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Marx's call to liberation 160 years and still going strong

By Barry Healy

Not many young authors can publish a work before they reach thirty years of age and have it remain in publication continuously for the following 160 years. Yet that is precisely the case with the Communist Manifesto, which was born in the middle of a Europe-wide revolutionary upsurge in February 1848.

Moreover, the Manifesto still rings through the years to today’s world with its promise of human liberty and fulfilment.

The democratic wave that swept Europe in 1848 was a consequence of the unfinished business of the French Revolution of 1789. In that heroic revolution the French capitalist class took control of society by calling the workers, peasants and other lower orders to their side through promising liberty, fraternity and equality. The reactionary European powers quelled the revolution without dampening down its promise.


The Communist Manifesto and its relevance for today
By Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (with a commentary by Leon Trotsky)
Resistance Marxist Library, Resistance Books,
Sydney 1998, 74 pp.

Order your copy, click here.


 See a great animation of the Communist Manifesto here


The expansion of capitalist production that followed enlarged the working class and by the late 1840s economic crisis brought conflict. The unfulfilled promises of freedom from 1789 mingled with new urges for liberty from wage slavery to create the explosion.

The spark of the rebellion came from Switzerland in November 1847, where the Protestant-dominated Federal Council decided to expel the Jesuits. Reactionary Catholic cantons revolted and soon the Austrian Empire was lining up behind them. But the Catholic cantons were defeated rapidly, shattering the prestige of the Austrian dynasty.

With the tentacles of the reactionary forces that had banded together against the French Revolution weakening, the struggle spread down the Italian peninsula and soon agitation was rife from one end of Europe to the other with barricades being erected and epic street battles in most capitals.

The early communists, crude and colourful

In this agitation the newly formed Communist League bent every effort to drive the movement forward, with the secret police of every country hounding them and establishment newspapers slandering them.

This why the Manifesto begins famously with: ``A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.’’[1] The Manifesto was the first public statement of the Communists, newly surfaced from the shadows of underground organising. By the time the Manifesto came off the printing press Marx was embroiled in revolutionary Paris.

Just who were these Communists? The fact is, the movement had only just been recently united and had barely begun to establish its intellectual foundations when the flood of revolution overtook it.

Marx and Engels were young German intellectuals, critical thinkers trained in the exacting method of Hegel, whose philosophical system of dialectics Marx developed and revolutionised. Exiled from Germany and having moved through radical European circles for several years, they joined the secretive League of the Just, an advanced grouping of radical German artisans.

Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto Maenchen-Helfen, biographers of Marx, quote Marx referring to the writings emanating from the League as ``the giant footprints of the proletariat’’.[2]

As Marx and Engels joined, the League of the Just was moving from small-circle organising to attempting to win all like-minded people to its revolutionary cause. Some of the political currents they were absorbing contained strange, ``crude communist’’ mixtures of thinking which filtered into the German workers’ movement from small communities in the Harz Mountains and Silesia. There, minute Anabaptist groups had managed to survive from the religious wars of the 16th century, teaching and practicing a form of basic Christian communism.

Nicolaievsky and Maenchen-Helfen say that ``common love feasts’’ were a feature of League activities in Switzerland. It was from among these communities that arose the idea of the ``communalisation of women’’, a free-love practice that scandalised the upper classes and formed a line of attack on communism in the official press (the Manifesto masterfully turns this attack back on the upper classes by mockingly exposing their adulterous hypocrisy).

The ``crude communism’’ of these radicals, Nicolalevsky and Maenchen-Helfen explain:

[Was] essentially a longing for a return to a transfigured pre-capitalist world of which they were to be the expression. The idea that industry itself creates the conditions for and the possibility of a social revolution, and that the proletariat has a historical task to fulfil was remote from the minds of the German artisan communists. They could not conceive of the evils under which they suffered as being other than the consequences of the machinations of bad and egotistic men.[3]

Lenin was later to comment on these early communists:

There were then many people, talented and without talent, honest and dishonest, who, absorbed in the struggle for political freedom, in the struggle against the despotism of kings, police and priests, failed to observe the antagonism between the interests of the bourgeoisie and those of the proletariat. These people would not entertain the idea of the workers acting as an independent social force. On the other hand, there were many dreamers, some of them geniuses, who thought that it was only necessary to convince the rulers and the governing classes of the injustice of the contemporary social order, and it would then be easy to establish peace and general well-being on earth. They dreamt of a socialism without struggle. Lastly, nearly all the socialists of that time and the friends of the working class generally regarded the proletariat only as an ulcer, and observed with horror how it grew with the growth of industry. They all, therefore, sought for a means to stop the development of industry and of the proletariat, to stop the ``wheel of history’’. [4]

From crude communism to scientific socialism

Within the League of the Just, Marx and Engels argued against ``crude communism’’ and other underdeveloped thinking. It was in late 1847, at a London congress of the League, that Marx and Engels’ ideas won the day, including that of moving into the public domain with the Manifesto.

While the crude communists and other utopian trends longed for a purified form of pre-capitalist society, Marx and Engels proposed their totally different vision.

``Marx and Engels did not share the general fear of the development of the proletariat; on the contrary, they placed all their hopes on its continued growth’’, Lenin wrote in 1895. ``The more proletarians there are, the greater is their strength as a revolutionary class, and the nearer and more possible does socialism become. The services rendered by Marx and Engels to the working class may be expressed in a few words thus: they taught the working class to know itself and be conscious of itself, and they substituted science for dreams’’.[5]

Marx and Engels’ achievement was to provide a coherent explanation for the existence of the capitalist world, which other communists simply protested against, and they closed the gap between understanding the world and changing it. The Manifesto links together Marx and Engels earlier writings as they emerged from the influence of German philosophy with their later inquiries into political economy. This came to be known as scientific socialism.

The Communist Manifesto argues that the victory of the workers, leading all the downtrodden, is possible because it will be built upon the economic foundations that have been constructed by the capitalists.

More than this, the rise of the bourgeoisie (the French name for the capitalists) actually prepares the way for communism. This is because the success of capitalist economy brings with it regular crises of overproduction and also because it fosters the growth of the working class.

``The development of Modern Industry…cuts from under its feet the very foundations on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products’’, the Manifesto says. ``What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.’’[6]

It is difficult to know if the ``inevitable’’ victory of the proletariat was simply a rhetorical flourish written in the heat of revolution or was seriously intended. The entire first section of the Manifesto summarises the sweep of the development of class society. Far from idealising pre-capitalist society, it begins bluntly: ``The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’’[7] It observes that these struggles either ended in a revolutionary social reconstitution or ``in the common ruin of the contending classes’’.[8]

Marx would have been acutely aware of the danger of ``common ruin’’ from his childhood in Trier, Germany, the northern capital of the Roman Empire under Constantine. His childhood home was literally around the corner from the ruins of Rome’s glory; he would have played in the remains.

Unfortunately, official Soviet publications venerated the ``inevitable’’ proletarian victory as proof that the anti-democratic Stalinist bureaucracy was the anointed heir to the movement initiated by Marx and Engels. Actually, Stalinism fundamentally breached the liberationist foundation of Marx’s thinking.

Class struggle and freedom

The Communist Manifesto surveys the epic development of European capitalism, which ``sprouted from the ruins of feudal society’’ and has ``established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones’’. Furthermore, they write: ``Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses…this distinct feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms.’’ [9] But it is out of these sharp lines of class division that will emerge the new society to free humanity of all class distinctions forever.

How can such a promise be made? After all, isn’t it capitalism that has promised individual freedom ever since the French Revolution? The Manifesto skewers bourgeois pretensions, stating simply that in capitalist society, ``capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality’’. For the capitalist ``the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it’’. [10]

Do such bold statements still apply today? Yes. Only in advanced capitalist countries, where a comfortable standard of living maintains a market allowing the realisation of profit, does bourgeois respect for human life and liberty apply. The bourgeoisie doesn’t care if the bulk of humanity lives or dies.

The Manifesto is a clarion call to revolution against bourgeois culture, which is, ``for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine’’.[11] But what was the communists’ promise about the new society that they proposed?

Alienation, then and now

For a richer sense of Marx and Engels’ revolutionary ideals it is valuable to look at some of Marx’s earlier writings where he broke new philosophical ground by speaking of how human beings are formed by the manner in which we produce our means of subsistence.

What humans are, he wrote in The German Ideology, ``coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.’’[12] As the mode of economic life has changed through history, so human nature has changed.

Thus the Communist Manifesto’s declaration for a new society formed as ``an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’’, is the promise of a new human nature replacing ``the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms’’.[13]

In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx went into the ramifications of this at length. There he grappled with the concept of alienation, which enlightenment philosophers such as Rousseau, Goethe and Hegel had pointed to.

As capitalist economic relations had grown, so had the tendency for such things as the products of labour, money, social relations and even ideas to appear as something dominating, separate from human beings. Marx revolutionised the ponderings of the earlier philosophers by concentrating on the alienation of labour and its debilitating consequences on human beings.

With the domination of the modern factory system, which Marx called capitalist ``private property’’, humans had ceased relating to themselves and their world except through a veil of capitalist property relations. Thus the most contemptible things appear ``natural’’ and ``inevitable’’ to us.

As Marx put it in 1844, with the rise of a capitalist’s wealth also ``contempt of man makes its appearance, partly as arrogance and as squandering of what can give sustenance to a hundred human lives, and partly as the infamous illusion that his own unbridled extravagance and ceaseless, unproductive consumption is the condition of the other’s labour and therefore of his subsistence’’.

But while the capitalists benefit from this monetarily they are also its victims. Using some of the concepts of classical German philosophy Marx said that ``[alienation] is manifested not only in the fact that my means of life belong to someone else, that which I desire is the inaccessible possession of another, but also in the fact that everything is itself something different from itself – that my activity is something else and that, finally (and this applies also to the capitalist), all is under (the sway) of inhuman power.”[14]

This distortion still colours our entire existence. As R.D. Laing wrote of contemporary capitalist society in 1967:

There is little conjunction of truth and social ``reality’’. Around us are pseudo-events, to which we adjust with a false consciousness adapted to see these events as true and real, and even as beautiful. In the society of men the truth resides now less in what things are than in what they are not…No one can begin to think, feel or act now except from the starting point of his or her own alienation.[15]

With the threat of nuclear war then hanging over the world, Laing, as a radical psychiatrist, was concerned about the costs of people adapting themselves to such a dysfunctional, capitalist society. ``The perfectly adapted bomber pilot may be a greater threat to species survival than the hospitalised schizophrenic deluded that the Bomb is inside him’’, he wrote.[16]

These words sound all the louder as our ruling classes steer humanity towards the precipice of a global warming catastrophe, all the while singing the praises of the market and flooding Western societies with cheap goods to distract people’s attention.


Opposed to this, Marx’s vision is totally liberationist:

Communism is the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man. It is, therefore, the return of man himself as a social, i.e., really human being, a complete and conscious return which assimilates all the wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.[17]

With such a promise, of course the ``ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution’’, as the Manifesto says. The capitalist class still has no answer to the problems of this planet. As Marx and Engels stirringly concluded the Communist Manifesto 160 years ago: ``The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!’’[18]

[Barry Healy is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist current within the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]

[1] K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Resistance Books, Sydney 1998, p. 45

[2] B. Nicolaievsky and O. Maenchen-Helfen, Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, Pelican Books, London 1976, p. 83

[3] Ibid., p. 85

[4] V. I. Lenin, Frederick Engels, in Lenin Collected Works (Vol 2), Progress Publishers, Moscow, p. 15

[5] Ibid. p. 15

[6] K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Resistance Books, Sydney 1998, p. 56

[7] Ibid, p. 45

[8] Ibid, p. 46

[9] Ibid, p. 46

[10] Ibid, p. 58

[11] Ibid, p. 59

[12] Quoted in: E. Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, Frederick Ungar Publishing, New York 1961, p. 10

[13] K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Resistance Books, Sydney 1998, p. 63

[14] K. Marx, Early Writings, Penguin Books, London, 1975, p. 366

[15] R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, Penguin Books 1967, p. 11

[16] Ibid., p. 99

[17] K. Marx, Early Writings, Penguin Books, London, 1975, p.348

[18] K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Resistance Books, Sydney 1998, p.73

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