A small manifesto so large

Peter Mertens

Preface by Peter Mertens to the 175th anniversary edition of ‘Het Communistisch Manifest’, EPO Publishers, Antwerp, Belgium, February 2023

Engles & Marx

Table of contents

The cradle of the Manifesto
- 1836 - 1842: Berlin and the discovery of Hegel 2
- 1842 - 1844: editor-in-chief in Cologne and the proletariat of Paris 3
- 1845 - 1848: Brussels and the Communist League 5

The key points of the Manifesto 6
- The wind of change 
- It's the economy! 
- Capitalist globalization 
- Technological progress 
- People make their history themselves 
- The working class, the class of the future 

It's March 3, 1848, the Brussels police have just received a report that curfew has been broken at the Bois Sauvage boarding house, Place Sainte-Gudule. Lodging there, for the time being, is the Marx family. An overzealous deputy commissioner sets out to investigate and raids the boarding house. Marx is distracted and when the commissioner asks for his papers, he absent-mindedly produces a pamphlet from his inner pocket. Its resounding title: 'Workers of the world, unite!' The law enforcers are not amused. They arrest Karl Marx and his wife Jenny Von Westphalen and take them to the Amigo, the brig behind Brussels City Hall. The next day, the Marx family is deported from the country, a deportation that in fact had already been decided for some time. The anecdote is also a metaphor: whoever asks for his papers, Marx is an internationalist.

The concluding sentence of The Communist Manifesto is a call for international unity. 175 years ago today, Karl Marx and his sworn comrade Friedrich Engels put the finishing touches on the Manifesto. It's January 1848, rue Jean d’Ardenne 50.

When Copernicus, Kepler and Galilei claimed that the earth and a host of other planets revolved around the sun, and therefore not everything revolves around the earth, they were taken for fools and dismissed as heretics. They revolutionised our way of thinking, but the time wasn't right yet. It would take generations before it was. When a prevailing frame of mind changes dramatically, we call it a paradigm shift. With their Manifesto, Marx and Engels brought about a paradigm shift in thinking about human history and man’s potential.

The Manifesto seeks to answer the question of how one form of society transitions into another. Two driving forces of history emerge in the process: the turbulent development of technology and science on the one hand, the movements of struggle by the people on the other. The Manifesto opens with 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles'. Writing this, Marx and Engels put a headlong world back on its feet.

Of course the different paradigm shifts of Copernicus, Darwin and Marx and Engels, each in their own fields, weren't the end of change in these fields. Science constantly evolves with growing new insights. Still, Marx and Engels' paradigm shift remains inspiring today.

The Communist Manifesto is one of the most influential political writings in modern history. It is clear, concise and revolutionary. It opens one’s eyes to profound changes, it opens up possibilities for a new world. It inspires and speaks to the heart. Perhaps even more so today than in 1848. The world is once again on the brink of great shocks and changes and the context is vastly more industrial and international than it was back then.

The cradle of the Manifesto

To understand a text, you need to understand the context. Hence, let’s look for the 'cradle' of the Manifesto. The search will take us from Berlin to Cologne, and then from Paris to Brussels.

1836 - 1842: Berlin and the discovery of Hegel

Karl Marx is born on May 5, 1818, in Trier on the Moselle river. The political map of Germany at that time is a colourful sight. Germany is a mesh of all sorts of large and small states, hardly held together by the German Confederation, a union of feudal monarchs. After the expulsion of Napoleon from Germany in 1815, these monarchs restore their power with terror and form a 'Holy Alliance' with the Russian tsar against all democratic forces.

The most progressive of Germany's regions is the Rhine Province. The Rhineland and the Palatinate had been part of France until 1815. Afterwards, they had re-rejoined Prussia, the most reactionary of the German states. But the ideas of the French Revolution had taken root there in the meantime. Among others, also in Heinrich Marx, Karl's father. Heinrich knows Voltaire and Rousseau by heart and has staunch faith in the power of human reasoning and in the goodness of men. Karl grows up in a family that upholds the values of the enlightenment and humanism.

At his father's request, the young Marx starts law school. But soon he 'feels an urge to wrestle with philosophy'. Which brings him to Berlin in 1836. His inquisitive mind craves knowledge. He translates Tacitus' Germania, Ovid's laments, studies English and Italian on his own, and devours philosophy, sciences, art-history and literature. He constantly pens down his findings in a notebook. But when they no longer withstand self-critical scrutiny, he doesn’t shy away from consigning his own notes to the wastebasket.

The European continent is on the brink of great change. Worn-out feudalism has already been wiped off the map in England and France by the steam engine and the new bourgeoisie. But in Germany, the new bourgeois class is not yet ripe and strong enough to seize the upper hand. Still ideologically it’s preparing for revolution. Through classical literature and philosophy, newspapers and pamphlets new ideas are launched and old concepts are being subjected to merciless criticism. This is called 'the weapon of criticism'.

In roaring Berlin Marx is introduced to the theses of German philosopher Hegel who, having passed away in 1831, continues to stir minds in Germany. Everything is in constant change, says Hegel. Man and society are not static, but dynamic in all aspects. They carry the seeds of a new future in their history.

Hegel draws a line of development in human history and human thought. Nothing is isolated, everything is interconnected in the same process of development. The 'Absolute Idea' is the inspiring core of that development. Throughout history that Absolute Idea achieves its perfection, not only through gradual evolution but often in leaps, resulting from internal tensions, conflicts and clashes.

Young Marx is blown off his feet when he comes across this dialectic of Hegel. 'This is a turning point in my life', he writes to his father enthusiastically. He is barely 19 years old at the time.

A fierce clash rages in Berlin’s debate clubs of those days between conservative and progressive followers of Hegel. According to the conservatives the Prussian Empire is the final form of development. The progressive camp answers: even the Prussian form of state is transient, an impermanent stage of development. Progressive young Berlin academics find each other in the 'Doktorklub'. Karl Marx is also part of it. They become known as 'young Hegelians'.

The reactionary Prussian government is anything but happy with these 'young-Hegelian' forces. It banishes all traces of opposition from universities. And since he has no intention of making any concessions to feudal absolutists, Marx can kiss his university teaching career goodbye.

In the spring of 1842, he becomes acquainted with the ideas of the Bavarian philosopher Feuerbach. Feuerbach is a follower of Hegel but attacks his master on a crucial point: not the mysterious divine providence or the Absolute Idea is the driving force of history. First comes matter, then mind, says Feuerbach. Religion did not make people, it is people who made religion, he concludes in his book Das Wesen des Christentums.

'One must have experienced the liberating effect of this book for oneself to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was universal,' Friedrich Engels would later comment on this.i

1842 - 1844: editor-in-chief in Cologne and the proletariat of Paris

Marx looks forward to deploy the weapon of philosophy in the daily struggle. In 1842 he’s invited to contribute to the oppositional Rheinische Zeitung für Politik, Handel und Gewerbe. The newspaper is an initiative of the emerging bourgeoisie of the Rhine Province. Marx's first articles in the newspaper are mainly aimed at the Prussian censorship. He quickly makes a name for himself, and in October 1842 he becomes editor-in-chief. Suddenly a 24-year-old from Trier is at the head of the most important newspaper of the progressive German bourgeoisie.

A journalist, Marx explores political and social life in the Rhineland. He writes controversial articles on so-called thefts of wood. In Rhineland forests, there has traditionally never been a restriction on deadwood culling. But when the emerging industries need more wood for fuel, this changes, landowners demanding strict laws against 'theft of wood'. Of the 200,000 criminal investigations in Prussia at the time, as many as 150,000 involve 'thefts of wood,' and 'offences' in regard to hunting, forests and fields. To protect the poor, Marx demands the preservation of the old common law, now colliding with the new laws. Those laws, it turns out, are not neutral. They serve certain economic interests.

Under Marx, the number of subscribers to the Rheinische Zeitung quadruples. But the feudal powers subject the newspaper to very strict censorship. Despite the harassment, the brutality and bureaucratic measures, the Prussian state can't contain the newspaper's popularity. With all other means depleted the state resorts to the ultimate measure: on March 31, 1843, the newspaper is banned.

Karl Marx wasn't editor-in-chief for long, but this Cologne period still taught him a lot. It became clear to him that history is not determined by ideas, as Hegel claimed, but that economic and social conditions are decisive factors of society. No, idealism and civic humanism are not enough when fighting against feudal rulers.

In October, Karl and Jenny Marx move to Paris, a thrilling metropolis. It couldn't be more different from provincial Cologne! The French capital is exhilarating, it vibrates and it thrives. The class divisions are stark. There is the fashionable Paris of speculators, tycoons and bankers who exuberantly squander fortunes. And then there is the Paris of the underbelly, tens of thousands of workers huddled together in cramped working-class neighbourhoods. Among them are also the thousands of exiles spit out by reactionary states such as Prussia, Russia and Austria.

Paris is the place to be for revolutionaries. The city owes this fame not only to the French Revolution of 1789, which was then only half a century old, but also to the July Revolution of 1830, the first revolution in which the young working class came to the fore. The outcasts of the new era, unskilled labourers, artisans without any income and other paupers are taking their fate into their own hands.

Workers, artisans and progressives meet in the working-class neighbourhoods of Paris, sprouting countless societies. One such club was the League of the Just, the Bund der Gerechten, an organization of German workers in Paris. Marx establishes contacts with the leaders of various societies, gets to know French socialists and communists, and comes into contact with the proletariat for the first time. The wonderful motto of the French Revolution - liberty, equality, fraternity - is at odds with the harsh reality of the working people, as Marx witnesses with his own eyes.

Paris is teeming with socialists, reformers and revolutionaries. The city is rife with theoretical debates. In August 1844, Karl Marx meets Friedrich Engels. Their ideas seem surprisingly similar. Engels was also born and raised in Germany, where, all in all, life is still slow. But at his father's factory in Manchester, England, he sees how big the economic fabric of the British Empire has grown and is shocked. In England, he witnesses how industry is permanently changing and with it society as a whole. Engels provides Marx with several articles on domestic politics and economic issues in England. Even more than Marx, Engels realises that economic events propel history, drive the growing contradictions between social classes, and reinforce the struggles between those classes.

Marx and Engels become inseparable friends. Marx is in Paris, focusing on economics. He studies the books of the founders of economic liberalism, Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Labour is the essence of man, Marx writes in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Through labour man becomes truly human, a social being, capable of creative activity and progress. But under capitalism the product of labour does not belong to the working man, Marx knows. The worker must sell his labour power on pain of his demise and is never sure of his place in the labour process. Thus labour becomes something hostile, something strange. Labour loses its real meaning for man and becomes a compulsion, a necessary evil. This is not peculiar to man, but to capitalism. Workers are alienated from their labour, which leads to people being alienated from each other and becoming indifferent to fellow human beings.ii

The alienation of labour is not eternal, Marx says, but it is concrete and historical for any society of exploitation. The liberation of labour from the yoke of exploitation and oppression will complete the humanization of man. The pursuit of human liberation will remain a lifelong guiding principle for Marx.

1845 - 1848: Brussels and the Communist League

In 1845, Marx is expelled from Paris at the insistence of the Prussian government, labelling him as a 'dangerous revolutionary”. The Marx family moves to Brussels. Here Marx elaborates his criticism of his former inspirer Feuerbach.

He finds Feuerbach too passive, too contemplative, not understanding the role of revolutionary practice. 'The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice,' Marx writes in his third thesis on Feuerbach in the spring of 1845. The most famous of those theses, the eleventh, today still adorns Marx's tombstone at Highgate Cemetery in London: 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.'iii

In Brussels Marx and Engels continue work on their criticism of German philosophers. In 1846, this results in The German Ideology, the book that is the basis of their materialist view of history: 'Men must be in a position to live in order to be able to 'make history'. But life involves before everything else: eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.'iv

In their book, Marx and Engels continue: 'The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,' the two twentysomethings write. 'i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production.'v

Meanwhile, the two comrades in arms roll up their sleeves and build a network between workers and democrats of the three great European countries: Germany, France and England. Neutral Brussels serves as their ideal stomping ground. In 1846 they set up a Communist Correspondence Committee to further their efforts.

Inspired by Marx and Engels, the international League of the Just changes its name into the Communist League. The League replaces the old slogan 'All men are brothers' to 'Workers of the world, unite!' in its statutes. They're going international.

But what is also needed is a clear program for the new communist movement. Friedrich Engels realises that if they are to reach the masses the program must be short and clear. During this time, the Catéchisme du peuple (people's catechism, a book by Belgian author Alfred Defuisseaux) is a popular book, bringing topics to a wider audience in question and answer format. Engels drafts two texts of a 'communist catechism', but ultimately collides with the limitations of that publication mode.

Karl Marx is instructed by the League to write the program as soon as possible, and to do so he continues to work on Engels' drafts. In takes him six weeks to complete the manifesto. In February 1848 the final version is completed in London and at the end of the month - shortly after the revolution breaks out in Paris - The Communist Manifesto rolls off the press on the premises of the Bildungs-Gesellschaft für Arbeiter, number 46 Liverpool Street in Bishopsgate-London.

Just 175 years ago, the Manifesto became one of the most important political books in recent history. Clear, concise and revolutionary. The publisher EPO is  publishing a new edition. Peter Mertens, secretary general of the PTB, wrote the preface. On 24 February, as startmeeting of the Karl Marx School, COMAC, the youth organisation of PTB-PVDA will discuss with Peter Mertens one of the most important political texts of the last 200 years.

The key points of the Manifesto

'In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister' wrote the German poet Goethe. In restraint the master is revealed. That's certainly the case for the Manifesto: it is short, concise, revolutionary. In a second reflection we look at some of the key principles that still lend powerful significance to this small pamphlet today.

The wind of change

Every paragraph of the Manifesto reverberates with life and buoyancy. The wind of constant movement blows through the text as it does through life itself. Movement is not merely the act of change, but a process. It's the process of leaving one status and entering another one. Molecules, atoms and subatomic particles are constantly changing places and are always in motion. Like the earth, the sun, star clusters, and clusters of solar systems. In the words of biologists: 'What characterises the dialectical world, in all its aspects, as we have described it, is that it is constantly in motion. Constants become variables, causes become effects, and systems develop, destroying the conditions that gave rise to them.'vi

History is also in constant motion due to opposing forces interacting. The Manifesto is essentially a work on history, a text about the historical development of societies. Just as feudal society replaced slave society, capitalist society replaced the feudal one. Marx and Engels outline the triumphal march of capital and, at the same time, they depict the transience of that triumph. No, capitalism is not the final stage of humanity, as sociologist Francis Fukuyama would argue much later. On the contrary, capitalism in turn creates the conditions for a new society to emerge, socialism.

Utopian? Not at all. A different society is necessary, and also possible. Our theses 'are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer,' write Marx and Engels. No, 'they merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.'

At the very moment when Marx and Engels are finalizing their Manifesto, aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville addresses the French Assembly: 'I believe that we are at this moment sleeping on a volcano. Do you not feel that the earth is quaking once again? Do you not feel a gale of revolution in the air? The tempest is looming on the horizon.' On February 24, 1848, in Paris, the monarchy is overthrown and the republic proclaimed. Like a wildfire, the revolution spreads across the continent: Paris, Bavaria, Berlin, Vienna, Hungary, Milan, Sicily ... A few weeks later almost no government is left standing. The revolutionary year of 1848 becomes known as 'the spring tide of the peoples'. The rising bourgeois class wants to break out of the mouldy feudal order. But in the streets, it is mainly the common people who are fighting and dying.

The revolutions of 1848 are built on mass mobilization. That is their strength but somehow at the same time also their weakness. Because at that time not a single group is strong enough to assume leadership of the process of change. The official leaders of the spring tide, the liberal and nationalist foremen, soon become more frightened of the power of the common people than of the feudal despots they're fighting. They pull the handbrake and agree to a deal with the conservative forces of the old regimes. In France, these forces are organised in the 'party of order' and in June 1848 they quash the second workers' revolt in blood. The old regimes recover. 18 months later, the European spring is over. Except for France, the old rulers return to power everywhere. The working class is too young to take control. The emerging bourgeoisie will push through first and consolidate its bourgeois revolutions.

The Manifesto describes how capitalism exploits, oppresses and excludes. How it isolates and detaches people, and makes them degenerate. Emanating from the development process of a historical movement, the Manifesto allows us to think about the future. Marxism is not only considering the given reality, but also thinking about what's possible as part of this reality.

Whoever reads the Manifesto sees the contours of the society Marx and Engels had in mind. He sees men, freed from the constraints of domination, shaping their own world and themselves. Only in these circumstances does freedom become real.

The Manifesto talks about the abolition of exploitation and oppression in several fields: it describes overcoming patriarchal relations between the sexes, transcending nationalism and war, universal education and upbringing for all as a prerequisite for cultural development. Made possible only if there is a material base, when society is based on social ownership of the major means of production. The Manifesto merely outlines the contours of socialism, it's not a ready-made recipe, not a blueprint. But the Manifesto's look is directed forward, to a future in which technology development and different property relations will make it possible that 'the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.'

It's the economy!

'It's the economy, stupid!' is a well-known snowclone. A snowclone is a cliché that that can be used and recognized in multiple variants. From 'It's the math, stupid!' to 'It's the voters, stupid!' But it's not the math and it's not the voters either. It's the economy. That's what is decisive. That's a fundamental theorem of The Communist Manifesto.

To live, people need food, drink, clothes and shelter. To have these, they must 'produce'. From a certain moment in our past, people started producing more than they could immediately use. Soon a group of people started systematically appropriating that surplus. And so, society split into social classes. 'The modern bourgeois society has not done away with class antagonisms,' the Manifesto reads. 'It has but established new classes in place of the old ones.'

In a few short rhythmic passages, Marx and Engels outlined the rise of the bourgeoisie. 'The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part,' the Manifesto says. Capitalism has brought progress in the face of feudalism, narrow-mindedness, god given power. Just as feudalism reined in progress, so did capitalism. The positive turns into the negative. Marx and Engels record the breakthrough of a system in which everything - not just material things but also nature and human activity - becomes a commodity to be bought and sold on the market. The bourgeoisie resolved 'personal worth' into 'exchange value' the residue being 'naked self-interest, no other nexus between man and man than callous cash payment'.

The fact that everything has to enter the market as a commodity is perhaps even more topical today than it was then. Culture and health, water and knowledge, food and oxygen: genuinely all human needs and wants are readily surrendered to the laws of commerce. Even basic human needs such as food and shelter are drowned 'in the icy water of egotistical calculation'. The consequences are dramatic.

Capitalism has created an unprecedented potential for social wealth. The potential was there, but it never materialized. Worse, the relations of production in capitalism prevent the welfare of all from becoming a reality. It is one of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism: facing its colossal productive capacity is the poor quality of life for the vast majority of the world's population.

For example, global agriculture today has the capacity to feed 12 billion people, says the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). That's possible. But not with the current property relationships. Today, barely four multinationals control the entire food chain: from the grain of wheat in the field to the store shelf. The 'four Rumpelstiltskins of the agricultural economy' are unknown but reign supreme.vii They control ninety percent of the world's grain trade and impose monopoly prices. The consequence? At one end, staggering profits are being made. At the other end, a tenth of the world's population is starving. In a world of potential abundance, every five seconds a child under the age of 10 dies of hunger or its direct consequences.

The Manifesto describes how capitalism is hitting its limits. It '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 new technologies and possibilities collide with the straightjacket of the old property relations. This leads to crises recurring systematically. With these crises 'there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity—the epidemic of over-production.' 'The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.'

'And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises?' the Manifesto asks. Answer: On the one hand 'by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces'. Through factory closures or war, for instance. On the other hand 'by the conquest of new markets'. E.g. colonialism or wars of conquest. In other words: capitalism may bring enormous possibilities, it also harbours a great force of destruction. The bourgeoisie can only overcome its crises 'by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises.'

Everyone recognises the crisis today. Even a blind man can see it. Inflation, war, pandemic, floods, irrationalism and the apocalyptic horsemen of the new-right violence are the order of the day. Economic crisis, climate crisis, geopolitical crisis and democratic crisis are all interacting. When the system hits its limits, it is time to open new windows.

Capitalist globalization

In 1848, capitalist nation-building is in full swing. At that time, Germany was still a loose patchwork of 39 different little states, and Italy too is still a fragmented boot on the southern edge of the continent.

In feudal Europe before the industrial revolution, each region tries to support itself. To reinforce this state of affairs they levy toll. The young emerging bourgeoisie dreams of a large national market to sell its products. Therefore, the trade barriers and privileges of the feudal caste must go.

'The bourgeoisie has centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralisation,' the Manifesto says. Marx and Engels look at the economic base. The emerging bourgeoisie desires 'one nation, with one government, one national class-interest, one frontier and one customs-tariff.' Only the protection of a centralized national state will allow a capitalist domestic market to function and thrive. Privileges are abolished, as are tithes and other feudal taxes impeding the free circulation of goods. On the other hand, tariffs on foreign imports protect the domestic market. And with railways and canals the state provides the infrastructure for the circulation of goods.

Soon the domestic market is no longer sufficient. 'The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe,' the Manifesto reads. 'It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.'

It is hard to find a better description of capitalist globalization, than this text from the mid-nineteenth century. Marx and Engels concisely describe how capitalism will develop into a global market in the two centuries to come. 'All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed'. The new industries displace the old ones; they no longer use 'indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones. Industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.'

Today even more than then, the major production chains are organized globally. The division of labour has become planetary too. Never have more different people in more different countries worked together on a mass product, in transnational chains of unprecedented size. During the covid crisis the weakness of those production chains became sharply visible with all sorts of supply and delivery problems. When the supply of semiconductors falters, the entire automotive industry falters. And if one captain in the Suez Canal turns his ship the wrong way, millions of parts of thousands of production chains are suddenly stuck. The fundamental causes of all that can be found in the Manifesto.

Technological progress

For about a hundred thousand years, modern man, Homo sapiens, lived collectively, in clans. Homo sapiens gathers plants and hunts animals and is gatherer-hunter, one might say. Because there is more plant than meat on the menu. The clan's resources for this are common. Barely ten thousand years ago, that changes.

At the end of the last ice age, as temperatures rise again, fertile river deltas emerge, enabling agriculture. Man starts harnassing animals and plants in different places around the world. Almost all of today's agricultural production depends on only 12 plant species that were domesticated at the time. Animals are also being tamed. That is to say, only thirteen large mammals weighing more than forty-five kilos allow themselves to be tamed. Among them the sheep, goats, pigs, cows and horses we still know today. And while humans domesticate plants and animals, flora and fauna domesticate humans.

That process is accompanied by an explosion of new techniques: irrigation canals and fertilization; animals pulling ploughs; wheeled vehicles, sail boats, copper, bronze and glass, the solar calendar, writing, the numerical system, you name it. After a hundred thousand years of foraging and hunting, there is now a stormy development of new productive forces. It is the period of the agricultural revolution.

Henceforth, people can produce more than they immediately consume. They store reserves for bad harvests and seasons. Someone needs to manage that storage, and well, let's make that a separate function. A division of labour emerges and slowly one sees how individuals appropriate the surplus of the community. The egalitarian disappears, society splits into classes.

Ten thousand years and many forms of society later, Marx and Engels write their Manifesto in the midst of a new explosion of technology: the Industrial Revolution. Whoever reads the Manifesto sees the contours of the society Marx and Engels had in mind: 'The constant inverting of production, the ceaseless reshuffling of all social data, the perpetual uncertainty and turmoil distinguish the bourgeois era from all others.'

The Manifesto paints the picture of a world much like ours today, anxiously teetering on the brink of a next wave of technological innovation. At the time of the Manifesto, cast iron, steam engines and large factories shape the first industrial revolution. As from the 1870s, the second wave follows with steel, electricity and the first industrial division of labour. Two world wars later the third industrial wave hits with the first computers, electronics and automatic manufacturing starting in the 1970s.

Today we are experiencing the start of the fourth industrial wave. Artificial intelligence, dynamic networks in which machines, goods and parts communicate with each other, Big Data from customers, pervasive robotization and 3D printing: welcome to Industry 4.0! In the ten thousand years of technological development since the agricultural revolution, older generations have patiently passed on their knowledge and experience to younger generations. But what is taught today is often obsolete within 20 years. The pace of change has become so fast that teenagers have to teach their parents the latest digital techniques. Unheard of. It causes a lot of upset. But it does place youth at the forefront of this stormy development.

One hundred seventy-five years ago, Marx and Engels predict in the Manifesto how capitalism will change the world. Today, in the third millennium of the Western calendar, we live in a world in which this transformation has largely already taken place. Perhaps today we can see the power of some predictions more clearly than the generation of 1848.

Advances in technology and science do not automatically lead to social progress. You hear all kinds of apprentice wizards today predicting that apps, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, search engines, robots or thorium power plants will bring happiness to everyone and solve climate degeneration.

At the time of the Manifesto, it is the same. The machines would improve life, but when they don't, the first labour movements smash 'the machinery'. Not the machine is the enemy; but its capitalist use is the problem, write Marx and Engels: with each step in technological development, the gaps within the class society deepens.

Today we have all that is needed to provide everyone with a roof over their heads and a decent job, to feed everyone and to guarantee education, training and culture. Thanks to technology and science. Those possibilities also exist with the digital revolution. The reason why they are not achieved is that production is trapped in the property relations of capitalism. The Internet, supposed to be the El Dorado of democracy and freedom of choice, is completely in the hands of Big Tech. Big money is being made on citizens' data and privacy; Big Data is the new gold. There is no transparency, and even less participation. Four wealthy tech barons control the entire digital world. Companies like Uber, Deliveroo and Lyft are using the latest techniques to challenge labour law and overturn legal restrictions on working hours. Thus, nineteenth-century concepts like piece rate pay and the putting-out system reemerge. Acquired labour rights are at risk and people are enslaved to the digitized machine. 'They are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine,' writes the Manifesto.

Of course technological progress is fantastic as it offers unseen opportunities. But just as certain is: technology by itself is not going to solve the problems. People will have to do that. And for that, they will have to change the relations of production.

People make their history themselves

Most Marx critics have never read Marx. They have read about him. As a result, most misconceptions about Marx repeat themselves in an endless circle. Thus the idea persists stubbornly that Marx and Engels were 'determinists' who thought capitalism would disappear by itself. All it would take is to sit still and wait. Both thinkers were clearly mistaken about that, right?

Capitalism measures in centuries. From that world-historical perspective, capitalism will one day be replaced by a further stage of human development, or it will be swept away along with humanity itself, by war or climate degeneration. That is the spirit of the Manifesto.

But none of that is going to happen by itself, nor is it what Marx and Engels thought. Between the 'now' and the moment of change toward a more just society lies the field of political action. Historical change occurs through collective action. It is no coincidence that the Manifesto begins by talking about this class struggle: '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. They carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.'

Marx and Engels write: society is not made by natural laws, it is made by people. So people can also change it. The pharaohs in Egypt, the Athenian aristocrats, the Chinese emperors, the medieval nobility: all were convinced that their rule would last forever. That another form of society was not possible. Until their model came under pressure from new developments in science and technology, from new means of production and new insights. Within all given societies the conditions for new forms of society are always maturing.

Yet they don't impose themselves quickly or automatically. 'The modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development,' the Manifesto says. Capitalism has taken ages to break through.

Later, Marx will explain in Das Kapital that there were two major conditions associated with the development of early capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Holland and England. Sufficient capital had to be raised to set up businesses and a sufficient labour had to be available: people without property, without means of livelihood, compelled to sell their labour. Those two processes were violently initiated at the end of the fifteenth century.

The first process lay in the conquest of the New World and in the slave trade. 'The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production,' Marx writes in Das Kapitalviii. This is how capital came into the world: 'dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.'ix

The second process was land theft. Tens of thousands of farmers were driven from their land, which was then fenced in by the new owners. These peasants moved to the cities as ruined 'vagabonds'. Das Kapital says that, through 'the theft of the common lands' and 'fraudulent alienation of the State domains', land was captured 'for capitalist agriculture' and urban industry was provided 'with the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarians.'x

Capitalism is born with slave trade and land theft. It has taken centuries of conflict and compromise with the worn-out feudalism to get a hold, and only in the nineteenth century did it truly come into being as a political system. The breakthrough time of a new society is measured in centuries. It will be no different with socialism.

The working class, the class of the future

When the Manifesto is published, the mysterious potato blight disease rages through Europe and many grain crops fail. Bread prices skyrocket; the period would later be depicted as the 'hungry forties.' Famine hits hard in Belgium as well. In Flanders, the traditional textiles cottage industry is losing out to the mechanized industry in England. Nearly half a million people lose their source of income, and thousands of impoverished Flemings have to earn a living in Wallonia's emerging industries. Meanwhile, usurers use overstocked granaries for speculation, doing excellent business.

The proletariat is then still a young class in the making. Especially destitute peasants and impoverished artisans are forced into the industry. There, the situation is dire. The protective measures of the guilds are no longer in place and working days of twelve to fourteen hours become the rule. Due to poor housing in overcrowded slums and the lack of sanitation and sewage systems, tuberculosis and cholera are everywhere. Children are put to work to retrieve textiles from between the rattling needles of the weaving machines or push mining carts deep into the coal pits. In many cases all family members over the age of nine have to work in the factory. This is the situation in the Borinage, in Verviers, in Liège, in Ghent.

During those years, no one thinks highly of this new illiterate and uneducated class of paupers. What they can get is compassion. And charity. But no one in his right mind sees this young proletariat as a future class.

Nobody? Not exactly. Marx and Engels did. In the Manifesto, they respond to the view that the working class cannot possibly change its situation on its own. Historical initiative is the domain of genius individuals, so claim utopian socialists among others. They don’t believe in the 'historical action' of the proletariat, but only in the 'personal inventive action' of a few enlightened minds. Marx and Engels reply: 'Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.' That disdain for the abilities and strength of ordinary working people is still bon ton today in certain wealthy circles.

The entire Manifesto reads like one big call to action. One of the essential elements Marx and Engels bring to the debate is the thesis that social change can only be the work of the working class itself. That was a revolutionary idea at the time. It still is today.

They inferred it from the historical movement. 'Since classes arose, there never was a time when society could do without a working class,' Friedrich Engels later writes. 'The name, the social status of that class has changed; the serf took the place of the slave, to be in his turn relieved by the free working man - free from servitude but also free from any earthly possessions save his own labour force. But it is plain: whatever changes took place in the upper, nonproducing ranks of society, society could not live without a class of producers. This class, then, is necessary under all circumstances - though the time must come, when it will no longer be a class, when it will comprise all society.'xi

The Manifesto outlines the developmental stages of the labour movement. This is done surprisingly accurately, even though by 1848 the working class as such was in its very early days. From the individual struggle and the struggle by company to a local struggle and then to a sector. Initially 'broken up by their mutual competition,' later increasingly organized with mutual auxiliary funds and strikers' funds. The movement achieves victories, but they are 'only for a time.' No big deal, as it is the organization of the class that counts. The labour movement is torn apart again and again 'by the competition between the workers themselves,' but 'it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.'

The Manifesto describes in a nutshell what would follow. The trade union movement has taken more than a century and a half to become organized as a force in European countries. It grew from the guild system in feudalism and then from colleague organizations - hatters, bookbinders, construction workers - to individual trade unions, and from individual trade unions to umbrella intersectoral unions. Theirs was an economic struggle for wage increases and better working conditions, for reduced working hours and social protection, for the right to organize and the right to strike. And a political struggle for the power of the working class, against the ruling financial powers of stock exchanges, banks and monopolies.

'The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns,' says the Manifesto in 1848. At that time, a bold statement in a still almost completely agrarian world. But it’s accurate as to what would happen. With the penetration of capital into every corner of the world, the peasantry has been ruined over the course of the past two centuries. In 1950 just over two-thirds of humanity still worked in agriculture. Today that has dropped to less than a fifth. Millions of small farmers have been out-competed by the agribusiness, by the liberalization of the agricultural market and by large landowners buying up land and farms.

The rise of industry around the world adds to this. In 1950, about one in seven people worked in manufacturing. Today, it is already almost one in four. And in fact there are many more, because the separate collective term 'services' also contains a lot of industrial labour. Just think of the 'services to industry' for technological maintenance, industrial cleaning, IT and so on. Or the transportation sector associated with industry: trucking, shipping, aviation, courier services.xii The world today is infinitely more industrialized than in the Manifesto period. And while the manufacturing industry, with its planetary production chains, is the beating heart of the economy, every so often trendy ideologues pop up in history claiming that we are headed for some post-industrial reality. We aren't. On the contrary. 

'As I look at my mother today, her body stiffened and painful as a result of the harsh tasks she performed for nearly fifteen years, standing on an assembly line attaching tops to glass jars, with only one ten-minute bathroom break each morning and another in the afternoon, I can’t help but be struck by what social inequality means concretely, physically. Even the very word inequality seems to me to be a euphemism that papers over the reality of the situation, the naked violence of exploitation. A worker’s body, as it ages, reveals to anyone who looks at it the truth about the existence of classes.'

These are the words of Didier Eribon in his book Returning to Reims. He continues: 'It is impossible for me to understand how and why the issue of harsh working conditions and all the slogans that denounced them have disappeared from discourse on the left, and even from its perception of the social world. Because after all, what are at stake are the most concrete realities of many individual lives—people’s very health, for example.'xiii 

The corona crisis has brought these working people back to the forefront. Because of what they do. The years before, the working class for the umpteenth time in history had been buried. Yet, not the stock markets make the world go round, not the Stock Exchange lets the earth rotate, and it’s not the chattering class pulling the chestnuts out of the fire. It is the working class: those who sell their labour for wages, those who work in businesses and in the fields, those who process the meat, those who distribute the goods with trucks and trains, those who load and unload the ships, those who fill the shelves, those who bring the packages around, those who organize care.

Still the 'bourgeois socialists' – the term is derived from the Manifesto -, among others, soon forgot about the working class. And also about class politics. They only talk about the new 'centre' and the so-called 'middle class'. Gone is the production, gone is the shop floor and gone are the heroes of the corona crisis. Once class contradictions are out of the window, all sorts of debates on identity enter the prevailing discourse. All possible real and unreal contradictions are stirred up and before you know it, the common people are screaming loudly at each other. 

Was that different in 1848? Well, there was no online sewer such as Twitter. But, of course, there were real bar conversations in real pubs. Of course, even then there were divisive tendencies within the class selling its labour. Destitute peasants, impoverished artisans, virtually unpaid children in the mines, underpaid women in the textile industry, Irish underclasses in Manchester, Flemish underclasses in the mines of the Borinage ... there was no shortage of contradictions among the proletariat.

To meet the forces of capital head on there’s only one perspective, says Marx, and this is the collective. A process of education, a process of awareness raising, a political process through collective resistance. Based on the collective and the common interests of the broad working class, not on playing off tendencies of division. If the working class acquires consciousness of its common and historical interests, then it can evolve from being an objective class in itself, an sich, to a conscious class for itself, für sich, says Marx.

In the face of the suffocating pensée unique, that unilateral way of thinking that has society in its grip today, we need another horizon, a paradigm shift. The bigger the ruins of capitalism, the louder the narrow self-righteous will claim that Marx is dead, that capital will take care of us all, and that no alternative is possible. At the same time, new generations of young people will continue to look for an emancipating, liberating perspective for people and the planet and will discover the Manifesto. 'Truth is born of the times, not of authority,' Galilei replies to his accusers in Bertolt Brecht's play. Don't let society revolve around profit. It runs best when made to measure for the people.

i Friedrich Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy [1886], in Marx & Engels, Collected Works, Lawrence & Wishart, London, Vol. 26, p. 364.

ii Karl Marx: Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Marx & Engels, Collected Works, Lawrence & Wishart, London, Vol. 3, p. 270-282.

iii Karl Marx, [Theses on Feuerbach] ad Feuerbach [1845], in Marx & Engels, Collected Works, Lawrence & Wishart, London, Vol. 5, p. 4.

iv Karl Marx en Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, in Marx & Engels, Collected Works, Lawrence & Wishart, London, Vol. 5, p. 41. 

v Ibidem, p. 59

vi Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin:The Dialectical Biologist. Harvard University Press, 1985, pp. 279-280.

vii They include ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus. They are also sometimes summarized by their initial letters: the ABCD companies.

viii Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 915.

ix Ibidem, p. 926.

x Ibidem, p. 895.

xi Friedrich Engels: 'Social Classes — Necessary and Superfluous’, The Labour Standard no. 14, 6 August 1881. In Marx & Engels, Collected Works, Lawrence & Wishart, London, Vol. 24, p. 415.

xii The figures, of course, are relative to the total working population. 1950: agriculture 67 percent and industry 15 percent. 2019: agriculture 15 percent and industry 23 percent. See Peter Mertens: ‘De arbeidersklasse in het tijdperk van de transnationale ondernemingen’, in Marxistische Studies no. 72, 2005. For recent figures see: ilo.org and data.worldbank.org.

xiii Didier Eribon: Returning to Reims, Penguin Books 2019, pp. 80-81.

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