170 Years of the Communist Manifesto

Today marks the 170th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto. Written in a period of black reaction, and published in the heat of the 1848 revolutions, arguably no other book has had a more profound impact over the history and destiny of the human race. You can purchase a copy of this founding Marxist text from Marxist Books, along with three other Marxist classics.

To mark the occasion, we are publishing an article written by Alan Woods on November 26th, 1997, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Manifesto’s publication, in which he explains the book’s prescience (considering the current political and economic situation), and defends the relevance of Marxism in the modern world.

At first sight it may seem that the republication of The Communist Manifesto requires an explanation. How can one justify a new edition of a book written almost 150 years ago? Yet in reality the Manifesto is the most modern of books.

The truth of this affirmation can be easily demonstrated. If we examine any bourgeois book written one and a half century ago about the same subjects, it will rapidly become clear that such a work will be merely of historical interest, with no the slightest practical application. However, the present work provides us with a profound analysis which, in an amazingly small amount of words, provides a brilliant explanation of the most fundamental phenomena which occupy our attention on a world scale at the present time.

In point of fact, The Communist Manifesto is even more true today than when it first appeared in 1848. Let us consider one example. At the time when Marx and Engels were writing, the world of the big multinational companies was still the music of a very distant future. Despite this, they explained how “free enterprise” and competition would inevitably lead to the concentration of capital and the monopolization of the productive forces. It is frankly comical to read the statements made by the defenders of capitalism concerning Marx’s alleged mistake on this question, when in reality it was precisely one of his most brilliant and unquestionable predictions.

During the 1980s it became fashionable to claim that “small is beautiful.” This is not the place to enter into a discussion concerning the relative aesthetics of big, small or medium size, about which everyone is entitled to hold an opinion. But it is an absolutely indisputable fact that the process of concentration of capital foreseen by Marx has occurred, is occurring, and indeed has reached unprecedented levels in the course of the last ten years.

In the United States, where the process may be seen in a particularly clear form, 500 giant monopolies accounted for 92% of all income in 1994. On a world scale, the 1000 biggest companies had an income amounting to eight billion dollars, which is the equivalent of one third of total world profits. In the USA, 0.5%of the richest families are in possession of half of financial assets held by individuals. The richest 1% of the US population increased its share of the national income from 17.6% in 1978 to an astonishing 36.3% in 1989.
The process of centralization and concentration of capital has reached proportions hitherto undreamed of. The number of takeovers has acquired the character of an epidemic in all the advance industrialized nations. In 1995 the number of takeovers beat all records. The Mitsubishi Bank and the Bank of Tokyo fused to form the biggest bank in the world. The union of Chase Manhattan and the Chemical Bank created the biggest banking group in the USA with combined reserves of 297 billion dollars. The world’s biggest entertainment company emerged when Walt Disney bought Capital Cities/ABC. Westinghouse bought CBS and Time Warner bought Turner Broadcasting Systems. In the pharmaceutical sector, Glaxo bought Wellcome. The takeover of Scott Paper by Kimberly-Clark created the biggest producer of paper tissues in the world. The takeover mania has spread to Europe with record figures being made even in the last few weeks. Even Switzerland has experienced its first hostile takeover concerning the paper group Holvis. In Britain we saw a spate of hostile takeovers, as when Forte, Britain’s biggest hotel chain took over its rival, the leisure and restaurant empire, Granada, for 3.2 billion pounds. In many cases, such takeovers are intimately connected with all kinds of shady practices—insider dealing, falsification of share prices, and other types of fraud, larceny and swindling, as the Guinness scandal has revealed.

It would not be difficult to provide many more figures which would prove beyond reasonable doubt that Marx and Engels were right in their analysis of the process of concentration of capital. This concentration of capital does not signify a growth in production, but quite the contrary. In every case, the intention is not to invest in new plant and machinery but to close existing factories and offices and sack large numbers of workers in order to increase profit margins without increasing production.

The scourge of unemployment

And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie. (Communist Manifesto)

Contrary to the illusions of the labour leaders in the past, mass unemployment has returned and has spread all over the world like a cancer gnawing at the bowels of modern society. According to the United Nations, world unemployment amounts to 120 million. However, this figure, like all the official statistics of unemployment represents a serious understatement of the real situation. If we include the huge number of men and women who are compelled to work in all kinds of marginal “jobs,” the real figure of world unemployment and underemployment would not be less than 1000 million.

According to the official figures there are 18 million unemployed in Western Europe alone—10.6% of the active population. The figure for Spain is an incredible 20%. But even in Germany, the “strong man” of Europe, unemployment has reached 4.5 million for the first time since Hitler. In Japan too for the first time since the 1930 unemployment has shot up. The image of Japan as a paradise of full employment is now past history. According to official figures, Japanese unemployment has reached 3%, but this is false. If they used the same criteria for unemployment as other advance capitalist countries the real figure would not be less than 8% cent or even 10%.

This unemployment is not the kind of cyclical unemployment which workers are well acquainted with from the past and which would rise in a recession only to disappear when the economy picked up again. But this is not longer the case. At this moment of writing, the boom in the USA has lasted for over six years, but world unemployment shows no sign of significant decline. Every day the news papers report new factory closures and sackings (“downsizing” to use the current jargon), frequently linked to the kind of takeovers described above. This is not cyclical unemployment, or even what Marx called the “reserve army of labour,” which, from a capitalist point of view played a useful role in the past. No. This is an entirely new phenomenon—permanent, structural, organic unemployment, which does not noticeably diminish even when there is a “boom.”

Moreover, this unemployment affects sections of society which were never affected in the past: teachers, doctors, nurses, civil servants, bank employees, scientists and even managers. The mood of insecurity has become generalized to practically the whole of society. The words of Marx and Engels quoted above have become literally true. In every country the bourgeoisie raises the same war cry: “We must cut public expenditure!” That was the slogan of Thatcher and Major. Now Tony Blair and the right wing labour leaders are going down the same road. This is not accident. Every government in the capitalist world, whether right or “left” is in reality pursuing the same policy. This is not the result of the whims of individual politicians, of ignorance or bad faith (although there is plenty of this also) but a graphic expression of the blind alley in which the capitalist system finds itself.

In the period of capitalist upswing from 1948 to 1973, the bourgeoisie managed—partially and for a temporary period—to overcome the two fundamental contradictions which act as a colossal brake on progress: private ownership of the means of production and the nation state. The colossal power of the means of production called into existence by capitalism has long ago outgrown these narrows limits. That is the real explanation for the present crisis. Following the second world war, the bourgeoisie attempted to get round this, on the one hand, by the application of Keynesian methods of deficit financing, on the other, by an enormous intensification of the international division of labour, and an unprecedented expansion of world trade. Now, however, both these processes have reached their limits. The application of Keynesian methods, still incredibly advocated by the left reformists, eventually lead to an explosion of inflation and unsustainable deficits everywhere, as predicted in advance by the Marxists. Marx already explained in the pages of Capital, how capitalism can go beyond its limits through the use of credit. However, this has its limits, as Mr. Micawber knew only too well! As a result, they are now compelled to put the whole process into reverse, slashing public expenditure in a desperate attempt to restore “sound finance.” In other words, to return to the situation that existed in the 1920s and 1930s, or even in the days of Marx. This is a finished recipe for an outburst of the class struggle everywhere. But not only that.By slashing state expenditure, they are simultaneously reducing demand and cutting the whole market, just at a time when even the bourgeois economists admit that there is a serious problem of overproduction (“overcapacity”) on a world scale. In this way, they are preparing for a massive slump in the coming period. This is the inevitable result of the fact that in the previous period the capitalist system went beyond its limits. As Marx explains, the capitalists can only solve their crises “by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.”

Socialism and internationalism

In the last few years the economists have talked a lot about “globalization,” imagining that this was the panacea which would permit them to abolish the cycle of booms and slumps altogether. These dreams were shattered by the stock market crash of October 1997 and the crises of the so-called Asian Tigers. As I write these lines, the news has just come through of the collapse of the important Japanese finance company Yamaichi Securities Co. This has profound implications for the rest of the world, since a financial collapse in Japan could push the United States into a slump. The crisis in Asia affects Japan with particular severity since 44% of its exports are sold there. As a result of the stock market crash, the underlying weakness of the Japanese banking system has come to the fore, and Japan is the world’s biggest lender. It is estimated that the five biggest banks in Japan are now technically insolvent. According to Japan’s top financial daily, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, bad debts to Japanese banks now amount to a staggering 1.5 trillion yen. The danger of a financial collapse is admitted even by a senior Bank of Japan official who told The Economist (22/11/97) that “a clear case of systemic risk existed.” If such a crisis led to a massive withdrawal of Japanese funds from the USA, the result would be catastrophic.

All this shows the reverse side of “globalization.” To the degree that the capitalist system develops the world economy, it also prepares the conditions for a devastating world slump at a certain stage. A crisis in one sector of the world economy (in this case Asia) rapidly extends to all the others. Far from abolishing the boom–slump cycle, globalization gives it and even more convulsive and universal character.

Anyone who reads the Manifesto can see that it was precisely Marx and Engels who anticipated this situation 150 years ago. They explain that capitalism must develop as a world system. Today this analysis has been brilliantly confirmed by events. At the present time nobody can deny the crashing domination of the world market. It is in fact the most decisive phenomenon of the age in which we live. This is the epoch of world economy, world politics, world culture, world diplomacy and, let us not forget, world war. In the course of the 20th century we have already experienced two of these as the result of capitalist crisis. The second one caused 55 million deaths and almost led to the destruction of human civilization.Marx and Engels predicted the crushing global domination of the markets Image Rafael MatsunagaSocialism is international or is nothing. But socialist internationalism is not the product of sentimentalism. It is not just a “good idea.” It flows from the scientific analysis of Marx and Engels which explains that the creation of the nation state, one of the historically progressive conquests of the bourgeois, leads inevitable to a system of world trade. The tremendous development of the means of production under capitalism cannot be contained within the narrow limits of the nation state and therefore all the capitalist powers, even the biggest, are obliged to participate to an ever greater extend on the world market.

The contradiction between the enormous potential of the productive forces and the suffocating straitjacket of the nation state was dramatically exposed in 1914 and 1939. These bloody convulsions demonstrated the fact that from an historical point of view the capitalist system had already exhausted its progressive mission. However, there is no such thing as a final crisis of capitalism in the sense of an automatic collapse. In order to carry out the transformation of society, it is not sufficient that the old system is in crisis. No matter how severe the crisis, there exist powerful interests which depend upon the preservation of the status quo for the income, privileges and prestige, and fiercely resists all attempts to change society. Precisely for that reason, Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, not as an abstract document but as a call to action, not a text book but a program for the launching of the revolutionary party and not a discussion club.

In order to overthrow capitalism it is necessary that the working class organize itself as a class in defense of its interests. For many decades the workers of all countries, above all the advance capitalist countries have created powerful organizations—parties and trade unions. But these organizations do not exist in the vacuum. They are subject to the pressures of capitalism which weigh heavily especially upon the top layer.

The bankruptcy of nationalism in general, and of that monstrous aberration called “socialism in one country” in particular, was shown by the collapse of Stalinism, and even before it in the participation of the Chinese and Russian bureaucracies in world markets. All those countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America which fought for, and won their independence from direct imperialist rule, now find themselves once again chained to the old masters through the mechanism of world trade.

Every intelligent person realizes that the free development of the productive forces demand the unification of the economies of all countries through a common plan which would permit the harmonious exploitation of the resources of our planet for the benefit of all. This is so evident that it is recognized by scientists and experts who have nothing to do with socialism, but are filled with indignation at the nightmare conditions in which two thirds of the human race live, and are worried by the effects of the destruction of the environment. Unfortunately their well-intentioned recommendation fall on deaf ears, since they conflict with the vested interests of the big multinationals that dominate the world economy and whose calculations are not based on the welfare of humanity or the future of the planet, but exclusively on greed and the search for profit above all other considerations.

In the last decade of the 20th century, despite all the talk about globalization, national contradictions are more intense than ever. Ten years ago the USA exported the equivalent of 6% of its GDP. Now the figure is 13%, and Washington plans to increase it to 20% by the year 2000. This represents a declaration of war against the rest of the world, beginning with Japan—not a military war, but a trade war in the making. True, in any other period in the past, the tensions between the USA and Japan would have already provoked a war. But the existence of nuclear weapons means that a war between the major capitalist powers is now ruled out. Thus, the present crisis cannot be solved as it was in 1914 and 1949. In the absence of a military conflict, the internal contradictions within each capitalist country will become ever more intense. The ruling class sees no other option but to place the entire weight of the crisis on the shoulders of the working class.

With incredible foresight, the authors of the Manifesto anticipated the conditions which are now being experienced by the working class in all countries. When they wrote:

Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases. Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of the machinery, etc.

Today the USA occupies the same position that Britain held in Marx’s day—that of the most developed capitalist country. Thus, the general tendencies of capitalism are expressed there in their clearest form. During the last 20 years there has been a fall of 20% in the real wages of the American workers, accompanied by an increase of 10% in the working day. In this way, the present boom has been largely at the expense of the working class. At the present time, an American worker works an average of 168 hours of overtime every year—the equivalent of almost one month of extra work. This is particularly truth in the automobile industry where a nine hour, six day week is the norm. According to the American trade unions, if the working week were limited to 40 hours in this sector alone, 59,000 jobs would be created.According to an article in Time magazine (24/10/94): “Workers complaint that, for them, economic expansion means exhaustion. Throughout American industry, companies are using overtime to squeeze the maximum labour out of the workers in the USA: the average working week is now approaching a record 42 hours, including 4.6 hours of overtime.” The same article quotes the case of Joseph Kelterborn, a worker in Fibre Optics, who as a result of a reduction in personnel, works on average four hours overtime a day and one weekend in every three: ‘When I get home’, he complains, ‘all I have time for is to take a shower, eat and sleep a little; after a while it is time to get up and start all over again’.”

The terrible pressures caused by overwork, the fall in real wages, the increased rhythm of production, etc. have had serious effects on the quality of life of working class families. In the USA as in other countries the birth rate has fallen from an average of 2.5 children per family at the beginning of the 1960s to 1.8 at the end of the 1980s. The number of divorces doubled during the 1970s to the point where it represents 60% of the marriages in the 1980s. Even life expectancy which had risen up to 1980 has stagnated.

The same situation exists in Britain, where under the Thatcher government 2.5 million jobs were destroyed in industry, and yet the same level of production has been maintained as in 1979. This has been achieved, not through the introduction of new machinery but through the overexploitation of British workers. In 1995, Kenneth Calman, director general of health, warned that “the lost of life time employment has unleashed an epidemic of stress related illnesses.”

In 1994 a 175 million working days were lost through illness in Britain—nearly eight working days per worker. The number of medical prescriptions increased by 11.7 million in one year (1995). “Stress, traffic jams and pollution are killing professional drivers in Britain,” declares Record, the paper of the TGWU. According to a study carried out by the union, 30% of the drivers admitted to having fallen asleep at the wheel, and almost 45% had had accidents as a result. Similar examples can be given from any other capitalist country.

Marx’s method

The astonishing accuracy of the predictions made in the Manifesto is not an accident. It flows from the scientific method of Marxism—dialectical materialism, which, in its application to history, is known as historical materialism. The basis of the Marxist theory of history was already established in earlier writings such as The Holy Family and The German Ideology.

We must bear in mind that socialism and communism did not begin with Marx and Engels. There were great thinkers before them who defended the idea of a society without classes based on common property: Robert Owen, Fourier, Saint Simon and others. As early as the 16th century, Thomas More wrote his celebrated book Utopia, which describes a communist society. Even before that, the early Christians organized themselves in communities from which private property was rigorously excluded, as anyone can read in The Acts of the Apostles.

Marx and Engels characterized all these tendencies as utopian socialism, while what they were advocating was something quite different—scientific socialism. Wherein lies the difference? For the utopians, socialism was just a good idea, something morally desirable of which people had to be convinced through preaching. From this standpoint, if they were right, such a new society could have been brought into being two thousand years ago—which would certainly have spared the human race a lot of trouble!

However, Marx and Engels explained that socialism has a material base, which consists in the level of development of the productive forces—industry, agriculture, science and technology. Historical materialism explains that historical development in the final analysis is based upon the development of these things. This affirmation—the truth of which is clearly demonstrated by the whole course of human history—has been singled out by the detractors of Marxism for the most biting attacks. But what is attacked is not the ideas of Marx and Engels but a crude caricature, the absurd notion that in Marxism “everything is reduced to economics.” The authors of the Manifesto answered this absurdity many times, as we can see very easily from Engels’ letter to Bloch:

According to the materialist conception of history the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure—political forms of the class struggle and its consequences, constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc.—forms of law—and then even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the combatants: political, legal, philosophical theories, religious ideas and their further developments into systems of dogma—also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.

It is self-evident that religion, politics, morality, philosophy, etc. play a role in the historical process. Nevertheless, in the last analysis the success of a given social-economic system depends upon its ability to satisfy the basic needs of human beings. Before developing religious, political or philosophical ideas, men and women need to eat, wear cloths and have a roof over their head. From the earliest times, human beings have had to struggle to satisfy these necessities, and even now for the overwhelming majority of humanity this still remains the case.

At a given moment in history, the division of labour arises, which coincides historically with the beginnings of the division of society into classes. This represented a great leap forward, permitting the creation for the first time of a surplus product which was appropriated by a class which was freed from the necessity to labour, a ruling class that lived of the labour of others: in Antiquity these “others” were the slaves; later under Feudalism, the serfs; and finally under Capitalism, the working class.marx engelsIn spite of all the horrors, injustices and suffering associated with class society, the latter from a Marxist point of view, that is to say a scientific and not a moralistic point of view, class society was nevertheless historically justified and played a progressive role in pushing society forward. The most brilliant achievement of science, art and philosophy in Greece and Rome were, let us not forget, based on the labour of slaves whom the Romans called “instrumentum vocale”—”a tool with a voice” (from the stand point of the bosses the real situation of the modern worker is not a lot different). The surplus produced by the labour of the exploited classes was sufficient to emancipate a minority of exploiters, but not to achieve the emancipation of the majority whose slavery was the prior condition for the rise of civilization, which was made possible by the development of the means of production.

Marx and Engels discovered a most important law of social development which alone is capable of explaining the development of human history. They explain that a given form of society can only survive to the degree that it develops the productive forces, and that no society ever disappears unless and until it has exhausted the potential for development contained within it. In this sense, one might compare a socioeconomic system to a living organism. It is not something static and fixed for all time, as the defenders of capitalism would have us believe when they make frankly ridiculous claims about the genetic basis of the market economy. Like any other social system capitalism was born, developed, entered into full maturity, but subsequently has reached its limits and has now entered into a fatal decline.

Once we base ourselves on this scientific stand point, it becomes possible for the first time to understand history not as a senseless and incoherent chain of events, determined exclusively by chance, or as the exclusive result of the activity of “great individuals” (although of course the subjective factor in history can and does play a decisive role in given circumstances), but as a process governed by laws which can be understood, like any other area of nature.

Just as Charles Darwin explains that the species are not immutable, and that they possess a past, a present and a future, changing and evolving, so Marx and Engels explain that a given social system is not something eternally fixed. That is the illusion of every epoch. Every social system believes that it represents the only possible form of existence for human beings. That its institutions, its religion, its morality are the last word that can be spoken. That is what the cannibals, the Egyptian priests, Marie Antoinette and Tsar Nicolas all fervently believed. And that is what the bourgeoisie and its apologists today wish to demonstrate when they assure us, without the slightest bases, that the so-called system of “free enterprise” is the only possible system—just when it is beginning to sink.

Reform and revolution

Nowadays the idea of “evolution” has being generally accepted at least by educated persons. The ideas of Darwin, so revolutionary in his day, are accepted almost as a truism. However, evolution is generally understood as a slow and gradual process without interruptions or violent upheavals. In politics, this kind of argument is frequently used as a justification of reformism. Unfortunately, it is based on a misunderstanding. The real mechanism of evolution even today remains a book sealed by sever seals. This is hardly surprising since Darwin himself did not understand it. Only in the last decade or so with the new discoveries in paleontology made by Stephen J. Gould, who discovered the theory of punctuated equilibria, has it been demonstrated that evolution is not a gradual process. There are long periods in which no big changes are observed, but at a given moment, the line of evolution is broken by an explosion, a veritable biological revolution characterized by the mass extinction of some species and the rapid ascent of others.

The analogy between society and nature is, of course, only approximate. But even the most superficial examination of history shows that the gradualist interpretation is baseless. Society, like nature, knows long periods of slow and gradual change, but also here the line is interrupted by explosive developments—wars and revolutions, in which the process of change is enormously accelerated. In fact, it is these events that act as the main motor force of historical development. And the root cause of revolution is the fact that a particular socioeconomic system has reached its limits and is unable to develop the productive forces as before.

“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle,” says the Manifesto in one of its most celebrated phrases. But what is the class struggle? Neither more nor less than the struggles for the division of the surplus produced by the working class. And this struggle will always be inevitable until the productive forces have reached a sufficient level of development to permit the abolition of poverty and the scarcity of products not only for a privileged minority but for everybody. Socialism, therefore, is not just a “good idea” which can be brought into being in any situation as long as people wanted. Socialism has a material base which depends upon the level of development of industry, agriculture, science and technology.

Already in The German Ideology, written in 1845 to 1846, Marx and Engels explained that ” . . . this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced . . . “

By the phrase “all the old filthy business,” Marx and Engels had in mind inequality, exploitation, oppression, corruption, bureaucracy, the state and all the other evils endemic in class society. Today, after the fall of Stalinism in Russia, the enemies of socialism try to show that the ideas of Marxism cannot be put into practice. They overlook the little detail that Russia before 1917 was far more backward than India at the present time. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who were quite well acquainted with the writings of Marx, were well aware that the material conditions for socialism were absent in Russia. But Lenin and Trotsky never had the idea of a national revolution or “socialism in one country,” and least of all in a backward country like Russia.

The Bolsheviks took power in 1917 with the perspective of a world revolution. The October Revolution was a powerful impetus for the rest of Europe, beginning with Germany were the revolution could have succeeded had it not been for the cowardly betrayal of the social democratic leaders who saved capitalism. The world paid a terrible price for this crime, with the economic and social convulsions of the two decades between the wars, the triumph of Hitler in Germany, the civil war in Spain and finally the horrors of a new world war.This is not the place to analyze the whole process that occurred after 1945. Suffice it to say that capitalism succeeded for a time, by the means previously mentioned, to re-establish a relative stability, at least in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe, Japan and USA. But even in this period the basic contradictions did not disappear. For two thirds of the human race these were years of hunger and misery, of wars, revolution and counterrevolution. However, at least in the industrialized countries there was full employment, the welfare state and a general increase in living standards.

All this gave credence to the idea of the labour leaders (both left and right) that capitalism had solved its problems, that mass unemployment was a thing of the past, that the class struggle had finished and that (of course) Marxism was antiquated. How ironic these ideas sound today! With more than 30 million unemployed in the OECD countries and a salvage attack everywhere on the living standard of the workers, the contradictions between the classes are becoming ever more intense. In Europe there has been strike after strike in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium. In the USA the magnificent strike of the UPS workers ended in victory and was a warning that the American workers were not prepared to continue accepting low wages and bad conditions in the interest of higher profits. In Britain too the election of the Labour government after 18 years of Tory rule was an indication of a fundamental change in the mood of society.

“Social being determines consciousness.” This is another profound idea which forms the basis of historical materialism. Sooner or later, social conditions will produce a change in people’s consciousness. However, the relation between the processes which take place in society and the way in which this is reflected in the minds of men and women is not automatic. If this was so we would have been living under socialism a long time ago! Contrary to the believe of the idealists, human thought in general is not progressive but deeply conservative. In “normal” periods, people tend to cling to familiar things. They prefer to believe in the ideas, morality, institutions, parties and leaders to which they have become accustomed.

Engels once said that there are periods in history in which 20 years pass as a single day, but others in which the history of 20 years can be summed up in 24 hours. For a long time it seems that nothing changes. Nevertheless, beneath the surface of seeming tranquillity, there is an enormous buildup of discontent, indignation, frustration and rage. At a given moment, this will provoke a social explosion. In moments of crisis people begin to think for themselves, to act like free men and women, as protagonists not passive victims. They seek an organized means of expression, get active in their trade unions and mass parties in an attempt to change society.

There is an important section of the Manifesto, which has not been sufficiently understood, where we can read the following:

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 mould the proletarian movement.

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 interest 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.

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.

These lines are enormously important because they show the method of Marx and Engels who always set out from the real movement of the working class as it is and not as we would like it to be. This method is a thousand light years removed from the sterile sectarianism of those “revolutionary” sects which eke out an existence on the fringes of the labour movement which are organically incapable of establishing links with the real workers movement.

For Marxists, a party is in the first place program, ideas, methods and traditions, and only afterwards an organization to carry these ideas into the working class. In the course of its history, the working class creates mass organizations to defend its interests and change society. Beginning with the trade unions, the basic organizations of the class at a certain moment the workers come to understand that the struggle for partial economic demands in and of itself is insufficient. In present day conditions, this conclusion is absolutely inescapable. Without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism the socialist revolution would be impossible. Through the experience of strikes and demonstrations the working class learns and acquires a sense of its own power. But, in itself, this is insufficient. Even the most solid and successful strike cannot solve the fundamental problems facing the working class. Moreover, for every successful strike there are a greater number of defeats. Even when the struggle ends in victory, wage increases are eventually cancelled out by inflation. What the capitalists give with the left hand, they take back with the right. In the period of capitalist crisis, reforms are replaced with counter-reforms, as we see now with the Blair government. This has a logic of its own. If one accepts the capitalist system, one must accept the laws of capitalism. If you say “A” you must also say “B,” “C” and “D.” Unemployment, privatizations, cuts in social spending all flow from the general crisis of capitalism. This is a political question which cannot be solved by industrial action alone, important though that is. It is necessary to go beyond the limits of trade union activity and pass onto the plane of political struggle.1945 Labour Party poster Image public domainThe unions and mass workers’ parties were created by the working class through generations of struggle and sacrifice. All history shows that the workers will not abandon their traditional mass organizations before testing them in practice again and again. Almost one hundred years ago, the trade unions created the Labour Party in order to represent the working class in Parliament. The Labour Party was formed as the political expression of the unions. But the mass organizations do not exist in a vacuum. They are constantly under the pressure of the ruling class which holds in its hands powerful means of persuasion—the press, the television, the Church, and a thousand and one ways of pressurizing, influencing and corrupting the representatives of Labour. The recent scandal over the donation of a million pounds to the Labour Party by a businessman is only the tip of a very large iceberg. Businessmen do not give such sums for nothing! Even if we discount actual corruption, the pressure of big business on the Labour leaders is immense. The right wing leaders have no problem accommodating themselves to these influences because they themselves wholeheartedly embrace the capitalist system. It is really ironical that they sing the praises of the “market” precisely at the moment when it is beginning to break down. Labour’s right wing leaders are blindly trying to base themselves on a capitalism that no longer exists. They represent the past not the future. Though they regard themselves as great realists, in fact they are the worst kind of utopians. Their hold on Labour will be shattered on the basis of events in the next period.

However, the position of the left reformists is not much better. Although they rightly oppose the policy of counter-reforms pursued by the right, in practice they offer no real alternative. While accepting the capitalist system, they would like it to work in a kinder, gentler fashion. This is like asking a tiger to eat grass instead of meat! If all governments in the world are pursuing the same policy of cuts, that is not out of choice, but is an expression of the fact that capitalism is in a profound crisis. An attempt to return to the Keynesian policies of deficit financing would provoke an explosion of inflation. And for the working class, the choice between inflation and deflation is the choice between death by hanging and being slowly roasted over a fire. We want neither one thing nor the other, but the only real solution, which is the socialist transformation of society.

The only road

When Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, they were two young men, 29 and 27 years old respectively. They were writing in a period of black reaction. The working class was apparently immobile. The Manifesto itself was written in Brussels, where its authors had been forced to flee as political refugees. And yet at the very moment when The Communist Manifesto first saw the light of day in February 1848, revolution had already erupted onto the streets of Paris, and over the following months had spread like wildfire through virtually the whole of Europe.

If subsequent history has anything to teach us it is this: that nothing and nobody can break the unconscious will of the working class to change society. True, there have been many tragic defeats, like the defeat of the 1848 revolution, the Paris Commune, and now the final liquidation of the last remaining gains of the October Revolution in Russia. And yet, in each of these cases, the workers have always recovered from the effects of every setback and returned to the road of struggle, and for a very good reason, namely, that they have no alternative. In retrospect, even the most severe defeat seems to be just another episode in the long fight of the working class to achieve its ultimate emancipation.The Manifesto was published during the fire of 1848 Image public domainHowever, history also teaches us something else. In order to succeed, it is not enough to be willing to fight. It is necessary to fight consciously, armed with a scientific program and a perspective. Without this, victory will always elude us. But such things do not fall from the sky. It is not possible to improvise program, tactics and strategy when the masses have already begun to move to challenge the existing order. These things must be prepared in advance. It is necessary win the ones and twos, to educate and train Marxist cadres, integrated in every factory, mine, office, school and university, active in every union and Labour Party branch, in every shop stewards committee and trades council. It is necessary to conduct patient preparatory work of propaganda and agitation, linking the day-to-day struggles of the workers and youth to the overall perspective of the socialist transformation of society. In this way we can prepare the ground for the dramatic events which impend, not only in Britain, but in Europe and throughout the world.

Despite all the efforts of its detractors, Marxism today retains its full validity, both as an accurate analysis of present-day society and as a fighting program to change it. There can be this or that detail that has changed, but in all the fundamentals, the ideas of The Communist Manifesto are as relevant and true today as when they were first written. Indeed, in some respects, they are even more true. The revolution of 1848 swept across Europe, but had only a small echo outside. The great wave of revolutions that emanated from the October Revolution in 1917 affected not only Europe but China, India, Persia and Turkey. But now, the knitting together of the entire globe by world capitalism is preparing for a much more dramatic development. Such is the degree of interrelation that we can predict with confidence that the victory of the working class in any significant country will rapidly lead to the overthrow of capitalism in one country after another, laying the basis for the establishment of a socialist Britain, a Socialist United States of Europe, and a Socialist Federation of the entire world.

London, 26th November 1997

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