Updating the Manifesto: an Irish perspective

Roy Johnston

(This following paper was submitted to the 1998 Paris conference called to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication by Marx and Engels of the Communist Manifesto. I did not, for various reasons, get to deliver it, but it may exist in print somewhere in the voluminous proceedings of that conference. If it exists on the Web somewhere, I hope someone will advise me of the URL, and I will consider a link to it. Comments please to rjtechne@iol.ie. RJ Aug 1999.)

The MCP began its life as a consciously internationalist document, though directed primarily at the 1848 German situation. This flavour is developed in the series of prefaces written by Marx and Engels, and later by Engels alone, to the various language editions. Engels' preface to the 1888 English edition, the first definitive one, points out the weakness and datedness of much of the material in it critical of contemporary socialist thinking, and points to the experience of the Paris Commune as a laboratory for the development of the theory and practice of working-class statehood. He defines it as a 'a historical document which we have no longer any right to alter'.

What is on the agenda here is the problem of how to expand the remarkable creative thinking which went into the MCP to take on board the turbulent experience of the 20th century, both positive and negative. It is not a question of 'updating the MCP', but one of using the MCP as a framework to help identify the current key problems, around which a new effective internationalism can be organised. In this spirit, I am offering a few 'theses', linked (as though in hypertext) to specific locations in the MCP text, which may be worth developing, especially if they occupy a domain where there is a possibility of constructive interaction between academics and practitioners.

Before beginning to identify the theses and their link-points, let me expand on what I mean by 'academics and practitioners'.

By academics I mean those historians, economists, scientists, technologists and philosophers who are concerned to research and teach about the nature of the process of change. There are very many such who are increasingly acknowledging their debt to Marx, while not necessarily accepting the Marxist label.

By practitioners I mean agents of change: policy developers for political parties, innovators in industry, applied scientists, trade union resarch departments, organisers of democratic and progressive lobbies on social, economic, environmental and other issues.

The key episode in the linkage between these distinct groups is the postgraduate student project, which if defined by a problem-owner among the practitioners, and supervised by an academic familiar with the domain, can lead to creative solutions to real problems within a paradigm which often can be identified as Marxist, and to the increasing acceptance of the role of philosophy in changing the world rather than just comtemplating it.

Key Concepts

1. '..two great classes directly facing each other, bourgeoisie and proletariat.'

This abstraction has rarely if ever been a good representation of reality. Segmentation among both bourgeoisie and proletariat has in most if not all situations dominated the situation. For example in Northern Ireland segmentation is along religious lines. Paradoxically there are indications that there is often unity across religious boundaries among the bourgeoisie, who appreciate the utility to them of keeping the proletariat divided. Attempts to unite workers across the sectarian divide are perceived as a real threat, and the bourgeoisie unites, each to propagate sectarian culture among 'their workers'.

2. The State as '...a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie'.

The complexity of this process means that now it a network of committees, and the workings of this process are top of the agenda for study by change agents. The networking has become multi-centred, multi-level and multinational, and is increasingly dependent on the Internet, with focussed groups extended globally and united by intranet communications. This networking needs to be shadowed by all organised groups which it affects, using focussed communications links no less effectively.

3. 'All old-established national industries...are daily being destroyed...'.

The mode of this destruction is capital-intensive innovation, but increasingly the capital is tied up in the knowhow of skilled workers. This is where the vision of social control of the capital re-investment process needs to be propagated politically. It is Capital's Achilles heel.

4. '..crises...that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on trial..'.

There has not since 1945 been anything approximating to the 1932 debacle; the bourgeoisie has learned something about the control process for a system which is however intrinsically unstable. Communist economic planning, such as it was, is however in total discredit. To ignore the role of the market is to court disaster. The problem is how to combine a free market with social control of the capital re-investment process, done by some means other than the discredited central State mechanism.

5. '...unity (achieved by) the modern proletariat, thanks to railways, ...in a few years.'

Certainly the railways rendered possible holding international and national conventions of like-minded people, but it is evident that Marx and Engels underestimated the relative role of the same technology in empowering the bourgeoisie. The uptake of the empowering function of the Internet by the modern working-class is lagging behind its use by the bourgeoisie in the same way. It is now technically possible to have virtual committees of key people concerned with key issues in all countries in continuous session, generating relevant action guidelines.

6. 'The bourgeoisie...in constant battle...with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries... and is compelled to appeal to the proletariat...'.

This foreshadowing of the causes of the first world war constitutes a point in the MCP on which to hang an analysis of the national question. The tragedy of the betrayal of the proletariat in 1914 by the Second International, and in general the factors leading to the war, has up to now been dominated by Lenin's analysis and this needs to be revisited. Could it be that the root problem is how a democratic organisation, like a trade union or a political party, handles a bureaucracy? Was the inertia of the second international in 1914 a consequence of the nature of the bureaucratic structures of its constituent organisations?

7. '...a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class...'.

Marx and Engels thus provided in their model for their own existence, and indeed for the likes of us. The analysis of this process needs to be done in some depth. How the parties treated their intellectuals, and how they related to the developing intellectual capital of society, has been a crucial limiting factor in their development.

8. '...modern industrial labour...stripped of every trace of national character..'.

One can see what is meant by this, but is has never been total, as anyone will know who has attempted to work in an innovative project which has an international dimension.

9. 'Capital is a collective product...'.

The central problem is how to organise for social control of the capital investment process. MCP advocated the use of the central State, and this mode of attempted social control has pervaded the experience of both communist and social-democratic States. It must be now be evident that this was a totally false model, and that the roots of its failure lie in the basic failure of the revolutionary democratic process to devise means of controlling the bureaucracy.

I take this opportunity to propose an alternative model for the control of the capital re-investment process. The key element is the firm. Firms begin, and grow, and are initially small, being expressions of the creativity of an innovative entrepreneur, a socially positive role.

When a firm reaches a size such that it needs to seek capital from the market for further expansion, under capitalism the innovative entrepreneur loses control to a board of directors, who represent the interests of the capital owners. This is the point at which alternative democratic control structures need to be set up, reflecting the interests of all concerned, in due proportion, in distinct constituencies: workers, consumers, suppliers, and investors.

The electoral rights of these four constituencies need to be adjusted to reflect their degree of dependence on the ongoing viability of the firm. This adjustment process is the role of the democratic State, and it should be exercised at an appropriate level, local, regional or national, depending on the scale of the firm.

Workers always get strong representation. Consumers get representation in inverse proportion as there are alternative products available (if there are many alternatives, we have 'the democracy of the marketplace). Suppliers get representation in inverse proportion as they have alternative outlets (again, let us recognise the democracy of the market where this exists).

How to exercise democratic control over 'investors'? By recognising the role of local, regional, national and specialist organised pension funds as the prime sources of capital, and ensuring that such funds were democratically structured.

There certainly is a role for the State in such a model, but is is as a referee rather than as a player. As a player, the State is of questionable agility.

There are features in the above which have been partially developed in the co-operative movement, and in the 'industrial democracy' movement, but I am not aware of any implementation where the quite complex interplay of constituency interests implied by the above has been fully explored.

The boat has been missed in the various Eastern 'privatisation' schemes, which lacked a friendly State environment, and were sensitive to manipulation by criminal and speculative elements. A test-bed might be constructed where in an autonomous State with a progressive government, a TNC unit on threat of closure responds via the 'management buyout' process. State intervention would be to guide and constrain rather than to own. It will be interesting to watch the development of Scotland.

10. 'National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing...'.

Alas; tell that to the unfortunate inhabitants of post-Yugoslavia! The underestimation of the importance of the national question has always been a key weakness of Marxist orthodoxy. It is necessary here to go totally back to the drawing-board, get rid of the dead hand of Stalin's book, and take on board most if not all of the thinking of people like Gellner and Anderson, both of whom have friendly interfaces with basic Marxist thinking, though they decline the label.

This is a key problem area, dominated by ethnic, linguistic and religious dimensions, against which a simple-minded class model does not stand a chance. It may be that the laboratory for the development of this understanding will be at the interface between the European, Arabic and Islamic cultures. Laboratories exist within the European culture at the interfaces between the main Christian religions, Northern Ireland being one such.

Outline Programme

11. The outline programme suggested for the advanced countries has many features which have stood the test of time:
  • 11.1 'Abolition of property in land...'. This actually is indistinguishable from Henry George's Land Tax, which is equivalent to landowners becoming leaseholders from the State. Much could be done with Land Tax for issues like re-zoning land; windfall profits by sale of fringe-urban land could be abolished by raising the tax rate to ofset the price-jump caused by increased social utility. Differential land tax could deter over-centralised investment, and encourage even development among a network of medium towns rather than in one megalopolis, as aspired to under 11.9.

  • 11.2 Income tax: well, we have this; it was I suppose progressive at the time. There is a case for extending the land tax principle to all productive property, and using it to fund a social wage, a sort of retainer, on top of which a worker would earn an add-on economic wage when working. Income tax as it has evolved has become a tax on labour, discouraging its uptake by employers. A social wage would subsidise labour, encouraging its uptake. The implications of taxation reform need to be addressed systematically, along the lines 'tax all potentially productive assets at a flat rate proportional to their value', so that the organisation owning them would have a motivation to recruit labour to make them actually productive.

  • 11.3 Right of inheritance: the need remains to prevent socially-produced wealth from being dissipated by incompetent recipients. What will happen to Bill Gates's billions? Liberate the capitalist from the burden of capital, and develop the social decision process via democratic pension funds.

  • 11.4 Emigrant property: what they meant was landlords and capitalists who went abroad to escape the revolution. In a contemporary situation it should be feasible to do a humane deal, with some worthy role, based on knowledge, for the ex-capitalist, in the context of the socialised organisation. There are precedents for such a solution.

  • 11.5,6 ..centralisation of credit, transport, communication: I think we should by now have learned not to overdo the centralisation aspect; we need to leave room for local and regional initiatives, under central guidelines.

  • 11.7,8,9: waste lands, soil, agriculture, 'industrial armies', equable distribution of population...: Much needs to be done to develop these concepts in the context of the CAP and its impact on the third world. A key issue is volume-dependence of subsidies to agriculture, which generates surpluses of poor-quality products, which are dumped on the world market, depressing prices in developing countries trying to build up agricultural exports. Subsidy to agriculture should be an adaptation of the social wage principle (see 11.2 above) in the direction of an environmental management contract for land-holders. The essential seasonality of agriculture, with labour required at harvest-time, lends itself to organisation on an educational and recreational basis.

  • 11.10 Free education: well, we mostly have this, but the elite have preserved a fee-paying sector as part of the machinery for the preservation of bourgeois hegemony. This must be dismantled, and the system brought in under a democratised local government structure, under central constraints.

12. Engels in 1888 rgarded the section on current socialist literature as dated, so I pass on it, except to remark that it exhibits in its diversity some features of the complexity of the national question (French vs German etc). The final section on the relationships with the various existing parties is also dated, and needs little comment.


It remains for me to add a personal note. I first read the MCP in school in 1945 when the war was ending, and it motivated much of our early post-war university student politicking, in a Trinity College Dublin environment dominated by the presence of a high proportion of war veterans, and from which Catholics were excluded by their own bishops. It is not surprising that many of us looked East for inspiration, and ignored the issues lurking on the home ground. Unlike most of my fellow-students, I went to seek out the home-ground issues, and this led eventually to my association in the 60s with the then attempt to politicise the republican movement, under the combined inspiration of the Wolfe Tone bicentenary and the American civil rights movement.

The attempt to forge working-class understanding across the religious divide in Northern Ireland was successful for as long as civil rights was the issue: one man one vote, and equal rights to houses and jobs. This all fell apart when the issues were expressed prematurely in national terms, largely on the initiative of the Catholic bourgeoisie in the Republic. Armed counter-attack from the Protestant special police (B-specials) on the Catholic ghettoes of Belfast took place in August 1969, and this generated the demand for republican armed response, leading to the Provisionals and a quarter-century of totally unproductive war, in which such Marxist analysis as there was fell on deaf ears.

My current political position is with the Green Party, where constructive analysis is going on, and minds are open to the development of innovative paradigms, some of which I have indicated in the above commentary. I believe in the potential for a left-green convergence, with the left taking on board a critical analysis of the role of the central State and a positive attitude to the development of local and regional democracy in a decentralised political system (I have indicated aspects of this above), and the greens taking on board some feel for how mature globalised transnational monopoly capitalism works, in the light of Marxist analysis.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999