1990s >> 1998 >> no-1122-february-1998

150 Years of The Communist Manifesto


The Communist Manifesto remains a good introduction in their own words to the ideas of Marx and Engels. Here we summarise its contents and put it in its historical context.


It was not until the 1870s, when Marx gained some notoriety, that interest began to be expressed in his earlier works, including the Manifesto. It was first republished in German in 1872, then several other languages before the 1888 English edition. Marx refused to re-write it for the changed circumstances because, reasonably enough, he claimed that it had become a historical document which nobody had a right to alter. However, for the reader lacking an understanding of the context in which it was issued, it is all too easy to suppose that it was entirely a communist Manifesto. Yet if we are careful to distinguish the historically specific from the universal we can then see the communism (socialism) in the Manifesto.

It was translated into English by Samuel Moore (who had translated volume 1 of Capital) and “revised in common” with Engels for the “authorised” 1888 edition. However, this “authorised” version contains a large number of small but important alterations to Marx’s original text. Compare the published version with translations of the original wording reproduced here, especially in section two. (See The Communist Manifesto, a Norton Critical Edition edited by Frederic L. Bender, 1988. Contains Prefaces, annotated text, sources and background information.)

The original title, Manifesto of the Communist Party, indicates that it was written for a particular organisation with particular purposes, at a particular time and place. Karl Marx (but not Engels) was commissioned to write the Manifesto by the Central Committee of the Communist League, a small London-based organisation of German refugees, in November 1847. The Manifesto was published in late February 1848, at about the same time as the revolutions of 1848 began-first in Paris, then in Berlin and many other European cities. The occurrence of widespread uprisings throughout Europe owed nothing to the Manifesto, though members of the League were not alone in anticipating such an event. The contributory factors were food shortages and starvation brought about by the spread of potato blight, chronic unemployment and falling wages caused by recession, frustration at the feudal bastions of reaction in government, and revolutionary nationalism. In most cases it fell to members of the “petty bourgeoisie” (shopkeepers, artisans, small farmers) to organise revolution. They had suffered economic hardship in the previous few years, had the most to gain from a more progressive regime and potentially had the political clout to bring it about. The big capitalists had not as much incentive, having done well in the industrialisation sweeping Europe, and so often tended to ally themselves instead with the forces of conservative reaction. It was in this context that Marx and the League issued their Manifesto.

The famous opening declaration, “A spectre is haunting Europe-the spectre of Communism”, was something of an exaggeration. Marx borrowed this already well-known imagery from Lorenz von Stein’s book on communism in France, published in 1842. After the opening the Manifesto is then divided into four sections:

Bourgeois and Proletarians; Proletarians and Communists; Socialist and Communist Literature; Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties.

Bourgeois and Proletarians

The bourgeoisie (capitalist class) “historically, has played a most revolutionary part”. They have pursued their class interest by gaining political control of the state, which “is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The bourgeoisie, by pursuing its own self interest, has brought about great advances in technology and production. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe.” But the bourgeoisie has also created the proletariat (working class) and this class will in turn become the “gravedigger” for the bourgeoisie by recreating society in the proletariat’s interests. “All previous movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority” (original wording).

Proletarians and Communists

The Communists (meaning members of the Communist League) are distinguished from the other working class parties by the way “they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.”

The Communists are “the most resolute section of the working-class parties of every country” (original wording). Theoretically, “they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”.

The Communist League wants to eventually abolish “bourgeois property” (private ownership of the means of production) and this also entails “the abolition of buying and selling.” The bourgeois family must also be abolished (“prostitution both public and private”) and nationality (“working men have no country”). The first step in the revolution by the working class is “to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, which is the struggle of democracy” (original wording). The proletariat will use its political power to take, “by degrees”, all capital from the bourgeoisie, “centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state” and “increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible”.

The practical measures for achieving this “will of course be different in different countries.” Nevertheless, “in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.” There then follows ten measures, including the “Expropriation of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes” (original wording), “a heavy progressive or graduated taxation” (original wording), “abolition of all right of inheritance”, “centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly”, “centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State”, “extension of factories and instruments owned by the State”, and “free education for all children in public schools”.

When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and “all production has been concentrated in the hands of the associated individuals, the public power will lose its political character” (original wording). Political power is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. When the proletariat, organised as the ruling class, “abolishes the old conditions of production” (original wording) it “will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.”

In its place we will have communism: “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

This second section of the Manifesto is controversial, with the measures at the end being mistakenly interpreted by some as communist (socialist) measures in themselves when clearly they are not. Two points should be made by way of clarification. First, the Manifesto was written with Germany in mind (though not exclusively). This was made explicit when the Central Committee of the Communist League issued its “Demands of the Communist Party in Germany” in late March 1848. This seventeen-point programme expands on the Manifesto‘s ten-point programme to the changed German conditions. It starts: “All of Germany shall be declared to be a single and indivisible republic.” It adds at the end, above the signatories (which included Marx and Engels): “It is to the German proletariat, the petit bourgeoisie, and the small peasantry to support these demands with all possible energy.” In short, Marx, the League and the ten measures in the Manifesto were encouraging a bourgeois-democratic revolution.

In the circumstances of the time it seemed logical to Marx and the League that they should accept that for the moment their interests coincided with those of the bourgeois democrats, until such time as the absolutist regimes had been overthrown, and should then continue their struggle against the new bourgeois regimes. It was assumed that “the bourgeois democratic governments” could be placed in the situation of immediately losing “all backing among workers” (Marx’s address to the Communist League, 1850). Second, when the Manifesto was reprinted for the first time in 1872, Marx and Engels stated in the Preface that “no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today.” For instance Germany had become a unified bourgeois state the year before. In fact, many of the measures have since been implemented within capitalism.

Socialist and Communist Literature

In this section Marx discusses various other contemporary types of “socialism” and “communism”. The Critical-Utopian Socialists (St. Simon, Fourier, Owen) are praised for revealing the class division in society, but are utopian because they refuse to advocate a class politics. This is understandable, given the level of development at the time the utopians wrote in the early nineteenth century. Nevertheless, their practical measures point to the abolition of class antagonisms: “the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the functions of the state into a mere superintendence of production”. The reference to the abolition of the distinction between town and country, and family, in the former case is evidence of an ecological critique of the way capitalism centralises and concentrates living space, in the latter case it is evidence of a critique of the gender roles imposed on women and men in a class society.

Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties

The Communist League fights for “the attainment of the immediate aims, interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent the future of the movement” (original wording). The Communist League “turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution.” The Communist League “openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all social orders up to now. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose in this but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” (original wording).

The final injunction to forcibly overthrow the old social orders was framed within the context of absolutist regimes with little or nothing in the way of a franchise. In such circumstances it did seem that force was the only way of bringing about change. Later in life Marx argued that the universal franchise meant that the working class might be able to bring about change peacefully by force of numbers.

The Manifesto was also written before Marx had sufficiently worked out his theory of value. A reference to wages tending to the bare physical subsistence level should not be taken as a theoretical proposition, but rather as a rhetorical flourish. The latter applies to some other phrases, such as the inevitability of workers’ power.

Setting to one side the capitalist measures at the end of section 2, we can extract Marx’s ideas on communism (or socialism, since Marx made no distinction between the terms as systems of society) which remain valid as a Manifesto for the twenty-first century:

  • Communists (Socialists) want to abolish private ownership of the means of production, buying and selling, the wages system, the economic enforcement of the family unit, the concentration and centralisation of living space and the state.
  • Communists (Socialists) want to replace this with democracy and a free association in which the self-development of each individual is the condition for the development of everybody.
  • Communism (Socialism) must be world-wide, because it is replacing a system which is world-wide.
  • It must be brought about by the revolutionary political action of the working class.
  • It must be brought about by the majority of the working class, not minorities.
  • Communists (Socialists) are the most determined and politically organised section of the working class, but they are not a vanguard leading the working class.

L.Higgins

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