In the Guardian (10 May), Ellie Mae O’Hagan wrote of Marx, ‘plenty of his proposals – just as radical when he wrote them – are common sense today. These include free education, abolition of child labour, a progressive income tax, a national bank, and closing the gap between town and countryside.’ This is true but these, taken from the Communist Manifesto weren’t what he meant by ‘communism’, as we explain here.
The main thing to realise about the Communist Manifesto is that it isn’t. It was originally published in German in 1848 and its title was Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (Manifesto of the Communist Party). The Manifesto was issued in the name of the Communist League, a loose grouping of German refugees in London, and no author was credited. In the previous year the Central Committee of the League had commissioned Marx to write a statement of general principles and issued him with editorial guidelines. The Central Committee then authorised it for publication. There was no Communist Party as we now understand that term but there can be little doubt that their Manifesto was a rallying cry for such an organisation.
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 last 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 no such incentive, having done well in the recent capitalist industrialisation sweeping Europe, and so tended to ally themselves with the forces of conservative reaction. It was in this context that Marx and the League issued their Manifesto.
In the Chartist weekly newspaper Red Republican, in 1850, Helen Macfarlane produced the first English translation — only they gave it the title ‘German Communism: Manifesto of the German Communist Party’. To the Chartists, at least, the insertion of ‘German’ twice in the title indicates that the purpose of the Manifesto was obvious. In Macfarlane’s translation the Manifesto begins: ‘A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe’. After 1848 it was soon translated into numerous languages and in different countries. It was again translated into English by Samuel Moore (who had translated volume 1 of Capital) and ‘revised in common’ with Engels for the ‘authorised’ 1888 edition. In that edition Engels claimed joint authorship, but he was not involved in writing the Manifesto. In the ‘authorised’ edition the 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.
The Manifesto claimed to ‘not set up any sectarian principles of their own’. But what about Chartism? Chartism was a mass working class organisation demanding universal suffrage and other reforms. The Manifesto argued that ‘Chartists are infinitely closer to the communists than the democratic petty bourgeoisie or the so-called Radicals’. And yet, at this point, while the League did see themselves sharing some common ground, they were sufficiently different from Chartism to form a separate organisation. Despite what the Manifesto said, communists could be opposed to other working class organisations if there were important issues at stake. In fact the League had a communist objective which was not shared by Chartism, though some individuals in that organisation did share that objective. At this early stage of their political career, Marx, Engels and others used the term communism for their objective. Later they would use socialism and social democracy, but they all meant the same thing.
The theoretical concerns of the Manifesto are universal, but the concrete demands of the Manifesto were German. In the Manifesto, the League ‘turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution.’ That is the context within which the Manifesto was issued. Later in 1848 the Central Committee of the Communist League issued its ‘Demands of the Communist Party in Germany’. This seventeen-point programme updated the Manifesto’s immediate demands to the changed German conditions. It argued: ‘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 immediate 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).
At the end of its second section the Manifesto lists ten measures which ‘will, of course, be different in different countries’. And when the Manifesto was reprinted 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 2. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today.’ Germany had become a unified bourgeois state the year before. In fact, some of the measures at the end of Section 2 have since been implemented within clearly capitalist and state capitalist regimes.
Many commentators on the Manifesto only have eyes for the historically specific reformist demands (‘A heavy progressive or graduated income tax’) and are blind to the universally specific communist demands (‘the Communistic abolition of buying and selling’). For instance, in his Introduction to the Pluto Press edition of The Communist Manifesto (2008), while purporting to be sympathetic, David Harvey argues for the universal applicability of some of the reform demands while ignoring communism entirely (Socialist Standard book review, November 2008). His one word response to our astonishment was: ‘Predictable’.
Understanding context is important when reading historical documents. We will never know how history would have turned out if Marx had not written a Communist Manifesto, but the Manifesto of the Communist Party continues to create confusion as well as enlightenment.