From the April 1951 issue of the Socialist Standard
To re-read a favourite book is to meet up with an old friend. Sometimes it is more. It is an encounter with a creditor you can never hope to repay. To most socialists this rile is played by the Communist Manifesto.
In these days when the word "communism” is used as frequently as “fascism” used to be, with as many different interpretations, and “marxist” is an adjective applied to everything from the forces of North Korea to the Polish dental service, it is, to say the least, gratifying to hear these words used and recognise them as clear, tangible things instead of symbols for everything distasteful.
The Communist Manifesto provides the information required, and the object of this review is to recommend anyone who hasn’t read it to do so.
Don’t let the title put you off. Any connection between the Communist Manifesto and Uncle Joe’s private army is purely deliberate—but not on the part of the authors. The state of affairs they visualise and that obtaining in Russia are poles, indeed, a social revolution apart. The Manifesto is a brief statement of Marxist ideas written by the old bogyman himself in collaboration with his lifelong partner, Frederick Engels. Straight from the horse’s mouth!
“The (written) history of all hitherto existing societies is a history of class struggles.” So begins the first chapter in which the writers briefly outline the class struggles in the multi-divided societies of the past and their final culmination in capitalism wherein the struggle has resolved itself into one between two classes, the workers and the capitalists.
It continues by describing this system and its differences from those which preceded it; how they relied upon stability while the capitalist must, in face of competition, constantly revolutionise his means of production to produce cheaper goods. He must seek new markets as the mass of wealth increases, and wherever he goes he plants the seeds of his own system.
How correct that is in the light of our own experience. The competition has spread to an international plane with new powers, first Germany, then Russia, eager for a “place in the sun.” Here lies the cause of today’s world crisis.
In spite of their scientific approach Marx and Engels do not overlook the effects of this system upon the lives of men. “It has resolved personal worth into exchange value.” is but one quotation. They comment upon the rise of ugly cities. "The work of the proletarians (that’s us) has lost all individual character and consequently, all charm for the workman.” They condemn the rapid disappearance of skill and the rapid development of a world in which the craftsman is an antiquated oddity.
For its description of capitalism alone, its history, working, and effect, it is worth a careful perusal.
The second chapter “Proletarians and Communists” makes clear the scientific approach of the Marxist.—“The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based upon ideas and principles that have been invented or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express in general terms actual relations springing from an existing class struggle going on under our own eyes,” and goes on to build up the case for our aim—the abolition of private property.
In presenting this aim Marx and Engels were confronted with exactly the same questions as we are today. Are we opposed to personal property? What about lazy people? What about the family or education or sexual relationships? Patriotism? Nationality? There is no need to précis their answers here. Enough is it to quote the last sentence of the chapter. “In place of the old bourgeois (capitalist) society with its classes and class struggles, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
It may well be asked at this juncture why the Socialist Party should subscribe to the Communist Manifesto, or conversely why a party subscribing to it should call itself Socialist. Engels, in his preface explains that in 1848 when the Manifesto was written the word “socialist" was widely used in connection with various reformers whose sole aim was to alleviate the major miseries of the system while leaving the basis untouched, and with various Utopians, most of whom are dealt with in the third section. When we were formed that confusion was at a low ebb. Unfortunately it has since grown again.
The Communist Manifesto is not a gospel On certain aspects they were incorrect. They were as optimistic about the rapid coming of the social revolution as the present writer is about the effect of this short introduction upon the sales of the Manifesto, and being so, laid down certain "immediate aims.” Forty years later in 1888, Engels wrote "that passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today.” And with regard to the use of force Engels views on barricades and street warfare were considerably revised as can be seen in his preface to the "Class Struggle in France,” written shortly before his death.
The Manifesto is more than a historic document. It is a crisp analysis of the socialist position in its main aspects as correct today as when it was first written.
Shortly you may be asked to fight against "communism.” You won’t be. The struggle will be one between eastern and western capitalism from which the working class can gain nothing. As the Manifesto will show you, communism or socialism isn’t a thing to die for, but a new system of society to live and work for.
Note: “The Communist Manifesto and the Last Hundred Years” published by the S.P.G.B., contains the Manifesto unabridged and a forty-eight page summary of the past century of working-class struggles. Price I/- from all branches or Head Office.”