The Communist Manifesto was first published on 21st February 1848, 174 years ago. Despite being centuries old, the Manifesto has been and continues to be one of the most influential books in modern history.
It introduced the ideas of scientific socialism, which Marx and Engels would elaborate on over the next 50 years and which would serve as a guide to action for revolutionaries to come.
But more than just a historic artefact, the content of the Manifesto continues to explain the situation we are in today.
The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class
The situation Marx shines a light on does not seem 174 years old. Reading the Communist Manifesto, it is easy to relate to the words written as the situation has changed very little since then.
Marx said, “law, morality, religion are to him [the working class] so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests”.
In other words, the ruling class will employ any moralistic ideals at its disposal to tape over the brutal system of exploitation which it rules over.
For example, we can still see capitalist morals being pushed into society over the question of benefits claimants. The bourgeoisie are happy to stoke up hatred towards ‘benefits scroungers’ and create claims that these people don’t work hard enough.
However it is the capitalist class who sit back and make money while others toil and make much more than £85 a week. It is a useful distraction for us to blame the most vulnerable in society, while the capitalists sit back and enjoy their billions. These are the bourgeois prejudices that lie behind the morality of capitalism.
An inherent crisis of capitalism
Marx said in 1848 how “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones”. The last period certainly fits this profile.
In 2008, the financial crash opened up a new and far more intense era of crisis, leading to lethal austerity and the scaling back of the social provision on which so many working-class families depend. Meanwhile, huge debt mounts steadily for the next generations to pay off. School and university students alike are no strangers to this process. The tripling of tuition fees, casualisation of work, decay of living conditions, soaring unemployment and rising homelessness confront us every day. The spectre of a future looks increasingly bleak.
The recent Covid-19 pandemic has only accentuated this process, announcing an epoch of crisis on a scale unheard of since the Black Death.
In this we may learn a lot from Marx’ prophetic phrase comparing capitalism to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up”. The Tories are locked between elements of the sensible bourgeoisie they’re meant to represent and the Boris Johnson camp of reaction and rightwing attitudes which are guiding the country from crisis to crisis. The capitalists have lost all control.
Socialism or barbarism
Alongside the cyclical destruction caused by capitalist crises, capitalism perpetually threatens its very own mode of existence. In 1848 Marx mentioned “the subjection of nature’s forces to man” carried out under capitalism. He outlined how even in this early stage of industrial development the “application of chemistry to industry and agriculture” and notably the “clearing of whole continents” began.
As we know deforestation is a huge problem facing 21st century society, which aside countless other polluting offences in the capitalist chain of production has the potential to cause climate disaster as early as the year 2050.
The barbaric wars produced by imperialism are another example of this. Marx was right when he predicted that the bourgeois “compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production.” This prophesied the colonial and imperialist policies of bourgeois powers like the USA and Britain. From the infamous “Scramble for Africa” right up to the numerous wars, foreign invasions and coups of the latter half of the 20th century, we see a virtual crusade against the rest of the world.
The point is to change it
But aside from many astonishing predictions and a description of the processes of capitalism which is far more adequate than any university textbook, the point of the Manifesto is not to make a pale description of how pitifully awful capitalism is, rather it is a call to arms to change the world. Most importantly, the Manifesto explained the basis on which to fight and abolish capitalism, i.e. the class struggle.
Capitalism, like any social system that has preceded it, produces its own grave-diggers in the form of the working-class. At the time when Marx and Engels wrote, this class was still embryonic and had only really developed numerically and politically in Britain. Today, it is larger and more powerful than it has ever been and in Britain composes the vast majority of the population.
When Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, this was not done merely out of interest, but in order to get the ideas of these two great revolutionaries out into the public view. The First International, of which Marx and Engels were a key part, commissioned this text to spread the word about Marx’s ideas. The point of the Manifesto has always been to raise class consciousness and create revolutionaries.
The purpose of Marxism is to equip that class with a revolutionary programme to abolish the horror without end that is capitalism. The ideas that are summarised in the Communist Manifesto are a guide to revolutionaries and have had an impact on its most decisive events in modern history. We stand in the footsteps of giants. It is the task of the Marxist Student Federation, as part of the International Marxist Tendency, to pick up that mantle, to study these ideas, and to use them to lead the Socialist Revolution of the 21st Century!
By Oscar Tilcott