The significance of the Communist Manifesto
The Communist Manifesto, which was first published in February 1848, remains an essential guidebook for any socialist serious about overthrowing capitalism.
This is because Karl Marx, with the help of Frederick Engels, was able to show for the first time the essential features and laws of capitalism as a class-based social system of production and exchange.
Obviously capitalism has changed in form since the mid-19th century, but the essence of the system remains the same: the exploitation of the majority by a minority who own and control the means of production in the pursuit of profit.
From the publication of the Manifesto, the case for socialism was given a scientific basis, moving from a set of ideas about a new society to a theory which had the force of history behind it.
Marx and Engels demonstrated that capitalism was itself a necessary and definite stage of class society, but only a stage. Capitalism, they showed, must give way to socialism – the abolition of classes based on property ownership.
Moreover, capitalism created its own gravedigger in the form of the vast majority – the working class – who were compelled to sell their labour power to the employers, the bourgeoisie.
History had given the emerging capitalist class the task of ending feudalism. In turn, the overthrowing of capitalism, the Manifesto shows, falls to those who had nothing to lose – the working class.
As Marx and Engels explained: "The theories of the communists are not in any way based upon ideas or principles discovered or established by this or that universal reformer.
"They serve merely to express in general terms the concrete circumstances of an actually existing class struggle, of any historical movement that is going on under our very eyes."
Marx’s great genius lay in revealing that the existence of classes was bound up with particular, historic phases in the development of production. He showed that the class struggle necessarily leads to the "dictatorship of the proletariat", the overthrow of capitalism by the working class.
The principal motive force in history, Marx revealed, is the struggle of humanity against nature to provide food and shelter, which in turn created a social organisation of production. In broad terms, these have been slavery, feudalism and capitalism.
This was the basic foundation upon which developed political and legal systems of state rule, ideology, together with all forms of cultural life and norms of social behaviour. This philosophy developed by Marx and Engels is known as historical materialism.
"Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?" Marx and Engels write: "What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes in character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class."
The Communist Manifesto shows how the capitalist class played a revolutionary part in history by ending feudalism and absolute monarchy, establishing a world market and conquering exclusive political control.
It concludes: "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." The New Labour government forcibly springs to mind here!
After revealing how capitalism had reduced social relations to a "callous cash payment" in the name of the "freedom" of free trade, Marx and Engels explain: "Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones."
This is a description that perfectly fits today’s world, let alone capitalism of 150 years ago. Globalised capitalism, with its constant movement of production, financial instability, job insecurity and rapid technological change, is the new form of what Marx and Engels were writing about.
The Communist Manifesto shows how the contradiction between the forces of production and its system of ownership and control is the historical law that leads to revolutionary change. This is how the capitalist class came to power in countries like England and France, as the rising bourgeoisie were drawn into conflict with the existing organisation of agriculture and manufacturing.
"The feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder."
Marx adds: "A similar movement is going on before our own eyes. Modern bourgeois society… 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 anarchy of capitalist economy is characterised by the massive application of science and technology, a tremendous growth in the productive forces, the socialisation and internationalisation of production, and the reduction of all labour to property-less wage labour.
In parallel with this, the form of ownership remains private and at the end of the 20th century, concentrated in a handful of global monopolies like Microsoft, Sony, Nike and the biggest corporation in the world that will follow the merger of two giant British drug companies.
As a result, the world economy is dominated by the unconscious and unplanned mechanism of the world market. Humanity does not control the vast productive forces but becomes their victims in crisis and war.
Marx describes this process as the "revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production", leading to "an absurdity – the epidemic of over-production". Society finds itself in a "state of momentary barbarism".
And the reason? Marx elaborates: "The productive forces at the disposal 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, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property.
"The conditions of bourgeois society [private ownership] are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented." The overcoming of this contradiction, this "revolt" of the productive forces against society itself, is the question that confronts us in 1998 as the world plunges into slump, environmental degradation and the threat of war.
History, as we have seen, assigns classes special and specific roles. Capitalist society is the latest and most developed form of class society, of a society based on the exploitation of working men and women – wage-labourers.
The capitalist class took power to consolidate its own power which had been established within feudalism; by contrast, workers have to abolish their own status as an exploited class in order to take society forward. In this way, the socialist revolution creates a class-less society.
Of course, Marx and Engels did not think that the working class, simply by the conditions of its existence, would become conscious of its historic role and think in terms of modern, scientific socialism.
To grasp the capitalist system as a whole it is necessary to bring together and go beyond all previous achievements in history, philosophy and economics. A party is needed, and the Manifesto explains its role:
"The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement."
Communists, they add later in the Manifesto, "bring to the front, as the leading question in each [revolutionary movement] the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time".
Cynics and sceptics argue that because capitalism still exists 150 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, its ideas have been "proved wrong". Such people accept what the Manifesto calls "the selfish misconception" that the social forms of capitalism are "eternal laws of nature and of reason".
Marx and Engels deal at length with those who in the name of socialism actually accept capitalism and merely want to eliminate its worst excesses. This struggle against the influence of reformism in the socialist movement has gone on unabated since 1848.
A break-through was achieved in 1917 when the Bolsheviks led the first workers’ revolution in history in Russia, proving in practice the correctness of the Communist Manifesto’s analysis of historical progress.
But the eventual isolation of the Russian Revolution, combined with the backwardness of the country, created conditions in which Stalinism through bloody oppression was to triumph over the principles of the world socialist revolution.
Today we live under unique political conditions. Reformism cannot offer even the smallest concessions to workers and has turned into its opposite. Millions in Britain, for example, are experiencing a profound shock from the capitalist New Labour government of Tony Blair.
Stalinism as a political force no longer exists either. The terrible distortion of Marxism, its conversion into a form of state dogma, has lost its grip with the ending of bureaucratic rule in the former Soviet Union.
These changes provide Marxists with a real opportunity to raise the challenge of the overthrow of globalised capitalism, which is hated by the vast majority of humanity. There is no better conclusion than the one which ends the Communist Manifesto: "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win."
This article first appeared in Socialist Future magazine