critic of capitalism can rival the burning passion of the Manifesto. The authors might well have been describing the selfishness, the contempt for human morality so striking in this neo-liberal age. Today, when barely an inch of the globe does not bear the hallmarks of capital there truly remains 'no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash-payment".' The bourgeoisie has ensured that all values, all morality, all honour is drowned 'in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value... ' 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 paid wage-labourers.' It has produced a culture which is 'for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine'.

If so in 1848, in capitalism's youth, how much more now, in its selfish dotage? It resembles one of its ageing Californian beneficiaries in its determination to live forever, to conceal its wrinkled flesh and buy the vigour that belongs only to youth. Its symbols today are the junk-bond dealer, the men who grow fat from famine, the besuited pimps of the media industry, the bankers who conjure vast polluted cities into existence and whose decisions have ensured that the very mechanisms that allow life to exist are being poisoned at source. Its culture is at once both murderous and soporific. Witness the spectacle of the richest nation on earth trans-fixed by televised images of an ex-footballer charged with murdering his wife fleeing police capture.

Already in 1848 we find a powerful critique of the logic of capital-production for profit. Those who today talk of the global economy, of the internationalisation of communication and culture follow in the pamphlet's footsteps. 'The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country ... it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood.' As a result 'we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.'

The Manifesto was written too early to chart, as Marx did later, the transformation of free competition into monopoly and the associated trend toward world monopoly capitalism, imperialism. This is the age of the giant multinationals, of Micro-soft, Toyota, Coca-Cola, of Disney-land, of Hollywood, of the international 'best-seller', of McDonalds from China to the USA, of international pop-stars and internationally celebrated criminals. Marx and Engels, who understood the internationalisation of capital, could not foresee the division of the world between oppressed and oppressor nations. But they hinted at the role of the first emerging capitalist countries 'whose cheap commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls.' Those countries which first trod the path of capitalism have created a system of exploiting the poor nations which produces super-profits and which has had profound consequences for the development of the working class movement internationally.

Whilst understanding the ability of capitalism vastly to develop the productive forces, the Manifesto also explained its inherent instability, its barbaric and self-destructive character. Capitalism which 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 Manifesto describes the inherent contradiction between production for profit and the sheer scale of modern productive forces. Capitalism in all its phases expresses this contradiction in an obvious way: theoretically the scale of modern production could provide the whole world with enough food, housing, education etc. It does not do so be-cause if production is only for profit then it will produce only that which is profitable, be it Coca Cola or micro-chips. Capitalism relies on exploiting the mass of people, precisely depriving them of real necessities. Periodically it expresses the contradiction more dramatically.

The Manifesto describes capitalism's tendency to crisis that has been its most enduring characteristic. 'Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce . .. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.'

Such crises have been more the rule than the exception in the past 150 years. The post-war boom, one of the longer periods of stability, has given way for the past 20 years to what are called 'recessions' but are merely the usual crises of profitability. Such prolonged crisis merely accentuates capital's tendency towards international competition and, ultimately, war.

 One of the most criticised aspects of the Manifesto in modern times is its prediction that the worker:

'becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than the population and wealth. And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him.'

In the era of TVs and fridges, and cars and computers, say the critics, how can this be true? If they removed their Eurocentric glasses they would find these are the conditions of the vast majority of the world's working class, those who live in the oppressed nations. And a growing portion of those in the rich nations have also been denied seats at the banquet. However, a section of the working class in the rich nations has indeed grown privileged and their loyalty to their benefactors has had a huge and negative political influence in the working class movement.

The role of the working class

A demonstration of the inability of capitalism to meet basic human needs and proof of this system's inherent instability was not sufficient for Marx and Engels. They wanted to demonstrate that capital-ism produced a class whose very conditions of life drove it to revolutionary action. Under capitalism the . . . modern labourer . . . instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class.'

Driven to revolt against this misery, the working class emerges as a revolutionary class and, with the development of industry, it 'not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.' And then begins the journey of humanity 'from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom'.

'...The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.'

Can the working class of the late twentieth century play this role? In the rich nations, its political development has been dominated by the outlook of the privileged - reformism, rather than the revolutionary anger of the exploited. The defeat of the Soviet Union and the socialist countries also seems a telling blow. Finally, in many countries, the workers are not becoming more concentrated but more atomised. In such a brief article such huge questions can only be raised rather than dealt with.

To those who say the working class cannot play this role we would counter-question: who else can? It remains the case that the majority of the world's population consists of those without property and power. On their shoulders rests the whole construction of profit-making. And it remains the case that capitalism is inherently unable to provide the majority with the means of life. Those who criticised the Soviet Union are quiet now as the reintroduction of capitalism dissolves the gains the working class there made: employment, health care, literacy. The crisis-ridden character of capitalism is depriving not only the poorest of the world of life, but increasingly imposes insecurity on workers in the rich nations.

History does not pose questions that it cannot answer. The working class has indeed changed in composition and character since the Manifesto was written. But the necessity for it to change society has not disappeared. It struggles on in many forms, in many nations with its fight against World Bank-imposed development, against privatisation, against police states. Its task has be-come both harder and more urgent. For when Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto they could not see a day when the struggle was not merely for human progress but for human life itself. Capitalism has brought ruination to the earth as well as its people. We have a world to win and not long to do it.