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The Militant, 2 February 1948

John Adamson

100 Years of The Communist Manifesto

From The Militant, Vol. XII No. 5, 2 February 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Marxism, that is the science of social development and of the socialist revolution, is 100 years old. In this span of a century, it has given birth to giants of thought and action, and produced innumerable works of depth, brilliance and even genius. But it is doubtful that any of these compare with the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, which founded and launched the movement of scientific socialism.

The centennial of this epochal document brings back the surge of high feeling that so many of us experienced when we first read through its magical pages. It was as if a new planet swam into our ken. So much of what had been confused, jumbled and vague became sharply defined and wonderfully clear.

Trotsky said that the Communist Manifesto displayed genius greater than any other in world literature. At the ages of 29 and 27 respectively, Marx and Engels unravelled the mysteries of social development and revealed their essential mainsprings!

Not only did these two young men discover historical materialism, hut employed this new scientific method with such sureness and skill that they were able to sketch out in bold strokes the motive force of history – the class struggle; the anatomy and laws of capitalism which Marx later developed in finished form in Capital (the periodic outbreak of commercial and industrial crises, the tendency to pauperize the proletariat and middle classes); the place of capitalism in man’s history; the growth of the modern working class and its historic mission to destroy the outlived capitalist system and replace it with the new socialist society, which would at the same time spell the end of all class exploitation and antagonism.

These contributions have successfully withstood a century of hostile criticism and have been vindicated in the fires of great events.

But it is not given to man – even genius – to see into the future in the manner of a fortune teller. The Communist Manifesto foresaw the development of the last hundred years in their broadest outlines. It portrayed correctly the general tendencies of capitalism and its fundamental driving forces and lines. But naturally it did not – and could not – foresee the events in their full empirical unfoldment. Marxism is not a dogma or a ritual, but a scientific method. All ideas and programs are tested in the light of experience. And it would indeed be strange if after 100 years – and what years they have been – the Manifesto needed neither additions nor corrections. But as Trotsky stated in his study of the Manifesto, these corrections and additions can be made successfully only by using the method of the Manifesto itself.

Made More Precise

Marx and Engels, in their own lifetime, corrected some sections of the Manifesto in the light of further experience and knowledge, and made other parts more concrete and precise on the basis of the lessons of the class struggles in Europe.

Thus for instance, in the Manifesto, capitalism is depicted as a system of free competition. Only in Capital did Marx show how free competition leads to monopoly. And only a half century later did Lenin in his Imperialism give a rounded analysis of the organic tendencies of monopoly capitalism.

The Manifesto correctly predicts the pauperization and ruin of the middle classes. But it oversimplifies the whole process and pictures the elimination of all petty tradesmen and peasantry. Thus it misses the emergence of the so-called “new middle class” – the vast army of technicians, administrators, supervisory employes, etc., as well as the persistence of a ruined middle class of the older variety. This whole subject has not been adequately analyzed by later Marxists and constitutes a gap in modern Marxist literature. Its importance is sufficiently underscored by the rise of Mussolini and Hitler.

The Manifesto, as has been pointed out many times, does not deal with the colonial or semicolonial countries, or their struggles for independence. To Marx and Engels, the question may not have seemed of decisive importance in 1848. One hundred years ago Europe was the center of the world, the seat of Western civilization. And Marx and Engels expected a rapid development of the workers’ revolution. A thorough analysis of the colonial question began in earnest only with the emergence of the Third International. Lenin was the chief architect of revolutionary strategy for the colonial masses and oppressed nationalities.

The Manifesto foresaw the early consummation of a bourgeois revolution in Germany, and cited as proof the advanced conditions of European civilization in comparison with England in the 17th century and France in the 18th century. But the 1848 revolutions in Europe demonstrated that precisely because of the more advanced stage of capitalism, none of the capitalist classes could push the revolution through to its conclusion. The big capitalists already had a close tie-up with the feudal landowners, and besides feared the Rising working class; the middle classes were too divided and too dependent on the big capitalists.

Permanent Revolution

It was Trotsky who first generalized these developments in a scientific manner, in what has become known as the theory of the permanent revolution:

“The bourgeois revolution, taken by itself, can no more in general be consummated. A complete purge of feudal rubbish from society is conceivable only on the condition that the proletariat ... can take its stand at the head of the peasantry and establish its revolutionary dictatorship. By this token, the bourgeois revolution becomes interlaced with the first stage of the socialist revolution, subsequently to dissolve in the latter.”

This theory was vindicated in the 1917 Russian revolution and today constitutes the key of revolutionary strategy for the colonial and semi-colonial countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Beyond these necessary corrections, amplifications, refinements and additions stands the fundamental error of the Manifesto. Marx and Engels grossly underestimated the capacities and powers of capitalism to continue to expand and develop the productive forces; and by the same token they vastly exaggerated the political maturity of the working class and its readiness to take power and reorganize society along socialist lines. Marx and Engels, at the time they wrote the Manifesto, thought that the bourgeois revolution was on the order of the day in Germany and would be the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.

Instead, the German and European capitalists, grown increasingly conservative, could not push the revolution to the end, but arrived at a compromise with the feudal aristocracies. The capitalist upturn which followed, and the ensuing prosperity, produced not the strengthening of the revolutionary vanguard but rather of the labor aristocracy, which up to the First World War became the greatest brake on the proletarian revolution in Western Europe.

The very genius of Marx and Engels and the piercing clarity of their vision made them telescope and simplify the whole process. It is taking longer to unfold in its actual historical development. But the two young revolutionists charted with uncanny accuracy the main lines of its evolution and the path the working class must take to realize its historic destiny.

The Russian revolution of 1917 demonstrated for all time that the Communist Manifesto was no utopian dream – but scientific prognosis. It demonstrated that the working class is the only modern revolutionary class, that it can take power and reorganize society on new planned lines. This towering fact is not vitiated or annulled by the subsequent degeneration of Russia under Stalin, and the weakening of the international socialist movement. History, we have learned, does not move in a straight ascending line, but rather in cycles. It has its ebbs and flows. And a decade or two for history is as but a day in the life of a man.

Fourth International

In the past 100 years, the working class movement has had great triumphs and equally great defeats. And unfortunately the present generation has witnessed more of the latter than the former. But the Fourth International – the Marxist movement of today – the inheritor and continuator of the great tradition inaugurated with the Communist Manifesto, is confidently pursuing its work of organizing “new cadres for the solution of old tasks.” Confidently – because it knows that its aims are the embodiment of the needs and aspirations of suffering humanity: because it knows that its program represents the necessary next forward step in human history.

The present agony and protracted crisis of humanity stems from the working class delaying too long in overthrowing the outlived capitalist order. And that delay is derived, in turn, from the crisis of the revolutionary leadership. The Fourth International is working to bridge the gap between the objective needs of the situation and the lack of necessary maturity of the working class and its leadership, in the full knowledge that objective events are helping it in its struggle and ensuring its eventual victory.

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