Why has the working class not been successful up to now in ending capitalism, so that it can no longer threaten lives and livelihoods again? The Manifesto was written before Marx and Engels had the advantage of the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, which provided them, and future Marxists, with many insights into the dynamics of revolution. As Trotsky says:
Trotsky adds that the prolonged period of prosperity that followed the Paris Commune convinced the leadership of the working class, nominally Marxists at the helm of the Social Democratic Parties of Europe, that capitalism could provide a steady growth in wealth, or at least would steadily concede a better living standard to the working class.
This leadership, in each country in Europe, when faced with the horrors of World War One, decided to support the warfare of their own particular capitalist class. What had happened to the cry of the Communist Manifesto: "Workers of the world unite"? It was this leadership which "became the chief brake on the proletarian revolution." (Trotsky, The Communist Manifesto Today)
It is not that the working class will not fight for a better world, Trotsky argued. It is the lack of a revolutionary party, or the failure of that revolutionary party, that has led to the survival of capitalism.
By the close of the 20th century, the modern post-war Labour and Social Democratic parties of most of the world, which the working classes have thrust into power, had undergone a further "bourgeois degeneration." They, like the Labour Party in Britain, had become capitalist parties through and through. With not even a mass political party to call its own, the working class has been temporarily disarmed in the political arena.
The working class has demonstrated its revolutionary potential more times in the century and a half since the publication of the Manifesto, than any other class has in the whole of human history. The history of the working class has been one of revolutionary struggle from its very birth.
The Working Class in Action
Let us put the record straight, taking just the last few years as an example. In Argentina, workers’ protests removed one president after another at the turn of 2002. In its war against Serbia, NATO bombs did not remove Milosevic from power – they reinforced him. It was a later revolutionary upsurge of workers, which stormed parliament, took the streets, remained vigilant throughout the following nights.
After the economic collapse of mid-2008, a rising tide of anger overthrew governments in eastern Europe - Latvia, Czech Republic, Estonia and Hungary. The anger in the USA is so great, a friend of US president Barack Obama remarked: "There are times, nowadays, when you think Hugo Chávez could win an election" in the US.
Even more impressive was the scale of the movements which brought to an end the oppressive regimes of Communist Eastern Europe. On the 9 November 1989, it was workers and students who broke down the Berlin Wall in an unstoppable wave of struggle that spread had throughout eastern Europe.
These regimes were overthrown with very little bloodshed, because today the working class can move in such overwhelming numbers that soldiers sent to defend the ruling class can lose their morale, become affected by the insurrectionary mood, and move aside, or join in the throng.
These movements from below demonstrated the power of the working class, but there was no revolutionary Marxist leadership to complete the overthrow of capitalism. Inevitably, then, essentially pro-capitalist leaders took control, or found power falling into their laps. Following the dictates of capitalism, sometimes acting with extreme caution, these leaders then brought about a counter-revolution, to wrest back for the bosses their daily dictatorship over their employees, and to establish governments that do the bidding of international finance.
Nevertheless, as the Manifesto predicted, wherever capitalism has spread in search of cheap labour, there has developed an urban working class, reaching such mass numbers – such as in South Africa or South Korea – that, despite the most vicious repression, trade unions have grown up and dictators have been overthrown.
The Myth of a Fragmented Working Class
Those, like the Anti-Globalisation campaigner George Monbiot, who give credence to the myth of the "atomisation of society," of a "fragmented" working class, seem to be blind to these fundamental class struggles.
Writing on New Year's Day, 2002, Monbiot says: "we may have to abandon almost every strategy which has worked in the past". (Guardian, 1 January, 2002) These and many similar mantras are directed particularly against the fundamental strategy outlined in the Communist Manifesto, which is rooted in the struggles of the working class, as supported by the Socialist Party today. Yet, despite Monbiot's doubts, almost without exception, the only really decisive, epoch making, or revolutionary struggles are those in which the working class plays a central role.
Not three weeks after Monbiot's gloomy New Year's message, the Socialist Party’s weekly newspaper, The Socialist, reported "Over 60,000 PCS members in benefit offices" going on a further two-day strike, coinciding with strike action from "Thousands of members of the rail union RMT." In addition, "140,000 Royal Mail workers" would be balloted for industrial action. (The Socialist, 25 January, 2002)
National newspapers feared a "return to the 1970's", referring to the industrial militancy of that decade, which brought down a Tory Government. New, more militant trade union leaders are being elected, reflecting the more severe attacks the working class now face from the capitalist class, in this period of crisis for capitalism.
But militancy is not enough. The Communist Manifesto supported those struggles of the working class and poor of its time which developed the unity and combativity of the working class.
Today Marxists embrace the rising tide of strikes and occupations, protests and struggles against redundancy and pay cuts. We support the anti-globalisation struggles, the environmentalists' struggles, the anti-capitalist protests, the anti-war protests - all the struggles against injustices which affect working people's lives.
Working with genuine workers’ initiatives
Marx and Engels made clear that their revolutionary party was not to act independently of the working class, but on the contrary to be its most concentrated expression at all times. Indeed, if it does not act in this way, it will fail. Trotsky explains
In Part Two of the Communist Manifesto, Communists and Proletarians, the Manifesto begins by addressing this question. "In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?" It answers "They have no interest separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole."
The Manifesto anticipates that Marxists would work with any genuine workers’ parties, rather than standing against them.
In 2009 in England, in the absence of a mass workers’ party, this means standing shoulder to shoulder with the many genuine working class campaigns, for instance to save hospitals, schools and other local community facilities.
It means supporting their election campaigns should they decide to stand in elections. An example is the election initiative of the railway workers (RMT) in the UK, 'No2EU - Yes to democracy'. In general, Marxists aspire to bring such initiatives together into a mass, federal based, inclusive workers’ party with rights and representation for all. This means campaigning for the establishment of a new mass party of the working class, based on the unions and such campaigning bodies, where one does not exist.
The Manifesto does not encourage those who, from Marx's time to the present, attempt to proclaim or set up broad parties with the aim of claiming exclusive rights to represent the working class. The Manifesto has a clearly inclusive approach.
And the Manifesto adds a clear reference to the so-called revolutionary parties (both of the time and ever since) that put their own sectional interests before the interests of the working class. A genuine revolutionary party must not lecture the working class and attempt to foist on them their own "separate principles … by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement."
Building genuine, mass parties and campaigning for a conscious, Marxist leadership is not easy, but it is necessary. There is no easier route. By working alongside genuine working class parties and campaigns at all times, Marxism continually wins the confidence of the most active, farsighted fighters to its side.