on September 2, 2011
Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848 at the request of the Communist League, a secret association of workers driven underground by political oppression aimed at preventing concerted revolutionary activity against bourgeois regimes throughout Europe. The Manifesto was written to provide a theoretical foundation and a practical program for the advancement of international communism and eventual elimination of bourgeois domination of property-less wage laborers.
The title of the document, simple and purely descriptive though it is, is commonly regarded as inflammatory, arousing derision, disdain, and virulent hostility among many, including those whom it was written to benefit. Nevertheless, there is much in the Manifesto, especially in the first chapter, that with the aid of hindsight could have been written by a contemporary neo-conservative intellectual, someone like Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell.
Specifically, Marx and Engels begin with a tribute to the unparalleled productive capacity of the capitalist organization of production. They freely laud the technological innovations fostered by capitalists' pursuit of surplus value, a process that has dramatically transformed the forces of production and the social relations of production. The result has been rapidly expanding output of industrial and agricultural goods of all kinds.
In accomplishing this, capital has extended its markets beyond national borders, creating a world market and a world economy. Raw materials from Latin America, Africa, and Asia are routinely used to manufacture finished goods in England, Germany, and other European countries. The same manufactured goods may then be sold in the very places that supplied the raw materials.
All this, Marx and Engels observe, requires concentration of vast numbers of people in swollen industrial cities. Small manufacturers and family farms are swallowed up by larger enterprises with which they have neither the capital nor productive capacity to compete. Marx and Engels find it particularly noteworthy that men like Thomas Jefferson had envisioned America as a land of independent yeoman farmers with small land holdings, but the concentration of agriculture was rendering this vision obsolete.
As we get farther into this brief document, Daniel Bell, the other neo-conservatives, and people generally may take angry exception to its tone and substance.
Concentration of resources in capital-intensive enterprises, Marx and Engels argue, reduces the vast majority of people to the degraded status of wage labor, workers who own nothing but their labor power. It is in the interests of the bourgeoisie -- of capital -- to pay workers as little as possible, increasing surplus value by buying labor power for no more than its natural price, the amount needed to survive and reproduce.
The culture of workers is nothing more than a brutalizing culture of production, lacking in scope and richness due to the pitifully small part that each worker plays in the overall production process. Families of working people are men, women, and children who labor for the natural price and have little time, energy or emotional sustenance to offer each other, having been wrung dry by capital's conditions of employment.
The more productive the worker, the more he or she strengthens the hand of capital. However, capital's immense productive power and its success in keeping wage rates abysmally low are not an unmixed blessing for the bourgeoisie. Periodic over-production crises wreck havoc with national and international markets, undercutting profits and threatening the commanding position of capital. As a timely example, the U.S. economy is currently approximating an over-production crisis: unemployment is high, wages are low and falling, capital has roughly two and a half trillion dollars to invest, but in the absence of demand the bourgeoisie has become risk averse, and money is not being invested in productive endeavors.
The long-term solution to all this, for Marx and Engels, is elimination of bourgeois property and the property relations that capitalism has created. This is not to say that private property must altogether disappear, but private property as capital, as that which creates a two-class system of exploitation of labor by the bourgeoisie, certainly must cease to exist.
Marx and Engels were entirely too sanguine about the eventual joining together of members of the working class to present a united front in their conflict with capital. They realized that there were ethnic, racial, religious, national, linguistic, occupational, and other barriers that would be difficult to overcome, but I doubt they expected the workers of the world to be as fractionated as is currently the case. If Marx and Engels were alive today, they might take the view that things would have to get much worse for labor before a revolution becames possible.
If you're not inclined to read the Manifesto, just read the introductory remarks by Vladimir Posner, once a member of the Communist Party of the USSR. Posner spent much of his childhood and adolescence in the West, and his insights into the appeal of communist ideals and the failure of the USSR to develop communism as Marx and Engels sketchily envisioned it are extremely interesting. Posner is no apologist for anything, just an honest and intelligent journalist whose idealism is genuine but far from boundless or excessive.
on July 5, 2014
As manifestos go, the Communist variety makes for pretty lively reading. Considered both as a political statement and as a historical document, it richly repays the very slight amount of time and effort required to read it. Marx and Engles wrote in clear and direct language (by Communist standards, anyway), they put forward a fairly compact and intuitive picture of how politics operates, and they issued a stirring call to arms for all working people. Both the document and the men behind it proved hugely influential. Anyone who wants to understand history and politics since the French Revolution can benefit by going strait to the source, and letting the prophet of communism explain himself in his own words, and in his own way, without some modern commentator getting in the way. Nevertheless, here is some modern commentary:
The Communist Manifesto is divided into three sections: the first sets out Marx's basic understanding of history and politics, the second explains what he thinks of industrialists more specifically, and the third explains what he thinks of other leftist political parties. Needless to say there is plenty of fault-finding and abuse to go around. Like any manifesto, this is an angry document, and it doesn't spare it's enemies. It might also be added that here we have a fairly faithful outline of the Marxist political outlook up until Gorbachev: there is one truth, and that truth has two kinds of enemies - enemies on the right and enemies on the left. Both are deceivers of the people who must be confronted and overcome by any means necessary, in the name of science and the working man.
The major outlines of the communist ideology, as expounded in this document, might be summarized as follows: the laws of economics determine the course of history in the same way that the laws of physics determine the course of travelling objects. They are immutable, eternal, absolute, and cannot be changed by any merely human agency. What men do does not shape history - rather, men are shaped by history, and their actions reflect its action upon them. Economics thus forms the "substructure" of history. Everything else, which people mistakenly suppose to be the cause of historical movements - politics, religion, art, philosophy, etc. - is mere "superstructure." In the final analysis it doesn't count for much. What matters is how things get produced and exchanged. Everything in history follows from this and this alone.
The "predominant mode of production" naturally sorts people into "classes" based on their role in that process. Up until 1750 or thereabouts, this mode was agriculture. The classes which resulted from it were aristocrats, who owned the means of production - which is to say, the land -, and the serfs, whose labor was extracted from them through a combination of force and persuasion. The aristocrats forced them to work the land by creating laws which fixed the serfs in place, by taxing them, and, when they occasionally revolted, by slaughtering them en masse. The priests persuaded them to work by telling them that this life was a mere transitory illusion, that their present suffering was the will of God, and that if they patiently endured it they would be amply compensated in the after life. The priests thus formed an appendage to the aristocracy, and through their combined efforts almost all surplus wealth was extracted from the peasants, which, at the time, composed the vast majority of the population.
There was, however, one class which did not quite fit into this pattern, and that was the townsmen (German: burgher, French: bourgeois.) The townsmen engaged in commerce and built up small fortunes, and they were tolerated by the aristocracy and the priests because they provided them with the luxuries of life and with some taxable revenue. However, in the 16th century Europeans plundered the gold and silver of the new world, and they sent out distant trading fleets to capture the world's commerce from the Arabs, Indians, Chinese, etc., who had previously held it. Their wealth, and so also their power, grew tremendously. The towns they lived in also grew, and serfs began to move there in search of jobs and opportunities. Thus yet another class was born, which we call "the working class" and which Marx called "the proletariat," from a Latin word meaning "without property." The proletariat own nothing but their work and live only so long as they can find someone who will pay them for it.
By the mid-18th century the bourgeois began to realize that they were the ones who held real power in European society, because they had all the money, all the technical expertise, a great deal of the property, and, in short, because they controlled the predominant means of production. However, they were still bound by the old feudal political structure, which had no place for them. So they resolved to remake that structure in their own image. The aristocracy and the priests resisted: thus the French Revolution. The bourgeois made alliances with the peasants and the proletariat, promising them a new kind of society called a Republic, in which there would be no hereditary privilege and all men would be equal. They made common cause against the aristocracy and the priests, swept the feudal order to the side, and created a new kind of society - but it was not at all what the bourgeois had promised. It did not serve all the people, but only the bourgeois - so it might more aptly be described as "the dictatorship of the bourgeois" than "a Republic."
According to Marx, the new, bourgeois economic order, has some very peculiar features, which must inevitably lead to its collapse. For one thing, it is constantly creating more and more proletarians. As people continue to move in from the countryside to the city, and as the bourgeois continue to exploit them for their labor, they become more numerous, more aware of the injustices they suffer, and more conscious of their strength. Without them, the machines and factories that the bourgeois use to produce their manufactures cannot be manned, nor can their armies and navies find recruits. It is only by manipulating the proletariat that the bourgeois sustains itself. However, since this exploitation is self-evidently in the interest of the bourgeois, and detrimental to that of the proletariat, it is only a matter of time before they refuse to cooperate any longer. The bourgeois can neither dispense with nor control the proletariat - just as they overthrew the aristocracy, they must inevitably be overthrown by the proletariat.
According to Marx the coming proletariat revolution is closely tied to a second feature of the bourgeois economic system - mass production. Factories make a lot of stuff. Too much stuff. Once or twice a decade they make so much stuff that there's no useful way to dispose of it. Prices plummet, factories close, workers are laid off, and enormous amounts of energy and wealth are squandered. Recoveries do happen, but they are slow and uncertain, and they simply lead to even bigger slumps next time around.
The bourgeois have several ways of handling this problem. They can try to conquer foreign countries in order to capture their markets, close down their industries, exclude competitors, and set themselves up as the sole providers of all the necessities of life for the conquered people. This is called imperialism. They can also drive each other out of business through normal market competition, or force their losses on the proletariat by paying them a reduced wages. Finally the bourgeois of one nation can go to war against the bourgeois of another in order to destroy their foreign competition in a more direct manner - i.e. they can burn the other factories to the ground.
All of these methods have something in common, however - they stave off the problem, but they do not resolve it. In the case of the military solutions, imperialism and war, expansion of bourgeois markets invariably also means the expansion of bourgeois modes of production. Some bourgeois or other will simply go to the foreign country, set up a factory there, and start competing with the bourgeois of their home country. In the case of market competition, the agglomeration of businesses into each other creates economies of scale, and eliminates the inefficiencies caused by competition (i.e. replication of tasks and equipment) to make ever-more efficient businesses. Or, in other words, businesses that turn out even-more stuff than they used to. Trying to force their losses on the proletariat doesn't work either, because proles already live fairly close to the line of bare starvation. Oppressing them ever-more systematically just brings the revolution closer.
According to Marx the problem of overproduction is incapable of resolution within the bourgeois system. In fact that system amounts to nothing more than an enormous and elaborately-concealed ponzi scheme, which must inevitably collapse in on itself. This will be seen through ever-more severe slumps, leading to the emergence of monopolies controlled by ever-fewer capitalists, and employing ever-more proletarians, who will be ever-more aware of their political powerlessness and their actual economic strength. As society comes to resemble one enormous factory, in which a handful of bourgeois order millions of proletarians about, the proletarians will eventually simply refuse to cooperate. Once they put down their tools, stop going to church, refuse to fight wars - and, in short, refuse any longer to be the tools of the bourgeois - that system is finished.
A new economic order, based on centralized, efficient planning will take shape. Bourgeois property will be abolished, and replaced instead by proletarian property. Instead of making useless nick-nacks for foreigners and luxuries for the bourgeois, the factories will make the necessities of life. Over-production will simply become the production of a liberating plenitude, which will free everyone from fear of poverty and hunger. There will be no more private property because it would serve no purpose - there will be so much stuff that everyone can have as much as they want, and if they run out they can just get more from the factory. Under those conditions only a fool would fight someone else over "private property." By the same token, since there will no longer be any need to conquer foreign markets, there will no longer be any need for a standing army. People won't go to war any more - they'll be content to live in peace and plenitude. Thus will the exploitation of man by man come to an end, and the classless society emerge. The wicked bourgeois will destroy themselves and the long-suffering common people will inherit the earth.
In many ways this is a remarkable intellectual achievement. That's not to say that it's basically correct, but rather that it weaves together many then-contemporary strands of thought into one coherent, unifying, and powerful whole. For people who accept it, Marxism explains an awful lot about the world. It explains right and wrong, past and future, the origins of poverty and violence, how an industrial economy works, the true nature of religion, etc. It answers a lot of big and pressing questions, and it does so in a way that even a person of below-average intelligence can understand. It promises people a relief from suffering, not in some never-never-land after you die, but in this world, in the near future. It also empowers people explaining to them that history is on their side, and that once they unite, they can solve their problems.
All of this is no small accomplishment. For a century Marxism terrified the world's elite with its intellectual rigour, thundering denunciations, and prophecies of inevitable doom. Marx claimed, and was believed by many, to have discovered natural laws which would explain history in much the same way that Newton's laws explained physics and Darwin's laws explained biology. It's easy to forget this now, but Marxists had all the energy and the confidence on their side until the mid-20th century. When the first world war broke out, it seemed to millions as if Marx's prophecies had come true, and the opportunity for revolution were at hand. There were, indeed, Marxist uprisings all over Germany in 1918 and 1919. In the 1930's, again, Marxism seemed to have the answer to a cataclysmic slump in worldwide production. Practically every industrial state in existence turned to central planning as a remedy for the crisis. It wasn't until the late 30's that the crimes of the Stalin regime began to cast serious aspersions on the nature of this ideology in the public mind. Industrialists and old-style liberals (i.e. free traders) didn't really recover their nerve until the 1980's, when Reagan and Thatcher began the project of dismantling the welfare state, which continues to this day. And, as a glance through the comments on this page will show, there are still plenty of people out there who take Marxism quite seriously. Indeed, a political conversation can only go on so long before someone mentions the dreaded name of Karl Marx.
As ideologies go, this is a pretty impressive track record. As much as conservatives scoff, the truth is that if they had an ideology of their own that was half as powerful, the world would be a very different place right now. Indeed, the emergence of libertarianism might well be seen as a deliberate attempt to refute Marxism, and to challenge it for supremacy in the popular imagination. It remains to be seen how successful this attempt will be, but undeniably it has made considerable headway.
I won't get into a discussion of whether or not the ideology is correct on its own terms. Or not a very detailed one, at any rate. In my opinion all ideologies are vehicles for the expression of the aspirations and grievances of the people who adhere to them. They are not true in any objective or universal sense of the word - none of them are. They cannot be, because they are not concerned with explaining the world as it is, but rather with expressing the outlook of a particular set of people. All ideologies - Marxism, Libertarianism, Anarchism, Nationalism, whatever - are a kind of lowgrade intellectual commodity designed for mass consumption on the part of the non-intellectual public. They motivate people by telling them that their deepest desires and most profound resentments are no merely private affair, but in fact expressions of universal and eternal laws. Delighted to hear that they should and must do what they were planning on doing anyway, their adherents are usually so overcome with gratitude that they surrender their entire critical faculty to the ideology, and henceforth it makes all their political decisions for them. In this sense ideologies are very similar to viruses - viruses hijack cells, ideologies hijack brains, and they both spread through contact with infected individuals.
So, no, Marxism is not "true." But it would completely miss the point to assume that because Marxism is not true, some other ideology - like libertarianism, for instance - must be. All ideologies are at bottom an exercise in wish-fulfillment and self-delusion. The modern industrialized, global economy is quite possibly the most complex thing known to man. We simply do not know how it works. All we have are some interesting hunches, among which one may, or may not, choose to include those provided by Karl Marx.