The Communist Manifesto’s relevance for the labour movement 175 years on


The Communist Manifesto stands in a class by itself in Socialist literature. No indictment of the social order ever written can rival it.”

Nye Bevan.

By Richard Irons

At one of the first political events I ever attended in 1998, Tony Benn repeated words to the effect of his famous quote that “the Marxist analysis has got nothing to do with what happened in Stalin’s Russia: it’s like blaming Jesus Christ for the Inquisition in Spain,” and went on to say that whilst he was not a Marxist, he recognised the importance of Marxism (and indeed Marxists) for an effective labour movement.

Tony’s comments made me keen to read Marx, Engels and other Marxists in-depth to find out more, and I was reminded of these remarks when I read that this month marks 175 years since the first publication of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, in which the writers famously proclaimed that “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” This seemingly simple phrase actually has a profound and liberating message – describing both the situation faced by the working-class under capitalism and actively urging the working-class to fight for change. And in this sense, the quote sums up the work as a whole, which remains essential reading for labour movement activists today.

Whilst throughout the Labour Party’s – and broader labour movement’s – history when the right-wing has been in the ascendancy its leaders have often echoed Priti Patel’s view that Marx and Engel’s ideas are “nonsensical,” what is perhaps less known to younger activists is that the ideas and analysis expressed in The Communist Manifesto and other works have influenced wide layers of our movement beyond organised Marxist groups, including some of the widely praised “giants” of Labour.

Nye Bevan – the architect of our NHS – for example once wrote that, “The Communist Manifesto stands in a class by itself in Socialist literature. No indictment of the social order ever written can rival it. The largeness of its conception, its profound philosophy and its sure grasp of history, its aphorisms and its satire, all these make it a classic of literature, while the note of passionate revolt which pulses through it, no less than its critical appraisement of the forces of revolt, make it for all rebels an inspiration and a weapon.” (Plebs magazine, 1921.)

Writing some thirty years later in In Place of Fear in 1952, Bevan argued that Marxism “put into the hands of the working-class movement of the late nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries the most complete blueprints for political action the world has ever seen”. He also wrote that “no serious student who studies the history of the last half century can deny the ferment of ideas associated with the names of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Their effectiveness in arming the minds of working-class leaders all over the world with the intellectual weapons showed that their teaching had an organic relationship with the political and social realities of their time.”

After Bevanism, the next big left wave to develop in the Labour Party was Bennism, and as mentioned above Tony Benn spoke and wrote on Marxism and The Communist Manifesto on many occasions, saying for example that “The Communist Manifesto, and many other works of Marxist philosophy, have always profoundly influenced the British labour movement and the British Labour Party, and have strengthened our understanding and enriched our thinking.” And adding that, “it would be as unthinkable to try to construct the Labour Party without Marx, as it would be to establish university faculties of astronomy, anthropology or psychology without permitting the study of Copernicus, Darwin or Freud, and still expect such faculties to be taken seriously.”

Defending the role of Marxist ideas in the labour movement, he also said that “I believe that no mature tradition of political democracy today can survive if it does not open itself to the influence of Marx and Marxism.”

Of course, many of the leading figures in the later Corbynite wave in Labour came-up in the time of Bennism’s ascendancy and therefore perhaps it is no surprise that, speaking at a Marx 200 event in 2018, then Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell argued that “there should be no fear in an open and democratic society of discussing the ideas of a political economist and philosopher… whose ideas are actually now exciting interest again.”

He added that to “shy away [from debate on these matters] simply reinforces the regime of self-censorship that the establishment and its representatives in the media have sought to impose,” before saying that “Marxism is about the freedom of spirit, the development of life chances, the enhancement of democracy… We have to cut through this massive weight of historical abuse of his work.”

What may be even more surprising to some is that as we mark 175 years of The Communist Manifesto is that to mark its centenary in 1948, the Labour Party official published its own special edition, with an extensive accompanying work by Harold Laski! The Party’s foreword said that “the Labour Party acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two men who have been the inspiration of the whole working-class movement.” Links to read Laski’s work can be found in the resources below and further examples of Marxism’s influence on the Labour Party historically can be found in Ben Seller’s previous article for this site here.

At a time when global capitalism is clearly in deep crisis and the class struggle is very much back on the agenda – including here in Britain as illustrated by the continuing strike wave – we shouldn’t be ashamed to read The Communist Manifesto 175 years on or discuss its ideas. In fact, it can help us both understand and change the world. Below are five viewing and reading suggestions to that end:

1. Read The Communist Manifesto

You can read The Communist Manifesto and the different prefaces by Marx and Engels that helped develop the core ideas of the work over the following decades at the Marxist Internet Archive here.

2. Watch Michael Roberts’ Labour Outlook Forums on Marx and the Crisis

Watch Was Marx right? here or listen to the discussion as a podcast here.

Watch Can Marx’s ideas help us understand the crisis? here

3. Check out the Labour Party’s 100th anniversary edition of The Communist Manifesto

You can read Harold Laski’s introduction here and the full version here.

For a different perspective remembering The Communist Manifestoon its 90th birthday you can also read Leon Trotsky here.

4. Have a read of other Marxists’ ideas.                                                    

At the Marxists Internet Archive, you can read the works of 100s of writers influenced by Marx and Engels.

The author is currently enjoying the works of Rosa Luxemburg, including the excellent and not well enough known Marxist Theory and the Proletariat, which can be read here and demolishes some objections to the core ideas of The Communist Manifesto that were being put forward in the labour movement at that stage.

5. Have a tea-break read with Tony Benn

This small excerpt from 1990 entitled Socialism’s Legacy, Socialism’s Future from Tony Benn defends the idea of a socialist future at the time when neo-liberals were talking of “the end of history” and addresses the myth that capitalism is peaceful and democratic. It’s well worth checking out here.

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