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The Communist Manifesto Today

Paul M. Sweezy is co-editor of Monthly Review. The above article was originally presented at the MR sponsored panel “150 Years After the Communist Manifesto,” at the 1998 Socialist Scholars Conference

I’ve probably read the Communist Manifesto a dozen times, more or less. But it never struck me as old hat. It was always worth reading again. So I thought that in preparation for this panel, I should read it once more, this time with special attention to insights and formulations that seem particularly relevant to the problems we face in the world as the twenty-first century approaches.

Here is what I came up with, summarized under three headings: (1) The crises of capitalism; (2) Where are we going? and (3) What should we be trying to accomplish?

The Crises of Capitalism

Eighteen forty-eight, when the Manifesto was written, was a crisis year in Europe. Nineteen ninety-eight is a crisis year for a now fully globalized capitalist economy. What Marx and Engels said about “the commercial crises [that] by their periodic return, put on its trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society” (the Communist Manifesto, Monthly Review Press, 1998) is just as applicable to our own time. And so is the diagnosis of the basic cause: “In these crises,” they wrote, “there breaks out an epidemic that in all earlier epochs would have seemed an absurdity, the epidemic of overproduction.” Today the formulation might be better formulated to read “an epic of overproduction of the means of production.” Bourgeois economics still doesn’t get it, and probably never will.

Where Are We Going?

Marx and Engels were dedicated revolutionaries and firmly believed that the inherent and ineradicable contradictions of capitalism would generate a growing and ultimately successful revolutionary struggle to overturn the system and put in its place a more humane and rational one. But did their analysis allow for, or perhaps even imply a different historical outcome? The answer, I think, is unequivocally yes. Early on in the Manifesto, indeed on the first page of the first section entitled “Bourgeois and Proletarians,” an oft-quoted passage reads:

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, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

Nothing more is said about “the common ruin of the contending classes” in the Manifesto, most likely because Marx and Engels did not consider it a likely outcome of the class struggle under capitalism. But if we look around us in the world today—and take into account the extent to which capitalism is destroying or undermining the natural foundations of a sustainable economy—we must surely reinstate “the common ruin of the contending classes” as a very realistic prospect in the historically near future.

What Should we be Trying to Accomplish?

We should be trying to impress on the peoples of the world the truth about capitalism, that it is not, as bourgeois ideologists want us to believe, the “end of history,” but that its continued existence can really bring the end of history. Does the Manifesto offer any help in this respect? Perhaps—if we read it carefully and interpret it imaginatively. In a too-often neglected passage, Marx and Engels introduce a new theme into their analysis.

Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the process of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a section of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.

1998, Volume 50, Issue 01 (May)
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