The Communist Manifesto: Still revolutionizing the world

BY:Paul Krehbiel| April 3, 2020
The Communist Manifesto:  Still revolutionizing the world


The year 2018 [was] the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. That was the original title, and for a good reason. Marx and Engels envisioned the working-class, at some point in its political development, of forming or being a part of a working-class political party advocating and working for a communist society. It is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, the Manifesto’s chief author. Co-authored with Frederich Engels, the Communist Manifesto revealed and explained the laws of earth-shaking political and economic change and inspired revolutionary political movements that broke down walls of oppression that had stood for centuries. The Manifesto continues to do that today.

The first section, “Bourgeois (capitalists) and Proletarians (workers),” begins:

The (written) history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the ruin of the contending classes.

This was a revolutionary concept. Prior to the Communist Manifesto most social reformers and revolutionaries sought to “win over” all sections of the population to socialism by reason, through words and organizing, and some by the “reason” of the gun. Marx and Engels revealed that all class-divided societies contained inherent contradictions. As these societies developed through various stages, these contradictions became more pronounced, creating increasing conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed.

Marx and Engels were writing during a period when feudalism was decaying and giving way to the emerging capitalist economic system, and they captured this changing dynamic.

Capitalism destroyed feudalism by out-producing it.

“The feudal system of industry,” Marx and Engels wrote, “in which industrial production was monopolized by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. . . . The guild-masters were pushed aside by the manufacturing middle-class,” which grew in wealth and power to become the ruling capitalist class. Individual guilds and their skilled journeymen workers under feudalism could not compete economically with the more advanced and efficient capitalist organization of mass production and were driven out of business. In desperation, both guild masters and skilled journeymen joined the growing mass of industrial workers in these manufacturing enterprises and became a part of the growing working class.

Capitalism destroyed feudalism by out-producing it, ruining feudal forms of production, and by stealing its workers. But the story doesn’t end there. Marx and Engels continued:

The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working-class.

Marx and Engels not only discovered that class struggle was the driving force for change in all class-divided societies; they also gave support and guidance to the oppressed classes in every fight. Not only did Marx and Engels recognize the revolutionary role of the rising capitalist class in its struggle to overthrow feudalism and monarchies, but Engels joined the military in the revolution of 1848–49 and took part in the armed uprising in southern Germany to help destroy the authoritarian, stultifying, and repressive feudal monarchy where workers were held in bondage as serfs with virtually no rights.

But the main interest of Marx and Engels was to help arm the working class to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism. They wrote:

The modern bourgeois (capitalist) society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Under burgeoning capitalism, the living and working conditions of workers were brutal. Their lives were plunged into new, often times greater, poverty and hardship marked by longer forced hours of work (12 and 16 hours a day was common six and seven days a week), under dangerous factory conditions (workers were killed and maimed by the thousands), and subjected to the whims and abuses of bosses. Workers’ pay was so low that their living conditions were wretched. Marx and Engels wrote that the

proletariat, the modern working class, developed—a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity . . . the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance, for the propagation of his race.

Even today, workers often feel like a commodity or a cog in a wheel.

When Marx and Engels wrote that a worker is reduced to a commodity, they meant that capitalism treats them as a commodity, and not as a human being. In popular jargon, and especially when factory production was widespread in the US, it was common to hear workers refer to themselves as being a “cog in the wheel.” Many workers at all types of jobs feel like that even today.

Since 1848 workers have engaged in countless battles to stop and reverse the near-starvation wages and terrible working conditions. All of the improvements—and some have been very significant, that workers have achieved is because of their struggles and campaigns. Employers like to talk about the good wages and benefits that they offer. In the late 1970s I hired into US Steel South Works in South Chicago and heard this claim from management at the new employee orientation. When management finished, the representative from United Steelworkers Local 65 took the floor and began: “All those things that management says it provides to you isn’t true. Management fought all those things. It was the union, which fought tooth and nail over many years, which won those things.” I thought that was the right kind of introduction for new employees, not only at US Steel, but everywhere. When labor is strong, capital often lays low. But capital is constantly trying to restrain wages and benefits, and at various periods ratchet up their offensive to drive wages and benefits down. We are in such a period today and have been for over 40 years.

But workers aren’t only exploited at work. Marx and Engels continued:

No sooner is the exploitation of the laborer by the manufacturer, so far at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.

Since Marx’s day, some of the landlords and shopkeepers have grown into huge corporate businesses. The large national and international food chains and supermarkets, and gigantic corporations that own hundreds and thousands of square miles of land and tens or hundreds of multi-million-dollar and multi-billion-dollar buildings are examples. These capitalists exploit the working class just as employers do, by overcharging them, assessing fees and monetary penalties for late payment of bills, charging interest on loans (witness the huge interest payments that a homeowner must pay to get a loan from a bank in order to purchase a house), and in other ways.

Small businesses have little in common with huge corporations.

Today, Marxists make a distinction between these huge corporate owners of land, mega-stores, and giant buildings, on the one hand, and a small neighborhood family-owned restaurant, corner grocery store, or small apartment complex on the other. The people who own and operate the latter usually work long hours. A considerable number make less than the average worker. Having little or no economic or political power, they have little in common with the huge corporate businesses that fleece them just as wage and salary workers are fleeced. These small business owners aren’t the enemy, as long as they don’t abuse their hired employees or take backward political positions. On some issues they can become allies of the working class and will support many of our general demands for better education, health care, paved roads, and clean air and water.

Marx and Engels described this dynamic: “The lower strata of the middle-class—the small trades people, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen, generally the handicraftsmen and peasants [or “small farmers” today]—all these sink gradually into the proletariat,” partly because they are “swamped in the competition with the large capitalists. . . . Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.” We see that today in many fields.

The small business owner is driven to near bankruptcy by the larger businesses, which can save money on economies of scale, using the most efficient methods available, manipulating prices and markets to their advantage, and more. The one-time small business owner is now forced to work as a wage or salary paid worker for someone else, if they can find a job. Another example is the person with a college degree, sometimes even an advanced degree, in a professional field, who can’t find a job in his or her field. The reasons are that there are too many qualified people looking for too few jobs in that field, owing to cutbacks due to a general economic downturn or specific difficulties, or other reasons. These professionally trained former students need a job, so they take what they can find, anywhere. Usually it is at a lower-paying job, outside their training area, as a wage worker. Both groups are now part of the working class.

The hardships imposed on workers caused them to resist and rebel, and to find ways to redress their grievances. Marx and Engels were writing at a time when manufacturing enterprises were on the rise, and they refer primarily to factory workers. But their analysis of the condition that factory workers were in is often applicable to other types of jobs today, from most service jobs to many so-called professional jobs. But workers resist and fightback.

Marx and Engels wrote:

The proletariat goes through various stages of development. At first the contest is carried only by individual laborers, then by the work people of a factory, then by operatives in one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploits them.

As industry and businesses grow and develop, the working class grows and develops too. Marx and Engels explained:

The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The unceasing improvement of machinery, very more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. There-upon the workers begin to form combinations (trade unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they fund permanent associations in order to make provisions beforehand for these occasional revolts.

Marx and Engels emphasized: “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.” A good example is the recent teachers’ strikes, which began in one or two schools in southern West Virginia, then spread to every county in West Virginia, and then to Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado. Marx and Engels’s comment about the “immediate result” did not mean that they dismissed immediate improvements as unimportant. They did think they were important. They wrote, as one example, that as the working-class organizes itself into a class and then into a “political party,” it “compels legislative recognition of the particular interests of the workers. . . thus the Ten-Hours bill in England was passed” in the 1840s. The teachers of West Virginia achieved immediate improvements by getting additional funding for their health program, raises for all teachers, and raises for other government workers as well.

“[Communists] have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.”

Marx and Engels wrote that the working-class movement and communists have the same goal: “The immediate aim of the communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.” They explain that this happens because of the inherent contradictions and exploitative features of capitalism: “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produced, above all, is its own gravediggers.”

They explain the steps: “The first step in the revolution of the working-class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling, as to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie.”

In section 2 of the Communist Manifesto, titled “Proletarians and Communists,” Marx and Engels discuss the organization of the working-class movement. They begin that section by writing: “The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.” Earlier they wrote of the “organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequentially into a political party,” suggesting that they saw the need for the workers to have their own political organization.

They explain in section 2 the relationship between workers and communists (by which they mean people who have a political understanding of class-divided society, of capitalism, and the general goal and line of march to end the exploitation of the working-class):

The Communists are distinguished from other working-class parties by this only: (1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independent of all nationality. (2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole. The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others.

Marxists worked within social democratic parties in many countries. Some important gains were made. But internal differences made it difficult to push beyond the fight for broad progressive working-class reforms. Vladimir Lenin studied these problems and proposed establishing a political party of solid Marxists in order to bring more internal unity to the party and a clearer line of march toward socialism. In 1917, Lenin and the Bolshevik party that he led gave political direction to the movement to overthrow the tsar and the monarchy, and set guidelines to build a socialist society. An analysis of the gains and setbacks, and strengths and weaknesses of that movement and party are beyond the purview of this article, other than to note the all-out, worldwide capitalist movement to crush the new socialist experiment in its cradle. (See The Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union: Seeds of 21st Century Socialism, for a discussion and analysis of what went right and what went wrong; and Vietnam: From National Liberation to 21st Century Socialism, about how Vietnam made changes in its development model and is making extraordinary progress today, despite pressing problems, in laying the foundation to create a modern socialist society. Both books are written and published by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and are available at Lulu Press.)

The Communist Manifesto continues to be a beacon of hope and inspiration for millions of people all over the world today. It has been part and parcel of many earth-shaking events in modern history. These life-changing movements spurred revolutions that overthrew feudalism, colonialism, and capitalism, and established socialism. It helped in the election of socialists, communists, and other progressives to political office in countries around the world, including in the United States. It guided organizers of huge trade unions, civil rights organizations, and scores of issue-oriented groups and campaigns. These progressive and socialist elected officials helped carry out the mandate of their working-class and socialist base by passing laws to regulate big businesses and banks; protect our food, water, and air; and win other improvements in education, healthcare, housing, and many other fields.

The detractors of Marxism proclaim that after 170 years, since the birth of the Communist Manifesto, socialism is still more of a dream than a reality, proving, in their words, that socialism is a “failure.” Some Marxists and our supporters are concerned about the many problems, the big obstacles, delays, and setbacks. There are no quick and easy answers to these questions. But consider the following.

Socialism hasn’t had 170 years of unfettered opportunity to build socialist societies. From day one, the international capitalist class, along with backward holdovers from dictatorial monarchies, racists, ultra-nationalists, and fascists, have all fought a ruthless, non-stop battle to stop socialism. It would be like preparing to construct a building under dire circumstances. The building could be for a hospital, a school, a business that will train and employ many people. So you design the building plans; gather the workforce; buy the tools, equipment, materials, and land; and begin to work by pouring the foundation. But immediately, opponents blow up the foundation, steal the tools and equipment, burn the materials, jail or kill the entire work team, and poison the land with Agent Orange. Then our opponents use their monopoly of the media to announce that they just foiled a plot by a group of terrorists and communists (presented as one and the same) who invaded our land and threatened to create a living hell for every inhabitant.

So what do we do? We try to explain to the public, with our limited means of communications, that the scenario of our opponents isn’t true. We try to explain what we want to accomplish. Then we go back and redraw the plans, train and hire a new workforce (if they haven’t been too terrorized to work with us). And begin again. And our opponents wage another war of terror and destruction. So we try again to explain the truth, with the hope that we reach and convince more people. And we work for and look for Marx’s watchword: “Now and then the workers are victorious. The real fruit of their battles lies in the ever expanding unity of the workers.”

History is on our side.

Our ancestors have been around for about 6 million years, according to scientists. The modern form of humans evolved about 200,000 years ago. Humans living in what is euphemistically called civilized society has been around for 6,000 years, and class-divided society has been with us about 4,000 years with the earliest slave societies. Feudal society emerged from the 8th to the 12th century, taking six centuries to develop, and it hung on for another five centuries. Capitalism began about 500 years ago, and socialism has been around for just over 100 years. Socialism is a dot on the long time line of human evolution on earth. Capitalism has been by far the most powerful system to date, and it has dealt terrible blows to socialism throughout our short history. The most recent setbacks took place with the overthrow of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries in 1990–91, and the launching in the 1980s of new neoliberal capitalist attacks on the working class worldwide. With this history, under these conditions, and with our own mistakes, why would we expect the world to be socialist today?

But history is on our side. The worsening contradictions of capitalism and increasing misery and threat to life on earth is alienating more and more people and driving many into our camp. Look at the mass movements sweeping our country and the world today. It’s extraordinary, especially in its depth and involvement of tens of millions of people who are engaged in progressive and socialist activities everywhere. We do see, as Marx and Engels wrote 170 years ago, an “expanding unity of workers” and our allies. That—as the abolitionists said, is our North Star.

Paul Krehbiel is national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). This article is reprinted (with minor edits) with permission from the CCDS journal, Dialogue & Initiative 2018.

Image: Manfred Brückels, Creative Commons (BY-SA 3.0).


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