How Relevant is the Communist Manifesto?
The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, was first published in 1848 - that is 170 years ago. Today we may think of Communism as either irrelevant or as a dangerous evil; for it is firmly associated, above all else,…
The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, was first published in 1848 - that is 170 years ago. Today we may think of Communism as either irrelevant or as a dangerous evil; for it is firmly associated, above all else, with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequently with the Terror unleashed by Lenin and magnified by Stalin, and the murder or starvation of millions. The relatively recent collapse of the Soviet bloc and the increased use of private property and enterprise in communist China has generally been seen, in the West, as confirming that we've seen the end of Communism.
However I think it is largely forgotten that in the 1940s Communist parties were widespread and popular across most of Europe, and many of the assumptions of Communism were shared, not just by Socialists, but even by some Conservatives. There was then a widespread recognition that the State must play a constructive role in ensuring social and economic justice and in planning the development of society along progressive and a more equal footing.
Today it feels like we’re in the midst of a new phase of history. Inequality has re-emerged, particularly in the English speaking world, and the 2007 financial crisis has helped to reawaken a more critical approach to economics. The populist movements in the USA and the UK remind us that powerful economic elites (whom Marx and Engels called the bourgeoisie) often need to exploit fear, find scapegoats and increase division and hatred. The post-War assumptions: that things will just keep getting better; that all we need is more and more growth; that the modern welfare state can be trusted to redistribute resources fairly and we can trust the powerful to look after the rest of us - all these assumptions look faulty today.
At the same time the growing strength of the Labour Party in England, now with leaders who promise to return to Socialist principles, and the increasing assault on those leaders by the ruling elites and the media, remind us of earlier times and older battles.
So, amidst all this fear, hope and uncertainty I thought it would be interesting to re-read the Communist Manifesto and see what it might have to teach us today.
The Manifesto’s policy proposals
I think it is best if we start in the middle, for the central purpose of Communism is defined quite late in the Manifesto:
“…the theory of the Communists may be summed up in one single sentence: Abolition of private property.”Marx & Engels
However this bold and simple claim is revised later on when Marx and Engels offer a series of practical policy proposals which, as they say, will need to be adapted to local times and circumstances:
- Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
- A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
- Abolition of all right of inheritance.
- Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
- Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
- Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
- Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
- Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
- Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.
- Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production etc. etc.
Now, clearly, many of these proposal are not a reality - 170 years later. But these proposals do not feel entirely irrelevant nor wholly unachieved. For example, item 10 has largely been achieved, at least in most industrial societies. Moreover the creation of the NHS (although interestingly healthcare is never mentioned in the Manifesto) and many other public services would seem to have extended beyond the limited demands of the Manifesto. Outside the US and the UK, communications, utilities and parts of the banking system are often nationalised.
In other respects the situation is more mixed. Taxation is certainly significant, possibly heavy, but it is not progressive, it is regressive. In fact, in the UK the poorest 10% pay the most tax as a percentage of their income (10% higher than any other group). In other areas, like inheritance tax, progress has been modest. Broadly speaking you could argue that the state has taken on a very significant economic role, but that it does not take on the role of distributing resources fairly. Instead it tends to redistribute resources in ways that are politically advantageous to the ruling party, often focusing on swing voters in the middle.
Interestingly, the most utopian elements of the Communist Manifesto are also perhaps mirrored by objectives of the Green Party: improving the soil, changing the way people live in towns and in the country and transforming agriculture. Even the idea of industrial and agricultural armies may not so far from modern efforts to reimagine national service as a form of active citizenship.
So, have we achieved communism? Well if we were to look only at the policies then I think the answer might be about 33%, but we’re certainly a lot more communist than we were in 1848. Some of the aspirations of the Manifesto still feel right and relevant; however perhaps one of the things we have learned from the past 170 years is the state, even a democratic state, is not always guaranteed to protect the interests of the weakest. Marx's description of the bourgeois state don't seem out of place today:
The executive of the modern State is but a committee for organising the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.Marx & Engels
The Manifesto’s view of history
However the Communist Manifesto is not really a set of policy proposals and we can see this if we examine its very interesting structure:
- Bourgeois and Proletarians - this first section, and the longest, explains the Communist view that history is made by an inevitable process of class conflict which has now been revealed by scientific analysis (by Marx and Engels).
- Proletarians and Communists - this section explains that Communists are those aware of the force of history and who link themselves to the best elements of the Proletariat, those who will be the vanguard of history.
- Socialist and Communist Literature - this section basically criticises various forms of inadequate socialism, the kinds of socialist who don’t understand their place in history.
- Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties - a tiny section, with a very long title, which sets out which parties the Communists are backing in several countries, but which ends with this ringing statement:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!Marx & Engels
So, this is not a vision of an ideal future, it is rather a train ticket on the railway of economic and social development. The key to understanding this strategy is found in the comparison that Engels, makes in his Preface to the 1888 English Edition of the Manifesto:
I consider myself bound to say that the fundamental proposition, which forms its nucleus, belongs to Marx. That proposition is: that in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from along which can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class - the proletariat - cannot obtain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class - the bourgeoisie - without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction and class struggles.
This proposition which, in my opinion, is destined to do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology…Engels
Communism is not so much a policy as it is a prediction - of the eventual victory of the proletariat - based on a scientific theory of history (which like the theory of evolution) has been hitherto hidden. Communists can do no more than act as agents on behalf of the inevitable process of history. Their job is to back the winners - not to define the nature of the victory.
In a sense this is a low risk strategy, allowing Communism to adapt to changing circumstances, without ever really defining what it is about. And, as there is no necessary timescale for a Communist revolution, then you can still be a Communist today - you can still patiently await the inevitable revolution.
However, as Simone Weil rather brilliantly puts it:
The great mistake of the Marxists and of the whole nineteenth century was to think by walking straight ahead one would rise into the air.Simone Weil
Moreover, if I have understood this historical argument correctly, then it seems to me we are living through a period in which the central claim of Communism has been put under a lot of strain. Marx and Engels seem to assume that the tendency of Capitalism to become increasingly monopolistic means that increasingly fewer people will be bourgeois and more people will become proletariat - so the divide will become sharper and more unequal. Victory is inevitable, because the Capitalist position is unsustainable; it implodes and so the proletariat can take control.
However modern society seems to have evolved differently. The super-rich have given up a little, so that the moderately wealthy can enjoy some more, and together they divide the poor into different groups, leaving the very poorest even more exploited, and isolated from those who are somewhat better off. Divide and rule, always a successful strategy, seems like its working very well for the powerful and wealthy. They have succeeded in getting people to fight amongst themselves, to be suspicious of the poor and protective of the small gains they’ve made.
The Manifesto criticises those who defend a more moderate kind of Bourgeois Socialism:
A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to assure the continued existence of bourgeois society.Marx & Engels
But moderate, Bourgeois Socialism seems now be the order of the day. The Communist revolution did not happen and there seems no sign of it happening. Instead, you could argue, the bourgeoisie worked out how to compromise with some of the proletariat. They offer some jam today, while others become scapegoats and are exploited - not just by Capitalism - but even by the state. The modern state is democratic, but it has not prevented
…the exploitation of the many by the few.Marx & Engels
The Manifesto’s strategy relies on the reader’s faith that history will follow the preordained path. But once that faith starts to decline it is not clear what the Communism offers, for it does not offer a clear standard by which to evaluate and improve the present. Being on the right side of history only really works if history really is moving clearly in one direction.
Marx and Engels were surely right to point to the economic dimension of politics and to the capacity of people to organise themselves to defend their interests. They were also accurate to notice the revolutionary and destabilising features of the modern era:
Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence of all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois 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, and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.Marx & Engels
However they overstate the inevitability of progressive change and the perhaps they underestimate our need to reinstall the sacred, the relational and the communal. We are perhaps not ready to accept what Marx and Engels describe as the "real conditions of life".
Style and substance
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Manifesto is its style. It shifts between a kind of scientific objectivity, dripping in jargon, to sweeping moralistic poetry while seeking every opportunity to put the boot into anyone who might disagree with them. Only the Communists themselves, and the precious vanguard of the proletariat are safe from vicious attack. One can sense that lively democratic debate and differences of opinion are not things they value.
Anger burns through its pages, even today: scornful, superior, bitter and even triumphant. But love is hard to find. The one positive definition of the purpose of the revolution that gives us some sense of its positive vision is this:
In place of old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.Marx & Engels
For all the truth of its observations and the justice of that anger there is an obvious self-contradiction at its heart. It claims material factors determine everything, yet it itself is the declaration of an idea. As Nadezhda Mandelstam says:
These rulers of our who claim that the prime mover of history is the economic basis have shown by the whole of their own practice that the real stuff of history is ideas. It is ideas that shape the minds of whole generations, winning adherents, imposing themselves on consciousness, creating new forms of government and society, rising triumphantly - and then slowly dying away and disappearing.Nadezhda Mandelstam
Perhaps the Communist Manifesto is really a vivid poem of hatred towards all of those who exploit their power to harm the weak. It adopts a scientific style, because this gives it a tactical advantage, but really it is at its strongest when it exposes the hypocrisy and horrors of Capitalist exploitation. It helps us believe that a better future is possible, not because its efforts to predict that future are believable, but because it taps into a moral reality that is more real than Communist theory itself.