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Issue #1903      February 17, 2020


The Manifesto of the Communist Party, written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, is a rich historic document which has affected the lives of millions of people around the world. As communist and workers’ parties around the world are celebrating its 150th anniversary, their enemies are at work, churning out the usual claims that the 150-year-old document is dated and irrelevant.

The Manifesto of the Communist Party (or Communist Manifesto as it has become commonly known) was written as a program document for the Communist League and first published in February 1848. The Communist League was a federation of socialist workers and intellectuals of various nationalities which had been formed in 1836 by German revolutionary exiles.

The name Manifesto of the Communist Party emphasised the need for the working class to create its revolutionary organisation – its own political party.

The Manifesto reflects the three sources and three component parts of Marxism as Lenin described them: classical German philosophy; classical English political economy; and French socialism with French revolutionary doctrines in general.

Class Struggle

There had been revolutionary turmoil in Europe since the French Revolution of 1789, which removed the feudal barriers to the development of capitalist society in France.

In England the Industrial Revolution had been underway since 1770. British manufacturing was thriving, and both the proletariat and bourgeoisie were growing in size and strength as capitalism developed.

Trade unions were formed as wage workers began to organise themselves. A meeting of 60,000 workers in Manchester in 1819 had been savagely attacked by the militia – the famous Peterloo Massacre.

In Britain pressure for laws against the fierce exploitation in factories and mines was strong enough to lead in 1819 to the first laws against child labour.

The People’s Charter of the Chartists, drawn up in 1832, contained the demands for universal suffrage, secret ballot, and other reforms.

In developing the theories that laid the basis for the Manifesto Marx and Engels drew on other philosophers, economists and political leaders, as well as their own analyses and experiences in the political struggles of that time and before them.

Coherent Body of Theory

Marx and Engels clarified ideas, opposed unscientific beliefs, added much that was new and developed a coherent body of theory that reflected reality.

They developed the philosophical system of dialectical and historical materialism – the consistent continuation and extension of materialism – and raised the struggle for socialism from a utopian vision to a science.

This is how Marx, in part, described the fundamental principles of materialism as applied to human society and its history:

“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces.

“The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and which correspond to definite forms of social consciousness.”

Marx, in a letter written in 1852, stated explicitly what was new on his part. He had shown:

“(1) that the existence of classes is bound to definite historical phases of the development of production,

“(2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat and

“(3) that this dictatorship is itself only a transition to the abolition of all classes and leads to a classless society.”

These achievements are embodied in principles that form the foundation of The Communist Manifesto.

Historical Materialism

The first of these principles is the scientific method used by Marx and Engels, known as historical materialism.

They used the principles of historical materialism to make their analysis of capitalism, its origins and the way in which the working class can achieve its emancipation.

Marx and Engels understood the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie as society moved from feudalism to capitalism.

They recognised the bourgeois revolution as the victory of one exploiting minority over another, and looked ahead to the next revolution, the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the working class.

The powerful productive forces that were unleashed by capitalism (machinery, technology, the skill of working class) would become incompatible with the existing property relations, (the private ownership of the means of production and the commodities and services produced).

Class Struggle

Their analysis of society brought them to the conclusion that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” This is the second principle in the Manifesto. Today, the struggle between classes in society still determines economic, political and social developments.

The class struggle takes forms and varies in its sharpness and intensity but never lets up.

The struggle around working hours and conditions, wages, safety, jobs, the right to form and join trade unions, and the right to strike are all part of the class struggle between labour and capital today. So too are the struggles for public services, and basic needs such as pensions and unemployment benefits.

The Workplace Relations and Trade Practices Acts are weapons to crush the rights of the working class. The capitalist state machinery – military, police, courts, laws protecting private property, parliament – are at the service of the capitalist class, reinforced by the capitalist media.

Far from being dead, the class struggle is alive and kicking, worldwide.

Nature of Capitalism

The third principle is the Manifesto’s explanation of the nature of capitalism in terms of commodity production, private ownership of the means of production, accumulation of capital, wage labour, and the expansion of markets.

It is still valid to speak of “the class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live,” as Engels refers to the proletariat in a note to the English edition of the Manifesto.

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must be everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere,” says the Manifesto.

This is the scientific characterisation of the growth of trade colonisation, out of which imperialism developed during the fifty to sixty years following the writing of the Manifesto.

It remains true in the present era imperialism and “globalisation,” as transnationals extend their tentacles to every corner of the globe.

So today, on the whole globe surface, imperialism can be seen enforcing naked exploitation and seeking global domination through military and economic means. So today also, the statement that the bourgeoisie (now in the form of US imperialism) “compels all nations, on pain of extinction to adopt the bourgeois mode of production ...” remains true.

Historic Inevitability of Socialism

A fourth principle is the historic inevitability of socialism.

Marx and Engels demonstrated why the workers of all countries are the “grave-diggers of capitalism.”

The fall of the bourgeoisie “and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable,” they wrote. The working class is that class which has the greatest reason to bring an end to capitalism. It is also the most numerous and best organised.

The Manifesto puts forward a clear theoretical and political program of a genuinely democratic nature, be it small or large in scale.

Role of Communists

The role of the working-class parties and communists is clearly defined. “They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.”

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

The ruling classes still tremble. Their fear of communism has been demonstrated time and time again – whether it be the Cold War, Suharto’s or Hitler’s massacre of communists, McCarthyism in the US, blockade of Cuba, outlawing of communists in the public sector in Germany and the never-ending anti-communist propaganda churned out by the mass media.

Marx and Engels’ foresight and understanding of social and economic developments is no better illustrated than in the Manifesto’s final words, the call to struggle, as relevant today as when they were written: “Working men of all countries, unite!”

This article appeared in the Guardian, February 1998

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