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The meaning of the Manifesto

November 18, 2005 | Pages 8 and 9

CAN A book published over 150 years ago still be relevant to understanding and changing the world today? PHIL GASPER, the editor of a new edition of the Communist Manifesto packed with annotations and additional materials, talks about the continuing importance of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' most famous work.

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FIFTEEN YEARS ago, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and other so-called "socialist" societies, the death of Marxism was widely proclaimed. But as the 1990s unfolded, it became increasingly clear that modern capitalism was developing in just the way that Karl Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels had first predicted in the Communist Manifesto.

An article published in the New Yorker at the time of the Manifesto's 150th anniversary in 1998 announced "The Return of Karl Marx": "Many of the contradictions that he saw in Victorian capitalism and that were subsequently addressed by reformist governments have begun reappearing in new guises, like mutant viruses...[Marx] wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence--issues that economists are now confronting anew, sometimes without realizing that they are walking in Marx's footsteps."

Author of numerous books, including City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles and The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu

"THE FORCIBLE overthrow of all existing social conditions." This seemed an outstandingly good idea when I first read the Manifesto at age 16; today, approaching age 60, it resounds with even greater urgency.

In a world ruled by Capital, the youthful Marx and Engels remain our contemporaries, and the breathtaking sweep of their vision of modern history, as well as their invincible optimism in the ultimate victory of Labor, are still our lodestones.

True, they did not foresee (how could they?) the defeat of the three Internationals and the ensuing savagery of the 20th century. Nor could they anticipate that there might be no world left to win as neoliberal capitalism rapidly undermines the ecological conditions for sustainable human civilization, while reproducing a global slum proletariat on a scale that dwarfs Victorian imagination.

But their essential program of revolt endures like granite: Communists join the ranks of every struggle, not as bearers of "sectarian principles of their own," but as champions of the interests of the working class as a whole, "independently of all nationality." Moreover, "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."

To this, we must add: Now, comrades, act now, while there is still time left to put the earth on new foundations.


Because Marx and Engels lived at a time when modern capitalism was young, they were able to analyze the system in a way that captured its essential features and its core dynamic.

Here, for example, is their dazzling description of the incessant change that capitalism brings in its wake: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society...All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. 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 condition of life and his relations with his kind."

The Manifesto charts the way in which capitalism has shattered narrow horizons and produced technological marvels. But it also describes capitalism as a system that is increasingly running out of control.

Capitalism concentrates wealth and power in the hands of a small minority, creates huge pools of poverty, turns life into a daily grind that prevents most people from fulfilling their potential, and experiences frequent and enormously wasteful economic crises. In 1998, the wealthiest 10 percent of the U.S. population owned more than 85 percent of assets in stocks and mutual funds, 84 percent of financial securities, 91 percent of trusts, and 92 percent of all equity in private businesses. Globally, the figures are even more astonishing. Fewer than 500 people around the world own more than the combined income of over half the planet's population.

Nor is it hard to understand how the rich have acquired their vast wealth. In the mid-1960s, wages for manufacturing jobs in the United States were equal to 46 percent of the value added in production--by 1990, this figure had dropped to 36 percent. The capitalist class, in other words, is squeezing out more "surplus value" than ever from those who work for them--leaving even those who regard themselves as middle-class often just a single paycheck away from poverty.

Capitalism encourages greed, competition and aggression. It degrades human relations so that they are frequently based, as the Manifesto notes, on little more than "naked self-interest" and "callous 'cash payment.'"

So it's little wonder that, as economist Juliet Schor wrote, "Thirty percent of [American] adults say that they experience high stress nearly every day; even higher numbers report high stress once or twice a week...Americans are literally working themselves to death--as jobs contribute to heart disease, hypertension, gastric problems, depression, exhaustion, and a variety of other ailments."

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CAPITALISM'S CEASELESS drive to expand not only destabilizes social relations--sooner or later, it also undermines the conditions for economic growth itself. Marx and Engels argue that capitalism is a system in which highly destructive economic crises are unavoidable, and which has thus become fundamentally irrational.

Columnist for Socialist Worker and author of Women and Socialism

WHAT STANDS out about the Communist Manifesto is its incredible foresight. Marx and Engels were writing more than 150 years ago, when capitalism was still in its infancy. Yet they were able to telescope not only what would bring about capitalism's development, but also the class forces that could bring about its downfall.

Marx and Engels understood that the capitalist system requires massive inequality between the rich and poor. They wrote, "You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But...private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population: its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths."

The Manifesto described exploitation as rooted in alienation from the labor process decades before the rise of the assembly line: "The price of...labor is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases." Women's oppression also figured in Marx and Engels' analysis from the outset. In the Manifesto, they argued, "The bourgeois...has not even a suspicion that the real point of communists is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production."

The essence of the Communist Manifesto has not only withstood the test of time, but has also never been more relevant. Marx and Engels were clear that socialism would not come about because ruling-class people suddenly develop a guilty conscience, but is only possible through collective, democratic struggle by the vast majority.

Marxism points the way forward today, at a time when the need for change cries out everywhere you look. In the era of capitalist globalization and imperialist war, the need for international working-class solidarity is captured in the Manifesto's most famous phrase, "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!"


"Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, 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," they write.

In a world threatened by pollution, global warming and the destruction of ecosystems as the result of uncontrolled capitalist growth, this image has a special resonance. Today, the search for profits threatens to destroy everything in its path, including the natural environment.

Capitalist society has raised production to the point where everybody could be provided with a decent life--enough to eat, a comfortable place to live, health care, educational and recreational opportunities, and much more. But, Marx and Engels write, "[t]he conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them." Each successive crisis under capitalism can only be overcome "by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises."

Private ownership and the anarchy of marketplace competition are no longer compatible with large-scale economic production integrated at the social and global levels. The only solution to these devastating problems is the abolition of capitalism itself, and its replacement by a system in which the majority of the population democratically control society's wealth.

The Manifesto is, above all, a revolutionary call to action--an explanation not only of what is wrong with society, but how it can be transformed to create "an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

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CENTRAL TO this strategy for change is the Manifesto's claim that capitalism has produced "its own gravediggers"--the modern working class, or proletariat. Marx and Engels argue that capitalism has created a group of people with both the capacity and the interest to fight for the overthrow of the existing system and the emancipation of all humanity.

The power of the working class is based on the fact that capitalism socializes the labor process--bringing workers together in large urban centers, and in bigger and bigger units of production. At the same time, the pressures of economic life tend to push workers together to fight back against their exploitation. And because of their key economic position, workers have the collective power to bring production to a halt by going on strike.

Of course, most workers don't begin with the goal of making a revolution. But as they are forced to engage in the class struggle to protect their own interests, "the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes," Marx and Engels write.

Author of numerous books, most recently, with Henry Veltmeyer, Social Movements and State Power: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador

THERE ARE many parts of the Manifesto that are very applicable today.

In the first instance, I think we can see the importance of the class struggle. Currently, we see the class struggle from above. The capitalist class has been able to reverse a tremendous number of the gains that the working class secured through their class struggle from the late 1930s, '40s, '50s and into the '60s.

Bourgeois theorists, particularly at the height of the welfare state, talked about the class struggle being outmoded, with capitalism having reached a certain level of development that eliminated the class struggle, ideological politics and the need for class organization. They cited tripartite organizations between business, the government and the trade unions. They talked about advanced capitalism and the technological revolution. There was a certain euphoria that permeated good sections of social democracy.

We've seen that this was a passing period, and that subsequently, beginning by at least the late 1970s or early 1980s, there was a counter-offensive by capital. This demonstrates once again the profound understanding that Marx and Engels had of the centrality of the class struggle--how history moves not through technological changes, but rather how those changes are mediated through the class struggle and class organization.

Another point that I think is extremely important today is that Marx saw the way in which capitalism would become internationalized. Subsequently, there was Lenin's analysis of how this internationalization of capital took the form of imperialism. But I think it was Marx who originally saw the way in which the class constraints on continual capital reproduction literally forced capital to go overseas in order to sustain its rate of profit.

And with that, Marx saw the necessity of an international organization of the working class. As capital moved abroad, it created and reproduced the conditions of exploitation abroad, and opened up the possibility of undermining labor at its point of origin. So Marx saw internationalism as essential--not just to show solidarity with the exploited in the colonies, but also as a point of understanding the important benefits that the working class will achieve through internationalism and international solidarity.

These are important elements that are central to understanding the world today, and I think they're particularly relevant when we see many critics of capitalism searching for alternatives, and concocting what they call utopias, dreams or whatever out of whole cloth. They don't look at the objective conditions for creating alternatives.

Marx's brilliant insight was looking at the social organization of production. More than ever--on a world scale, on a national scale, or any other scale--the social division of labor today is so far developed and so profoundly embedded in practically all the societies of the world that you can see everywhere the contradiction that Marx and Engels pointed out between the social production of labor and private ownership.

The structure is an irrational one since the social division of labor implies a great deal of cooperation among the producers, but under the dominance of essentially irrelevant forms of ownership. Therefore, the possibilities exist far more today to move from social production to social ownership, and from social ownership to social management.

At the same time that we see this great advance in social production, we also have to recognize that there has been, at least in our period, a certain decline in the recognition by the direct producers of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

So here is where Marx and Engels lay out the need for a class-based political party to bridge the gap between objective conditions and the subjective consciousness needed to transform this contradiction into a new form of life.


The working class isn't perpetually on the verge of revolution. For long periods of time, many workers may accept their lot under capitalism.

But Marx and Engels understood that this state of affairs couldn't last forever. The chaotic, turbulent, unplanned development of capitalist economies eventually throws whole societies into turmoil, and turns even the most modest of working-class demands into a challenge to the whole system.

This process is not a smooth one. The ruling class attempts to weaken the working class by exacerbating national, racial and other differences. But such divisions can be fought and overcome as capitalism continues to intensify the class struggle. And because of their strategic economic position, workers--whether blue collar or white collar, industrial or service--have the power to "become masters of the productive forces of abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation."

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MARX AND Engels can certainly be faulted for having, in 1848, an over-optimistic conception of how quickly these processes would work themselves out. But since the mid-19th century, capitalism has repeatedly shown that it cannot avoid periodic crises, and that these crises may bring the barbarism of modern warfare in their wake.

At the same time, the working class has grown ever larger, increasing its potential power to shut down the economy and threaten the very existence of the ruling class.

The argument is not just a theoretical one. Time and time again over the last 150 years, workers in countries around the world have shown their capacity for mass action--and, not infrequently, revolutionary struggle. Even in the United States, there is a rich tradition of working-class and socialist struggle.

But, the socialist tradition in the U.S. has been marked by breaks and discontinuities--with periods of mass radicalization followed by decades in which socialist ideas have barely existed.

The civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, for example, radicalized a generation of Blacks, students and other activists, leading literally millions to embrace revolutionary politics. Militant young workers, often Black, led wildcat strikes in the auto industry, the post office and beyond. A new women's movement called for equal pay for equal work.

Yet within a few years, this "new left" had receded. The movements of the 1960s disintegrated, and the 1970s was followed by a one-sided class war against American workers, and 30 years of political corruption, corporate greed and growing militarism.

Although none of these periods of radicalization fulfilled its potential, the defeats and disappearance of the movements thrown up by them was by no means predestined. There is nothing inherent in American society that doomed them to failure. The task of socialists today is to learn the lessons of past defeats, and to use them to ensure victory in the future.

Capitalist crisis is inevitable, but socialist revolution is not. Capitalism may yet bring about "the common ruin of the contending classes." Only the active intervention of organized revolutionaries--"the most advanced and resolute section" of the working-class movement, in Marx and Engels' words, with a clear "understanding [of] the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement"--can bring about a different outcome.

The urgent task facing socialists at the beginning of the 21st century is the rebuilding of revolutionary socialist organization. There is still a world to win.

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