In Book reviews, Derek Ford

Same Audience, Different Conjuncture

By Derek R. Ford, Originally posted at Peace, Land and Bread

There’s perhaps no better crystallization of the revolutionary origins of Marxism than the 1848 publication of the Manifesto of the Communist Party (later referred to simply as the Communist Manifesto to please the censors). There’s perhaps no better reason to re-read the text than today, on the 175th anniversary of its publication, on what we now celebrate, thanks to LeftWord Books, as Red Books Day.

The Communist League, a small underground group, tasked Marx and Engels to draft a manifesto that would not only serve as a program of the “party” or political organization but would also potentially intervene in the battles they anticipated coming. As the economic crisis intensified, those clashes did come out into the open, in fact just days after the Manifesto’s publication.

The plan to immediately translate the text into several languages, as indicated in the introduction, went unrealized, and the Manifesto didn’t have an impact on the 1848-49 revolutions (although perhaps it had some influence in Germany). After its initial run in February 1848, it was reprinted a few times by May; but, by then, the initial victories disintegrated. The revolutionary hopes of the bourgeois-democratic struggles were met with fierce counterrevolutionary violence against the workers and the general democratic forces of other exploited classes. Everywhere reaction set in, from France and Prussia (Germany) to Italy and Switzerland, a sequence that pushed developments in communist theory and organizing, affirmed the central tenets of the Manifesto (including the international nature of the class struggle), called for a refined approach to the tactics and strategies of struggle and the national question, and decidedly shifted the center of European revolutionary potential to England. [1]

With the counterrevolution cemented, the League’s leadership suspended its activities, some of which it resumed before officially disbanding in 1852. The text was read by a handful of revolutionaries at the time, most of whom were not in agreement with Marx and Engels, and was written for an even smaller grouping. It wasn’t until the early 1870s that the Manifesto appeared in Europe for widespread distribution. This is partly because of Marx’s prominent role in the First International, beginning in 1864, and his widely acclaimed analysis of the Paris Commune. The main reason, however, was more ironic. The German government put several leaders of the German Social Democratic Party on trial in 1872, and to make their case the prosecution ended up entering the Manifesto into court records. Doing so allowed radical publishers to “evade the censorship laws and embark upon the Manifesto’s republication.” [2] With the Social Democratic Party’s leadership fighting charges of treason, the conditions weren’t favorable to an open call for a communist party to achieve the objectives set out in Marx and Engels’ pamphlet. The new circumstances compelled publishers to change its title to Communist Manifesto. It wasn’t until the Soviet Union’s republication in the early 20th century that the original title came back.

The Manifesto eventually spread across the globe rapidly, from China and Japan to Latin America and the U.S., but only after the specter of communism materialized with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. With state power, a dedication to worldwide liberation and socialism, concentration on theoretical study, and general education, among other duties, the Soviets translated it into numerous languages and sold it on the cheap. Since the Bolshevik Revolution, every revolutionary movement has adopted the text for its unique conjuncture, in keeping with the overall ethos of the Manifesto’s content.

Any expression of historical materialism–the method and guide of communists–is, it unfortunately needs to be stated, historical. Nothing holds for all time everywhere. Marx and Engels say as much when they close their preface to the 1872 reissue by listing what they wanted to update 25 years later, a list that is quite extensive especially given its brevity. They didn’t edit the text because it had, by then, “become a historical document which we have no longer any right to alter.” This presents a problem for some readers insofar as it is a very early text, written before Marx’s real study of political economy, and thus one from which the key theoretical developments of Marx are absent. However, in the same preface Marx and Engels also make it clear that “the general principles laid down in this Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever.” [3] Despite any deficiencies in political clarity or theoretical coherence, its precise, energizing, and careful formulations still exert force today.

Like any work, the Manifesto was determined by its particular context of production. The fact that its distribution and reception have only increased over time (and in ways favorable to our class) testifies to its ongoing relevance. It remains a foundational pillar in the development of Marxism—or revolutionary socialism, a mission we continue to realize on the global scale. The Manifesto comes to life whenever the class struggle intensifies or wherever rapid shifts in political consciousness occur, like in the radical transformation we’re undergoing in the U.S., where the fog of anti-communism is lifting—that’s why Red Books Day has, every year, expanded and flourished. Prompted by this opportunity to revisit the text afresh, this short article doesn’t summarize the content as a whole but rather contextualizes some of the Manifesto’s main principles within some of the later works of Marxism and the Marxist movement more generally, providing clarity and correcting some common misinterpretations of the work that oftentimes falsely justify premature dismissals of Marxism, socialism, and communism. [4] In conclusion, I place the key tasks we inherit from the Manifesto and how later developments in the radical Black and communist theory are absolutely pivotal to pursuing this project today in that they help us understand the links between anti-communism and white supremacy and aid our project in uniting all working and oppressed people for the common liberation of the many.

The Pedagogy and Form of the Manifesto
Marx and Engels met in 1842 on Engels’ way to Manchester, reuniting two years later after Engels returned to the city. Both were fellow travelers of the Young Hegelians. Marx edited a radical paper, Rheinische Zeitung, to which Engels contributed an article on political economy. The next few years of their collaboration were remarkably transformative: by 1846 they had decisively broken with the Young Hegelians and initiated their development of historical materialism and the origins of a more mature revolutionary theory, informed as it was by decades of ongoing practical struggle and study. While Marx and Engels broke with their younger Hegelian selves in 1845-46 to articulate the historical-materialist method of communism, the Manifesto links that method with its objective and organizational form.

The pamphlet was penned primarily by Marx in January 1848 in Brussels, although it was a collaborative project. Notwithstanding the debates about to what extent Engels’ initial drafts contributed to the final project—and in particular his “Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith” for the Communist League’s First Congress in 1847—it was Engels’ overall writing, theorizing, and organizing that provided Marx with the requisite knowledge about modern industry and also that helped both formulate the historical materialist method, and it was largely Engels’ interventions that enabled him and Marx to join the League. [5]

Marx and Engels formally joined the Communist League after the spring 1847 conference agreed to the main points they advocated, which were formally adopted at another congress later that year. These points included the principle that members of the League act “in the interest of the Communist Party, the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.” Along with this, they agreed to change the name from the League of the Just—formed in 1837—to the Communist League. In an internal document on the congress, the change of name is granted significance insofar as communists “are not distinguished by wanting justice in general—anyone can claim that for himself—but by our attack on the existing social order and on private property, by wanting community of property, by being Communists.” [6] The Manifesto marked the first real distinction between communists, on the one hand, and utopian socialists (and social democrats), on the other, a distinction hinging on a systematic understanding of the capitalist class struggle, the need to overthrow our class enemy, and the seizure of power.

The Pedagogy and Conjuncture of the Manifesto
Attending to the Manifesto’s style and pedagogical form is important politically and educationally. By doing so, we prevent or inhibit misreading it ourselves, especially given the dominant and enduring role anti-communism plays in the modern U.S. state. Over the last few years, a multiplicity of differing factors and forces in the U.S. have no doubt radically advanced socialism in the battle of ideas. The popularity and acceptance of—or non-antagonism to—socialism is an incredible, promising, and progressive development. I can definitely divide my own life thus far along the lines of this shift, as it has radically impacted essentially all aspects of it. The waters are open for the word, idea, and even the movement of socialism, but that comes with an unavoidable muddying of those waters. Such conditions are openings for the necessary task of clarifying Marxism, giving definition to socialism, ideologically and organizationally reuniting us with the centuries-long class struggles against oppression and, for a much shorter time, against capitalist exploitation, of which we are a part.

Anti-communism’s role in the U.S. is too expansive to locate in one place; too broad to be reproduced in one form or by way of some other political orientation. Many well-meaning but ultimately insufficient, reformist, or ill-conceived “radical” theories today are premised on a rejection of Marxism and the historical project of socialism and liberation, the twists and turns and the heroism and tragedy of such class struggles. This rejection is reproduced by way of the repetition of incorrect critiques and caricatures, such that when Marx is read it comes through the glasses of an anti-communist orientation. In addition to contextualizing it within some aspects of Marxist theory and the movement, I’ve found that attending to the document’s pedagogical form helps me get what’s happening in these relatively few pages.

The work is, first of all, a manifesto, rather than a fleshed-out and fully developed systematic analysis, a comprehensive program of action, etc. As a specific literary genre, manifestos are “always addressed to the masses, in order to organize them into a revolutionary force.” [7] They are written for the yet-to-be subjects of history with no pretension as to what actual people and groups will occupy that subjecthood or what the outcome of the struggle will be. They are orientations and frameworks, not prescriptions or fixed formulas.

The Manifesto was a specific intervention in a concrete time and in a specific place and moment in history. For the Communist League, the pamphlet served as a preliminary program to organize revolutionaries of different stripes around a set of political aims and objectives—potentially into a party. Because we are part of the legacy it inaugurated, because our primary task is to continue the project to overthrow exploitation and eliminate oppression at the national and global levels, it is a pillar in maintaining our legacy and memory. It can also be a short and accessible introduction to Marxism we can read with others and those new to the struggle.

Manifestos, and this one in particular, embody a specific pedagogical form that utilizes several different tactics, all of which are important to acknowledge. The text is addressed to us: the masses of working and oppressed peoples of the world.

One main tactic employed is the didactical method, which for manifestos must be condensed, a kind of schematic and necessarily reductive account of centuries of history, time, and social formations. The didactic method appears as a quick narrative providing the lay of the land, a portrait that, while not exhaustive, is honestly more in alignment with capital today than in 1848.

For this reason, our enemies cite the Manifesto as evidence of Marxist “stageism”—or the accusation that Marx and communists adhere to a fixed, linear, developmental, and chronological conception of history that runs from lower to higher levels, that goes from the past to the future—that is often clumsily equated with “Eurocentrism.”

Stageism was often present before Marx and Engels severed ties with the Hegelians, a break that required creating an alternative conception of history and temporality, one without any destiny, predetermination, causality, or final conclusion. Thus, when Marx and Engels write about “pre-history” they don’t refer to a past and finished state of a society or the world. They employ it as a conceptual tool used to differentiate capital from previous modes of production, and the same goes with Marx’s later critique of “so-called primitive accumulation.” Differentiating theoretical containers from empirical declarations lets us stay true to the Marxist method and prevents us from reading their concepts—like formal and real subjection—as actual processes happening.

That in the 1840s they broke with the dominant Enlightenment frame of history is quite remarkable, and their response was spelled out most potently in the 1857 “Introduction” to the Grundrisse. Marx criticized bourgeois political economy for following the “rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself” because, in particular, in capitalist societies contradictions are the rule rather than the exception, which means it is a development that is founded on “relations derived from earlier forms” that are still “found within it only in an entirely student form, or even travestied.” [8] Another way to think about it is that Marx acknowledged that the “present” isn’t an interregnum between a “past” and a “future,” but a time, place, and social location where various temporalities and histories play out in complex ways. The principle of unevenness is a primary element of Marxism, and it applies to development, production, struggle, and our sense of time. Capital, not Marx, tries to homogenize and synchronize time by presenting it as abstract and ahistorical, naturalizing capital and its structures. In the 1883 preface to the Russian translation of the Manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that the Russian Revolution, based on communes or the common ownership of land and resources, doesn’t need to go through a “stage” of capitalist development because “the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.” [9]

Another pedagogical tactic is the call-and-response. In the second section, Marx and Engels clarify the relationship between communists and the proletarians and address criticisms directed toward the former. They announce the charges against them and their defense, which sometimes validates the accusation through clarification. For example, the capitalists charge the communists with wanting to abolish private property, but under capitalism the vast majority don’t have any private property; “in one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.” [10] The reader is engaged in a conversation that is still happening today (including through Red Books Day), but with different coordinates.

The third section takes the form of a literature review, a comradely yet critical survey of different strands of socialist thought by which Marx and Engels can differentiate communism. By placing each in their historical context, we learn some of threads woven throughout the long history of the communist project, some of the different eras and forces that articulated the desire for emancipation and equality, and why their historical and material conditions of thought couldn’t set up the foundations for their fuller elaboration.

Another pedagogical tactic deployed is the rallying call to arms. Section four, the last and shortest part of the text, embodies a pedagogy of mobilization, providing immediate tactical decisions that entail engaging with non-communist forces to serve serve the pressing issues of the working and oppressed so that “in the movement of the present, they [the communists] also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” The Manifesto, addressed to us, the masses that make history, closes out by opening up a new horizon: “Let the ruling class 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!” [11]

A Clear Call for Global Emancipation and Liberation
Marx and Engels open the Manifesto with a sweeping declaration: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Struggles between the classes of the slavers and enslaved, lords and serfs, or “in a word, oppressor and oppressed” are generally latent but erupt into visible confrontations that lead to either “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” [12]

As Marx openly acknowledged, he wasn’t the first to discover or theorize the existence of classes or the class struggle [13]; that the goal of the class struggle was the political supremacy of the proletarians, however, was a main point of contention between various socialist forces, particularly between the utopians and the communists, as the latter insisted that only through open struggle and the achievement of political power could we achieve equality.

The character of the class struggle changes under capitalism, as do its avenues of struggle. The capitalist epoch is distinct insofar as it generally simplifies class antagonisms. “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” [14] In this conjuncture of the class struggle, the latter class is revolutionary—or potentially revolutionary.

As a text written for the imminent European crises, its immediate horizon was the workers and militants across Europe. They were writing largely and somewhat schematically about Europe because it was the place, stake, and audience of the battles; but it is clear that the development of European capital wasn’t confined to the continent, that it included the colonization of the Americas and the opening up of the Indian and Chinese markets, as the overall development of production and distribution propelled new developments in communication and transportation, new railways, and created new markets for their commodities and new sources of raw materials and labor, etc. To power such production required new energy sources and inputs, and former ‘middle-class’ independent workers and middle-class operatives of capital were replaced by the modern capitalist class. Each technological revolution within the capitalist revolution cohered a capitalist class that, with its quickly increasing power and reach, captured “the modern representative State,” which “is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” [15] The state, that is, serves as a mechanism for the capitalist class to manage its internal and external contradictions.

Marx and Engels survey the revolutionary role played by the bourgeoisie in the struggle against feudalism in Europe, although this is sometimes more sarcastic than serious. The capitalist class overthrew feudal rule, abolishing small-scale patriarchal relations that could be explained away by the Church and replaced them with “naked self-interest” and “substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” for previous labor relations clouded in personal relations and ideological mysticism or immediate dependency. [16] While capital cannot hide its exploitation, it can provide cover for it through abstract legal notions like equality and freedom.

Capital’s growing power also catalyzed the extent of crises of overproduction “because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.” [17] The capitalist’s only solution to their own crises is to lay the foundations for more intensive and protracted ones. Because of the competitive laws of capitalism, the bourgeoisie always looks upon the current productive and social relations as transitory and in need of constant change:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. [18]

Capitalism is dynamic; in order to expand—which is its modus operandi—it has to continually reinvest in changes to technologies, transportation, and communication, overcoming the isolation of feudal life and concentrating large numbers of workers in cities and factories, facilitating communication, and organizing. In 1848, this was still a minor and ascendant tendency, although today it is fully realized. The League couldn’t send a pamphlet across the globe in a manner of seconds.

The incessant revolutions in the forces, means, and relations of production “chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe,” a phenomenon bourgeois commentators only realized about 130 years later. As capital nestles everywhere, it brings “under the feet of industry the national ground… All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones.” [19]

Capital is a colonizing world power, and Marx and Engels recognized this as a contradictory and also forthcoming development:

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. [20]

This is not a welcoming reception but a warning signal, because “civilization” for Marx and Engels is British or European civilization, one founded on colonialism and slavery, theft and dispossession. The reference to the Chinese Wall is, similarly, not literal in terms of the actual wall nor how capital breaches it, as capital deploys both the “free market” and the coercive and repressive military power that backs that market up.

Marx and Engels certainly appreciate how the generation of productive forces provides the material basis for providing for all of the world, although they were referring to Western Europe in the text. The elimination of scarcity as an inescapable reality and the means to provide not only the basic necessities for the present but additional wants and even stocks of goods for the future is a historic accomplishment. They also celebrated the mixing of lives and cultures owed to urbanization and the dominance of the city over the country, as it “rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” [21] The English translation “idiocy” refers to a lack of communication and brevity of social relations, rather than any “intelligence” status. In fact, the increasing comingling of people in cities and countrysides produced a broader and more sophisticated intellectual arena for all.

Moreover, Marx and Engels are responding to the utopian socialists’ critique of bourgeois society by demonstrating the structural reasons for the suffering of such “advanced civilizations” to which the utopians attributed the ills of society. The utopian socialists’ intentions were good but their understanding was guided by morality and their methods were limited to the construction of communes that would, by reason and rational argumentation, win the ruling class over to their side.

Capital’s Production of Our World
The accumulation of capital is the accumulation not only of production and property but of political power, producing a “national” being or a state entity by which the oppressed must conquer—and have conquered—to acquire political supremacy.

In this way, the Manifesto’s assertion that capital “creates a world after its own image” continues to explain much of our global situation today. [22] This is not because capital reproduces itself everywhere and in the same manner, but rather because capital is an inherently uneven system. Consider the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation that creates “accumulation of wealth at one pole” and “accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery,” and so on, at the other pole. [23] The accumulation of capital is simultaneously “increasing concentration of the means of production, and of the command over labour” and the “repulsion of many individual capitals one from another.” This, in turn, is offset by the centralization of capital, whereby many smaller capitals are combined into larger capitals. [24] The limit here is, of course, capital’s, insofar as capital can’t accept the complete centralization into a single entity.

The state is key to this and other processes of capital accumulation, which is evident with an example Marx gives of the productive capacity of capital’s centralization: “The world would still be without railways” so long as their production was in the hands of a large number of smaller capitalists, but centralization “accomplished this in the twinkling of an eye.” [25] Railways are forms of immobile and fixed capital, which “assigns it a peculiar role in the economy of nations.” Fixed capital is national capital because it “cannot be sent abroad, cannot circulate as commodities in the world-market.” [26] In order for capital to circulate, it must also be fixed in space; in order for capital to accumulate in one place, it must diminish somewhere else. Hence, the important economic function of war: it literally destroys capital to allow for renewed accumulation.

Marx and Engels articulate some of their knowledge at the time on the dynamics of capital, which never map onto history. The reason the world isn’t a complete image of capital is, additionally, due to the historic resistance of working and oppressed peoples who have achieved political supremacy, although in a different manner than the Manifesto and, later, Marx and Engels, held.

About halfway through the first section, after discussing the developments of capital, Marx and Engels switch to how the bourgeoisie produced the class who can abolish it and class society: the proletarian class, one continually changing and faced with the task of political consciousness and organization. As capital increases, so too do the ranks of the proletariat, as even smaller independent capitalists can’t compete with modern industry while any unique skills are rendered redundant by technological transformations.

Returning to the opening lines, where they assert that class struggle is the motive force of history, and that capitalism increasingly polarizes society into two antagonistic classes or camps, can better clarify some of the central but often overlooked or misunderstood elements of this formulation.

The first is that the splitting up into two classes is a process rather than a finalized or even finalizable state. In other words, proletarians aren’t produced once and for all; capitalism divides society into two antagonistic groupings. The second is that they refer to both as classes and “camps.” Despite the absence of a fully worked-out definition of classes in the text or in Marx’s work overall, they perhaps called them camps to account for their non-exclusionary character. Indeed, what is remarkably notable in the opening lines are the reduction of various class struggles to that between the oppressor and the oppressed. Even as they acknowledge several classes, some of which include more complicated hierarchies and layers or levels, they recognize a continuity that is more than a repetition of the same and, perhaps, by equating the capitalist class struggle with the struggle between the oppressor and oppressed.

No more do special places in the social division of labor exist—they mention priests and lawyers, scientists and doctors—as a revered and privileged position; they too are reduced to proletarians. [27] Today, 175 years on, my colleagues at DePauw University, facing yet another invented “crisis” and another round of cuts and layoffs, realize that we are workers, not “professors” or “teachers.” Such surprise is explained by the withering away of any material basis for middle-class status and the increasing deskilling of our labor-power. Engels’ similarly accounted for any awe in his 1845 work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, where he recounts how capitalist development in colonial Britain deprived even workers of the illusion they could attain a decent standard of living, thereby collecting “together those vast masses of working men who now fill the whole British Empire.” [28]

The technological dynamism propelled by the need to increase the social productivity of labor through machinery, similarly, swells the ranks of the unemployed and “dangerous classes” and make all proletarians’ “livelihood[s] more and more precarious.” [29] Again, 175 years ago Marx and Engels located precarity as a primary condition we, as workers, are forced to grapple with—well before the “gig economy.”

Oppressor and Oppressed
In the first section, the discussion of the proletarian class comes immediately after Marx and Engels mention how capital tries to solve its contradictions through “the conquest of new markets.” This demonstrates that, even this early on, communists centered the colonial question, even if it wasn’t refined at this time. As Lucia Pradella, among others, has forcefully demonstrated, Marx gave increasing attention and weight to the anti-colonial revolutions happening in the mid-late 19th century. Colonization, for Marx, was not a ‘North-South’ or ‘East-West’ issue; it was, and is, an issue of domination and exploitation.

Neither Marx nor Engels only attended to Europe, nor did they abstract Britain or Europe away as self-enclosed entities. In the Grundrisse, for example, Marx addresses the concentration of labor-power into collective labor, which explains “the violent rounding-up of the people in Egypt, Etruria, India etc. for forced construction and compulsory public works.” [30] Over time, Pradella shows, they extended their position on national liberation and class struggle—both struggles between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie—to other colonial territories, including China and India. During the Taiping Revolution, “Marx changed his previous unidirectional view of international revolution, tracing a relation between proletarian struggle in the metropolis and anti-colonial movements in the colonies.” He welcomed the revolution and the detrimental impacts it would have on British colonialism, the same reason for which he supported—and “was probably the first major European intellectual and political activist to support the national liberation struggle in India.” [31] In a direct rebuttal to allegations of Eurocentrism and a privileging of the ‘working-class’ as the revolutionary subject, Marx argued that the anti-colonial rebellions would come before and would ignite the socialist revolutions in the colonizing countries. [32]

One could argue that the equation of the class struggle with the struggle between the oppressor and oppressed anticipated their forthcoming incorporation of the colonial question and the centrality of national liberation, something featured in the Manifesto itself.

The closing section of the pamphlet addresses how communists in different nations relate to other opposition parties. “In Poland,” they write, communists “support the party that insists on an agrarian revolution as the prime condition for national emancipation.” [33] Just a few lines up from the closing clarion call for “working men of all countries, unite!” we read that, wherever they are, communists “support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.” [34] Certainly, they didn’t have a fully fleshed out theory of national liberation and socialism, although later on they did. [35]

Same Objectives, Different Conjuncture:
Anti-Racism and the Socialist Struggle
Marx and Engels open the Manifesto not with a preordained future but an indeterminate future that will be produced through struggle: if the proletarians don’t overthrow the bourgeoisie there is “the common ruin of the contending classes.” [36] These options are translated in various ways (e.g., barbarism or socialism; humanity or capitalism), but they are still the base options available to us today. The central question, then, is how do we ensure the victory of our class?

The Manifesto offers no prescriptions and, indeed, the League lacked the depth and breadth of experience from which to draw on to even reflect on their previous organizational forms. Yet it is clear that the proletarians can’t fight it out alone or even on the scale of the workplace, industry, community, or state.

Capitalism, as a system of oppression, requires a collective and organized revolutionary struggle to overthrow it by foreclosing any individualistic or particularistic forms of resistance. As capital grows, so too does its class enemy: “a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital.” [37] Independent artisans, shop-owners, peasants, and small producers are thrown into this lot through the production of machinery, which ultimately incorporates the workers’ skill and knowledge into a form of fixed capital. However we rebel and develop, we have to recognize that “every class struggle is a political struggle,” and whenever we fight the bosses and oppressors we’re engaged in the class struggle and in a political project. [38]

The key task, then as now, is to organize the working and oppressed peoples “into a class, and consequently into a political party” that, “organized as the ruling class” will implement a program for the oppressed. [39] This task is, to be sure, complex, sensitive, and contingent on time, place, and society. In the U.S., no communist party or communist movement can unite working and oppressed people into a class unless it represents the diverse characteristics of our class and fights tooth-and-nail for the national and racial liberation projects against white supremacy, settler-colonialism, and the emancipation of all oppressed identities.

By doing so, we confront head-on the ties between anti-communism and white supremacy that Gerald Horne makes clear. Racism to this day is linked with the emancipation of the formerly enslaved because Reconstruction–even after its counterrevolutionary overthrow—was “one of the largest uncompensated expropriations” until, that is, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. As such, Horne asserts that “African Americans are living reminders of lost fortunes,” and so “the reaction to socialism–which has also involved expropriations of property—is difficult to separate from race and racism.” [40] For this reason, the primary obstacles to overcome are the long and ongoing legacies of racial slavery and white chauvinism. If we don’t understand their links with what Charisse Burden-Stelly calls “modern U.S. racial capitalism,” we can neither understand contemporary capitalism nor overthrow the capitalists class. [41]

The Communist Manifesto announced the need for the proletariat to win political supremacy and rule over their former oppressors without, however, saying how to pursue this task or what role the state played in it. It was precisely “the defeats of the revolutions in 1848 that allowed Marx to go beyond the Manifesto’s general formula and sum up that experience with greater clarity” rather than “an abstract formula.” [42] Marx and Engels admit as much in the 1872 Manifesto preface, as the Paris Commune made it clear that workers can’t use the existing state for our project but must smash that state and construct a new one in our interest. We can’t rely on the contemporary U.S. state, founded and maintained as it is by white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, imperialist plunder to provide either the avenue to socialism or the apparatus by which to achieve it.

Let’s read the Manifesto of the Communist Party today, and tomorrow, for our history, present, and our future common and universal emancipation and freedom.

[1] One of Marx’s main disputes with other members of the League was his assertion that, because the German bourgeoisie was so inactive and powerless, that country could undergo a bourgeois and subsequent proletarian revolution in 1848 (a “permanent revolution”).

[2] Jones, Gareth Stedman. “Introduction.” p. 17.

[3] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. pp. 198, 197.

[4] For more background and context, see The Peoples Forum. “History of The Communist Manifesto with Brian Becker.” Available here.

[5] Ireland, David. The Communist Manifesto in the Revolutionary Politics of 1848. pp. 37-68.

[6] Wolff, Wilhelm, and Schapper, Karl. “A Circular of the First Congress of the Communist League to the League Members. June 9,1847.” pp. 599, 595.

[7] Althusser, Louis. Machiavelli and Us. p. 17.

[8] Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. pp. 105, 106.

[9] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. p. 196.

[10] Ibid., p. 237.

[11] Ibid., p. 258.

[12] Ibid., p. 219.

[13] Marx, Karl. “Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer.” pp. 2-65.

[14] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. p. 220.

[15] Ibid., p. 221.

[16] Ibid., p. 223.

[17] Ibid., p. 226.

[18] Ibid., p. 222.

[19] Ibid., p. 223.

[20] Ibid., p. 225.

[21] Ibid., p. 224.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Marx, Karl. Capital (Vol. 1). p. 604.

[24] Ibid., pp. 586, 575.

[25] Ibid., p. 588.

[26] Marx, Karl. Capital (Vol. 3). p. 162.

[27] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. p. 228.

[28] Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. p. 30.

[29] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. p. 229.

[30] Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. p. 528.

[31] Pradella, Lucia. Globalisation and the Critique of Political Economy. pp. 120, 122.

[32] Marx, Karl. “Revolution in China and Europe.” p. 93.

[33] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. p. 257.

[34] Ibid., 258.

[35] La Riva, Gloria. “Lenin and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination.”

[36] Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. p. 219.

[37] Ibid., p. 227.

[38] Ibid., p. 230.

[39] Ibid., p. 230, 242.

[40] Horne, Gerald. “White Supremacy and Anti-Communism.” pp. 282-283.

[41] Burden-Stelly, Charisse. “Modern U.S. Racial Capitalism Some Theoretical Insights.”

[42] Becker, Brian. “How the Ideas of ‘The State and Revolution’ Changed History.” p. 11.

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