From Fourth International, Vol.9 No.1, January-February 1948, pp.10-13.
Transcription & mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
One hundred years ago two young Germans, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels shocked the minds of their contemporaries by presenting in a small political pamphlet, entitled the Communist Manifesto, the most audacious, liberating and epoch-making system of ideas since the dawn of mankind.
The amazing thing is not that the passage of time should have invalidated this or that detail of a theory which the authors themselves later elaborated and rendered more precise in subsequent years. The amazing thing is that this system of ideas has withstood so well the test of 100 years. Both in the days of Marx and Engels and in the decades since their deaths there has been no lack of sociological, economic and political doctrines. Without exception all these were aimed directly or covertly against the fundamental ideas first enunciated in the Manifesto. Which of these countless rival doctrines and “refutations” of Marxism have withstood the test of events and survive today?
The situation remains much the same if we consider the fate of theories enunciated a century ago in the field of natural science. Which of them – whether in biology or chemistry or physics, and so on – has not been either drastically revised or superseded today?
The case of the Manifesto is unique. This is so because the ideas of Marx and Engels constitute the only rational body of ideas explaining the evolution of human society. No one else has provided the keys to social action and progress as they did. They proved, once and for all, that social forms are necessary but transitory and self-destroying products of historical development, a development that operates behind men’s backs and independent of their will. There is nothing eternally enduring about these man-made social forms. But there is a lawfulness in their rise, development and inescapable decline.
Among the most important of these social laws is this, that the very foundation on which each of these social forms arises and develops constitutes at the same time and at a subsequent stage the main cause for its own downfall. It was the institution of slavery that devoured the ancient empires, just as it was the institution of serfdom that destroyed the feudal states which followed slavery. Out of these outlived orders and social relations has evolved capitalism – the most irrational and self-destructive of all class systems.
Marx and Engels warned that it was impossible for society to progress further unless capitalism were replaced by a rational system of social relations, which could only be socialism.
What makes the Manifesto read today like the timeliest of timely documents is the Marxist forecast of the insoluble crisis into which capitalism is bound to plunge all mankind. On the eve of World War II Leon Trotsky warned that the crisis of capitalism was threatening to rapidly turn into the crisis of human culture as a whole. With the advent of atomic explosives and the frenzied preparations for World War III this terrible threat has become the reality. On the one hundredth anniversary of the Communist Manifesto the world is confronted with the choice between physical annihilation and the socialist alternative.
As Engels himself pointed out, the Communist Manifesto contains no reference to either the United States or Russia, the two main antagonists in the world arena today. This omission reflected the international situation of a century ago. In 1848 the proletarian movement was confined primarily to Western Europe.
The colonial world still stagnated under the age-old yokes of backwardness and oppression. It was not until the beginning of this century that the colonial masses entered the arena of world history.
As for Russia, she had scarcely started her capitalist development by 1848. Russian economy remained overwhelmingly agricultural, serfdom was still firmly entrenched. Czarism reigned unchallenged and Russia was then, as it was to remain till the end of the Nineteenth Century, not merely one of the most backward countries in Europe, but one of the chief pillars of reaction there and throughout the world.
The principal problem in 1848 was not how to promote revolutionary developments within Russia, but how to intervene in political life outside of Czarist Russia in order to deal blows to the Russian autocracy and its agents. This held true for years after the death of Marx and Engels.
As concerns the United States in 1848, despite its independence, with its population of 26 millions virtually restricted to the Eastern seaboard, it was economically little more than a colony of European capitalism, in the first instance England – a colony more advanced than the others, but a colony nonetheless. The young American bourgeoisie had hardly begun to exploit the virgin continent. The native capitalists remained weak not alone in relation to the European ruling classes but also in relation to the Southern slaveholders. So feeble, indeed, that they were content to share state power with the slavocracy and permit the latter to wield it. The modern industrial proletariat here was still to emerge.
Placed in their historical setting, the omission of Russia and the United States from the Manifesto does not seem so one-sided and flagrant as appears at first sight. Major corrections with regard to both Russia and the United States were made by Marx and Engels themselves later on. If they refrained from making any changes in the Manifesto, it was because of their conscientious approach, in theory and practice, to all historical facts, including their own epoch-making work.
This does not mean that no important amendments or rectifications need be introduced today into the text of the Manifesto. Elsewhere in this issue the reader will find Leon Trotsky’s analysis of the basic propositions in this revolutionary document in the light of ninety years that elapsed since its publication. It will be noted that Trotsky deals with everything that has become outdated in the Manifesto as well as with everything important that requires changes or amplification.
The young authors of the Manifesto placed their confidence in only one force in society: the proletariat. If they expected social progress to manifest itself first in the advanced countries through revolutionary upheavals, it was because other countries had not yet given birth to large-scale industry and therewith to the modern proletariat, the motor force of progress in our society.
A century ago the main channel of social revolution flowed through Western Europe. Both Marx and Engels expected the first-born proletarians there to fulfill their historic mission and for those who came later to follow suit. However it turned out that the proletariat of imperialist France and Britain was successfully corrupted over the years by the ruling class, or more correctly, the official French and British labor leaders misled or betrayed their class. Therewith the historical development of the revolution by-passed its original channel and dug new passageways for itself.
Hopeful as were the authors of the Manifesto that history would take the most direct route, they were by no means blind to other possible variants, i.e., indirect and more complex forms. To maintain the contrary is to repeat the ignorant Stalinist canard to the effect that the founders of scientific socialism knew nothing about uneven and combined development, one of the outstanding features of the dialectic of social evolution.
From the standpoint of theory it is absurd to maintain that Marx and Engels never expected or even denied that, under altered conditions, backward countries could suddenly leap to the fore and surge ahead of those more advanced. Such a contention appears even more absurd in the light of known facts.
Marx and Engels attached the greatest importance to developments in Germany. But it is generally forgotten that the authors of the Manifesto were themselves natives of one of the most impoverished and backward Western European countries. The Germany they knew lagged far behind both England and France, politically as well as economically. Several decades were to pass after 1848 before Germany could accomplish such a task of the bourgeois democratic revolution as unifying the country itself.
Nevertheless it was precisely from the soil of this backward country that the liberating ideas of Marxism emanated. It was there that they most firmly took root and gained their first mass following.
Moreover, it was through the example and influence of the pioneer German Marxist movement that the ideas of the Manifesto became the guide for millions throughout the world and led to the formation of the Second International. The world had never before seen an internationalist mass movement of such size, dynamism and power. Marx died before the Second International came into being. But his co-thinker, friend and comrade-in-arms lived to see with his own eyes the first great practical test and confirmation of Marxism represented by this unparalleled spread of its ideas.
“The old local and national self-sufficiency and isolation are replaced by a system of universal intercourse, of all-round interdependence of the nations. We see this in intellectual production no less than in material. The intellectual products of each nation are now the common property of all.”
These prophetic words of the Manifesto sum up the triumph of Marxism over all other schools of thought within the world working class not only in the lifetime of its authors but in our own time. In the unchallenged supremacy of Marxism among the vanguard of Western European workers, represented by the parties of the Second International, Engels saw the greatest pledge of the coming world victory of socialism. He died unaware that the axis of Marxist thought was to shift within a few decades sharply to the East. But it is clear that he had some forebodings about the literary executors of Marxism, Karl Kautsky and Edward Bernstein.
What these revisionists and renegades from Marxism and their allies succeeded in perpetrating inside the Western European labor movement is part of the history of our own day. An even more important part of that history is what was accomplished in the East, in Russia, by those disciples who remained true to the teachings and heritage of the Manifesto.
It was in Russia that the great historic dispute over the role of “backwardness” in modern social struggles took place. All the “original thinkers” there cited Russia’s economic backwardness as an insuperable barrier to the spread of the ideas in the Manifesto and to their applicability in Russia.
But the orthodox Russian Marxists, first Plekhanov and his disciples, the pioneers of Russian Marxism, and later the Bolsheviks, under Lenin and Trotsky, insisted that Russia’s economic backwardness was only a relative factor, which could not be appraised correctly within an isolated national framework. Russia’s economic backwardness had to be viewed in the context of the “system of universal intercourse, of all-round interdependence of the nations,” emphasized by the Manifesto.
Despite her undeniable economic backwardness Russia had become materially and ideologically linked with the rest of the world as an integral segment of the capitalist system. Russia’s social problems could be solved only through the mechanism of classes. There was no solution to the unpostponable historical tasks facing Russia except under the leadership of the revolutionary proletariat. The way out for Russia was the same as that for the most advanced countries – along the road charted in the Manifesto.
These orthodox Russian Marxists were vindicated by history. World War I proved that Russia was a link in the imperialist chain.
It is easy today after the victory to single out Russia as especially suited for revolution and its workers ready to embrace Marxism. In reality, before the Twentieth Century, Russia had witnessed no mass revolutionary struggles, had no traditions of free political activity, let alone any influential socialist movements. Her working class was meagerly unionized, comprising only a small fraction of the population. Both Marxism and trade unionism had to be imported from Western Europe. The pioneers of Marxism and later the leaders of Bolshevism had to create new traditions, new institutions and introduce new methods of action under extremely difficult circumstances.
Russia proved to be the weakest link of imperialism because her working class movement, conquered and led by Bolshevism, proved capable of rising to the level of its historic tasks. Events in 1917 took the course they did in Russia because her working class rose to political heights unattained before by any other. It rejected the misleadership of anti-Marxists and revisionists and built in time the proletarian party, decisive instrument of the proletarian revolution.
The conquest of power by the Russian workers and peasants in October 1917, thanks to the correct policies pursued by the Bolshevik Party, constituted the greatest practical vindication of the Manifesto. It resulted in the political and social transformation of one-sixth of the earth’s surface; it inspired similar movements in other countries and on other continents; and moulded the entire course of world history since its occurrence.
This first victory of a section of the world working class over the capitalist regime unquestionably has been the outstanding event of the Twentieth Century. It provides the starting point for the perspectives, strategy and even tactics of the world proletariat.
The world party – the Third International – that arose as a direct consequence of the Russian Revolution, rallied behind it a mass following far surpassing in all respects the original mass mobilization under the banner of the Second International. Lenin died confident of the quick victory of the world revolution.
Leon Trotsky lived to see this victory delayed for decades by the degeneration of Lenin’s world party. The Second International fell primarily because of the betrayal of the leadership of its largest and strongest party, the German Social Democracy. The same fate, under different conditions, befell the Third International first because of the ideological bankruptcy and then the open treachery of its key party’s leadership, the Stalinized Russian party.
As a consequence of the debacle of the Third International, the axis of Marxism once more shifted sharply – Eastward to the vast colonial regions of Asia (China, India, Indio-China, etc.), and simultaneously back again to the West. The embodiment of this crucial shift is the world Trotskyist movement, the Fourth International, founded a decade ago.
The previous shift of the axis of Marxism was confined primarily to the European continent. This new westward swing of the historical pendulum in the realm of Marxist thought and action encompassed not alone Western Europe but also the Western Hemisphere, in particular, the Latin American countries and the United States itself.
American capitalism has undergone the freest and greatest expansion, outstripping by far all the Western European countries put together. The power wielded in her heyday by Britain, the first-born of capitalism, pales by comparison with the might and resources of American imperialism.
Yet of all the great countries in the world the United States has been the “least contaminated” with Marxism. This condition of political backwardness has been advanced by all schools of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois thought as decisive proof that the ideas of the Communist Manifesto are inapplicable to capitalist America.
This was the keynote sounded by the leading periodicals of the American bourgeoisie on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the Manifesto. They all proclaimed the “irrevocable triumph” of Free Enterprise, in the person of GM, US Steel, Ford and other monopolies, over Marx and Engels.
Thus the old dispute between Marxists and anti-Marxists over the issue of “backwardness” in modern social struggles reappears in a new form and under new conditions. The enemies of Marxism in the most highly developed capitalist country cannot and do not lean upon the factor of economic backwardness as did the Russian anti-Marxists and as do their successors in the colonies today. They bring forward the political backwardness of American labor as the decisive factor which excludes the spread of Marxist ideas and which allegedly constitutes an insuperable obstacle to the victory of socialism.
This political backwardness is no less relative a factor than was Germany’s economic and political backwardness in the days of the Communist Manifesto and Russia’s economic backwardness in pre-revolutionary days. It is the transitory product of past conditions, which less and less correspond to the new world and domestic situation.
Just as in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries the American people eliminated pre-capitalist forms and forces, so today they are undermining the established capitalist relations.
In climbing from its colonial status in 1848 to its present predominant world position, the US has developed in complete accordance with the basic propositions set down in the Manifesto.
The last hundred years have witnessed the steady concentration of wealth in capitalist hands and the uninterrupted growth of the power of the monopolies. While the industrial proletariat has experienced a tremendous growth, the intermediate elements have been squeezed out and pauperized. In recent years the conflict between capitalists and workers has grown sharper, amid the intensification of political reaction. Finally, this country continues to be convulsed by recurring economic crises, each more catastrophic than the one before.
Why then has the political consciousness of the American workers failed to keep step with this maturing of the social crisis of American capitalism?
The first reason is to be found in the historical conditions of American capitalist development. The unparalleled field of operation at its disposal placed US capitalism in an exceptionally favorable position in competition with its rivals abroad and in relation to its workers at home.
Economically, it was free from the outset to exploit a virgin continent. By virtue of its resources, geographic position and World War I, it was able to march toward the subjugation of the entire Western Hemisphere, thus rising to a position where it now seeks to dominate and exploit the entire world.
Politically, it successfully completed the tasks of the bourgeois revolution first through its victorious struggle for independence and next through the destruction of the slave system in Civil War. All this placed American capitalism in the most privileged position and served to hinder not only the political growth but even the industrial organization of the working class. Let us recall that the latter task was not accomplished until the birth of the CIO a little more than a decade ago.
For more than three-quarters of a century the bourgeoisie has dominated the political arena by means of its two-party system. This key monopoly was never seriously challenged in the past, not for lack of opposition but because of the class character of this opposition. The sporadic third party movements have been overwhelmingly agrarian and petty bourgeois in composition, in program, in leadership. The working class, instead of forging to the fore, served as a tail to the kite of these rump movements of the past, or fell back into subservience to the two major capitalist parties.
Against this background, socialist ideas sprouted but did not widely spread. The pioneer Social Democratic movement remained for the most part restricted to the foreign-born. The same thing was true of the pioneer Communist movement. The Stalinist degeneration of the official Communist Party served only to discredit the ideas of Marxism and its socialist goal.
But the conditions that produced and fed this political backwardness either no longer exist or are turning into their opposite. The force of inertia coupled with the abject cowardice and treachery of the official leadership now constitute the main stumbling blocks to the swift political growth of the American proletariat.
In the last 30 years the American working class has gone through two world wars and a terrible depression. It emerged from World War II with mighty union organizations extending from coast to coast in all the basic industries. It has engaged in titanic battles with the monopolists. It has less and less confidence in the stability or eternity of the existing economic system. It is under tremendous pressures to narrow the yawning gap between its advanced economic position and its backward political organization and consciousness.
If American capitalism could provide decent living standards and maintain an appreciable measure of democracy, it could conceivably prolong the political backwardness of American labor, and indefinitely postpone the struggle for state power. But the drive of American capitalism is in just the opposite direction. They indicated this by their price-gouging and Taft-Hartley Law at the peak of the postwar boom. The convulsions of the oncoming depression will serve only to reinforce the capitalist offensive against labor’s rights and living standards.
Thus while the conditions for the political immaturity of American workers are disappearing one by one, in their place are arising conditions which act to precipitate the political crisis of American labor. Toward the close of the Nineteenth Century the economically backward German workers embraced Marxist doctrines. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century the even more economically and culturally backward Russian workers were powerfully attracted to Marxism. Why should the highly cultured and technically competent workers here find them any less irresistible? There is every reason to believe that they will eagerly seize upon them.
If anything is peculiar to the American workers it is their esteem for fine tools. These they know and value. They will need political topis in the sharpening class struggle. Big Business will not relent until it has completely housebroken the labor movement and shackled the unions to its state machine. On the other hand, the workers have no prospect of defending themselves and preserving the independent existence of their unions separate and apart from the prospect of irreconcilable political struggle against Big Business. They will find the political tools they need to replace and reconstruct the existing system in the treasure chest of Marxism and the program of the revolutionary party.
The mass production workers showed how quickly they could adopt the most advanced methods and forms of industrial union organization. In the next stages of the class struggle, these same workers will embrace the most modern methods and forms of political action and will also very likely add a few innovations of their own.
Non-Marxists and anti-Marxists invariably fasten their gaze only on one side of historical development, and that the darkest side. They therefore find no lack of arguments and pretexts for cheap pessimistic conclusions. But those who try to see things in their true light and proper context can remain confident of the future as were the authors of the Manifesto, and after them, Lenin and Trotsky.
Serious revolutionists do not work for a day, a year or even for a few decades. A hundred years seems a long time measured by the life-span of an individual. But where world-transforming processes are concerned, it is no more than a brief moment. The ascending bourgeoisie required some four centuries to conquer power in the principal civilized centers and consolidate their world rule. The process of the proletariat’s rise to power will take considerably less time. As a matter of fact, it began in Russia three decades ago when the first detachment of labor dislodged the old rulers.
It is possible to dwell upon the set-backs and defeats suffered by the Western European workers. But far more decisive is the collapse of European capitalism on the one hand, and the revolutionary significance of the repeated offensives of the European workers against the ruling powers, on the other hand.
It is possible to become blinded by the abominations of Stalinism, and to single out its undeniable powers of corruption and destruction. But far more decisive is the instability of Stalinist regime and the blind alley in which it has arrived.
It is possible to tremble before the Moloch of American imperialism and to forget that there exists a mightier power on this continent – the power of the organized 16 million workers. Alongside this young giant of American labor there stand millions of oppressed Negroes, the natural allies of the revolutionary workers, who are destined to play a major role in the titanic events that lie ahead. Beside the possessors of the atom bomb there live and toil the producers of atomic explosives. Once they are aroused and enlightened, their offensive will confound the skeptics and amaze the world.
It is possible to see the small size and modest influence of the Socialist Worker’s Party and scoff at its aspiration to lead the American workers to the establishment of a Worker’s and Farmer’s Government. But the stark reality of our day is that, as the irrepressible conflict widens and deepens, the American workers will be more and more compelled to adopt the ideas of the Manifesto and to follow the course charted by the Russian workers. Our party’s task is to help them find that road as quickly as possible in order to save civilization from destruction.
Neither the founders of Marxism nor the leaders of Bolshevism entertained doubts about the socialist future of the American labor movement. Back in 1890 Frederick Engels wrote the following concerning the revolutionary potential of American workers: “If the Americans once begin, with all their energy and virulence, we in Europe shall look like children.”
Since then the march of events has made one thing clear: The struggle for socialism must be fought to a finish and consummated in the US.
The existing world situation has placed the American workers in a position where they play a decisive role in determining the future of mankind.
In the spirit of the Communist Manifesto, Leon Trotsky foresaw this as far back as 1925 when at the height of the fabulous boom of the Twenties, he wrote:
In spite of all its huge power, American capitalism is not a self-contained factor but a part of world economy. Furthermore, the more powerful the industry of the United States becomes, the more intimate and profound becomes its dependence on the world market. Driving the European countries farther and farther down their blind alley, American capitalism is laying the foundation for wars and revolutionary upheavals, which in their frightful rebound will not fail to strike the economic system of the United States also. Such is the prospect for America ...
But the inevitable hour will strike for American capitalism also: The American oil and steel magnates, trust and export leaders, the multi-millionaires of New York, Chicago and San Francisco, are performing – though unconsciously – their predestined revolutionary function. And the American proletariat will ultimately discharge theirs.
Last updated on 25.2.2009