Strikingly modern

On the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto: Jack Conrad of the Communist Party of Great Britain

Thanks to this meeting I once again reread the Communist manifesto. What struck me immediately was that here we have not just a closely argued and well constructed political pamphlet. The Communist manifesto is also a marvellous work of literature.

It is full of memorable phrases, arresting metaphors and passages of biting wit and irony. Art is brilliantly combined with panoramic political analysis and strategy. True, in some respects the Communist manifesto is dated. There are references to chief ministers, political movements and social systems who are long dead, have largely been forgotten or have been swept away by the forward march of history - Metternich, Young England, tsarism. Here the Communist manifesto is marked by its specific origins.

One must have some elementary knowledge of the past to appreciate some of the references. Despite that, there can be no doubt that it is not an obscure piece of mid-19th century memorabilia. The Communist manifesto speaks to and is highly relevant for the 21st century. So, although in the 1870s Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels decided not to update the thing, preferring to add various prefaces and leave in place what was already antiquated, anyone who reads through the Communist manifesto today cannot but be impressed, even astonished, by how fresh, pertinent and far-sighted it is.

Take China and the massive growth of capitalist industry, its gigantic exports to the world and corresponding increases in the size of the working class. Chapter one of the Communist manifesto vividly describes the dynamism of the bourgeois system. How capitalism creates millionaires, industrial armies and everywhere revolutionises the means and conditions of production. That could be Beijing, Canton, Shanghai and China today.

Seemingly, as in 1848, the bourgeois system is still ascendant, still full of life, vim and energy. The Communist manifesto rightly carries the names of Marx and Engels as its joint authors. I definitely disagree with those clever-stupid people who denigrate Engels and invent profound differences between the two men.

Nevertheless in this case there can be no doubt that it was Marx's genius - and we are right to use that word - who was primarily responsible for the Communist manifesto. Engels definitely did the groundwork, though, and set down some key ideas. He produced a kind of communist credo and then in the same question and answer style the Principles of communism. At the time I understand that the European workers' and revolutionary movement copied the catholic church, in that respect if no other.

However, Engels rejected his own work as inadequate and suggested to Marx that a different method of presentation was required. It is also clear from the Marx-Engels correspondence that it was Engels who encouraged, cajoled and even bullied Marx into finishing the work. Marx, like many writers, was famously unwilling to complete what he started. He would rethink and redraft again and again. Meanwhile other priorities would intervene.

So many of Marx's intellectual projects lay unfinished when he died in 1883. The most obvious example being Capital, of course. Thanks to Engels, the Communist manifesto was completed and completed on schedule. It was, in fact, written at incredible speed. Some theoreticians of 'official communism' - not only Louis Althusser, but those directly sponsored by Stalin - claimed that the Communist manifesto and everything written by the Marx-Engels team before Capital was somehow immature, somehow pre-Marxist.

That is untrue. The Communist manifesto is a mature work. Yes, many of its ideas were further developed and brought to fruition with Capital. But the Communist manifesto had all the necessary raw material and fully deserves to be called Marxist. The Communist manifesto was written to inspire, to shock, to awaken, to galvanise. It was not only that the German revolution was expected. Marx and Engels thought that the epoch of the bourgeoisie was soon going to draw to an end.

Hence the stress on the pauperisation of the working class, the disintegration of family life and the periodic economic crises of capitalism ... which would bring revolution in their train. In Capital the approach is much more nuanced, much less reliant on an apocalyptic crisis being brought about almost by the business cycle alone. Mercan Koklu said there is no argument that the Communist manifesto is a programme. If only it were true that there is no argument about this. Maybe that is the case in Turkey.

Here in Britain, the largest left organisation, the Socialist Workers Party, dares not speak that 'P' word. Adopting a programme is something to be fearfully avoided. The word 'programme' is therefore shunned, even expunged. Chris Harman, former editor of Socialist Worker, wrote an introduction to the Communist manifesto a few years ago. Nowhere did he call it a programme. It is merely a pamphlet.

Of course, it is a pamphlet; but is also a manifesto, a programme. A dangerous concept for the SWP leaders, because they want the freedom to say one thing at their Socialist Worker Forums on a Tuesday, and then vote for something completely different on a Saturday.

In this context it is worth reminding ourselves that the Communist manifesto, was supplemented when the German revolution broke out in March 1848 - and Marx and Engels and several hundred other Communist League comrades returned to their native country. In the name of the central authority of the Communist League Marx and Engels drew up what we would call a minimum programme: the Demands of the Communist Party of Germany.

Significantly, the first demand is for the establishment of a single and indivisible republic. 'Minimum programme' is, of course, another one of those frightening terms for the left in Britain. But the working class needs to be armed with a programme that combines both immediate political and economic demands with the linked goal of superseding capitalism and ushering in the communist epoch. Without such a programme success will always prove to be elusive.

Now I want to turn to an area where I disagree with my TKP comrade. He is dazzled by what appears to be the continued dynamism of capitalism. The six percent growth rates in the US, the 20-year boom in China, the burgeoning computer industry in India. Globalisation is definitely the big buzzword of the moment. The facts the comrade quotes are certainly true. But the purpose of Marxism, the purpose of any science, is to get beneath the surface of things. As well as studying outward appearances, we must grasp underlying laws and their movement. That can only be done through theory. Unless we get below the surface we actually understand nothing.

Was the October 1917 revolution premature? Were the German workers who took to thestreets in 1918 and 1919 misguided? Had we been in Petrograd or Berlin, should we have been saying, 'Halt, comrades - you are wasting your time: this is still the epoch of the bourgeoisie'? It seems to me since the rise of imperialism in the late 19th century and certainly with the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 that, yes, capitalism became decadent and moribund. That designation does not rest on negative economic growth figures. Being decadent and moribund does not mean that capitalism is incapable of producing surplus value and realising profits.

What it refers to is that capitalism's essential forms are in historic decline, are undergoing decay. Nowadays organisation ever more impinges on the market, money is not really money and the production of the means of destruction props up the entire edifice. In short, it becomes more and more possible and more and more necessary for humanity to put the bourgeois order behind it.

Only the working class can carry out that task. What we witnessed in the 20th century was a terrible punishment for our collective failure. Looking at World War I, the war economy and the death of 20 million in Europe, the coming to power of the counterrevolutionary Nazi regime in 1933, the destruction of the working class's most powerful national battalion and the renewed slaughter in World War II, I believe it profoundly mistaken to conclude that capitalism is ascendant.

Naturally, they tell us there is no alternative. But no communist should fall for that lie. When Margaret Thatcher said you cannot buck the market, it was palpably untrue. Capitalism in Britain bucks the market every day. Prices and profits are not decided by market forces alone. There is the highly visible hand of the state manipulating interest rates, giving out subsidies, decreeing utility prices and commanding the whole arms sector. Capitalism is intertwined and dependent on the state. Not only for protection against the enemy within and the enemy without.

Capital relies on the state to fix the market. The 'free market' United States of George Bush II is not operating according to the strictures of classical bourgeois economics either. What keeps the US running nowadays is a Keynesian black hole of debt and government contracts - especially for arms. Nor is globalisation new. As the leading imperialist country before 1914 Britain exported capital at a level that in proportionate terms roughly equals that of today. In 1914 there was not only the outbreak of inter-imperialist war.

The capitalist world economy shattered into rival zones and protectionist national units. That continued till 1945 and the victory of the US in its combined war against Germany, Japan and Britain. Even then we saw another highly significant forced retreat from essential capitalist forms with the social democratic state in western Europe. And in 1973 the link between the dollar and gold was finally abandoned. That decay of capitalism did not come to an end in 1989 or 1991. There has been no return to 19th century laissez-faire capitalism. The 20th century crisis of capitalism continues into the 21st century.

A crisis for humanity that began in 1914 and has been exacerbated by the failure of the working class to take power. In 1989-91 we witnessed not the collapse of socialism in the face of an ascendant capitalism. Neither the Soviet Union nor eastern Europe had socialism or the rule of the working class. What is socialism? According to the Communist manifesto socialism takes off not on the foundations of the most backward capitalism; rather the most advanced. Should communists really characterise the Soviet Union's five-year plans as planning, an example of working class rule?

No, Stalin's Soviet Union was the rule of the bureaucracy over the working class, the exploitation of the working class by the bureaucracy. Stalin's Soviet Union was the antithesis of socialism: it was anti-socialism. Yet because of its origins in the working class-led October Revolution, because it called itself socialism and momentarily appeared successful, because the Soviet Union was a powerful state and could exert a material influence over the global working class movement, this could not but negatively effect and blunt consciousness, especially in the advanced capitalist countries.

Immediately after the October Revolution social democrats in Germany and Austria frankly admitted that they could easily overthrow the rule of capital. Yet workers were told to hold back. If they took power they would share the fate of the workers in Russia. They were in power, but they were starving. That basic argument has been used to good effect ever since. Ask a poor peasant or a worker in a country like India during the 1950s or 60s whether or not they want a Russian or Chinese 'socialism'.

Many answered by giving a resounding 'yes'. Being housed, adequately clothed, having a full stomach, an education for their children and a guaranteed pension in old age seemed very attractive. But what about workers in Germany, or France, or Britain, or the United States? To suggest that they should look with envy at life in the Soviet Union, China, the GDR or Poland was to strain credulity and in the end could only but totally discredit the socialist project. And thanks in no small measure to the baleful influence of the Soviet Union, we had 'official' so-called communist parties which did just that.

Trotsky put his finger on it when Stalin adopted socialism in one country. It is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. It is like having burning snow. How can you have socialism in one country? Socialism takes over what capitalism has created - a world market and a world economy - and puts it under the democratic control of the associated producers. Trotsky accurately predicted that once Stalin had adopted his socialism in one country it was only a matter of time before all the little Stalins - in Britain, in China, in India, in France, in Germany, in America - adopted their socialisms in one country too.

Thus we have the programmatic rubbish of the British road to socialism championed today by the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain. They hold out the promise that Britain can achieve socialism in clinical isolation from Europe and through a series of left and more left Labour governments. Absurd and ridiculous nonsense. But also dangerous nonsense. Socialism in one country promotes nationalism, not internationalism. Advanced workers are told to put their country first, their class second. A blind ally that produces confusion, demoralisation and demobilisation. There is another matter where I disagree.

Comrade Koklu implied that Marx and Engels examined the world like dispassionate scientists. Of course, scientific socialism should not be thought of in the English positivist sense of the word 'science'. That somehow Marx and Engels peered down upon the working class as if through a microscope and then coldly analysed what they saw. The scientific socialism of Marx and Engels distinguished itself from the fantasies, speculation, artificiality and system-mongering of the critical utopian communists and socialists. St Simon, Fourier and Owen.

The socialism of Marx and Engels was rational, testable and therefore changeable. It was not a dogma, a fixed plan, an elitist world view. Marx and Engels were committed partisans of the working class. What might seem to be dispassionate in their descriptions is often scathing irony. For example, the Communist manifesto refers to the bourgeois attitude towards women. How bourgeois gentlemen outwardly venerate marriage and the family and yet everywhere treat women as their private property and use them as prostitutes. I do not think that this was a cold, aloof observation. It was the truth, a truth that angered and disgusted Marx and Engels. Theirs was a protest against bourgeois hypocrisy.

In section three of the Communist manifesto the attitude towards other communisms and socialisms is outlined. Undoubtedly, there is once again much that is mid-19th century and outdated. Many of the named parties and groups have long since vanished.

But what is of note is that these schools of socialism have constantly reappeared, albeit in new guises. Bourgeois socialism takes the form of everything from Ken Livingstone to Lula da Silva, from Spiked to Bono, from Attac to George Monbiot, from 'third world' charity-mongering to CND pacifism and social reformers and improvers of every kind. Basically bourgeois socialism wants to keep intact the capitalist system ... but deliver peace, justice and plenty.

Petty bourgeois socialism reappears too. Nepalese Maoists, Mexico's Zapatistas, the Khmer Rouge. This socialism rails against the destruction and exploitation inherent in monopoly capitalism and imperialism. However, instead of looking to the future, petty bourgeois socialism harks back to an idealised past ... but one this time decked out in their red flags. What of German, or 'true' socialism? This was the socialism of the German literati. Now it appears everywhere as scholastic or academic 'Marxism'. Stalin's red professors, the Frankfurt school, New Left Review all emasculate Marxism by robbing it of its revolutionary core and intimate involvement with the real struggles of the working class.

Deliberately impenetrable language, deeply flawed theoretical constructions and laughable pretentiousness fuse with a contempt for partisan commitment. Then there is feudal socialism and its clerical socialist outrider. Respect is an odd amalgam of the SWP, George Galloway and the clerical socialism of the Muslim Association of Britain. According to the SWP's Alex Callinicos, Respect is defined as a party which consists on the one hand of "secular socialists" and on the other of "muslim activists".

MAB says it wants fairness. Of course, there will always be the poor ... otherwise the rich could not save their souls by giving to charity. No communist has the slightest problem marching on the same demonstration as muslims, including those in MAB. But Respect is a political party standing in elections and presumably at some point seeking to form a government. To achieve that unprincipled unity the SWP has watered down or discarded one principle after another. A destructive habit on the left. The majority did it in the Socialist Alliance. The SWP and most of the others announced that old Labour was dead, only to dress the SA up in the garb of old Labour.

The 'Marxists' went into the 2001 general election determined to appear before the electorate in Britain as social democrats. In other words they wanted to stand on the politics of bourgeois socialism - a reactionary socialism which leaves the workers as wage slaves ... but gives them council houses, trade union representation and a welfare state. I am reminded of the unforgettable statement: "The communists disdain to conceal their view and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions." There is another socialism. Some call it Stalinism, others 'official communism' or bureaucratic socialism. This socialism has features of bourgeois socialism and petty bourgeois socialism, but fundamentally stemmed from the prestige and material power of the Soviet Union.

In general because of this and its apparent opposition to capitalism 'official communism' was able to organise several generations of activists and militants. They considered the Soviet Union their friend because it seemed to be the bitter enemy of capitalism. I was one of them and, of course, I was wrong. We defended, in our case very critically, what was indefensible. The Soviet Union was not an example of proletarian socialism, but bureaucratic or anti-socialism. Socialism is not the antithesis of democracy. It is victory in the battle for democracy. That is why the term 'bourgeois democracy' is so problematic. Yes, in Britain today there is what might be called bourgeois democracy.

But this is the result, not of capitalism, the result of the growth of the productive forces, something that almost goes automatically hand in hand with capitalist progress. Capitalism does not deliver democracy: it concedes the minimum democracy it can get away with. Capital, because it is always many capitals, wants plurality in politics, liberty for property and person and the rule of law. That is all the personifications of capital fight for. Nothing more. Everything else is humbug, sham or concessions. The democracy in bourgeois democracy has been won against the bourgeoisie. And, of course, the battle for democracy still remains to be won. Britain is a pseudo-democracy.

The British constitution exists as a system of checks and balances against democracy - the monarchy, the presidential prime minister, the House of Lords, MI5, the established church, etc. Democracy means the rule of the people - in other words, socialism.

Let me finish my remarks with this. In the Communist manifesto Marx and Engels say the reason why communists "chiefly turn their attention" to Germany is because this country was on the cusp of what they believed would be an advanced bourgeois revolution. Germany's revolution would, they thought, go far beyond the Cromwellian revolution in England and the great French revolution of 1789. Germany would trigger other revolutions in Europe and pose the question of working class power and socialism. There

are many possibilities today. China, much of Latin America are pregnant with revolution. But unless such revolutions quickly reach to the global level then all we will see is a repeat of the tragedy of the Soviet Union. The working class needs a strategy which holds out the realistic prospect of a decisive breakthrough. That is why, in the name of winning the world, communists should "chiefly turn their attention" to the European Union.

Remarkably the capitalist politicians are way ahead of the radical left. They have a single market, an integrated system of political institutions, the euro and a central bank, binding legislation and a fully fledged constitutional treaty awaiting ratification. Meanwhile much of the left is mired in a pathetic, hopeless and self-defeating defence of the nation-state. Not that the EU is a federal superstate. Nevertheless, while the bourgeoisie has 25 bickering states, we, the 'internationalist' left, do not even have 25 bickering parties organised on the basis of 'one state, one party'.

For us, for the left, that would be a big step forward. Instead in each country the left is organised, or more accurately disorganised, into 25 bickering parties, groups and sects. Clearly another approach is urgently needed. Life demands a Communist Party of the European Union. A process that would be considerably boosted if communists in Britain stopped dividing themselves on the basis of second-rate ideological nuances or nationality.

All communists in the United Kingdom - whether they be English, Welsh, Scottish, Turkish, Kurdish, Irish, Arab or whatever - need to unite as one against the UK state. There is no need to wait for others. We should be in the same party in Britain ... with the agreed perspective of reaching out with both hands to comrades in Italy, France, Germany and Spain, and eastern Europe. That surely is the right way to proceed. A Communist Party of the EU is no idle dream.

The working class is highly organised in Europe and has a long and well tested tradition. Together we can capture Europe and turn it into a fortress for communism. In doing that, a huge blow would be struck for the cause of the world revolution. Proletarian Europe would not undergo the terrible degeneration of Russia. It could withstand external and internal counterrevolution and spread the flame to Africa, Asia, South America and finally to the US itself.

Compared with the horrible, cramped and demeaning conditions that US workers now endure, Europe would represent a bastion of civilisation, democracy and progress. European socialism would not scare them: it would enlighten, attract and embolden. And what Europe had begun America would then complete.