The Communist Manifesto: 170 Years In Retrospect

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Dr Lehlohonolo Kennedy Mahlatsi

The Manifesto of the Communist Party contains the first and most complete abridged statement of the theoretical principles of Marxism and of the strategy and tactics of Communism. It was commissioned by the Second Congress of the German Communist League, an underground workers Party, in November 1947. Friedrich Engels (at age 27) first drafted Principles of Communism. He handed it over to Karl Marx, then 29, for revision. Expatiating on Engels’ Principles, Marx produced the theoretical and literary masterpiece known as the Communist Manifesto, which was first published anonymously in London in February 1848. It remains the most concise and the most important single document of Marxism. It has been called the “death certificate” of capitalism and the “birth certificate” of scientific socialism.

This was a stormy period of the February 1848 Revolution in France and of a climax of the Chartist Movement in Britain, when the working class appeared for the first time on the stage of history as an independent force. It is recommended that readers who want to know something of the background of the Manifesto should read the various prefaces by prefaces-—written by Marx and Engels to different editions (published with the Manifesto) and should also turn to Engels’ History of the Communist League and Marx’s Class Struggles in France, 1848-50.

 The Manifesto is an epoch-making document. Up to that time, socialists had been putting forward Utopian schemes (imaginary projects for an ideal society) or were engaging in ‘secret conspiracies, while the rising working-class movement lacked a revolutionary theory. The Manifesto signified the union of scientific socialism with the mass working-class movement. The great contribution of Marxism was to develop scientific theory and to introduce it into the working-class movement. Marx and Engels based socialism on a scientific understanding of the laws of development of society and of the class struggle. They were able to show how socialism could be won, and to arm the working class with knowledge of its historical mission. Marx did not arrive at his conclusions as a pure research worker, though he did conduct profound research. In the 1840’s Marx was engaged as a revolutionary republican and democrat in the movement which led up to the revolutionary year 1848. And he arrived at this conclusion as a Communist activist, striving to understand the movement in which he participated in order to help guide it to the goal of the people’s emancipation from oppression, superstition and exploitation. These conclusions were formulated in the Manifesto of the Communist Party.

Marx and Engels saw the whole social movement as a struggle between classes; they saw the contending classes themselves as products of the economic development of society; they saw politics as the reflection of the economic movement and of the class struggle; they saw that the bourgeois revolution then in progress, the task of which was to remove the vestiges of feudal rule and establish democracy, was preparing the way for the proletarian, socialist revolution; and they saw that this revolution could only be consummated by the working class conquering state power. It was only because they espoused the cause of the working class and saw it in new, rising, revolutionising force in history, that Marx and Engels were able to discover the laws of social change, which those who adopted the standpoint of exploitation could never do. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “every class struggle is a political struggle,” Just as every major political struggle is s struggle of classes, so the class struggle becomes a struggle to influence state, that is, political affairs and, in revolutionary periods, a struggle for state power.

In hundred and seventy years since its publication, it has been judged not only as a uniquely influential document in the theory and practice of revolutionary movements throughout the world, but also as a work of history, as economic, political, and cultural analysis. It is a beacon for the egalitarian society free from super-exploitation. The Manifesto has been judged as an account of past, present, and future—not only the present and future of its authors but those of every generation since, up to and including our own. The Manifesto stands alone in this respect no doubt because of its tremendous role in the history of a vast political movement which has had an immeasurable influence on the shape of the modern world. More particularly, the Manifesto has been subject to uniquely critical scrutiny because people in power, and their intellectual supporters, have felt that much was at stake in debunking it.

The Manifesto argues that Capitalism has also created a social force, a class, with the capacity to overthrow capitalism and put socialism in its place. By giving birth to a mass proletariat, capitalism has brought into being its own gravediggers. It is certainly true that capitalism has created a mass working class, both “blue collar” and “white collar” workers of various kinds who have in common their exploitation by capital. These workers are strategically situated at the heart of a system which depends on their labor, and that strategic location gives them a social power that could, as no other social force can, transform capitalism into socialism. It is also true that working class movements have fought many historic battles, won many important victories, and acted as a revolutionary force in many parts of the world.

Capitalism will also always restrict the scope of democracy. It can never permit a truly democratic society where there are no oppressed and oppressing classes; where “accumulated labor is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the laborer” and not just to enhance capitalist profit; where reproduction, child care, and relations between the sexes are not deformed by capitalist imperatives; where no nation oppresses another; where culture is free of distortion by the market; and so on. As long as we live under capitalism, we will live in a society where the needs and actions of undemocratic and unaccountable capitalist enterprises, both by the direct exercise of class power and through the “market,” shape our social and natural environment and determine the conditions of life for every living being that comes within their global orbit. Now more than ever it should be obvious that a society driven by the imperatives of capital accumulation has to give way to a more humane and democratic social order. For such a transformation to take place, the main motive force will still have to be class struggle.

In its first paragraph the Manifesto posits with an oft-quoted passage that: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” If we look around us in the world today—and take into account the extent to which capitalism is destroying or undermining the natural foundations of a sustainable economy—we must surely reinstate “the common ruin of the contending classes” as a very realistic prospect in the historically near future.

The history of all societies since the break-up of the primitive communes has been the history of class struggles. In capitalist society a stage has been reached when the victory of the exploited class, the proletariat, over the ruling exploiting class, the bourgeoisie, will once and for all emancipate society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles. Capitalism itself developed out of feudalism, and the capitalist class is itself the product in its development, the capitalist class has played a most revolutionary role. It has brought into being the great new productive forces of modern industry. But in creating modern industry it has created its own gravediggers, the proletariat.

The manifesto deals with the stages of political development through which the proletariat organised into a class, and consequently into a political party, combined against the bourgeoisie. While the proletariat fights all relics of feudalism and for the fullest extension of democracy, it leads the struggle for socialism against the capitalists, a struggle which must culminate in the proletariat conquering power and becoming itself the ruling class. With power in its hands, the proletariat makes drastic inroads into the power of the capitalists and into capitalist property relations the ideas of Communism are not inventions of any would-be reformers but emanating from the working class as a whole. Communists have no interests apart from the working class as a whole. Their policy is to fight for the immediate aims of the class, to form an alliance with every movement opposed to the existing social order, and in the movement of the present always to take care of the future, striving to unite the class for the overthrow of capitalist rule and for the conquest of power. The Marxist view of history is not just an academic explanation of the world. It is an indispensable weapon for changing it.

The Manifesto concludes that “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE. The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels drafted 170 years ago laid out their vision of a new society pregnant in the old, and the possibility of achieving that vision. Socialists today continue that vision and strive for that new society—socialism. Our responsibility is large, to take the ideas and revolutionary spirit of the Communist Manifesto in advancing the Radical Socio-economic Transformation of our Country and the world.

Dr Lehlohonolo Kennedy Mahlatsi is SACP Free State PEC Member and ANC Member. He writes in his personal capacity

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One Comment

  1. Thank you Cde Lehlohonolo for your , as always , very informative contribution. The opening line of the Communists Manifesto has in fact been ringing in my ears ( or is it my mind ) as I ponder the political situation which is rapidly manifesting in our country and within our organisation . Although I was also schooled in Marxist-Leninist political philosophy as a young cadre growing up in the liberation movement , I never quite mastered the subject as much as comrades such as yourselves did. I raise this issue in response to your beautiful contribution because I am firmly of the opinion that it is incumbent on real communists like yourself to take the lead with regard to presentation of well -researched and reasoned contributions regarding the situation our country , in the light of my personal perception ( and I repeat perception ) that leading elements within the SACP are gradually being co-opted by capitalists to derail our National Democratic Revolution under the guise of combating corruption and state capture. As I have said herein , this is my own perception of what is happening and like a disciplined cadre of our movement I stand ready to be corrected if found to be wanting in my analysis.

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