1848: Communism as a political program

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The previous two articles in this series[1] have to a large extent focused on the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 because they are a rich vein of material on the problem of alienated labor and on the ultimate goals of communism as envisaged by Marx when he first adhered to the proletarian movement. But although Marx had, as early as 1843, identified the modern proletariat as the agent of the communist transformation, the EPM are not yet precise about the practical social movement that will lead from the society of alienation to the authentic human community. This fundamental development in Marx's thinking was to come about through the convergence of two vital elements: the elaboration of the historical materialist method, and the overt politicization of the communist project.

The real movement of history

The EPM already contain various reflections on the differences between feudalism and capitalism, but in parts they present a somewhat static image of capitalist society. Capital and its associated alienations sometimes appear in the text as simply existing, with no real explanation of their genesis. As a result, the actual process of capitalism's downfall also remains rather cloudy. But only a year later, in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels had outlined a coherent view of the practical and objective bases of the movement of history (and thus of the various stages in humanity's alienation). History was now clearly presented as a succession of modes of production, from tribal community through ancient society to feudalism and capitalism; and the dynamic element in this movement was not men's ideas or feelings about themselves, but the material production of life's necessities:

"We must begin by stating the first premise of all human existence and, therefore, of all history, the premise, namely, that men must be in a position to live in order to 'make history ', But life involves before anything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself."

This simple truth was the basis for understanding the change from one type of society to another

"a certain mode of product ion, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a 'productive force '. Further, that the multitude of productive forces accessible to men determine the nature of society, hence, that the 'history of humanity' must always be studied and treated in relation to the history of industry and exchange."

From this standpoint, ideas and the struggle between ideas politics, morality and religion cease to be the determining factors in historical development:

"We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process ... Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life" (all quotes from the German Ideology, part one, 'Feuerbach'),

At the end point of this vast historical movement, the GI points out that capitalism, like previous modes of production, is doomed to disappear not because of its moral failings, but because its inner contradictions would impel it towards self-destruction, and because it had given rise to a class capable of replacing it with a higher form of social organization:

"In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, whim, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, whim has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, whim, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes, a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness ... " (ibid).

As a result, in complete contrast to all the utopian visions which saw communism as a static ideal that bore no relation to the real process of historical evolution, "Communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs". 

Having established this general method and framework, Marx and Engels could then proceed to a more detailed examination of the specific contradictions of capitalist society. Here again, the critique of bourgeois economics contained in the EPM had provided much of the groundwork for this and Marx was to come back to them again and again. But a decisive step was marked by the development of the concept of surplus value since this made it possible to root the denunciation of capitalist 'alienation in the most solid of economic facts, in the very mathematics of daily exploitation. This concept was of course to preoccupy Marx in much of his later works (Grundrisse, Capital, Theories of Surplus Value), which contained important clarifications on the subject - in particular the distinction between labor and labor power. Nevertheless the essentials of the concept are already outlined in The Poverty of Philosophy and Wage Labor and Capital, written in 1847.

The later writings were also to study more closely the relationship between the extraction and realization of surplus value, and the periodic crises of overproduction which shook capitalist society to its foundations every ten years or so. But Engels had already grasped the significance of the 'commercial crises' in his Critique of Political Economy in 1844, and had rapidly convinced Marx of the necessity to understand them as the harbingers of capitalism's doom - the concrete manifestation of capitalism's insoluble contradictions.

Elaborating the program: the formation of the Communist League

Since communism had now been grasped as a movement and not merely as a goal- specifically, as the movement of the proletarian class struggle - it could now only develop as a practical program for the emancipation of labor - as a revolutionary political program. Even before he formally adopted a communist position, Marx had rejected all those high-minded 'critics' who refused to dirty their hands with the sordid realities of the political struggle. As he declared in his letter to Ruge in September 1843 "Nothing prevents us, therefore from lining our criticism with a criticism of politics ,from taking sides in politics, ie from entering into real struggles and identifying ourselves with them". And in fact the necessity to engage in political struggles in order to achieve a more thorough-going social transformation was embedded in the very nature of the proletarian revolution: "Do not say that social movement excludes political movement" wrote Marx in his polemic with the 'anti-political' Proudhon: "There is never a political movement which is not at the same time social. It is only in an order of things in which there are no more classes and class antagonisms that social evolutions will cease to be political revolutions" (Poverty of Philosophy).

Put in another way, the proletariat differed from the bourgeoisie in that it could not, as a propertyless, exploited class, build up the economic basis of a new society within the shell of the old. The revolution that would put an end to all forms of class domination could thus only begin as a political assault on the old order; its first act would be the seizure of political power by the propertyless class, which on that basis would proceed to the economic and social transformations leading to a classless society.

But the precisely defined political program of the communist revolution did not come into being spontaneously: it had to be elaborated by the most advanced elements of the proletariat, those who had organized themselves into distinctly communist groupings. Thus, in the years 1845-48 Marx and Engels were increasingly involved in building such an organization. Here their approach was again dictated by their recognition of the need to insert themselves into an already-existing 'real movement'. So instead of constructing an organization' ex nihilo', they sought to attach themselves to the most advanced proletarian currents with the aim of winning them over to a more scientific conception of the communist project. Concretely, this led them to a group composed mainly of exiled German workers, the League of the Just. For Marx and Engels, the importance of this group lay in the fact that, unlike the various brands of middle-class 'socialism', the League was a real expression of the fighting proletariat. Formed in Paris in 1836, it had been closely connected with Blanqui's Societe des Saisons and had participated along with it in the unsuccessful rising of 1839. It was, therefore, an organi- sation which recognised the reality of the class war and the necessity for a violent revolutionary battle for power. To be sure, along with Blanqui, it tended to see the revolution in conspiratorial terms, as the act of a determined minority, and its own nature as a secret society reflected such conceptions. It was also influenced, especially in the early 40s, by the semi-messianic conceptions of Wilhelm Weitling.

But the League had also exhibited a capacity to develop theoretically. One of the effects of its 'emigre' character was to confirm it, in Engels' words, as "the first international workers' movement of all time" ('On the history of the Communist League', MESW, p431). This meant that it was open to the most important international developments in the class struggle. In the 1840s, the League's main center had shifted to London and, through their contact with the Chartist movement, its leading members had begun to move away from the old conspiratorial conceptions towards a view of the proletarian struggle as a massive, self-conscious and organized movement in which the key role would be played by the industrial workers.

The concepts of Marx and Engels thus fell on fertile soil on the League, though not without a hard combat against the influences of Blanqui and Weitling. But by 1847, the League of the Just had become the Communist League. It had changed its organizational structure from one typical of a conspiratorial sect to that of a properly centralized organization with clearly defined statutes and run by elected committees. And it had delegated to Marx the task of drawing up the organization's statement of political principles - the document known as The Manifesto of the Communist Party[2], first published in German, in London in 1848, just before the outbreak of the February revolution in France.

The Manifesto of the Communist Party

The rise and fall of the bourgeoisie

The Manifesto of the Communist Party, along with its 'first draft', The Principles of Communism, represents the first comprehensive statement of scientific communism. Though written for a mass audience, and in a stirring, passionate style, it is never vulgar or superficial. Indeed it repays continual re-examination, because it condenses in a relatively few pages the general lines of marxist thought on a whole series of inter-connected questions.

The first part of the text outlines the new theory of history, announced from the very beginning in the famous phrase "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle"[3]. It briefly charts the various changes in class relations, the evolution from ancient to feudal to capitalist society, in order to show that "the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and exchange." Eschewing any abstract moral condemnation of the emergence of capitalist exploitation, the text emphasizes the eminently revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie in sweeping away all the old parochial, hidebound forms of society, and replacing them with the most dynamic and expansive mode of production ever seen; a mode of production that, by so rapidly conquering and unifying the globe, and setting in motion such immense forces of production, was laying down the foundations for a higher form of society that will have finally done away with class antagonisms. Equally devoid of subjectivism is the text's identification of the inner contradictions that will lead to capitalism's downfall.              .

On the one hand, the economic crisis: "Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past, the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put on trial, more and more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society. In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are destroyed. In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity - the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism,· it appears as if a famine, a universal war of destruction had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed,· and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much commerce".

In the Principles of Communism, the point is made that capitalism's inbuilt tendency towards crises of overproduction not only indicates the road towards its destruction, but also explains why it is creating the conditions for communism, in which" instead of generating misery, overproduction will reach beyond the elementary requirements of society to assure the satisfaction of the needs of all" .

For the Manifesto, the crises of overproduction are of course the cyclical crises which punctuated the whole of the ascendant period of capitalism. But although the text recognized that these crises could still be overcome "by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones", it also tends to draw the conclusion that bourgeois relations have already become a permanent fetter on the development of the productive forces - in other words, that capitalist society has already achieved its historic mission and has entered into its epoch of decline. Immediately after the passage describing the periodic crises, the text goes on: "The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered .... The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them".

This appraisal of the state reached by bourgeois society is not altogether consistent with other formulations in the Manifesto, especially the tactical notions that appear at the end of the text. But they were to have a very important influence on the expectations and interventions of the communist minority during the great upheavals of 1848, which were seen as the precursors of an imminent proletarian revolution. It was only later on, in drawing up a balance sheet of these upheavals, that Marx and Engels were to revise the idea that capitalism had already reached the limits of its ascendant curve. But we shall return to this matter in a subsequent article.

The gravediggers of capitalism

"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 modem working class - the proletariat".

Here in a nutshell is the second fundamental contradiction leading to the overthrow of capitalist society: the contradiction between capital and labor. And, in continuity with the materialist analysis of the dynamics of bourgeois society, the Manifesto goes on to outline the historical evolution of the proletarian class struggle from its first inchoate beginnings to the present and on to the future.

It chronicles all the major stage in this process: the initial 'Luddite' response to the rise of modem industry, where workers are still mainly scattered in small workshops and frequently "direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production themselves"; the development of class organization for the defense of workers' immediate interests (trade unions) as the conditions of the class become more homogeneous and unified; the participation of the workers in the bourgeoisie's struggles against absolutism, which provided the proletariat with a political education and thus with "weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie"; the development of a distinctly proletarian political struggle, waged at first for the implementation of reforms such as the 10 Hour Bill, but gradually assuming the form of a political challenge to the very foundations of bourgeois society.

The Manifesto contends that the revolutionary situation will come about because the economic contradictions of capitalism will have reached a point of paroxysm, a point where the bourgeoisie can no longer even "assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him". At the same time, the text envisages an increasing polarization of society, between a small minority of exploiters and an increasingly impoverished proletarian majority: "society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great camps, into two great classes facing each other", since the development of capitalism increasingly propels the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry, and even parts of the bourgeoisie itself into the ranks of the proletariat. The revolution is therefore the result of this combination of economic misery and social polarization.

Again, the Manifesto sometimes makes it appear that this great simplification of society has already been accomplished; that the proletariat is already the overwhelming majority of the population. In fact this was only the case for one country at the time the text was written (Britain). And since, as we have seen, the text gives space to the idea that capitalism has already reached its apogee, it tends to give the impression that the final confrontation between the "two great classes" is very close indeed. In terms of the actual evolution of capitalism, this was very far from being the case. But despite this, the Manifesto is "an extraordinarily 'prophetic' work. Only a few months after its publication, the development of a global economic crisis had engendered a series of revolutionary upheavals all over Europe. And although many of these movements were more the last gasp of the bourgeoisies combat against feudal absolutism than the first skirmishes of the proletarian revolution, the proletariat of Paris, by making its own independent political rising against the bourgeoisie, demonstrated in practice all the Manifesto's arguments about the revolutionary nature of the working class as the living negation of capitalist society. The 'prophetic' character of the Manifesto is testimony to the fundamental soundness, not so much of Marx and Engels' immediate prognostications, but of the general historical method with which they analyzed social reality. And this is why, in essence, and contrary to all the arrogant assertions of the bourgeoisie about how history has proved Marx wrong, the Communist Manifesto does not date.

From the dictatorship of the proletariat to the withering away of the state

The Manifesto thus anticipates the proletariat being driven towards revolution by the whip of growing economic misery. As we have noted, the first act of this revolution was the seizure of political power by the proletariat. The proletariat had to constitute itself as the ruling class in order to carry through its social and economic program.

The Manifesto explicitly envisages this revolution as "the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie", the culmination of a "more or less veiled civil war". Inevitably, however, the details of the way in which the working class would overthrow the bourgeoisie remain vague, since the text was written prior to the first open appearance of the class as an independent force. The text actually talks about the proletariat winning "the battle of democracy"; the Principles say that the revolution "will establish a democratic constitution and through this the direct or indirect dominance of the proletariat". If we look at some of Marx's writings about the Chartists or about the bourgeois republic, we can see that even after the experience of the 1848 revolutions, he still entertained the possibility of the proletariat coming to power through universal suffrage and the parliamentary process (for example, in his article on the Chartists in The New York Daily Tribune of 25 August 1852, where Marx contends that the granting of universal suffrage in England would signify "the political supremacy of the working class"). This in turn opened the door to speculations about an entirely peaceful conquest of power, in some countries at least. As we shall see, these speculations were later seized upon by the pacifists and reformists in the workers' movement in the latter part of the century to justify all kinds of ideological liberties. Nevertheless, the main lines of Marx's thought go in a very different direction after the experience of 1848, and above all, the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, which demonstrated the necessity for the proletariat to create its own organs of political power and to destroy the bourgeois state rather than capture it, whether violently or 'democratically'. Indeed, in Engels' later introductions to the Manifesto, this was the most important alteration that historical experience had brought to the communist program:

" ... in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this program has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz, that 'the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready- made state machine and wield it for its own purposes'" .

But what remains valid in the Manifesto is the affirmation of the violent nature of the seizure of power and of the need for the working class to set up its own political rule - the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' as it was referred to in other writings of the same period.

Of equal validity to this day is the prospect of the withering away of the state. From his first writings as a communist, Marx had stressed that the real emancipation of humanity could not restrict itself to the sphere of politics. 'Political emancipation' had been the highest achievement of the bourgeois revolution, but for the proletariat this 'emancipation' only signaled a new form of oppression. For the exploited class, politics was only a means to an end, viz, a thorough-going social emancipation. Political power and the state were only necessary in a class-divided society; since the proletariat had no interest in forming itself into a new exploiting class, but was compelled to fight for the abolition of all class divisions, it followed that the advent of communism meant the end of politics as a particular sphere, and the end of the state. As the Manifesto puts it: "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. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by force of circumstance, to organize itself as a class; if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class" .

The international character of the proletarian revolution

The phrase "a vast association of the whole nation" raises a question here: did the Manifesto hold out the possibility of revolution, or even of communism, in a single country? It is certainly true that there are ambiguous phrases here and there in the text; for example when it says that" since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself as the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word". Actually, bitter historical experience has shown that there is only a bourgeois meaning to the term national, and that the proletariat for its part is the negation of all nations. But this is above all the experience of the decadent epoch of capitalism, when nationalism and struggles for nationhood have lost the progressive character they could have in Marx's day, when the proletariat could still support certain national movements as part of the struggle against feudal absolutism and other reactionary vestiges of the past. In general, Marx and Engels were clear that such movements were bourgeois in character, but ambiguities inevitably crept into their language and their thought because this was a period in which the total incompatibility of national and class interests had not yet been brought to a head.

That said, the essence of the Manifesto is contained not in the above sentence, but in the one immediately before it: "The working men have no country. You cannot take from them what they do not have"; and in the final words of the text: "Workers of all countries unite". Similarly, the Manifesto insists that" united action, of the leading civilized countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat".

The Principles are even more explicit about this:

"Question: Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone? Answer: No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others. Further, it has coordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that in all of them bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries, that is to say, at least in England, America, France and Germany ... It is a universal revolution and will accordingly have a universal range" 

From the beginning then the proletarian revolution was seen as an international revolution. The idea that communism, or even the revolutionary seizure of power, could become a reality within the confines of a single country, was as far from the minds of Marx and Engels as it was from the minds of the Bolsheviks who led the October revolution in 1917, and of the internationalist fractions who led the resistance to the Stalinist counter-revolution, which encapsulated itself precisely in the monstrous theory of 'socialism in one country'.

Communism and the road towards it

As we have seen in previous articles, the marxist current was from its inception quite clear about the features of the fully developed communist society it was fighting for. The Manifesto defines it briefly but significantly in the paragraph following the one on the withering away of the state: "In place of the 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". Communism is thus not only a society without classes and without a state: it is also a society which (and this is unprecedented in all of human history up till now) has overcome the conflict between social needs and the needs of the individual, and which consciously devotes its resources to the unlimited development of all its members - all this being a clear echo of the reflections on the nature of genuinely free activity which appeared in the writings of 1844 and 1845. The passages in the Manifesto which deal with the bourgeoisie's objections to communism also make it plain that communism means the end not only of wage labor but of all forms of buying and selling. The same section insists that the bourgeois family, which is characterized as a form of legalised prostitution, is also doomed to disappear.

The Principles of Communism give more space than the Manifesto to defining other aspects of the new society. For example, they emphasize that communism will replace the anarchy of market forces with the management of humanity's productive forces "in accordance with a plan based on the availability of resources and the needs of the whole of society" . At the same time, the text develops the theme that the abolition of classes will be possible in the future because communism will be a society of abundance: "... existing improvements and scientific procedures will be put into practice, with a resulting leap forward which will ensure to society all the products it needs. In this way such an abundance of goods will be able to satisfy the needs of all its members. The division of society into different, mutually hostile classes will then become unnecessary".

Again, if communism is devoted to the "free development of all', then it must be a society which has done away with the division of labor as we know it: "People will no longer be, as they are today, subordinated to a single branch of production, bound to it, exploited by it,' they will no longer develop one of their faculties at the expense of all the other ... Industry controlled by society as a whole and operated according to a plan presupposes well-rounded human beings, their facilities developed in balanced fashion, able to see the system of production in its entirety" (Principles of Communism).

Another division to be dispensed with is the one between town and country: "the dispersal of the agricultural population on the land alongside the crowding of the industrial proletariat into the great cities is a condition which corresponds to an undeveloped state of both agriculture and industry and can already be felt to be an obstacle to further progress."

This point was considered so important that the task of ending the division between town and country was actually included as one of the 'transitional' measures towards communism, both in the Principles and the Manifesto. And it remains an issue of burning importance in today's world of swollen megacities and spiraling pollution. (We will return to this question in more detail in a subsequent article, when we come to consider how the communist revolution will deal with the 'ecological crisis').

These general descriptions of the future communist society are in continuity with the ones contained in Marx's early writings, and they need little or no modification today. By contrast, the specific social and economic measures advocated in the Manifesto as the means to attain these ends are - as Marx and Engels themselves recognized in their own lifetimes - are much more time bound, for two basic and intertwining reasons:

- the fact that capitalism at the time that the Manifesto was written was still in its ascendant phase, and had not yet laid down all the objective conditions for the communist revolution;

- the fact that the working class had had no concrete experience of a revolutionary situation, and thus either of the means whereby it could assume political power, or of the initial social and economic measures that it would have to take once power was in its hands.

These are the measures which the Manifesto envisages as being "pretty generally applicable in the most advanced countries" once the proletariat had taken power:

"1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rent of land to public purposes.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3. Abolition of the right of inheritance.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

8. Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

9. 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.

10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc etc. "

It will be evident from the outset that the majority of these measures have, in the decadent period of capitalism, been shown to be perfectly compatible with the survival of capitalism - indeed that many of them have been adapted by capital precisely in order to survive in this epoch. The decadent period is the period of universal state capitalism: the centralization of credit in the hands of the state, the formation of industrial armies, the nationalization of transport and communication, free education in state schools ... to a greater or lesser extent, and at different moments, every capitalist state has adopted such measures since 1914, and the Stalinist regimes, those which claimed to be carrying out the program of the Communist Manifesto, have adopted practically all of them.

The Stalinists based their 'marxist' credentials partly on the fact that they had put into practice many of the measures advocated in the Manifesto. The anarchists, for their part, also stress this continuity, though in an entirely negative sense of course, and they can point to some 'prophetic' diatribes by Bakunin to 'prove' that Stalin really was the logical heir of Marx.

In fact this way of looking at things is completely superficial, and only serves to justify particular bourgeois political attitudes. But before explaining why the social and economic measures put forward in the Manifesto are, in general, no longer applicable, we should stress the validity of the method that lay behind them.

The necessity for a transition period. Such deeply ingrained elements of capitalist society as wage labor, class divisions and the state could not be abolished overnight as the anarchists of Marx's day pretended and as their latter-day descendants (the various brands of councilism and modernism) still pretend. Capitalism has created the potential for abundance, but this does not mean that abundance appears like magic the day after the revolution. On the contrary, the revolution is a response to a profound disorganization in society and, for an initial phase at least, will tend to further intensify this disorganization. An immense work of reconstruction, education and reorganization awaits the victorious proletariat. Centuries, millennia of ingrained habits, all the ideological debris of the old world, will have to be cleared away. The task is vast and unprecedented and pedlars of instant solutions are pedlars of illusions. This is why the Manifesto is right to talk about the need for the victorious proletariat to "increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible", and to do so, in the beginning, by means of "despotic inroads in the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures , therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which.in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production. " This general vision of the proletariat setting in motion a dynamic towards communism rather than introducing it by decree remains perfectly correct, even if we can, with the benefit of hindsight, recognize that this dynamic does not derive from placing capital accumulation in the hands of the state, but in the self-organized proletariat reversing the very principles of capital accumulation (eg, by subordinating production to consumption; by "despotic inroads" into the commodity economy and the wage labor form; through direct control by the proletariat over the productive apparatus etc).

The principle of centralization. Again, in contrast to the anarchists, whose espousal of 'federation' reflected the petty bourgeois localism and individualism of this current, marxism has always insisted that capitalist chaos and competition can only be overcome through the strictest centralization on a global scale - centralization of the productive forces by the proletariat; centralization of the proletariat's own political/economic organs. Experience has certainly shown that this centralization is very different from the bureaucratic centralization of the capitalist state; even that the proletariat must distrust the centralism of the post-revolutionary state. But the capitalist state apparatus cannot be overthrown, nor the counter-revolutionary tendencies of the 'transitional' state be resisted, unless the proletariat has centralized its own forces. At this level again, the general approach contained in the Manifesto remains valid today.

The limits posed by history

Nevertheless, as Engels said in his introduction to the 1872 edition, while "the general principles laid down in this Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever ... the practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section 1I. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today." It then goes on to mention "the gigantic strides of modern industry in the last 25 years", and as we have already seen, the revolutionary experience of the working class in 1848 and 1871.

The reference to the development of modern industry is particularly relevant here, because it indicates that, as far as Marx and Engels were concerned, a primary aim of the economic measures proposed in the Manifesto was to develop capitalism at a time when a number of countries had not yet completed their bourgeois revolutions. This can be verified by looking at the 'Demands of the Communist Party in Germany', which the Communist League distributed as a leaflet during the revolutionary upheavals in Germany in 1848. We know that Marx was quite explicit at this time about the necessity for the bourgeoisie to come to power in Germany as a precondition for the proletarian revolution. The measures proposed in this leaflet thus had the aim of pushing Germany out of its feudal backwardness and of extending bourgeois relations of production as rapidly as possible: but many of these measures - heavy progressive income tax, a state bank, nationalization of land and transport, free education - are exactly the same as the ones advocated in the Manifesto. We will discuss in a subsequent article how far Marx's perspectives for the revolution in Germany were confirmed or refuted by events; but the fact remains that if Marx and Engels saw the measures proposed in the Manifesto as already being outdated in their lifetimes, they have even less relevance in the period of decadence, when capitalism has long established its world-wide dominion, and long outstayed its welcome as a force for progress anywhere in the world.

This is not to say that either in Marx and Engels' day, or in the revolutionary movement that came after them, there was a real clarity about the kind of measures that a victorious proletariat would have to take in order to initiate a dynamic towards communism. On the contrary, confusions about the possibility of the working class using nationalizations, state credit and other state capitalist measures as stepping stones towards communism persisted throughout the 19th century and played a very negative role during the course of the revolution in Russia. It took the defeat of this revolution, the transformation of the proletarian bastion into a frightful state capitalist tyranny, and much subsequent reflection and debate among revolutionaries, before such ambiguities were finally set aside. But this will also have to be dealt with in future articles.

Trial by practice

The final part of the Manifesto concerns the tactics to be followed by communists in different countries, particularly those where the main order of the day was, or appeared to be, the struggle against feudal absolutism. In the next article in this series, we will examine how the communists' practical intervention in the pan-European uprisings of 1848 clarified the perspectives of the proletarian revolution and confirmed or refuted the tactical considerations contained in the Manifesto. CDW

[1]See 'The alienation of labor is the premise for its emancipation' in International Review 70, and 'Communism, the real beginning of human society' in IR 71

[2] The term 'party' here does not refer to the Communist League itself: although the Manifesto rally was the collective work of that organization, its name did not appear in the first editions of the text, mainly for security reasons. The term 'party' at this stage did not refer to a specific organization but to a general trend or movement.  

[3] In later editions of the text, Engels had to qualify this statement by saying that it applied to "all written history", but not to the communal forms of society that had preceded the rise of class divisions.


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