The Communist Manifesto Today: Still True, Still Dangerous, Still the Hope of the Hopeless

Part I

By Raymond Lotta

Revolutionary Worker #958, May 24, 1998

On May 1, 1998, in New York City, Maoist political economist Raymond Lotta delivered a major address celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. The Revolutionary Worker is publishing the entire talk in two parts.

I first encountered the Communist Manifesto in the late 1960s. I was a student radical and my generation was discovering Marx and Marxism. I'll admit I didn't understand it all. But I do remember being struck by two things: there was the Communist Manifesto's panorama of history--it not only analyzed the past but also talked about the future, about where society was heading; and it had this "in your face" attitude. I remember this one phrase: "the bourgeois claptrap about family and education." I was 19 and liked that a lot. And Marx was only 29 when he wrote that.

A Document that Changes History

It was in mid-February 1848 that Karl Marx, this young revolutionary agitator, had finished the final draft of a major pamphlet. He and his colleague, Frederick Engels, had been deputized by a small revolutionary group to produce a political document. The idea was to unify and guide the work of revolutionaries and to rally the masses from different countries.

You see, the 1830s and 1840s were tumultuous years in Europe. The old monarchies and absolutist states on the continent were lashing out for their survival. Discontent and opposition were mounting. At the same time, the new factory system of capitalism, with its sweatshops and industrial slums, was spreading. It had taken hold in England and was now being introduced in France and Germany. Peasants were being driven off the land. A new class of laborers, the proletariat, was growing...and it was growing more rebellious.

It was urgent to get this document into print. But Marx and Engels refused to endorse the first draft--which was written in a question-and-answer format, like a religious tract. So Engels volunteered himself and Marx to do a rewrite. "I believe that the best thing is to do away with the catechism form," he wrote Marx, "and give the thing the title: Communist Manifesto."

And did Marx ever produce a Manifesto. This was the visionary founding document of the international communist movement. It is a concise presentation of how history is really made--that history is not the result of the actions of great men, or the will of God, or just a series of accidents. No, history is made as a result of the struggle between different social groupings, or classes, and this class struggle is rooted in the economic foundation of society. The Communist Manifesto is also the first and most concise formulation of the aims and goals of the proletarian revolution. And it rings with poetry and passion.

It's no exaggeration to say that the Communist Manifesto has changed the course of history. It is probably the most influential political document ever written, studied by millions around the world. And it has been an outlaw book. When I was in the Philippines three years ago, two peasant revolutionaries told me about how they had to take their books by Marx and hide them in the fields.

There has always been something dangerous about the Communist Manifesto. There are those famous opening lines: "A spectre is haunting Europe--the spectre of communism." There are the taunts and daggers it hurls at the ruling classes. Listen to Marx: "You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its nonexistence in the hands of those nine-tenths...You reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so, that is what we intend." And it ends with its famous call: "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win."

So here we are at the end of the 20th century. It has been a century in which oppressed peoples have risen up in great struggles. We have seen the Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions come to power and begin to construct new societies. But both these revolutions were overthrown by new capitalist forces. World capitalism has certainly held on longer than Marx expected. We are constantly barraged with the bourgeoisie's verdict that communism is a failure, an impractical utopia twisted into a nightmare. They want us to believe that the message of the story is: Capitalism is the best that can be gotten. "Long live greed and inequality."

So does the Communist Manifesto speak to us today? Yes, it does. It speaks to us through its analysis of capitalist society. It speaks to us through its vision of a world without classes. It speaks to us through the actual experience of proletarian revolution in this century--in what was accomplished and in what has been learned about what it is going to take to do away with this system. It speaks to us because here at the dawn of the next millennium, nothing less than revolution will advance human society.

Marx on the Rise and Mission of the Bourgeoisie

As I've suggested, the Communist Manifesto is really two things. It is an historical analysis of class society and class struggle, and of capitalist society in particular; and it is a vision of what must and can replace it. I want to start by talking about the analysis of capitalism in the Manifesto. Marx examines capitalism from a historical materialist perspective. And that means several things.

First it means that capitalism is not eternal. Capitalism is an historical form of social production. It had its beginnings. In the 1500s, the conditions for the future development of capitalism were coming into being. And capitalism will have its end. Capitalism arose at a certain stage in the development of human society. The productive forces were developing in feudal society; and a new class, the bourgeoisie, was emerging with them. By productive forces, I mean tools, instruments, land and raw materials, and people themselves. Now the bourgeoisie represented new ways of utilizing these productive forces and organizing production. But these new relations of production were hemmed in by the old feudal relations of production.

By relations of production I mean the relationship of different groups in society to the means of production--who owns and controls them; the different roles that people play in the process of production; and how and in what share the wealth produced in society is distributed among these different groups in society. In class society, these different social groupings and relations are classes and class relations.

The feudal estate system of agriculture and the guild system of craft production restricted the ability of this bourgeoisie to develop markets and to utilize new instruments and methods of production. The bourgeoisie had to overthrow the feudal regimes and establish its own state power and social system.

Karl Marx hated capitalism. He wrote, "Capital comes into the world with blood dripping from every pore." But the historical materialist analysis leads him to the conclusion that the bourgeoisie carries out an objective historical mission. That mission is to develop the productive forces in a qualitatively new way.

The bourgeoisie transforms individual means of production, like small tools of artisans, into social means of production, like machine tools, assembly lines, and so forth, which are only workable by large numbers of people. It creates systems of socialized production in which products are not the result of the efforts of one or a few people but rather are the outcome of the vast and interdependent activities of many people. Think of a car and all of what goes into its production. Unlike an artisan or farmer, no one auto worker can look at it and say "I made that"--it's a collective product of thousands.

But what is production for under capitalism, and whom is it for? It is for profit and more profit. It is production that serves the class interests of the bourgeoisie, those who own the means of production. And where does this profit come from? It comes from the exploitation of the proletariat, the class of proletarians who have nothing to sell but their labor power.

Capitalism is dynamic. That's a major theme of the Communist Manifesto. Capitalism is driven by the force of competition to expand and to innovate. The Manifesto says this about the bourgeoisie: "During its scarce rule of one hundred years, the bourgeoisie has created more massive and colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations." He is talking about steel mills, electricity, steamships, railways.

Capitalism is restless and transformative. Marx says: "constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones." People are thrown together into factories and cities. And capitalism strips human relations down to naked self-interest and cash payment--what do I own, what am I worth, what are you worth?

Capitalism breaks down frontiers and batters down anything that stands in its way. Marx puts it this way: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe." When Marx was writing, England was brutally plundering and colonizing India and forcing China at gunpoint into its trading system. Commodity production, in which practically everything produced is produced for exchange, spreads throughout the world. And in doing so, capitalism takes whole populations and creates and exploits new proletarians.

Marx analyzes how the process of capitalist development results in the means of production becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. It is a process in which there is increasing polarization in society: wealth at one extreme; toil, poverty, and degradation at the other. The industrial revolution in England depended on gruesome factory discipline, 14-hour work days, and child labor; and it spawned urban slums festering with disease and malnutrition. The worker under capitalism becomes an extension of the machine, and he or she works only insofar as they serve the expansion of capital.

In 1825, the capitalist world was shaken by its first great economic crisis. For the first time, millions went hungry not because too little had been produced, but because too much had been produced--too many products that could not be sold, too many means of production that could not be used profitably. This was the first rebellion of the new and massive productive forces against the relations of capitalist production--against the property relations of private ownership of these means of production.

Capitalism is an anarchic system of production. There is no conscious society-wide coordination of production. How much steel is produced, how many buildings go up--this is not decided according to any rational plan. There is this incredible image in the Communist Manifesto. Marx says "a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells." And Marx reaches another historical materialist conclusion in the Manifesto. Capitalism has outlived its usefulness. The bourgeoisie is unfit to rule.

Capitalism Today

So here we are in 1998. Does this analysis help us make sense of the world today?

In these 150 years, capitalism has spread and grown more concentrated. It has asserted itself through new techniques and industries that envelop the world. Capitalist accumulation has led to the fastest growth in productivity of human labor in human history. Productive technique has gone from mechanical looms run by steam to industrial robots. It took humanity about 100,000 years to invent the sailing ship; another 5,000 years to invent the steamship; but only 100 years to invent the spaceship. Capitalism has become massively globalized. It has created new global divisions of labor. Take a pair of Nike shoes: the outer leather is produced in Brazil and Australia, the rubber soles are manufactured in Thailand, and the shoes themselves are stitched together in China.

But what are the dynamics and the social reality underlying all of this? The answer is: the more intense exploitation of world humanity, the more savage plunder of the planet. This has been a century and a half of unparalleled growth and unparalleled destruction and suffering. A century in which there has been a Great Depression, two world wars, horrific oppression in the Third World.

Now it was Lenin who analyzed how capitalism had actually evolved to a higher stage called imperialism. This involves changes in the organization and structure of capital, particularly the growth of monopoly and finance capital. And it involves a qualitatively greater integration of the world. But Lenin also underscored that the globalization of capitalism takes place unequally: in a world divided between, on the one side, a handful of controlling, oppressor imperialist nations and states and, on the other side, the oppressed nations of the Third World. And he recognized that the struggle of these oppressed nations for their liberation--led by the proletariat in alliance with a radicalized and land-hungry peasantry--would be a driving force of the world proletarian revolution.

But imperialism arises on the foundation of capitalism and its laws of motion as analyzed by Marx.

So let's survey some features of the world today.

  • Exhibit 1. 300 transnational corporations directly own one-quarter of the world's productive assets. The richest 20 percent of the world's population controls 85 percent of the world's income. In the U.S., the 200 largest manufacturing corporations own 60 percent of the manufacturing capacity.
  • Exhibit 2. The global proletariat has grown enormously since the time of the Manifesto. Tens of millions of peasants are crushed and uprooted each year in the Third World. In Bangladesh 20 years ago, there was no textile industry. Today there are one million textile workers, most whom are women concentrated in Dacca, the capital. A global cheap labor manufacturing economy is a vital part of world capitalism's functioning. Its new proletarians are found in industrial barracks protected by military guards, in sweatshops with murderous accident rates and sexual exploitation, in its surrounding shantytowns with poisoned water, and it draws on a child workforce numbering 200 million!

    And there is a real proletariat in the U.S.: in the garment shops, in the chicken factories; there are the farmworkers, the hospital orderlies, the teenagers who stalk the corners of the South Bronx and South Central Los Angeles.

  • Exhibit 3. More than half the people on the planet survive on incomes of less than $2 a day. By tomorrow night, another 40,000 children in the Third World will have died from preventable malnutrition and disease. 30 percent of the world's labor force is either unemployed or underemployed. 1 out of 9 workers in Europe are out of work. 75 million migrant workers leave their countries each year in search of work.
  • Exhibit 4. In the U.S., the richest country in the world, 40 percent of Black and Latino children live in poverty; 7 million people are homeless; 33 million people are without health insurance; and 1 out of 3 young Black men is either in jail or under the control of the criminal justice system. One-third of the U.S. labor force works in low-paying jobs. Between 1992 and 1995, 15 percent of people who had held jobs for 10 years or more lost those jobs, and the new jobs they found paid on average 14 percent less.
  • Exhibit 5. The economic collapse in Asia. Remember how Marx talked about that sorcerer who couldn't control the powers that he conjured up? Well, the financial crisis in Asia is a perfect example. In the 1990s, huge amounts of global financial capital, and this was facilitated by new electronics and information technologies, poured into the Asian stock and currency markets. Huge amounts of global manufacturing capital were invested to expand production in everything from cars to computer chips. The world's two tallest buildings went up in Malaysia. And then it all collapsed. These economies are flat on their backs. Factories are shut down, millions are without work, the savings and incomes of vast numbers of people have been wiped out.
  • Finally. The earth is facing an environmental crisis of unprecedented proportions. Half of the forest cover of the world's tropical forests is gone. Every day, 74 species become extinct. The destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, depletion of ocean resources, and the use of the Third World as a toxic dumping ground--these are all outgrowths of anything-for-profit logic capitalism.
  • The capitalists hail the free market as the hope of humanity. But their system is a total disaster. It's savage; it's outmoded; and it's no longer necessary. Something qualitatively different is possible.

    A Different World is Possible

    The fact is the productive forces in the world are capable of producing enough food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and other basic necessities for everybody in the world and at the same time of having a large surplus left over to devote to the all-around and future development of human society and the people that make it up.

    But obviously this is not what is happening. What stands in the way? The property relations of capitalism and the class political rule of capital.

    You see, everything I have been describing is an expression of the fundamental contradiction of the bourgeois epoch. This is the contradiction between socialized production and private appropriation (or ownership). The proletariat is the class that represents cooperative labor and cooperative efforts overall that correspond to the highly socialized nature of the productive forces. It can unshackle the potential of these productive forces.

    There is a very famous phrase in the Communist Manifesto. Marx is talking about the industry that the bourgeoisie develops, and then says, "What the bourgeoisie produces, above all, are its own gravediggers." He is speaking about the proletariat. Now remember I said that the bourgeoisie performed an objective mission. Well, the proletariat has an objective mission, which is to carry out a revolution that aims to establish socialized, common ownership of the means of production and to organize people in a cooperative way to carry out labor and distribute what is produced according to people's needs.

    The proletariat leads a unique revolution. For the first time, a revolution can be made in the interests of the majority of humanity--not to replace one form of exploitation and oppression with another, but to do away with all exploitation and oppression. As I have been stressing, today's productive forces are highly interconnected on an international level and in fact can only be most rationally utilized on an international scale. So the proletarian revolution is in the final analysis an international revolution. This revolution aims to abolish classes and to build a whole new kind of society on a world scale. That is the vision and that is the mission that is described in the Communist Manifesto. And that is what I want to get into more deeply.

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