by John Spritzler


February, 1999

Nineteen ninety-eight was the 150th anniversary of the first publication of the "Communist Manifesto" by Karl Marx and Friedreich Engels. Reading the Manifesto is a good way to decide what you think of Marxism for two reasons. First, it's only 46 pages long. Second, though written early in Marx's life, it was repeatedly reissued by the authors. It is fair to say the Manifesto represents beliefs Marx and Engels held throughout their lives.

The great appeal of the Manifesto lies in the famous ending of the first section: "What the bourgeoisie [the capitalist or owner class] therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

The Manifesto offers hope. It purports to be a scientific basis for hope that capitalism can be defeated. It describes economic laws that supposedly operate independent of human will and make proletarian (working class) victory inevitable. Despite the fact that Communism has been discredited, Marxism still has profound influence in the world because it seems to offer hope for change. The problem with the Manifesto is that it points to a false hope, which has been the downfall of all social movements guided by Marxism.

The Marxist source of hope in economic laws is attractive mainly to those who do not see the revolutionary significance of ordinary peoples' lives and struggles. The Manifesto says nothing of the values of working people, either peasants or industrial workers. Instead Marx and Engels, with their "materialist" view of history, see economic development as the basis of progress and capitalism as a historically progressive force. They judge various classes not in terms of human relationships or values but by whether they represent further economic development. The Manifesto believes peasants to be a backward class and declares that the bourgeoisie, by driving peasants off the land and increasing the urban population as compared with the rural, has "rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life." Similarly, the Manifesto sees the ruling elites, not the working class, as the source of enlightened ideas: "entire sections of the ruling classes are, by the advance of industry, precipitated into the proletariat...These also supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress."

The Manifesto finds the source of revolution in these "economic laws." Revolution against capitalism to create a new, more humane social order will come when the capitalist system breaks down and it becomes clear that the bourgeoisie 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." The problem with the capitalist class, in this view, is simply that it has outgrown its usefulness. Capitalist relations of ownership have become "fetters" on the productive forces which capitalism has itself created.

The Manifesto is blind to the conflict of values in society—solidarity versus competition, equality versus inequality—or to the fact that working people have values opposed to the values of capitalism. The Manifesto sees workers merely in terms of their material interests: "The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority."

The reasons that the Manifesto places its hope on the industrial working class have nothing to do with the values of working people. The first reason given is simply that "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." Industrial workers are important because their numbers increase under capitalism. The second reason is that "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." Workers do not liberate human society as a conscious goal but as an inevitable by-product of their own uprising.

The real basis for hope lies not in some forces beyond human control, but in the fact that the working people of the world as individuals and as a class do not have only material interests which contradict capitalism; they also have goals and values which embody a different morality and a different view of human life from the capitalists, and they struggle to shape society with these values. Revolution is possible because the values of equality and solidarity and democracy by which ordinary people try to shape the world are revolutionary; the real force driving history is not technological or economic development but the struggle of ordinary people to create human society as they believe it should be. This was true before the rise of capitalism and the growth of an industrial working class and it is true now. The struggles of slaves against slave owners, peasants against feudal lords, workers against capitalists, and even workers against Communist governments are essentially the same. Success is possible, but not inevitable. Peoples' confidence in each other and in their values is what chiefly determines the outcome, not any laws of history that stand above flesh-and-blood human beings. There is progress in history, but that progress comes not from economic development but from the increasing self-knowledge and self-confidence of the working people who create human society.

Is it any wonder many workers feel insulted by the Marxist attitude towards them? Marxists think they have to "educate" workers to see that solidarity "is in their interest," assuming that working people place no more particular value on solidarity than as a useful way to get some material benefit. Marxist governments are dictatorial because they believe they have to mold workers to be more humane—and also make them work harder.

Marxism has failed because the hope it offered was false. We need to rebuild the revolutionary movement on a completely different footing, one that derives hope from understanding what people really care about and strive for in their lives.


Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, January-February 1999.


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