175 years on and still relevant
This month marks the 175th anniversary of the publication of The Manifesto of the Communist Party in February 1848. It appeared on the world stage in German, just in time for the revolutionary events that broke out that year across Europe.
It is a brilliant, succinct, rallying call to the world working class. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were not yet 30 when it was written. They had been commissioned by the Communist League in 1847 to produce the manifesto and Marx had to be pressed to deliver the final document on time.
Although it is a historical document and some of its references will no longer be understood without footnotes1 , I argue that it is even more relevant today than when it was written.
What is its main message? That a new stage in human history is necessary – communism; that this requires the abolition of bourgeois2 property; that capitalism had brought forth the only force capable of carrying this out – the working class, or proletariat; that this is the historic task of the world working class.
Its victory means an advance for all humanity and for the future of the planet. The old society with its class antagonisms, exploitation and de-humanising alienation disappears, and resources can, for the first time, be planned for the need of all, taking account of the environment on which we all depend.
Many Marxists and their parties or groups do not always put this ‘property question’ at the centre of their work, concentrating instead on immediate struggles and tactics. They may deal with the issue in their theoretical journals, for the initiated, rather than putting it to the fore in their daily work. Socialists must fight for improvements (reforms) and to defend past gains in the here and nowbut must alsolink those struggles to the need to abolish the private ownership of the means of production – land, factories, machines, transport, science and technology.
Marx set out the conclusions of his joint work with Engels – work which they were to continue elaborating together for the rest of their lives – with a verve and drive that begins with the famous first declamation that grabs you like the opening of Beethoven’s 5th: “A Spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism3”.
It ends with the exhortation: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” or perhaps better known in the form “Workers of the word, unite!” This must remain the call today. International solidarity, international action, international revolution. Communism is international. Workers have no country. They face the same problems, the same conditions, the same exploitation, whatever language they speak, in whichever country they live. We share a common enemy – the global capitalist class, and we share the same goal – its abolition.
The Manifesto is divided into four sections: 1. Bourgeois and Proletarians; II. Proletarians and Communists; III. Socialist and Communist Literature; IV. Position of the Communists to the various existing opposition parties.
Of course, the document has to be read critically, with an eye to what has changed in the intervening time. Some sections became out of date even within the lifetimes of Marx and Engels. In their Preface to the German Edition of 1872, Marx and Engels wrote:
“However much the state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever. Here and there, some detail might be improved. The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organization of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated.”
Section I – Bourgeois and Proletarians
In Section I – Bourgeois and Proletarians – Marx opens with another famous phrase: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” Engels added another Note to the 1888 English edition, explaining that they were referring to all written history, pointing to what he called ‘primitive communism’, or perhaps better translated as ‘original’ communism, before written records began.4
Marx then elaborates the historical materialist approach to the development of society, moving through the different ways in which society was organised. Putting it shortly, slavery in ancient Rome, feudalism in the Middle Ages, and to capitalism today.
“The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonism. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.
“Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”
“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.”
How much greater is this the case today! Has globalisation not accelerated this process enormously in the 20th and 21stcenturies? The whole world economy is integrated. Capitalism has spread its tentacles into every corner of the globe, creating ever more “gravediggers”, the workers who will bury capitalism.
Workers are “a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” The worker has become “an appendage of the machine”. Look at the monitoring of Amazon workers, who are timed at every stage of their working day, including toilet breaks. Look at workers on buses and trains, on their way to and from work. The computer and the smart phone have enslaved them even while travelling, even while at home. The working day is surreptitiously extended. The conditions of work and life worsen.
“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.”
I am a barrister specialising in criminal defence trial work. Recently British criminal barristers took strike action over three and a half months in our action for increased pay. A very proletarian act. As I write, junior doctors are balloting for strike action over pay.
“The lower strata of the middle class – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink into the proletariat…Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.”
Contrary to those who say that there is no working class anymore, that we are all becoming ‘middle class’, the process is in the opposite direction. The ‘proletarianisation’ of the middle classes is a visible process. The world working class is now an immense force in every continent. It is the majority class. It has the power and position in society to change it.
While capitalism is constantly revolutionising the means of production, with new technology, new machines, computerisation, robots, and with it changing the roles or jobs that workers have, the exploitative nature of wage-labour remains the same.
It is remarkable how much is condensed into this short section. Just as with previous modes of production, capitalism becomes, in turn, a fetter on the productive forces. “The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.” Capitalism is forced to destroy its own productive forces, and to seek new markets. Ideas that will be developed more fully in Marx’s major work, Capital.
Capitalism is based on competition; competition between capitalists; competition between the capitalists of different countries including, of course, wars in which the workers are expected to fight on their behalf; and competition between workers who compete for work. This last rivalry is used by the capitalists to divide the working class, pitting one section against another.
Towards the end of the first section Marx makes a crucial observation.
“All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.”
This will become a central plank of Marx and Engels’ argument, developed later in the pamphlet and elsewhere, that the state under proletarian rule will disappear.5
The section finishes with the argument “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 over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery…Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.”
Is this not truer now than ever? The world contains immense natural resources yet we see widespread poverty, side-by-side with obscene wealth. Many lack of access to medicine and even clean water. We still have child labour and modern slavery. In one of the world’s richest countries, children in Britain are going to school without breakfast, and people are unable to heat their homes.
And still the so-called leaders of the world’s labour parties and trade unions tolerate it, offering no real alternative whatsoever.
Section II – Proletarians and Communists
The second section – Proletarians and Communists – emphasises that “Communists… have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.” This is an argument against sects who put their own existence before the movement as a whole, who make a fetish of their differences, and who separate themselves from the working-class movement. Communists must be fully involved in the daily struggles of the working class, while never hesitating to present their arguments.
Communists do not lecture from afar. We are actively involved and try to persuade others of our arguments through the experiences we go through together. We know that the conditions of life cannot be overcome without struggle and, ultimately, without ending the capitalist system. This is why we need a party with a clear programme for fundamental change – the abolition of capitalism.
“The immediate aim of the Communists is the…formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeoisie supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”
Nothing could be clearer.
“The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer.
“They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.”
Marx is here explaining that the ideas in the Manifesto are deducted from critically observing actual developments and changes in society. He is not conjuring a system from his head but arguing from reality that the processes within capitalism demonstrate that the working class must next come to power. It was here that he had real differences with the utopian socialists and communists who he deals with in Section III. Marx refused to set out blueprints for the future society as the utopians had.
Abolition of Private Property
He proceeds with what I argue is the core of the Manifesto and, indeed, of Marx’s whole body of work. He observes that the French Revolution abolished feudal property in favour of bourgeois property. The abolition of property was not, therefore, unique to communism. He then sets out what was unique.
“The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.
“In this sense, the theory of Communism may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of Private Property.”
It is made clear that this means “modern bourgeois property”, that is, the means of production, not the meagre personal possessions of the worker.
Marx sets out the antagonism between wage-labour and capital, two irreconcilable interests. Here, again, we see the kernel of the ideas that will be elaborated in Capital. The property produced by the worker becomes the property of the capitalist.
Marx then addresses the bourgeois owners of capital:
“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 9/10ths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those 9/10ths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.
“In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.”
If only we had workers’ representatives who were capable and confident enough to speak in such terms. Just imagine a workers’ MP pointing at the opposite benches in parliament, and behind them the owners of industry, and telling them exactly what our movement sets out to achieve – and will achieve. No ambiguity. No prevarication. We need to know where we are going, what our ultimate objective is. And we need to proclaim it from the highest buildings. “Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims”, states the Manifesto.
Marx repeats his argument “that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” It is here that Marx and Engels were obliged later to introduce a significant lesson. In the Preface to the 1872 German edition, following immediately from the passage quoted above, they wrote:
“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.”
After the ten demands mentioned above, Marx elaborates on their perspective that the coming to power of the working class leads to the disappearance of classes and of the state.
“When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all 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, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
“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.”
I will not comment on Section III – Socialist and Communist Literature, as it reviews literature and movements that have long disappeared, save to say that it is remarkable how some of the criticisms raised by Marx of these now long-defunct forms of early socialism and communism apply to many who abound in the contemporary socialist movement.
How about this, from the section on ‘Conservative, or Bourgeois Socialism’?
“[T]his form of Socialism, however, by no means understands abolition of the bourgeois relations of production, an abolition that can be affected only by a revolution, but administrative reforms, based on the continued existence of these relations; reforms, therefore, that in no respect affect the relations between capital and labour, but, at the best, lessen the cost, and simplify the administrative work, of bourgeois government.”
Modern-day reformist socialists, whether of the left or right, completely ignore (deliberately?) or misunderstand the property question. They are of no use as leaders of the workers’ movement because they accept the continuation of the exploitation of the working class and leave unchallenged the supremacy of the ruling class which carries out that exploitation, at the expense of the workers they are supposed to represent. We need new parties which do not fail to challenge the status quo.
The Property Question
And finally, we come to Section IV. Again, reference to the ‘various existing opposition parties’ are now of historical interest only. However, the section makes some extremely important points that apply today with equal force.
“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of the movement.”
“ In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.
“In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.” [My emphasis]
That is, communists fight for immediate victories but always point to the ultimate goal – the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production and the establishment of socialism.
One last point. The final paragraph states:
“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
There is no doubt that the ruling class will do everything possible, including using its own state forces – the army and police – to try to maintain or regain its position as ruling class when confronted with a mass workers’ movement to replace it.
This poses the important question of how to carry through this revolutionary, fundamental change, whereby the working class – the overwhelming majority in society – attains political power and becomes the ruling class in order to abolish private property. It will have to be a truly majoritarian movement, thoroughly democratic in aims and content, and powerful enough to challenge and defeat any threat of anti-democratic, violent resistance from the ruling class, otherwise it will not succeed.
In the Preface to English Edition of Marx’s Capital, published in 1886, 38 years after the Manifesto, Engels wrote,
“[T]he voice ought to be heard of a man whose whole theory is the result of a life-long study of the economic history and condition of England, and whom that study led to the conclusion that, at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful means. He certainly never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a ‘pro-slavery rebellion’, to this peaceful and legal revolution.”6
The capitalist world has since developed so fast and so far, that today it would not be right to limit the possibility of peaceful change to Britain alone. The world working class is counted in billions, the billionaires number only a few.The answer to the question as to whether the working class can come to power peacefully and dissuade or defeat any ‘pro-wage slavery’ rebellion, depends on how successful Marxists are in winning over the immense ranks of the majority working class to the task of carrying out its own emancipation.
If you have not read the Communist Manifesto, read it. If you have read it, read it again. It will inspire you.
WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
- The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto, by Hal Draper, Haymarket Books, 2020, is an excellent guide, providing detailed analysis and explanatory notes to every paragraph of the Manifesto.
- Engels added a Note to the English edition of 1888: “By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage-labour. By proletariat, the class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.”
- I argue that throughout their voluminous writings Marx and Engels did not differentiate between the meaning of the two words – socialism and communism. They meant the same thing – a society in which private ownership of the means of production has been abolished. There are no longer any classes, no exploitation and no state. Engels gave some background to their choice of ‘communism’ in his Preface to the 1882 English Edition.
- See Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State . MECW Vol. 26:129. A great amount of modern literature on hunter-gatherer societies confirms the general thesis that a form of common ownership existed before humankind began to write its own history.
- A very accessible introduction to the ideas of Marx and Engels can be found in Engels’ “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”,  MECW, Vol 24:281 https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/ch03.htm
- See also, for example, Marx’s speech at The Hague Congress of the International Working Men’s Association, on 8 September 1872, MECW, Vol 23:254 and https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/09/08.htm