Communist Party of Australia

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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


The Communist Manifesto: 150 Years Young

by Erna Bennett

The Communist Manifesto traces for the first time the origins of and the stages in the evolution of capitalist society up until 1848. It throws an historical light on the social forces within capitalism that have determined its development. But this first essay in Marxist historical analysis also makes some general predictions on future economic developments in bourgeois society which are uncannily accurate at a distance of 150 years from its first publication. Reading it today, we must ask ourselves why this should be so.

Briefly, the answer lies in the Manifesto’s — and Marxism’s — unique approach to historical analysis. For the first time, it successfully applies a rigorous scientific approach to the analysis of historical and social changes. Its effectiveness depends, of course, on observations and inputs that are also rigorously scientific.

Marxism, in this seminal document, introduces an historical dimension into the study of economics and society, permitting an examination — and understanding — of economic and social evolution. It takes the place of the static view of society which prevailed previously, in which social conditions and social relationships were seen to be fixed and unchanging and governed only by the inherent characteristics of its component parts and protagonists.

Henceforth, society and social forms would be seen as subject to change under the influence of historically changing forces, many of which were themselves socially determined. As Engels himself remarks in his preface to the 1888 edition of the Manifesto, this work was “destined to do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology”; it proposes a theory of social evolution which allows the diverse forces behind historical processes to be studied, evaluated and to a certain extent also predicted.

Certainly, since its first publication, the bourgeoisie have performed true to the Manifesto’s limited but fairly accurate predictions. Reading the Communist Manifesto, it is possible to see in what way economic and social forms and relationships have evolved within the bourgeoisie as a class, which reflect — and in turn influence — the nature of today’s advanced capitalist system. It was a system that Marx and Engels did not live to see, yet they predicted, with a surprising degree of precision, many of its modern metamorphoses.

It might, therefore, be valuable to re-present a few salient parts of this classic text, including references to some of the events and developments that have marked the 150 years since its first publication and that have occurred so many years after the deaths of its authors. For a number of reasons, including a certain reluctance to interfere unduly in so classic a work — Engels himself, in 1888, felt a need to explain why he did not update the 1848 text; he said that it had “become a historical document which we no longer have any right to alter” — this intervention has been limited to a brief part of the text only. Wording has been altered either to avoid abrupt or confusing transitions from one selection from the original to another. References to events of the past 150 years, that is, since its publication in 1848, are set in bold type.

It is hoped that this essay may be of interest to some of our well-intentioned friends who are active in the labour movement, and particularly the Labor Party, to whom the rigour of marxist historical method is still an unknown and untried tool, and to whom political and historical analysis are still an uncharted field, which they explore without instruments, and into which they are often in a position to feed only imperfect and sometimes irrelevant data. It may help explain to them why any struggle to achieve socialism from a position within the social-democratic movement and in particular the Labor Party — self-sacrificing, tireless, and sometimes titanic as such struggles may be — is doomed to failure.

It still surprises many of these comrades, whose sympathy lies unquestionably with the working class in its struggles for the just social system that is represented by socialism, that they are forever running merely in order to stay in the same place, exhausted by the effort needed to avoid being forced backwards. It may not have occurred to them that such a complex organism as human society, with its many inter-acting relationships, constantly evolving historically and politically, can not be understood, much less directed, by resort to purely moral, ethical or psychological criteria, but that it requires tools such as have been provided, so far, only by Marxist historical method.

This, based on objective, scientific information, acquired by scientific observation and directed by scientific method, has shown — in the Communist Manifesto and in other works that are, by now, classical — that rigour and precision in even so complex a discipline as history are possible.

Popular contemporary approaches to history and politics, that hold such sway and profess to be scientific only at the level of individual psychology, “explaining” all in terms of genes or personality, are not scientific at all, but fruits of a process of indoctrination that has been carefully cultivated by the bourgeois state’s ideologists seeking to show how futile is the struggle to create a better life, because the quality of life is determined by the quality of human beings and this, they assert, is defective. Truly enormous energies have been expended to support this and similar assertions.

Faced with the utterly catastrophic consequences of half a century of global environmental destruction on a frightening scale, these bourgeois ideologists speak of the destructive nature of the human species. They hope that the louder they shout about the destructiveness of the human species, the less will people turn their attention, instead, to to the destructive nature of capitalism.

The balanced argument and confident method of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 brings our feet down to the ground. Today, 150 years from its first appearance, it is as relevant and fresh as when it was written, and completely vindicates the life-long researches and revolutionary involvement and commitment of its authors.


A selection of extracts, freely updated in the light of 150 years of history, capitalist experience and class struggle


The temporary defeat in 1848 in ... the first great battle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie drove the social and political aspirations of the still very young European working class into the background for a time, as was to happen again in Paris in 1870, periodically in one country or another through the following century, and on a global scale today.

Following the first reversal of 1848, in 1852, the Prussian police hunted out the members of the Central Board of the Communist League. They were arrested and, after 18 months in prison, were tried and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment in a fortress.

This would not be the last attempt to employ state power to crush the communists. Communist Parties have been a constant target of bourgeois governments everywhere, which have sought to undermine their legality. In the 1950s, in Australia, the government of Robert Menzies, in the spirit of the Prussian police a hundred years earlier, sought to ban the Communist Party in Australia, first by legislation, then through a popular referendum. To the credit of the Australian people, this was unsuccessful.

Clearly, in the century from 1850 to 1950, public opinion had greatly matured. So also had the working class. The events and vicissitudes of the struggle against capital, the defeats even more than the victories, reminded people of the insufficiency of various favourite cures and nostrums for capitalism, and prepared them for a more complete insight into the true conditions for the emancipation of the working-class.

When the Manifesto was first written, its programme had to be broad enough to be acceptable to the very wide spectrum of organisations that represented the proletariat in Europe. The term “socialist” was used, on the one hand, to refer to the adherents of various utopian systems which by the end of the 1800s had become small sects, and on the other by a variety of social practitioners who thought that by all sorts of tinkering with the system they could set right all sorts of social grievances, without any danger either to capitalism or to its profits. Both of these groups originated outside the working-class movement, and looked to “educated” classes for support. It was a middle-class movement.

Whatever portion of the working class that had become convinced of the inadequacy of mere political revolutions ... that portion called itself communist ... Thus socialism was, in 1847, a middle-class movement, communism a working-class movement. Socialism was ... respectable; communism was the very opposite. This distinction may still be applied and is largely valid today. The Communist Manifesto’s fundamental proposition is “that in every historical epoch the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch”.

Consequently, the whole written history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, of contests between exploiters and exploited, between ruling and oppressed classes. This has determined an evolution of human society that can be followed through a series of distinct stages. This proposition is destined to do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology. Therefore, the emancipation of the proletariat can not be achieved simply by a change of leaders or governments.

Subsequent history supports such a view. The February revolution in France, and still more the Paris Commune, the Irish struggle for independence, the East European post-World-War II People’s Democracies, and the government of Salvador Allende in Chile have amply demonstrated that the working class cannot simply lay hold of existing state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes. It must, necessarily, replace it.


A spectre is haunting the earth, the spectre of communism. Although on every hand delirious representatives and spokesmen of capitalism rejoice in the defeat of communism, communism, like a obstinate plant, pushes out of every crack in the crumbling structures of their own system. Their every energy, therefore, is fully engaged in a daily battle to stem the communist tide that first took form, and then acquired momentum with the 1848 publication of the Communist Manifesto, when a working-class movement barely existed in any country. All the powers have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French radicals and German police spies. Bitterly warring powers buried their differences to conspire together to defeat the Paris Commune in 1870. Formerly warring imperialist powers set aside, albeit temporarily, enough of their differences to seek together to suffocate in terror and blood the new-born Soviet state in 1920-22. Bourgeois collaborators found common ground with Nazis and fascists in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s to consign communists and working-class activists to concentration camps. Allied and Axis governments engaged in a total war with each other in Europe in 1940-45 nevertheless found ways to cooperate that ensured that popular and communist-led resistance movements in Europe should not take power once hostilities had ceased.

In Australia, Menzies, Santamaria, Kerr, Hawke, Keating and a host of “moderate men” gave their full support to US wars and billion-dollar CIA campaigns to hold “communism in check”. In short, wherever the bourgeoisie needed help, conservative and social-democratic governments alike in many countries freely offered their police spies, informers, secret agents, and their conscripted armies.

Two conclusions result from this.

  1. Communism though claimed to be dead is acknowledged by the world’s powers to be itself a power.
  2. It is high time that Communists should openly in the face of the whole world, declare their views, their aims and their tendencies and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself.


The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word,oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another, 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.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, and new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. But it has also simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more visibly splitting into two great opposing camps, two great classes, directly confronting each other — bourgeoisie and proletariat.

From serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie developed. Then the age of discovery opened up vast new world-wide markets, giving commerce, navigation and industry an impulse never known before, and, thereby, to the revolutionary elements in tottering feudal societies a rapid development.

The feudal system of industry in which industrial production was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The manufacturing system took its place. The guild-masters of feudalism were pushed to one side by the new manufacturing middle-class; division of labour between guilds vanished in the division of labour within each single workshop.

As markets kept growing, so also did demand and manufacturing no longer sufficed. Its place was taken by giant modern industries. The power of steam and machinery, then electrical power, then electronics, were harnessed. Manufacturing assumed the form, first, of giant conglomerates, then trusts and transnational corporations, many of them more wealthy and powerful than entire countries. The command of industry was assumed by the modern bourgeoisie and industrial millionaires — of whom, according to last year’s UN Report on Human Development, a mere handful of 350 today own 45 per cent of the entire world’s wealth. Modern industry has established a global market, which has stimulated, and in turn has been stimulated by, the immense development of commerce, of navigation by sea and air, and of communication by land, air, radio and satellite. This process has extended the power and capital of the bourgeoisie to so great an extent that it has pushed into the background every other class handed down by history from the Middle Ages.

Each step in this development of the bourgeoisie has been accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class until now, with the establishment of modern industry and the world market, it has conquered for itself... exclusive political sway to the extent that the executive of the modern state is merely a committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

The bourgeoisie has played a revolutionary role in history.

Wherever it has got the upper hand it has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, or idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors” and has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, callous “cash payment” and the brutal philosophy of “user pays” ... It has resolved personal worth into exchange value. It has converted knowledge into intellectual property and invented “intellectual property rights”. It has transformed differences of interests into fears of litigation.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly transforming the instruments of production, relations of social production and the whole relationships of society, unlike all earlier industrial classes. Constant changes in production, continuous disturbance of social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois New World Order from all earlier epochs. All fixed relationships with their train of ancient prejudices and opinions are swept away ... All that is solid melts away, all that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relationships with his kind.

By its exploitation of the world market, the bourgeoisie has given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country ... Old industries are destroyed, dislodged by new industries ... whose products are consumed not only at home but in every quarter of the globe. During it rule of a little more than two hundred years, the bourgeoisie has created more massive and colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.

Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry and high technology to industry and agriculture, navigation, railways, roads, electric telegraph, radio, and the once unimaginable power of the atom, the clearing of entire continents for cultivation and mining, the destruction of the forests of entire continents for timber and other raw materials at whatever cost, whole populations conjured out of the ground, others annihilated in the search for wealth, the very fabric of the earth torn asunder and its climate disrupted to the point that the earth’s continued existence is threatened — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive and destructive forces slumbered in the lap of labour?

Modern bourgeois society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange is like the sorcerer no longer able to control the powers of the nether world which he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the bourgeoisie and its rule ... The bourgeoisie loses control of its own system, and crises of every sort proliferate. ... Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence. And why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.

And how does the bourgeoisie plan to resolve such crises? By the conquest of new markets, and by more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises.

In the midst of all this the proletariat goes through various stages of development. With its birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie. The contest is carried on at first by single labourers, then by the workers of a factory, then by the operatives of a single trade in one locality, against the individual bourgeois directly exploiting them. They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production but against the visible enemy and the instruments of production themselves.

At this stage the workers still form an incoherent mass that is scattered over the whole country, broken up by their mutual competition ... But with the development of industry and in particular the globalisation of industry into transnational corporations the proletariat not only increases in numbers; it is also concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows and it becomes more aware of that strength ...

Collisions between individual workers and individual employers come more and more to assume the character of collisions between two classes. The workers begin to form trade unions as organs of struggle, not of accommodation with the bourgeoisie. Here and there contests lead to open conflict.

Now and then the workers are victorious, but the real fruit of their battles lies not in the immediate result but in the ever expanding unity of the workers. This unity is furthered by the better means of communication created by modern industry which place the workers of different localities in contact with each other. Just as the bourgeoisie, and the governments which serve its interests, use their every power to weaken and destroy the unions, so also the unions, by transforming local struggles into national and international struggles, aim to limit and overcome the power of employers, and with increasing success.

These struggles sometimes assume international dimensions, as in the war declared by the Australian government against the Australian maritime workers’ union (MUA). Reith, Minister of Industrial Relations in a government engaged in a campaign nakedly aimed at destroying the union, approved the training of strike-breaking military forces in the distance and secrecy of the Persian Gulf. But the International Transport Workers’ Federation took steps to ensure the reversal of these plans. In this way the proletariat is drawn increasingly into major battles, and at the same time learns of its strength and acquires political experience.

For its part, the bourgeoisie, faced with competition and rivalry from bourgeoisie in other countries, is forced more and more to seek help from the proletariat, and to drag it into the political arena to fight its wars, as in Korea, in Vietnam, and in the Persian Gulf. In the course of such actions, the bourgeoisie is constantly weakened, the proletariat constantly strengthened.

Let us note here that all previous historical movements were movements of minorities or in the interests of minorities. In contrast with the movements of the slaves and serfs of earlier epochs, today’s workers’ movement is an increasingly self-conscious and independent movement of the immense majority of people, serving the interests of the immense majority.

Today’s worker does not benefit from the progress of industry. On the contrary, he sinks lower and lower. The gap that exists between the rich and the poor widens day by day, just as the ranks of the poor become more numerous day by day. Here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to rule society ... Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, whose existence is no longer compatible with society’s needs.

More than ever, it is clear that the bourgeoisie is confronted by contradictions of its own making. Capital accumulation is a product of profit maximisation, which is served by competition between workers, in turn made possible by the creation of a reserve army of unemployed workers, an objective that has been achieved by employing labour-replacing technology in the giant enterprises of the transnational corporations and at every level of commerce and industry, These developments in turn replace the former isolation of workers by new, broad and more far-reaching associations of unions. In these the proletariat becomes aware of its strength and its revolutionary role.

The growth of modern capitalist industry, therefore, cuts from under the feet of the bourgeoisie the very foundation on which bourgeois appropriation rests. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall, and the victory of the proletariat, are equally inevitable.


In what relation do the communists stand to the workers as a whole? ... They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat. They do not set up sectarian principles to which the workers’ movement should be shaped or moulded.

The theoretical conclusions of communists are not based on ideas or principles that have been invented or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer.

They merely express, in general terms, actual relationships springing from existing class antagonisms within historical movements that are taking place before our very eyes.

Within such a society, modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating the social product. It is based ... on the exploitation of the many by the few... To be a capitalist is to have not only a purely personal, but a social role in production. Capital is a collective product,and only by the united action of many members, nay, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion. It remains, however, in the hands, under the control, and in the service of the bourgeoisie.

Abolition of this state of things, which is a stated objective of the communists, is regarded by the bourgeoisie as abolition of individuality and freedom ... But under bourgeois conditions of production this freedom means merely free trade and free selling and buying.

Talk about free trade and all the other “brave words” of our bourgeoisie about freedom in general have meaning, if any, only in contrast with the restricted and fettered conditions of trade in the Middle Ages, but have no meaning whatever in the context of the communist aim to abolish the market.

The market has been elevated to the status of god, clothed in the tinsel and pretences of bourgeois free trade and bourgeois property. The bourgeoisie not only dominates the world market, but, momentarily, it also appears to dominate both conservative and social democratic notions which claim that the market is an expression of freedom.

What freedom? The bourgeois freedom of trade, of accumulation, of privilege, of property, of exploitation?

The bourgeoisie is horrified at communist intentions to do away with private property. But in existing society, such property has already been done away with for nine-tenths of the population, and its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence for those nine-tenths. In a word, therefore, they reproach us for our intention to do away with bourgeois property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.

Communism deprives no man of power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriation.

The bourgeoisie has also mocked communist ideas in the field of culture. Just as for the bourgeoisie, abolition of bourgeois class property is the abolition of property itself, so too, for this class, the disappearance of its class culture is identical with the disappearance of all culture.

The culture the loss of which the bourgeoisie laments is for the enormous majority a mere training to act as a machine. Is that culture?

Yet what deep intuition does it need to understand that man’s ideas, views and conceptions of the world — in one word, his consciousness — changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?

What else does the history of ideas demonstrate, than that intellectual activity changes its character as the material conditions of production and social relationships change? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.

When people speak of ideas which revolutionise society, they merely express the fact that within the old society the elements of a new one have been created and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence.

The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to establish democracy, to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie replacing the bourgeoisie, sweeping away the old conditions of production, and ending the last great class division of society.

When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, in practice, is merely the organised power of one class for the oppression of another.

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms we will have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Let the ruling class tremble, therefore, as they do!, at the prospect of a communist revolution. The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have an entire world to win.

To win it, however, many will ask, “What must be done?”

Never before has the world opened out to the extent that it has in recent decades. The entire earth opens up before the working class. This new, global stage calls for and invites international solidarity, brotherhood and unity between working people over all the earth.

Never before have the tools of technology been available on such a scale as they are today. Never before have the working people of the whole world faced such imminent and cataclysmic dangers as those created by today’s globalised transnational capitalism. Never before have workers had the opportunity they have today, nor faced so urgent a necessity for energetic and decisive action against the predatory and destructive forces unleashed by modern capitalism on the earth itself, on which we live, threatening its very survival.

The bourgeoisie have amply demonstrated that they will not yield to reason. Only working class action, united as never before, on a global scale, can wrest their power from them.

The working class have, indeed, a world to win.

Workers of all countries, unite!

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