Monday, 25 March 2013

The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.
This is one of the foundational texts of the modern political left, first published in England in 1848.

Marx and Engels' view of history and society was simple and polemical.  "The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles."  Every era had its oppressors and oppressed, though the identity of each side changed as economic conditions evolved.  The current stage of history was that of capitalist society, which was characterised by the conflict between the bourgeoisie, or owners of property, and the proletariat, or the workers who had to sell their labour in order to survive.

The bourgeoisie not only had complete economic power, they controlled the political world too: "The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."  Bourgeois dominance was something new insofar as it had destroyed the comforting illusions of chivalry and piety which had characterised the dominance of previous ruling classes:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors," and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment." It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless and indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom - Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
Yet Marx and Engels also write with something approaching admiration of the dynamism and achievements of industrial capitalism:
It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades....
Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind....
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground - what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?
Communism was simply the political expression of the interests of proletarians in all countries.  But it was not merely a theory of present-day society or the development which had created it - it offered a means of predicting the future.  At present, the proletarians were "slaves of the bourgeois class", forced to work for ever shrinking wages. However, this state of affairs could not continue indefinitely.  Bourgeois society was threatened by economic crises, which were growing progressively more serious.  Class conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was intensifying, with the formation of trade unions and the growing unity of the working class.  Before long, there would be a violent revolution in which the proletariat would overthrow the bourgeois order.  This would begin in Germany.  The revolution would then spread throughout the world, and the result would be universal peace and brotherhood.

We now know that Marx's theories were fundamentally flawed and that his predictions were falsified by experience.  Already by Lenin's time, it was becoming clear that events were not proceeding as planned, and that Marx's ideas would have to be revised.  In the event, the global workers' revolution never came - certainly not in Germany, which ended up being governed by an extreme right-wing regime which murderously suppressed the Communist movement.  Communism itself is not the epoch of history that follows capitalism - it is a transient stage which backward agricultural countries (Tsarist Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Congo, Ethiopia, Cambodia) sometimes pass through on the way to embracing capitalism. Capitalism does not inevitably erode the living standards of the workforce, and (as George Orwell put it) the working classes of the wealthiest countries have a lot more to lose than their chains.

For Marx and Engels, the key question was the distribution of property.  The goal of Communism was to abolish private property (not property in general - that was an Anarchist, not a Communist, objective).  Marx and Engels sardonically remarked that capitalist society had already done away with private property for the majority of the population who formed the proletariat.  How exactly would the Communist dream be accomplished?  At one point, the writers suggest a ten-point reform programme.  Some of this is predictable enough (high income taxes, abolition of landed property), but other points have since become conventional wisdom (free state education) or are simply bizarre (the abolition of cities).  More generally, Marx and Engels were in favour of revolution, plain and simple, "the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions"; "the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things".  What they don't explain is what would happen on the day after the revolution - what to do when you wake up and find yourself living in the Soviet Union.