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International Socialist Review Issue 45,
January–February 2006


Manifestly relevant

JEN ROESCH reviews a new annotated edition of the Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History's Most Important Document
Edited by Phil Gasper
Haymarket Books, 2005, 224 pages, $12

DESPITE THE fact that Marxism has been declared dead time and again, the Communist Manifesto remains one of the great popular political works—the second best selling book of all time. Since its initial publication 157 years ago, it has been translated into many languages and reprinted in dozens of editions. Successive generations, outraged by the barbarism of our society, have turned to it and found an indictment of the world they live in that rings true, and a vision for change that remains compelling.

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels write of the “inevitable ruin of the petty bourgeois and peasant, the misery of the proletariat, the anarchy in production, the crying inequalities in the distribution of wealth, [and] the industrial war of extermination between nations.”(76)*

Today, the “crying inequalities” that Marx and Engels describe have reached astronomical proportions. As the 2005 holiday season approached, the New York Daily News reported that Wall Street was preparing for huge bonuses with bankers celebrating with $90,000 cars, $30,000 watches, and cocktails mixed with liquid gold. This stands in stark contrast to the lives of the vast majority, who are struggling to get by on diminishing paychecks amid rising prices. A brutal military occupation in Iraq—the consequence of capitalism’s competition for resources—has cost the lives of more than 2,100 American soldiers and well over 100,000 Iraqis. Our world teeters on the brink of environmental collapse.

It is time for a new generation to discover the Communist Manifesto. Given the numerous editions that exist already, it is a fair question to ask why we need another. Phil Gasper makes a strong case for The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document:

First, it is edited by someone who is sympathetic to Marx’s general political perspective and views the Manifesto as more than an interesting historical relic. Second, it is aimed specifically at both students reading the Manifesto for the first time and young political activists—fighting against corporate globalization, war, environmental destruction, and all forms of oppression—who want to know whether Marx’s ideas are useful guides for them today. Third, it includes not just an introduction and a few notes on the text, but a full set of annotations, as well as study and discussion questions, an afterword on the contemporary relevance of the Manifesto, and a glossary.(8)

Gasper’s edition lives up to his claims. The volume is infused throughout with a sense of immediacy and relevance. A concise introduction places Marx and Engels’ ideas in their historical context and explains the origins of the Manifesto. It also includes a synopsis of the Manifesto and a brief explanation of Marx’s key terminological concepts (called “Marxism in a Nutshell”).

The comprehensive annotations are an invaluable resource—explaining some of the outdated language, addressing controversies, pointing to further readings or places where the authors subsequently revised their ideas, and drawing illuminating parallels to the present.

To take just one example: Marx and Engels, in a scathing response to their bourgeois critics, write:

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 non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths.... In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend. (62)

(Gasper notes in a previous annotation that communism doesn’t do away with personal possessions, but only the ownership of property that allows one person to command the labor of another.) Here is his appended note to this comment:

In 1998, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population in the United States owned more than 85 percent of the assets in stocks and mutual funds, 84 percent of financial securities, 91 percent of trusts, and 92 percent of all equity in private business. Capitalism depends on the majority of the population lacking economic resources so that they are compelled to work for others. (62)

The afterword puts the case for how and why the Manifesto remains relevant today. And for those who find themselves inspired to read more, the supplementary readings provide a starting point for understanding Marx and Engels’ ideas on topics ranging from women’s liberation to racism and colonialism. The study and discussion questions provide a very useful point of departure for exploring the Manifesto in more depth; they should provide hours of debate and discussion for groups of readers in or out of the classroom.

The text

The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 as the program of the Communist League, marked the birth of the modern socialist movement. Previously, there had been many who believed in the ideas of socialism but meant by this the pursuit of utopian schemes by mostly middle-class reformers. The strength of the Manifesto lies in its recognition of how the historical development of capitalism—and the class and social contradictions it encompasses—creates the material conditions that make a socialist alternative possible.

Marx and Engels place the conflict of classes at the center of historical change. “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles,” reads the opening passage. “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on a fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”(39–40)

Capitalism itself was the product of class struggle—of frequently violent revolutions in which the rising bourgeoisie, whose economic power had grown in the womb of the old feudal relations, eventually clashed politically with the old landed classes.

Marx and Engels recognized the emergence of capitalism as a tremendously revolutionary development. Because capitalism is dominated by production for the market and competition, it is forced to constantly expand. This makes it a much more dynamic system than that of all previous societies. The birth of capitalism saw the spread of commerce throughout the globe, the development of modern industry, tremendous technological innovation, the concentration of people into cities, and the growing internationalization of culture.

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist,” they write, “without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”(44) Capitalism as a result produces unheard of wealth: “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” (46)

But these developments are profoundly contradictory. Alongside its historic achievements, capitalism has also created tremendous poverty, alienation, and social dislocation. Forced to sell their labor on the market, workers are themselves turned into commodities. Capitalism creates new wants and desires, potentially new ways of organizing social life, but cannot fulfill this potential. The abolition of feudal bonds offers the promise of freedom and democracy, but the need to make a living on the market forces the majority into a cramped and narrow mode of existence. The “free market,” in short, disguises all kinds of unfreedom.

Marx and Engels argue that at a certain point, the means of production and exchange come into conflict with the social relations in a given society. In other words, the way society is organized becomes a barrier to its further progress and development. This could be seen even in Marx and Engels’ time, but it is even clearer today. One need only look at the looming environmental crises that threaten our world. Without rational planning, capitalism’s drive for profit will compel it to use up and destroy vital resources while blocking the development of less profitable alternatives.

But the most important manifestation of capitalism’s contradictions is its tendency toward economic crisis.

In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that in all earlier epochs would have seemed an absurdity—the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.(48)

This is a striking description that must feel all too familiar to the modern reader. The disparity between what our society produces and its failure to provide for the needs of the majority has never been greater. General Motors has announced layoffs of 30,000 workers, and Ford is threatening the same, because there is too much productive capacity in the auto industry. Yet millions lack adequate transport. Twelve million people, mostly children, face critical food shortages in Malawi; yet just 500 miles away, South Africa has a surplus of five million metric tons of corn. The pharmaceutical industry pumps out new designer drugs every day and spends millions on advertising, and yet millions of people cannot afford vitally necessary prescription drugs.

Because the system revolves around blind production for the market—the only driving incentive is profit rather than human need—there is no way to rationally plan what gets produced and how. In order to marshal the resources created by capitalism to actually meet the needs of the majority, there must be a fundamentally different form of social organization. Private property concentrated in the hands of the few must be abolished and the immense productive capacities created by capitalism must be democratically and collectively controlled by the majority.

Capitalism’s tendency towards ever-worsening crisis, reveals the system’s ultimate bankruptcy. But only a “class with radical chains” can defeat and replace it. That is the second major point in the Manifesto:

Not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working class—the proletarians…—a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital.(49)

Unlike the scattered and rurally isolated peasants of the past, capitalism brings the working class together into giant workplaces where they are exploited jointly. In order to defend its own living standards that the capitalists attempt to force down to a minimum, this class is forced to fight back collectively. In doing so, the basis for a challenge to the system as a whole is built. The most important thing, write Marx and Engels, is the struggle itself. “Now and then the workers are victorious,” they write, “but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.”

It is not only a question of numbers, but the way in which struggle develops workers’ class consciousness:

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?...

The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class. (67–68)

It is primarily through struggle that workers begin to challenge and reject the “ruling ideas” that are used to keep them divided and in subjection.

For the first time in history, there is a revolutionary class that in overthrowing society has no privileges of its own to protect. This creates the potential not only for the abolition of capitalist property relations, but of class society as a whole. Moreover, contrary to Marx’s critics, who caricature Marxism as an elitist ideology, Marx and Engels are clear that socialism cannot be achieved by an enlightened minority:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air. (55–56)

The goal of the communists is not to spin utopian schemes, but to participate in the actual struggles of the working class. In every instance they attempt to build the confidence and fighting capacity of workers, while always drawing to the fore their common class interests and the necessity for a complete reorganization of social life.

In a refreshingly clear refutation of the caricature laid at Marx’s door, that socialists somehow impose their ideas on “the masses” from without, the Manifesto describes the role of the communists as being

the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section, which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. (59)

The vision the Manifesto presents is not one of simply a reshuffling of the political order, or even just a redistribution of wealth. It is a radical transformation of society as a whole—“the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”(89) Such a radical change, and the struggle that it will take to accomplish it, makes possible the alteration of people’s ideas on a mass scale, which is itself a precondition for creating a new world. “The communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.”(69) It is through this lens that it is possible to imagine people overcoming the prejudice, oppression, and dehumanization that are such prominent features in our society. This transformation makes possible a world in which the much-abused concepts of freedom can become a genuine reality for the vast majority.


With more than a century and a half of wars and revolutions between its initial publication and today, it is reasonable to ask the degree to which the ideas Marx and Engels laid out in the Manifesto are applicable to modern society. This is the question that Gasper addresses in his afterword.

Many commentators will agree, and Gasper quotes some of them, that Marx and Engels’ description of the dynamics of capitalist development has been borne out with startling accuracy, from its discussion of capitalism’s global reach, of cyclical economic crisis, and of class inequality. If anything, the contradictory developments described in the Manifesto have only accelerated and become more acute in our time. “In a world threatened by pollution, global warming, and the destruction of ecosystems as the result of uncontrolled capitalist growth,” Gasper tells us, “the search for profits threatens to destroy everything in its path, including the natural environment.”(101)

However, Gasper adds,

Marx and Engels did not write the Manifesto merely as a piece of abstract economic analysis. It was intended as a revolutionary call to action—an explanation not only of what is wrong with society, but how it can be transformed to create “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”(94)

The question of whether the Manifesto’s ideas can serve as a guide for activists today therefore is an important one.

We certainly have the material prerequisite for a classless society—abundant wealth. (One could even make a case in 1848 that such prerequisites hadn’t yet been created.) Moreover, as Gasper argues, the class of wage workers today is immensely larger than it was in Marx’s time:

When the Manifesto was first published, most of the world’s population consisted of peasants engaged in agriculture production. Today, the spread of capitalism has created a huge working class in nearly every country in the world, from Asia to Africa to Latin America. (106)

Critics of Marxism frequently use the fact that socialism has not yet succeeded to claim that it is an impossible dream, or even that capitalism is the “final” form of human society. To this they counterpose Marx and Engel’s claim in the Manifesto that the victory of socialism is “inevitable.” Gasper argues that this is merely a rhetorical device:

To suppose otherwise is not simply uncharitable; it also ignores what the Manifesto states in its opening paragraphs. There, Marx and Engels note that class struggle may end in more than one way: “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”(105)

However, as Gasper points out, this idea is as deterministic as any theory of an inevitable transition to socialism. “There is no more reason to believe in the inevitability of defeat than in the inevitability of victory.”(110) Gasper acknowledges that Marx and Engels thought capitalism would fall far sooner than it has. But he maintains that all the elements laid out in the Manifesto, which have produced revolutions and near-revolutions throughout the last century, continue to make socialism a real possibility—and a definite historical necessity if we are to avoid our “common ruin.”

Capitalism continues to produce immense wealth alongside grinding poverty; it continues to go into periods of crisis. This is the reality that compels people to fight back and in the process create the potential for an alternative to the system. But there is nothing guaranteed about the outcome of these struggles. It should also be noted that in the broader span of human history, modern capitalism has only been around for scarcely more than a few centuries in its country of origin, Britain, and for less than that in the rest of the world.

It is worth remembering that the Manifesto was written as the program of a group of revolutionaries attempting to participate in such struggles and point them towards victory. This task remains unfinished.

We live in a world of horrific military adventures abroad and profound economic and social inequality at home. These are precisely the conditions that have driven people to examine the ideas of Marx and Engels throughout history. In this volume, Phil Gasper has made the Manifesto accessible to a new generation of activists.

Jen Roesch is a member of the International Socialist Organization in New York. She is author of “Turning back the clock? Women, work, and family today,” ISR 38, November–
December 2004.

*Numbers in parentheses after quotes refer to page numbers from Gasper’s edition of the Manifesto.

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