Marx and Engels life’s work consisted in building an international, mass party of the working class, which would overthrow capitalism. But the Manifesto could hardly anticipate the future degeneration of the leadership of workers' parties.
The betrayal of workers’ struggles leads to temporary periods of decline, division, and ideological confusion. The Labour Party in Britain and many workers’ parties around the world today, which find their origins in the inspiration and struggles of the early Marxists (and are usually still called ‘Labour’ or ‘Socialist’ or ‘Social Democratic’), have abandoned their leadership of the working class, and turned definitively to represent the capitalist class. This has momentarily set back the consciousness of the broad layers of workers that they used to lead.
Moreover, at best the leaders of parties like the Labour Party in Britain took the view that the capitalist class internationally would allow them to reform capitalism piece by piece. They repudiated Marxism. For this reason we call them ‘reformist.’ They nationalised just those industries that capitalism could not run profitably yet relied on in the rest of industry, for instance for cheap energy, transport or communications. They introduced welfare reforms to support the workers that capitalism had thrown into poverty by low wages, unemployment, disability or old age. They patched things up.
But this so-called ‘mixed economy,’ where some industries were nationalised, still ran on the basis of profit. It was still a capitalist economy, and the capitalist class pilfered the nationalised industries and service sector. Of course, the capitalist class prefer the privatisation of these nationalised industries so that they have full control over them.
The capitalist class, however, will always defend their property. No ruling class exits the pages of history voluntarily. The old Labour Party leaders suffered the delusion that through control of the state and economic management of the ‘mixed economy,’ society would gradually advance to socialism, through step by step reform. (Today's Labour Party leaders of course have no such illusions - their illusions are in an entirely capitalist vision of society.)
In the fifty years since the Second World War, socialism was never attained anywhere in Europe or the rest of the world. Now Labour leaders everywhere have abandoned reformism, and many these ‘reformist’ measures have been reversed, or are being decisively undermined.
Nevertheless, the working class will build new mass workers’ parties. In Britain, various trade union leaderships are already being forced to partially reflect the pressure which the most far-sighted workers are exerting to break the union links with the Labour Party, and fund alternative anti-cuts candidates.
Those (like Hobsbawm and Monbiot) who argue that the working class is not the "grave-digger" of the capitalist class, as the Communist Manifesto asserts, mistake the betrayals of workers’ leaders for an inherent weakness in the working class itself.
After the Second World War, the working class in Britain and in Europe – and particularly the demobbed troops – had been radicalised by their experiences, and many embraced the ideas of socialism. With a leadership worthy of their aspirations, with a clear understanding of the tasks, the working class could have carried through a socialist transformation of society in Britain rapidly and peacefully. But the Labour Party leadership, which the working class thrust into power in 1945, hoped only to make changes within the system of capitalism in a series of ‘reforms.’ The capitalists retained power.
The rapid transformation of society would have been possible by nationalising the entire ‘commanding heights of the economy,’ around 750 or so big corporations at that time (now just 150). Giving compensation only to shareholders in special need, a socialist society would immediately establish a democratic plan of production, placed under the control and management of the working class.
This is a way of expressing in today’s language the demand in the Communist Manifesto for the "abolition of private property."
A socialist society, explains the Manifesto, "deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society." Everybody can own, as private possessions, the goods produced by a socialist society. But a socialist society terminates the power that the bosses have under capitalism "to subjugate the labour of others" by means of the ownership of "private property," whether in the form of global corporations, big businesses, or sweatshops; whether through banking, property speculation, or landlordism – or any of the other swindles by which the capitalist class get an income directly or indirectly from the working class.
In place of the anarchy of the pursuit of profit, a socialist society would introduce democratic planning. A plan of production would end the anarchic cycles of boom and bust which are caused by capitalism – of overproduction, followed by recession, redundancy, closures and crash.
In the turmoil that followed the Second World War, such a move could have inspired similar movements throughout Europe and the world. There were many opportunities, but there was no clear-sighted, international revolutionary party to carry them through. But the lessons of history are not lost, and new mass parties, and a newly conscious revolutionary leadership can be re-built by the working class.
When the stock markets tumbled to a five year low in July 2002, the Daily Mirror declared: "Karl Marx must be rubbing his hands with glee and saying 'I told you so'." (30 June 2002.) At the same time The Independent compared the preparation of the first all-out strike by more than a million council workers to the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1979, which brought down the previous Labour government, and the General Strike of 1926, which had the potential to end capitalism in Britain.
The Independent observes that on both previous occasions "only manual workers were involved." (The Independent, 6 July 2002.) Now the white collar workers, drawn into the working class proper over the decades by the processes outlined in the Manifesto, and recently radicalised by privatisations, poverty pay and exploitation, have forced their union leaders into calling strike action. Unobserved by capitalist and labour commentators, it seems, the potential power of the working class has been increasing all the time. There has indeed been an "ever expanding union of the workers."
The world has entered a period of war and depression possibly matching the inter-war years of the last century, the 1920s and 1930s – when, inspired by the socialist aims of the Russian revolution, mass communist parties grew up throughout the world.
Marx and Engels spelt out a second correction to the Manifesto, after the experience of the Paris Commune. In a preface to the re-publication of the Manifesto in 1872, they quote from a speech made by Marx to the first international Marxist organisation, the International Working Men’s Association:
Trotsky points out "Marx later counter-posed to the capitalist state, the state of the type of the [Paris] Commune." Here all representatives were elected, working class people, subject to recall at any time, and they took only a skilled worker’s wage. The entire edifice of the establishment was dismantled, such as the judiciary, and replaced by elected people on an ordinary wage without privilege or pretension.
The Manifesto is one of the most influential and widely published explanations of socialist ideas ever written. The Manifesto concludes by proclaiming that the Communists reject conspiratorial methods and
Workers of the World Unite!"