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.

Revolutionary Lives: Friedrich Engels (part two)

Following on from part one, Joe Conroy concluded his look at the life of Engels in Issue 4 in May 1999.

A year and a half after Marx’s death Engels wrote to a comrade of theirs:

All my life I have done what I was cut out to do—I played second fiddle—and I think that I did it fairly well. I was glad to have so splendid a first violin as Marx. And now that I am unexpectedly called upon to replace Marx in theoretical matters and play first fiddle, I cannot do so without making slips of which nobody is more keenly aware than I.

to Johann Becker, 15 October 1884

But effectively Engels took up this role a few years before Marx’s death. Marx’s worsening health meant that, from the mid-1870s on, it largely fell to Engels to defend and advance their political standpoint, so that he took up the first fiddle before 1883 as well as after. For the last twenty years of his life, Friedrich Engels became the senior partner in the Marx-Engels business.

When a certain Eugen Dühring proposed his own superior socialism in place of Marx’s, and got a favourable reception in the SPD, it was Engels who hit back with a series of articles. In book form Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (1878—more commonly known as simply Anti-Dühring) became one of the most influential expositions of Marxism, especially when a section of it was published as a pamphlet: Socialism Utopian and Scientific. Engels researched and wrote on the natural sciences in the seventies and eighties, although his scientific manuscripts were only published after his death. His The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) examined the social development of the human species. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy in 1886 attempted to show how Marxism had developed from its philosophical ancestors. Engels acted as literary executor for Marx, editing and publishing Books Two and Three of Capital, and writing introductions to new editions of his works. A steady flow of articles and letters advised and argued with the socialist movement internationally, of which he became a sort of elder statesman until his death on 5 August 1895.

Defending Marxism

In 1878 the SPD was made illegal, its members subject to arrest. Some of its leaders believed the party had brought it upon itself, that they should now moderate themselves, concentrate on achievable reforms, and try to attract a more respectable class of supporter. Engels wrote a reply on his own and Marx’s behalf, characterising reformism sharply: “The programme is not to be given up, only postponed—indefinitely. One accepts it, only not actually for oneself and one’s own lifetime, but posthumously, as an heirloom for one’s children and one’s children’s children. In the meantime one devotes one’s ‘entire strength and energy’ to all kinds of trifles and patching-up of the capitalist social order”. This was only the old middle-class fear that the workers might go ‘too far’, that it was better therefore to reach a servile compromise with the capitalists than to overthrow them.

It was entirely natural that people from other classes joined the socialist movement, as long as “they bring no leftovers of bourgeois, petty bourgeois etc prejudices with them, but that they adopt the proletarian outlook unreservedly”.

As far as we are concerned, in light of our entire past only one way is open to us. We have for nearly 40 years stressed the class struggle as the most immediate driving force of history, and especially the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat as the great lever of the modern social revolution; it is therefore impossible for us to go along with people who want to strike this class struggle out from the movement. When the Inter­national was founded we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emanci­pation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. We therefore cannot go along with those who openly declare that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves…

letter to Bebel and others, 17-18 September 1879

Marxism had its followers amongst the German workers in the United States, but according to Engels, “most of them do not understand the theory themselves and treat it in a doctrinaire and dogmatic way as something that has got to be learned by heart and which will then satisfy all further require­ments without more ado. To them it is a credo and not a guide to action.” (Letter to Friedrich Sorge, 29 November 1886.) The actual movement of the workers would clear the way: “The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist… will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.” (Letter to Florence Kelley-Wischnewetsky, 28 December 1886.)

The German anti-socialist law was repealed in 1890, and the SPD began to draw up a new programme the following year. Engels contributed to the debate firstly by publishing the scathing criticism Marx had made of their 1875 programme. It trod on the party leaders’ toes, and some of them opposed its publication, but Engels wrote to one of them, August Bebel:

What is the difference between you people and Puttkamer [the Prussian minister of police] if you pass anti-socialist law against your own comrades? It does not matter to me personally. No party in the world can condemn me to be silent when I am determined to speak. But I think you should reflect whether you would not be wise to be a little less Prussian in your behaviour. You—the party—need socialist science, and such science cannot exist unless there is freedom in the party.

In his critique of the draft new programme itself, he criticised the “attempts to convince oneself and the party that ‘present-day society is devel­oping towards socialism’ without asking oneself whether it does not thereby just as necessarily outgrow the old social order and whether it will not have to burst this old shell by force”. This attitude often led the SPD to bring immediate everyday questions to the foreground and push the big issues into the background. “This forgetting of the great, the principal considerations for the momentary interests of the day, this struggling and striving for the success of the moment regardless of later consequences, this sacrifice of the future of the movement for its present, may be ‘honestly’ meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and ‘honest’ opportunism is perhaps the most dangerous of all!”

But Engels failed to see the greater danger—not naked reformism, but the belief that the inexorable growth of the SPD’s support was its surest guarantee of ultimate victory. Indeed it was an attitude he himself did something to encourage:

The two million voters whom it [the SPD] sends to the ballot box… form the most numerous, most compact mass, the decisive ‘shock force’ of the international proletarian army.… it increases incessantly. Its growth proceeds as spontaneously, as steadily, as irresistibly and at the same time as tranquilly as a natural process.… To keep this growth going without interruption until it of itself gets beyond the control of the prevailing governmental system, not to fritter away this daily increasing shock force in vanguard skirmishes, but to keep it intact until the decisive day, that is our main task.

introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, 1895

He had a surer touch when the Italian socialists asked for his advice. Hangovers of feudalism still haunted Italian society, and the working class was small and the socialist movement weak. How should they stand in relation to those who wanted to set up a modern democratic republic in Italy? The place of socialists was always, replied Engels, “in the ranks of those fighting to achieve immediate results in the interests of the working class. They accept all these political or social achievements, but merely as payments on account.” A republic would give the workers democratic rights and greater room to manoeuvre, so they should obviously take part in it “without ever losing sight of the fact that these phases are just so many stages leading to the final goal: the conquest of political power by the proletariat as a means for reorganising society”.

They should strike in their own time, though, “to see that the scarcely formed nucleus of our proletarian Party is not sacrificed in vain”. If a genuine democratic movement got underway, however, the working class would not be found wanting.

But in such a case it should be clearly understood, and we must loudly proclaim it, that we are participating as an independent party, allied for the moment with radicals and republicans but wholly distinct from them; that we entertain no illusions whatever as to the result of the struggle in case of victory; that far from satisfying us this result will only mean to us another stage won, a new base of operations for further conquests; that on the day of victory our ways will part; that from that day on we shall constitute the new opposition to the new government…

Above all they should refuse seats in any new government, where they would play the role of a minority sharing responsibility for the government’s treacheries but powerless to do anything about them.

Engels stressed that this was only his own opinion, expressed reluctantly in response to a request, but said that these tactics had never failed him. As for applying them in the Italian situation, however, “that must be decided on the spot… by those who are in the thick of events” (letter to Filippo Turati, 26 January 1894).

Making sense of history

Marx’s understanding of history was another aspect of Marxism that Engels attempted to promote and defend. At Marx’s funeral he praised the idea that “the production of the immediate material means of existence, and conse­quently in each case the stage of economic development of a people or a period, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religious ideas of the people in question have evolved, and from which they must be explained”. In Anti-Dühring he wrote that “The materialist conception of history starts from the principle that production, and next to production the exchange of its products, is the basis of every social order… Accordingly the ultimate causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought… not in the philosophy, but in the economics of the period in question.”

But this was somewhat different to the idea that Marx had put forward (together with Engels in the case of The German Ideology): that people enter into certain social relations that correspond with their economic development, and that these relations form the basis of politics and ideology in general. Engels here makes the economic development into the basis, rather than the social relations of human beings in production, and thus shifts the emphasis away from human activity in society and towards the technological background.

And indeed, the phrase Engels coined to describe the Marxist view of history—“the materialist conception of history”—isn’t strictly accurate. Obviously, in the great philosophical debate of materialism versus idealism— whether the world exists independently of human conscious­ness—Marxism comes down on the side of materialism. But it developed as much in opposition to traditional materialism as to idealism, insisting that we are not simple creatures of our environment, but active creators and changers of it.

Engels insisted, however, that Marxism didn’t downplay the role played by individual will in history. “People make their own history, however this turns out, by everyone pursuing their own conscious, desired aims, and the resultant of these many wills acting in different directions, and their diverse effects on the external world, is precisely what history is.” Their motives can be noble or ignoble, political or personal. The thing is to go deeper into the story, to ask “what driving forces in turn stand behind these motives, what historical causes exist which transform themselves in the heads of the actors into such motives?” (Ludwig Feuerbach.)

And while ideology is dependent on economic relations, it does develop to a certain extent in its own terms:

each ideology develops, once it comes into existence, in conjunction with the given conceptual material, elaborates on it; otherwise it wouldn’t be an ideology, i.e., something that deals with ideas as with autonomous entities developing independently subject only to their own laws. That the material conditions of existence of the people in whose heads this thought process goes on ultimately determines the course of this process, these people necessarily remain unaware, for otherwise there would be an end to all ideology.

Ludwig Feuerbach

The law, for instance, reflects the economic basis it arose on, but is very rarely “the rough, unmitigated, unadulterated expression of a class’s rule: That would itself go against the ‘concept of justice’”. The law expresses class domination but it must be “an expression coherent in itself”, meaning that “the faithfulness of the reflection of the economic relations more and more comes to grief” (letter to Conrad Schmidt, 27 October 1890).

This relative independence of law, the state, ideology plays its own part in history:

in the last instance, the determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of actual life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If someone now distorts this so that the economic factor is the only determining one, they transform that proposition into an abstract, absurd phrase that says nothing. The economic situation is the basis, but the various aspects of the superstructure—political forms of the class struggle and its results—constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle etc—judicial forms and especially the reflection of all these real struggles in the brains of those involved, political, judicial, philosophic theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogma exercise their influence on the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine chiefly their form. There is an interaction of all these aspects, in which ultimately through all the endless mass of accidents… of necessity the economic movement asserts itself.

letter to Joseph Bloch, 21-22 September 1890

So, for instance, a certain government policy can hold back economic development as well as promote it; a certain legal system can help the concen­tration of capital ownership or hinder it; a certain religious outlook can lead to the acceptance of the economic system or a rejection of it. “It is not that the economic situation is cause, solely active and that everything else is only passive effect. No, there is interaction on the basis of economic necessity in the last instance asserting itself.” (Letter to W Borgius, 25 January 1894.)

But Engels stressed that this view of history was not the answer to every question. “You would hardly succeed in explaining economically”, he warned, the existence of every petty principality in German history, or the different dialects of the German language, “without making yourself laughable” (letter to Bloch). Too many people were using “historical material­ism” as a label to stick on things, as an excuse to avoid serious investigation of history. “I must say first of all that the materialist method is turned into its opposite when it is used, not as a guide in historical study, but as a ready-made pattern to which the facts of history are trimmed.” (Letter to Paul Ernst, 5 June 1890.)

The origins of women’s oppression

The Origin of the Family is now in many respects an outdated work: a century of anthropological study has refuted some of Engels’s propositions, and turned up paths of historical development besides those he traced. But his central idea has been generally confirmed. Humanity originally lived in hunting-gathering communities without private ownership, without classes, without oppression. When changes in productive methods led to a surplus of wealth, however, a class arose to take control of it. The traditional division of labour between the sexes based on biology became one in which the decisive means of production belonged to men, and women were more and more pushed into a subordinate role. “The first class antagonism that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman… the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.”

This oppression continues in the present-day family:

The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of women, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules. In the great majority of cases today, at least among the possessing classes, it is the husband who is obliged to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself gives him a position of supremacy without any need for special legal privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat.

But modern industry draws women into the social workforce, giving them a greater independence and undermining the foundations of inequality. It also creates the conditions where housework can be transformed from a private, domestic responsibility into a public, social one.

The overthrow of capitalism would remove economic considerations from personal relationships. Whether this would loosen monogamy further, or on the contrary make it a reality for the first time, is not up to us, wrote Engels:

That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual—and that will be the end of it.

Dialectics in nature

Engels’s work on the natural sciences was mainly concerned to show that, like society, nature has a dialectical development—that it develops through constant change and self-contradiction, rather than through straightforward, simple progress. Some Marxists have since criticised him for this, claiming that he laid part of the ground for Stalinist philosophy, by seeing human beings as just another part of nature subject to blind natural processes beyond our control.

But, firstly, dialectical movement can be seen in nature. In human history gradual changes in quantity tend to become sudden changes in quality—as when the development of trade and commerce reached a point where it broke the bounds of feudalism and established capitalist societies. The same thing happens in nature—water gets gradually hotter, until it reaches 100°C and is transformed into steam (or indeed gradually colder, until it changes into ice at 0°C). Of course there are plenty of natural phenomena that aren’t dialectical and can be understood with simple common sense—but such straightforward facts exist in human history too.

As Engels put it, “there could be no question of superimposing the laws of dialectics on nature but of discovering them in it and developing them from it” (Anti-Dühring). But his enthusiasm did sometimes get the better of him, leading him occasionally to see dialectics where there weren’t any. It was also wrong to see dialectics in terms of “laws”, like scientific laws, rather than tendencies; and certainly wrong to reduce them to three laws, as he did at one point.

Dialectics works differently in nature than in society. But no one stated this more clearly than Engels himself:

In nature there are—in so far as we leave aside humanity’s reaction upon nature—nothing but unconscious, blind agencies that act upon one another and in whose interplay the general law comes into effect. What­ever happens… doesn’t happen as a consciously desired aim. On the other hand, in the history of society the actors are always endowed with consciousness, people who act with deliberation or passion, who work towards certain aims; nothing happens without conscious intention, without desired end.

Ludwig Feuerbach

Finally, it is impossible to build some kind of brick wall between humanity and the rest of nature. We are fundamentally different from the natural world, but at the same time inescapably a part of it. For all our victories over nature (Engels pointed out in ‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Human’, an essay begun in 1876) it still revenges itself upon us: cutting down forests to bring land into cultivation eventually deprives the land of water and nourishment and ruins it—which is only to be expected under an economic system which puts the quick buck before long-term benefit.

Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing over nature —but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.… we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, even the more remote natural consequences of our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more people will not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, humanity and nature…

The state

The state arose at the same time as class division arose, wrote Engels, as “a power seemingly standing above society that would moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’”. This state was a coercive power existing apart from the people, something that was unknown in pre-class societies. It is “as a rule the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which, through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class”. Even in the most democratic republic the state remains an instrument of the ruling class. (By way of exception, though, sometimes “the warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, momentarily acquires a degree of independence of both”.) (Origin of the Family.)

The abolition of class society would mean getting rid of the state, although the working class would have to use state power temporarily in order to suppress any attempts at counter-revolution and the re-establishment of capitalism. This is how Engels saw the death of the state in Anti-Dühring: “The interference of a state power in social relations becomes, in one sphere after another, superfluous and fizzles out of itself.… The state isn’t ‘abolished’, it withers away.”

But surely the state won’t just go away of its own accord once its work is done? Surely the victorious working class would have to consciously decide to get rid of its coercive forces as and when this becomes possible? Curiously enough, Engels in Origin of the Family pointed towards such an active casting aside of the state rather than its passive decay: “Society, which will reorganise production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong—into the museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.”

While maintaining, correctly, that the workers would need a state to main­tain their revolution against its enemies, Engels now and again presented this as a reformed version of the capitalist state. For example: “the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administratively central­ised state power before it can use it for its own purposes” (letter to Eduard Bernstein, 1 January 1884). It finds the state “ready-made for use” although “It may require adaptation to the new functions” (letter to Phil van Patten, 18 April 1883).

Socialist revolution, however, isn’t about reconditioning the capitalist state, but scrapping it altogether and putting an entirely different one in place for the duration. And once again Engels corrected himself. In his 1891 intro­duction to Marx’s Civil War in France he praised the Paris Commune precisely for its “exploding of the former state power and its replacement by a new and truly democratic one”.

Engels’s place in Marxism

When examining the development of Marxism as a theory in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy Engels referred in a footnote to his own role:

That I, before and during my forty years of working together with Marx, had a certain independent share in both the foundation and especially the elaboration of the theory, I cannot deny. But the biggest part of the leading ideas, particularly in the economic and historical spheres, and especially their final sharp formulation, belongs to Marx. What I contributed— except for a couple of specialised fields at most—Marx would have achieved without me. What Marx accomplished I could not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw further, surveyed more and quicker than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius, we others were at most talents. Without him the theory would be far from what it is today. Therefore it rightly bears his name.

This passage is characteristic of Engels’s modesty regarding his own achievements, and his fierce loyalty regarding the achievements of his life­long comrade Marx. But he wouldn’t thank us for dismissing the above as mere sentiment. Engels was second fiddle to Marx, which in no way belittles him: coming second to Karl Marx is no mean feat. Engels’s role as Marxism’s greatest populariser often meant that he was forced to stress the particular point at issue at a particular moment, rather than to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s at all times and in all places. And, not surprisingly, he missed the instinct of Marx, straying from time to time into the odd confused interpretation.

But Marx would have missed the instinct of Engels if the roles were reversed, and it was pure conjecture for Engels to claim that his contribution would have been discovered by Marx anyway. A much surer proposition would be to say that Marxism wouldn’t be what it is today without Engels. The work of Friedrich Engels stands on its own two feet, and stands proud, playing its leading part in fighting for the socialist revolution he outlined in Anti-Dühring:

It is humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.
To carry through this world-emancipating act is the historical vocation of the modern proletariat. To get to the bottom of its historical conditions, and with it its very nature, and so to bring the conditions and the nature of its own action to the consciousness of the now oppressed class which is called to act, is the task of the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement—scientific socialism.

Revolutionary Lives: Friedrich Engels (part one)

Joe Conroy opened an examination of the work of Engels in Issue 3 (November 1998).

Friedrich Engels has suffered a curious fate in the century since his death. Some have consigned him to the role of Karl Marx’s other half, fashioned from one of the ribs that surrounded Marx’s dodgy liver. According to this view, he had imbibed Marx’s ideas by symbiosis and was to spend his days repeating them, never daring to have an independent thought of his own. The phrase “Marx ’n’ Engels” trips off the tongue like “rock ’n’ roll”, but the second word is only there to make up the numbers when necessary.

The estranged twin brother of this conception paints Engels as Marx’s evil genius, engaged for forty years in corrupting that nice young man and his nice young ideas with his own infernally unpleasant politics. It usually turns out that the pedlars of this view are rejecting Marxism, not Engels, and are only using him as a scapegoat upon which to heap any element of Marxism they find distasteful. Both versions miss the point altogether—the point being that Engels was a great revolutionary in his own right, and a revolutionary whose independent contribution plays a vital part in Marxist theory and practice.

The making of a communist

Friedrich Engels was born on 28 November 1820 in Barmen in Germany to a family of textile manufacturers. As a result his upbringing was economically secure but spiritually stifling. His family were intensively conservative in politics and puritan in religion, and Engels had to fight to gradually emanci­pate himself from this atmosphere. This area, the Wupper valley, was at the heart of Germany’s weak industrial revolution, and Engels’s break with religious and political tradition coincided with a recognition of the injustices that capitalism was bringing with it.

After leaving school he went to work as a clerk in his father’s office, but also developed a talent as a journalist. A series of anonymous articles scandal­ised the local establishment, mercilessly satirising the narrow-minded tyranny prevailing in the region. Going to Berlin to do his year’s military service, he soon became a leading light amongst the Young Hegelians, the radical phi­losophers of the capital’s intellectual world.

On returning, in 1842, he was sent to England to work in the family firm’s mill in Manchester. He went willingly, because by now he was becoming convinced of the need for a revolution to establish common owner­ship of wealth, and in industrial England he would see the conditions of such a revolution growing. He established contact with the workers’ movement in Manchester and reported on it for German radical papers, while at the same time spreading German communist ideas in British working-class papers.

An article on the ‘Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy’ attacked capitalist economics and its law of supply and demand, a law which could operate only through regular economic slumps:

If the producers themselves knew how much the consumers needed, organ­ised production, shared amongst themselves, the fluctuations of competition and its tendency towards crisis would be impossible. Produce consciously, as people, not as splintered atoms without consciousness of our kind, and you throw out all these artificial and indefensible contradic­tions.… The community will have to work out what it can produce with the means available and, in the light of the relation of this productive power to the number of consumers, determine how far to raise or lower production, how far it allows luxury or has to restrict it.

Engels’s experience of the English working class led to his first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England (published in 1845). The book relentlessly catalogues the oppression of the workers: the overworking, the toll of industrial injury and death, the slum housing, the desperate poverty and demoralisation of the early working class. The book is marred by a romanticised picture of life before the industrial revolution, and by its accep­tance of racist portrayals of Irish immigrants, but its indictment of the capital­ist class is unparalleled. Engels didn’t waste his time trying to remain ‘objective’ about the misery he saw, but put the blame where it lay. He openly sided with those “condemned to work”:

As voluntary productive activity is the highest enjoyment known to us, so is compulsory toil the most cruel, degrading punishment. Nothing is more terrible than being constrained to do some one thing every day from morning until night against one’s will. And the more a human being the worker feels himself, the more hateful must his work be to him, because he feels the constraint, the uselessness of it for himself. Why does he work? For love of work? From a natural impulse? Not at all! He works for money…

In such a society the workers “can maintain their consciousness of humanity only by cherishing the most glowing hatred, the most unbroken inward rebellion against the bourgeoisie”.

The Condition of the Working Class stands out from the literature of social problems in nineteenth-century England because it not only describes the suf­fering of the workers, not only sympathises with them, but recognises the power that this new class had to end its suffering:

The workers begin to feel as a class, as a whole; they begin to perceive that, though feeble as individuals, they form a power united; their separa­tion from the bourgeoisie, the development of views peculiar to the workers and corresponding to their position in life, is fostered, the con­sciousness of oppression as workers, and the workers attain social and political importance. The great cities are the birthplaces of labour move­ments; in them the workers first began to reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it; in them the opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie first made itself manifest; from them proceeded the Trade Unions, Chartism, and Socialism.

Engels dedicated the book “To the Working Classes of Great Britain”, and forecasted their victory in “the war of the poor against the rich”.

Enter Marx

Engels left Manchester in August 1844 but stopped off in Paris on his way home, where he met Karl Marx. They had met two years earlier—in the offices of a paper which Marx edited and Engels wrote for—but Marx was distant, taking Engels for one of the Young Hegelian dilettantes he’d had cause to row with. But he continued to publish Engels’s articles from England, and published his ‘Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy’ earlier in 1844 in a journal he co-edited in Paris. This article made a big impression on Marx and launched his own researches in economics. The two found themselves in agreement politically and agreed to work together. The collaboration would last until Marx’s death in 1883.

They decided to write a pamphlet criticising the Young Hegelians. Engels wrote his own twenty-odd pages, attacking amongst other things their deifi­cation of History: “History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘fights no battles’! On the contrary, it is humanity, real, living humanity, that does all that, that possesses and fights; it is not that ‘history’, using people as a means, works for its aims—as if it were a separate person; no, it is nothing but the activity of people pursuing their own aims.” Much to Engels’s surprise, Marx’s contribution had grown on his hands, and when The Holy Family was published in 1845 it was a hefty enough work.

The French government expelled Marx a few months later, and Engels—his relationship with his father becoming more strained by the day—joined him in Brussels. The pair got down to writing a more compre­hensive criticism of the Hegelians, The German Ideology—but this book would also contain a more positive statement of their own views.

The understanding of history, they wrote, begins with “the real individu­als, their action and their material conditions of life”—people as they actually are, not imaginary beings existing all on their own. People produce their means of existence in a certain way, and the way they produce influences the way they think. “People are the producers of their conceptions, ideas etc, but real, active people as they are conditioned by a certain development of their productive forces and the intercourse that corresponds to it”—people’s con­ceptions can’t be understood without understanding the way they live and work:

In complete contrast with German philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. I.e., we don’t set out from what people say, imagine, conceive, nor from people as described, thought of, imagined, conceived, going from there until living people are reached; we set out from real, active people and from their real life process demonstrate the development of the ideological reflections and echoes of this life process.

So religion, morality, ideology in general have no independent history of their own: people change the way they work and, along with it, the way they think. “It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.”

The most basic condition of history is “that people must be in a position to live in order to ‘make history’”—they have to eat, drink, clothe and shelter themselves, reproduce, and they have to co-operate in one way or another to do so: “a certain mode of production or industrial stage is always combined with a certain mode of working together or social stage”. People’s conscious­ness is formed by these economic relations.

When these relations take the form of a fixed division of labour, of classes,

a person’s own act becomes an alien power standing against him, enslav­ing him instead of being controlled by him.… each person has a certain exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him, which he cannot escape from; he is a hunter, fisherman or shepherd or critical critic and has to remain so if he isn’t to lose his means of existence—whilst in communist society, where no one has an exclusive sphere of activity, but can train himself in any branch he likes, society regulates the general pro­duction and therefore makes it possible for me to do this today, that to­morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, drive cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I please, without becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

In class society the state pretends to look after the common interest, but in reality it serves the interests of the dominant class. “It follows from this that all struggles within the state, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy and monarchy, the struggle for the right to vote etc, etc, are only the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the various classes with each other are fought out”.

As people’s productive forces expand they outgrow the old economic rela­tions, and this conflict leads to ideological and political battles, to revolutions. “So all collisions in history have their origin, according to our view, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse.”

Those who deny such a basis for history “have to share the illusion of the epoch”—if people fought in a religious guise, these historians tell us it was a religious epoch, instead of investigating the real roots of the conflict: “Whilst in everyday life every shopkeeper knows well how to tell between what a man claims to be and what he is in reality, our historiography still hasn’t reached this trivial insight. It takes every epoch at its word”.

The class which controls production controls the production of ideas as well, and so “The ideas of the ruling class are in each epoch the ruling ideas”. These ideas are challenged, but “The existence of revolutionary ideas in a certain epoch presupposes the existence of a revolutionary class”.

To overthrow class society requires a huge development of productive forces: “without it privation is only made general, and so with need the struggle for necessities begins again and all the old shite has to come about”. A class has to exist “which has all the burdens of society to bear, without reaping its advantages”. This has to happen internationally, “making each revolution dependent on the others”, otherwise communism would be no more than a local, short-term phenomenon: “Communism is only empirically possible as the act of the dominant peoples ‘all at once’ and at the same time”. Finally, those making the revolution would have to revolutionise them­selves: “the revolution is therefore not only necessary because the ruling class can’t be overthrown any other way, but because the overthrowing class can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the old rubbish and become fit to establish society anew”.

Instead of setting up a new division of labour, this communist revolution would abolish classes, and for the first time bring humanity’s products under the common control of society. But “Communism for us is not a situation which should be established, an ideal according to which reality is to be corrected. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs.”

Despite Marx’s and Engels’s best efforts, however, The German Ideology found no publisher, and they had to abandon the manuscript, as Marx later wrote, “to the gnawing criticism of the mice”. But they spread their ideas amongst the German workers in Brussels and in Paris, to where Engels moved in 1846, setting up Communist Correspondence Committees.

They began to win over the League of the Just, an organisation of emi­grant German workers in various European countries. Engels attended their conference in London in June 1847, where the League dropped most of its conspiratorial and utopian trappings and renamed itself the League of Com­munists. He and Marx travelled to London at the end of the year when, at another conference, the League adopted their outlook and appointed them to write a manifesto. This, of course, took final shape as the Communist Mani­festo, completed by Marx in early 1848. But Engels had written the first draft, and his influence is clear in the finished product.

Revolution

1848 saw revolution spread throughout Europe: beginning in France, the old ruling classes from one end of the continent to the other faced a serious challenge to their rule. Germany’s turn came in March, when the king of Prussia was forced to concede democratic rights in the face of popular unrest. Engels and Marx reached Cologne, the centre of the democratic movement, at the end of April and began to publish the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhenish Gazette). Engels’s attack in the first issue on the weak-kneed depu­ties of the National Assembly frightened away half the paper’s sharehold­ers— an event which prefigured in microcosm the middle class’s reluctance to fight the aristocratic regime throughout the revolution.

In September Cologne was put under a state of siege: the paper closed down, and Engels fled from a warrant the authorities had out on him. Although the paper reappeared the following month, it wasn’t safe for Engels to return from hiding in France until January 1849.

It was he, for the most part, who dealt with international affairs in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, including the various national movements that sprang up in 1848. The only nationalities within the Austrian empire, he wrote, that were capable of independence were the Germans, the Poles, and the Hungarians, because they had sided with the revolution. The other Slav peoples were counter-revolutionary, condemned to extinction as “national refuse” (‘The Magyar Struggle’). When some proclaimed independence for the Slav nationalities while supporting the revolution, Engels described them as “Peoples which have never had a history of their own”. The Croats, for example, were “a naturally counter-revolutionary nation”, and historical development couldn’t take place “without forcibly crushing the occasional sensitive specimen of national plant life” (‘Democratic Pan-Slavism’).

Engels was motivated by the fact that the national claims of these peoples were being exploited by Tsarist Russia, the heart of the counter-revolution, and he saw opposition to Russia as paramount. And of course, no national­ity’s right to self-determination should be conceded when doing so would strengthen the forces of reaction in general. But Engels’s mistake was that he didn’t address the question in such a tactical manner, and instead set up a his­torically false division between viable great nations and petty nationalities doomed to extinction. As well as having little historical basis, this failed to take account of the shifting nature of national politics, which often leaves established nationalities behind and awakens those that once seemed gone, and which often transform yesterday’s enemies of the revolution into tomor­row’s friends. This led him (and Marx)—despite their constant support for particular national movements, such as the Poles and the Irish—to underestimate the role that national movements in general could play in weakening the capitalist system.

The initiative in the German revolution had already passed to the old gov­ernments, but the revolution gave its last kick in May when uprisings in support of a democratic constitution broke out. Engels took part in Elberfeld, in his own neck of the woods, where he was in charge of the town’s defences. But when the local middle classes, although full of praise for his military expertise, expressed the fear “that Engels might proclaim the red republic at any time”, he decided to give way to them and leave, despite the workers supporting him. He had the chance to fight, however, in the revolution’s last stand, playing a leading part in the Baden insurrectionary force, which held out until late July before retreating to Switzerland.

In November Engels moved to London, where Marx had gone after his expulsion from Germany, and the two planned to rally the communist forces for the imminent return of the revolutionary opportunity. In March 1850 they wrote a circular to the League of Communists on behalf of its central board. Individually, they wrote, the League’s members were to the fore throughout the revolution, but the League’s organisation had weakened considerably. “An end must be put to this situation, the independence of the workers must be restored.”

In the next outbreak of the revolution the middle classes, the petty bour­geoisie, would play the same treacherous role that the capitalists played in 1848-9. The communists’ position in relation to them was: “they stand together with them against the faction whose overthrow they aim for; they stand against them in every case where they seek to establish themselves”. These middle-class democrats want only to modify society, in their own interests: to lessen the pressure of big capital, to set up parliamentary demo­cracy, to grant wage rises to the workers.

Whilst the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible, carrying out the above demands at most, it is our interest and our job to make the revolution permanent until all more or less possessing classes are ousted from their rule, the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of the proletarians—not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the entire world— has progressed so far that the competition of the proletarians in these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians. For us it cannot be a question of altering private property, but of destroying it; not of hushing up class antagonisms, but of abolishing classes; not of improving existing society, but of establishing a new one.

The workers will be told they should unite with the middle classes against the common enemy, instead of putting forward their own divisive demands. “It comes out in the end that all such phrases mean that the proletariat is to be swindled.” The workers must organise their own clubs and councils alongside the official ones, they must stand their own candidates in elections to affirm their independence, they must always be pushing the revolution forward instead of being satisfied with what has been achieved. They have to prepare for their victory “by clarifying their class interests for themselves, by taking up their independent party position as soon as possible, by not letting the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie mislead them for a moment from the independent organisation of the party of the proletariat. Their battle cry must be: The revolution in permanence.”

But within a few months it became obvious to Engels and Marx that revolution would have to wait, that capitalism had survived the revolutions of 1848 and could look forward to a period of sustained development. In October they wrote: “In the light of this general prosperity, in which the productive forces of bourgeois society develop as exuberantly as is possible within bour­geois relations in general, there can be no question of a real revolution.… A new revolution is only possible in the wake of a new crisis. But it is as certain as this crisis.

“Responsible only for ourselves”

The League of Communists split at the end of 1850 and led only a shadow existence until being formally wound up two years later. Engels, in spite of himself, went to Manchester to work in his father’s mill again. This sacrifice meant that he would be able to keep the Marx family’s head above water financially while Marx continued to study and write. They had no connection with any organisation at all, and Marx wrote to Engels that they were well rid of all the petty squabbles that went with all that. Engels agreed (13 February 1851):

We now finally have again—for the first time in ages—an opportunity to show that we need no popularity, no support from any party of any country and that our position is totally independent of such shabby tricks. Hence­forth we are responsible only for ourselves, and when the moment comes that the gentlemen have need of us we will be in a position to dictate our own terms.… How do people like us, who run from official positions like the plague, fit into a “party”? What do we, who spit on popularity, who get mad whenever we start to become popular, want with a “party”… ? Truly, it’s no loss…

The fifties and sixties were the quietest period of Engels’s career, busy as he was playing the role of respectable businessman. He helped, advised and encouraged Marx, writing articles for him when Marx’s grasp of English, or grasp of the question at hand, was wanting. It wasn’t until 1869, when he sold out his interest in the family firm, moving to London the following year, that Engels could take an active part in the workers’ movement again.

He joined the general council of the International Working Men’s Asso­ciation, and was especially involved in spreading the International in southern Europe. When the workers of Paris took power for a couple of months in 1871 Engels was active in supporting the Paris Commune before and after its sup­pression, a suppression that dragged the International itself down with it.

In 1874 a group of exiles of the Commune published a programme for the revolution they believed to be just around the corner. They proclaimed them­selves atheists—which, wrote Engels, was meaningless posturing. For most class-conscious workers, “it can be said that atheism has already outlived its usefulness for them… they are simply through with God” and had no need to waste time proclaiming his non-existence. The plan of the exiles to ban religion would do nothing to remove the causes that gave rise to it—on the contrary, it would probably be the best way to strengthen it.

They were communists, they declared, because they refused to stop at intermediate stations or enter into compromises. But, replied Engels, it was historical development that created such stops and compromises on the way: the thing was to work through them towards socialism. These exiles, how­ever, “imagine that as soon as they have the goodwill to jump over inter­mediate stations and compromises everything is assured… What childish naïveté to advance impatience as a convincing theoretical argument!”

The exiles’ manifesto not only stood by the Paris Commune, but expressly claimed responsibility for every single act of violence carried out by the Commune. Engels was not so uncritical:

A lot of mistakes are unavoidably made in every revolution, as they are indeed at all other times, and when at last people calm down sufficiently to be able to review events critically, they inevitably draw the following conclusion: we have done many things which it would have been better to leave undone, and have failed to do many things which it would have been better to do, and that is why things took a bad turn. But what a lack of critical attitude is needed to declare the Commune impeccable and to assert that every time a house was burned down or a hostage shot, this was a case of retributive justice, down to the dot on the “i”. Is this not tanta­mount to asserting that during the week in May [the Commune’s last stand] the people shot exactly those persons that it was necessary to shoot, and no more, that exactly those buildings were burned down that had to be burned down, and no more?… Such childish patter results when essen­tially quite good-natured people give in to the urge to appear savagely brutal.

‘Programme of the Blanquist Commune Emigrants’

The German socialist party stood its ground best of all in the wave of reaction after the Commune’s defeat, and it naturally claimed much of Engels’s and Marx’s attention. But when it merged with another socialist group in 1875 to form the SPD (the Social Democratic Party of Germany—socialists at the time had picked up the habit of calling themselves social democrats) they were by no means satisfied with the basis of unity. Engels had thought anyway that the best way was “not to entice away a few individuals and local groups here and there from one’s opponent, but to work on the great mass which is not yet taking part in the movement” (letter to August Bebel, 20 June 1873). But the actual draft programme for the united SPD exasperated him further.

The programme declared everyone but the working class to be a single reactionary mass, cutting off the workers from their potential allies. It watered down the principle of internationalism. It proclaimed that it was impossible to raise wages above a bare minimum, and said nothing about the unions—“the real class organisation of the proletariat, in which it wages its daily struggles with capital, in which it trains itself”. The demands for democratic rights were weak, and its main social demand was for the state to set up workers’ co-ops. One of its aims was “a free state”:

Taken in its grammatical sense, a free state is one where the state is free in relation to its citizens, hence a state with a despotic government. The whole talk about the state should be dropped, especially since the Commune, which was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.… Since the state is only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, during the revolution, to hold down one’s adversaries by force, it is pure nonsense to talk of a free people’s state: so long as the proletariat still uses the state, it does not use it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist. We would therefore propose to replace state everywhere by Gemeinwesen, a good old German word which can very well convey the meaning of the French word “commune” [letter to Bebel, 18-28 March 1875].

First fiddle

A year and a half after Marx’s death Engels wrote to a comrade of theirs:

All my life I have done what I was cut out to do—I played second fiddle— and I think that I did it fairly well. I was glad to have so splendid a first violin as Marx. And now that I am unexpectedly called upon to replace Marx in theoretical matters and play first fiddle, I cannot do so without making slips of which nobody is more keenly aware than I.

to Johann Becker, 15 October 1884

But effectively Engels took up this role a few years before Marx’s death. Marx’s worsening health meant that, from the mid-1870s on, it largely fell to Engels to defend and advance their political standpoint, so that he took up the first fiddle before 1883 as well as after. For the last twenty years of his life, Friedrich Engels became the senior partner in the Marx-Engels business.

Part two >

Cuairteanna ar Éirinn

In Eagrán 45 (Meán Fómhair 2011) a foilsíodh na litreacha seo a scríobh Friedrich Engels tar éis turais go hÉirinn.

Thug an sóisialaí mór Friedrich Engels trí chuairt ar Éirinn, in 1856, 1869 agus 1891. Ní mhaireann aon chuntas uaidh ar an gcuairt dheireanach, ach scríobh sé litreacha chuig Karl Marx tar éis filleadh ón gcéad dá chuairt. Tá meascán teangacha iontu, mar ba nós leis an mbeirt ina gcuid litreacha príobháideacha. Tugann na litreacha léargas grinn ar staid na tire agus dearcadh Engels ina leith. Seo é an chéad aistriúchán Gaeilge orthu.

Manchain, 23 Bealtaine 56

A Marx dhil,

Inár dturas ar Éirinn1 thángamar ó Bhaile Átha Cliath go Gaillimh ar an gcósta thiar, ansin 20 míle ó thuaidh isteach faoin tír, ansin go Luimneach, síos an tSionainn go Tairbeart, Trá Lí agus ar ais go Baile Átha Cliath. Thart ar 400-500 míle Sasanach ar fad sa tír féin, agus mar sin thart ar 2/3 den tír feicthe. Ach amháin Baile Átha Cliath—a bhfuil an cóimheas céanna aige le Londain is atá ag Düsseldorf le Beirlín, go hiomlán ar nós iarardchathrach, tógtha ar an nós Sasanach go hiomlán freisin—tá an chuma ar an tír ar fad, go mór mór na bailte móra, gur sa Fhrainc nó i dtuaisceart na hIodáile atá tú. Slua deas póilíní, sagart, dlíodóirí, maorlathach, tiarnaí talún, agus aon chineál tionsclaíochta ar iarraidh go hiomlán, i gcaoi is nach dtuigfí cén chaoi a maireann na plandaí seadánacha seo uile mura gcuirfeadh dearóile na dtuathánach an taobh eile den scéal ar fáil. Tá an “smachtú” le feiceáil thall is abhus, an rialtas ag cur a ladar isteach i ngach rud, gan aon rian den self-government mar a thugtar air. Is féidir breathnú ar Éirinn mar chéad choilíneacht Shasana, ceann a rialaítear go díreach ar an sean-nós de bharr a chóngaraí atá sí, agus braitheann duine go cinnte anseo go luíonn saoirse shaoránaigh Shasana, mar a thugtar uirthi, ar dhúshaothrú na gcoilíneachtaí. Ní fhaca mé an oiread póilíní i dtír ar bith, agus tá dreach fuisce phóilín na Prúise tugtha go dtí an chéim foirfeachta is airde sa Constabulary seo, armtha le raidhflí, beaignití is glais láimhe.

Is tréith ar leith de chuid na tire na fothraigh, na cinn is sine ón 5ú is an 6ú, na cinn is deireanaí ón 19ú céad, agus gach aois eatarthu. Níl sna cinn is sine ach séipéil; ó 1100 séipéil agus caisleán, ó 1800 tithe tuathánach. San iarthar ar fad ach amháin i gcomharsanacht na Gaillimhe, tá tithe tite tuathanach dá leithéid ar fud na tire, nár tréigeadh a bhformhór ach ó 1846. Níor chreid mé riamh go bhféadfadh gorta a bheith chomh fírinneach follasach seo. Tá sráid­bhailte iomlána bánaithe, agus páirceanna taibhseacha na landlords is lú eatarthu, beagnach an t‑aon dream ina gcónaí ann fós, dlíodóirí, gorta, imirce agus clearances in éindí tar éis an méid seo a bhaint amach. Níl beithígh sna goirt, fiú. Is fásach iomlán an talamh, nach nglacfaidh aon duine ar láimh. Tá sé beagán níos fearr i gContae an Chláir ó dheas ó Ghaillimh, ait a bhfuil beithígh, ar aon chuma, agus thart ar Luimneach tá na cnoic á saothrú thar cionn ag feirmeoirí Albanacha den chuid is mó, na fothaigh clearáilte agus cuma shibhialta ar an tír. Siar ó dheas, go leor sléibhte is portach, ach coillearnach rábach iontach freisin, ina dhiaidh sin móinéir áille arís, go mór mór i dTiobraid Árann, agus thart ar Bhaile Átha Cliath talamh ar léir go bhfuil sé ag teacht faoi fheirmeoirí móra de réir a chéile.

Tá an tír scriosta go hiomlán ag cogaí gabhála na Sasanach ó 1100 go 1850 (mhair siad an fad sin au fond,2 agus an léigear san áireamh). Tá sé cruthaithe gur le linn na gcogaí a scriosadh an chuid is mó de na fothraigh. Tá an pobal féin tagtha ar mheon faoi leith as sin, agus cibé fanaiceacht náisiúnta Éireannach atá ag na boic, braitheann siad nach bhfuil siad sa bhaile ina dtír féin a thuilleadh. Ireland for the Saxon! Tá sin á thabhairt i gcrích anois. Tá a fhios ag an Éireannach nach feidir leis dul in iomaíocht leis an Sasanach, a bhfuil acmhainní níos fearr ar gach bealach ar fáil dó. Leanfaidh an imirce ar aghaidh go n‑imeoidh meon coitianta na ndaoine—Ceilteach ar fad, beagnach—i dtí diabhail. A mhinice a chuir na hÉireannaigh chuig rud éigin a bhaint amach, agus gach uair cuireadh ar neamhní iad, ó thaobh na polaitíochta is na tionsclaíochta. D’aon turas, tríd an leatrom a leanann de seo, déantar náisiún gioblach ar fad díobh, agus anois tá siad ag freagairt na gairme striapaigh, saothraithe lae, maqueureaux,3 gadaithe, caimiléirí, déircigh agus gioblacháin eile a sholáthar do Shasana, Meiriceá, an Astráil etc. Tá an meon gioblach istigh sna huaisle freisin. Na húinéirí talún, atá éirithe buirgéiseach i ngach uile áit eile, tá siad gioblach ar fad anseo. Tá páirceanna sáráille ábhalmhóra thart ar a gcuid tithe móra, ach fásach timpeall orthu, agus ní léir in áit ar bith cad as atá an t‑airgead in ainm teacht. Mharódh na boic seo le gáire thú. De phóir mheasctha, ógánaigh mhóra laidre dhathúla den chuid is mó, bíonn croiméil ábhalmhóra faoina gcuid srón Rómhánach mór millteach acu uile, geáitsí míleata bréige an colonel en retraite4 acu. Taistealaíonn siad an tír ar thóir gach pléisiúr is féidir, agus nuair a chuirtear ceist orthu, níl pingin rua acu ach lán a gcruite d’fhiacha orthu agus eagla an domhain roimh an Encumbered Estates Court.5

Maidir leis an gcaoi is na modhanna lena rialaíonn Sasana an tír seo—cos ar bolg agus caimiléireacht—i bhfad sular bhain Bonaparte6 triail as a leithéid—uair éigin eile roimh i bhfad, mura bhfuil tú ag teacht anseo go luath. Cén scéal faoi sin?7

Do chara
FE

Manchain, 27 M Fómhair 69

A Marx dhil,

Tharla nach gar a bheith le Eichhoff, is fearr é go gcuirfeadh Wilh. Cogadh na dTuathanach i gcló ná nach gcuirfí i gcló ar chor ar bith é.8 Rachaidh mé tríd an rud ar ball, mar sin. Ar aon nós, féadfaidh Wilh. féin scríobh chugam faoi. Níl an litir is deireanaí uaim freagartha aige fós, agus ní leir dom cén fáth ar cheart domsa dul chun cainte leis.

Is mó de chrá is d’amadán é Lafargue lena chuid dochtúireachta ná a bhí mé ag súil leis.9 Caithfidh tú do ladar a chur isteach sa scéal le gach fuinneamh i ndáiríre anois, nó d’fhéadfadh fíorthubaiste teacht as.

Thángamar ar ais slán sábháilte ó Éirinn seachtain is an Déardaoin seo caite, agus bhíomar i mBaile Átha Cliath, sléibhte Chill Mhantáin, Cill Airne agus Corcaigh. Ba mhór an spórt againn é, ach an dá bhean ag filleadh níos hiberniores ná a d’imigh siad.10 Aimsir mhaith, tríd is tríd. De réir na nuachtán, is measa anois agaibhse é11 ná anseo, fiú.

An rún ar fad foghlamtha ó Trench, Realities of Irish Life,12 cad chuige a bhfuil Éire chomh “róphlódaithe” sin le daoine. Tá fianaise ag an bhfear groí ar chásanna ina saothraíonn tuathánaigh na hÉireann an talamh chomh mór sin go méadaíonn caiteachas £10-15 an acre, a íoctar go hiomlán in imeacht 1-4 bliana, a luach ó 1s go 20s, agus ó 4s an acre go 25-30s. Tá an brabach seo le dul i bpóca na landlords.

Is deas mar a chuireann a ráite féin chuig Senior, atá foilsithe aige,13 bac ar an Uasal Trench arís. Deir Tr. le Senior liobrálach gur Ribbonman14 a bheadh ann freisin dá mba thuathanach Éireannach é!

Thabharfainn cuairt ar Dietzgen ó Engelskirchen,15 ach bhí an bóthar go Siegburg báite amach is amach agus an ceangal beagnach briste.

Nach féidir le Jenny scríobh chuig na Monroes? Cheapfainn gur féidir an cás a shocrú.16

Tá tráchtáil na hÉireann méadaithe go hábhalmhór le 14 bliana anuas. Bhí port Bhaile Átha Cliath imithe ó aithne. Ar ché an Chóibh chuala mé go leor leor Iodáilise, ansin Seirbis, Fraincis agus Danmhargis nó Ioruais á labhairt. There are indeed a good many “Italians” in Cork, mar a deirtear sa dráma grinn. Tá an chuma ar an tír go bhfuil sí dídhaonnaithe glan, áfach, agus tagann duine ar an tuairim láithreach nach bhfuil a leathdhóthain daoine ann. Buaileann an staid cogaidh i d’aghaidh i ngach uile áit. Ritheann an Royal Irish thart gach uile áit ina dtrúpaí le sceana sceilge agus gunnáin lena dtaobh anseo is ansiúd agus an smachtín go hoscailte ina lámha. I mBaile Átha Cliath chuaigh díorma marcach glan tríd an gcathair, rud nach bhfaca mé i Sasana riamh, agus saighdiúirí i ngach uile mhíle áit.

Is é an rud is measa leis na hÉireannaigh go n‑éiríonn siad corruptible a thúisce is a éiríonn siad as a bheith ina dtuathánaigh agus a thiteann siad chun buirgéiseachais. Is é oidhe fhormhór na náisiún tuathánach é, gan amhras. Ach go dona in Éirinn go háirithe. Tá na nuachtáin uafásach lofa dá bharr.

Ta Moore17 sa Tioróil, ag teacht ar ais an tseachtain seo chugainn, déarfainn.

Beidh tú ag dul go Hamburg le Meißner a fheiceáil, déarfainn? If so, an féidir leat a lua leis go bhfuil me ag obair ar rud faoi Éirinn agus go dtairgfidh mé dó é in am trátha.18

Beannachtaí ó chroí chuig Jenny agus Kugelmann.

Cuireann Tussy agus Lizzie a mbeannachtaí chugaibh mar an gcéanna.

Do chara
FE

Nótaí

  1. Chuaigh a chéile Mary Burns in eindí le Engels.
  2. Go bunúsach.
  3. Máistrí striapach.
  4. Coirnéal ar pinsean.
  5. Bhí sé de chumhacht ag an gcúirt seo ó 1849 cur faoi deara d’úinéirí talún a bhí báite i bhfiacha a gcuid eastát a dhíol.
  6. Louis Bonaparte, impire na Fraince ó 1851.
  7. Thug Marx cuairt ar Engels an mhí dár gcionn.
  8. Bhí fonn ar an bhfoilsitheoir Albert Eichhoff Cogadh Tuathánach na Gearmáine, cuntas a scríobh Engels i 1850 ar éirí amach 1525, a thabhairt amach, ach d’éirigh sé as cheal airgid. Foilsíodh ina shraith é ar Der Volkstaat, paipéar sóisialach sa Ghearmáin arbh é Wilhelm Liebknecht a eagarthóir, a thug amach mar leabhar ansin é.
  9. Bhí garmhac óg Marx, Charles Lafargue, tinn agus ní raibh Marx sásta leis an gcóir leighis a bhí a athair Paul a chur air.
  10. In éindí le Engels bhí a dhara céile Lizzie Burns, agus Eleanor Marx, iníon Karl a dtugtaí Tussy mar leasainm uirthi. ‘Níos Éireannaí’ is ciall le hiberniores, go háirithe sa nath hiberniores hibernis ipsis: ‘níos Éireannaí ná na hÉireannaigh’.
  11. Bhí Marx i Hannover lena iníon Jenny, ar cuairt ar a chara Ludwig Kugelmann.
  12. Foilsíodh leabhar W Stuart Trench an bhliain roimhe seo.
  13. D’fhoilsigh an t‑eacnamaí Sasanach Nassau William Senior Journals, Conversations and Essays Relating to Ireland i 1868.
  14. Ba chumann rúnda na Ribínigh a sheas ceart don phobal i dtús an ochtú céad déag.
  15. Thug Engels cuairt ar ghaolta in Engelskirchen níos luaithe sa mhí. Ba shóisialaí é Joseph Dietzgen.
  16. Bhí Jenny Marx ag obair mar mháistreás naíonán le muintir Monroe, ach ní raibh gairm ar ais chun oibre faighte aici uathu go fóill.
  17. Samuel Moore, cara le Engels.
  18. Bhí Marx ag plé lena fhoilsitheoir Otto Meißner. Thosaigh Engels ag scríobh leabhar ar stair na hÉireann an bhliain ina dhiaidh seo, ach níor chríochnaigh sé é.

The Communist Manifesto: birthday honours

This article by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh appeared in Issue 3 in 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.