“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part” – Karl Marx 1848
Marx considered capitalism revolutionary, an advance on all previous societies. Most contemporary “Marxists” and the pseudo left more broadly either disagree or are highly ambivalent… For example, they bemoan “corporate globalization” and believe that the very far from complete process of economic development is ecologically unsustainable and we need to revert to a something “simpler”. Marx refers to these people as “reactionists”.
These are some comments to consider while reading The Communist Manifesto. Most of them highlight the many instances where Marx’s views are contrary to those of present-day “Marxists”. Marx is referred to as the writer here. While Engels was a co-author, the final writing was the work of Marx.
Chapter 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians
“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.”
Marx then goes on to elaborate on this point in the subsequent 11 paragraphs. He considered capitalism revolutionary, an advance on all previous societies. Most contemporary “Marxists” and the pseudo left more broadly either disagree or are highly ambivalent. They do not see the capitalist transformation of the economy and society as the launching pad for communism. Rather, the society they want requires a retreat from this process. For example, they bemoan “corporate globalization” and believe that the very far from complete process of economic development is ecologically unsustainable and we need to revert to a something “simpler”. Marx refers to these people as “reactionists”.
” We see then: the means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organisation of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.”
So the transition from capitalism to communism will not be unique. As well as the transition from feudalism to capitalism there was also the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture based society. In each case there was a total change in thinking and doing – “human nature”.
” For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule. ”
Marx goes on to cite capitalist economic crises as a prime example of the system’s obsolescence. Some claim that crises are not inevitable under capitalism. However, the evidence seems to suggest that they can only be delayed and at the cost of making them worse.
Other economic failings of the system include its slowness to innovate [see here] and its inability to tap the enthusiasm and initiative of workers [see here].
” Owing to the extensive use of machinery, ……. according to their age and sex.”
This is an accurate description of machine tending where work becomes confined to simple repetition. However, this should not be taken to be Marx’s overall assessment of work under capitalism. In Capital Vol. I Chapter Fifteen Section 9, he has two paragraphs that gives his general view of the labor process under capitalism. These are quoted in full below.
“Modern industry never looks upon and treats the existing form of a process as final. The technical basis of that industry is therefore revolutionary, while all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative.  By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually causing changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the labourer, and in the social combinations of the labour-process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionises the division of labour within the society, and incessantly launches masses of capital and of workpeople from one branch of production to another. But if modern industry, by its very nature, therefore necessitates variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer, on the other hand, in its capitalistic form, it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossified particularisations.We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence,  and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous, we have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity. This is the negative side. But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance  at all points, modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes. It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. Modern Industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.
“One step already spontaneously taken towards effecting this revolution is the establishment of technical and agricultural schools, and of “écoles d’enseignement professionnel,” in which the children of the working-men receive some little instruction in technology and in the practical handling of the various implements of labour. Though the Factory Act, that first and meagre concession wrung from capital, is limited to combining elementary education with work in the factory, there can be no doubt that when the working-class comes into power, as inevitably it must, technical instruction, both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the working-class schools. There is also no doubt that such revolutionary ferments, the final result of which is the abolition of the old division of labour, are diametrically opposed to the capitalistic form of production, and to the economic status of the labourer corresponding to that form. But the historical development of the antagonisms, immanent in a given form of production, is the only way in which that form of production can be dissolved and a new form established. “Ne sutor ultra crepidam” — this nec plus ultra of handicraft wisdom became sheer nonsense, from the moment the watchmaker Watt invented the steam-engine, the barber Arkwright, the throstle, and the working-jeweller, Fulton, the steamship. ”
“You take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.”
227. A French workman, on his return from San-Francisco, writes as follows: “I never could have believed, that I was capable of working at the various occupations I was employed on in California. I was firmly convinced that I was fit for nothing but letter-press printing…. Once in the midst of this world of adventurers, who change their occupation as often as they do their shirt, egad, I did as the others. As mining did not turn out remunerative enough, I left it for the town, where in succession I became typographer, slater, plumber, &c. In consequence of thus finding out that I am fit to any sort of work, I feel less of a mollusk and more of a man.” (A. Corbon, “De l’enseignement professionnel,” 2ème ed., p. 50.)
228. John Bellers, a very phenomenon in the history of Political Economy, saw most clearly at the end of the 17th century, the necessity for abolishing the present system of education and division of labour, which beget hypertrophy and atrophy at the two opposite extremities of society. Amongst other things he says this: “An idle learning being little better than the learning of idleness…. Bodily labour, it’s a primitive institution of God…. Labour being as proper for the bodies’ health as eating is for its living; for what pains a man saves by ease, he will find in disease…. Labour adds oil to the lamp of life, when thinking inflames it…. A childish silly employ” (a warning this, by presentiment, against the Basedows and their modern imitators) “leaves the children’s minds silly,” (“Proposals for Raising a Colledge of Industry of all Useful Trades and Husbandry.” Lond., 1696, pp. 12, 14, 18.)”
The basic message is that despite the tendency for capitalism to impose a narrow division of labor, the objective conditions of modern industry limit the extent they can do that.
This view is very much at odds with Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. This book has had a very unfortunate influence of how people on the left view the labor process under capitalism. It claims that capitalism tends to increasingly degrade work and deskill workers. The present situation totally refutes this view given that 15-20 per cent of the workforce have university degrees and a larger number have vocational training. If it were true that capitalism was simply reducing the workforce to automatons, it would be hard to see how they could ever get rid of, and then manage without, the bourgeoisie. For a full refutation of Braverman see Deskilling Debunked.
” The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level. ”
While proletarians are no longer mainly machine tenders, the point about equalization is still quite valid.
The wage disparity among the vast majority of workers is not enough to generate major differences in material conditions of life. There is a mass mainstream, with perhaps 10 per cent at the top and 10 per cent at the bottom living in different worlds. This is important from the point of view of overall solidarity and individuals identifying with most other people. The way that the vast bulk of people think of themselves as ‘middle class’ is one reflection of this.
” Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress 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, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over the bourgeoisie, so now a portion 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.”
Now most members of the intelligentsia are part of the proletariat. They come from proletarian families and works for a salary. Unfortunately, because of their employee status most are hacks working in the service of the bourgeoisie. This includes the pseudo left in the social sciences who have done much to stifle young inquiring minds. Under these circumstances independent thinkers with independent means would be most valuable.
” Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.”
In modern capitalist societies the vast majority of people are members of the proletariat. They are either wage or salary earners or on welfare. They have no means of production of their own. The capitalists are a tiny minority and the petty bourgeoisie comprise around 10 per cent. The proletariat is revolutionary because it has no interest in the present system and can do without the bourgeoisie. For more on the modern proletariat go here.
“All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.
“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.”
The proletariat has to own all the means of production in common. Parceling them out to separate groups of workers would simply bring you back to capitalism.
” The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.”
This is still indeed the case for a significant section of the proletariat. A pauper is someone who cannot support them-self. In the present context that means being on the dole or invalid pension. Pauperism occurs because capitalism fails to ensure that everyone is equipped with the abilities required for the workforce and also leaves many people the psychological casualties of a dog eat dog society.
Chapter 2: Proletarians and Communists
“In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.’
A lot of the pseudo left demand protection from “cheap foreign labor”.
“Communistic abolition of buying and selling”
This means no more markets. Most “Marxists” have gone to water on this and agree with the bourgeoisie that it is impossible. For a discussion of how communism would thrive without markets go here.
” The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State,i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”
This is totally at odds with the green anti-growth view that is now so widely held.
” 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.”
Another way of expressing this is to say – each person’s free development depends on the free development of everyone else. This is obvious if you think about how difficult it would be to fully thrive if those around you are hopelessly inadequate.
Chapter 3: Socialist and Communist Literature
In this chapter Marx lists the various types of “anti -capitalism” that prevailed at that time. A new list for the present time needs to be prepared. There will be significant similarities and they will be as equally reactionary.
Chapter 4: Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties
This chapter looks at immediate tasks for communists at that time. At the present moment the big issue is the Arab Spring. This revolution, no matter however totally bourgeois, is in the interest of the proletariat and people, both of the region and internationally. The major capitalist powers must be placed under the greatest possible pressure to do all they can assist, including militarily. The “Marxists” and other pseudo leftists have done all they can to oppose this and are a total disgrace.