The Communist Manifesto

March 21, 2008

In this first installment in a series on the classics of the socialist tradition, Todd Chretien offers you a bet about the Communist Manifesto you shouldn't refuse.

I'LL MAKE you a bet. If you've never read the Communist Manifesto, take two hours and read it--it's just a 50-page pamphlet. You can buy it at most bookstores for a couple bucks, or read it online at better yet, order Phil Gasper's annotated version from

My bet is that you will find at least 10 things that make you say, "That is exactly what I've always thought!"

More than that, when you finish reading it, you'll think, "Sure, some things have changed, but my God--the Communist Manifesto is more relevant, truthful and inspiring than anything I've ever read by an American politician. No wonder they don't assign this as reading in high school history class!"

Then you'll understand why South African coal miners, the unemployed of Indonesia, South Korean teachers, French railroad workers, Indian trade unionists and Cuban radicals have all looked to Karl Marx for inspiration.

Why in 1920, 1 million Americans--from New England textile workers to Oklahoman small farmers--voted for Eugene V. Debs, the most famous Marxist in America. Why thousands of Pennsylvania coal miners joined the Communist Party in the 1920s and '30s. Why Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois urged people to study Karl Marx. Why the Black Panther Party made the Communist Manifesto required reading for members.

And why Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez told a cheering crowd of 15,000 people at the World Social Forum in Caracas in January 2006: "Karl Marx is more relevant today than ever before, so the question is: socialism or death--but death of the human race, the death of the planet, because destroying the ecology of the planet. We must raise up a new banner of socialism--a new way for the 21st century, the building of a firm movement of real socialism on the planet."

If I win the bet, all you have to do is find some way to actively participate in changing the world for the better. If I lose (which I won't), then I'll read anything you send me that you think is better than Marx, and start a dialogue with you about it (unless you're a right-wing crank, and then, I really don't care what you think).

Why am I so confident? Because Karl Marx and Frederick Engels do two things in the Communist Manifesto: They first identify many of the issues facing working-class people living under capitalism, and they then provide a theory to tie it all together--to understand where human society has come from, how it got to this point, and how it can be changed.

What else to read

Not bad in 50 pages.

CONSIDER HOW relevant the Communist Manifesto reads on issues in the headlines today:

Seventy years before women were even allowed to vote in the U.S., the Manifesto took up the idea of freeing women from sexual abuse perpetrated against them by wealthy and powerful men. Marx and Engels called for equality--and to "do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production."

In later works, Marx, and especially Engels, blazed new trails in understanding the "historic defeat of the female sex," as Engels put it, as a consequence of the rise of a class society divided between rich and poor--and arguing that only socialist equality could ever fully end sexism.

More than a century and a half later, women in the U.S. still earn only 70 cents on the dollar compared to men, and the corporate media treats even a woman as powerful as Hillary Clinton with a disgusting, paternalistic double standard.

Nationalism, Racism and War
In the mid-19th century, the European powers were expanding their control over the rest of the world and preparing the ground for increasingly bloody wars. They stoked nationalist prejudice and fostered racism to justify their actions. The Manifesto took these ideas head on:

In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another is put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.

In the coming years, Marx and Engels sharpened their critique of national oppression. In Capital, Marx explained how capitalism's most cherished myth, "the free market," was really based on slavery, colonialism and the naked robbery of the wealth of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The market was only "free" from the point of view of the capitalists and slave masters.

Today, the American government is whipping up an anti-Arab and Muslim racism to justify occupying two countries, the politicians scapegoat Latino and Asian immigrants for layoffs and budget cuts, and the descendents of the millions of slaves who built up America's wealth suffer imprisonment at rates many times greater than that of whites.

The Rich Get Richer...and Meaner
The Internet and instant cable news have made the world a very small place, and we take for granted the power of monster global corporations. In Marx and Engel's day, capitalism was just taking root, but they could see where the system was going. As they put it in this prophetic passage in the Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production...All fixed, fast-frozen relations...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...The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

Marx and Engels saw that aspects of this rapid industrial and technological progress were positive, but warned that ordinary people in society would pay a heavy price:

Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to the division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine...In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.

That certainly describes most people's jobs today. Whether you work for $9 an hour at Starbucks or $22 an hour in an auto plant or $30 an hour as a nurse, you know that the biggest part of any technological innovation goes to the boss.

No matter how much the economy grows, there's never enough money for health care, education or decent wages. Of course, they always find a way to pay for war and tax cuts for the rich. And this is all in "good times"--we all know what happens when capitalism goes into to one of its regular slumps.

NOW YOU see why I'm going to win the bet. But Marx and Engel's eloquent denunciations of capitalism's crimes are not the most important part of the Manifesto.

Like the song says, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." However, you do need a meteorologist to tell you when a storm is coming, what conditions make create that storm, and what you should do to prepare for it.

What Ben Franklin did for thunderstorms, Marx and Engels did for economics and politics. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels provided an overall theory to help explain history, how to fight for justice today, and the possibility of a better future.

Liberal and conservative historians want you to believe that society has always been divided between the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong, men and women, etc.--division based on money, race, nationality is built into our human nature.

The Manifesto takes a radically different view: Humans lived for thousands of years in what Marx and Engels called "primitive communism"--by which they meant societies that existed in every part of the world where cooperation and mutual reliance, and not competition, formed the basis of survival.

At the time, this was based on cutting-edge anthropological research that was very controversial, but today, all but a few right-wing cranks accept that this is the truth about pre-class human society.

This is more than just an interesting observation. Marx and Engels based their whole view of the possibility of social change on it. If humans lived for tens of thousands of years without war and cutthroat competition, then we can do it again. Simple, huh?

Many famous people have agreed with this as a hope or a wish or a dream--Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Moses, Spartacus, Ghandi and Martin Luther King to name a few.

However, Marx and Engels make a very specific case about how to make this vision of a different kind of world concrete:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf... 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.

So once primitive communism is replaced by the haves and have-nots, two things happen: The rich fight like hell to get richer, while the poor resist their exploitation to the best of their ability.

Human history is about our capacity as a species to innovate, and then about the fight over who will benefit from our collective efforts--everyone equally or a domineering minority.

The rich usually manage to keep control because they can pay other people to carry arms to enforce their will, and they have the leisure time to dedicate to politics. But any given ruling class always has to watch out for a challenge from two sources: either foreign competitors abroad and newly emerging wealthy classes at home, or the solidarity of the lower classes banding together to try to upend the status quo.

It is very common in history for one ruling class to be replaced by another: the Greeks beat the Persians, the Romans beat the Germans, the Chinese beat the Vietnamese, the Moguls beat the Hindus, the Aztecs beat the Tepanecs. More recently, European and American imperialism has seized control of most parts of the world. Many mainstream historians choose their favorite conquering nation, and then write history based on defending that conquest.

Marx and Engels certainly recognized that this happened, but they were interested in a different fight: namely, could the oppressed people in any given country work together to get rid of their rulers and get back to running society cooperatively, like primitive communism, but with better technology? And if they could, was it possible to spread that revolution internationally?

Their affirmative answer is as radical today as it was back then. Contrary to myth, the Communist Manifesto never said that socialism was inevitable. In fact, Marx and Engels pointed out that the "common ruin of the contending classes" was very common in history and a real danger.

Today, we have to ask ourselves what will happen to the planet if we cannot successfully challenge the power of the imperialists and the corporations. Every year, 6 million children die from malnourishment and lack of cheap medicines. Wars are killing millions more, and, sooner or later, some president or premier will decide that nuclear warfare is "reasonable." Global warming endangers thousands of species, and the drinking water and farmland upon which hundreds of millions of people rely.

The disasters that modern capitalism has in store for us make the collapse of Rome look like a picnic. But socialism, a society based on democratic planning of the economy in order to eradicate poverty and oppression, is not a pipe dream. It is one of our possible futures.

Of course, Marx and Engels--and countless millions of working-class socialist activists--fought and died without achieving their goals. And today, they seem even farther away.

Marx and Engels would be the last people to tell you that simply reading the Communist Manifesto would change the world. But it just might change you.

How about that bet?

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