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150 years of the Communist Manifesto

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1998 marks the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. Issued on the eve of Europe’s first co-ordinated wave of revolutionary struggles it remains an unparalleled exposition of the theory and practice of scientific socialism, writes Colin Lloyd

“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.” So begins the Communist Manifesto, drafted 150 years ago by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.1

Within a few decades the spectre of communism was haunting not just Europe but the world. As mass workers’ movements emerged during the upward swing of capitalist development, Marxism itself took giant steps, both in theory and programme. In the process, some of the specifics of the Manifesto became, as Engels put it, “antiquated”. The “old Europe” was swept aside: Guizot and Metternich, the reactionary figureheads of France and Austria mentioned in the first page of the Manifesto, were swept from power within weeks of its publication. But capitalism survived the revolutions of 1848-51. Indeed its saw an amazing quarter century of expansion, posing new tasks and problems for revolutionaries. By 1872 Marx and Engels could write about the Manifesto as a “historical document which we have no longer any right to alter”.2

While successive generations of socialist workers have had to confront new problems in the class struggle, and draw up new programmes and guides to action relevant to their own time, the method outlined in the Manifesto has guided them like a beacon.

Likewise, in every decade since its appearance the opening words of the Communist Manifesto have struck fear into the minds of the employers and their hangers-on.

Every decade, that is, until the present. The collapse of Stalinism, the wholesale abandonment of Marxism by parties that once paid lip-service to it, the defeats suffered by strong workers’ movements and anti-imperialist struggles have combined to convince a large part of the ruling class that they no longer need fear the “spectre of communism”.

Thus, the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto will be celebrated by a much reduced band of people who identify themselves as Marxists. Reformist socialists, eco-warriors and repentant ex-Stalinists will come not to praise but to bury the Manifesto. they will claim that events have disproved its whole method and historic goal. “A great work of literature…high ideals…as outmoded as the cloth cap and the coal mine” – the academics and the journalists will churn it out.

What the commentators will not do in this year of the 150th anniversary is encourage people to read the Manifesto itself. Because, once we strip away the 19th century language and the specifics of the time, the Manifesto – on its own and without any added commentary – reads as a vivid and valid indictment of contemporary capitalism. In the Manifesto Marx and Engels outlined the essence of capitalism – its position in history and the tasks of the working class in the struggle to overthrow it. Paradoxically, while the tasks of the working class have developed and increased as capitalism has developed and survived Marx and Engels’ basic outline rings even truer today than it did 150 years ago.

The aim of this article is to serve as a modern introduction to the Manifesto: to explore the basic tenets of Marxism as set out in the Manifesto; to look at the way modern capitalism confirms the Marxist analysis of history and society; and to explain why the death of Stalinism has not exorcised the spectre of communism and workers’ revolution.

The materialist conception of history

The first and most important section of the Manifesto is devoted to an explanation of history from a materialist standpoint. Key to this method of historical materialism are four concepts:

l All history is the history of class struggles.

l Each successive ruling class has stood for definite exploitative social relations of production. These have served at first to advance the productive forces of humanity but, eventually, to restrict and retard them – provoking either social revolution or the collapse of a given type of society.

l The ideas, politics, culture and laws of a given class society are the products of the social relations. The dominant ideology in any period will be that of the ruling class.

l Despite this, human action and thought are not totally predetermined by economic or social developments: they can — especially to the extent that they become the ideas and thoughts of large masses — bring about development and change. The motive force of history is the class struggle, during which the oppressed class can achieve a revolutionary consciousness of its own purpose and destiny.

In a commentary on the Manifesto, written at a time when the prestige of Marxism on the bourgeois intellectual scene was great, Leon Trotsky observed:

“We can state with certainty that it is impossible in our time, not only to be a revolutionary militant, but even a literate observer in politics, without assimilating the materialist interpretation of history.”3

That cannot be said with certainty today. No matter who is speaking – be it the postmodernist academic, the neo-liberal economist or the celebrity scientist – once they stray into the area of knowledge, history and philosophy the spokespersons of the modern ruling class can scarcely hide the crisis of self belief of bourgeois ideology.

Science and technological progress are seen as unsound and dangerous by large sections of the intelligentsia. The idea of an objective process in history is supported only by those who think it has, in any case, finished.4

Instead of a kind of “unconscious” historical materialism there is a widespread acceptance of various forms of vulgar materialism. “Everyone I know,” writes economist James Buchan in a recent survey of the influence of Karl Marx, “now believes that their attitudes are to an extent a creation of their material circumstances…and that changes in the way things are produced profoundly affect the affairs of humanity even outside the workshop or factory.”5

True, this is a kind of materialism. But it is a crude, fatalistic and a-historic materialism that ignores the development of society through the interaction of relations of production and means of production. Just what changes in production bring about changes in society and ideas? And how? And why? These are questions the modern ruling class would rather ponder in the personal columns of the Sunday papers than discuss within a theoretical framework.

The generalised “materialist” outlook Buchan refers to can encompass statements as generally true as the proposition that the rise of bourgeois social relations stimulated the rise of the novel and the dubious assertion that the invention of the video recorder has led to more violence on the streets.

Ranged against such “pop materialism” in the sphere of bourgeois thought are the combined forces of postmodernism and neo-scepticism which distrust all attempts to explain the origin of ideas in the material world. Ideas, or “discourses” as the postmodernist calls them, “are already powers and do not need to find their material force somewhere else, as in the mode of production”.6 The neo-sceptics in the philosophy of science meanwhile assert that, since no idea can be proven to bear any relation to objective truth, a belief in nymphs and unicorns is as valid as acceptance of the laws of nuclear physics.

Crude materialism – where being determines consciousness through a one-way process divorced from class and society – jostles with crude idealism where words and ideas are as solid and powerful as things.

In short, bourgeois thought is back much where it was in the decade before the Communist Manifesto. In pre-revolutionary Germany in the 1840s the world’s most advanced philosophers were divided between the dynamic “dialectical” idealism of Hegel and the mechanical materialism of Feuerbach. Marx and Engels were forced to break from and transcend the rival schools of philosophy in order to comprehend history as it was about to unfold before them. They did this through a synthesis of the two standpoints which overcame the limitations of philosophy altogether by fusing it with political economy and social action.

In the context of today’s crisis of confidence in bourgeois thought the Manifesto’s statement of a dynamic, materialist explanation of history retains all its power and freshness.

The class struggle

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” wrote Marx.7 And this idea, as Trotsky pointed out, “immediately became an issue in the class struggle”.8

Professors, politicians, policemen, priests and anxious parents have laboured to convince every new generation of socialist workers that the class struggle is either an illusion, a secondary question or a thing of the past.

Today the ruling class attempts to face both ways over the existence of the class struggle and its importance to human history.

We are told that the decline of heavy industry and manual work have destroyed the working class9. We are told that mass share ownership and private pensions in the developed countries have abolished the boundaries between capitalist and worker. We are told that, in any case, Marxism’s reduction of history to class struggle blinded it to other factors like religion and nationalism: it cannot explain Bosnia, they claim, nor can it explain the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. With glowing triumphalism the bourgeois ideologists claim that Nationalism brought down the “proletarian internationalism” of the USSR.

However, at the same time as their ideologists wage this campaign against class, the actual capitalists remain acutely conscious of the existence of class divisions, class struggles and the role of these in the production of profit. They are obliged to wage their side of this struggle. Every management trainee knows that the quickest way to boost profits is to drive down labour costs, through wage cuts or job losses i.e. to prosecute the struggle against the workers.

At the strategic level, in the boardrooms and the economic ministries, small changes in the workforce are studied in great detail – and not out of anthropological curiosity. The capitalist class worldwide has been engaged, during the last quarter of the 20th century, in an enormous end entirely conscious struggle to shift wealth from “labour” to “capital”.

In light of this, what the Manifesto says about class and class struggle rings even truer today than when it was written.

Marx observed that capitalism had simplified class antagonisms: instead of the multi-layered structure of castes and classes known to earlier societies it had divided society into “two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeois and proletarian.”10

The bourgeoisie, having struggled to impose its own form of exploitation on society had ushered in a new phase in human history, wherein the methods and means of production had to be constantly revolutionised. In doing this, it was only following its own self-interests. But at the same time it was sowing the seeds of its destruction. Not only that, it was laying the basis for a further leap in human history whereby all class antagonisms, together with all unfulfilled needs, could be abolished.

The foundations for the transition from capitalism to communism were twofold, Marx argued:

l Every oppressed class fighting for power imposes its “own” new form of property and exploitation on society. But the working class has no property that really matters: it owns no factories, mines and offices, no machinery, no raw materials, no land, no banks. Therefore, if the class struggle under capitalism results in the victory of the working class, its task as a new “ruling class” would be transitory: namely to abolish class, private property and exploitation completely. Communism, which had been dreamed of by the exploited masses from time immemorial, could be a reality, a viable political goal, for the first time in history – because here was a class that could only fulfil its own historic needs by abolishing class and exploitation.

l But communism would not be possible on the basis of poverty and generalised want. Only in conditions where the basic necessities of life and much more could be produced and allocated free to each individual could humanity make this historic step. Here too, capitalism had furnished the solution, in the shape of the fast developing system of industrial production, which – together with the defeat of the landowner aristocracy – had massively reduced the social cost of producing life’s necessities.

The era of the Communist Manifesto, then, was the first time in history when the classless society seemed like a real economic and social possibility. The Manifesto’s achievement was to set out this idea clearly to a working class audience that had been fed for decades on the political quack remedies of various social reformers and adventurers.

How does the Manifesto’s basic prognosis measure up today? Paradoxically, because of its recent triumph over “Communism” and its recent expansive phase in South East Asia, contemporary capitalism fits the description in the Manifesto more closely than at any time in the Twentieth Century.

Take the “proletarianisation” of the middle classes: this has progressed with every wave of technical innovation and reorganisation of the work process in 20th century capitalism. When Marx wrote of the simplification of the class struggle under capitalism, that description was true only in England and, perhaps, France. When Marx, Engels and the militants of the Communist League plunged into the revolutionary struggle in Germany in 1848 they found the political landscape dominated by real forces of the revolutionary petit bourgeoisie. Even 90 years later, Trotsky could write that “the intermediate classes, to whose disappearance the Manifesto so categorically refers, comprise even in a country as highly industrialised as Germany, about one-half of the population.”11

Trotsky saw this as a product of the stagnation of capitalism, which was ruining the middle classes faster than it could proletarianise them while mass unemployment systematically “de-classed” the poorest section of the workers. Notwithstanding the misery and unemployment capitalism has visited on us since then, the very survival of capitalism, and its expansion after 1945, has reinvigorated the process of proletarianisation.

Layer after layer of “technicians” have seen their originally skilled and privileged occupations broken down into smaller tasks and automated – a process which, with the rise of computers, extends even into the realm of mental work. More and more of the population of the most advanced countries has been drawn into the waged workforce, and from there into the trade unions and the workers’ movement. Premature as it may have been in 1848 the following passage perfectly summarises the process at work in the late 20th century:

“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.”12

At the same time, the industrialisation of the third world has, over the last 25 years, created massive new legions of proletarians in place of masses of small peasants and traders. And the millions who remain on the land have been forced, by debt and land hunger, out of the class position of the smallholder and into the position of the rural, landless proletarian.

It goes without saying that the stagnatory aspect of capitalism continues to retard this process. Many semi-colonial countries harbour large and growing populations of shanty-town dwellers, who have never seen the inside of a factory. But globally that is not the dominant trend. The working class, the agent of the communist revolution is, on a global scale bigger than ever, younger than ever.

The productive forces

What about the second objective basis of communism: the development of the productive forces? Today, they are massively more developed than in 1848, massively more ripe to be seized and utlilised by the working class.

If we look over the whole 150 years of capitalist development since 1848 we can see periods of dramatic progress in technique alternating with periods where the social relations of production prevent or suppress the full utilisation of such techniques.

During this period – and even during the crisis and war riven 20th century – capitalism has strengthened the objective basis, the starting point, for the march to the classless society.

It is in the first place a question of the application of new techniques: mass production, chemical engineering, electronics, nuclear physics and information technology have each reshaped capitalist production, bringing the social cost of reproducing humanity through food, shelter, education, medicine and transport plummeting. Who benefits? Of course, the capitalist benefits as long as the profit system survives. But the technical advances of capitalism, even in the relatively stagnant imperialist epoch, have ensured that, with the working class in power, humanity could quickly move to the provision of all the basic necessities of life free, in limitless supply, throughout the world.

In addition to laying the technical basis for communism, capitalism also performs the important task of centralising, standardising and to an extent collectivising social life. Twenty years ago any revolutionary government in Britain, for example, would have had to puzzle over how to handle the hundreds of thousands if not millions of small producers and retailers involved in the supply of goods to working class communities. A whole panoply of measures and concessions would have been necessary designed to tie these petit bourgeois strata to the working class (cheap credit, exemption from certain regulations and taxes).

Today the huge supermarket chains have driven the majority of corner shops into bankruptcy. They have created in the process a large and brutally exploited retail proletariat concentrated in huge workplaces. These wage slaves can and are being organised. Capitalist competition has forced the supermarket giants to perfect internal planning to respond to market-driven needs.

The working class would only need to nationalise and merge Sainsbury’s, Safeways, Tesco and a handful of other supermarket chains in order to create a national network for discovering and registering the changing demands of consumers; a system that would enable the quality and safety of goods to be monitored, and their distribution organised.

The same is true if we consider the famous passage in the Manifesto about the internationalisation of production. Every word still rings true today: the destruction of national industries, the creation of a global system of production, “new wants” created by the international market, incapable of being met within localised national cultures, and the mirror of this in intellectual production: “from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature”.

In summary, the Manifesto – by seeing through to the essence of capitalism, its need to constantly revolutionise production – was able to predict very clearly the direction of capitalist development.

But what was the point of this paean of praise to the impact of capitalist development for Marx? It was to illustrate dramatically the socially reactionary character of this system: the inability of capitalist social relations to make progressive use of the technical forces it had unleashed.

“For many a decade past,” Marx wrote, “the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions of existence of the bourgeoisie…The productive forces of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered…”

This clash between the productive forces and capitalist social relations took the form, Marx explained, of inescapable economic crises which, for the first time in history, created “overproduction”. The bourgeoisie’s response to these crises was the enforced destruction of productive forces and the conquest of new markets: “that is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises”.

Marx, of course, was to say a great deal more than this on the subject of the capitalist economy and its crises, in twenty-odd years of work that culminated in the three published volumes of Capital. However, what strikes us, as we read this initial sketch, is the precision with which it describes everything that has been general to capitalism in all its periods and across both the epoch of its rise and its decline.

Many revolutionary Marxists in the 20th century set out to theorise the era of decline. Hilferding, Luxemburg, Lenin, Bukharin and Trotsky all shared the view that a profound change had taken place in capitalism around the start of the 20th century. They were right. Through monopolism, state intervention, the tendency towards stagnation and the ending of a period of unchallenged expansion into new markets, it had begun to gnaw at itself like a trapped beast. Despite their contributions to Marxist theory, most of these writers were only able to find one or two pieces of the jigsaw: the only coherent general theory of imperialist capitalism was that of Lenin.

But even he had time to produce only a “popular outline” and was not able to fully root it in the full structure of the political economy of Marx.

Trotsky also pointed to the Manifesto’s central flaw: namely, its wrong perspective on long-term capitalist development.

Writing on the eve of a revolution, but during what turned out to be only the first phase of industrial capitalism, Marx and Engels underestimated the historical reserves of the profit system. They spent the remainder of their lives as exiles, picking up the pieces of the failed revolutions of 1848 and grounding communism in a scientific understanding of the laws of capitalist political economy.

Trotsky, in his commentary on the Manifesto, identified Marx and Engels’ error of perspective in 1848: they mistook the first generalised crisis of capitalism for its final crisis. Their error, he wrote, “flowed on the one hand from an underestimation of future possibilities latent in capitalism and, on the other, from an overestimation of the revolutionary maturity of the proletariat”. For Trotsky, writing amid the revolutions of the 1930s, that error seemed to be of only historical importance. Wracked by economic crisis, revolution and war, the capitalist system had at last consumed its final reserves:

“Marx taught that no social system departs from the arena of history before exhausting its creative potentialities. The Manifesto excoriates capitalism for retarding the development of the productive forces. During that period, however, as well as in the following decades, this retardation was only relative in nature…Only in the last 20 years, despite the most modern conquests of science and technology, has the epoch begun of out-and-out stagnation and even decline of world economy.”13

With hindsight, Trotsky’s own judgement on capitalism can also be seen to have proved one sided and erroneous in its predictions of the “future potential” of capitalism. As we have explained elsewhere,14 Trotsky’s operative theory of imperialism caused him to mistake one aspect (and one period) of modern capitalism as its essence. In the Transitional Programme, written in 1938 on the eve of a new generalised crisis of revolution and war and also in the shadow of the Manifesto itself, Trotsky embodied a serious error of theory and perspective. This was to have as little practical effect on the revolutionary actions of the Fourth International during the second world war as Marx’s error had on the Communist League in 1848-51. As with the Communist League15 the real detrimental effects of the false perspective were felt by the Trotskyists only after the defeat or bureaucratic deflection of the post-war revolutions, when they failed to reassess the situation, insisting capitalism was doomed and stagnant after it had been temporarily saved and was booming.16

In light of the fact that revolutionary geniuses of the calibre of Marx, Engels and Trotsky all managed to make errors of analysis and perspective about the reserves of capitalism, ought we not to revise Marxism altogether, to exclude all talk of final crises and absolute stagnation? Would it not be safer to assume (as, consciously or otherwise, the Labour and ex-Stalinist politicians do) that capitalism will go on growing, faster or slower, until the working class seizes power?

No. The general theoretical framework laid out by Marx in the Manifesto remains valid: as does the enormous scientific work of Capital. Capitalism only resolves its crises by preparing the conditions for even deeper and more generalised crises. In the late 19th century capitalism’s varied palette of anti-crisis measures spontaneously fused into a new structure: instead of the “free competition capitalism” Marx had lived under, there arose monopoly and concentration; instead of national capitalism, global capitalism; instead of private capitalism, the joint stock company and state ownership; instead of the “nightwatchman state” there developed capitalist state intervention. Crucially, instead of unmitigated growth capitalism moved into an epoch of “mitigated crisis”.

Notwithstanding this major, qualitative change in capitalism, that set the stage for a century of war and revolution, if we survey the entire history of the system – from 1848 to today – it is Marx’s description in the Manifesto that best sums up the general and supra-epochal truth about capitalism and the productive forces: the relations of production tendentially strangle the forces of production; they always retard the potential of technology in a relative sense and, in times of crisis, prevent the application of new technology even for the benefit of the capitalists, let alone the workers. But this absence of generalised stagnation does not preclude the possibility of workers’ revolution. There is not a single revolutionary upsurge in history since 1848 that grew simply out of a response to economic stagnation and crisis. Nevertheless the objective tendency to economic crisis forms the backdrop to political, revolutionary crisis.

The state and revolution

The necessity and regularity of capitalist crises in fact formed the third “foundation” of the scientific socialism Marx outlined in the Manifesto. For it is not enough to know that the working class has an objective interest in abolishing class society, nor that capitalism has created the means to do so. We must also know in what circumstances the workers would be impelled to take the road of communism. Those conditions presented themselves clearly enough to Marx and Engels, who had seen at first hand the privations visited on the working class in the commercial crises of the early 1840s. Chartism in England, for example, had taken on a directly social and economic revolutionary character only under the impact of the cotton crisis of 1842.

This idea, that the capitalist crisis would usher in the opportunity for working class rule, was a revelation to many of the socialists and working class reformers of the 1840s. They had imagined a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism, on the basis of plenty – not starvation. Likewise they had seen no need for any special political theory or forms of organisation regarding the state.

As has often been explained, the capitalist state at the time of the Communist Manifesto was very underdeveloped. In Britain the first regular police force had only just been formed under the impact of revolutionary Chartism. However, as revolutionary struggles unfolded, it became clear that the half-formed capitalist states had more than enough firepower to suppress a workers’ upsurge that stopped halfway, was an insurrection launched without the support of the masses, or took the form of an adventure. Thus, less than 18 months after the publication of the Manifesto, most of the decisive revolutionary battles of the decade had been fought and lost.

Yet even before Marx and Engels had the chance to see and learn from the workers’ revolution on practice they were able to outline, in the Manifesto, a key tenet of revolutionary socialism:

“The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Again this is a fact known to every industrialist and banker, but regarded as the utmost ultra-left cynicism by reformist socialists from Tony Blair to Tony Benn. Reformist socialism did not have the deep social roots in Marx’s time that it gained in the 20th century; nevertheless it existed, notably in France where the “Social Democracy” of Louis Blanc basically argued for benign capitalism, a welfare state, plus political democracy. History was soon to teach the French working class that even a democracy, with a rudimentary welfare state, can suppress the revolution.17 But Marx was able to point this out in advance, adding that, to make a real revolution, the workers would have to put in place a different type of state:

“When in the course of development class distinctions have disappeared, and all the production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another”18

In this short passage Marx and Engels laid the theoretical basis which they were to develop over the next three decades:

l The impossibility of laying hold of the bourgeois state to introduce socialism.

l The need for the ruling class to impose its own rule against its enemies through “organised power” – the proletarian dictatorship.

l The never to be forgotten goal of abolishing the “political” – i.e. class and oppressive – aspect of the state and its replacement by “an association in which the free development of each is a condition of the free development of all”.19

The first of these points is only hinted at in the Manifesto. The abolition of the “public power” is seen as a natural outcome of the abolition of want under communism. But during the Paris Commune of 1871 Marx and Engels learned and spelled out for the working class a more concrete lesson: that the abolition of the bourgeois state has to begin during the revolution. The workers cannot take hold of the capitalist state and rule through it: they have to smash it and replace it with a state of a different type: a state that must then actively fight to abolish itself.

Party and Class

There are many discontinuities between the words of the Manifesto and the actions of Marx and Engels during the revolutions of 1848, most of them arising from the acute underdevelopment of class differentiation and consciousness in Germany at the time.20 But one principle that Marx and Engels stuck to, from the isolation of exile to the torrent of revolution, was the need to base the revolutionary party on the actual development of working class consciousness – not the schemes and timetables of conspirators. Hence the famous phrase:

“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”

If, when they wrote this Marx and Engels were all too aware of the danger of quack-doctor sects in the workers’ movement, the revolution and counter-revolution of 1848-52 was to teach them about it even more. After initially getting their fingers burnt with the conspirators Marx and Engels refused to be drawn into elitist conspiracies. They laboured to base their tactics on the objective needs of the situation even to the point of breaking with the only real mass workers organisation in Germany (the Cologne Workers’ Union) when it took a sectarian abstentionist position toward the bourgeois struggle against the Prussian monarchy.

But Marx and Engels’ words about “no separate party” have continually been flung in the face of 20th century revolutionaries as disproof of the need to organise the subjective communist vanguard into a conscious, fighting organisation. This quote has been used by people as varied as Eduard Bernstein and Ted Grant to justify their failure to break with the reactionary conservative forces within the workers’ movement and organise the vanguard for action.21

But that is entirely unjustified. In the very same passage, Marx and Engels explain that the communists are “the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others”. It was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after capitalism had literally bought-off whole sections of the workers’ union and party leaderships, that the revolutionary heirs to Marx and Engels realised the need for a really separate “revolutionary party”: when, as in Germany 1919, the “working class party” was led by those wh were responsible for the death of revolutionary Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht there was little alternative.

The split that took place in the workers’ movement during the first world war was not merely an argument over peaceful versus violent methods for abolishing capitalism: it was a split between those who in the name of “peaceful overthrow” would actually defend capitalism and fight to overthrow the world’s first workers’ state.

Despite this, the most far sighted Marxists of the Third and Fourth internationals never forgot the basic principles outlined in the Manifesto: communism is not an intellectual invention it is the expression in ideas and action of an objective movement in history and society. Whilst the communists had to act as a vanguard they also employed flexible tactics to maintain unity in action with the rest of the working class within the unions and in other working class parties. The major revolutionary tactic of the 20th century: the united front was born directly out of the principles of the Manifesto.

The revolutionary programme

The Communist Manifesto contains just two pages of actual political demands, summed up in a ten point programme. Shortly after it was published its this list of demands was practically superseded for Marx and Engels by the 17-point programme “Demands of the Communist Party in Germany”, which they took in armfuls of leaflets as they travelled from revolutionary Paris to the Rhineland in April 1848. Within days of beginning their revolutionary work Marx and Engels realised that their programme was so far ahead of the consciousness of either the working class or the revolutionary middle classes that, as Engels put it, “If a single copy of our seventeen points were distributed here, as far as we were concerned, all would be lost”22.

Despite its short career in practice, this programmatic section of the Manifesto has proved a priceless guide to action for every generation of workers since then faced with the task of mobilising the working class for power.

When Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, the unsolved questions of bourgeois democracy loomed large: not just political democracy, but all the social grievances of the middle classes against the feudal aristocracy, ranging from corn prices and taxes to censorship and the absence of national unity and integration. Many socialists at the time believed that the working class could and should simply tack on its demands to this bourgeois-democratic programme.

The Manifesto, on the contrary, begins from the principle that, within the forthcoming struggles, with in 1848 were to involve tactical alliances with the middle class, the workers must, nevertheless, advance their own class programme. Instead of a utopian vision to be brought in years in the future, communism was for the first time concretised in the Manifesto as a series of transitional measures fought for within and against capitalism, and whose achievement would give the working class all the tools it needed to build a classless society:

“In the beginning this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production”.23

The Manifesto then lists ten demands: nationalise the land; tax the rich; abolish inheritance rights; confiscate property of “emigrants and rebels” form a revolutionary republic; one national state bank with a monopoly on lending; nationalise communications and the transport industries; extend nationalised industry; everybody has to work; free education in state schools, no child labour, education combined with training for work.

During the late 19th century the successive programmes of the growing workers’ movements tended to relegate these revolutionary transitional demands to the sphere of a “maximum programme” to be achieved after the revolution. In their place the mass parties of the Second International put a series of reforms.

During the imperialist epoch, the spontaneous state-isation of the economy, combined with the conquest of various welfare measures by the working class made the revolutionary demands of the Manifesto seem even more irrelevant. At the height of the post-war boom a favourite trick of AJP Taylor, the pro-Labour historian, was to list the demands of the Manifesto and prove how they had been “won already” under capitalism in the mid-20th century.

Twenty-five years of neo-liberal onslaught on the very fabric of working class life across the globe make Taylor’s words seem like a sick joke – but they give the Manifesto’s demands a stinging relevance: nationalisation, state credit, planned centralised production, taxing the rich to pay for services: free education: these demands have a decidedly revolutionary ring when no section of any of the reformist workers parties across the globe seriously believes they can be fulfilled. Even child labour – abolished in the imperialist countries – has come back to haunt modern capitalism: many of our third-world produced luxury goods – from oriental rugs to Nike trainers – are produced by children, deprived by work of childhood.

Abandoned during the long class peace of the late 19th century, the programmatic method of the Manifesto was rediscovered and applied by the revolutionary Marxists at the beginning of the 20th, and embodied in transitional action programmes like those produced by Lenin in 1905 and 1917, by the Comintern in the years 1919-23 and by Trotsky and the Fourth International in the 1930s. The revolutionary action programme cannot be divided into maximum (communist) goals and minimum, democratic and social reforms for the present. It has to advance the element of working class self organisation, ownership and control in every struggle; to prepare the working class for the seizure of power through every partial and minimal struggle. This was the method Trotsky used consummately in the production of the Transitional Programme.

The inadequacies of the Manifesto

Despite its unparalleled contribution to the development of the working class programme, the Manifesto does contain flaws: predictions about capitalism which were falsified by events, or omissions and simplifications which proved insufficient to guide the workers’ movement as capitalism developed.

Trotsky, in his 1938 introduction, identified several areas of inadequacy in addition to the question of perspective outlined above. First, there was Marx and Engels’ supposition that the bourgeoisie of the mid 19th century would at least go some way toward making its own political revolution. 1848 was to be the first in a long series of revolutionary crises which proved that the bourgeoisie is always more frightened of its own working class than it is of decaying feudalism. They themselves criticised the supposition in 1850 and produced a sketch of the future theory of Permanent Revolution. In the 20th century this was to mean that the proletariat had to come to the head of the struggles against not only feudalism but also imperialist domination and oppression. Out of this understanding Trotsky was able to fashion his own great contribution to Marxism, the fully developed theory of Permanent Pevolution.

Secondly, while predicting and demonstrating that capitalism would draw all undeveloped countries into a worldwide capitalist system, the Manifesto, as Trotsky pointed out, made no specific mention of the underdeveloped countries.

It even suggested that national consciousness per se would be undermined by capitalist development:

“National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing owing to the development of the bourgeoisie …”24

The unfolding century and a half of imperialist conquest and domination that followed the publication of the Manifesto has obliged revolutionaries to develop specific tactics and methods for the national struggle: most of them can be deduced from the principles of the Manifesto but one of them – the need for the proletariat of the imperialist heartlands to support the struggles and wars of the oppressed nationalities against the armies of the imperialist oppressors, is one that had to be spelled out by the revolutionaries of the early 20th centuries in the teeth of opposition from Marxists who claimed that the Manifesto predicted a “civilising” role for capitalism.

Third, on the question of women’s oppression, women’s liberation and the family the Manifesto failed to anticipate one of the strategic counter-crisis measures of the latter part of the 19th century. Marx and Engels had observed how the factory system served to destroy the family unit within the working class. Thus, with a flourish, the Manifesto declares:

“The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation”. 25

“The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with bourgeois family relations”26

The implication was that the family would be confined to the bourgeoisie, that it was a thing of the past. In fact the mid-19th century bourgeoisie responded to the real threat that rampant capitalism would abolish the family: they recognised it as a vital instrument of social control. Women’s unpaid domestic labour, in the family household, was built into the system of production for profit and has remained there ever since.

In times of severe crisis capitalism has, traditionally, thrown women out of the workforce and back into the home. In times of boom and labour shortage it has drawn them into paid work. And for most of the 20th century the watchwords of the most reactionary politicians have been “the sanctity of the family” and “the place of women is in the home.” Both the exclusion of women from social labour and their grossly unequal and insecure inclusion in it have made the family the key instrument for keeping women in a position of subservience and social inequality.

Fourth, there is the question of the “immiseration of the working class” raised by the Manifesto’s often attacked claim that capitalism tends to reduce workers’ wages :

“The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalised, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level”.27

This tendency to deskill and cheapen labour power, real enough in the early days of capitalism, and operating today, was partly offset by other tendencies in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of course the development of new methods of capitalist production continued to create new divisions of craft and skill within the working class. But in addition the bourgeoisie realised, as the wage workers became a majority in society and the old middle classes declined, that they needed social support within the workforce. They realised that they could buy off a skilled and privileged layer of the working class in the imperialist countries through higher wages and selected social reforms.

Thus certain general predictions of the Manifesto that the objective process of capitalist development would overcome the family, nationalism, and divisions of craft and income within the working class have been found wanting. In fact these were all revived in the crystallisation of a labour aristocracy from the late 19th century onwards. This stratum manifested a deep attachment to the bourgeois family, to its craft privileges and an enthusiasm for imperialist jingoism.

Nevertheless the last two decades of neo-liberalism, which can be looked on as capitalism returning to its essence as a measure of averting crises built up in the post-1945 system of state monopoly capitalism, have proved that Marx and Engels—even on these points— were not 100% wrong, even if they were not 100% right. Modern capitalism has massively swelled the ranks of the very poor in the last 20 years, it has deskilled traditional labour aristocrats in the media and communications industry.

To meet its demands for a more flexible reserve army of labour, in the form of semi-employed women workers, it has once more seriously undermined the nuclear family in all strata of the working class. And, while it has not abolished national chauvinism– in its quest for global markets and regional economic blocs – it has with its constant propaganda about the globalisation of markets and capital massively advanced the awareness that “the working class has no country” which can or will ensure jobs, social security, or decent retirement.

150 years later

150 years on what does the Manifesto offer us? What can it teach the proletariat in the decade of the internet, the century of the nuclear bomb? The answer is: a lot. Not only is the Manifesto a historical part of the legacy of the working class; it encapsulates the essential method from which the rest of Marxism could be developed even if all the works of Marx, Engels and theirsuccessors were obliterated. And more than that, because it offers a picture of the essence of capitalism, clothed in literary generality instead of the “facts and figures” format in which it would have been written today, it shows us both the horrors and the immense potential of the industrial society which capitalism has created.

Right here and now, the Manifesto says, humanity has the means to free itself. Capitalism’s recurrent crises threaten doom for humanity not simply an endless cycle of recession and recovery.

All that is lacking is the consciousness and organisation within the class that has the power to effect that change. The crisis of humanity – expressed today in falling stockmarkets, crumbling infrastructure, wanton poverty, racism, women’s oppression, the threat of war, rampant child labour, unbridled pollution and the threat of global warning – all of this is ultimately reducible, as it was in 1938 and in 1848, to the crisis of leadership of the working class.

The task of resolving that crisis rests on thousands of working class activists taking the message of the Manifesto to millions of workers who, today, believe socialism is dead. If socialism is dead, then humanity is condemned to death. But the selfless struggles of the working class across the globe, which will intensify as the crisis deepens, propelling workers who have not yet even heard of Marx and Engels towards revolutionary conclusions and towards the revolutionary organisations, prove it is not dead: as long as there is a working class it cannot die because, as the Manifesto teaches, socialism and communism are only the living expressions of the objective, historic interests of the class itself.

1 K Marx, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, in Revolutions of 1848, Harmondsworth, 1978, p67
2 ibid., p66
3 L Trotsky, “Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto” in I Deutscher (ed). The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology , New York, 1964 p286
4 An example of this outlook is Francis Fukayama’s book The End of History, New York 1992
5 J Buchan “Back from the grave” The Observer, 19 October 1997
6 M Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Poststructuralism and Postmodernism , Hemel Hempstead, 1993
7 K Marx op cit.
8 L Trotsky op cit
9 A Gorz, Goodbye to the working class, London 1973
10 K Marx op cit.
11 Trotsky op cit.
12 K Marx op cit. p70
13 ibid., p290
14 K Hassell “Imperialism and Revolutionary Theory” Permanent Revolution No 8, London 1989
15 See B Nicolaevsky and O Manchen-Helfen, Karl Marx Man and Fighter, London 1983 p228-240, for an account of how Marx ‘s overoptimistic perspective allowed the League to become controlled by ultra-lefts, idealists and adventurers.
16 See Workers Power/Irish Workers’ Group, The death agony of the Fourth International and the tasks of Trotskyists today London 1983
17 In February 1848 a joint uprising by the Parisian workers and republican bourgeoisie overthrew the French monarchy and ushered in a republic. In June 1848 the reactionary general Cavaignac imposed a “republican” crackdown on the armed working class, stifling the attempt to transform the democratic revolution into a socialist one
18 K Marx op cit. p 87
19 K Marx op cit. p87
20 For an account of Marx and Engels’ developing tactical relationship to the bourgeoisie see for example B Nicolaevsky and O Manchen-Helfen op cit
21 Bernstein was the leader of the “revisionist” camp within the Second International and the first to argue openly that Marxism should allow for the peaceful transformation of capitalism into communism. Grant was the leader of the Militant tendency in the British Labour Party who advocated the “peaceful road to socialism” through a Labour government.
22 B Nicolaevsky and O Manchen Helfen op cit. p 172
23 K Marx and F Engels op cit. p86
24 ibid. p85
25 ibid. p70
26 ibid. p77
27 ibid. p75