Karl Marx

.. ers have other, often conflicting, identities. One is not only a worker – or a capitalist-but also a Frenchman, a German, or an Italian; a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew; a conservative, a liberal, or a radical; a citizen of a state or a subject of a sovereign; a holder of ethical opinions; and – a man or a woman. It is hard for people to sort out what their self-interest is and harder to act on it. We are not entitled to the presumption that membership in a class is the ultimate reality that will dominate all the others. Only an examination of specific circumstances will tell us which identity takes precedence at a given moment.

Successful modern politicians instinctively know this. I am reminded of my short-lived experience as an industrial worker in the late 1940s when I was shocked to hear the white workers abuse the black workers behind their backs; and women, of whom there were none on the shop floor, spoken of in disrespectful language. I had been somewhat misled about what to expect. In spite of a widespread belief to the contrary, Marx and Engels did not assert that a socialist revolution was inevitable. A revolution would come about only by the political activity of the working class.

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The authors of the Manifesto considered the possibility of what they called the ruin of the contending parties. This fact is noted by Hobsbawm in his introduction. The world wars of the twentieth century, the Great Depression, fascism, and Soviet communism are ample illustrations of this point. The workers of the world had more than their chains to lose. They had their lives to lose.

And they did. Further on in the Manifesto, Marx and Engels discuss the relations of workers and communists. The communists are not a separate party, they declare, and have no separate interests. Their role is to point out the common concerns of the workers and to represent the interests of the movement as a whole. This is a far cry from Lenin and Stalin. Which brings up the inevitable question: how far are Marx and Engels responsible for the blunders and crimes committed in their names? Everyone must judge for himself.

A reasonable answer might be: as far as Jesus was responsible for Torquemada and Moses was responsible for Netanyahu. Marx and Engels also discuss utopian socialism, which they dismiss as small-scale, middle class, do-good, fantastic. We are entitled to ask whether the views put forth in The Communist Manifesto are not also a fantasy. We would have to say that the effort to predict the future from the past, with the degree of confidence implied in the language of the Manifesto, is itself a fantasy. As much so the idealization of the working class as a class with a mission to liberate humanity from several thousand years of oppression.

But that is not the last word. Their understanding of capitalism as an epoch in history that is both expansive and unstable is the foundation for any realistic discussion of the system in which we live. Socialist and reform parties have challenged capitalism, have even administered it at times, and have taken off some of its raw edges. Even today, after all their failures in the twentieth century, social democratic parties are either in power or form the main opposition in most countries of Europe. With all their doctrinal changes, they are still carriers of a secular ideal. Ironically, capitalism has turned back on itself over the last twenty-five years and in 1998 looks more like the capitalism of the Manifesto than it did in 1948, 1958, or 1968.

Eighteen million workers are unemployed in Europe. The gap between rich and poor has grown everywhere. The welfare state is under assault. The sweatshops of 1998 look like those of 1898. International financial manipulations are beyond the control of sovereign states.

We have suffered a Sisyphus syndrome, rolling the stone of reform up the hill from 1945 to 1973, only to see it roll back down again. Eric Hobsbawm puts it bluntly: at the beginning of the new millennium, triumphant capitalism is out of control. What of socialism in the future? It will be premised on the failure of the socialist and communist parties of the twentieth century. It must be different. It may not even be called socialism, which is immaterial. If capitalism is reformed to the point where majorities truly control the political, social, and economic policies of state and superstate organizations, the system will no longer be capitalism.

It will be postcapitalism under some name that we or our grandchildren choose to give it. The collapse of the Soviet Union has opened the way to a hitherto impossible convergence of socialist, labor, and reformist movements. This point was impressed on me by Donald Sassoon, author of a masterly book on the European left, One Hundred Years of Socialism. Everyone is speaking to everyone else in civil tones again. The self-defeating split between social democrats and communists has passed into history. They are prepared to present friendly socialism, friendly Labourism (British), and friendly reformism (U.S.) to the electorate.

They are prepared to experiment with many different forms of social organization, much along the lines that Alec Nove pointed out in his 1991 book, The Economics of Feasible Socialism Revisited. People do not want to be scared out of their wits. They want feasibility, not apocalypse. For skeptics who doubt the possibility of change for the good, I would like to point out that the sense of what is legitimate and what is not is subject to change. It was once acceptable to spit on the sidewalk, blow your nose in the air, break wind in public, perform surgery without handwashing, smoke in crowded rooms, drive drunk, subordinate women, own slaves, and exclude citizens from voting. None of these practices any longer make sense.

Is it too much to believe that desperately poor children, sick people without adequate care, poor people who live in dilapidated houses and send their children to dilapidated schools, people who hold jobs that leave them in poverty, and involuntary joblessness itself, will some day be viewed as an intolerable social blight? Won’t the day come when the present indecent disparities in wealth and power will appear as outmoded and unacceptable as the medieval disparities between lord and serf appear to us today? The point of The Communist Manifesto is not that preconceived historical changes are inevitable, but that they are brought about by political movements within the conditions available to them. On this subject the last laugh has not yet been laughed. Philosophy Essays.