The Communist Manifesto was published on the eve of a great revolutionary turmoil that spread through Europe in 1848. It was written 70 years before the 1917 Russian Revolution first overturned capitalism. It preceded by 100 years the 1949 Chinese Revolution and the spread of so-called Communism to Eastern Europe – encompassing half the entire globe.
Revolution arose in Paris in 1848, only a few days after the publication of the Manifesto, spreading in a massive wave throughout Europe. Marx and Engels, aged 29 and 27 respectively, played their part in this revolution, and not just through written agitation. Marx had written “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” (Theses on Feuerbach) When revolution arose, they participated to the full.
But Marx and Engels rejected the method of terrorism and the conspiratorial methods of some contemporary revolutionary groups seeking to carry out a coup. They discovered the special role that the working class (sometimes termed the “proletariat”) was destined to play in overthrowing capitalism.
They worked continuously to bring their ideas to the most politically advanced members of the working class. For Marx and Engels, the proclamation of the ideas that they were to reveal in the Communist Manifesto had to be intimately linked to the struggles of the working class. They sought out the “most extreme, chiefly proletarian” secret revolutionary league – the ‘League of the Just.’ From 1843 onwards, Engels explains that he and Marx kept up:
“continuous correspondence… influenced the theoretical views of the most important members of the league by word of mouth, by letter and through the press…we also made use of various lithographed circulars…” (On the History of the Communist League, Marx and Engels selected Works, p. 440)
They convinced the League of their ideas in 1847 and immediately joined the League. The League changed its name to the Communist League. Marx founded a branch of the Communist League in Brussels, Engels attended the three Paris branches, and Marx and Engels were commissioned to draw up the Communist Manifesto, to proclaim these ideas to the world.
The Manifesto’s first two chapters, Bourgeois and Proletarians and Proletarians and Communists, are reproduced here, together with the short fourth chapter. There is a link to the third chapter on marxists.org. This introduction mainly discusses the first and second chapter. The third chapter, which raises demands and criticises political trends current in 1848, while it still acts as a guide to the method of Marxism, was contingent on the historical conditions of the time.
Some phrases in this famous English translation have become antiquated. For instance, the translation “Working Men of all countries, unite!” today is more accurately translated as “Workers of the world unite!”
The ‘Communist’ Countries
The word ‘Communist’ has changed its meaning since Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto over 150 years ago. The word ‘Communist’ is usually associated with the regimes that took that name, such as those that ruled the former Soviet Union and its East European satellites. Although capitalism and feudal landlordism were abolished in those countries, those “Communist” regimes represented a grotesque caricature of the genuine ideas of the Communist Manifesto, and were a collection of ruthless dictatorships based on bureaucratically planned economies.
Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, always explained that socialism “requires the joint efforts of workers in a number of advanced countries,” (as Lenin repeatedly put it) meaning, in particular, Western Europe. Both economically and politically Russia was a relatively backward, overwhelmingly peasant-based feudal society. It was not an advanced capitalist economy, where the processes described in the Manifesto were preparing the ground for a successful transformation into a socialist society. Genuine socialism could not grow on its soil.
In the 1882 Preface to the Russian Edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels acknowledged that (at that time) more than half the land of Russia was “owned in common by the peasants.” Was Russia fated to emulate the West and go through a capitalist development before it could turn to socialism?
“The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.” (Preface to Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, 1882 )
The idea that the Russian Revolution could jump over the need for a long capitalist development and move straight to socialism, only so long as such a revolution become a signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, where conditions for socialist development were maturing – a European revolution which could in turn then provide a basis of support for the Russian revolution – this was the outlook of Lenin and Trotsky.
This was not day dreaming. The Russian Revolution of 1917 inspired revolutions and uprisings throughout Europe, including in Germany in 1918, 1919 and 1923. But with poor leadership, they failed to overthrow capitalism. As explained in What About Russia? on this site, the continued isolation of the Russian revolution in the economically backward territories of the Soviet Union led to the inevitable destruction or degeneration of the genuine socialist ideals of the Russian revolution. The leaders of the Bolshevik Party at the time of the Russian Revolution all stated that:
“… without a revolution in the West, Bolshevism will be liquidated either by internal counterrevolution or by external intervention, or by a combination of both. Lenin stressed again and again that the bureaucratisation of the Soviet regime was not a technical or organizational question, but the potential beginning of the degeneration of the workers’ state.” (Trotsky, Stalinism and Bolshevism)
Capitalism and Landlordism was subsequently overthrown in several other countries throughout the world, such as China and Cuba. But these countries were also mainly peasant based, and established regimes following the model of the Soviet Union under Stalin. None of the regimes which are called Communist represent the true aspirations of the Communist Manifesto.
Today the Socialist Party uses the word ‘socialist’ rather than ‘communist’, to avoid any confusion with Stalinist regimes or Stalinist ideology.
In the Preface to the English edition of the Manifesto of 1888, Engels explains that when the Manifesto was first published, the word ‘socialist’ referred to utopians and quacks, whereas those workers who wanted “a total social change,” called themselves “Communists”. But by the time Engels wrote the preface to the German edition of 1872, he could declare that the Manifesto had become an “historical document which we have no right to alter.”
The Communist Manifesto Today
The Communist Manifesto is “almost uncannily prescient about globalisation’s costs and benefits”, Time Magazine suddenly admitted, one day early in 2009. (Re-thinking Marx, Peter Gumbel, 22 January 2009) The credit crunch which began in earnest in mid-2008 has once again raised the spectre of socialism. “New age of rebellion stalks Europe” announced The Times on the same day, carrying graphic pictures of demonstrations across Europe from Greece to Iceland. (22 January 2009, p. 29)
Time magazine is forced into reporting several telling admissions. “Nobody ever claimed the market economy would produce social justice” – but of course, they did. And as markets collapse around the world, Pascal Lamy, who runs the World trade organisation, is force to admit that globalised capitalism “creates bigger inequalities”. Time Magazine’s defence of capitalism is unconvincing.
Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, was considered a kind of modern day oracle by the ruling elites of the world. “Lawmakers doted on him as an economic sage,” as the New York Times puts it. Yet, in his testimony to the USA Senate in October 2008, Greenspan admitted:
ALAN GREENSPAN: I found a flaw… Flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the [capitalist] world works…
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working?
ALAN GREENSPAN: That is — precisely.
In other words, Greenspan has discovered that capitalism is critically flawed, as the Manifesto pointed out in 1848. The Manifesto was written when modern capitalism and the working class were in their infancy – in Germany, for instance, the working class comprised less than 5% of the population.
In his sympathetic biography of Kark Marx, published in 1999, journalist and writer Francis Wheen is another commentator who noticed that Marx and Engels’ “vision of the Global Market was uncannily prescient”. (Karl Marx, published in 1999 by Fourth Estate, London, p. 122) Marx and Engels provided socialists with an understanding of how the processes of global capitalism lead to the wars, the ruination of nations and the starvation of millions today. Remarking on the collapse of the stock markets, the fall of the high-tech sector, and the spread of recession, in 2001 Larry Elliott commented in The Guardian:
“The Marxist interpretation of globalisation may yet be proved right. Its analysis of the events of the last few years has tended to be more coherent than the Panglossian guff emanating from those who believe that the world economy has never been in better shape.” (2 July 2001.)
It is truly remarkable that over 150 years after the Manifesto was published, Marx was voted “Thinker of the Millennium” by a “clear margin” in a BBC online poll in October 1999.
The Ideas of the Manifesto
“Class struggle” is the motor force of historical change, the Manifesto explains. Since the earliest beginnings of recorded history, societies have undergone fundamental change because different classes in society are in “constant opposition.” These classes represent the “oppressor and oppressed” and the struggle between them eventually results either in “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” – or in mutual destruction.
Previous class societies were divided into many different classes struggling against one another, but capitalist society has “simplified the class antagonisms.” Now there are just two main classes, the working class (the proletariat) and the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie). The ruling capitalist class represents those who own and control the means by which all wealth is created (termed the “forces of production”), while working class have “no means of production of their own.”
The Manifesto explains why the capitalist “mode of production” was to sweep away feudalism – it describes in outline the process of globalisation. Capitalism means the
“constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation…
The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe…
It compels all nations, on pain of extinction … to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst.”
Former USA President George W Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair precisely claimed to be defending “civilisation” after the attack on the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. But by bombing, invading and occupying Afghanistan Iraq, they were actually defending the prestige and power of the US capitalist class. At the same time they were reaching out to control the production of that essential capitalist commodity, oil, as Alan Greenspan admitted in his autobiography. (Alan Greenspan claims Iraq war was really for oil, The Sunday Times, 16 September, 2007) But their capitalist system is in deep crisis.
The analysis of capitalist crises in the Manifesto, the “epidemic of overproduction,” might have been written today:
“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.”
When the 2001 “dot.com” bubble burst, a distant prelude to the credit crunch of 2008, Marc Andreessen, one of the “Gods of the Net,” unknowingly echoed the very cadences of the Manifesto in a magazine interview. He said that the dot.com boom went bust because people were building “too many switches, too many routers and too much everything else.” (Internet Magazine, January 2002)And just as, at the time the Communist Manifesto was written, workers manufacturing shirts in England could not afford to buy a new shirt, so today food riots take place across the world while capitalists complain that they can’t sell their goods.
The Manifesto outlines how destructive periods of recession are inherent in capitalism. It appears that “too much” is produced, but the working class receives far less in wages than the value of the goods they produce. The “consumers” of today can no longer buy the products which they themselves, as workers, produced only yesterday!
The Manifesto explains that the anarchic market system of capitalism becomes increasingly incapable of developing society. Competition leads to closures, unemployment and recession, to depression and war. A socialist, democratically planned economy, released from the shackles of the capitalist market, could match production and resources to the needs of society.
In a distorted way, the collapse of the so-called “Communist” countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union confirmed this. On the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Socialism Today, the Socialist Party’s monthly magazine, explained that while the societies which collapsed were a grotesque caricature of socialism, nevertheless:
“Up until the early 1970s, we should not forget, the nationalised economies produced impressive advances, especially in heavy industries, though consumer goods were generally in short supply and of poor quality. Despite many shortcomings, however, those former societies also provided basic education, healthcare, and other social amenities to the majority of the population – now sorely missed as they have been destroyed by the emerging capitalist market.”
(The Wall Comes Tumbling Down, issue 42, October 1999)
The plan of production in those countries took the form of central command from above, with large scale bureaucratic mismanagement, deprived of a thorough-going workers’ democracy. The Stalinist regimes could no longer develop society. But the return to capitalism meant a devastating decline in living standards for the mass of the population, as well as the eruption of wars, terrorism and gangsterism.
A United Nations Development Programme report called the period of capitalist restoration a “Great Depression plunging more than 100 million people into poverty.” (UNDP Transition 1999, as reported in The Times, 23 August 1999)
The Working Class
With remarkable prescience, then, the Manifesto demonstrates that capitalism, due to its internal contradictions, inevitably moves from crisis to crisis. “And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises?” asks the Manifesto. By the conquest of new markets, which only paves the way for “more extensive and destructive” crises.
But in a crucial sentence the Manifesto says:
“But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians.”
On the one hand, the power of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, comes primarily from their ownership of big business. But on the other, big business cannot operate without workers. So as the capitalist class has developed historically, so inevitably the working class has developed proportionately.
In a footnote inserted at the very beginning of the Communist Manifesto, Engels states that the working class is defined as:
“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.”
Although the working class in Marx and Engels’ day were largey factory workers, there is an important difference between the way Marxists define working class people and the popular but narrow defintition of working class meaning those who do manual labour only, or those who are impoversished more generally. There are two simple but essential points that Marx and Engels understood.
Firstly, unlike members of other classes, including perhaps even the most impoverished farmer or peasant, the working class do not own their means of making a living, in the way that factory owners own factories and live off the profits of the labour of others, bankers own banks and live off the interest people pay on their loans, or landlords own land and live off the rent they extract. This essentially sets the working class apart, even, strictly speaking, from small, impoverished farm owners, shopkeepers and taxi drivers, who often struggle to make a living but own their produce, shops and taxis, from a Marxist point of view.
Instead, secondly, the working class can only sell their own ability to work, their “labour power”, their muscles and brain power, for a more or less fixed sum each week or month, paid as wages or salary. Competition between firms then means that the boss must attempt to extract as much work as possible from those workers for that wage or salary.
The working class arose historically as a quite separate class in this sense, and it can become very much aware that it is an exploited class, exploited by the bosses, landlords and to varying degrees by those who act as their agents and their enforcers.
The working class then develops historically as both an economic and a social formation in society, with its various traditions. It then encompasses not just those in work, but their families and those who cannot or do not work.
It encompasses the unemployed, the disabled, and people who care for children or relatives for example, or school students and those in further or higher education.
And if unemployed workers take up taxi driving or other self-employed positions, they may remain part of the working class from this social viewpoint, especially if they continue to adhere to its class consciousness and support its struggles, even if, nominally, they now own the means to make their own living.
Engels’ definition is very broad. At the turn of 2007, 57% of people considered themselves working class in the UK (British Social Attitudes survey from the National Centre for Social Research) and the percentage is increasing. This view is completely at odds with conventional sociological measurements which categorise working class people according to “blue collar” or manual occupations and have tended to suggest that around 30% to 35% of people are working class.
Clearly, Marxists are more in tune with popular perception as shown repeatedly in the social attitudes surveys. The Marxist definition of the working class in the Communist Manifesto encompasses far more than purely factory and industrial workers, as is conventionally defined, although, because of their position in the production and distribution process, manual workers (including not just factory workers, of course, but a wide variety of occupations from nurses to train drivers) remain a key section of the working class. In fact, the working class, from the point of view outlined by Engels, encompasses the great majority of society in Britain today, as with other economically advanced capitalist countries.
Fundamentally, from the point of view of the Communist Manifesto, workers are those who “must sell themselves piecemeal” for a wage or salary, as the Communist Manifesto says. In the broadest sense, this definition applies equally today to the car worker, the office clerk, the civil servant and the teacher.
Of course, not by any means all those who are paid a salary can simply be considered members of the working class. Those tied by a thousand strings to the capitalist class – the top management layers, and the highly paid tops of the army, police, civil service, health service and so forth – although salaried and not capitalists, cannot, from the perspective of the class nature of society, be considered to be part of the working class.
From a Marxist view, the term ‘working class’ does not in any sense refer simply to anyone who is impoverished. This is a common misconception, particularly found in the USA, where the term ‘middle class’ is often used by politicians to group together skilled and semi-skilled workers, together with shop keepers and small business people without discrimination. A certain level of affluence has certainly come from time to time historically to many sections of the working class, especially its most skilled and most educated sections, as a result of its own trade union and political organisation.
White collar workers, of course, are commonly perceived to be part of the working class in the UK, especially since the second half of the last century, as the social attitudes surveys show. The modern owners of the ‘strip-lit satanic mills’ of the twenty-four hour call centre, situated in the north of England where the sons and daughters of redundant miners work, are today using factory methods, imposing zero hour contracts, smashing unions – in a word – teaching the class struggle anew.
Even so, some sections of workers on good incomes consider themselves to be middle class – if this were not so, the percentage of the population considering themselves working class would be much higher still. But from a Marxist perspective, taken in the broadest sense, those who work for a salary or wage are mostly part of the working class. And this is being proved, not just in surveys, but in action.
Many workers in what were once relatively privileged occupations have, over the last few decades, been forced into playing an active role in strikes and demonstrations, as a kind of baptism into working class struggle. Civil servants, teachers and lecturers, for instance, are more and more becoming an integral part of the working class from the point of view of the class struggle. (In the case of the UK’s Public and Commercial Services union, the PCS, an important part of that struggle.) Socially, some individuals from these different sections of the working class may seem worlds apart, but the working class is drawn, the Manifesto points out, from disparate sources.
Many of the old ‘lower’ middle class of Marx’s day and since were forced into the ranks of the working class, working as an appendage to some vast conglomerate. Many who were once proud self-employed ‘trades-people’, those who did not work directly for a boss, and were not waged or salaried employees, were forced by competition from big companies to lose their independence and seek paid work – a process which continues to this day. With great foresight the Manifesto explains:
“The lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants — all these sink gradually into the proletariat … Thus, the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.”
Marxism argues that the economic position people find themselves in, for instance as waged or salaried workers who can only, in the final analysis, use the methods of collective class struggle to get better wages, plays a very important part in their developing consciousness.
Now the Manifesto does not simply argue that ever-increasing impoverishment leads workers to rise up. This common misconception is repeated in the Introduction to the 1998 Verso edition of the Communist Manifesto, celebrating 150 years since the Manifesto’s publication, written by Eric Hobsbawm. The “inevitable pauperisation” of the working class, he claims, was “the mechanism which was to ensure” the fall of capitalism and the victory of the working class.
Professor Hobsbawm, the historian (and once leading theoretician of the British Communist Party) who declared in 2009 that socialism has failed and was bankrupt (Guardian, 10 April 2009), represents many intellectuals who blunt the cutting edge of Marxist thought. “What is wrong with the Manifesto” Hobsbawm proceeds to conclude, is the claim that the working class should be considered the only “really revolutionary class.” (Communist Manifesto, Verso edition 1998, p. 21)
Hobsbawm misses the dynamic (or ‘dialectic’) of the Manifesto. Far from envisaging purely the “inevitable pauperisation” of the working class, the Manifesto presents a battle between the working class and the bosses, “a more or less veiled civil war” with its victories and defeats, in which the working class can develop an increasing consciousness of its role in society:
“The real fruit of the battle lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.”
Trade unions are formed, first locally, then nationally, and the divisions between the different trades and sections of the working class are overcome, and unions merge and act together. Working class parties are formed. The working class “goes through various stages of development.”
“This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset … But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.”
The workers’ struggle “compels legislative recognition.” The Manifesto gives the example of the “ten-hours bill in England”, government legislation to limit the length of the working day. In this way, episodically, the working class in Europe raised itself up over the last two centuries, collectively, more and more using its collective strength, forming political parties which – for a period – enacted legislation in its favour. But as long as capitalism remains, each victory is only temporary, and must be re-won again and again. This process will continue until capitalism is eliminated.
It is true of course that this battle has proceeded for far longer than Marx anticipated. The working class – especially in Europe, at least for temporary periods – have won countless concessions from the capitalists, perhaps far greater than anticipated in the Manifesto, though Marx was to live to see working class representatives enter a bourgeois parliament. (The German Social Democrats, at that time considered a Marxist party, won twelve seats in the Reichstag in 1881, despite enormous persecution.)
It is also true that capitalism has impoverished the oppressed peoples of entire continents of the globe. Socialists and anti-globalisation writers have described in great detail how multinationals and capitalist institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have reduced the poor and the oppressed of country after country to the most desperate poverty.
Yet incredibly – reflecting his cosseted existence – Hobsbawm asserts that capitalism did not bring impoverishment: “this did not have to happen – and indeed it did not.” (p. 22)
The Central Role of the Working Class
But is the working class the “only really revolutionary” class which can bring about a socialist society, as the Manifesto maintains? Why did the Manifesto single out this class, and not, for instance, the (then) far more numerous, and in many cases more oppressed, rural poor?
The Manifesto explains very clearly that the role of the working class is determined by its material position in society. As industry develops “the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels its strength more.”
It is the unique position that the working class has, at the centre of the production and distribution of goods and services, the overwhelming majority in big towns and cities, which make it specially qualified to take over the running of society. Its struggles inevitably become “political struggles.” As Lenin, leader with Trotsky of the Russian Revolution of 1917, put it: “The factory united them, town life enlightened them, the common struggle in strikes as well as revolutionary action hardened them.” (The Historic Service of Marx and Engels)
The Manifesto summarises:
“All previous historical movements were movements of minorities… 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.”
Neither the car worker, shop worker, office clerk or the teacher own their own workplace, or the tools they use, or own the product of their labour. It is absurd to even think it. As to whether they own a house, a car, or only the shirt on their back is immaterial. They do not possess property from which they can earn a living – they are not landlords, or capitalists, shopkeepers or moneylenders. They don’t prosper from dividends of stocks and shares.
Most of us – the vast majority – live to work and work to live. For us there is no profit, just the same wage or salary, with perhaps a meagre bonus, or perhaps a pay cut. However many petty grievances come between us from time to time in our daily grind, our effort is essentially collective, whether in industry or the service sector, in order to finish our day’s work.
By comparison, the peasant and the middle class small businessman or shopkeeper is in competition with his or her peers, as is the capitalist.
The ex-Marxist Hobsbawn argues that the working class in Europe has not shown itself to be historically the revolutionary class that Marx and Engels anticipated in the Communist Manifesto. By arguing this he, and other so-called Marxists like him, denigrate the many heroic struggles of the working class in Europe over the decades and essentially deny the possibility of socialist revolution.
For the Manifesto, on the other hand, since the bosses cannot create capital without the working class:
“What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers.”
The Revolutionary Party
Why has the working class not been successful up to now in ending capitalism, so that it can no longer threaten lives and livelihoods again? The Manifesto was written before Marx and Engels had the advantage of the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, which provided them, and future Marxists, with many insights into the dynamics of revolution. As Trotsky says:
“The Paris Commune proved that the proletariat, without having a tempered revolutionary party at its head, cannot wrest power from the bourgeoisie.”
Trotsky adds that the prolonged period of prosperity that followed the Paris Commune convinced the leadership of the working class, nominally Marxists at the helm of the Social Democratic Parties of Europe, that capitalism could provide a steady growth in wealth, or at least would steadily concede a better living standard to the working class.
This leadership, in each country in Europe, when faced with the horrors of World War One, decided to support the warfare of their own particular capitalist class. What had happened to the cry of the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world unite”? It was this leadership which “became the chief brake on the proletarian revolution.” (Trotsky, The Communist Manifesto Today)
It is not that the working class will not fight for a better world, Trotsky argued. It is the lack of a revolutionary party, or the failure of that revolutionary party, that has led to the survival of capitalism.
By the close of the 20th century, the modern post-war Labour and Social Democratic parties of most of the world, which the working classes have thrust into power, had undergone a further “bourgeois degeneration.” They, like the Labour Party in Britain, had become capitalist parties through and through. With not even a mass political party to call its own, the working class has been temporarily disarmed in the political arena.
The working class has demonstrated its revolutionary potential more times in the century and a half since the publication of the Manifesto, than any other class has in the whole of human history. The history of the working class has been one of revolutionary struggle from its very birth.
The Working Class in Action
Let us put the record straight, taking just the last few years as an example. In Argentina, workers’ protests removed one president after another at the turn of 2002. In its war against Serbia, NATO bombs did not remove Milosevic from power – they reinforced him. It was a later revolutionary upsurge of workers, which stormed parliament, took the streets, remained vigilant throughout the following nights.
After the economic collapse of mid-2008, a rising tide of anger overthrew governments in eastern Europe – Latvia, Czech Republic, Estonia and Hungary. The anger in the USA is so great, a friend of US president Barack Obama remarked: “There are times, nowadays, when you think Hugo Chávez could win an election” in the US.
Even more impressive was the scale of the movements which brought to an end the oppressive regimes of Communist Eastern Europe. On the 9 November 1989, it was workers and students who broke down the Berlin Wall in an unstoppable wave of struggle that spread had throughout eastern Europe.
These regimes were overthrown with very little bloodshed, because today the working class can move in such overwhelming numbers that soldiers sent to defend the ruling class can lose their morale, become affected by the insurrectionary mood, and move aside, or join in the throng.
These movements from below demonstrated the power of the working class, but there was no revolutionary Marxist leadership to complete the overthrow of capitalism. Inevitably, then, essentially pro-capitalist leaders took control, or found power falling into their laps. Following the dictates of capitalism, sometimes acting with extreme caution, these leaders then brought about a counter-revolution, to wrest back for the bosses their daily dictatorship over their employees, and to establish governments that do the bidding of international finance.
Nevertheless, as the Manifesto predicted, wherever capitalism has spread in search of cheap labour, there has developed an urban working class, reaching such mass numbers – such as in South Africa or South Korea – that, despite the most vicious repression, trade unions have grown up and dictators have been overthrown.
The Myth of a Fragmented Working Class
Those, like the Anti-Globalisation campaigner George Monbiot, who give credence to the myth of the “atomisation of society,” of a “fragmented” working class, seem to be blind to these fundamental class struggles.
Writing on New Year’s Day, 2002, Monbiot says: “we may have to abandon almost every strategy which has worked in the past”. (Guardian, 1 January, 2002) These and many similar mantras are directed particularly against the fundamental strategy outlined in the Communist Manifesto, which is rooted in the struggles of the working class, as supported by the Socialist Party today. Yet, despite Monbiot’s doubts, almost without exception, the only really decisive, epoch making, or revolutionary struggles are those in which the working class plays a central role.
Not three weeks after Monbiot’s gloomy New Year’s message, the Socialist Party’s weekly newspaper, The Socialist, reported “Over 60,000 PCS members in benefit offices” going on a further two-day strike, coinciding with strike action from “Thousands of members of the rail union RMT.” In addition, “140,000 Royal Mail workers” would be balloted for industrial action. (The Socialist, 25 January, 2002)
National newspapers feared a “return to the 1970’s”, referring to the industrial militancy of that decade, which brought down a Tory Government. New, more militant trade union leaders are being elected, reflecting the more severe attacks the working class now face from the capitalist class, in this period of crisis for capitalism.
But militancy is not enough. The Communist Manifesto supported those struggles of the working class and poor of its time which developed the unity and combativity of the working class.
Today Marxists embrace the rising tide of strikes and occupations, protests and struggles against redundancy and pay cuts. We support the anti-globalisation struggles, the environmentalists’ struggles, the anti-capitalist protests, the anti-war protests – all the struggles against injustices which affect working people’s lives.
Working with genuine workers’ initiatives
Marx and Engels made clear that their revolutionary party was not to act independently of the working class, but on the contrary to be its most concentrated expression at all times. Indeed, if it does not act in this way, it will fail. Trotsky explains
In the revolutionary vanguard, organized in a party, is crystallized the aspiration of the masses to obtain their freedom. Without the class’s confidence in the vanguard, without the class’s support of the vanguard, there can be no talk of the conquest of power. In this sense, the proletarian revolution and dictatorship are the work of the whole class, but only under the leadership of the vanguard. (Stalinism and Bolshevism)
In Part Two of the Communist Manifesto, Communists and Proletarians, the Manifesto begins by addressing this question. “In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?” It answers “They have no interest separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.”
The Manifesto anticipates that Marxists would work with any genuine workers’ parties, rather than standing against them.
In 2009 in England, in the absence of a mass workers’ party, this means standing shoulder to shoulder with the many genuine working class campaigns, for instance to save hospitals, schools and other local community facilities.
It means supporting their election campaigns should they decide to stand in elections. An example is the election initiative of the railway workers (RMT) in the UK, ‘No2EU – Yes to democracy’. In general, Marxists aspire to bring such initiatives together into a mass, federal based, inclusive workers’ party with rights and representation for all. This means campaigning for the establishment of a new mass party of the working class, based on the unions and such campaigning bodies, where one does not exist.
The Manifesto does not encourage those who, from Marx’s time to the present, attempt to proclaim or set up broad parties with the aim of claiming exclusive rights to represent the working class. The Manifesto has a clearly inclusive approach.
And the Manifesto adds a clear reference to the so-called revolutionary parties (both of the time and ever since) that put their own sectional interests before the interests of the working class. A genuine revolutionary party must not lecture the working class and attempt to foist on them their own “separate principles … by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”
Building genuine, mass parties and campaigning for a conscious, Marxist leadership is not easy, but it is necessary. There is no easier route. By working alongside genuine working class parties and campaigns at all times, Marxism continually wins the confidence of the most active, farsighted fighters to its side.
The Need for a New Mass Party of the Working Class
Marx and Engels life’s work consisted in building an international, mass party of the working class, which would overthrow capitalism. But the Manifesto could hardly anticipate the future degeneration of the leadership of workers’ parties.
The betrayal of workers’ struggles leads to temporary periods of decline, division, and ideological confusion. The Labour Party in Britain and many workers’ parties around the world today, which find their origins in the inspiration and struggles of the early Marxists (and are usually still called ‘Labour’ or ‘Socialist’ or ‘Social Democratic’), have abandoned their leadership of the working class, and turned definitively to represent the capitalist class. This has momentarily set back the consciousness of the broad layers of workers that they used to lead.
Moreover, at best the leaders of parties like the Labour Party in Britain took the view that the capitalist class internationally would allow them to reform capitalism piece by piece. They repudiated Marxism. For this reason we call them ‘reformist.’ They nationalised just those industries that capitalism could not run profitably yet relied on in the rest of industry, for instance for cheap energy, transport or communications. They introduced welfare reforms to support the workers that capitalism had thrown into poverty by low wages, unemployment, disability or old age. They patched things up.
But this so-called ‘mixed economy,’ where some industries were nationalised, still ran on the basis of profit. It was still a capitalist economy, and the capitalist class pilfered the nationalised industries and service sector. Of course, the capitalist class prefer the privatisation of these nationalised industries so that they have full control over them.
The capitalist class, however, will always defend their property. No ruling class exits the pages of history voluntarily. The old Labour Party leaders suffered the delusion that through control of the state and economic management of the ‘mixed economy,’ society would gradually advance to socialism, through step by step reform. (Today’s Labour Party leaders of course have no such illusions – their illusions are in an entirely capitalist vision of society.)
In the fifty years since the Second World War, socialism was never attained anywhere in Europe or the rest of the world. Now Labour leaders everywhere have abandoned reformism, and many these ‘reformist’ measures have been reversed, or are being decisively undermined.
Nevertheless, the working class will build new mass workers’ parties. In Britain, various trade union leaderships are already being forced to partially reflect the pressure which the most far-sighted workers are exerting to break the union links with the Labour Party, and fund alternative anti-cuts candidates.
Socialist transformation of society
It is necessary to transform society from a capitalist, market driven one into a socialist society driven by need not profit, to end the violence perpetrated against the working class, the poor and oppressed of the world, and to introduce a socialist society, once and for all. It is necessary to eliminate competition from large scale production and substitute careful and democratic planning of resources and needs.
In the UK, the Socialist Party demands a socialist form of nationalisation of the 150 biggest firms, banks and insurance companies. These few companies completely dominate the British economy.
Instead of the lavish compensation given to former bosses of failing banks, compensation would be only paid to those former share owners who are ordinary workers and retired people who can prove need.
Socialist nationalisation would remove the bosses from the industry completely, not keep them or replace them with others. Instead, Marxists require democratic workers’ control and management as an essential measure in the creation of a society in which ordinary people finally take control of their lives.
The first measures of such a new society would be to reduce hours worked, improves wages and conditions, and turn production to social projects for need not profit. Socialist nationalisation is the first step on the path to the democratic drawing up of a plan of production of these major industries, necessary to end the anarchy of production and part of a collective effort jointly with consumers and a socialist government.
For example all the energy companies, transport companies and related industries would cooperate in turning to renewable energy production, without the hindrance that exists under capitalism of the fear of losing profits, market share and shareholder confidence. This fear, for at least the last forty years, has undermined any intention energy companies and national governments might have entertained under capitalism from saving the planet from the global warming disaster that approaches.
To reorganise society this way against the inevitable, determined resistance of the capitalist class – that requires a mass revolutionary party, which has won the confidence of the majority of the working class. It is for this reason that Marx and Engels worked ceaselessly to win over to their ideas the most determined, “chiefly proletarian” revolutionaries and bring into existence the Communist Party, and then – and only then – declare this Manifesto. The Manifesto of the Communist Party was an open declaration to rally the working class behind its banner.
Those (like Hobsbawm and Monbiot) who argue that the working class is not the “grave-digger” of the capitalist class, as the Manifesto asserts, mistake the betrayals of workers’ leaders for an inherent weakness in the working class itself.
After the Second World War, the working class in Britain and in Europe – and particularly the demobbed troops – had been radicalised by their experiences and many embraced the ideas of socialism. With a leadership worthy of their aspirations, with a clear understanding of the tasks, the working class could have carried through a socialist transformation of society in Britain rapidly and peacefully. But the Labour Party leadership, which the working class thrust into power in 1945, hoped only to make changes within the system of capitalism in a series of ‘reforms.’ The capitalists retained power.
The rapid transformation of society would have been possible by nationalising the entire ‘commanding heights of the economy,’ around 750 or so big corporations at that time (now just 150). Giving compensation only to shareholders in special need, a socialist society would immediately establish a democratic plan of production, placed under the control and management of the working class.
This is a way of expressing in today’s language the demand in the Communist Manifesto for the “abolition of private property”, meaning the abolition of the capitalist ownership of large-scale industry, a phrase which has been so misrepresented.
A socialist society, explains the Manifesto, “deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society”. Everybody can own, as private possessions, the goods produced by a socialist society. But a socialist society terminates the power that the bosses have under capitalism “to subjugate the labour of others” by means of the ownership of “private property,” whether in the form of global corporations, big businesses, or sweatshops; whether through banking, property speculation, or landlordism – or any of the other swindles by which the capitalist class get an income directly or indirectly from the working class.
Addressing the bourgeoisie, the Manifesto exclaims:
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…
In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.
In place of the anarchy of the pursuit of profit, a socialist society would introduce democratic planning. A plan of production would end the anarchic cycles of boom and bust which are caused by capitalism – of overproduction, followed by recession, redundancy, closures and crash.
In the turmoil that followed the Second World War, such a move could have inspired similar movements throughout Europe and the world. There were many opportunities, but there was no clear-sighted, international revolutionary party to carry them through. But the lessons of history are not lost, and new mass parties, and a newly conscious revolutionary leadership can be re-built by the working class.
When the stock markets tumbled to a five year low in July 2002, the Daily Mirror declared: “Karl Marx must be rubbing his hands with glee and saying ‘I told you so’.” (30 June 2002.) At the same time The Independent compared the preparation of the first all-out strike by more than a million council workers to the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1979, which brought down the previous Labour government, and the General Strike of 1926, which had the potential to end capitalism in Britain.
The Independent observes that on both previous occasions “only manual workers were involved.” (The Independent, 6 July 2002.) Now the white collar workers, drawn into the working class proper over the decades by the processes outlined in the Manifesto, and recently radicalised by privatisations, poverty pay and exploitation, have forced their union leaders into calling strike action. Unobserved by capitalist and labour commentators, it seems, the potential power of the working class has been increasing all the time. There has indeed been an “ever expanding union of the workers.”
The world has entered a period of war and depression possibly matching the inter-war years of the last century, the 1920s and 1930s – when, inspired by the socialist aims of the Russian revolution, mass communist parties grew up throughout the world.
Marx and Engels spelt out a second correction to the Manifesto, after the experience of the Paris Commune. In a preface to the re-publication of the Manifesto in 1872, they quote from a speech made by Marx to the first international Marxist organisation, the International Working Men’s Association:
“The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for their own purposes.” (The Civil War in France)
Trotsky points out “Marx later counter-posed to the capitalist state, the state of the type of the [Paris] Commune.” Here all representatives were elected, working class people, subject to recall at any time, and they took only a skilled worker’s wage. The entire edifice of the establishment was dismantled, such as the judiciary, and replaced by elected people on an ordinary wage without privilege or pretension. (See Marxism and the state, on this site)
The Manifesto is one of the most influential and widely published explanations of socialist ideas ever written. The Manifesto concludes by proclaiming that the Communists reject conspiratorial methods and
“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 Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
Workers of the World Unite!”
First written 2001, latest update 2009