‘A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” So begins the most important political pamphlet ever written—The Communist Manifesto.
In it Karl Marx and Frederick Engels went further than anyone before them in formulating a critique of the capitalist system.
But they did more than that. They also showed, for the first time, that there was a force with the power to bring that system to a halt and create the basis for a radically different kind of society—the working class.
This was no idle daydream. As the first copies of the manifesto rolled off the press in 1848, Europe was aflame with rebellion.
For Marx and Engels, revolutions were the motor driving history forward.
But the revolutions of 1848 were not against capitalist bosses. They were an attempt to destroy the rotten old regimes of Europe—many of which were run by kings and dictators.
One of the biggest revolts happened in France, where the capitalist bourgeoisie had led a revolution against the king in 1789.
In 1848 many workers thought that the bourgeoisie would again lead the people against the old feudal regime. But it didn’t.
The bosses of the factories were more afraid of their own workers than of the vestiges of feudalism.
Something crucial had changed in society. A new class of capitalists was rapidly displacing the old feudal ruling class.
Their power was based on a new kind of exploitation. People were driven off the land and into factories and mines.
Ordinary people had no choice but to sell their labour power to the capitalists in return for a wage.
Capitalism was unleashing enormous productive potential. But it was inherently unstable, periodically crashing into crisis.
Many people today rightly recognise the Tories as being the ideological zealots of capitalism, and they can appear to be in complete control of society.
But Marx and Engels realised that even the capitalists were not able to control their own system: “Modern bourgeois society...is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”
The necessity to accumulate profit “chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe”. The process of competitive accumulation—competing in the market to acquire bigger and bigger profits—means that bosses are compelled to attack their workers in order to increase profits.
If they don’t, more ruthless companies will force them out of business.
But Marx and Engels’s most crucial innovation was to identify the force that could overthrow this system and begin society anew. For the bourgeois sorcerer has a powerful apprentice—the proletariat.
When trying to justify attacks on our wages and conditions, politicians often say they have to appease the “wealth creators”—rich bosses and bankers—who they claim would otherwise move their assets abroad.
But these people are not the wealth creators—they are the parasites. The labour and creativity of millions of workers creates wealth.
And not only by those who produce physical goods but also those providing services—like firefighters and tube drivers.
This vast class of workers holds the key that can unlock the chains of exploitation.
The final words of the manifesto are a call to arms: “Workers of all countries, Unite!”
Bourgeois politicians rarely miss an opportunity to divide working people. They will use racism, sexism and homophobia to sow the seeds of prejudice.
Their aim is to disempower all workers, employed and unemployed, immigrant or not, making us feel compelled to cling to the edge of the system for fear that, if we don’t, life could get even harder.
But we are not peripheral to society. We work at capitalism’s dark heart—the point of production.
Not all of the Communist Manifesto is applicable today. After all, Marx and Engels were arguing in part against other socialist currents that no longer exist.
But the centre of their argument remains true—that workers themselves can transform society.
Let the Tories tremble!
A new edition of the Communist Manifesto, with an introduction by Alex Callinicos, is available for £2 from Bookmarks bookshop at www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk