Feb 14th 2020

The Communist Manifesto Turns 172

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.




This month marks 172 years since the first publication of the Communist Manifest. All around the world people will be commemorating February 20th with group read-alouds, and other ways of noting the occasion. Undoubtedly, this is a moment that we should not allow to pass without some reflection on the meaning to us today of Marx and Engels’ pamphlet.

Originally published anonymously and in German by the Workers’ Educational Association in 1848, an English translation of the Manifesto would not appear until 1850. For the first decades of its life the Manifesto was mostly forgotten, and it would not be published in the United States until 1872. We are living at a time when – if not communism – at least socialism is gaining ground in this country, to a degree that few could foresee only a decade ago. Bernie Sanders, for example, is a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, and a frontrunner among the Democratic candidates seeking the presidential nomination. When it comes to communism, however, there are still grave misgivings about being labeled as such even by those who identify with the radical left.

At the same time, we are entering an era of unprecedented inequality; in which wealth has become concentrated in the hands of a few to a degree that is almost hard to imagine – when literally three or four individuals in this country for instance have the wealth exceeding the total wealth of over fifty percent of the population. The vast inequality and ever growing concentration of capital is one of the many reasons why the Manifesto is as important now – if not more so – than when it first saw the light of day during that fateful year of 1848.

Income inequality in this country [the U.S.] has been growing for decades. The Pew Research Center reports that in 1982, the highest-earning 1 percent of families received 10.8 percent of all pretax income, while the bottom 90 percent received 64.7 percent. Three decades later, the top 1 percent received 22.5 percent of pretax income, while the bottom 90 percent’s share had fallen to 49.6 percent. As Helene D. Gayle, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, observed, “The difference between rich and poor is becoming more extreme, and as income inequality widens the wealth gap in major nations, education, health and social mobility are all threatened.”

The gap between those who have and those who have not is becoming ever wider – while the rights of workers are under attack around the world. Union leaders are threatened with violence or murdered. Indeed, the International Trade Union Confederation reports that 2019 saw “the use of extreme violence against the defenders of workplace rights, large-scale arrests and detentions.” The number of countries which do not allow workers to establish or join a trade union increased from 92 in 2018 to 107 in 2019. In 2018, 53 trade union members were murdered – and in 52 counties workers were subjected to physical violence. In 72 percent of countries, workers have only restricted access to justice, or none at all. As Noam Chomsky observed, “Policies are designed to undermine working class organization and the reason is not only the unions fight for workers' rights, but they also have a democratizing effect. These are institutions in which people without power can get together, support one another, learn about the world, try out their ideas, initiate programs, and that is dangerous.”

In fact, labor union membership has been declining for well over fifty years right here in the US. Unions now represent only 7 percent of private sector workers – a significant drop from the 35 percent of the 1950s. Moreover, studies have shown that strong unions are good for the middle-class; the Center for American Progress reports, for example, that middle-class income has dropped in tandem with the shrinking numbers of US union members. This weakening of unions and collective bargaining has allowed employer power to increase immensely, contributed to the stagnation of real wages, and led to “a decline in the share of productivity gains going to workers.”

Around the world, children are still forced to labor in often unsafe and extremely hazardous conditions. Approximately 120 million children are engaged in hazardous work – and over 70 million are under the age of 10. The International Labour Organization estimates that 22,000 children are killed at work globally every year. The abolition of child labor was of course one of the immediate reforms demanded in the Manifesto – and 172 years later it has yet to become a reality.

Studies estimate that as many as 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 work in sweatshops in developing countries around the world. The US Department of Labor defines a sweatshop as a factory that violates two or more labor laws. They often have poor and unsafe working conditions, unfair wages and unreasonable hours, as well as a lack of benefits for workers.

Economists sometimes argue that sweatshops help to alleviate poverty, that as bad as they are they are still better than working in rural conditions. These claims are dubious at best – but more to the point, sweatshops are inconsistent with human dignity. As Denis Arnold and Norman Bowie argue in their essay “Sweatshops and Respect for Persons”: the managers of multinational enterprises that “encourage or tolerate violations of the rule of law; use coercion; allow unsafe working conditions; and provide below subsistence wages, disavow their own dignity and that of their workers.”

It is often assumed – wrongly – that Marx and Engels described in full what they thought the future communist society would look like. But aside from a few tantalizing suggestions they offered very little in this regard – not in the Manifesto, nor anywhere else, preferring instead to analyze the social contradictions inherent to the capitalist mode of production itself – contradictions which they thought would lead inevitably to its demise.

One thing that is clear however from their few suggestions is that workers would not be alienated from the process of production and from the fruits of their labor – which implies something like worker self-management, workplace democracy – or, perhaps most accurately, worker self-directed enterprises, to borrow a phrase from economist Richard Wolff. As Wolff points out, these enterprises “divide all the labors to be performed… determine what is to be produced, how it is to be produced, and where it is to be produced” and, perhaps most crucially, “decide on the use and distribution of the resulting output or revenues.” Such firms of course exist already; most notably, for example, Mondragon in Spain. We know conclusively that workplace democracy can and has been successful – and that they can in fact outcompete traditional, hierarchically organized capitalist firms.

All of which is to say that the Communist Manifesto is not a historical relic of a bygone era, an era of which many would like to think we have washed our hands. As long as workers’ rights are trampled on, and children are pressed into wretched servitude; as long as real wages stagnate, so that economic inequality continues to grow, allowing wealth to be ever more concentrated in the hands of the few – then the Communist Manifesto will continue to resonate and we will hear the clarion call of workers of the world to unite, “for they have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”


Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

--------------

Related video:

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."