Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4


Adventures of the Communist Manifesto

Hal Draper
The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto
Center for Socialist History, Berkeley, 1994, pp. 344

THIS BOOK is a rare commodity; it is not only highly useful and authoritative, but lively and entertaining as well. It provides a new translation, publishing history (1848–1895), and textual analysis of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, although as Draper makes very clear, ‘the probability is great that the actual text of the Manifesto was solely from Marx’s pen, however much weight we give to Engels’ contributions preliminary to the final draft’. In this he does not seem to be going quite as far as David McLennan in his well-known biography of Marx, which states categorically that ‘the actual writing of the Communist Manifesto was done exclusively by Marx’.

Prior to Draper’s book there was only one work which explored the detailed history of the Manifesto as a publication – Bert Andreas’ Le Manifest Communiste de Marx et Engels. Histoire et Bibliographie 1848–1918 (Milan 1963). It is bibliographical, and not in narrative form, but Draper pays it considerable tribute, clearly stating where he differs in his conclusions. ‘The Adventures’, he states, ‘has been mined and quarried from its pages.’

In later years, despite many requests, Marx refused to rewrite the original Manifesto, as he termed it ‘an historic document’ that he did not feel he had the right to change. This was not because he held that it was true for all time, but that it related to a particular set of historical circumstances, and that in crucial ways his thought had progressed, although he continued to endorse its principles. This was clearly shown in the first of seven prefaces that Marx and Engels produced (although only two were signed by Marx) for Liebknecht’s ‘fake’ German edition of 1872: ‘No matter how much conditions have changed in the last 25 years, the general principles set forth in this Manifesto still on the whole retain their complete correctness today ... The practical application of these principles – so the Manifesto itself states – will depend everywhere and every time on the historically existing state of affairs.’ Incidentally, the edition was ‘fake’ because, although Marx and Engels used its papers to send to other countries for translations, it was never distributed in Germany itself. The story of how this happened is just one of the many ‘adventures’ of the Manifesto well chronicled by Draper in a very useful first section.

That Marx’s approach is essentially undogmatic comes through clearly. It was not published as the Manifesto of the Communist League, the organisation that commissioned it, but with its original title of Manifesto of the Communist Party, although no Communist Party existed at the time. As Draper states: ‘The decision to issue a manifesto not of the League itself but of the Communist point of view in general, reflected an attitude looking away from sectarianism ... The title of the Manifesto was an advance notice of the de-emphasis of the sect ... So when the manifesto was to be written, it was not a manifesto of the Communist League, but a manifesto presented on behalf of a broader aspect of politics than was contained in the organisational walls of any league.’ This was completely in line with Marx’s view that ‘the Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties’, a point that is always worth repeating. (It was the German edition mentioned above which first used Communist Manifesto as the official title, as ideas were erroneously perceived as less likely to be banned at the time than a document purporting to come from a political party.)

Most of Draper’s book is taken up by parallel texts of three English translations of the Manifesto – the original translation by Helen Macfarlane of 1850 (starting with the infamous ‘a frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe’), the Authorised English Translation of 1888, and a New English Version, as well as the 1848 original in German. There are copious annotations bringing out significant differences which are often extremely illuminating. Like the original German version, the 1888 translation by Moore stands by right as an ‘historic document’, as it was the only one in which Engels had complete involvement, and its particular phrases have longed seeped into Socialist consciousness in the English-speaking world. In no way does the new translation given in Draper’s book seek to claim superiority – its aim is to be supplementary, often setting down ‘another alternative – not necessarily because it is better, let alone more “correct” – but simply to show the differences’.

It is instructive to see some of the assumptions behind the 1888 translation. Draper states that Engels’ expectation that the ideas of the Manifesto could penetrate Anglo-Saxon skulls only ‘with difficulty’ was going to have an important effect on the formulations in the English translation. Marx and Engels both believed that German workers were more amenable to revolutionary theory than those in America or England, and for them ‘plainer fare’ was needed. Thus ‘forms of consciousness’ is usually rendered as ‘general ideas’ for the simpler English mind, while ‘relations of production’ is regularly translated as ‘conditions of production’, which is not the same at all. At best, it becomes ‘social forms springing from ...’, etc.

Draper notes that a line-by-line comparison with the original German text produces an interesting characteristic. The Authorised English Translation is ‘either extremely literal or else boldly revisionary’. There are few sentences that are in the grey area between the two. He deduces from this that Moore provided the literal bits, and that the revisions were made by Engels, who ultimately controlled the translation. He rightly concludes that Moore would not have made such revisions on his own initiative. A most valuable part of the book is the complete list and explanation of the changes. Draper does not attempt an interpretation of Marx’s ideas – this is not the purpose of the book. His explanations, however, inevitably do throw light on Marx’s ideas, and are of more value than many an explicit interpretation of the Manifesto.

There have been other English translations. In 1928 Eden and Cedar Paul produced one for Martin Lawrence (later Lawrence and Wishart), which Draper ironically comments had higher literacy qualities than the Authorised English Translation of 1888. However, translating it on the same basis as a novel makes the whole work an extremely risky base from which to draw conclusions about Marx’s ideas.

Lawrence and Wishart followed this up with another edition around 1935 which purported to be the Authorised English Translation, but with key unacknowledged changes (Draper notes at least 56). This was perhaps the largest ever mass production of the work; there were hundreds and thousands of copies. Some changes are stylistic, others, such as the change of the Authorised English Translation’s ‘win the battle of democracy’ to ‘establish democracy’ were clearly done to support the Communist Party’s Popular Front politics of the time, although Draper does draw back from making this obvious point. Indeed, this is the joy of the book; there is so much raw material from which readers can draw their own conclusions. There is later a very interesting discussion of how best to translate the ‘winning of democracy’ from the German original, concluding that Marx was in many ways hedging his bets with the expression, and that the Authorised English Translation version had at least the merit of being as ‘virtually as cryptic’ as the original German. The ambiguity towards the concept of representative institutions of parliamentary democracy within the Marxist movement has continued ever since.

At a time when capitalism is finally reaching world-wide domination with the consequent widening gap between rich and poor predicted by Marx evident even in the most advanced industrial societies, the Marxist analysis of capitalism becomes increasingly relevant. In such a context it is important to go back to the classic texts of Marx and Engels unencumbered by later, and often spurious, interpretations. Thus, a book like Draper’s is to be very much welcomed. It is very much a labour of love, but one that is not, as so often, clouded by a preconceived ideological position.

One small quibble: Draper points out that it was impossible to use a grammar or spell checker on the Macfarlane translation, in order to preserve the original misprints and slips. However, it would perhaps have been a good idea to use one on other parts of the text where no such constraints apply. For example, on page 43 we finds two strangers called ‘EngelsLafargue’ and ‘Bakounine’, and on page 44 an odd sort of social institution called a ‘Commmune’ appears.

Chris Matthews

Updated by ETOL: 30.9.2011