Reading the Communist Manifesto today

Why read the Communist Manifesto of 1848? It was written 30 years before the invention of the telephone, at a time when half of English children didn’t live to see their fifth birthday. The pamphlet was commissioned as a political program for the Communist League – an organisation of several hundred European anti-capitalists, many of them German émigrés centred in London, which disbanded after only five years.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that such an old political document is primarily of historical interest. The Manifesto’s general thrust, however, retains great relevance. Two of its most controversial claims are as true today as when first written: capitalist society is increasingly polarised into two classes, bosses and workers, that have counterposed and irreconcilable interests; and the system, while more dynamic than any in human history, is inherently unstable, crisis-prone and destructive.

A third claim, that another world is both necessary and possible, might not be as obvious. But the general argument underpinning it is so compelling that you’ll quickly understand why the Manifesto of the Communist Party became one of the most influential political works ever written. And you’ll see why workers and activists around the world continue to find inspiration in its pages.

Capitalism: progress and destruction

The Manifesto was a contribution to the struggle to overthrow capitalism. Yet its most striking prose contains rapturous descriptions of the system’s achievements. This might seem curious at first, but Marx and Engels viewed capitalism as a great historical advance. It replaced superstition with science and regional prejudice with universal values. It destroyed the old despotism of feudal relations in preference for a society of citizens (in their time only for white men) and created a world of abundance where previously there had been only scarcity. Capitalism, they write:

“has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades. The capitalist class, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. 

“Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”

They vividly describe how the impulse to accumulate such tremendous wealth drives a dynamic reshaping of relationships across the globe:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois [capitalist] epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned ...”

Marx and Engels were referring to the upsetting of all pre-capitalist societies. But the passage contains a depiction of modern life, in which time seems to race away under the pressure of technological innovation. The planet we depart appears vastly different to the one into which we were born. It has become cliché that the elderly often cannot grasp the technical gadgets that their grandchildren seem to have mastered by age five. Nor do they often understand the way social interaction has been transformed. The solid virtues of their youth, when things were built to last and people kept love letters sealed in a box in the cupboard, have been lost to the infinities and instant messaging of the internet.

Paradoxically, while intergenerational differences are exacerbated as the pace of life increases, the experiences of the majority of people around the world actually converge. For example, manual labourers from Manila to Dubai and Cape Town to Caracas construct almost identical urban centres using the same prefabricated materials. They wear the same T-shirts and shoes, produced in the same sweatshops in South-East Asia or Central America. They travel on the same types of transit systems to and from work, watch the same Hollywood films and eat similar mass-produced tinned goods.

Every time we turn on the TV, whatever country we are in, we are bombarded with advertisements for the latest international fads and fashions. Nothing is “local” anymore. Our computer hard drives are testament to a world system of wants and desires, underpinned by global production chains. Component parts and materials come from almost every continent. This is a phenomenon noted in the Manifesto:

“The bourgeoisie [the capitalists; owners of industry], by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls ... It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Marx and Engels’ recognition of the progressive character of the system compared with feudal Europe did not blind them, as it continues to blind capitalist economists and politicians, to the system’s negative characteristics. The power of their analysis lies in a conception of progress in which every act of capitalist creation is simultaneously an act of destruction. For them, the positive and the negative were inseparable. This “dialectical” logic of progress, in which each moment contains its opposite, is the key to understanding the system.

Marx, writing in the New York Daily Tribune, later outlined that British colonialism was charged with a “double mission” in India: “the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundation of Western society”. In the Manifesto he and Engels in turn heap praise and pour scorn over the capitalists precisely because of this double mission, which on one hand liberates the productive power of humanity from pre-capitalist chains, and on the other builds a new society in which every human relation is reduced to an economic transaction:

“[The capitalist] has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – free trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

History and class struggle

The opening line of the main body of the Manifesto is one of the more memorable: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. Put crudely, the argument is that ever since the rise of class societies, human history has been defined by the fight over who gets what. While this interminable “now hidden, now open fight” is carried out, historical progress is marked by the development of new techniques of production that allow more things to be produced with less effort.

A ruling class, argue Marx and Engels, is historically progressive only if it helps, rather than hinders, the development of the productive capacity of humanity, thereby contributing to the overcoming of scarcity and the progress of knowledge. When a ruling class has ceased to serve this function, society will stagnate. So when the feudal order became an obstacle to productive development, the stage was set for the victorious struggle of the emerging capitalist class:

“[T]he means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange … the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.”

There is a twist in this story. No sooner has the capitalist class emerged as the architect of progress than it proves itself an obstacle to greater human development. The logic of progress and destruction is not limited to the clash of capitalism with other societies; the internal drive to create wealth pushes the system to its own breakdown. The capitalists have created wonders, write Marx and Engels, but capitalist society, having “conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”.

Business competition, which is the great enabler of capitalist innovation, now becomes the chief obstacle to development: the system is plagued by economic and financial crises. They are of a different order to anything seen before. Pre-capitalist crises involved material scarcity: usually crop failures due to natural disaster or exhaustion of the soil. By contrast, the massive productive power of capitalism produces a crisis that

“in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.” 

The 2008 North Atlantic economic crisis seems a striking illustration: a deflating housing bubble exposed the overabundance of mortgage-backed “financial instruments”. These “securities” – constructed by some of the most talented engineers on the planet – appeared to be the firm ground of the financial system. But they became a deep recess into which firstly banks, then entire national economies were pulled. Across the world, millions were thrown out of work; in places such as the United States and Spain a rising tide of evictions eventuated because … there were too many houses! 

The crises of capitalism show that the capitalist class has, in a historical sense, outlived its usefulness. But there is also a profoundly moral dimension to the Manifesto’s arguments. The squalors of poverty and unemployment in a world of plenty, write Marx and Engels, show that the bourgeoisie is “unfit to rule”: “it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him”.

The gravediggers of the system

The Manifesto was published in February 1848 – just as Europe was rocked by a continent-wide revolutionary upsurge. Some years later Engels recounted that initially, “few voices responded to the call ‘workers of the world unite’”. He was understating the reception, which was actually quite enthusiastic – at least in Germany. But the reputation of the pamphlet grew decade after decade. Capitalism was expanding, and with it came the growth of the Manifesto’s audience: the working class.

Marx and Engels understood that the ceaseless capitalist drive to accumulate wealth requires a steady supply of human labour. The capitalists don’t create wonders on their own – they need an army of workers disciplined to follow instructions and do everything from the heavy lifting to the transport and logistics, electricity generation to manufacturing components and machines, food production to customer service and sales. This worker is the modern slave:

“Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.”

The mass production that allows a world of abundance dehumanises the labourer, turning her into “an appendage of the machine”. Anyone who has worked in a modern call centre with auto diallers, scripts and electronic surveillance understands all too well that “in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labour increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil also increases, whether by prolongation of the working hours, by the increase of the work exacted in a given time or by increased speed of machinery, etc.”.

The worker is trapped in this situation. To survive in the world we require food, clothing and shelter etc. To obtain these things we have to offer something in return – money. The only way to get money is to sell something on the market. Yet workers own little else but their capacity to labour. They are compelled to submit to a boss in return for whatever wage is offered.

Yet negativity again turns into its opposite. The Manifesto’s prose moves quickly from depictions of wage slavery to a confident prediction of the workers’ eventual supremacy. Marx and Engels write that only the working class “is a genuinely revolutionary class”. Partly this is because, aside from declining numbers of small producers such as family farmers, it alone is the creator of social wealth: every task carried out in capitalist society is linked through a great chain of collective labour. Most importantly, the process of dehumanisation and mass exploitation doesn’t just degrade the workforce – it organises it into a disciplined collective fighting force:

“[W]ith the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more … the collisions between individual workmen and individual boss take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form trade unions against the boss; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.”

When a period of capitalist crisis combines with rising struggles, capitalist property relations will yield, just as feudal property relations in their turn “were burst asunder”. The dialectical logic of development appears as the workers’ saviour:

“The advance of industry … replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of modern industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the capitalists produce and appropriate products. What the capitalist class therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”

The important difference between the workers’ revolution and the revolutions that preceded it is that workers don’t create yet another exploitative class society. Instead, social classes are eventually done away with. This is not simply a moral imperative. The reason, write Marx and Engels, is that this time the revolutionary class is the downtrodden majority of the population, rather than a property-owning minority. Its struggle is necessarily collective, and its material interests as a class lie not in securing private wealth, but abolishing the latter in favour of collective ownership.

Marx and Engels were clearly optimists. Their boldest claim – that the capitalists’ “fall and the victory of the working class are equally inevitable” – may have been both flourish and genuinely held conviction. But their convictions didn’t rest on a mechanical understanding of historical development. Human agency and the development of a political movement were for them vitally important. The Manifesto was a political program written for a fighting organisation of worker communists. It aimed to supply the movement with theory and strategy.

In fact, most of the pamphlet is devoted to outlining the role of communists in the workers’ movement and their relationship to other political forces, dealing with objections to the idea of communism and a series of smackdowns of other theories of socialism. The Manifesto ends not with a call to sit back and critique, but with the famous call to arms: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, unite!”

The Manifesto today

The forces conjured up by capitalism are now of a far greater magnitude than when Marx and Engels wrote. The crises are deeper and the working class immensely larger and better organised. New generations of workers are facing austerity and declining living standards. New mass industrial centres in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America have sprung up. For all the changes we might note, the world remains basically the same as it was 165 years ago: a crisis-prone class society in which the majority of people are exploited to feed the insatiable greed of the rich.

The ideas set out in the Communist Manifesto can still help us make sense of this world. That’s why it is worth reading today. But we need to do more than just read. The task remains what it was when the Manifesto was first penned: to fuse the ideas with the real movement and to be part of the struggle for a classless society that operates according the maxim “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.