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In Commemoration of the Communist Manifesto

A hundred years ago a small group of political refugees, mainly German, along with a few other radicals published to a world that hardly noticed it the most famous document in working class history, the Communist Manifesto. A few weeks later the adherents of the Manifesto had scattered to participate in the revolutions that shook Europe during 1848; revolutions upon which they had built hopes that were rapidly dissipated. The document they had produced, however, after remaining in obscurity for a time began to travel round the world, giving hope and inspiration to the exploited and laying the foundations of the scientific Socialist movement. The appeal of the Manifesto and its growing influence were based upon its clear and accurate analysis of the foundations and the trends of the Capitalist system, whose development was still in its early stages.

The face of the world then was vastly different from what it is today. A large part of Europe still fretted under relics of Feudalism, although in the West, and especially in England, Capitalism was making great industrial strides. The blind passion to accumulate wealth for its own sake had taken complete possession of sections of the privileged class and factory production was taking heavy toll of its victims, which included women and children. At the same period the growth of trading was invading and weakening the old State demarcations and urging the privileged sections of subject groups to acquire self-determination. Thus the fight of the monied class for power and the fight of subject nations for political freedom were the all absorbing questions of the day. Agriculture was still the dominating industry and the peasant and the small producer were the most active and vocal of the non privileged groups. Even in England, the foremost industrial country, the working class proper was still a minority of the population. It was impossible for the writers of the Manifesto to entirely escape the influence of the conditions of their environment; it is amazing to reflect upon their clearness of vision and prophetic insight in the midst of contradictory currents that made the trends of Capitalism so difficult to follow.

The principles developed by the Manifesto and the way in which it characterises the capitalist method of production, as well as the materialist conception upon which it is based, are as fitting today as when it was written. The clearness, verve, and felicity of phrasing have never been surpassed. This is the more astonishing when one remembers that the writers, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, had neither of them yet reached the age of thirty.

The Manifesto contains four sections, the first of which is concerned with an analysis of society. This section opens with the sentence, "The history of all hitherto existing society [civilised society] is the history of class struggles," and later follows with a description of Capitalism:

"The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruin of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

"Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature – it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat."

"The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers.

"The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation."

"Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitations distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones."

How true, sweeping and trenchant is this description of Capitalism! Yet it was written a hundred years ago when the all-embracing ugliness of the system was only emerging. The position of the worker as a wage slave is clearly set forth, as is also the necessity of the capture pf political power by the workers in order to achieve their emancipation. The first section concludes with a paragraph that makes clear the inevitability of the triumph of the working class:

"The essential condition for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between labourers. class is the formation and the augmentation of capital: the condition of capital The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers (due to competition) by their revolutionary combination (due to association). The development of modern industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

The succeeding sections of the Manifesto are concerned with the practical means to achieve its object, but these are based upon the conditions of 1848; conditions that have long since passed away. These parts of the Manifesto are, therefore, now obsolete, but they are just the parts that have been most frequently used as guides by reformers and those whose impatience has made them blind to changing political conditions. The writers were pioneers mapping out new territory, and territory whose configuration was in process of change. That they should have been over-enthusiastic about the nearness of social change or the nature of the particular steps to be taken to accomplish the change at a time when Capitalism was still undeveloped is as understandable as it is remarkable that their outlook should have been so clear fundamentally. But the writers saw farther and clearer than their associates and the main body of their successors. Hence the weaknesses instead of the strength of the Manifesto have made the greatest appeal and have led the social democratic movement they started into the mire of futile reform programmes. The Manifesto was like a small craft on a stormy sea with its compass set in the right direction, but succeeding helmsmen were unable to read the compass properly.

The working class movement from the date of the Manifesto followed two divergent courses; the first, the scientific course, remained a thin small stream, while the second, the reformist course, grew in volume until it reached torrential power. This is explained in part by the two aspects of the Manifesto – the theoretical and the practical. It was upon the practical side, that is the temporary and weaker side, that the movement concentrated more and more, as it grew in volume, until the theoretical basis became completely submerged in the "practical" questions of the day or, in other words, reformist policies and programmes.

We are no worshippers of leaders or "great men" but we recognise the magnificent work done by Marx, Engels and other contributors to the scientific socialist movement which began with the publication of the Communist Manifesto. We stand on the shoulders of those past workers who have helped us up and we profit by what they have done to make our social vision clearer. We are members of the working class and hold, with the writers of the Manifesto, that "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win." We hold further that this world can only be won by the workers prosecuting the class struggle unremittingly, spurning all attempts to seduce them into support of reform programmes, abandoning the worship of leaders and depending upon their own efforts alone.

The best tribute to Marx and Engels is to recognise what is permanent in their work and put aside that which was dictated by the confused and temporary circumstances of the time in which they wrote. It is in this spirit that we commemorate the publication of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 as one of the greatest events in working class history.