Programme of liberation

The Communist Manifesto is no historical footnote, writes Jack Conrad. In its essentials it remains a brilliant analysis of the necessary conditions for and means of making social revolution

Lenin made a very profound observation when, in a scribbled note to Karl Radek, he drew attention to the fact that the Communist Manifesto was both the product of a “small group of revolutionaries” and “ferment among masses” (VI Lenin CW Vol 36, Moscow 1977, p335). The first edition appeared just prior to the outbreak of the revolutions which swept Europe in that wonderful year 1848. Bound in a dark green jacket, the Manifesto of the Communist Party - to give the full title - had 24 pages and was written in eloquent, cultured German. However the Manifesto was published not in Berlin, Frankfurt or Cologne - censorship prevented it - but London.

The printer, a political exile named JE Burghard, was a member of the Communist League - which in the main consisted of German-speaking artisans and workers. Few people at the time would have heard of this semi-secret society (naturally that did not apply to the Prussian police or its agents). Even among the most advanced continental revolutionaries ie, those in Paris - the group would have been obscure. Faced as we are in 1998 with the task of rebuilding the Communist Party on solid political foundations, that point is, to say the least, germane. Revolutionary organisations in the Britain of today ought to be judged not according to vainglorious boasts about influence or size, but first and foremost by programme (something shunned by our Socialist Workers Party almost as a matter of principle).

Germany in the early 1840s was a European backwater. Divided between autocratic empires, numerous petty kingdoms and city states, it languished in economic, political and spiritual stagnation. Germany was the Yugoslavia of the day. For many ‘sober minded’ intellectuals Germany represented a hopeless case. Its people were naturally conservative. The very air they breathed made them servile. There was as a consequence no chance whatsoever of this dead country following the splendid example of France and carrying out its ‘1789’. Better resign oneself then to the impossibility of revolution or radical reform than suffer ‘adventurist’ delusions, exertions and dangers. “Despair takes more courage than hope”, claimed Arnold Ruge, the journalist and young Hegelian. Nevertheless, despite the fact that nothing existed in Germany equivalent to the Jacobins, it appeared to the most perceptive minds that revolution gestated in the womb of society - even though no one believed in it.

Still in their mid-20s, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were already committed political activists, scholars of the highest calibre and hence revolutionary optimists. Replying to the dire pessimism of Ruge and his ilk, Marx suggestively wrote in March 1843 that Germany was becoming ashamed of its backwardness - that is “already a revolution”. Germany would in due course meet its fate. “That fate is the impending revolution”, he predicted with an almost uncanny foresight (K Marx MECW Vol 3, London 1975, pp133-4). In 1848 Germany exploded. Resignation breeds self-defeating and self-fulfilling inaction. That is why Marx insisted, in contrast to Ruge’s cynicism and dust-dry book learning, on real “participation in politics”. “We do not say to the world: cease your struggles; they are foolish.” Instead Marx promised the “true slogan of struggle” (ibid p144).

In the early 1840s intellectually, and practically, in no small part due to the pull of the masses, Marx and Engels found themselves compelled, first independently and then in partnership, with one great leap rapidly following another, to move beyond the realms of revolutionary democratic extremism to full blown revolutionary democratic communism. Unlike their contemporaries, however, the new-found communism of Marx and Engels eschewed the visionary blueprints of previous thinkers - down to fanciful notions of how coming generations must behave and even dress. Marx and Engels refused to instruct the future. Utopian communism was a savage and often brilliant indictment of existing conditions. Fourier and Saint-Simon deserve the utmost admiration. But, not least when their ideas took the organisational form of doctrinaire sects, they could not provide a realistic strategy.

By 1844 the two had come together - Marx and Engels were to be firm friends and lifelong collaborators. With remarkable quickness they laid the theoretical base, or starting point, for what has become known as scientific communism or scientific socialism: ie, the materialist and dialectical understanding of social development. The productive forces and the clash of class against class under the conditions of advanced capitalism create the necessary material conditions for social revolution and universal human liberation. The critical subjective agent of change was not in the view of Marx and Engels an enlightened revolutionary elite or minority, as imagined by Auguste Blanqui and other great revolutionaries in France. It was the political struggle of a conscious modern working class: the “proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class”’ they were famously to declare (K Marx and F Engels MECW Vol 6, New York 1975, p494).

Germany possessed merely the faintest beginnings of such a class. Engels had though fortuitously moved to Manchester. Here he “forsook” the middle classes and their “port wine and champagne” and devoted his leisure hours to the company of the working class (F Engels The condition of the working class in England London 1972, p323). He became convinced that this sprawling city with its giant factories and huge concentrations of workers held up a mirror for the whole world.

Because of political repression and economic distress German artisans migrated westward in large numbers, not least to France and Britain. Germans were in that way being proletarianised and attracted to advanced ideas. Communism was already “itself a power” (K Marx and F Engels MECW Vol 6, New York 1976, p477). In Paris and London Marx and Engels made contact and then threw in their lot with those who fought under the banner of the Communist League. At one of its delegate meetings - I believe in Soho - during the summer of 1847 Engels managed to get himself instructed to draw up a programmatic document.

After producing a couple of drafts he handed the whole business over to Marx. Engels initially put down his thoughts in the manner of a communist catechism or confession of faith. Among communist groups this question and answer form was standard. Engels soon recognised its limitations. Something more was needed; a manifesto, he suggested to Marx. Work began in November 1847, but was incomplete by the next delegate meeting of the League - again in London. Despite that the two persuaded their comrades to accept the fundamental principles and perspectives they had recently developed. Marx was thereafter given a free hand and the Communist Manifesto duly came out in February 1848.

The document’s biggest propaganda impact would have been on the circles of communists which organised underground in Germany as well as abroad in Switzerland, France, Belgium and Britain. Around this German ‘core’ a number of ‘peripheral’ translations immediately followed - Swedish, Polish and Danish (those into French, Italian and Spanish remained unpublished). The Chartist journal, the Red Republican, carried the first English translation - by Helen Macfarlane - a little while later in 1850. Its editor, George Julian Harney, named Marx and Engels as the co-authors for the first time in his introduction. All previous editions had been anonymous.

In the long period of reaction following the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1848 the Communist Manifesto had no mass impact or circulation; in the words of Engels “it seemed thenceforth to be doomed to oblivion” (F Engels MECW Vol 26, London 1990, p515). When the proletarian movement revived in the 1860s with the International Workingman’s Association there had to be a broad programme acceptable to British trade unionists, Proudhonists and Lassalleans. The open communism of the Manifesto would have been inappropriate and counterproductive. Only in 1872 was the Manifesto reprinted; and, as Marx and Engels noted in their preface, the thing had become somewhat “antiquated” in terms of details (K Marx and F Engels MECW Vol 23, London 1988, p175).

Nevertheless today, according to the Guinness book of records, the Communist Manifesto is the second most widely circulated publication of all time. One hundred and fifty years after first coming off the press only the bible of the Christian religion surpasses it - and this cult claims something like a 2,000-year, uninterrupted history. More to the point, where the bible was employed by classes, schisms and states to shape Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries - with the coming of the ‘Dutch’ printing press and vernacular editions - those acting in the name of the Manifesto shaped the whole planet in the 20th century.

The mass parties of the Second International - founded in 1889 - formally accepted the politics of the Communist Manifesto as the general basis of their programmes (the Labour Party was a rare exception). These parties provided the core material for the Third International set up in 1919 under the dual impact of the horrors of World War I and the triumph of the Russian Revolution. The parties that originated with the Third International in turn went on to seize or preside over state power not only in the Soviet Union but China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba and Eastern Europe. Capitalists were everywhere expropriated and the economy in these countries run on the basis of state ownership and direction. Khrushchev declared in October 1961 that the socialism “predicted as inevitable” by Marx and Engels “has been transformed into reality” and that the Soviet Union would assuredly build the material and technical foundations of communism by 1980 (Documents of the 22nd Congress of the CPSU The road to communism Moscow 1961, p169).

What of the remaining parties of the Second International? Having sided with their own ruling classes in World War I, they gave ideological gloss and popular underpinning for the social democratic settlement following World War II. Industries were nationalised on a wide scale; housing, health and education provision became a universal right; unemployment was reduced to minimal proportions. No longer was ownership of capital concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy. Capital became progressively social and faceless. As a result during the 1960s it was fashionable to talk of the ‘convergence’ of capitalism and socialism and a new post-capitalist industrial state. John Kenneth Galbraith argued that “decisive power in modern industrial society is exercised not by capital, but organisation; not by the capitalist, but the industrial bureaucrat. This is true in the western industrial system. It is true also of the socialist societies.... For organisation - bureaucracy - is inescapable in advanced industrial technology” (JK Galbraith The new industrial state New York 1971, pxvii).

From our present vantage point claims of a post-capitalist capitalism now appear like babbling nonsense. In contrast ‘official communism’ stands revealed as one of the biggest lies in history. What existed in the Soviet Union from the first five-year plan onwards had nothing to do with the self-liberation of the working class: ie, genuine socialism. Workers lost all democratic rights under Stalin and suffered ruthless exploitation. Real living standards and conditions plummeted between 1929 and 1934. Millions were butchered or suffered premature death. Planning existed on paper, but it was chaos in reality. The Soviet Union was neither capitalist nor socialist.

Socialism was negatively realised as bureaucratic domination and the systematic elimination of any hint of dissent or independent thought. Stalin’s system marked the victory of terrorism, not democracy. His attempt to build socialism in one country took him step by improvised step to the very opposite outcome of his original intentions. None of the other examples of ‘living socialism’ began with proletarian revolution. Their model was Stalin’s USSR. With this in their heads there was no chance of the ‘official communists’ in China, Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, or anywhere else, realising anything other than a travesty of socialism.

The barbarity of bureaucratic socialism, the absolute denial of democracy, the economic backwardness and autarchy, the privileged and hypocritical life of the elite served the ideologues of capitalism admirably. Each and every opportunity was used to hammer home the lie that this dystopian system was somehow the direct and unavoidable result of the theories of Marx and Engels. Here the interests of ‘official communism’ and official capitalism dovetailed. No wonder wage slaves in the west considered themselves lucky. Compared with what the masses had to contend with under ‘living socialism’ they enjoyed far more rights and far better lives. Capitalism thereby strengthened itself considerably against those below: on the one side through anti-communism and on the other the social democratic state. It is no accident that with the 1989-91 collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe the representatives and personifications of capital have sought to reverse the post-World War II social democratic settlement and pare away the welfare state.

The world seems to have returned to its point of departure. Yet, where the 20th century was born with high hopes and the sure expectation of progress, it is ending with a widespread feeling of despair and failure. Reaction rules. Marxism has been thoroughly discredited by ‘Marxists’. Capitalism appears unassailable… and yet objectively the need for communism has never been greater. To show why this alternative to the rule capital retains all its relevance and validity, we are well advised to go back and examine the basic theoretical propositions of the Communist Manifesto.

The Manifesto begins with what could easily be mistaken as a paean of praise for the bourgeois mode of production. Marx and Engels state that the bourgeoisie, has historically “played the most revolutionary part” (K Marx and F Engels MECW Vol 6, New York 1976, p486). The wonders of the bourgeoisie far surpass the “Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals”. With the development of modern industry and commerce all the old exclusivity and parochiality was torn away. The world market destroys or pushes into the background what has been handed down from the Middle Ages. Everything - religion, sentimentalism, chivalry - is subordinated to cash payment and “direct, brutal exploitation” (ibid p487). The bourgeoisie can never rest. Production must constantly expand. Conditions and the techniques of production endlessly revolutionised. The bourgeoisie thereby “creates a world after its own image” (ibid p488). Hence we have nowadays not only a world market but a world economy. Capital has been accumulated on a scale hardly imaginable in the 19th century - where there were millionaires now there are billionaires. And today’s technology makes that of even 20 years ago look positively stone age - one person using a modern computer does the work of a thousand pen-pushing desk clerks.

Needless to say, what is now called capitalism is riven with endemic contradictions of its own making. Overproduction is inevitable and brings forth periodic, general crises. Even though peoples needs go unsatisfied, there is too much civilisation, too much wealth, too much industry for the “narrow” conditions of bourgeois society, where production takes place for the sake of production. In our century economic crisis has been combined with world war, annihilation of whole cities and countries, and the slaughter of millions in automated death camps.

The bourgeoisie is increasingly unfit to govern. Capital must be overthrown by proletarian revolution in the interests of society and the immense majority. To the extent that capital develops, so does its “gravediggers”. At the time of the Manifesto there would have been no more than a couple of million proletarians across the whole of the planet - South Korea alone has that and many more today. The workers spontaneously form themselves into trade unions in defence of wages and conditions. But every real class struggle is a political struggle. With the help of communists the workers can and must be organised into a conscious class, and “consequently into a political party” (ibid p493).

The workers first clash with the bourgeoisie on the national terrain. The content of their struggle is, however, inescapably global, because capital as a metabolism is global. Victory will be secured only over the bourgeois order as a whole. The notion of socialism or even successful communist revolution in one country was specifically rejected by Engels in his second draft of October 1847. Our revolution will have to take place “simultaneously in all civilised countries”. It is a “worldwide revolution and will therefore be worldwide in scope” (ibid p352). National communism or socialism leads not to liberation, but a “freak” society. That surely describes the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors.

The role of communists is to bring to the fore the “common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality” (ibid p497). They do not establish “a separate party opposed to other working class parties” - that is parties committed to the “conquest of political power by the proletariat”. By this formulation Marx and Engels meant, of course, organisations such as the Chartists, not today’s Labour Party, which lauds and props up the capitalist system.

The immediate task of communists concerns securing state power for the working class: ie, the minimum part of the programme. Marx and Engels, as I have indicated, were by no means indifferent to the political conditions under which the working class organises against capital. On the contrary they stressed the necessity of fighting to “win the battle of democracy” (ibid p504). Hence their analysis of the various socialisms which then existed - reactionary, bourgeois, petty bourgeois and critical-utopian. Communists, declared the Manifesto, “fight for the immediate aims” in the interests of the future of the movement. They therefore proposed temporary alliances with, or support for, the likes of the radicals in Switzerland, the bourgeoisie in Germany, and the social democrats in France. Communists are for the “union and agreement of the democratic forces of all countries”. In short the communists “support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” (ibid p519).

The maximum programme ie, after the working class has been constituted as the state - consists of returning the alienated wealth of society - capital - back to society. Capital is a “social power” and needs to be converted into “social property” (ibid p499). Obviously nationalisation by the capitalist or bureaucratic state would at best be a partial or negative attempt to overcome the contradictions of capitalism. What the communists desire and consider vital is the positive, that is the democratic supersession of capital, through overcoming the subordination of the workers to the products of their collective labour. In other words a free association of free producers.

If the workers are to win the world we must relearn and reapply these programmatic lessons. Let us reforge communism as a power.