Does the Communist Manifesto Still Retain Its Relevance?

Partha Chatterjee

Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848. At that time, mass uprisings against monarchy were going on in different countries of Europe with the demand for the introduction of a democratic form of government. At that historical moment, Marx and Engels spoke of a new political revolution that would be led not by the bourgeoisie, but by the working class. Over the next one hundred years or so, that call was heard in all countries of the earth. Its echo can be heard even today. Yet how far that analysis by Marx and Engels is relevant in today’s historical situation is a pertinent question. Discussions on some such questions would not be inapposite in the context of communist or leftist politics in a country like India.

Class Struggle
From the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly after the Russian Revolution, communist politics spread to different countries of Asia and Africa. It was then that the Communist Manifesto and other writings of Marx and Engels began to be studied in the political and intellectual circles of these countries. As far as I know, Soumyendranath Tagore first translated the Communist Manifesto into Bengali in 1929. The first sentence of the translated Manifesto referred to the spectre of communism in Europe. But the particular sentence of the Manifesto that threw up the most unprecedented idea was: “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” This was never a vogue notion in any country of Asia or Africa. Feuds among different groups were known. Incidents of the army of one kingdom occupying another kingdom and setting up a new reign also occurred. From time to time, subjects rebelled against their kings. There were conflicts between the rich and the poor. But nobody had ever thought that at the root of these quarrels and feuds, there could exist a general law named class struggle. Not only that, the idea , a novel one, that the objective of political uprising was not just the change of the ruler, but a radical transformation of an entire social system, has not been heard before. So, the Communist Manifesto presented the people of Asia and Africa with a strong tool of analysing their history.

It is not difficult to show that several of the contentions of the Manifesto were not applicable to Asia, Africa or even South America of that period. The notion that the industrial working class is the only revolutionary class and constituted the majority of the people was naturally  not applicable to those countries. In the twentieth century, the Chinese Revolution, Vietnam’s liberation war, the huge communist mass organisation of Indonesia, which was crushed by military onslaughts, anti-colonial liberation wars in various African countries, and even in recent times, the Maoist movement in Nepal or some regions of India-- all these are quintessentially peasant movements led by communist parties, not workers’ movements . The industrial working class or wage labourers ib factories, constitute a very small part of the population of those countries. But in more than one place in the Manifesto, comments are there on the limitations of peasant class consciousness. Marx and Engels have spoken clearly that owing to this limitation, the peasantry’s role in the coming revolution will be more or less limited to aiding the working class. We can   comprehend, perhaps even sympathise with, the attitude of the peasant to retain his tiny landholding and not to part with it even when it is unprofitable.  But the movements based on these attitudes and demands by the peasantry have been called petty-bourgeois socialism by Marx and Engels. Yet the widespread movements launched by the communist parties by organizing peasants in various countries of Asia and Africa in the twentieth century are in most cases based on the ideal of socialism of these small owners. They have in almost all cases sought to enable small peasants to retain their possession of land by helping them in various ways. So, it appears that while framing the outlines of movements according to their historical needs, the communist leaders of these countries carefully evaded those uncomfortable sections of the Communist Manifesto.  This proposition can be understood well enough by having a look at the early Bengali writings on the communist movement. There is a valuable collection named ‘Bangalir Samyabad Charcha’ (Cultivation of Communism by the Bengalis), edited by Sipra Sarkar and Anamitra Das. Here we find in the Journal Samyabadi, a description of socialism in terms of struggle between the rich (baralog)and the subaltern (chhotalog):

‘We shall wake up and realize in which respect we are lacking. Samyabadi has come to show us the way. That is why we salute Samyabadi. We shall receive   higher   education and learn the theory of religion. Still we shall till land, weave clothes, sell fish, grind mustards. We shall not accept our lower status without being allowed to know what offence is committed by engaging in such activities. All our brothers who are left in a corner of the society, and are subjected to slight and scorn with their lower status, come forward. Our chief has come, our leader has appeared, our   brother has arrived. They have beckoned us. Brothers, come forward. In what way are we lower? Come, we shall today see why we, despite being the life force of society, have no place in it. The calls of Khoda, Rasul, Brothers have arrived. Brothers, come and rise, we shall wake up.’

In 1926, Mujaffar Ahmed, in the journal Langal (Plough) edited by himself, has described India’s peasantry as belonging to the working class:

‘If the larger part of one’s income comes in the form of daily wage or salary of service, one is a worker. The existence of a worker is sustained by the sale   of his labour or brain power. Most of the peasants of our country have come to belong to the working class. The way the goods produced by them is appropriated does not allow any room for considering them as none but farm labourers.’
Then we find in 1932 an artcle titled Srenisangram (Class Struggle) published in the journal Ganabani edited by Mujaffar Ahmed the following words:

‘About more than five decades ago, Karl Marx wrote that the very  history of class struggles could be called history. ......As the human society develops, the mode of production develops concurrently and the classes correspondingly become conscious about their own interests. In consequence, class antagonisms become stronger with every passing day. This struggle is not as intense in India as it is in the West. It is a mistake to attribute it to the spiritualism in India. Its real reason is that the Indian society lags far behind. Modern methods of production have not reached a corresponding stage of development and spread. Hence, class struggles are less manifest here.......In those places of India where machines and factories abound, the antagonism between owners and labourers is not much less than that in Europe. Yet it is true that self-awareness of Indian workers has not yet been aroused to that extent.’

In other words, the difference between the social systems of Europe and India is not that in the former, there are class differences and class struggles, while they are absent in the latter. The difference lies in the historical stages of social evolution. In Europe, capitalism was fully established, the principal mode of production was manufacturing in capitalist factories, and most of the labouring people were industrial wage-earners working in those factories. In India, capitalism was in its infancy, and most of the labouring people were peasants exploited by landlords and moneylenders. Hence it was necessary that the peasantry should have a prominent, perhaps principal, role in the communist movement of India. In this way, a necessary transformation of one principal argument of the Communist Manifesto was affected in accordance with the historical stage of social evolution, while retaining the main framework of class struggle.

Yet the communists of this country have repeatedly felt the need to utter words of assurance on the revolutionary role of the peasantry. For example, Ananta Mukherjee wrote in 1939 in the journal Agrani, ‘Marx and Engels never reached the conclusion that .. the peasantry had exhausted all its revolutionary energy in the bourgeois revolution and it would never again jump in revolutionary struggles or advance as allies of the proletariat in struggles.’ According to this interpretation, there was no conflict of interest between the peasantry and the working class. Only there was a unity of interest.

Today, however, a question is pertinent. In India, capitalism has indeed progressed immensely and the political power of capitalists has increased manifold compared to that of the landlords. Yet the industrial working class is numerically still very negligible. Most of the working people of India are living on agriculture or are struggling to survive by various means by working in the unorganized sector. The Communist Manifesto prophesied about the inexorable march of capital, and told the tale of capital establishing itself everywhere by smashing all Chinese walls. But history did not bear out that story. Now many are saying that the organized industry and commerce under capital had, along with owners and workers, has come to stand on the whole against the huge unorganized sector. In other words, there is no harmony of interest between the working class of the organized sector and the workers and peasants of the unorganized sector.

The Communist League, the organization on whose behalf the Communist Manifesto was written, was an organization exclusively belonging to the working class of Europe. It had no non-European representative. Then was formed the International Working Men’s Association, often referred to as the First International, had no representative outside Europe, except one from the U.S.A. In the Second International, there were representatives from the USA, Argentina and Uruguay, but all others were from Europe. After the Russian Revolution, the Third International was formed, and it is here that discussions on the political situations of the colonial countries of Asia and Africa began with the active participation of representatives from those countries. Thus, when the Communist Manifesto was written, it was addressed to the European political circles and larger sections of people on behalf of a European organization as the voice of the European working class. The political demands of the exploited people of other parts of the world did not figure in the thoughts of the writers of the Manifesto

Yet the issue of colonies has entered the Manifesto several times. The issues that are clearly commented on are European settlements in America, European penetration into the markets of India and China, and colonial trade, whose influence accelerated the fall the already decadent feudalism of Europe. It is not said in the Manifesto that the history of this establishment and growth of empires is the history of massive violence and plunder, which did indescribable harm to the social systems of those countries, and in some cases pushed these systems to ruin. Rather it is said how the European bourgeoisie, propelled by the greed for expansion of trade, broke the barrier of the uncivilized nations’ hatred of foreigners and forced them to enter into exchanges with the civilized world. The Manifesto says it clearly that this process, although cruel, was urgently necessary for the progress of human society.

Some times after the Manifesto was written, Marx began to reside in London. He then became much more informed about the British empire, particularly about India. In the 1850s, he wrote regularly for the ‘New York Daily Tribune’. His articles on India contain heart-rending descriptions of the plunderous desire and violence of British imperialism, as well as the resistance and rebellion by Indians against that onslaught. But Marx did not forget to write that those dreadful events compelled the static oriental society to get out of its natural immovability and to become mobile and dynamic. So, according to Marx, the expansion of empire by Europeans was on one hand the tale of oppression and violence, and the phase of  preparation  of progress too on the other. It seems, however that in the final years of his life, Marx largely altered this view of his. The evidence of his studies and thoughts on India, particularly   Russia, during these years seems to suggest that he arrived at the conclusion that the histories of other countries of the world might not unfold according to the European pattern. In other words, the pattern of evolution of modes of production as described in the Manifesto might not be visible in all countries. But regarding the Manifesto at least, it can be said definitely that is a definitely Euro-centric treatise. Although it exerted enough influence in other countries, its all conclusions were not applicable elsewhere. In many cases, they have to be altered according to needs.

Researchers of recent times drawn our notice to another subject. Colonies were not only the fields of new settlements, trade or exploitation of natural resources by Europeans. Europeans created a vast storehouse of knowledge on the histories, geographies, plant and animal kingdoms , social systems, state systems etc of these countries, so that colonial rule and colonial knowledge coalesce into one. Following Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’, many have shown that colonial power was related to the rise of quite a few subjects of modern scientific knowledge, e.g. botany, zoology, medicine , geology, meteorology. In India, separate institutions were set up for the cultivation of these subjects, such as the geological survey, botanical survey etc. India played a very important role in the study of anthropology and demography. India also became in the twentieth century  the main place for the study and application of statistics. Similarly, many historical places and museums of Egypt and India became important centre for the cultivation of archaeology. It was not possible for Marx and Engels in 1848 to foresee this widespread influence of European imperialism. Rather they were confined to the colonial notions of the contemporary European world of knowledge.

Some aspects of the role of colonies in the development of capitalism in Europe has been discussed  in  the writings of Marx and Engels. But much has been left untouched. In Marx’s lifetime, the rise of industrial capitalism in the USA was not clearly manifest. Hence Marx and did not write about how European settlers killed or evicted  the original inhabitants and occupied the entire territory of a vast continent, just as they  did not write about the role of slaves brought from Africa in the production  of commercial crops in America. When, in the twentieth century, the USA became the main centre of world capitalism, many studies were made in course of tracing the history of this process. Needless to say, it was not possible for the Communist Manifesto to incorporate such discussions.

Another subject did not figure for discussion not only in the Manifesto, but in any of Marx’s writings.  Primary development of capital in Europe necessitated the ouster of men employed in agriculture and handicrafts from their livelihoods and conversion of them into wage earners selling labour power. In the first volume of ‘Capital’, Marx, in the chapter on ‘Primitive Accumulation’ has shown that only when primary producers i.e. peasants and artisans, could be alienated from their means of production, those means, mainly land and in some cases equipments, came into th possession of capital. Concurrently, large numbers of men became deprived of their livelihood, and had no option but to come to the factories of towns and sell their labour power. As a result, both the necessary conditions of capitalist manufacturing, availability of land and supply of  wage-labour, were fulfilled. But Marx had presumed that all of those who would be ousted from agriculture and rural handicrafts would get employment in urban factories. This did not happen. Where did this surplus population grow. From historical data, it is found that in the nineteenth century, sixty million persons migrated to America from Europe. Besides, there were endless wars in Europe   in which at least ten millions died only in the nineteenth century. The human toll of the First World War was twenty million; it was fifty million in the second world war. There is no doubt that most of the dead belonged to rural peasant families. Besides the number of deaths due to famine and epidemic in nineteenth-century Europe was not few. In the political circumstances of that period, mass deaths of surplus poor persons due to wars or epidemics were not enough to unsettle the thrones of rulers. Hence as the destination of immigrants and the reason for war with neighbours, colonies were inextricably linked with the history of the formation of primary industrial capital in Europe. Its all aspects were not discussed in Marx’s other writings, besides in the Communist Manifesto.

The Manifesto contains a statement that workers have no country. In some translations, the meaning of the original term is maintained and written: ‘Workers  have no fatherland’. The contention of Marx and  Engels  the wave of building democratic nation-states in contemporary Europe was  essentially a movement for the establishment of the power of the bourgeoisie, and since it was democratic, the working class had tried to win recognition of their democratic rights by participating in it. But the working class’s own politics could never remain within the confines of nation state, because just as the tentacles of capital had spread over the whole of the world, working class movements of various countries were going to be transformed into a worldwide international movement in collaboration with one another. Hence, when the ruling class of one country  declares  war  on another for expansion of empire or in the interests of  commerce, the working class of the invading country has no responsibility of participating in it. Workers have no country.
This statement of the Manifesto caused many stresses and strains  in  later periods. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the working class, led by social democrats, became sufficiently organized and politically powerful in various European countries. With the aid of the Second International,  ties  of cooperation were set up among workers’ organizations in various countries. But the more the possibility of the First World War became nearer, it was witnessed that the workers’ organization of each country, forgetting internationalism, was  swimming  with the tide of nationalism of its own state. Of  the soldiers of both sides killed in the World War, a large portion was manned by workers. The simple formula, ‘workers have no country’ failed to check the mesmeric power of nationalism.

In the communist movement of our country also, this subject gave  rise to many controversies. Many hair-splitting analyses have been made  on  the nature of classes whose interests were tied with the British imperialism and which classes wanted the end of imperialism. As  was written  in ‘Ganabani’ in 1932:

‘The present national movement is only a repetition of the  historical conflict that went on between the bourgeoisie and the jaigirdars for emancipating the producers from the tie of bondage with the jaigirdars......The community of aristocratic landlords has sided with the British government against this national movement. This is enough to make it clear that the national movement is against not only British domination, but against the jaigirdari system also.’

According to this logic, both the working class and the peasantry should  be  participants in the national movement. But on other occasions, many communists opined that the big landowners had an understanding with the national bourgeoisie, so that through it, they could have a share of state power once the British left the country. On the other hand, there was such an opinion that both big businessmen and big landowners were slaves of imperialism. Hence, it does not seem that the slogan of the Manifesto on the position of the working class regarding the national question could make much of an impact at least in this country.

In the years following the Second World War, empires of Britain, France, Holland, Portugal etc came to an end. The nation-state came to acquire universal credibility  as  the accepted form of modern government. In the Soviet Union and the countries within its orbit, and in China also, socialism was established. On the other hand, capital too, led by the USA,  assumed   a global institutional form. From the 1980s, radical developments in the technology of electronic communication caused a world-wide change in process of functioning of finance capital and of industrial production, which is called in a word ‘globalization’. In consequence, large units of manufacturing began to be transferred from the USA and Western Europe to South America and South-East Asia. This process was accelerated immensely after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. The most epoch-making change took place in China. Under the unitary rule and vigilant supervision of the Communist Party, a large market for capitalist manufacturing and sale and purchase of consumer goods opened there, resulting in a radical transition in the economic system of the entire world. If the face of today’s global capital is to be described, it should be said that it has three centres of gravity. One of them is situated in the USA, the second in Europe and the third in China. The three centres are linked with one another through various complex relations regarding  financial investment and commercial exchange. But there is much conflict of interest too. Needless to say that more than one hundred and fifty years ago, Marx and Engels could not imagine the emergence of such a structure. The process of capitalist manufacturing, analysing which they prophesied that the age of socialism through proletarian revolution was imminent in Europe, is still very much existent. Establishment of socialism took place not in Europe, but in undeveloped, agrarian Russia and China. That socialism too is now extince.

So, does the Communist Manifesto possess any value today except as a remarkable historical document? In reply, it may be said that the historical importance should not be underestimated.  This booklet of Marx and Engels, written in a revolutionary transitional moment of world history by analysing the global expansion of capitalism and the role of the working class in the fight for radical seizure of power instead of traditional resistance against it,  still helps us in understanding the various events of the nineteenth-twentieth  centuries.  The Manifesto was written indeed for participating in contemporary political controversies. If we seek to find some divine oracle in it, the fault is ours, not of its writers.

Courtesy: Ekusher Bhabna, Ed. Shovanlal Datta Gupta, March 2004
(Translated from Original Bengali by Anirban Biswas)

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Aug 20, 2020

Partha Chatterjee

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