MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 5

International Socialist Review, Fall 1998

Phil Gasper

A Manifesto for Today

From International Socialist Review, Issue 5, Fall 1998.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Phil Gasper takes a look at Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto

150 years after its publication

The 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto [1] has been widely noted. New editions of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ pamphlet have been issued, academic conferences held, articles published in left-wing journals, and even the mainstream media have paid attention. Only a few years ago, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, commentators across the political spectrum declared Marxism to be dead. By contrast, much of the recent commentary has been surprisingly favorable. [2] “Apart from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species,” says The Los Angeles Times, the Manifesto “is arguably the most important work of non-fiction written in the 19th century.” The conservative sociologist Daniel Bell praises the Manifesto’s description of capitalism as “a stunning, prescient statement.” [3] An article in The Washington Post calls Marx “an astute critic of capitalism.” [4] Steven Marcus, Columbia University Professor, describes the Manifesto in The New York Times, as a “masterpiece” with “enduring insights into social existence.” [5] Perhaps most interesting of all is a lengthy The New Yorker article, in which staff-writer John Cassidy announces The Return of Karl Marx and reports a conversation with an investment banker:

To my surprise, he brought up Karl Marx. “The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right,” he said ... “I am absolutely convinced that Marx’s approach is the best way to look at capitalism.”

A little later Cassidy explains why Marx may be “The Next Thinker”:

Many of the contradictions that he saw in Victorian capitalism and that were subsequently addressed by reformist governments have begun reappearing in new guises, like mutant viruses ... [H]e wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence – issues that economists are now confronting anew, sometimes without realizing that they are walking in Marx’s footsteps. [6]

All this attention to Marx’s ideas is certainly welcome. But – and of course there is a ‘but’ – with few exceptions, recent commentators have restricted their praise of the Manifesto to what it says about the nature and workings of the capitalist system. Yet Marx and Engels did not write the Manifesto as a piece of abstract economic analysis. It was intended as a revolutionary call to action – an explanation not only of what is wrong with society, but how it can be transformed to create “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Pt. II, ¶ 74). Central to this strategy for change is their claim that in the modern working class – the proletariat – capitalism has produced “its own gravediggers” (Pt. I, ¶ 53). That is, that capitalism itself has created the instrument of its abolition – an oppressed class with both the capacity and the interest to fight for the overthrow of the existing system, the emancipation of all humanity, and which, unlike previous oppressed classes, was capable of democratic self-rule.

The claim that the proletariat is a revolutionary class is the heart and soul of the Communist Manifesto. Yet, it is precisely this claim that nearly all recent commentators – including most on the left – emphatically reject. In a recent essay, the radical economist Edward Herman, for example, identifies “two Karl Marx’s.” One Marx “was an exceptionally intelligent and learned observer and analyst of capitalism” whose economic theories remain essential. The other “was the activist and enlightenment optimist, who foresaw an imminent collapse of a brutal capitalism and the ushering in of a classless state and utopia. This Marx was seriously mistaken.” [7] The British historian and long-time socialist Eric Hobsbawm, states bluntly that “if at the end of the millennium we must be struck by the acuteness of the Manifesto’s vision of ... a massively globalized capitalism, the failure of another of its forecasts is equally striking. It is now evident that the bourgeoisie has not produced ‘above all ... its own grave-diggers’ in the proletariat.” [8] And the left-wing academic Hans Magnus Enzensberger, argues that “the strength of the Manifesto is in its analysis and not in the remedies it offers” and that “the strength of Marxism lies in its ruthless negativity”.

It is not the “ruthless negativity” of the Manifesto that has made it the second best-selling book of all time. [9] It is precisely because Marx and Engels argue that society can be radically changed that the Manifesto is still read by large numbers of people. But how seriously should their argument be taken in 1998? Almost a quarter of a century after the Manifesto’s first publication, Marx and Engels wrote in a new preface that while “[h]ere and there some detail might be improved,” the basic ideas of the Manifesto retained their relevance.

However much the state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever [even though 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. [10]

I will try to explain why today that judgment remains essentially correct. It is easy enough to comb through the Manifesto to find the occasional rhetorical exaggeration, mistake or failed prediction. But its “general principles” – and above all its call for revolutionary change – are if anything even more relevant to the world at the end of the twentieth century than they were in the middle of the nineteenth.


The Manifesto begins by discussing capitalism or, as Marx and Engels refer to it throughout, “bourgeois society.” By this they mean societies, like our own, in which the bourgeoisie – ”the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labor” [11] – is the dominant economic, social and political group. What is striking is how contemporary their description of capitalism sounds. Marx and Engels describe an immensely dynamic system whose relentless drive to expand developed society’s productive capacities to levels undreamed of in earlier centuries. The source of this dynamism is capitalist production for the market. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the huge expansion of trade brought about by voyages of discovery and subsequent European colonization, allowed an emerging urban commercial class, particularly in England, to elbow aside the old “feudal system of industry, under which industrial production was monopolized by closed guilds” (Pt. I, ¶ 8) and replace it with a system based on wage labor and “free competition” (Pt. I, ¶ 26). In turn, competition created a relentless drive to conquer new markets, to expand production, and to find ways to produce more for less. This is why “[t]he bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production” (Pt. I, ¶ 18) and why, even by the mid-nineteenth century, its technical achievements had dwarfed those of earlier ruling classes.

In describing these achievements, Marx and Engels make clear why they regard the emergence of capitalism as a historically progressive development. The bourgeoisie

... has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. (Pt. I, ¶ 17)

A little later they return to the same theme:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor? (Pt. I, ¶ 24)

Of course, the past 150 years have witnessed technological developments which have far outstripped even these achievements, from the electric dynamo, the telephone and the internal combustion engine, to radio and television, air travel, computers, satellites and biotechnology. But what Marx and Engels are describing is recognizably our own world, characterized as it is by a seemingly never-ending stream of technological innovations and scientific miracles.

Capitalism’s drive to expand results in a huge increase in society’s productive capacity, in the expansion of the system as capitalist relations of production are imposed on every portion of the globe, and the integration of the whole world into a single economic system. As many commentators have noted, the Manifesto’s account of these processes is an almost uncanny picture of the modern global economy.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

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 of the globe ... In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. (Pt. I, ¶¶ 19–20)

What is remarkable about this description is that it fits the contemporary world far more closely than the world of the mid-nineteenth century. [12]

While the Manifesto applauds capitalism for the material benefits it makes possible and for its tendency to undermine reactionary and insular ideas, [13] the Manifesto is of course primarily an indictment of capitalism. In comparison to earlier forms of society capitalism is enormously dynamic and progressive, but it remains a system of class exploitation in which a dominating ruling class appropriates the wealth produced by the mass of the population. Because of its dynamism and drive to expand, capitalism is frequently even more dehumanizing and brutal than anything which came before.

In a society in which the stock market rises each time new lay offs are announced and in which the average CEO earns over 300 times as much as one of his employees, [14] it is not hard to see that capitalism remains a system of sharp class divisions. This economic inequality reduces democracy to a sham, ensuring that “[t]he executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” [15] (Pt. I, ¶ 12). Apologists for the system sometimes claim that with the advent of mutual funds and pension schemes we are becoming a shareholder society in which wealth is more evenly distributed. In fact, the concentration of wealth in the United States has reached record levels in the 1990s. In 1995, the top 10 percent of the population owned 84 percent of stocks and 90 percent of bonds. Excluding the value of principal residences, the richest one percent of the population owned over 43 percent of the nation’s wealth. The richest half percent alone owned over 34 percent – over 50 percent more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. And even in the bottom 90 percent, most of the wealth is concentrated at the top. [16] Globally, the figures are even more astonishing. Fewer than 500 people around the world own more than the combined wealth of over half the planet’s population. Nor is it hard to understand how the rich have acquired their wealth. To cite just one statistic, in the mid 1960s, wages for manufacturing jobs in the United States were equal to 46 percent of the value added in production, while by 1990 the figure had dropped to 36 percent. [17] The capitalist class, in other words, is squeezing out more surplus value than ever from those who work for them.

But capitalism is not just about inequality. The system itself has a kind of Midas touch – everything it comes into contact with is turned into a commodity, an item to be bought or sold in the marketplace. This applies to labor (or more precisely to labor power) as much as to anything else:

... [L]aborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market. (Pt. I, ¶ 30)

Market competition enforces strict labor discipline on the workforce, turning work into a stressful, tedious and often humiliating burden for most of the population.

Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him... Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers ... under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants ... [T]hey are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is. (Pt. I, ¶¶ 31–32)

At best work becomes an unpleasant necessity. At worst, individuals can be physically or mentally destroyed. According to the Harvard economist Juliet Schor, “Thirty percent of [American] adults say that they experience high stress nearly every day; even higher numbers report high stress once or twice a week ... Americans are literally working themselves to death – as jobs contribute to heart disease, hypertension, gastric problems, depression, exhaustion, and a variety of other ailments.” [18]

Life under capitalism is a rat race not only inside the workplace but out of it. In a society constantly on the move, social relations are turned upside down. Capitalism encourages greed, competition and aggression. It degrades human relations so that they are frequently based on little more than “naked self-interest” and “callous ‘cash payment’” (Pt. I., ¶ 14). And while its supporters prattle on endlessly about “family values,” capitalism itself rips families apart. [19]

The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor ... [20] (Pt. II, ¶ 46)

Vast numbers of people are thus denied a truly human existence.

Capitalism’s ceaseless drive to expand not only destabilizes all social relations – sooner or later it also undermines the conditions for economic growth itself. Marx and Engels argue that capitalism increasingly exhibits a tendency to run out of control – it is a system in which highly destructive economic crises are unavoidable and which has thus become fundamentally irrational.

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. (Pt. I, ¶ 27)

In a world threatened by pollution, global warming and the destruction of ecosystems, this image perhaps has a special resonance. [21] In the late twentieth century, the search for profits threatens to destroy everything in its path, including the natural environment.

The Manifesto does not contain a fully-worked out economic theory – Marx was later to provide that in Capital – but it does provide a description of recurring capitalist crises which, once again, fits the modern world remarkably well.

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 of its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put on its trial, each time 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 periodically destroyed. (Pt. I, ¶ 27)

The periodic crises which the Manifesto describes have continued to plague capitalism ever since, despite repeated claims that they have become a thing of the past. In the past twenty-five years, for example, the U.S. and world economies have experienced sharp downturns in 1974–75, 1980–82 and 1990–91. With each recovery, the ruling class declares that future prosperity is assured, only to be surprised by the occurrence of the next slump. The current economic crisis in Asia was totally unforeseen by bourgeois economists who, until last year, were still confidently predicting strong economic growth for the region.

Marx and Engels not only describe the pattern of periodic crises under capitalism, they also explain the special form that they take. In earlier societies, crises were the result of shortages in vital goods, but in the modern world precisely the opposite is the case.

In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation 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 industry, too much commerce. (Pt. I, ¶ 27)

Capitalism is a system of competition between independent producers, each trying to make a profit by outselling their rivals. Production is uncoordinated, and each capitalist to accumulate and survive has to grab as large a part of the market as possible. Each attempts to produce to as much as possible, even if supply outstrips the markets ability to sell these goods at previous profit levels. If the oversupply is severe enough it will force many producers out of business, raise unemployment and thus further increase the gap between supply and demand. The resulting crisis forces millions into poverty while there are more than enough material resources to meet their needs. People go hungry while food remains unsold or is destroyed, and go homeless while buildings remain empty.

The recent history of the real-estate development and construction industries in the United States, Britain, Japan, and elsewhere provides a sad example of this process at work. Encouraged by high property prices in the mid-1980s, developers launched a massive program of office-block construction which led, by the end of the decade, to substantial oversupply. The resulting fall in prices caused widespread bankruptcies, which put serious pressure on the financial system, and was partially responsible for triggering a severe recession in the early 1990s. The current crisis in Asia has followed a similar pattern, with high levels of investment leading to huge overproduction of electrical goods, steel, petrochemicals, cars and ships. This is the underlying explanation for the financial and currency crises which have overwhelmed the region over the past year. [22]

Capitalist society has raised production to the point where everybody could be provided with a decent life – enough to eat, a comfortable place to live, health care, educational and recreational opportunities, and much more. But capitalism not only cannot spread such material benefits equitably [23], it can no longer control the productive forces it has produced. As Marx and Engels put it, “The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.” Each successive crisis can only be overcome “by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises” (Pt.I, ¶27). The problem is rooted in the nature of capitalism itself. Individual ownership and the anarchy of marketplace competition are no longer compatible with large-scale economic production integrated at the social and global levels. But is there a satisfactory alternative?

The Working Class

In the opening pages of the Manifesto, Marx and Engels offer a searing and stunningly accurate indictment of capitalist society. They describe how the system works, who benefits from it, and why it repeatedly plunges into crisis. But they go on to argue that capitalism itself creates the material and social conditions for a far more rational kind of society – a society in which exploitation and oppression have been ended and in which all human beings can live rewarding and fulfilling lives. Capitalism has raised the level of production to the point where, for the first time in history, poverty and hunger can be eliminated and an adequate standard of living can be given to every human being. For this to happen, though, wealth and social power must be taken away from the tiny minority who currently possess them. But this minority will not give up its advantages willingly. Like ruling classes down the ages, it will do all in its power to protect its privileges. Since it controls the key state institutions – the government, the courts, the army and the police – this creates a problem. Is there a social force with the capacity to challenge such a formidable opponent?

The lynch pin of the Manifesto’s argument is that capitalism itself has brought the requisite social force into existence:

... 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 modern working class – the proletarians. (Pt. I, ¶ 29)

The potential power of the working class is based on the fact that as capitalism develops it socializes the labor process, bringing workers together in large urban centers and in bigger and bigger units of production. At the same time, the pressures of economic life tend to push workers together to fight back against their exploitation. And because of their key economic position, workers have the power to bring production to a halt and to reorganize it on a collective basis. It is this that gives the working class the ability to challenge the domination of the bourgeoisie. Of course most workers do not begin with the goal of making a revolution, but as they are forced to engage in the class struggle to protect their own interests “the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes” (Pt. I, ¶ 38) and begin to assume a political character. The economic class struggle thus has a tendency to become a struggle by the working class as a whole to win political power from the bourgeoisie. Eventually, this fight intensifies to such a pitch that it “breaks out into open revolution, and ... the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat” (Pt. I, ¶ 51).

What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable. (Pt. I, ¶ 53)

The Manifesto’s language is powerful, but can the dramatic scenario it outlines really be taken seriously today? Critics of Marx and Engels often focus on the rhetorical flourish (”equally inevitable”) with which Part I ends, accusing them of holding some kind of metaphysical theory of history in which the triumph of socialism is preordained. But this is by no means what Marx and Engels mean. [24] In the opening paragraphs of the Manifesto, Marx and Engels note that class struggle may end in more than one way: “either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”. (Pt. I, ¶ 2) As Eric Hobsbawm notes, “contrary to widespread assumptions,” the Manifesto “is not a determinist document,” but rather “a document of choices, of political possibilities rather than probabilities, let alone certainties.” [25] The question is whether working-class revolution at the end of the twentieth century is a realistic possibility.

Critics of Marxism raise two main objections to the claim that the working class has the potential to lead a revolution. The first is that the working class is becoming weaker, not stronger. Marx and Engels argue that “[s]ociety as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Pt. I, ¶ 5). Against this many critics claim that the working class is in decline, becoming an ever smaller part of the population in the most advanced economies. Thus according to Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the Manifesto’s “class analysis has turned out to be wide off the mark ... The demand for [industrial] labor has declined in a dramatic way, and the classical working class is dwindling rapidly.” Daniel Bell agrees: “the industrial proletariat has been shrinking in every advanced industrial society, while the economies are moving into a post-industrial state.” [26]

This common objection rests on a number of fundamental confusions. The key role that Marx and Engels assign to the working class depends not simply on its numbers but on its key position within the economy – its ability to shut down production and to draw in behind it various other sectors of society. Even where the working class is a minority, it still has the potential to play this role. Moreover, the argument profoundly misunderstands what Marx and Engels meant by the working class. In the advanced capitalist economies, the proportion of the workforce employed in manual labor has declined substantially in the present century (although manual workers still constituted 32 percent of the U.S. workforce in 1990 according to the last census). But Marx and Engels did not define the working class in terms of the kind of work it does. In particular, the working class is not restricted to manual, industrial or manufacturing workers. Rather, it consists of all those all those who survive only by selling their ability to work. In their words it is “a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital” (Pt. I, ¶ 30). [27] This definition applies not just to blue-collar factory workers, but also to the vast majority of people who work in the service sector and in white-collar jobs. Workers in all these areas are subject to the same sorts of economic pressures, no matter what the precise nature of the work they do. One of the most important trends of the twentieth century has been the way in which members of the workforce who at one time regarded themselves as outside the working class – clerical workers, nurses, teachers and others – have increasingly found themselves subject to the same harsh workplace discipline as traditional factory workers. [28] Many workers in these occupations have joined unions and shown an increasing willingness to go on strike.

The working class as Marx and Engels defined it, then, is today bigger than ever before. In the more developed capitalist countries, workers and their families constitute the vast majority of the population – in the United States the figure is around 75 percent. The picture is even more dramatic in other parts of the world. When the Manifesto was published, most of the world’s population were peasants engaged in agricultural production. Today, the spread of capitalism has created a huge working class in nearly every country in the world, from Asia to Africa to Latin America. [29] Marx and Engels have been proved right: “In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed” (Pt. I, ¶ 30).

But even if the working class is growing, does it still have the capacity to make revolutionary change? In his new introduction to the Manifesto, Hobsbawm argues that Marx and Engels are wrong to think so. According to Hobsbawm, they base their belief in the revolutionary potential of workers on the assumption that capitalism will bring about “the inevitable pauperization of the laborers” – an assumption that even in the 1840s “was not totally convincing.” [30] In the 1990s, Hobsbawm finds this assumption even less convincing.

[G]iven the enormous economic potential of capitalism so dramatically expounded in the Manifesto itself – why was it inevitable that capitalism could not provide a livelihood, however, miserable, for most of its working class or, alternatively, that it could not afford a welfare system? That ‘pauperism develops even more rapidly than population and wealth’? If capitalism had a long life before it – as became obvious very soon after 1848 – this did not have to happen, and indeed it did not. [31]

Hobsbawm’s argument is thus a simple one. Workers are not likely to become revolutionary because capitalism is able to offer them enough (even if, perhaps, only just enough) to keep them relatively satisfied.

But the Manifesto’s prediction of working-class revolution does not depend on the claim that capitalism will inevitably drive workers’ wages down to a bare physical subsistence level. It is true that Marx and Engels do make this claim more than once in the Manifesto. For example, they state:

The average price of wage labor is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the laborer in bare existence as a laborer. What, therefore, the wage laborer appropriates by means of his labor, merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence. (Pt. II, ¶ 22)

Obviously this statement is at best an exaggeration, at least for the most developed capitalist economies. It is worth noting in passing, however, that in making this assertion, Marx and Engels were not putting forward a doctrine of their own invention, but simply repeating “the then orthodox view of the bourgeois economists.” [32] In any event, they were soon to reject this view, coming to recognize that for periods of time wages can show sustained growth under capitalism. [33]

However, they were to make a number of points about such wage growth, which explain why it does not undermine the Manifesto’s basic argument. First, rising wages are quite compatible with a relative decline in the share of income going to the working class. Second, since basic needs are not an absolute but are historically and socially determined, rising wages do not necessarily eliminate poverty. Third, and most important of all, when capitalism goes into crisis, working class living standards come under sustained attack, as they have in the United States and elsewhere over the past 25 years. [34] At a time when the ruling class is slashing welfare provisions in every advanced capitalist country, and when workers around the world are being forced to work harder simply to stay in the same place, Hobsbawm’s argument is jarringly anachronistic. And when capitalist depression conditions, as in Indonesia, are pauperizing an entire working class, Marx’s argument cannot be so easily dismissed.

It is the fact that over time capitalism cannot avoid devastating crises, not the claim that wages can never rise, or the claim that workers are inevitably turned into paupers, that explains why Marx and Engels see workers as constituting a revolutionary class. The point has been well made by Hal Draper:

Capitalism cannot, in the long run, solve the economic problem of providing a human life for the mass of the people ... This proposition is the basis of the class approach of Marxism. Without it you have no class approach, and cannot have one. If it is not true, there is no reason not to be a good liberal. [35]

The demand for more becomes revolutionary when it goes beyond the capabilities of the system to provide the “more.” That is the link between the fight for reforms and social revolution from a Marxist perspective. It depends on the root idea that the economic problems of the system cannot be solved within the system ... All that Marx claims is that in the course of the fight for “more” out of the system – regardless of what it costs the system – the struggle becomes, in the end, a revolutionary struggle. [36]

The working class is not at all moments of its existence on the verge of revolution. For long periods of time, many workers may be satisfied with their lot under capitalism. But what Marx and Engels understood was that this state of affairs cannot last forever. The chaotic, turbulent, unplanned development of capitalist economies eventually throws whole societies into turmoil, and turns even the most modest of working-class demands into a challenge to the system as a whole.

Moreover, the working class is in a position to fight for its demands even if the bourgeoisie declines to meet them. As Marx and Engels put it, “with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more” (Pt. I, ¶ 38). This process is not a smooth one. It has many ups and downs. The Manifesto notes that the “organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves” (Pt. I, ¶ 40). The ruling class attempts to weaken the working class further by exacerbating national, racial, sexual and other differences. But such divisions can be fought and overcome as capitalism continues to intensify the class struggle. And because of their strategic economic position, workers – whether blue collar or white collar, industrial or service – have the power to “become masters of the productive forces of society ... by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation” (Pt. I, ¶ 48).

Marx and Engels can certainly be faulted for having, in 1848, an over-optimistic conception of how quickly these processes would work themselves out. [37] As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued sixty years ago:

The error of Marx and Engels with regard to historical delays flowed in part from the underestimation of the subsequent possibilities inherent in capitalism, and in another part from the overestimation of the revolutionary maturity of the proletariat. [38]

Capitalism has repeatedly shown that it cannot avoid periodic crises and that these crises may bring the barbarism of modern warfare in their wake. At the same time the working class has grown ever larger, increasing its potential power to shut down the economy and to threaten the very existence of the ruling class.

The argument is not just a theoretical one. Time and time again over the last 150 years, workers in countries around the world have shown their capacity for mass action and, not infrequently, revolutionary struggle. As Ian Birchall notes,

The Paris Commune of 1871, when workers governed the city through recallable delegates, was followed by the Russian Revolution, the first years of which, despite foreign intervention and bureaucratic distortion, offer a model of what workers’ democracy could be. Workers’ democracy surfaced again in Spain in 1936-37 and in Hungary in 1956. And in recent years workers’ struggles have thrown up new organizations – the French action committees of 1968, the Chilean cordones of 1973, the Portuguese workers’ commissions of 1974–75, the Iranian Shoras of 1979 and the rise of Solidarity in Poland in 1980. [39]

None of these great movements proved successful in the long run. None succeeded in permanently ending the rule of capital and building a society free of exploitation and oppression. But there is no more reason to believe in the inevitability of defeat than in the inevitability of victory. The revolutionary movements of the past show the potential of mass working-class action. The task of socialists is to learn the lessons of past defeats and use them to ensure victory in the future.

Towards Communism

At the center of the Manifesto’s vision is the idea of working-class self-emancipation. As Engels puts it in his Preface to the English Edition of 1888, “our notion, from the very beginning, was that ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself’” (¶ 5). Working class self-activity and self-organization is the key both to successful revolution and to the new form of society such a revolution would bring about. The commonest argument against socialism today is that the collapse of the Soviet Union shows that no alternative to capitalism is possible. But the societies that collapsed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had nothing in common with Marx and Engels’ conception of socialism. Just as in the West, workers in these countries were exploited by a privileged ruling class. And while internal markets in these countries had largely been abolished, the pressures of military and economic competition on a world scale imposed on them the familiar capitalist dynamic of accumulation and growth. The demise of these state capitalist regimes is in no way an argument against the possibility of genuine socialism. [40]

But what would such an alternative society be like? Unlike the early utopian socialists, Marx and Engels do not offer a detailed blueprint for the future. They are not interested in drawing up “the best possible plan of the best possible state of society” (Pt. III, ¶ 51) or painting “fantastic pictures of future society” (Pt. III, ¶ 53). Such dreams are no more than “castles in the air” (Pt. III, ¶ 55), unconnected with “the material conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat” (Pt. III, ¶ 48), and it is primarily with analyzing these material conditions that Marx and Engels concern themselves. But the analysis of these conditions does permit them to formulate in general terms the principles on which a socialist society would be based.

The first and vital step is to “raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy” (Pt. II, ¶ 69). Democratic working-class control of society in both the economic and political realms is the defining feature of the Manifesto’s conception of socialism. Without real democracy there can be no socialism. But how is democratic power to be exercised? In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels do not speculate about this, but in their Preface to the German Edition of 1872, they point to the example of the Paris Commune, “where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months,” as a concrete historical example of what they had in mind.

One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” [41] (¶ 2)

The existing capitalist state has been perfected as a mechanism to ensure bourgeois rule. A successful revolution would have to dismantle it and replace it with institutions which permit genuine participation by the majority of the population. The Commune instituted a number of important measures. The standing army was abolished and replaced by workers’ militias. Police, magistrates and judges were appointed by the community and could be quickly recalled. All elected officials were also revocable at short notice and most were workers or working-class leaders, not professional politicians, who were paid only workers’ wages. The executive and legislative functions of government were combined so the Commune was not just a talk shop. Instead, it provided a first concrete example of the way in which workers’ democracy could be achieved.

In the context of workers’ democracy, the new society could advance towards its ultimate goals: the elimination of private ownership of the economy and production for the market, and the final abolition of all class divisions. Marx and Engels are clear that such dramatic economic and social changes, unlike the seizure of political power, can only come about “by degrees” (Pt. II, ¶ 70). But through such measures as nationalization of land, banks and large-scale industry, combined with heavy taxation of the wealthy, the new society could gradually eliminate production based on market competition and replace it with workers’ control of production and democratic planning designed to meet people’s needs. At the end point of this process, when class divisions have finally disappeared, “the public power [i.e. the state] will lose it political character” (Pt. II, ¶ 74), ceasing to be a means for one class to impose its will on another, and becoming instead simply a forum for democratically resolving disputed issues.

There is one final aspect of the Manifesto’s vision that is important. Marx and Engels note that “[T]he proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie” (Pt. I, ¶ 50). But the emphasis here is on “first,” for a little later they add that “[U]nited action, of the leading civilized countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat” (Pt. II, ¶ 56). Capitalism, as we have seen, is an international system. For this reason it is impossible for a single region to break free from capitalist relations of production on its own, at least for any significant period of time. Left by itself the military and economic pressures of hostile world capitalism will ensure that the revolution does not survive. It was the isolation of the Russian Revolution of 1917 which eventually led to the defeat of the workers’ government and its replacement by a new ruling class running a state capitalist economy. Thus the only way in which a workers’ revolution can ultimately survive is if it spreads to other countries, since the resources needed to abolish scarcity are only available on an international level. But precisely because the world economy is more and more characterized by “universal inter-dependence of nations” (Pt. I, ¶ 20) and “improved means of communication ... that place workers of different locations in contact with one another” (Pt. I, ¶ 39), the prospects for such a revolution are better today than at any earlier time. The Manifesto’s final call for international solidarity is not an abstract moral slogan, it is an essential precondition for the transformation of society.


The Communist Manifesto is the founding document of the revolutionary socialist tradition. It explains in outline why a socialist revolution is necessary and how it can come about. The Manifesto’s critique of capitalism is today more relevant than ever. Its argument for the revolutionary potential of the working class has lost none of its original force. But Marx and Engels were also well aware that socialism could not come about without the active intervention of self-conscious revolutionaries. Such revolutionaries “point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality” and “always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole” (Pt. II, ¶ 5). They “fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement” (Pt. IV, ¶ 2). Capitalist crisis is inevitable, but the victory of socialist revolution is not. Capitalism may yet bring about “the common ruin of the contending classes” (Pt. I, ¶ 2). Only the active intervention of organized revolutionaries – ”the most advanced and resolute section” of the working class movement, with a clear “understanding [of] the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement” (Pt. II, ¶ 6) – can bring about a different outcome. The urgent task facing us at the beginning of a new century is the rebuilding of revolutionary, working class socialist organization. There is still a world to win.



1. There are several English translation of the Manifesto. The authoritative translation was prepared by Samuel Moore under the direct supervision of Engels, and published in 1888. This translation is available in numerous editions and anthologies. The Manifesto consists of a short introduction, followed by four parts. For ease of reference, quotations from the Manifesto in this article will be from the Moore translation identified by paragraph number within each part. (Be warned, however, that the most widely available cheap edition of the Manifesto, distributed by International Publishers, contains a number of modifications to Moore’s translation, many of which change it for the worse. For example, in Moore’s translation the goal of working-class revolution is “to win the battle of democracy” [Pt. II, ¶ 68]. In the International Publishers edition this becomes “to establish democracy.”) References to passages from the various prefaces to the Manifesto will follow a similar format.

There are several useful English commentaries on the Manifesto. One is Dirk J. Struik, Birth of the Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1971). As well as the Moore translation and Engels’ two drafts of 1847, it contains a long essay by the editor on the Manifesto’s historical background, and supplementary material by Marx and Engels. A second useful guide is Frederic L. Bender (ed.), The Communist Manifesto (New York: Norton, 1988), a critical edition which contains background material and brief commentaries by Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky, Hal Draper and Ernest Mandel, among others. Finally there is Hal Draper, The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto (Berkeley, CA: Center for Socialist History, 1994). This includes (1) a lengthy history of the Manifesto; (2) the text of the first German edition in parallel with the first English translation (produced by Helen MacFarlane in 1850), Moore’s translation, and a new translation by Draper, intended to complement, rather than replace, Moore; and (3) a detailed paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of the entire text.

2. Though of course not all. The Economist recently dismissed Marx as a “nineteenth century economic crank” (February 28, 1998). Sixties-radical-turned-Republican-zealot David Horowitz goes further, blaming Marx for millions of deaths and comparing him to Hitler (Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1998). Not so long ago, this same equation of Marxism with Stalinism was being made by many on the left as well. See Alex Callinicos, The Revenge of History: Marxism and the East European Revolutions (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1991), pp. 11–15.

3. Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1998.

4. Washington Post, April 20, 1998.

5. New York Times, April 26, 1998.

6. The New Yorker, October 20 & 27, 1997, p. 248.

7. The Reopening of Marx’s System, New Politics 24, Winter 1998, pp. 131–2.

8. Introduction to The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition (New York: Verso, 1998), p. 18.

9. ”Last year when a new pocket sized edition was produced in Britain the publishers were amazed that over 60,000 copies were sold.” Socialist Review (Britain) 215, January 1998, p. 17. The claim about total sales comes from The Guinness Book of World Records.

10. Preface to the German Edition of 1872, ¶ 2.

11. This is Engels’ definition in a footnote added to the English edition of 1888.

12. See Birchall, The Manifesto Remains a Guide, New Politics 24, Winter 1998, p. 114; Hobsbawm, Introduction, pp. 17–18.

13. As Marshall Berman notes, the praise is sometimes “so extravagant, it skirts the edge of awe.” Unchained Melody, The Nation, May 11, 1998, p. 12.

14. Holly Sklar, CEO Greed is Out of Control, Z Magazine, June 1998.

15. See Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few, 6th ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995); Ken Silverstein, Washington on $10 Million a Day (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1998).

16. Left Business Observer #78, July 17, 1997, p. 3; #80, November 17, 1997, p. 8.

17. Numbers from the World Bank, cited on the Left Business Observer’s website (www.panix.com/˜dhenwood).

18. The Overworked American (New York: Basic Books, 1991), p. 11.

19. See Lillian Breslow Rubin, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family (New York: Basic Books, 1976).

20. Schor notes that “Not only are more of the nation’s young people working, but they are working longer hours. A 1989 nationwide sweep by government inspectors uncovered wide-scale abuses of child labor laws ... In large urban centers ... [i]nspectors have found nineteenth-century-style sweatshops where poor immigrants – young girls of twelve years and above – hold daytime jobs, missing out on school altogether. And a million to a million and a half migrant farmworker children – some as young as three and four years – are at work in the nation’s fields.” The Overworked American, pp. 26–27.

21. See John Bellamy Foster, The Vulnerable Planet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1994).

22. See Colin Sparks, The Eye of the Storm and Rob Hoveman, Financial Crises and the Real Economy, International Socialism 2:78, Spring 1998.

23. According to the World Bank, 1.3 billion people around the world live on less than $1 a day and 4.3 billion (over two-thirds of the world’s population) live on less than $2 a day. Rich Nations Grow More Stingy With Poor Nations, San Francisco Chronicle, October 17, 1997.

24. As Draper points out, ‘unvermeidlich,’ the word in the German original, often “conveys nothing more than high hope and confidence in a hortatory context ... In practice, the unvermeidlich is counterposed to the accidental, in order to stress that a phenomenon obeys definite laws and is the outcome of causes that can be examined; it implies a scientific attitude towards causation, not a metaphysical one.” Adventures, p. 234.

25. Introduction, pp. 27–8.

26. Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1998. A common related criticism, also made by Enzensberger, is that the Manifesto incorrectly predicts that “all intermediate strata are doomed to disappear.” In fact it is a myth that Marx and Engels claim in the Manifesto or elsewhere that the middle class (or middle classes) will eventually vanish. See Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. II: The Politics of Social Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), pp. 613–627, and Adventures, pp. 226 & 282.

27. In a footnote to the English edition of 1888, Engels defines the proletariat as “the class of modern wage-laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live.”

28. This process is described in detail by Harry Braverman in his classic study Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).

29. Paul Kellogg, Goodbye to the Working Class?, International Socialism 2:36, Autumn 1987.

30. Introduction, p. 21.

31. Introduction, p. 22.

32. Adventures, p. 243.

33. For the development of Marx’s views on this question see Ernest Mandel, The Formation of The Economic Thought of Karl Marx (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), ch. 9.

34. To cite one striking example, compared to 1969, “the average employed person [in the U.S.] is now on the job an additional 163 hours, or the equivalent of an extra month a year.” The Overworked American, p. 29.

35. Marx, ‘Marxism,’ and Trade Unions in Socialism from Below (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1992), p. 209.

36. Ibid., p. 210.

37. Since revolutions were about to break out across Europe, their optimism is surely understandable. Following the defeat of the revolutionary movements and the stabilization of the European economies, Marx argued that it would be decades before another revolutionary crisis would emerge.

38. On the Ninetieth Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, in Bender, op. cit., p. 142.

39. The Manifesto Remains a Guide, p. 119.

40. See Callinicos, The Revenge of History.

41. The embedded quotation is from Marx’s pamphlet The Civil War in France published in 1871.

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