The turbulent years between Europe’s revolutions of 1830 and those of 1848 fostered a curious medley of anarchist, socialist and communist groups. In a back room in Vincennes, a suburb of Paris, met one such group, a clandestine society named the `League of the Just’. It comprised a dozen or so German exiles; artisans sympathetic to the working class movement and influenced by revolutionaries like Buonarroti and Blanqui.
By 1847 a network had been forged between sister committees in Paris, London and Brussels. Renaming themselves the `Communist League’, they invited two of their newer but obviously abler members to draft their international constitution.
A contemporary described one of them as tall and erect, `with English distinction and gravity’; the other `a type all compact of energy, force of character and unshakeable conviction’. He had a shock of deep black hair, a coat buttoned up wrong, and `never spoke except in judgements that brooked no denial’. They were, respectively, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.
The Communist Manifesto is that constitution. From its small beginnings it came to be the fountainhead of a political philosophy that inspires the rulers of a third of the world’s people.
Dramatic and peremptory as Marx himself, it begins: `A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism’. It ends with the famous cry: `The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, Between these ringing lines, the Manifesto presents all history as the history of class struggles. As methods of producing wealth change, it explains, so too do the relationships and power balances between the classes. Modern industry and commerce give power to the capitalists, the bourgeoisie who own the means of production. Feudal structures are `burst asunder’ as the energetic captains of industry prosper - and a new class of worker is born. He will, in turn, overthrow the bourgeoisie. Unlike the artisan who owns what he produces and can dispose of it as he chooses, the proletarian, or wage-slave, has only his labour to sell. He is at the mercy of his employer. As competition for jobs forces wages down, the employer gains in capital as the worker loses it. Profit becomes more precious than people: `In bourgeois society capital is independent and has life, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.’
But Marx also observed that as the capitalist class forces the proletariat to grow in size, misery and alienation, so it forces them to realise that their only strength lies in united action as a class. In this way the bourgeoisie will `produce its own grave-diggers’: the trade unions.
Marx saw the `dictatorship of the proletariat’ as a necessary stage in history, between the rise of the capitalists and the rule of socialists. Eventually, society would become classless: only then would it be a truly communist society.
As to the questions of private property, the Manifesto protected humanscale ownership - the roof over the artisan’s head (usually at risk under the rigours of Victorian capitalism). It opposed property extra to individual use, used as capital to `subjugate the labour of others’.
Perhaps the Manifesto’s greatest, although most controversial, contribution to humanising society lay in its stress on the social conditioning of people’s values. Academics argue about the degree to which Marx included man’s subjectivity as a mediating factor. But by sweeping aside the idea of a fixed status quo, Marx put the responsibility back into the hands of people to make life more bearable for their fellowmen: `History does nothing … It is men, real living men who do all this’. On the other hand men could only act when the time was ripe: `Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves but … transmitted from the past.’
Capitalism will indeed fall at the hands of the working class - but only when capitalism itself is in crisis. Or so it seemed to Marx, when he wrote the Manifesto, aged 29, and at his most idealistic and eloquent.
The Communist Manifesto
by Karl Marx (1848) Penguin (paperback) UK: £1.00
AUS: $3.50 Can: $1.95
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