Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation ...
Who can deny that this is an apt description of modern society? We live in a world where production is becoming increasingly ‘global’, where the so-called ‘free market’ dominates and where massive transnational corporations daily make decisions which affect the lives of millions.
At the stroke of a computer key, huge sums of money are moved around the world. Factories are shut down in Britain while investment is directed overseas, where wages are lower and conditions worse. Workers are told that they risk pricing themselves out of jobs. Hard-won gains are sacrificed so that companies can remain ‘profitable’ in the ‘global marketplace’.
Yet the quotation above is not recent. It comes from a small pamphlet by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels which was largely ignored at the time of its publication in 1848 but which went on to inspire millions. Today the Manifesto of the Communist Party is still as vibrant and incisive as the day when it was written. Even commentators in the capitalist press have occasionally been forced to recognise its continued significance.
With their opening sentence, ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism’, Marx and Engels proclaimed the onset of the revolutionary struggle for a different form of society – one in which human need replaces private greed, where the exploitation of one individual by another is abolished and where ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.
Of course, the world has moved on since 1848. Then, the capitalist economic system was in its infancy and communist parties in their modern-day form did not exist. But the idea of ‘communism’ was powerful even then – which is why the ruling classes of Europe tried from the beginning to make it a dirty word.
The Manifesto points out that ‘the [written] history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’. In the capitalist era, that struggle is predominantly between the capitalist class (or bourgeoisie) and the class of wage and salary earners – the working class (or proletariat). But well before 1848, people dreamed of a more just and equal society. The popular chant of the 1381 Peasants Revolt was, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ During the English Revolution of 1640-6, the Diggers argued that ‘The poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land, as the richest man’.
The French Revolution of 1789 replaced the old feudal monarchy with a more democratic form of government based on individual towns or villages (communes), and blazed forth the slogan, ‘Liberty, equality and fraternity!’
In the early part of the 19th century, vague ideas about social improvements and utopias (‘socialism’) arose among some employers, philosophers and politicians. The word ‘communist’ was used by men and women who wanted to carry forward the original ideals of the French Revolution against the opposition of capitalists and bureaucrats. The critical contribution of the Communist Manifesto was to show, on the basis of a scientific analysis of human history, that the fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the working class are equally inevitable.
Today, the capitalist class is dominated by big shareholders who own most of industry, land, commerce, the banks and the mass media. In Britain today, this richest 10 per cent of the population own 50 per cent of the wealth, living off dividends, interest and rent. The overwhelming majority of people can live only by hiring themselves out to a capitalist employer or to the state sector, which maintains capitalist society. That makes them objectively working class, whatever their own individual perspective. It doesn’t matter whether you are a cleaner, craftsman or professional, or even whether you are a tenant or a homeowner. If your income comes wholly or mainly from your employment, pension or state benefits then you are working class.
There is a continual struggle in society between workers trying to preserve or advance their pay and conditions, and capitalists attempting to cut costs and boost profits. This struggle takes place even in local government and publicly owned services, since taxes on big business profits can be lowered if public expenditure is reduced. In fact governments in capitalist society rule, to a greater or lesser degree, on behalf of the capitalist class. According to the Manifesto, ‘The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’.
The drive to maximise profits leads the capitalists to expand production, until ‘an epidemic of overproduction’ occurs. In the resulting economic crisis, Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism ... industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. In these crises, which are now increasingly frequent and widespread, smaller companies go to the wall and millions of people are thrown out of work. The winners are those larger capitalist firms which can weather the storm until the economy picks up
again. In the process they grow larger and strengthen their hold over the market.
The financial collapses in various countries in recent timesshow how capitalism is still a crisis-ridden, corrupt and inhumane system – made worse by the enormous financial power of bankers and speculators. Modern capitalism is indeed ‘like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’.
Part of an introduction to the Communist Manifesto, written by Martin Levy of the Political Committee, Communist Party of Britain.