The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Today, the 21st of February, is the 160th anniversary of the first publication of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. I think it’s safe to say this has been one of the most influential books in the world we know today. Over the course of 16 decades, a lot has changed. But I think the basic argument of the Manifesto is still incredibly salient in the world today. This isn't the communism that we know from China or the USSR. This is a critique of capitalism, and a hope for a better world.
As is pointed out by Marx and Engels in the text as well as in prefaces to several editions, “the practical application of the principles will depend … 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” (from the Preface to the German edition of 1872). So, if the idea of all workers of the world uniting in the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie sounds a bit far-fetched, fret not, the nuts and bolts of the revolution isn't the important part of the Manifesto.
Despite the change in conditions, much of the critique still remains pertinent. For example, the Manifesto argues that capitalism reduces humans to their monetary value [I would argue that it does the same to animals, as well]. It argues that capitalism is out of control, no longer led by the bourgeoisie--it's become an entity of its own volition.
One of the things that I find the most appealing about the Manifesto is that it doesn’t just critique; it also offers a vision for the future: Communism, that is, the abolition of bourgeois property (not property generally). Marx and Engels saw a world in which no one can make profit from the work of others. In fact, the whole notion of profit would be thrown out the window. Exploitation of men and women alike would become extinct, and likewise, “the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to.” As vegans, let's take that one step further and make exploitation of animals extinct.
The other great thing is that Marx and Engels wrote with the average joe as the target audience. The argument is clearly laid out, and though the critique is incredibly potent, it isn’t hidden amongst high-fallutin’ theoretical jargon. The point of the manifesto was to incite a revolution, and that won't happen if everyone is left scratching their heads and searching for a dictionary.
Sure, there are problems with Marx and Engels and the Manifesto. It is very andro- and euro-centric (though some of these issues are addressed through footnotes added later, mainly by Engels). Marx’s idea that every society must go through very specific stages is narrow and has been argued against by many, especially third world scholars. And the notion of violence and bloodshed doesn’t really appeal to me, nor to most people.
But still, the idea that there is a better way for the world breathes life into my inner idealist and revitalises my commitment to ending exploitation and injustice—to animals, to women, to black people, to poor people, to all people.
Happy birthday, Communist Manifesto. Whether you’ve ever read The Communist Manifesto or not, get thee to the nearest library and check out a copy today!
All of my quotes come from the version of the Manifesto which was printed in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker (1978). I highly recommend this book.