Introducing the Communist Manifesto

The Manifesto of the Communist Party, first edition, 1848

Disclaimer: I make no claims for the profundity or originality of what follows. This post derives from a seminar for sixth form students and is intended to provide some basic context and raise a range of questions.

The Manifesto of the Communist Party is the most widely read political pamphlet in history and one of the most famous texts ever written. It is also an obvious starting point for the student seeking to explore the thought of Marx and Engels, and to understand the world communist movement.

The scrutiny of any text should begin with the questions: who wrote it? when? where? why? did anybody else read it, and did it influence their thought or actions? We can then consider (in a later post) what the Communist Manifesto has to say to the world of the 21st century.

The answers to these questions can be stated with, perhaps deceptive, simplicity. The Communist Manifesto was written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (it says so clearly on the title page). It was drawn up in haste, between December 1847 and January 1848, in Brussels, to serve as a public statement of principles for the newly-renamed Communist League, and was published in a German edition in February 1848 (shortly after the outbreak of general European revolution – of which more later).

Karl Marx in 1839 Friedrich Engels in 1841

We can put more flesh on this skeletal account. Marx was just short of his 30th birthday; Engels was 27. Both came from middle-class families in the Prussian Rhineland, and both were well-read and well-educated (Marx through formal university education in Bonn and Berlin, Engels through self-education). Both had considerable experience in radical and revolutionary journalism, and both had written substantial books (Marx in social philosophy, Engels in the description of contemporary industrial life). Both were convinced that they had solved the riddle of human existence (“[Communism] is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.” Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844). Marx, by 1848 (this is debatable) had his overall system of thought worked out, in skeleton form at least. There is a very large and important question here: where did Marx’s (and Engels’) ideas come from? I hope to return to this question in another post.

The claimed joint authorship of the Manifesto is problematic. Engels later (in the Preface to the 1883 German edition) that the Manifesto was “essentially Marx’s work” and that “the basic thought… belongs solely and exclusively to Marx”, and this seems likely, although the Manifesto did draw on earlier attempts by Engels at a statement of communist principles (his “catechism” and his Principles of Communism). This is more than a scholastic point – it relates to broader and less tractable questions about the intellectual relationship between Marx and Engels. Were the two essentially identical halves of a unity, as Soviet hagiography cast them? Was Engels the slightly-less-smart sidekick of the great man, tagging along and providing useful financial support? Was Engels an original and creative thinker in his own right, more interested in key questions about gender and the family, and perhaps the man who first switched Marx on to the centrality of political economy? Was Engels the first distorter or even betrayer of Marx, setting Marxism (after Marx’s death – Engels outlive him by 12 years) on the path of simplistic and mechanistic determinism that led to the ruin of the Second International and the catastrophe of 1914?

The Manifesto was written as the first public statement of principles of the Communist League, an organisation which had emerged from a complicated tangle of small conspiratorial organisations of exiled radical German craftsmen, most of which probably had no more than half a dozen members: the League of the Just in Paris, the German Workers’ Educational League in London, the Communist Correspondence Committee which Marx had founded in Brussels. At a London meeting of the Communist League in 1847, Marx was given the task of writing a declaration of principles which he knocked off in a few weeks. Thus, in short, the Communist Manifesto was not a detached work of political philosophy written in the calm of a scholar’s study – it was written in haste, for a particular (and small) group of people, and for a particular purpose – to proclaim the forthcoming revolution and to call into being the communist movement which it proclaimed.

Fighting on the Barricades, Berlin, 18 March 1848. Detail from lithograph by unknown artist.

The Communist Manifesto prophesied imminent revolution, and revolution arrived before it had even left the printers; but it was not the proletarian revolution that the Manifesto envisaged. The 1848 revolutions have attracted some attention in public debate since 2010 and the advent of the analogous “Arab Spring”. In 1848 a series of political upheavals, beginning in France but spreading to encompass over 50 sovereign states (essentially all of continental Europe between the Pyrenees and Russia), shook the absolutist and semi-absolutist monarchies of Europe to the core. This “springtime of the peoples” was complicated and had many strands: liberal opposition to absolutism; demands for more representative, even democratic and republic, government; nationalist movements for national unity and rebirth; the “social question” of working class and artisan grievances. Marx (as a radical journalist in Germany) and Engels (who fought in an armed rising in Baden, in Germany) were directly involved, but their communist movement, commanding at most the support of perhaps 1000 people across the whole continent, constituted only a tiny force on the fringes of the revolutionary movement. The “spectre” that the Manifesto proclaimed to be “haunting Europe” was just that – a ghostly movement without real substance.

Map of the 1848 revolutions in Europe

Despite apparent successes across Europe in 1848, the shaky ad hoc coalitions of liberal reformers, radical republicans, and workers that had driven the revolution proved weaker than the forces which the reactionary monarchies could bring to bear, and by 1849 the old regime was back in the saddle across the continent. Seemingly, at least, the revolution had been almost wholly defeated. Marx himself withdrew permanently to London to devote himself to journalistic writing and the detailed work on political economy that is embodied in Capital; not until 1864 and the creation of the “First International” did he become active again in revolutionary politics. The Communist Manifesto itself disappeared almost without trace. Only Marx and Engels regarded it as a document of importance, and it passed unnoticed in the revolutionary turmoil of 1848. Only around 1000 copies were printed in the original German edition. The Communist League for which it was written played no further part in history, formally disbanding itself in 1852. There was no such thing as the “Communist Party” for which Marx and Engels had written the Manifesto. For over 20 years the work languished in obscurity, being remembered perhaps by only a few hundred German veterans of 1848. It came to prominence again after 1872, ironically as a result of Bismarck’s anti-socialist repression in Germany – the Manifesto (particularly the statement that “working men have no country”) was used by the prosecution at treason trials of German Social Democratic leaders to prove their lack of patriotism. As a result the Manifesto was re-issued in hundreds of editions and translations in the years to 1914, but it was not until after 1917 that the Manifesto acquired the emblematic status of a basic introductory text of a real world communist movement.

Look for my future post which will discuss the question: why read the Communist Manifesto today?

Further reading

Obviously: read the Communist Manifesto. It is short and extremely accessible. This Penguin Classics edition has a very good introduction by Gareth Stedman Jones.

On Marx’s life, Francis Wheen is good fun, David McLellan more weighty.

Jonathan Wolff does a brilliant job of summarising Marx’s thought and its import today.

For the historical context of 1789-1848, I recommend Eric Hobsbawm above all others.

2 thoughts on “Introducing the Communist Manifesto

  1. Pingback: Back to School | The Rational Colonel

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