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Globalization and Internationalism

How Up-to-date is the Communist Manifesto?

Michael Löwy is the research director in sociology at the National Center of Scientific Research, Paris. He is author of The Marxism of Che Guevara (Monthly Review, 1972), and On Changing the World (Humanities Press, 1992). A shorter version of this article was originally publish- ed in New Politics (Winter, 1998).

The Communist Manifesto is the best known of all writings by Marx and Engels. Indeed, with the sole exception of the Bible, no other book has been translated so often or republished so many times. But what does it have in common with the Bible? Not very much, except for the denunciation of social injustice in some of the prophetic books. Like Amos or Isaiah, Marx and Engels spoke out against the vileness of the rich and powerful and raised their voices in solidarity with the poor and humble. Like Daniel, they read the writing on the walls of the New Babylon: Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin: thy days are numbered. But unlike the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, they put none of their hopes upon any god, any messiah, any supreme savior: the liberation of the oppressed is to be the work of the oppressed themselves.

A century-and-a-half later, what remains of the Communist Manifesto? During the lifetimes of its authors, as they themselves recognized in their many prefaces for its various editions, certain of its sections and arguments had already become obsolete. Others also have become outdated enough during the present century to require critical reexamination. But the general purport of the document, its core, its spirit—and something like the “spirit” of a text does exist—have not lost their original force and vitality.

This spirit stems from its quality of being simultaneously critical and emancipatory—that is to say from the inextricable unity between analysis of capitalism and the call for the overthrow of capitalism, between examination of the class struggle and commitment to the exploited class, between clear analysis of the contradictions within bourgeois society and the revolutionary utopia of a society marked by equalitarianism and mutual solidarity, between realistic elucidation of the driving mechanisms of capitalist expansion and the moral demand to “overturn all the conditions under which the human being is despised, abandoned, diminished, enslaved.”1

In many respects, the Manifesto is not merely up-to-date—it is even more relevant today than it was 150 years ago. Let us take as an example its diagnosis of capitalist globalization. The two young authors emphasized that capitalism had undertaken a process of unifying the world culturally and economically under it aegis: “The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood…In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material so also in intellectual production.”2

What is involved is not merely expansion but also domination: the bourgeoisie “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. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”3 Of course, in 1848 that passage constituted an anticipation of the future rather than a simple description of contemporary reality. We have here an analysis which is much truer today than it was at the moment 150 years ago when the Manifesto was being composed.

Indeed, never until this end of the 20th century has capital succeeded in exerting such a complete, absolute, undivided, universal, and unlimited sway over the whole world. Never in the past has it had its current ability to impose its rules, its policies, its dogmas, and its interests upon all the nations of the globe. Never have international finance capital and multinational corporations been so out of control by states and peoples. Never before now has there existed such a dense network of international institutions—International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization—devoted to controlling, governing, and administering human life according to the strict rules of the capitalist free market and unrestricted pursuit of capitalist profitability. Finally, never in any preceding epoch have all spheres of human life—social relationships, culture, art, politics, sexuality, health, education, sports, recreation—been so completely dominated by capital, so deeply submerged in “the icy water of egotistical calculation.”

Nevertheless, the brilliant—and prophetic—analysis of capitalist globalization sketched out in the initial pages of the Manifesto suffers from certain limitations, tensions, or contradictions. These do not stem from an excess of revolutionary zeal, as most critiques of Marxism contends, but, on the contrary, from an insufficiently critical stance in regard to modern bourgeois/industrial civilization. Let us look at several of the closely interlinked aspects of that stance.

1. The ideology of progress typical of the nineteenth-century show ups in the visibly Eurocentric way in which Marx and Engels express their admiration for the capacity of the bourgeoisie to “draw all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization”: thanks to its cheap commodities “it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate” (a transparent reference to China). They seem to consider western colonial domination as an expression of the bourgeoisie’s historical “civilizing” role: this class “has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.”4 The sole restriction on this Eurocentric, not to say colonialist, distinction between “civilized” and “barbarian” nations is the phrase “what it calls civilization” (sogennante Zivilisation) with reference to the western bourgeois world.

In his later writing Marx was to take a much more critical stance in regard to western colonialism in India and China, but it would remain for the modern theoreticians of imperialism—Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin—to formulate a radical Marxist challenge to “bourgeois civilization” from the point of view of its victims, namely the colonized peoples. And only with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution would emerge the heretical idea that socialist revolutions would be most likely to begin in the periphery of the system, the dependent countries. Of course, the founder of the Red Army insisted on the additional point that unless the revolution would spread to the advanced industrial centers—notably of western Europe—it would sooner or later be condemned to failure. It is often forgotten that, in their preface to the Russian translation of the Manifesto (1881), Marx and Engels envisaged a hypothetical situation in which the socialist revolution would begin in Russia—on the basis of traditional peasant collectivism—and then spread to western Europe. The Russian revolution, would according to their words, become a signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other. This text—as well as a contemporary letter to Vera Zasunch—reply in advance to the supposedly “orthodox Marxist” arguments of the Kautskys and Plekhanovs against the “voluntarism” of the October Revolution of 1917—arguments that today have again become fashionable after the end of the U.S.S.R.—according to which a socialist revolution is only possible where the productive forces have reached “maturity,” which is to say in the advanced capitalist countries.

2. Inspired by “free trader” optimism, and by a rather economic-determinist approach, Marx and Engels foresaw—wrongly—that “National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisies, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production, and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.”5

Not so, alas! The history of the twentieth-century—two World Wars and innumerable conflicts between nations—has given no confirmation at all to this forecast. It is of the incessant nature of the global expansion of capital to produce and reproduce clashes between nations, whether this be in inter-imperialist conflicts over domination of the world market, in national liberation movements against imperial oppression, or yet in myriad other forms.

Today we see, yet one more time, just how much fodder capitalist globalization provides for panic-ridden identity politics and for tribalistic nationalisms. The false universalism of the world market unleashes particularism and hardens xenophobia: the commercial cosmopolitanism of capital and the aggressive group-identity drives are mutually reinforcing.6

Historical experience—notably that of Ireland and its struggle against English imperial domination—taught Marx and Engels, a few years later, that the reign of the bourgeoisie and of the capitalist market do not suppress but intensify—to an historically unprecedented extent—conflicts among nations. But it would await the writings of Lenin on the right of national self-determination, and those of Otto Bauer on national cultural autonomy—two approaches usually regarded as contradictory but which can at least as well be seen as complementary—for a coherent Marxist study to appear dealing with the reality of the nation, its political and cultural nature, and its relative autonomy—indeed its irreducibility—with regard to the economy.

3. Paying homage to the bourgeoisie for its unprecedented ability to develop the productive forces, Marx and Engels unreservedly celebrated the “Subjection of Nature’s forces to man” and the “clearing of whole continents for cultivation” by modern bourgeois production.

Moreover, they seem to envisage the revolution as being mainly the suppression of “fetters”—the existing property-forms—which deny free growth to the productive forces created by the bourgeoisie, without asking whether there also is a need for revolutionizing the very structure of the productive forces in accordance with both ecological and social criteria.

This limitation was partially rectified by Marx in some later writings, notably Capital, where he takes up the simultaneous exhaustion of the soil and the labor force by the logic of capital. But it is only in recent decades, with the rise of ecosocialsim, that we have seen serious efforts to integrate the fundamental intuitions of ecology into the body of Marxian theory.

4. Inspired by what might be called the “fatalistic optimism” of progressivist ideology, Marx and Engels unhesitatingly proclaim the fall of the bourgeoises and the victory of the proletariat as ‘equally inevitable.” One need not dwell long on the political consequences of this vision of history as a process whose results are guaranteed by science, by the laws of history, or by the contradictions of the system. Carried to its consequences—which, of course, was not done by the authors of the Manifesto—this reasoning would leave no place for the subjective factor: revolutionary consciousness, organization, and initiative. If, as Plekhanov was to declare, “the victory of our program is as inevitable as tomorrow’s sunrise,” why create a political party, why struggle, why risk one’s life for the cause? Nobody would dream of organizing a movement to make sure that the sun would rise tomorrow.

It is true that one passage of the Manifesto contradicts, at least implicitly, the “inevitablitist” conception of history: I refer to the famous second paragraph of the “Bourgeois and Proletarians” chapter, according to which every historical class struggle “each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Marx and Engels do not explicitly affirm that this alternative might also hold for the future, but this is a possible interpretation of that passage.

In reality, it was Rosa Luxemburg’s 1915 “Junius Pamphlet” (The Crisis of Social Democracy) which was, for the first time, clearly to pose the alternative socialism or barbarism as the historic choice confronting the working-class movement and the human species. It was only at thay specific moment that Marxism broke radically with any linear vision of history and with any illusion of a “guaranteed” future. And it was only in the writings of Walter Benjamin that would at last be found a critique in depth, on the basis of historical materialism, of the progressivist ideologies that disarmed the German and European working-class movement by drugging it with the illusion that is could get by merely through “swimming with the current” of history.

It would be wrong to conclude from all these critical remarks that the Manifesto fails to go beyond the bounds of the “progressivist” philosophy of history inherited from the Enlightenment thinkers and from Hegel. Even while hailing the bourgeoisie as a class that has revolutionized production and society and which has “accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals,”7 Marx and Engels reject any linear vision of history. They continually emphasize that the spectacular progression of the productive forces—more impressive and colossal in bourgeois society than in all past civilizations—is bought at the cost of the degradation of the social condition of the direct producers.

This is especially the case with those analyses that take account of the decline—in terms of the quality of life and of labor—which characterizes the condition of the modern worker compared to that of the artisan and even, in certain respects, of the feudal serf: “The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the commune…The modern laborer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class.”8 Likewise, in the capitalist system of mechanized industry, the labor process itself becomes “repugnant”—a concept borrowed by the Manifesto from Fourier—it loses all autonomy “and, consequently, all charm for the workman.”9

Here we glimpse the outline of an eminently dialectical conception of the historical process, in which certain types of progress—in terms of technology, of industry, of productivity—are accompanied by retrogression in other fields: in terms of social, cultural and ethical life. In this respect as well there is importance in the remark that the bourgeoisie “has resolved personal worth into exchange value” and has left no other bond among human beings “than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’ (die gefühllose ‘bahre Zahlung’).”10

Let us add that the Manifesto is much more than a—sometimes prophetic, sometimes marked by the limitations of its time—diagnosis of capitalism’s global power: it is also, and above all, a pressing call to international struggle against that domination. Marx and Engels understood perfectly well that capital, as a world system, could be vanquished only by the world-historical action of its victims, the proletariat and allied classes. Among all the phrases of the Manifesto, the final one is undoubtedly the most important, that one which has inspired the imaginations and the hearts of several generations of working class and socialist activists” “Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!“ It is not by chance that this exclamation became the standard and the password for the movement’s most radical tendencies over the past 150 years. It stands as a proclamation, a summons, a categorical moral and strategic imperative, which has served as a lodestar through wars, confused clashes, and heavy ideological fogs.

That appeal was also a visionary one. In 1848 the proletariat was still only a minority in most European societies, not to mention the rest of the world. Today, the mass of wage-workers exploited by capital—industrial workers, white-collar workers, services employees, day laborers, farmhands—comprises the majority of the world’s population. It is far and away the most important force in the class struggle against the global capitalist system, and it is the axis around which other social forces, other social struggles can and must orient themselves.

Indeed, it is not only proletarian interests that are at stake: it is all oppressed social categories and groups—women (not very present in the Manifesto), nations and ethnic groups under alien domination, the unemployed and marginalized (the “pooritariat”)—of all countries who have a stake in social transformation. And this without raising the question of the environment, which concerns not this or that group but the whole human species.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, some have declared the end of socialism, the end of the class struggle, even the end of history. The strike waves of recent years in France, Italy, South Korea, Brazil, the U.S.A.—indeed, everywhere in the world—have delivered a stringing rebuttal to the sort of pseudo-Hegelian speculation. But what is tragically lacking to the lower classes, on the other hand, is even the barest minimum of international coordination.11

For Marx and Engels, internationalism was both a centerpiece in the strategy of proletarian organizing and struggle against worldwide capital and the expression of a revolutionary humanist ambition, for which the emancipation of humanity was the highest moral value and the ultimate objective of the struggle. They were communist “cosmopolitans,” insofar as the whole world without frontiers or national boundaries was the horizon of their thought and action as well as the content of their revolutionary utopia. In The German Ideology, written barely two years before the Manifesto, they emphasize that it is only thanks to a communist revolution, which must necessarily be a world-historical process, that every individual person “will be freed from its particular local and national limitations, brought into a practical relationship with the products (including the intellectual products) of the whole world, and enabled to gain the capacity to delight in all the fruits of worldwide human creativity.”12.

Marx and Engels did not limit themselves to extolling proletarian unity irregardless of frontiers. During a large part of their lives they endeavored to give concrete and organized form to internationalist solidarity. They did so, at an initial stage, by gathering German, French, and English revolutionaries in the Communist League of 1847-1848, and, later, by making a large contribution to building the International Workingmen’s Association, founded in 1864. The successive Internationals—from the First to the Fourth—suffered from crises, from bureaucratic deformations, or from isolation. None of this kept internationalism from being one of the most powerful motive forces for liberation struggles throughout the twentieth century. In the initial years after the October Revolution of 1917, an impressive internationalist wave surged through Europe and the whole world. During the Stalinist years, this internationalism was manipulated as a tool for the great-power interests of the U.S.S.R. But even during the period of the Communist International’s bureaucratic degeneration, there were genuine manifestations of internationalism, like the International Brigades of Spain from 1936 to 1938. More recently, a new generation reacquired a sense of internationalist activity, in the uprisings of the year 1968 and in actions in solidarity with Third-World revolutions. Current problems are international in scope. The challenges signified by capitalist globalization, neoliberalism, unregulated speculative financial markets, monstrous indebtedness and impoverishment of the Third World, environmental degradation, gravely menacing ecological crisis—to mention only a few examples—all call out for solutions on a global scale.

Yet we have no choice but to admit that, confronting the unification, regional (European Union) and global, of big capital, that of its adversaries has made little progress. While in the nineteenth-century the most conscious sectors of the working-class movement, organized in the International, were in advance of the bourgeoisie, today they are, relatively, tragically backward. Never has the need for international association, coordination, and common action—on the trade-union level in regard to common demands, and on the level of struggle for socialism—been so urgent, and never has the response to that need been so weak, fragile, and tentative.

All this does not mean that the movement for radical social change must not begin at the level of one, or several, nations, or that there are no legitimate national liberation movements. But contemporary struggles are, to an unprecedented degree, interdependent and interrelated from pole to pole. The only possible rational and effective answer to capitalist blackmail over delocalization and “competitiveness”—the claim that wages and social benefits must be cut in a Paris to compete in price with the products of a Bangkok—is organized and effective international working-class solidarity. Now it has become apparent, more clearly than in the past, just how really convergent are the interests of the workers of the North and of the South: wage increases for workers in southern Asia directly concerns European workers; the struggle of peasant farmers and indigenous peoples to protect the Brazilian rain forest from the destructive attacks of agribusiness is of pressing concern to American environmentalists; rejection of neoliberalism is common to trade-union and popular movements in all countries. Many more such examples could be given.

What sort of internationalism is here at issue? The fake “internationalism” at the service of blocs and of “guide states”—the U.S.S.R., China, Albanian, etc.—is dead and buried. It was a tool for petty national bureaucracies, who used it to give cover to whatever policies their national states happened to be following. The time has come for a new beginning that will also preserve the best of past internationalist traditions.

Here and there, the seeds of a new internationalism, independent of all states, are to be seen. Militant trade-unionists, left-wing socialists, de-Stalinized communists, undogmatic Trotskyist, unsectarian anarchists, are seeking out the paths to renewal of the proletarian internationalist tradition. A worthy initiative, though still limited to a single region, is the Forum of São Paulo, an arena for discussion and common action among the main forces of the Latin-American left, established in 1990, whose aims are to struggle against neoliberalism and to search out new forward paths, serving the interests and the needs of the great majority of the people.

Concurrently, new internationalist feelings are becoming visible in social movements with a global perspective, like feminism and environmentalism, in antiracist movements, in liberation theology, in associations devoted to human rights and to solidarity with the third world. All these currents are far from satisfied with existing institutions like the Socialist International which, though it does at least have the merit of existing, is too compromised with the established order.

A sampling of the most active representatives of these various tendencies, for both the North and South of the planet, came together, in a unitary and fraternal sprit, in the Intergalactic Conference for Humanity and against Neoliberalism, which in July 1996 was convened in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation—a revolutionary movement which has been able to combine, in an original and successful way, the local (the struggle of the indigenous Indian people of Chiapas), the national (the combat for democracy in Mexico), and the international (the global struggle against neoliberalism). We have here only a first, modest, step, but one going in the right direction: the rebuilding of international solidarity.

It is plain that in this worldwide battle against capitalist globalization a decisive role is played by struggles in the advanced industrial countries, which dominate the world economy: a fundamental change in the international balance of forces is impossible without striking at the very “center” of the capitalist system. The rebirth of a combative trade-union movement in the United States is an encouraging sign, but it is in Europe that we find the most powerful movements resisting neoliberalism—even though they have yet to develop much continent-wide coordination.

It is from convergence between renewal of the socialist, anticapitalist, and anti-imperialist tradition of proletarian internationalism—ushered in by Marx in the Communist Manifesto—and the universalist, humanist, libertarian, environmentalist, feminist, and democratic aspirations of the new social movements that can and will arise twenty-first-century internationalism.


  1. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Paris 1971, p.81.
  2. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Monthly Review, 1998), pp. 21-22.
  3. ibid. p. 22.
  4. Manifesto, p. 22. For a discussion in depth of this problem area, I refer to Nestor Kohan’s excellent text “Marx en su trec mundo,” Casa de las Americas, 207, April-June 1977.
  5. Manifesto, p.40. This affirmation of the Manifesto is particularly contradicted several lines further on, where the authors seem to link the end of national antagonisms to that of capitalism: “In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between class within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.”
  6. I here take as my own the analyses of Daniel Bensaid in his remarkable book Le Pari Mélancolique (The Melancholic Wager) (Paris, Fayard, 1997).
  7. Manifesto, p. 21.
  8. ibid, p. 31.
  9. ibid., p.25.
  10. ibid., p.20.
  11. Eight years after the fall of the Wall, what do the Germans themselves think about this subject? Do they believe that “today, the class struggle is outmoded, Employers and employees ought to relate to each others as partners,” or rather do they hold that “it is right to speak of the class struggle. Basically, employers and employees have totally incompatible interests?” Here is an interesting opinion poll, published on December 10, 1997, by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper scarcely to be accused of sympathizing with Marxism: although in 1980 some 58% of West-German citizens chose the former answer against 25% for the latter, by 1997 the balance had been reversed: some 41% still considering the class struggle to be outmoded, but 44% thinking it to be on the agenda. In the former GDR—that is, among the very people who overturned the Berlin Wall—the majority is strikingly clearer: 58% of adherents to class struggle against 26%! (cf. Le Monde Diplomatique, n.526, January 1998, p.8).
  12. Marx and Engels, L’ldéologie Allemande, Paris, Editions Sociales, 1968, p.67.