Friday, 30 October 2015

A world to win: class struggle and the Communist Manifesto

A young Karl Marx
In August I gave a talk on the Communist Manifesto at an event organised by Counterfire in Newcastle. I have just got around to collating my notes into readable form. I built my presentation, which focused especially on themes of history and class struggle in the Manifesto (two other sessions addressed different aspects), around a series of quotations from the original text. Here we go...
Marx and Engels were commissioned to write a manifesto for the Communist League in late 1847. Economic crisis had affected much of Europe in the previous couple of years. Revolution was in the air. Communists were making connections across borders and beginning to get organised, but were still small in number. The opening line of the Manifesto -  ‘A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.’ – was more wishful thinking than accurate description.

Engels had drafted something in rather dry question-and-answer form, but it was Marx who turned this – in the space of a few weeks at the start of 1848 – into what would become the most widely-read, influential and famous political pamphlet ever published. It was the culmination of several years’ intellectual and political development in Marx’s thinking, an attempt to state clearly what communists stood for.

There was a culture of secret and conspiratorial societies at the time, but Marx and Engels rejected this. If the emancipation of the working class is to be the act of the working class, there is little purpose served by secrecy. Ideas must be stated openly and persuasively.

By the time it was published, revolution had broken out in a number of parts of Europe – 1848 would turn out to be an historic year of revolutionary upheaval, though most of it defeated. The Manifesto in fact turned out to be something quite different to what might be expected. It almost entirely avoided specific policy prescriptions. It contained a broad survey of historical development rather than keeping its attention trained on present politics. It was expressed in often powerful, even poetic, language.

At the core of the Manifesto is a particular conception of history and how change happens: an understanding of society as being divided, fundamentally, into classes, and history as a succession of class societies (and class struggles).  Marx writes:
'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. 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.’

This is an important starting point: class is the main dividing line in society. This is not unique to capitalism , but rather has been true for thousands of years. It is a division that inevitably engenders conflict too.

Marx then provides a sweeping survey of the development of early capitalism, moving on to the era of industrial capitalism through which he was living:
'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. From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed. The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie.’

So, capitalism grew out of an earlier feudal society. Merchant capitalism increasingly replaced feudal relations, and in turn this grew into industrial capitalism. A new urban elite developed: the bourgeoisie. Although Marx refers to ‘two great classes’, this shouldn’t be taken to indicate anything about their size: the proletariat, those who do the work, are far greater in number than those who live off the surplus their labour produces. Marx specifically traces the growth of industry:
‘Steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry; the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.’

This kind of language is almost celebratory – and the tone often surprises first-time readers, expecting virulent denunciation of capitalism’s evils from the beginning. Of course Marx doesn’t leave it there, but he does take time to extol the progress represented by capitalism’s development. He writes of the revolutionising role played by capitalism, its economically dynamic quality and the way that overturns many established certainties:
‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.’

Marx and Engels had first met a few years earlier (and went on to be lifelong collaborators). In 1844 Engels wrote ‘The Condition of the working class in England’ about the impact of industrial capitalism on the living and working conditions of those drawn into the newly mushrooming cities. It was an ugly and unromantic picture. Marx and Engels had no illusions about the often grim reality of industrial capitalism for the proletariat, the working class.
What they grasped was how capitalism accelerated the pace of technological and economic change, went together with the growth of major cities and created greater opportunities for wealth (largely concentrated, though, among a tiny class of those who owned and controlled the means of production).

The development of the modern nation state went together with the growth of capitalism. This was a deeply contested process. The English, American and French revolutions were all, whatever their differences, about the rising bourgeois class asserting itself against the barriers inherited from late feudalism. Political revolutions, with varying degrees of success, accompanied the economic changes. Marx wrote:
‘Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff.’

1848 was itself a year of bourgeois revolution. Although mostly unsuccessful, the uprisings left their mark – and in the decades that followed there was much greater political unification and centralisation in many parts of Europe, (limited) advances in democratic reform, the strengthening of modern state institutions (e.g. police forces), and so on.
But capitalism did something else, something enormously important for Marx, Engels and their comrades in the small Communist League. It created the working class. It brought together large numbers of workers in factories, mills and elsewhere - a process that was dangerous for the capitalists:

‘The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.’
There is a lot packed in to this quotation. Firstly, it is identifying that growing industry brought turned people who had previously worked on the land, or perhaps as artisans, into workers - wage-labourers dependent on selling their labour power to the capitalist to make a living. Secondly, proletarianisation (working class formation) is a collective process, bringing workers together in combination. So, too, is proletarian resistance to capitalism a collective matter. Workers’ power is not as individuals, but as a collective force.  Finally, this collective power of workers is so potentially great that it can defeat the bourgeoisie and end capitalism, a system that has paradoxically created its own gravedigger.

Marx’s account of history, specifically the rise and development of capitalism (and the potential for moving from capitalism to socialism), therefore has class division at its heart, but also an awareness of the centrality of class struggle. The division into classes, and the exploitation at the heart of class relationships, inevitably generates conflict over what is produced and how the surplus wealth is allocated.
But Marx also had interesting things to say about the battle of ideas in society, and how that is shaped by material realities. Imagining himself addressing the bourgeois class, he wrote:

‘The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property – historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production – this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you.’
This is a brutal warning and a reality check. Every ruling class imagines its own ideas and values to be a kind of ‘common sense’: universal values, taken for granted and seemingly obvious. In fact ideas change over time. The dominant ideology of one age may later seem antiquated. Changing ideas are shaped by material changes in the conditions of society: ‘the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property’.

History moves forward. Material production – the forces and relations of production – changes over time. So, with it, do the dominant ideas change:

‘What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.’
Marx points here to another vital aspect of ideology: it is the ideas of the ruling elite that are universalised as the ideas of a whole society. Whether through control of state religion, or schools and universities, or the media, the ruling class – the tiny elite possessing wealth and power – asserts its own ideas and values.

Yet there is no fatalism in the Manifesto. Running through it is an acute consciousness of historical change – transformation indeed – and the potential for further transformation in the future. The working class, identified as the collective agent of transformation, is not doomed to be tied to the ruling ideology. It is driven to resist by exploitation.
The working class is gathered together in large numbers and can organise collectively. Writing against the backdrop of Chartism, a mass working class movement coming to its end in 1848, Marx and Engels were aware of what was possible. There had been the earliest examples of strike action by the 1840s. There had been early efforts at building trade unions.

The class that can organise and resist collectively, can also set about creating a new world – one characterised by co-operation, equality and democracy, not the rule of the few over the many. There is little detail on what a communist or socialist society might look like, but this is a starting point:
‘In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’

So communism is, ultimately, to be a classless society. And in that state of equality and interdependence lies the potential for human development and liberation. But there’s also recognition that such a future vision must be linked to current struggles, if it is to be anything more than a utopian dream. Marx succinctly outlines the tasks of communists:
‘In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time. Finally, they labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.’

Three points here, all of them acutely relevant as the Manifesto was circulated amidst growing revolutionary tumult in 1848: communists support democratic or bourgeois revolutions (whatever their limitations might be), working class economic and social interests (‘the property question’) must always be forefront, and the movement must be international, uniting workers across national boundaries and opposing a common enemy. Class, not nationhood, is what unites us.
The Manifesto ends, then, with these stirring words:

‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!’


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