The last 150 years have witnessed stupendous growth in a relatively small number of capitalist companies. Already, by the end of the nineteenth century, huge banking and industrial monopolies had come to dominate the economies of the major European powers. Indeed, in that imperialist era, the competition for control of natural resources and for new markets led to demands for redivision of the world - and thereby, tragically, to the 1914-18 war.
Nowadays, household names like Shell, Ford, Coca-Cola and Microsoft are massive transnational corporations, operating world-wide. Their annual turnovers exceed the gross domestic products of many small countries. They exercise enormous economic – and therefore political – power. Yet, just as in Marx and Engels’ day, they cannot abolish economic crisis, war, hunger, poverty and unemployment. Governments may attempt to fine-tune the capitalist economy, but the basic problems will not go away.
Indeed, far from disappearing, the basic problems are multiplying. The world stands on the brink of unprecedented environmental disaster, due to factors such as deforestation, species extinction and – principally – global warming from profligate use of fossil fuels. Like pollution incidents in the past, these derive directly from uncontrolled capitalist development. The difference today is that the whole ecological balance of the planet is threatened.
Capitalism is unable to tackle these problems because it is a system based on private ownership and private greed. Individual capitalists might well be humanitarian, but ultimately they cannot afford to neglect their own profits, otherwise they will go out of business. The solution, therefore, as the Manifesto argues, is to put public need first - to establish a socialist form of society, involving democratic public ownership and planning of the dominant sectors of the economy – leading ultimately to communism, in which ‘class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of the whole nation’.
By creating a class of wage-earners, ‘who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital’, the bourgeoisie produces ‘its own grave-diggers’. Since, under capitalism, all other classes are in decline, the working class is the only really revolutionary class, the class whose interests are most served by challenging the existing order of society. As industry and commerce become more widespread and complex, and as workers’ wages and conditions are attacked by employers, the working class becomes more militant, more united, more confident and more conscious of its potential strength. In acting to defend its own interests, it acts on behalf of the overwhelming majority of the population.
This process of course has its ups and downs, with the capitalist class usually retaining the upper hand. And ‘inevitable’ doesn’t mean the revolution will happen by itself. It needs conscious intervention, so that the working class becomes aware not only of its historic role, and of the opportunities of a given situation, but also of the risks of not acting. The Communist Manifesto was, and is, a call to action to the workers of all countries: ‘Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains – you have a world to win!’
Part of an introduction to the Communist Manifesto, written by Martin Levy of the Political Committee, Communist Party of Britain.