By Lowy, Michael; Mage, Shane Henry
Monthly Review , Vol. 50, No. 6
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 Others also have become outdated enough during the present century to require critical reexamination.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. …