The Communist Manifesto:

Back to the Future

By Marvin Glass

A century and a half after its publication, what is there to be said about the first joint political work of that dynamic duo of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels? Well, it’s 150 years young! Reading it still stirs the non-existent souls of all communists – don’t you just love its magnificent revolutionary prose? Moreover, aside from the very first sentence, which is clearly false – whatever spectre is now haunting Europe, it’s regrettably not communism – much of the rest of the document is as relevant today, that is, very relevant, as it was in 1848. For example, the following truths could have been written today:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter in the globe.

As expected, these and other timely lines have been noted by commentators on the left, and they have even elicited a few grudging concessions in the bourgeois press. But what all of the latter and many of the former will not concede is the primary political conclusion of The Communist Manifesto, namely, the call for international unity of workers in the revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism. That, we are told, is no longer relevant, if it ever was.

But Marxists claim the Manifesto is not only basically right in describing mid–nineteenth and late-twentieth century capitalism, where more and more of society is or soon will be drowned “in the icy waters of egoistic calculation,” with the immense global suffering and destruction this entails; we also argue that what it prescribes is the right thing. Indeed, the prescription is based on the description; they are inseparable. Thus, the historical imperative that derives from the Manifesto is first preceded in the text by a brilliant analysis of past and current capitalist societies. Second, there is a scathing review of alternative socialist and communist literature, particularly its tendency to replace “historically created conditions of emancipation,” namely, class struggle, with “personal inventive action.” And finally, the issue of Communist alliances with progressive movements throughout Europe is addressed. Only after doing all of this do Marx and Engels derive their Communist ‘ought’ from their historical materialist ‘is.’

There is much in The Communist Manifesto about classes and class struggle. But that is not what makes this piece of writing distinctively Marxist. Four years after the publication of the Manifesto, in a famous letter to his friend J. Weydemeyer, Marx denied being the first historian to discover either economic classes or the struggle among them. But he did take credit there for being the first to show that “ ... the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat ....” (original emphasis). So let us look at this manifesto, particularly for features which, according to his own words above, would mark it as quintessentially Marxist (or not) in its perspective.

Before unpacking some of the controversial notion of “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” we should notice that Marx thought that he had shown that such a dictatorship, whatever its composition and structure, was to be the necessary outcome of the modern class struggle. Other revolutionaries at that time had also called for pro-worker societies, but for these ‘critical utopian’ socialists and communists politics was based primarily on wishful thinking because the proletariat suffer most deeply and wrongly, they ought to and will get a better life. It was moral necessity which would drive their revolution. The Manifesto, on the other hand, complains about this brand of unscientific socialism: “Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class, does the proletariat exist for them,” a class “without ... any independent movement [or] historical initiative.” (Just a few years earlier, Marx himself was an adherent of this idealist view, seeing the proletariat as the ‘heart’ of German emancipation, as a “sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering....”) But the new, Marxist approach to the proletariat identifies reasons, in addition to their suffering, which historically designate the working class as the necessary agent of revolutionary socialist change. We find that approach succinctly set out in the famous ‘gravediggers’ passage:

The essential condition for the existence, and for the sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the workers, due to competition, with their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers. It fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

So, in addition to their class oppression, it was their association at work, their collective labour, which would compel the proletariat to take control of and develop the forces of production created by modern capitalism. This idea first occurred to Marx in 1844: “Not in vain does it [the proletariat] go through the stern but steeling school of labour. The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment considers its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent of that being, it will be compelled to do.” (original emphasis)

And, Marx might have added, how it will do it. Will a dictatorship of the proletariat be necessary? As many commentators have noticed, that actual phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” does not appear in the text – Marx used it for the first time only in 1850. But does the basic idea behind these words reside here? Most but not all of it does, I think.

The first step in the socialist revolution, we are told, is “to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” Then it “will use its political supremacy to wrest by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state.” And how will it do this, especially at the beginning? “This cannot be effected except by despotic inroads on the rights of property ....” Note that Marx and Engels are not talking about so-called ‘despotic inroads’ or the so-called ‘rights of property.’ In their opinion, these really are the bourgeoisie’s rights and they really are being despotically wrested away by the state. And so this rule, this exercise of political supremacy by the proletariat, does look like some kind of dictatorship.

But what is not in the Manifesto, either in letter or spirit, is a conclusion about the dictatorial manner of the rule of future proletarian states which Marx first came to only after analyzing events which took place in France starting in 1848. Thus, in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), referring particularly to the bureaucracy and standing army, he observes: “All revolutions perfected this [state] machine instead of smashing it.” This is a new idea and one that Lenin, in State and Revolution, calls “the chief and fundamental point in the Marxist theory of the state.” He contrasts it with the “extremely abstract manner” in which Marx (and Engels) treated the state in The Communist Manifesto.

Spark! #11, pp. 1-3