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James Petras on The Communist Manifesto


The sequence of capitalist expansion, destruction of traditional bonds andglobal integration was, according to Marx, the process of creating a unified working class, conscious of its class interests and linked across national boundaries.

His chain of reasoning lacks a clear understanding of the importance traditions and social bonds preceding capitalism played in creating social solidarity for confronting capitalism and sustaining class consciousness.

When Marx describes the bourgeoisie as reducing human relations to the “cash nexus” as a prelude to the development of class consciousness, he is essentially describing the condition of the U.S.working class–probably the least willing and able to identify its source of exploitation let alone struggle against it. The stripping of older beliefs–what Marx and Engels unfortunately called “philistine sentimentalism”–includes the sense of community and not necessarily belief in a “natural superior.”

Thus the assumption that the “everlasting insecurity and agitation” that the Manifesto’s authors associate with capital’s “revolutionizing of the means of production” does not necessarily “compel [man] to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.” In fact, economic processes are having the opposite effects in deepening reaction, atomizing labor, stimulating ethnic warfare and undermining a vast swath of economic production throughout Latin America, Africa, the ex-USSR and elsewhere.

Thus the centrality of “tradition” and culture and community in defining the formation of class consciousness is lost before Marx and Engels’ sweeping and uncritical celebration of the revolutionary potential of the development of the forces of production.

Similarly, the savaging of the Third World labor force occurring under the aegis of the internationalization of capital has not led to greater class consciousness or “civilized” behavior. One look at free trade zones should dissuade anyone of that notion. Instead, it has broken class ties and fostered greater deference and servility.

Bourgeois globalization has not created “a world in its own image” as Marx and Engels argued. Today these are the “sentimental pieties” printed out in World Bank public relations handouts trumpeting the “modernization” of the Third World.

Their lack of a sense of class consciousness directly related to the producers and not derived from the capitalist process of production explains the difficulties many “Marxists” have in creating an alternative to capitalism. Today capitalists don’t “call into existence the men who will wield the weapons” to deal a death blow to capitalism. They create millions of frightened, uncertain, temporary workers, tied to the cash nexus. To become a Marxist in the sense of realizing the goals of the Manifesto, one must reject Marx and Engels’ false assumptions about the “revolutionary role” of the bourgeoisie. To move toward working class action, their conception of the transformation of workers into a revolutionary class must be subjected to the harshest criticism.

Where Marx and Engels say that “man’s consciousness changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life” the changes that capitalism has wrought have undermined the construction of a revolutionary consciousness at every point. The notion that the bourgeoisie revolutionizes production through competition and in the course “forces” workers to “confront” their conditions and subsequently join together is false on all counts. The most important change is not the revolutionizing of production, but the transformation of political and social relations throughout the world in a fashion that undermines the possibility of “material recognition of proletarians.”

To speak of the Manifesto today, one must move from the brilliant economic analysis to the revolutionary conclusions by constructing a new theory of revolutionary action.

The passage above appears in James Petras’ article “The Manifesto’sStrength and Flaws,” which is part of a symposium on the relevance ofMarxism on the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto published in New Politics, Winter 1998
Louis Proyect

March 1998 :: Printing version