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Marxism: the Next Big Idea

Introduction | Manifesto

PETER TAAFFE writes on the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.

1998 IS A big year for labour movement anniversaries. In May we celebrate the 1968 May-June revolutionary events which witnessed the greatest general strike in history in France. 

August is the 30th anniversary of the Russian Stalinist intervention in Czechoslovakia, and September is the 60th anniversary of the founding of Trotsky's Fourth International. 

But undoubtedly the most important anniversary is that of the Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels from December 1847 to January 1848 and published in February/March, 150 years ago.

A product of the genius of the young Marx and Engels (Engels was 27, Marx 29), the Manifesto stands out as one of the greatest examples of world literature. With its brilliant summing up of history, the class struggle, the role of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, it marked the entry of the ideas of scientific socialism onto the stage of world history.

But the Manifesto is not just of historic interest. Its most important parts are fresh even today. In simple words, it depicts the realities of late 20th century capitalism far more accurately than the millions of words daily churned out by its defenders. Above all, it is in the method of Marx and Engels, so clearly elaborated in this document, that are to be found the tools to combat capitalism and build a new socialist world.

Obviously, in a document written 150 years ago there is much now outdated. However, it is with astonishment that we discover how much in the Manifesto describes the situation today. To have made such a claim at the beginning of this decade would have invited scorn from the representatives of capitalism. 

Against the backdrop of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Marxism, that is scientific socialism, was 'dead and buried'. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes, and with them the planned economy, resulted in unbridled capitalist triumphalism. The Wall Street Journal, organ of the ignorant American financial barons, proclaimed, 'We've won', while Thatcher and Reagan, the twin stars in the capitalist firmament at that time, boasted that 'the lesson of the 1980s is that socialism has failed'. 

Yet the capitalists have had almost a decade since then, unhindered by resistance at least from the tops of the official labour movement, to show just what their system is capable of. But in this period we have seen one serious recession and, as the decade ends, we are on the verge of a new one, possibly even a small slump. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which we were told was going to become a new capitalist Eldorado, is an economic and social wasteland. 

The former USSR has plunged into an economic abyss, exceeding the collapse in the USA which followed the 1929-33 slump. One fact denotes the terrible price paid by the peoples of these areas for the restoration of capitalism; the life expectancy of males in Russia is now lower than India. Need one speak about the catastrophe of Africa and the looming collapse in Latin America and Asia?

It is not just 'antiquated' Marxists who look to the authors of the Manifesto for an explanation of today's world. Individual commentators, confronted by the desolation and chaos of modern capitalist society, are turning back to Marx. Neil Ascherson, in the Independent on Sunday, despite his scepticism about Marx, recently confessed that, "in spite of everything, I feel a spirit moving again under the floor boards... this was the man who saw that every social order carries the seeds of its own destruction, above all when that order seems universal and invincible. Now is the moment to remember that lesson".

A more searching commentator, John Cassidy, writing in the American magazine The New Yorker last year (reprinted in the Independent on Sunday, 7 December 1997), deals at length with Marx's ideas. He was prompted by a banker friend of his to delve into Marx's writings, including the Manifesto. Coming from somebody who freely confesses to being steeped in an anti-Marxist background, his comments are revealing. 

In a discussion with his banker friend, "between dips in his pool", they speculated about how long the present financial 'boom' would last: 

"To my surprise, he brought up Karl Marx. 'The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right,' he said". His friend further commented: "I am absolutely convinced that Marx's approach is the best way to look at capitalism". Cassidy does not resort to the demagogy and ignorance of many bourgeois writers in linking Stalinism to Marx's ideas: "Marx's legacy has been obscured by the failure of communism (Stalinism - PT)".

Commenting on the 90th anniversary of the Manifesto, Leon Trotsky, referring to Marx's materialist conception of history, wrote that it had "completely withstood the test of events and the blows of hostile criticism. It constitutes today one of the most precious instruments of human thought. All other interpretations of the historical process have lost all scientific meaning. We can state with certainty that it is impossible in our time to be not only a revolutionary militant, but even a literate observer of politics, without assimilating the materialist interpretation of history".

Sixty years later, John Cassidy comes to the same conclusion. Referring to James Carville, the Clinton advisor who coined the phrase, 'It's the economy, stupid,' Cassidy argues that 

"Marx's own term for this theory was 'the materialist conception of history', and it is now so widely accepted that analysts of all political views use it, like Carville, without any attribution. When conservatives argue that the welfare state is doomed because it stifles private enterprise, or that the Soviet Union collapsed because it could not match the efficiency of Western capitalism, they are adopting Marx's argument that economics is the driving force of human development". 

He goes on to explain that Marx "wrote riveting passages about globalisation, inequality, political corruption, monopolisation, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence - issues that economists are now confronting anew, sometimes without realising that they are walking in Marx's footsteps".

One world market

MARX AND ENGELS showed that the development of capitalism went together with the creation of the world market which bound together the world into one interdependent whole. In the process, the capitalists developed their own 'gravediggers' in the form of the working class. 

This class was not restricted to one country, but developed on a world scale. From these ideas of Marx and Engels developed the idea of socialist and working class internationalism. The dockers in Liverpool, the French truck drivers, the Danish and Bangalore bus workers, in seeking to spread their struggles on a continental and world basis, all stand on the shoulders of the authors of the Manifesto.

The tendencies which Marx traced out in the Manifesto have been taken to a level which could not have been anticipated. Marx referred to the growing concentration of capital, but only in his monumental work, Capital, did he show how free competition tended towards monopoly. Since Marx's day, and particularly in the era of globalisation, the growth and power of monopolies is transparently obvious. An estimated 150 giant firms - monopolies - dominate 80-85% of the British economy. Diane Coyle, the economics correspondent of The Independent, recently gave astonishing figures showing that "out of the world's largest 100 economic entities, 51 of them are corporations (monopolies - PT) and only 49 countries" (22 January, 1998).

John Cassidy approvingly quotes Marx: 

"The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property... national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from numerous national and local literature, there arises a world literature". He further goes on: "'Globalisation' is the buzz-word of the late 20th century, on the lips of everybody from Jiang Zemin to Tony Blair, but Marx predicted most of its ramifications 150 years ago. Capitalism is now well on its way to transforming the world into a single market, with the nations of Europe, Asia and the Americas evolving into three rival trading blocs within that market".

Capitalism developed in a contradictory fashion. On the one side, the development of the nation state in Europe in the 19th century, for instance, was a necessary framework in the genesis and flowering of capitalism for the development of the productive forces, science, technique and the organisation of labour. But the growing power of the productive forces have outgrown the narrow limits of the nation state, as well as private ownership. Giant multinationals look to the whole of the planet as their market, although they are still based within a national framework. At the same time, the capitalists are divided into separate rival national and regional blocs. The idea that globalisation would eliminate the nation state, either in Europe or elsewhere, is Utopian. Lenin and Trotsky, basing themselves on the analysis of Marx, showed that this was impossible on a capitalist basis.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the idea that the world market, through globalisation, can transcend national boundaries seemed to be given a boost. There was the huge, virtually untrammeled, development of finance capital, in particular, which shifted from one continent to another, with governments seemingly powerless to intervene. But Socialism Today has consistently pointed out the limitations of this process. A serious recession or slump would inevitably result in the introduction of protectionist measures by the different national capitalists, probably on a regional basis through the different blocs.

Now John Cassidy points out that the capitalist experts themselves are just beginning to draw the same conclusion: "Even economists who tradtionally have been globalisation's biggest defenders (on the ground that it creates more winners than losers), are now having second thoughts about its impact. Contemporary critics tend to use drier language than Marx did, but the message is similar". He goes on to quote one such critic:

"The international integration of markets for goods, services and capital, is pressurising societies to alter their traditional practices, and, in return, broad sections of these societies are putting up a fight". This comes from Dani Rodrik, a Harvard economist, in a book published in 1997 entitled, Has Globalisation Gone Too Far? "Rodrik pointed out that child labour, corporate tax avoidance, and shut American factories are all features of globalisation. He didn't mention Marx directly - citations of his work are not good for the career prospects of an Ivy League economist - but he concluded that the failure to meet the global challenge could lead to 'social disintegration'."

Undoubtedly, Marx and Engels made a mistake in their prognosis on the imminence of revolution when they wrote the Manifesto. They also overestimated the preparedness of the working class to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism at that stage. Marx maintained that no social system departed from the arena of history before exhausting all its possibilities. 

In the Manifesto he attacks capitalism for retarding the development of the productive forces. But at that stage, this retardation was only relative in nature. Undoubtedly, if the working class had taken power in the second part of the 19th century, industry and society would have developed at a much greater tempo than it did. Nevertheless, capitalism did develop the productive forces on a world scale. In other words, at that stage, capitalism was relatively reactionary.

It became absolutely reactionary only with the onset of the first world war, when it became clear that the productive forces had completely outgrown the narrow limits of private ownership, on the one side, and the nation state, on the other. Only then did capitalism become an absolute barrier to the full utilisation of the potential of the productive forces. This was reflected in the aftermath of the first world war. 

The booms were weaker and more anaemic than before 1914, and there were deeper slumps and protracted economic stagnation. It is true that capitalism experienced a spectacular structural growth in production between 1950-73. This unique and special period in the development of capitalism arose from the destruction of the second world war, the slaughter of value, both of constant capital and the literal slaughter of variable capital - that is the working class - combined with other factors: the utilisation of technology, which had lain fallow before then, and the economic strength and power of US capitalism.

The end of this long boom signified that world capitalism had entered a depressionary phase. The 1980s boom seemed to superficially contradict this, but it was lopsided; the relative position of the working class declined, as did the living standards of the peoples of Africa, Latin America and large parts of Asia. The growth rates of the 1980s were far inferior, as was the rate of investment back into industry, to the 1950-73 upswing.

But the trend towards globalisation, particularly in the 1990s, has enormously 'internationalised', speeded up and synchronised economic processes throughout the world economy. The international bourgeoisie, particularly in the USA and Europe, tried to pretend at the beginning that the Asian economic crisis was a 'little local difficulty'. Trotsky's phrase, 'Tobogganing towards disaster with their eyes closed,' comes to mind. 

They now want to pretend that Asia's economic 'virus' will be restricted to that part of the world. Indeed, at the recent Davos summit in Switzerland, when a Japanese finance minister correctly pointed out that what capitalism faced was not an Asian crisis but a world crisis, he was virtually shouted down. But the more serious bourgeois economists and commentators, such as Robert Reich, former labour secretary in the Clinton administration, have pointed to the inevitable effects of the Asian meltdown on Europe, Japan and the USA.

The bourgeoisie and the working class

ONE OF THE ideas of Marx, elaborated in the Manifesto, which has been the subject of vicious distortion and constant attacks by bourgeois and social democratic politicians alike, is the so-called 'theory of increasing misery'. Marx did not advance such an idea. He was well aware that there were periods when the working class was able to extract concessions, and important concessions, from the capitalists. 

But even in these periods, superficial appearances disguised the fact that often the share of the working class of national income actually declined. In other words, there was a relative decline of the masses' standards of living. 

Even during the spectacular structural upswing of 1950-73, when the absolute standards of living of the working class grew substantially in the advanced industrial world, the same was not true in the colonial and former colonial world, where two-thirds of humankind is concentrated. But even during the recent much-vaunted US 'boom', which still appears to be powering ahead, the real living standards of the working class have stagnated for the last two decades. 

Only on the basis of doing two or three jobs have the working class, at least sections of them, managed to keep their heads above water. John Cassidy also shows that in the US, 

"between 1980 and 1996, the share of total household income going to the richest 5% of families increased from 15.3% to 20.3%, while the share of the income going to the poorest 60% of families fell from 34.2% to 30%". 

He gives similar figures for the UK, where the poorest10% of the population between 1979-94 saw their incomes fall by 13%.

The same could be said about growing inequality on a world scale. Poverty, disease and declining educational levels blight the lives of a growing proportion of the peoples of the former colonial and semi-colonial world. Malnutrition, meaning people who do not have enough to eat, is, in the sanitised words of The Financial Times, 

"implicated in more than six million deaths of children under five each year, more than half of all child deaths, and leaves millions of survivors stunted physically and intellectually". 

The gap between rich and poor is growing and is greater than at any time since the 19th century, higher than at the time of the industrial revolution. In 1978, the director of a big US company, earned about 60 times what a typical worker earned; in 1995 he took home about 170 times as much.

In this light one could say that Marx's predictions, when applied to the working class under capitalism, were excessively modest. Indeed, John Cassidy comments: 

"These figures suggest that one of Marx's most controversial ideas, the 'theory of immiseration', may be making a comeback". 

He also concurs with Marx's analysis of the vital role of the 'reserve army' of unemployed in the mechanism of capitalism. Marx pointed out:

"The greater the social wealth... the greater is the industrial reserve army... the greater is the massive consolidated surplus population... the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation". 

Marx's 'reserve army' involved workers moving in and out of production. But now there is a permanent army of unemployed, with mass structural unemployment throughout world capitalism. 

One-third of the world labour force, according to the International Labour Organisation, is either unemployed or underemployed at the present time. There are over 20 million unemployed in Europe. In the US, however, unemployment officially stands at the lowest level for 24 years, yet this is actually alarming the capitalists. Low unemployment is one of the factors which have led to a recent small rise in wages. This underlines the vital role played by the reserve army under capitalism in holding down the wages of the working class.

In some other predictions of the Manifesto, the authors were not entirely accurate. Basing themselves upon the example of British capitalism in the 19th century, with the colossal growth of the proletariat, Marx and Engels were too optimistic about the disappearance of the intermediary layers, the middle classes. 

They emphasised the polarisation of society into just two great classes, the bourgeoisie, on the one side, and the working class, on the other. But as Leon Trotsky pointed out: 

"Capitalism has ruined the petit-bourgeoisie at a much faster rate that it has proletarianised it. Furthermore, the bourgeois state has long directed its conscious policy towards the artificial maintenance of the bourgeois strata". 

In France, for instance, terrified by the example of the Paris Commune, the ruling class deliberately held back the development of industry and, therefore, the working class, preferring to base themselves on the exploitation of their colonies, on rentier capital, rather than the development of industrial capital. Only under de Gaulle in the 1960s, and his programme of rapid industrialisation, was the petit bourgeoisie, particularly the peasantry, eroded.

It is true that there is a 'new middle class' of technicians, administrators, etc. But they do not have the same independence as the middle class of old - small shopkeepers, small businesses, etc. Through the process of the concentration and centralisation of capital, described 150 years ago by Marx, the old middle classes have been drastically undermined. The 'new middle class' is much more directly dependent on the capitalists, as highly-paid salaried employees, etc. Many of them, at the heart of the beast, see the chaos, mismanagement and waste of the system, not to say its corruption and inhuman character.

They are potential allies of the working class and labour movement. After all, one of the factors in the victory of Blair in the election was the massive swing of 'Middle England' against Thatcherite capitalism. Now New Labour, by their actions on education and single parents, are quickly repelling these layers who they assiduously courted before the election. 

And, as The Observer recently commented, they still are at the moment radicalised but against a government they brought to power only a matter of nine months ago: 

"Shropshire is so Middle England you can still find people who think The Daily Mail is a serious newspaper. Yet last Saturday 4,000 citizens carried coffins through the streets of Shrewsbury to mourn the death of education. John Saxbee, the Bishop of Ludlow, not a noted left-ie, sounded like a red priest from Nicaragua when he called on the crowd to 'rise up in protest'." (25 January, 1998)

The point is to change the world

THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO was conceived by its authors not just as a sweeping condemnation of capitalism and an abstract advocacy of socialism and communism. Above all, it was a call for action in the imminent revolution which Marx and Engels were expecting. It was directed particularly at the adherents of the Communist League. It is this, the call for revolutionary action, which even the most sympathetic bourgeois commentators on the Manifesto oppose or keep quiet about.

Undoubtedly, Marx and Engels overestimated the possibility of a socialist revolution in 1848, and the preparedness of the working class to take power then. It took events, particularly the Paris Commune, to show that only by the creation of a mass socialist revolutionary party at the head of the working class could such a social overturn be completed. This was borne out, moreover, by the Russian revolution, which would have been impossible without the existence of a mass revolutionary party in the form of the Bolshevik party, and the far-sighted leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. The task of creating such a party is even more urgent today than at any other time since the Manifesto was written.

At the time of the 100th anniversary of the Manifesto, in 1948, the British Labour Party reproduced the Manifesto, with an introduction by Harold Laski, identifying the party with the aims of its authors: 

"Few documents in the history of mankind have stood up so remarkably to the test of verification by the future as the Communist Manifesto. Essentially, after its publication, no one has been able to seriously contravert any of its major positions. All over the world, the crises of capitalism have grown both more frequent and more profound".

How far New Labour has travelled to the right since then! Blair and Brown view the Communist Manifesto as the devil views holy water. They have converted the Labour Party from a vehicle for working people into another capitalist party. This has put the need to create a new mass party of the working class on the agenda. 

The new generation of workers, youth and radicalised intellectuals, who will raise on their shoulders such a party, will inevitably turn back to the marvellous and brilliant generalisations, the crystal-clear ideas of Marx and Engels. 

In place of the duplicitous and cloudy phrases of reformists, of 'liberal' deceptions, which are now the stock-in-trade of the official leadership of New Labour, they will find clarity. They can read Marx's broad generalisation which has stood the test of time: 

'The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie'. 

Does this not accurately describe all the governments of Europe, whether they describe themselves as 'New Labour', 'socialist', 'liberal', or 'conservative? The state is not an independent arbiter between different classes and groups in society, but a special instrument for the oppression of one class, the working class, by another, the capitalists, the ruling class.

Capitalism will not voluntarily vacate the scene of history, merely because it has exhausted all the possibilities latent within it. This system has already failed humankind. Only with the conscious mobilisation of the working class, through its own independent mass party, can the huge obstacle which capitalism represents to further human progress be removed. Such a movement would constitute a socialist revolution. The very actions of unbridled capitalism today are preparing the ground for a mass revolt of the working class. The crisis in Asia has already seen the downfall of two governments in Korea and Thailand. They will not be the last, as Suharto in Indonesia faces overthrow.

In Europe, the US and Japan, moreover, the ground is being prepared for a huge change in the consciousness of the mass of the working class. A more pronounced and generalised anti-capitalist outlook will be a major consequence of the new recession or slump which looms. The ideas of socialism, the ideas of the Communist Manifesto, will come back onto the stage of history with a roar like thunder. John Cassidy's article on Karl Marx is entitled, 'The Next Big Thinker'. 

We completely agree with this conclusion. No matter how old an idea or theory, if it more accurately describes the situation today than any other, then it is the most modern, the most revolutionary theory available. This is what the new generation who will move into struggle will discover. 

And it will not just he workers who will make the journey, like John Cassidy, from defenders of capitalism to admirers of Marx's ideas. A new generation of socialist intellectuals will develop, encouraged by the social and political movement of the working class worldwide. No doubt bourgeois academia will seek to imprison them, as they have done successfully in the past, within a kind of anaemic 'Marxism', which admires Marx's ideas, at least the less threatening of them, but refuses to draw the conclusion that action must result from them.

But there will be many in the new layer of workers, youth, women, black and Asian workers, who will turn to Marx for the ideological weapons which can assist them in combating capitalism and in creating a new socialist future. One of the tasks of Marxists and socialists today is to prepare the ground for such a movement by introducing the new generation to the marvellous ideas of the giants of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. There is no better beginning than to seek to explain and popularise the Communist Manifesto.

From Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party, March 1998

Peter Taaffe is General Secretary of the Socialist Party




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