The Communist Manifesto – An Introduction

2023 year marks the 175thanniversary of the Communist Manifesto.  It is an historical document, both a product of its time, and one still relevant to ours.  The Communist Manifesto, originally the Manifesto of the Communist Party, is a political pamphlet written by German revolutionary socialists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  Commissioned by the Communist League and originally published in London in February 1848, the Manifesto remains one of the world’s most influential political documents. It presents an analytical approach to class struggle and criticizes capitalism and the capitalist mode of production, without attempting to provide a blue print for the form that communism would take in the future.  Has the Communist Manifesto stood the test of time?  With the aid of an article by Leon Trotsky written on the 90th anniversary of the C.M., let’s do a quick review of its main points.

1. The materialist conception of history, discovered by Marx and applied skillfully in the Manifesto, remains indispensable. All other interpretations of the historical process lack scientific meaning.

2. The first chapter of the Manifesto begins with: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”  It is precisely the epoch of imperialism, bringing all social contradictions to a peak, which confirms the theory behind the Communist Manifesto.

3. The anatomy of capitalism, as a specific stage in the economic development of society, was fully presented by Marx in Capital (published in 1867). But even in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, the main lines of the future analysis of Marx and Engels are firmly sketched: pay for labor power is equivalent to the cost of its reproduction; surplus value is appropriated by the capitalists; competition is the basic law of social relations; the intermediate classes are being ruined, i.e., the urban petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry; wealth is concentrated in the hands of an ever-diminishing number of property owners, while the working class grows ever larger; capitalist development prepares the material and political preconditions for socialist society.

4. The proposition in the Manifesto concerning the tendency of capitalism to lower the living standards of the workers, on a world scale, is borne out by the current global capitalist crisis, by the situation in the less developed countries, by massive forced migration, to say nothing of what is happening in the former workers’ states of Eastern Europe and Russia, and in the heavily deformed workers’ states of China and Vietnam.

5. In opposition to the Manifesto, which depicted commercial and industrial crises as a series of ever more extensive catastrophes, liberals and social democrats predicted that the national and international development of giant monopolies and oligopolies would guarantee their control over the market, and lead gradually to the abolition of crises.  Again, present reality shows that the truth proved to be on the side of Marx.  Crises are more widespread and more violent than ever.

6. “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”  This is the only scientific theory of the state.  Bourgeois democracy can serve, ultimately, only the bourgeoisie.  A government of capitalist parties, or a coalition government of capitalist and workers’ parties, is still only “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”  Whenever this governing “committee” manages affairs poorly, the bourgeoisie dismisses it with a boot.

7. “Every class struggle is a political struggle.” “The organization of the proletariat as a class [is] consequently its organization into a political party.”  Union bureaucrats, on the one hand, and anarcho-syndicalists, on the other, have long tried to ignore these historical laws. “Pure” trade unionism has been dealt a crushing blow in its chief refuge: the United States.  Anarcho-syndicalism suffered an irreparable defeat in its last stronghold – Spain in 1937. Here too the Manifesto proved to be correct. 

8. The proletariat cannot conquer power within the legal framework established by the bourgeoisie. “Communists openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” Reformism sought to explain this point of the Manifesto by pointing to the immaturity of the movement at that time, and the inadequate development of democracy. The fate of Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 30s, Chile in 1973, and a great number of other “democracies” proves that “immaturity” is the distinguishing feature of the ideas of the reformists themselves.

9. For the socialist transformation of society, the working class must concentrate in its hands such power as can smash each and every political obstacle barring the road to the new system. “The proletariat organized as the ruling class” – this is the dictatorship of the working class. At the same time, it is the only true form of democracy. Its scope and depth depend upon concrete historical conditions. The greater the number of states that take the path of the socialist revolution, the freer and more flexible forms the dictatorship will assume, and the broader and more deep going will be workers’ democracy.  The imperialist rulers understand that should Venezuela, Central America and the Caribbean go socialist, Cuba would flourish as an irresistibly attractive workers’ democracy.

10. The international development of capitalism has given the socialist revolution an international character.  The Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet state, and the Stalinist deformation of the Chinese, Vietnamese, North Korean, Albanian and other such states is an overwhelming illustration of the falseness of the theory of socialism in one country.

11. “When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character.” In other words: the state withers away.  The opposite is also true: the monstrous growth of state coercion in the USSR, etc., showed those societies were moving away from socialism.

12. “The workingmen have no fatherland.”  The violation of this directive by the Second International brought about the devastation of WW1, and subsequent orgies of nationalist carnage, from the Nazi death camps, to the bombing of Hiroshima, to the many present-day wars of imperial intervention and occupation.

Thus, we see that the work of young Marx and Engels continues to give valuable answers to the most important and burning questions of the struggle for emancipation. What other book comes close to the Communist Manifesto in this way? But this does not imply that after 175 years of big economic changes and vast social struggles, the Manifesto needs no update. Revolutionary thought has nothing in common with idol-worship. Programs and predictions are tested and corrected in the light of experience.  But corrections and additions to the Manifesto can be successfully made only by using the method of the Manifesto itself.  Here are several important examples.

1. Marx taught that no social system departs from the arena of history before exhausting its creative potentialities. The Manifesto criticizes capitalism for retarding the development of the productive forces.  Still, the productive forces kept expanding, although with staggering destructiveness.  This has changed our epoch into the epoch of wars, revolutions, and fascism.

2. Marx and Engels made an error regarding the time-line. They underestimated the future possibilities latent in capitalism, and, on the other hand, they overestimated the revolutionary maturity of the proletariat. The revolution of 1848 did not turn into a socialist revolution as the Manifesto had calculated, but gave to Germany the possibility of becoming a huge capitalist power. The Paris Commune of 1871 proved that the working class, without having an experienced revolutionary party at its head, cannot take power from the bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, the prolonged period of capitalist prosperity that followed led not to the education of the revolutionary vanguard, but rather the bourgeois degeneration of the labor aristocracy.  The privileged section of the working class became in turn the chief brake on the proletarian revolution. Given the circumstances, the authors of the Manifesto could not possibly have foreseen this “dialectic.”

3. For the Manifesto, capitalism was the kingdom of free competition. While referring to the growing concentration of capital, the Manifesto did not draw the necessary conclusion regarding monopoly, which became the dominant capitalist form in our epoch and the most important precondition for a world socialist economy. Only afterwards, in Capital, did Marx establish the tendency toward the transformation of free competition into monopoly. It was Lenin who gave it a scientific characterization in his 1916 book “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism”.

4. The authors of the Manifesto pictured too unilaterally the process of liquidation of the intermediate classes, the wholesale proletarianization of crafts, petty trades, and peasantry. In fact, capitalism has ruined the petty bourgeoisie at a much faster rate than it has proletarianized it. Furthermore, the bourgeois state has artificially maintained petty-bourgeois strata.  Also, the growth of technology and the rationalization of large-scale industry creates chronic unemployment and obstructs the proletarianization of the petty bourgeoisie. Capitalism has accelerated the growth of legions of technicians, administrators, commercial employees, in short, the so-called “new middle class.” However, the artificial preservation of this strata in no way reduces the social contradictions.  It gives them a special malignancy.  Together with the permanent army of the unemployed and the lumpen proletariat, the ruined middle class or petty bourgeoisie constitutes the deadliest expression of the decay of capitalism – the potential mass base for fascism.

5. The Manifesto contains (at the end of Chapter II) ten demands, corresponding to the period of direct transition from capitalism to socialism. In their preface of 1872, Marx and Engels declared these demands to be in part outdated, and, in any case, only of secondary importance. The reformists seized upon this to argue that transitional revolutionary demands had forever given way to the Social Democratic “minimum program.”  The minimum program, as is well known, does not transcend the limits of bourgeois democracy. As a matter of fact, the authors of the Manifesto indicated quite precisely the main correction of their transitional program.  What was that correction?  It is this:  “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the readymade state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” In other words, the correction was directed against the worship of bourgeois democracy. Marx later counterposed to the capitalist state, the state of the type founded by the Paris Commune. This “type” later took on the more vivid shape of soviets (the Russian word for councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants). There cannot be a revolutionary program today without soviets and without workers’ control. As for the rest, the ten demands of the Manifesto, which appeared “archaic” in an epoch of peaceful parliamentary activity, have today regained completely their true significance. The Social Democratic “minimum program,” on the other hand, has become hopelessly antiquated.

6. Believing that “the German bourgeois revolution … will be but a prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution,” the Manifesto cites the much more advanced conditions of European civilization as compared with what existed in England in the seventeenth century and in France in the eighteenth century, and the far greater development of the proletariat. But the revolution of 1848 revealed, within a few months, that precisely under more advanced conditions, the bourgeois class cannot complete the revolution, it cannot fulfill its aims: the big and middle bourgeoisie is far too closely linked with the landowners, and frozen by the fear of the masses; the petty bourgeoisie is far too divided and its top leadership is far too dependent on the big bourgeoisie. As demonstrated by the entire subsequent course of development in Europe and Asia, the bourgeois revolution, taken by itself, can not be completed. A purge of feudalism is possible only on the condition that the proletariat, freed from the influence of bourgeois parties, can take its stand at the head of the peasantry, and establish its revolutionary dictatorship. By this token, the bourgeois revolution becomes intertwined with the first stage of the socialist revolution. The national revolution becomes a link of the world revolution. The transformation of the economy and of all social relations assumes a permanent (uninterrupted) character.  That is what Trotsky meant by the Permanent Revolution, which I will discuss here in two weekstime. 

For revolutionary parties in the countries of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, a clear understanding of the organic connection between the democratic revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat – and thereby, the international socialist revolution – is a life-and-death question.

7. While showing how capitalism draws into its vortex the underdeveloped countries, the Manifesto contains no reference to the struggle of colonial and neo-colonial countries for independence. Marx and Engels thought the social revolution “in the leading civilized countries at least,” would occur soon and would automatically solve the colonial question. The questions of revolutionary strategy in colonial and neo-colonial countries are therefore not addressed by the Manifesto. Yet these questions demand an independent solution. So, while the idea of the “national fatherland” has become poisonous in advanced capitalist countries, it remains a relatively progressive factor in oppressed countries compelled to struggle for independence.

“The Communists,” declares the Manifesto, “everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.” The movement of oppressed nations is one of the most important and powerful movements against the existing order and therefore calls for the complete, unconditional, and unlimited support on the part of the working class of the oppressor nations. The credit for developing revolutionary strategy for oppressed nationalities belongs primarily to Lenin.

8.  The most outdated section of the Manifesto is the criticism of “socialist” literature of the early nineteenth century (Chapter III) and the definition of the position of the Communists in relation to various opposition parties (Chapter IV). The movements and parties listed in the Manifesto were swept away either by the revolution of 1848 or by the ensuing counterrevolution. However, in this section, too, the Manifestois perhaps closer to us now than it was to the previous generation.  The degeneration of the Social Democracy and the Stalinist parties at every step engenders monstrous ideological relapses.  In search of gimmicks the prophets in the epoch of capitalist decline discover anew doctrines long since buried by scientific socialism. Conspiracy theories.  Monetary reform schemes.  Utopian cooperative projects.  In addition, there are the ultra-left dreamers who imagine it is possible to replace lethal, centralized authoritarian power, almost over night, with no centralized party or workers’ state to fill the void.  Marx battled those mistaken ideas 175 years ago, and we continue to do so – for the sake of winning a better future for humanity.

But our priority is not the battle against misguided tendencies on the left.  It is the battle against the bosses and their decrepit system.  In the words of the Manifesto: “The Communists have no interests separate and apart from the working class as a whole.”  We strive for workers’ unity in the struggle against exploitation and oppression.  That requires a programme and a means of winning mass influence.

Concerning programme, I recommend that you read “The Transitional Programme”, written by Leon Trotsky in 1938.  I also suggest that you read “Prospects for Socialism in Canada”, “The Manifesto for a Socialist Canada”, “Eco-Socialism versus Fossil Capitalism”, “The Struggle of Indigenous People in Canada Against Canadian Capitalist Oppression and Genocide”, “How Can the Left Unite?”, and read every article on the Socialist Action website.

In terms of winning mass influence, there is no substitute for being active in the mass organizations of the working class.  In English Canada, that means inside the trade unions, inside the labour-based NDP, inside the movements against war and poverty, and campaigns for equality, social justice, and international solidarity.  In this period of austerity, environmental collapse, and political repression, there are large openings for radicals and socialists.  But simply being inside those movements alone is insufficient and ineffective.  To win a majority to revolutionary socialism, the modern version of the Communist Manifesto, it is necessary to work in a disciplined, democratic, and creative political framework with like-minded people.  

Is there such a framework? Indeed there is an organization that fits the bill. It is the sponsor of this webcast. It is the backbone of the Workers’ Action Movement, the NDP Socialist Caucus, the Municipal Socialist Alliance, and numerous united front campaigns for social justice. It is the host of the international educational conference scheduled for June 4, 2023. It is Socialist Action. On behalf of SA, I warmly invite you to join us tonight.

By Barry Weisleder – This article is based on a talk that was presented online on April 6, 2023.