A world to win

June 13, 2013

The Communist Manifesto was Marx and Engels' most explicit guide to action yet.

"A SPECTER is haunting Europe--the specter of Communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter." So warned Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' The Manifesto of the Communist Party as it came off the presses in London in the last days of February 1848, numbering several thousand copies.

High literary drama if ever there was: revolutionary ghosts, holy exorcisms and secret police! As David McNally points out in his book Monsters of the Market, the undead were a popular theme at the time. Just a few years prior, Charles Dickens had raised Jacob Marley from the grave to menace the decade's poster child for misanthropic capital, Ebenezer Scrooge. If Dickens hoped his hooded executioner-in-waiting, the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, might frighten the archetypal capitalist into changing course so as to avoid damnation, the Manifesto aimed to rouse good Bob Cratchit and his kind to demand their rights to a well-heated workplace, paid vacations and free family medical coverage--and, eventually, to rise up and overthrow the Scrooge class entirely.

Columnist: Todd Chretien

Todd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review and to Socialist Worker on the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.

After several years of feverish activity aimed at assembling a (very small) army to carry forth their ideas, life itself appeared to validate Marx and Engels' red-hot prose. The French government ordered the expulsion of Engels from Paris on January 29, 1848, for the crime of political agitation against King Louis Philippe. But Engels lasted longer than the royals. Rebellion exploded on February 23, stoked by brutal repression and economic crisis. The king abdicated, making a run for the border with a pocket full of stocks. Count one for the specters.

Fearing the spread of this contagion, in the first week of March, the Belgian authorities roughly arrested Karl Marx and his wife Jenny and booted them out of Brussels, where they had lived since being exiled from Paris in 1845. Count one for the exorcists.

The aim of this article is to help you read the Manifesto in its own historical terms. If you've kept up with my columns, you might think of it as a Greatest Hits album--Marx and Engels: The Paris, London, Brussels Sessions, 1844-48. Many of these songs are going to sound familiar.


Marx and Engels were not modest. They believed that their ideas would quickly win a place in the proletarian movement; they even imagined that "Communism is already acknowledged by all European Powers to be itself a Power." (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 481)

Alongside this bravado, the essay served a more direct purpose. The Central Authority (committee) of the Communist League commissioned them to write The Manifesto of the Communist Party based on the decisions adopted at its second conference in November 1847 in London. It was intended for use in study groups, lectures and debates within and around the existing radical organizations and currents of their day. Marx and Engels also hoped to serialize it in leftist newspapers so that it might influence broader audiences.

When you read it, you should imagine Marx and Engels trying to recruit you to the League.

Chapter I: Bourgeois and Proletarians

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freemen and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 482)

Marx (who most likely wrote this section and the next himself) condenses nearly the whole of his theory of history into these two sentences, and they are among the most famous of his formulations. Hegel says ideas drive history. Others point to technology, the environment, human nature, religion or political and legal factors. President Obama believes "America remains the one indispensable nation."

Marx proposes a very different motor force: the class struggle. The rise and fall of different civilizations is not guaranteed, but determined by the outcome of this struggle: revolution or common ruin. Marx asserts that capitalism has boiled down the class struggle "into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 485)

The European "discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, the East Indian and Chinese markets, the colonization of America" (CW, Vol. 6, p. 485) all allowed capitalists to rake in the wealth built up by other societies and, thereby, scrape together the necessary liquidity to launch this new--and vastly more productive--method of exploitation. Meanwhile, their conquest of the modern state, which "is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie," (CW, Vol. 6, p. 486) gave them a tool to defend their system. And once the bourgeoisie comes to power, it:

cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and therefore the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society...All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 487)

Money is the new royalty, and anyone who can accumulate it can dominate others. Marx expects this very transparency to speed the development of working-class consciousness. At the same time, the specific social relations that capitalism and its factory system were imposing in England and parts of Europe would race around the world, each year drawing more and more people into its web precisely because it is so rapacious:

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that is 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 netherworld whom he has called up by his spells. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 489)

Here, Marx is not simply denouncing capital. He draws our attention to the wonders that have been created under its dominion. Today, we are more saturated with advertisement and consumerism than Marx could have imagined. Many people are rightly disgusted by the barrage of meaningless crap we are trained to desire from the day we are born. Speaking as a father of a 10-year-old girl, I say death to Disney!

Yet Marx wants us to understand that capitalism has also, in often sadistic and distorted ways, built up the very means of our liberation. Modern industry, communication, agriculture, medicine and transportation are not, in and of themselves, the problem. Instead, under capitalism, it appears that economic "powers of the netherworld" control us.

Indeed, commentators often speak of recessions, layoffs and free markets as if they were meteorological systems over which humans have no control. Adam Smith's "hidden hand of the market" is not only invisible, it seems bent on destroying the planet. And since this hand appears to move without any coordination, without a brain, all its frenetic energy leads to a very peculiar form of crisis, one which "in all earlier epics would have seemed an absurdity–the epidemic of over-production." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 490)

We are living through one such epidemic right now. Millions of foreclosed and empty houses, millions of homeless. Collapsing infrastructure, mass unemployment of construction workers. Overcrowded schools, layoffs for teachers. A desperate need for solar energy development and the bankruptcy of Solyndra, driven out of business by competition from Chinese manufacturers.

However, if capital cannot coordinate the productive means it has brought into being in order to benefit humanity as a whole, Marx proposes another candidate that can:

Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lie, not any immediate results, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry and place the workers of different localities in contact with one another...This organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continuously being upset again by the competition between workers themselves. But it never rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 493)

This struggle will eventually lead the working class to overthrow the bourgeoisie, answering the "revolution or common ruin" question in the affirmative. And this will lead to something unprecedented in human history:

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 interest of the immense majority. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 495)

This is bad news for the capitalists, but they can't help but lay the basis for their own downfall. Their own greedy motives build up--in a chaotic and inhuman manner, to be sure--the economic means for providing all people with a decent living standard, even as they enrage workers by flaunting inequalities. As Marx writes: "What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 496)

Marx rages against the ruling class and wants you to as well. Slavery and war, sexism and exploitation. They reap the benefits while we do all the work. Bury them!

But didn't Marx begin the Manifesto saying that victory wasn't inevitable? Revolution or common ruin? I think Marx hasn't quite yet settled this for himself. Or maybe this is simply a rhetorical flourish? However you take this, it is the case that he immediately skips from this passage to a discussion of how to go about organizing the revolution. He is not leaving the inevitable to chance.

II. Proletarians and Communists

In the first part of this section, Marx lays out a strategy aimed at achieving two apparently contradictory goals: to not form a distinct Communist Party and to form a distinct Communist Party. Let's see how this plays out:

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 496)

You might well ask, "But haven't Marx and Engels spent the last two years intent on creating a 'separate party?' Isn't that what the Communist League is all about? What about all the attacks on Kriege and the Liberals and Proudhon?" Confused? The next lines don't help much:

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 496)

"Okay," you say. "So now Marx is saying the Communists are distinguished, are separate. And, the two things he mentions seem like precisely the sorts of things that make it very hard for revolutionaries to get a hearing among more conservative or apolitical workers. What the hell does this mean?"

First, Marx and Engels, as we have seen, had grown increasingly hostile to critical critics (remember Bruno Bauer and Co.) who believed their job was to simply proclaim the Truth and then wait for the rest of the world to come to them. This was elitism and sectarianism par excellence, and they wanted nothing to do with it.

Second, as Michael Löwy demonstrates in his wonderful book, The Theory of Revolution in the Young Karl Marx, Marx is here driving at an innovative idea. In short, this attempt to "be or not be" a separate party flows form the 3rd Thesis on Feuerbach where Marx points to "revolutionary practice" as the key to solving the riddle of "who educates the educator."

In the Manifesto, Marx is saying that it is not a question of isolated individuals; rather, a layer or a part of the working class, formed as a party or parties, must simultaneously educate its less radical members while also learning from the general struggle against exploitation and oppression. This is the dialectic of revolutionary working-class politics, as opposed to individual action.

Suffice it to say, this is easier said than done. Merging with the "proletarians as a whole," who are subject to the pressure of bourgeois ideology--as we would say today, sexism, racism, homophobia, nationalism, etc.--while simultaneously standing up for socialist principles gets you into lots of arguments.

To slightly paraphrase the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, "Sectarians have only pointed out the bad ideas in workers' heads; the point, however, is to change those ideas by organizing from the inside of the 'various stages of development' of concrete working-class struggles in order to strengthen those fights, right up to the point of revolutionary confrontations with capital."

Or as Marx puts it with greater panache:

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. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 497)

I think you can clearly see what he is getting at. However, it also has to be said that Marx and Engels were still relative novices when it comes to practical organizing, and I think there is a certain ambiguity in these lines.

While Marx and Engels felt confident that the Communist League was the only German organization up to snuff, they were at great pains not to alienate themselves from the left wing of the English Chartists. In fact, as they acknowledge in the Manifesto, left-wing Chartists were, in fact, forming a separate group called the Fraternal Democrats, which aimed to pull the broader movement to the left. This provoked some criticism as they were accused of fomenting dissention and division within the Chartists as a whole. At the same time, Marx and Engels were setting up a group called the Democratic Association to unite revolutionaries from various nations who were members of larger groups.

So in more general terms, are the Communists a separate party, like the League, or merely the "most advanced and resolute section" or bigger working-class or democratic organizations, like the Fraternal Democrats inside the Chartists? Or does it depend on the context? It's hard to say, and that's precisely the point. It's always hard to get this right, and if the Manifesto doesn't provide a complete blueprint, it is because there is no complete blueprint--only a general method which must be adapted to concrete conditions.

Moving on through this section, Marx sarcastically disposes of conservative fears that communism will abolish private property, liberate women and wipe out national boundaries. "Precisely so; that is just what we intend," he retorts. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 500)

Changing tack, Marx elaborates the general pattern he believes proletarian revolutions will follow:

We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working classes to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 504)

This is one of those paragraphs where you have to practically yell, "Slow down!" It is so packed with big ideas that you can easily miss both the insights it contains and some of the questions it leaves unanswered.

A revolution is not simply a change of government. It is replacing the rule of one class with that of another. The form this will take when the working class wins "the battle of democracy" is not elaborated in great detail, but it seems clear that Marx expects this will come about by some combination of insurrectionary and democratic (electoral) means. The old, rigid state structures tied to the aristocracy will have to be overthrown by force, and then, perhaps, some sort of democratic process can open up where the working class can achieve "political supremacy."

Marx then argues--and this is important--that not everything will change the day after the revolution. Instead, a new process of reforms will begin, whereby the capitalists lose their economic power "by degrees." Some things ought to be done immediately, like abolishing the right of inheritance, instituting a "heavy progressive" income tax, nationalizing the banks, the means of communication and transportation, and providing free universal education. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 505)

With "just" these reforms, can you imagine how loudly the American ruling class would scream? We can't even get the health insurance companies under control! Yet this would still leave an enormous scope for private property that would only gradually be socialized as the working class becomes more and more capable of running society without managers and without competition.

Only then would real human history begin, and:

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. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 506)

III. Socialist and Communist Literature

In the previous section, Marx argues that Communists should not set up "separate parties opposed to other working-class parties." Yet in this next section, Marx--with Engels joining back in--ridicules radical opponents, calling them "reactionary," "conservative," "feudal" and even "bourgeois!"

What is going on here? Doesn't this sound like setting up "principles of their own" and directly opposing other working-class parties or political trends? Not according to Marx and Engels. Simply put, they do not consider their opponents to be part of the working-class movement. Instead, they represent the ideologies of other classes that are attempting to influence workers.

In some instances, this is actually pretty easy to understand. This was especially true in the 1840s as competing factions of the rising bourgeoisie and the declining feudal aristocracy appealed to workers in a sort of "enemy of my enemy is my friend" politics:

The aristocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms bag in front for a banner. But the people, so often as soon as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coats of arms, and deserted with loud and irreverent laughter. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 507)

There are also trends which arise from within classes which are themselves victims of capitalism, such as small farmers or small business owners. Marx and Engels give them credit for rightly criticizing aspects of capitalism such as "the misery of the proletariat, anarchy in production [and]...industrial war of extermination between nations." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 509) Yet, like Proudhon, these authors want to retreat to a pre-capitalist economy, in place of looking to a working-class revolution. Marx and Engels assert that these critics "desire the existing state of society minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 513)

In Marx and Engels' opinion, there can be no question of compromise with these ideas. They are not mistaken views which have arisen from inside working-class reality and struggle. They are alien ideas, originating from outside the working class.

The Manifesto does pay tribute to a trend of thought associated with utopian communists like Count Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. While these thinkers rejected revolution, they did not want to retreat to earlier economic forms. Instead, they aimed to establish communist utopias based on complete equality--in Fourier's case, even extreme gender equality. Marx and Engels criticize their schemes, but argue that much can be learned from their radical visions of the future, including the:

abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, for the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the functions of the State into a mere superintendence of production. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 516)

IV. Position of the Communists to Other Opposition Parties

Marx, who finished off the final section of the Manifesto while Engels was in Paris, concludes by listing movements he considers to be the Communists' natural allies, while reminding us that "they never cease, for a single instant, to instill into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 519):

In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against existing social and political order 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. Finally, they labor everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 519)

Again, Marx is emphasizing the double move we reviewed in Section II: unite with the broadest possible movement to fight for democracy and for concrete reforms, while simultaneously preparing workers to fight for their own liberation and the complete abolition of private property and capitalism.

This tension is present within the Manifesto, but this is the clearest statement of ideas and the most explicit guide to action that Marx and Engels had yet produced.

It represents the crystallization of their research and practical activity, merged with the experience of the best-organized movements of radical workers in Europe at the time. With it, they aimed to win over a layer of thousands of radical workers and intellectuals. All of this in an atmosphere of growing social tension and rising expectations of revolutionary confrontations with Europe's old order. Burning all bridges to his academic past, Marx goes all in at the end:

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 the Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKERS OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE! (CW, Vol. 6, p. 519)

Over the following decades, this call to action would become the most important declaration of principles for the rapidly expanding, and increasingly international, socialist movement. The Manifesto introduced hundreds of thousands to the basic ideas of revolutionary socialism, and it continues to do so today. So don't wait for Jacob Marley to rattle his chains in your attic--pick up a copy today and get to work.

My next column will offer a critical review of this first period of Marx and Engels' political theory as it developed prior to the revolutions of 1848 with reference to my previous columns.

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