What relevance does the Communist Manifesto have today in the U.S.?

by the University of the Poor Proletarian Internationalism Task Force

February 21st marks the 174th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto. Written in 1848, in a period of great social and economic upheaval, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels attempted to capture and sharpen the thinking of emerging movements of the industrial working class and set forth an analysis that would unite the working class of the world.

For many people today in the U.S., The Communist Manifesto does represent “a specter,” a boogie-man, that looms large in the dominant mental terrain, conditioned by a century and a half of red-baiting. Even for many engaged in organizing the working class, the Manifesto is considered outdated and removed from the consciousness of our struggles. Relegated to mainly academic circles, even those who are familiar with the text tout its dogmatism and tend to simply quote its passages instead of analyzing for its larger lessons.

Contrary to this opinion, the spirit of the Manifesto was far from dogmatic. Both its form and content were carefully crafted to meet the needs of the time. It sought to answer the immediate programmatic questions of the newly organized Communist League, which both Marx and Engels were a part of, as well as more longer term questions around the nature of capitalism and class struggle. 

In the 1872 preface Engels writes:

“The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organization of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated.”

In this same year of 1872, the U.S. would get its first publishing of The Communist Manifesto in an edition of the Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, due to the rising stature and prominence of the International Working Men’s Association. Even before this, the Manifesto made its mark on the working class and revolutionary struggles in the U.S. In the years following the 1848 revolutions across Europe, many German immigrants migrated to the U.S. as political refugees and became part of a core of abolitionists. These German immigrants included socialists Joseph Weydemeyer and August Willich, who both commanded regiments in the Civil War. German immigrants constituted 10 percent of the Union Army.

As the University of the Poor, we are founded upon the need to understand and respond to changes in the political and economic landscape, develop leaders with clarity and vision, as well as the commitment to unite the poor and dispossessed who have been historically divided to our detriment. In order to fulfill this mission, we find guidance from key principles of the Manifesto that remain true today.

“Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.” (18). 

Today, the ruling class with its repressive apparatus as well as its nonprofit funding apparatus can muster resources to defeat the incipient struggles of our class in any individual battle, and they can encourage social struggles that don’t challenge the root of the exploitative system. However, following the Manifesto, we know that a particular immediate result is not our only objective. One victory we can truly achieve at this time, despite the defeats we may suffer day to day, is in building the unity of a growing mass of clear, competent, connected and committed leaders. Thus we must orient our struggles to be able to help leaders learn as they lead, teach as they fight, and stick and stay in the movement even amidst difficult times.

“…[M]an’s consciousness changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life […] The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class. When people speak of ideas that revolutionized society, they do but 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.” (28-29)

The digital technological revolution, which some have called the fourth industrial revolution, is driving rapid changes in our global material reality. Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, labor-eliminating technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning are making significant incursions to replace not only manual labor but the mental labor of the so-called middle class. A swath of society that grew up with the idea that hard work and a college education would give them a good job and a comfortable lifestyle are now or will soon find themselves facing poverty and precarity. More than 140 million people in the United States are already poor or low-income, and more and more of the middle strata will continue to join their ranks as digital technology advances. 

People’s ideologies, or their understanding of what is happening in society and why, tend to lag behind the material conditions, yet in the deteriorating conditions lies an opportunity for new consciousness to arise. Our task is to make the most of current struggles to reveal the true predatory nature of the capitalist system and encourage people toward collective organizing to challenge that system. We not only distribute food, for example, but ask why people are hungry in a time of unprecedented abundance. In this way we challenge the “mental fortresses” that have been cultivated in the U.S. population that blame individuals for their poverty. We have found that the changing material conditions of people’s lives can give them a new willingness to join in a collective revolutionary project, especially if that project solves some of their immediate problems. 

“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” (43)

Large-scale industrial capitalism as it would develop in the next century simply did not exist at the time of the publication of the Manifesto. Because of their study of political economy, history and the material conditions of the growing factory system in England, Marx and Engels were positioned to name capitalism as the coming enemy even while most struggles in Europe were centered around opposing one particular landlord or boss. The Manifesto was a call to recognize not only what existed at that moment, but the global threat that loomed on the horizon as capitalists developed from a marginal to dominating force. Based on their scientific assessment, Marx and Engels insisted that workers come together and organize across national borders to match the scale and scope of their adversaries. Likewise, our strategy must consider both present and future. The struggles breaking out today over water, shelter and other basic needs are struggles with immediate aims, and they also contain the kernel of the character of much larger struggles that will define the future of the global movement of the poor and dispossessed. While we participate in and build the organization of workers rendered superfluous by labor-eliminating technologies in our local and national contexts, it is also incumbent upon us as revolutionaries to develop networks, associations and other forms of organization on a global scale. 

As we confront a deepening polarization of U.S. society driven by a new and profound digital technological revolution—one on par with the introduction of large-scale industry in Marx’s day—we as revolutionaries must study the Manifesto for its enduring principles and example of a program rooted in the specific needs and conditions of its time.

*Page numbers refer to Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. International Pub., 2021, c1948

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