In our series on socialist classics , James Grannell reviews what may be the most influential political pamphlet ever written.
‘A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism.’These were the opening words of the Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in early 1848.
This short, yet marvellous, pamphlet emboldens the modern reader as much as it did the nineteenth-century one. Throughout the work Marx and Engels present an analysis of the class struggle and the problems inherent in capitalism and the capitalist mode of production, grounded in historical materialism.
Marx and Engels did not attempt to predict the future in any detailed way. Instead they sought to summarise their theories about the nature of society and politics and outline how capitalist society would eventually be replaced by socialism, and then communism. As the great powers of Europe quaked at the rise of communism, Marx and Engels set out to openly publish ‘their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a Manifesto of the party itself.’
Marx and Engels outline their theory that, ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ They praise the bourgeoisie for the titanic advancements that they have accomplished — they brought an end to feudalism, developed infrastructure, ushered in a global epoch where neither economic nor intellectual speculation are confined by arbitrary national borders.
However, the bourgeoisie have also created an economic system that is comprised of two powerful forces, or as Marx and Engels put it, ‘two great hostile camps’, that are facing each other. These are the bourgeoisie (those who control the means of production) and the proletariat (those who work to live and who produce profit for the bourgeoisie). Since the bourgeoisie have, in their revolutionary fervour, stripped away the sentimentalism of politics and religion and replaced it with ‘the icy water of egotistical calculation,’ they have laid bare the ‘naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation’ that drives their obsession with the one true freedom of the age – the free market.
Marx and Engels assert that the very advances of the bourgeoisie will lead to their downfall. As they march on with relentless drive in their search for profit, they drive the workers further into intolerable pauperism. Marx and Engels put it powerfully when they state that, ‘society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.’ The bourgeoisie have become their own grave-diggers.
In the section on the proletarians and the communists Marx and Engels, with the vim of perspicacious reporters, address the various objections to communism that were, and still are, prevalent among the reactionary classes. They assert the importance of the communists, by which they mean revolutionary socialists, in the class struggle by pointing out that they ‘bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality,’ and in every stage of the working-class struggle they represent the interests of the whole.
This is why socialists stand against racism, against sexism, and against oppression in all of its guises. It is the socialists who must push forward the movement for real change, working tirelessly to unite the workers against their true enemies, the capitalists. It is capitalist private property that the socialists wish to abolish and in so doing to enrich the entirety of society. Whereas capitalism turns men into mere appendages of machines, socialism, by wrestling the means of production from the few, will transform society along lines that allow for the full flowering of human civilisation. This is the battle for democracy and it is a battle that the working class must win or it will be destroyed.
This powerful work by Marx and Engels is worthy of an entire volume of analysis and it impossible to do it justice in these few lines. It should be read and reread by socialists everywhere. Its clear insightful points are as relevant in 2015 as they were in 1848. As the spectre of revolution and leftism once again haunts Europe, and indeed not just Europe, but the entire globe, we must, as Marx said, ‘ disdain to conceal our views and aims. We must openly declare that our ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at the Communistic revolution. We have nothing to lose but our chains. We have a world to win.’