The Communist Manifesto: Birthday honours

On its 150th anniversary, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh discussed the Communist Manifesto in Issue 3 (November 1998).

The Communist Manifesto is 150 years old already, but the celebrations have been nothing to write home about. Magazines and papers, television and radio programmes have been beating the bushes all year for anyone who’ll answer to the name of communist and subjecting them to the full rigours of whatever facile question comes into their researchers’ heads, before presenting their own ignorance as the last word on the subject. If this is the Manifesto’s birth­day party, Harold Pinter could have thrown a better one. This article is for everyone who has found themselves rolling their eyes at what’s passed for serious consideration of the Communist Manifesto.

Everyone knows the first sentence, if they know no more: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” But most people have been so bewitched by the metaphor that they’ve missed the point. Read on another few lines and you’ll see that communism itself isn’t the spectre, but the myths and legends about the communist bogeyman coming to gobble up every good bourgeois in his bed. The whole point of the Manifesto is to set the actual principles of communism against “the fairy tale of the spectre of communism”.

“To this end communists of the various nationalities have assembled in London and drawn up the following manifesto”—only they were more or less all Germans, only two of them did the business in the end, and not in London. The conference of the Communist League, an organisation of emigrant German craftsmen, appointed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to write them a manifesto. This point is important politically (and not just historically) because this was the manifesto of an organisation, not the personal opinion of Marx and Engels—who weren’t even identified as the authors for some years. So it may well be that they had to express themselves in a way that would be acceptable to the League, rather than just as they liked, although they were just after winning the League to their way of thinking.

Engels had a bash, coming up with a kind of communist catechism, “in which there will at least be nothing contrary to our views”, he told Marx. But he felt the question-and-answer format wouldn’t do, and hit upon the idea of a manifesto in narrative form. Marx wrote the final text in early 1848 on the basis of Engels’s draft—which goes a long way to explain why the Manifesto is Marx’s most concise and direct piece of writing, free of the tendency to explore every nook and cranny that characterises most of his work, for good and ill.

This is where we get down to business: “The history of every society until now is the history of class struggles.” Engels was right to point out later that this doesn’t go for hunter-gatherer societies, but the proposition that since then the motor of history has been the “uninterrupted, now hidden, now open struggle” between oppressing and oppressed classes is a defining moment. Marx never claimed to have discovered the class struggle (explicitly denied it, in fact), but to trace its development and harness it as the means of achieving the liberation of the working class set Marxism apart, and still sets it apart, from most other versions of socialism knocking about.

Class division gets starker in capitalist society: “The whole society splits more and more into two great opposing camps, into two great classes standing directly against each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat.” Before the sociolo­gists get out of their tree and hurl textbooks on stratification theory at us, it should be noted that nowhere is it claimed that this class division is finished, that every mother’s son can fit unproblematically into a box marked Capitalist or a box marked Worker. It expressly describes this division as a tendency, that “more and more” people are being forced into one of the two classes, down the Property in the Means of Production to Declare channel or the Nothing but my Labour Power to Declare channel. Capitalism will always throw up in-between groups, but Bourgeoisie versus Proletariat is the way things are headed.

“The modern state power is only a committee that manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Now there’s a sentence calculated to de­value your politics degree: surely that’s a bit over-simplified, reductionist, verging on conspiracy theory? But have another look at it: if it manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie, then obviously different factions with divergent interests exist within the capitalist class, so divergent that they have to delegate a committee to look after the really important things they all agree on. The Manifesto (never mind the rest of Marx’s or Engels’s writings) presents a more sophisticated picture of the capitalist state than you’d think.

If there’s anyone left out there who still thinks that Marx’s writings on alienation were just a folly of youthful idealism that he grew out of, the Mani­festo should make them think again: “The work of the proletarians has, through the spread of machinery and the division of labour, lost all autono­mous character and with it all charm for the worker. He becomes a mere accessory of the machine, which calls for only the simplest, most monotonous, easiest to learn knack from him.”

As a result of this, “The cost of the worker therefore shrinks almost to nothing but the means of existence required for his maintenance and for the propagation of his race”, and so, “The average price of labour is the minimum wage.” Wrong: as Marx later pointed out, the ability to work is different from other commodities in that it happens to be embodied in a human being. Con­sequently, the amount needed to produce this commodity is flexible and depends on historical, social factors—on the going rate of civilisation, if you like. Where workers have managed to win a certain standard of living, the expectation of maintaining this standard (and even improving it a bit) enters into the determination of the value of their labour power. The economic and political struggle of the working class can pull against the capitalists’ struggle to push wages down.

“Differences of sex and age no longer have any social validity for the working class.” But of course (and this goes for national, racial and other prejudices too) just because something has become worthless doesn’t stop people futilely trying to spend it. And the Manifesto is far from painting a rosy picture of the onward-ever-onward march of the proletariat into the revolutionary sunset: “This organisation of the proletarians as a class, and consequently as a political party, is burst apart at every turn by the competi­tion amongst the workers themselves.”

The Manifesto rightly states that “the proletariat is the only really revolu­tionary class”, but is too one-sided in characterising some of the others. Small farmers, artisans, the lower middle classes are all of them “not revolutionary, but conservative. What’s more, they are reactionary, they try to turn back the wheel of history.” On the off-chance that they do behave in a revolutionary way, it’s only “in view of their impending crossing over to the proletariat” anyway.

This encourages a sort of ‘ourselves alone’ approach, the kind of dismissal of every other class as reactionary that Marx and Engels had to fight against in later years: the workers can just go their own way, and if the others want to join the back of the queue, they know where to find us; if not, sure it’s their own loss. But there are virtually no situations where the working class can’t use allies, and some situations where we can’t begin to manage without them. We have to actively go out and win these other oppressed classes, to rally them behind our banner, not sit back waiting indefinitely for every one of them to become proletarians anyway.

The bourgeoisie itself has created the working class, and here comes another of those classic images the Manifesto is full of: “It produces above all its own gravediggers. Its downfall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” This is hopefully no more than a rhetorical flourish on Marx’s part because, while you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to see the inevitability of capitalism collapsing, there’s nothing inevitable about the workers emerging victorious from the ruins. World war, fascism, barba­rism— “the common downfall of the battling classes” is how the Manifesto puts it—awaits if our class doesn’t shape itself to build socialism instead.

Which is where section II of the Manifesto comes in, asking where the com­munists stand in regard to the working class as a whole. The initial answer is worth repeating in full:

The communists aren’t a separate party as against the other workers’ parties.
They have no interests apart from the interests of the whole proletariat.
They set up no separate interests by which they seek to mould the pro­letarian movement.
The communists differ from the rest of the proletarian parties only in as much as, on the one hand, in the various national struggles of the prole­tarians they emphasise and bring to bear the common interests— independently of nationality—of the whole proletariat and, on the other hand, in the various stages of development that the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie pass through they always advocate the interests of the entire movement.
The communists are therefore practically the most resolute part, always driving further forward, of the workers’ parties of all countries; they have theoretically the advantage over the great mass of the proletariat of the insight into the conditions, the course and the general results of the proletarian movement.

Firstly, why is the class-conscious section of the working class referred to as “communists”? Engels later explained that “we could not have called it a Socialist Manifesto”. 150 years ago socialists were those who advocated social reform with the support of middle-class philanthropists; those in the working-class movement who called for the workers to free themselves through social revolution were known as communists. And so, “there could be no doubt as to which of the two names we must take. Moreover, we have, ever since, been far from repudiating it.” Since then, Stalinism has gone and ruined the word communism on us, and socialism is a much less problematic term, especially now that the labour parties only use it when they lose the run of themselves. But, with a small c and a clear health warning, communism is a grand revo­lutionary name for a grand revolutionary thing, and we shouldn’t go throwing it out altogether.

Secondly, if communists aren’t a separate party, what exactly was this here Communist League up to then? And what was it doing publishing a Manifesto of the Communist Party? The answer requires a look at how politi­cal language has changed. In the mid-nineteenth century the word “party” had a much wider meaning. The ‘Repeal party’ referred to the movement for the repeal of the union with Britain, not just Daniel O’Connell’s clique; the ‘Chartist party’ in Britain meant the movement to enact the People’s Charter, rather than a particular association; the ‘democratic party’ in Europe was those who wanted democracy, instead of any individual organisation. If you read this sentence as meaning that socialists are part of the workers’ move­ment rather than a movement of their own, it makes perfect sense. Whether the work of socialists requires separate organisation at all times is a question the Manifesto doesn’t attempt to answer.

Thirdly, how many Marxist organisations of the past 150 years can you recognise in the above quotation? On one side, the humility of the Manifesto, modestly pointing out that us communists aren’t all that different from most people after all. On the other, those who define themselves by what separates them from the working class rather than what unites them, who judge the success of a strike by the number of members they’ve recruited, who always manage to conclude that what’s best for them happens to be best for the working class. Wherever these latter get their inspiration from, it isn’t the Communist Manifesto.

In attacking the capitalists’ hypocritical defence of the family, the Mani­festo refers to the “absence of family amongst the proletarians”. In 1848 this was fair enough: capitalism was young and was dragging in anyone and everyone to turn a profit for it, tearing family ties to shreds in the process. It was only later in the century that it began to see the family as a handy institu­tion for rearing the next generation of workers and privatising domestic labour. This is one of the rare occasions on which the Manifesto mistakenly takes a short-term trend for a permanent feature of capitalism.

The communists were accused of wanting to nationalise women. The alle­gation is now more curious than anything else, but the answer shows that sexual politics is nothing new to Marxism:

The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production should be worked in common, and naturally can’t think other than that the fate of being in common lies in store for the wives as well.
Little does he know that it is a question of abolishing the position of wives as mere instruments of production.

“The national separations and antagonisms of the peoples are disappear­ing more and more already with the development of the bourgeoisie, with free trade, the world market, the uniformity of industrial production and the corre­sponding conditions of life.” Yes and no: the world market and trade has increased national antagonism, by systematically underdeveloping large regions of the world. But at the same time it has created the foundations for a global community, the potential for a united human race. But like most of capitalism’s possibilities, the capitalist system will have to be abolished inter­nationally before it can be realised.

The first step in socialist revolution is “the elevation of the proletariat to ruling class, the winning of the battle for democracy”. Democracy is here equated with the victory of the working class: socialist revolution is the beginning of democracy. (The standard English translation is unclear here: “to win the battle of democracy”. But “die Erkämpfung der Demokratie” clearly means winning democracy in a battle. Samuel Moore’s translation, edited by Engels, improves upon the original here and there, but sometimes confuses matters. Worst of all, how did Engels allow “proletarians” to be turned into “working men”? This article uses the original text of the Manifesto.)

“If the proletariat in struggle against the bourgeoisie necessarily unites as a class, through a revolution makes itself the ruling class and as ruling class forcibly abolishes the old relations of production, it then abolishes with these relations of production the conditions of existence of class antagonisms, of classes in general, and with that its own rule as a class.” The workers’ use of state power is a minimal one: the only reason they assume political domina­tion as a class is to put an end to political domination and to classes.

The Manifesto outlines ten immediate measures such a revolution would take. Despite Marx and Engels stressing how provisional they were, depend­ent on a particular time and place, too much attention has been focussed on them. Many commentators are surprised at how moderate they are—but, the same as anyone else, the working class will have to walk before we can run, and the important thing is to get things underway; building a socialist society will be a continuous job, constantly outstripping itself.

The big mistake is measure number three: “Abolition of inheritance”—a step guaranteed to drive the small farmers of Europe into the arms of reaction. Engels’s draft called for the restriction of inheritance rather than its abolition, and even for the right of children born outside marriage to inherit. When the Communist League drew up a list of demands on the outbreak of revolution in Germany a month or two later, Engels’s approach prevailed. And in later decades Marx found himself arguing that the workers’ state wouldn’t take land from small farmers’ children.

The third section is notable for being a fine example of Marx keeping his satiric powers under control. Too often he would fill pages with minute critique of whatever counterfeit version of socialism he was faced with, ten times more than it deserved. That he succeeded in keeping it snappy here is probably a tribute to the influence of Engels’s draft. And he had so much to play with—it seems every world-reformer going back then called themselves a socialist.

The section on petty-bourgeois socialism interestingly sees its origin in the way that “a new petty bourgeoisie has been formed, that hovers between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and is continually formed anew as a supple­mentary part of bourgeois society”. So the tendency of capitalist society to split up into a capitalist class and a working class is modified by another ten­dency, to create a new middle class. But this tendency is a subordinate one, and these petty bourgeois are constantly pushed up or (more usually) down into one of the two great camps.

For all its criticism of the various socialist schools, the Manifesto does give credit where it’s due. The “critical-utopian” socialists, for example, “assail all the principles of existing society. They have therefore provided extremely valuable material for the enlightenment of the workers.” Their problem is that “they see no capacity for historical activity on the part of the proletariat itself, no political movement of its own”; all they see in the workers is “the most suffering class”.

Section IV, like section III, deals with parties that have ceased to exist, but tactics that can still be applied. Socialist activity is summed up in one of those sentences that a century and a half hasn’t bettered: “They fight for the attain­ment of the immediate present aims and interests of the working class, but in the movement of the present they stand at the same time for the future of the movement.”

The allies of the communists in various countries are then outlined. Where there are working-class parties, the position is as already stated in section II. But elsewhere communists critically support social democrats, radicals, agrarian revolutionaries—“every revolutionary movement against the existing historical and political situation”, but always “bring to the fore the property question, however developed or undeveloped a form it may have assumed, as the basic question of the movement”. Socialists take an unapologetic part in a united front, but without putting the class struggle on the long finger.

Understandably the Manifesto goes into more detail when it comes to Germany. Here the communists fight alongside the capitalists against the aris­tocrats, whenever the capitalists seriously want to fight. “But they don’t forget for a moment to carve out amongst the workers the clearest possible consciousness of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, so that the German workers can at once turn the historical and political con­ditions which the bourgeoisie must bring about with its rule into so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, so that as soon as the reactionary classes in Germany fall the struggle against the bourgeoisie itself begins.” Germany was on the eve of a bourgeois revolution but, because the German working class was more developed than the English or French working classes were during their bourgeois revolutions, this “can therefore be merely the curtain-raiser to a proletarian revolution”. The concept of permanent revolution is not a more recent bit added on to Marxism: here it is right in the heart of the Communist Manifesto itself.

The communists “openly declare that their aims can only be achieved by the forcible overthrow of every social order that has existed until now”. When Engels’s draft asked if private property could be abolished peacefully, it answered: “It would be desirable if this could happen, and the communists would certainly be the last to oppose it.” But given that the capitalists were already forcibly holding down the workers’ movement, this hardly seemed likely. “If the oppressed proletariat is thereby finally driven to revolution, then we communists will defend the cause of the proletarians with deeds just as we now defend it with words.” Marx’s final version is more up-front, not bother­ing with the outside chance that the capitalists might come quietly. And this is the better approach, because it wasn’t a question of crystal ball-gazing about what might and mightn’t happen, but of preparing the workers for what will most probably be necessary.

Proletarians of all countries, unite!” This isn’t just a big finish. It is worth taking to heart that the last word of the Manifesto is a call for workers’ unity. After all is said and done, the most important thing is not for socialists to get themselves organised and clear—important as that is. The most impor­tant thing is for workers everywhere to stand together, because the united working class is the force that can end all the oppression that haunts us today and replace it with “an association in which the free development of each forms the conditions for the free development of all”. The reason we need to discuss, criticise, celebrate the Communist Manifesto—and above all read the thing, again and again—is that it puts our class in a better position to reach that goal.