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Reflections on The Communist Manifesto

(July 1998)

From International Socialism 2:79, July 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘The history of the Manifesto reflects to a great extent the history of the modern working class movement; at present it is undoubtedly the most widespread, the most international production of all socialist literature, the common platform acknowledged by millions of workingmen from Siberia to California’. [1] So wrote Frederick Engels towards the end of his life of the impact of The Communist Manifesto. The statement remains as true today, 150 years later. The impact of The Communist Manifesto has been remarkable. This small book has been translated into all the major languages and has remained an inspiration for generations of socialists. It has entered into working class consciousness in a way that few other political works have been able to do. It is often the first and perhaps even the only piece of writing by Marx and Engels that many workers read. It also has a dramatic and literary quality which makes it one of the great pieces of political writing. Its powerful arguments and its sense of providing a complete picture still overshadow most modern political work. The Manifesto must rank as one of the few pieces of writing whose opening and closing lines are well known in their own right. ‘A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism,’ and, ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win,’ are phrases which have entered the language of international socialism. But reading The Communist Manifesto it is impossible not to recognise a number of other well known phrases which encapsulate some key Marxist formulations. ‘All that is solid melts into air’, the capitalists produce their ‘own gravediggers’, ‘the workingmen have no country’, ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’

The success of The Communist Manifesto lies in two huge strengths which the book possesses. It is the clearest short exposition of the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, and alongside its clarity of thought and language it is also a guide to action.

Marx and Engels had a sense of tremendous upheaval in the world around them during the 1840s. They viewed the capitalist development which had taken hold in England, Belgium and to a certain extent France as revolutionary. It could destroy the old feudal societies which still dominated much of Europe and it could lead to major social and economic advances for the mass of humanity. This new order with its completely new ways of organising production would come into conflict with the old. Marx and Engels saw revolutionary upheaval as an inevitable outcome of these clashes, especially in their native Germany, which was still made up of a large number of small states and principalities, although increasingly dominated by the militarised eastern state of Prussia.

The coming revolutions would be ‘bourgeois revolutions’, necessary to pave the way for full capitalist development by sweeping away the old political autocracies, which still based themselves on the feudal methods of production. But Marx and Engels recognised that they would have a significant working class component. Key to their theory was their understanding that the working class was the most powerful revolutionary class. Engels had direct experience of the English working class – he had gone to England at the end of 1842 in the aftermath of the general strike of that year and he was familiar with the politics of the Chartists. His experiences, on which he based his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, were of a capitalism which could create immense wealth and revolutionise work, but which also created immense human misery. The potential of the working class to change the world was a key part of the polemic in which both Marx and Engels engaged with those involved in socialist or democratic politics. The Manifesto summarised their analysis: the big battles between the feudal order and the bourgeoisie were imminent, but these would soon be replaced by the battles between the now powerful capitalist class and the emerging revolutionary working class.

In 1847 Marx and his family were living in Brussels and Engels in Paris. They were politically active mainly among other German émigrés in the Communist Correspondence Committees which existed in Paris, Brussels and London. They were also in contact with socialists organised in the League of the Just, a body which based its political support on German artisans living in London. Although the League’s politics harked back to a world based on workshop rather than factory production, many of its members were also undergoing a period of ideological upheaval. In the summer of 1847 the League changed its name to the Communist League. Even before this date Marx and Engels were asked by one of its leaders, the watchmaker Joseph Moll, to join the League and to write its founding principles.

Engels first embarked on the project, writing his little book Principles of Communism which is sometimes described as a first draft of the Manifesto and which he called a communist catechism. In this book Engels attempted to answer many of the basic questions about communist ideas raised by potential supporters. [2] Principles of Communism starts with the development of the factory system and how this imposes a division of labour upon work, so that the labour needed for a particular task is broken down into a series of repetitive tasks capable of being performed by a machine. Thus the spread of machinery and the factory to every branch of industry led to the increased polarisation of society into two major classes: the bourgeoisie which owns the factories and raw materials; and the proletariat which is forced to sell its labour power as a commodity in order to live. However, the anarchy of the system means that the spread of capitalism into every area of life, without any plan or any thought about what should be produced, leads to a crisis of overproduction, where goods are left unsold, factories lie idle and workers are made unemployed. The capitalist organisation of industry and production is a barrier to further development and thus society can only advance when ownership of production becomes social and therefore fitted to the needs of the producers. This means the abolition of private property – something only possible under socialism – and with it the abolition of class society.

So long as it is not possible to produce so much that not only is there enough for all, but also a surplus ... So long must there always be a ruling class, disposing of the productive forces of society, and a poor, oppressed class. How these classes are composed will depend upon the stage of the development of production. In the Middle Ages which were dependent on agriculture, we find the lord and the serf; the towns of the later Middle Ages show us the master guildsman and the journeyman and day-labourer; the 17th century has the manufacturer and the manufacturing worker; the 19th century has the big factory owner and the proletarian. It is obvious that hitherto the productive forces had not yet been developed so far that enough could be produced for all or to make private property a fetter, a barrier to these productive forces.

With capitalism, however, the massive increase in the productive forces and the development of the two main contending classes meant that ‘only now ... has the abolition of private property become not only possible but even absolutely necessary’. [3]

The question and answer form of Principles of Communism was a starting point for a statement of aims, but it was only the bare bones of what became the Manifesto. Marx took some of its structure and arguments but built a much more substantial and engaging piece of writing from them. He did this because towards the end of 1847 a conference of the Communist League in London, which Marx attended, commissioned him to write a manifesto for the organisation which he set about doing after a number of disagreements over political issues. Marx’s failure to produce a draft led to an irate letter at the end of January 1848 from the central committee of the League saying that, ‘if the “Manifesto of the C Party”, the writing of which he undertook at the last congress, has not arrived in London by Tuesday 1 February of this year, further measures will be taken against him’. [4] The warning did the trick and the draft was completed by early February and sent to London where it was published in February 1848.

What The Communist Manifesto says

’The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ The starting point of the Manifesto is also the starting point of the Marxist theory of history. In all previous societies there have been struggles between the classes which eventually proved decisive and which led either to the creation of a new way of organising work and living, a revolutionary change in society as a whole, or to the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’. [5] If the outcome of the struggle between the classes was not decisive, if neither side could effectively break through, then rather than going forward, the whole of society could be pushed backwards. Such crucial struggles had marked the development of society in particular historical periods as it moved from one mode of production to another. Most recently, the great battles in England in the 1640s and France in the 1780s and 1790s represented the successful struggle of the bourgeoisie over the forces of feudalism. The bourgeois revolutions which would, Marx and Engels assumed, spread throughout other parts of Europe would usher in a period of rapid development of the forces of production which in turn would lead quite rapidly to working class or proletarian revolution. The Manifesto therefore starts its analysis by looking at the progress which capitalism represents compared to previous societies, and looks initially not at the emerging working class but at the revolutionary nature of the capitalist class itself.

The Manifesto creates a powerful and striking image of capitalism as a constantly changing and dynamic system which is altering almost before the authors’ eyes. Perhaps unexpectedly it also conveys Marx and Engels’ admiration for many of the achievements of capitalist development. If this is perhaps hard for us to imagine 150 years later – when in living memory there have been two world wars, numerous slumps, the Holocaust, and when genocide, famine and acute poverty are all facts of modern capitalist life – we have to bear in mind the background against which Marx and Engels wrote. The development of capitalism was for them a tremendous advance on what had gone before. German society in particular was held back by political and regional divisions, autocratic political systems, archaic laws and restrictive trading conditions. The dynamic elements of German society were hindered by these social relations which acted as fetters to prevent society from moving forward. By the 1840s there was already a clear division between the dynamism of some societies, driven forward on the basis of rapid capitalist development, and the stagnation of others.

Capitalism was in the process of destroying the old feudal order and establishing its own rule. This in turn, Marx and Engels argued, would create the preconditions for the struggle for socialism – in particular, it would create mass industrial production and a new revolutionary working class. The Manifesto gives a brilliant short portrait of the development of capitalism: the growth of the towns in the Middle Ages, the voyages of discovery which led to merchant capitalism, the growth of manufacture to meet the demands of the new markets:

The feudal system of industry, under which industrial production was monopolised by closed guilds, no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The manufacturing system took its place. The guildmasters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class; division of labour between the different corporate guilds vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop. Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacture no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant modern industry, the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois. [6]

The system developed into a world system with the search for markets taking it into the corners of the globe and bringing with it cities, railways, modern communications. The bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class because it transformed production and destroyed ways of living and working which had often been in existence for hundreds of years:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them, the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production … was ... the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting certainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. [7]

This revolutionising of production has the same effect in every area of life. Old religions, beliefs or customs disappear, and men and women begin to think in dramatically different ways because they are living and working in different ways: ‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their chain of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind’. [8]

The development of commodity production – where all goods can be bought and sold on the market – also led to a market in wage labour. Old crafts and professions found that they could not compete with large scale industry. Jobs were transformed and performed by wage labourers. Artisans were propelled towards the proletariat. Capitalism, sweeping all before it, destroyed old societies, old jobs, whole communities, and established new ones. The dynamism of the system meant that, once it began to spread throughout the world, it had devastating effects: for example, destroying traditional ways of life such as those of the Native Americans, who found their methods of agriculture, nomadic life or even warfare no match for the machinery, railroads and telegraphs, and rifles which conquered a continent in a matter of decades. In India the indigenous cotton industry was destroyed by the import of cheap Lancashire cloth.

This spread of capitalist production spelt the end of many industries and societies, yet the awesome advances of the bourgeoisie are praised in the Manifesto: ‘The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.’ Marx and Engels list achievements made by the capitalists in the space of around a century: ‘Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?’ [9]

However, there is a fundamental failing in the system which leads Marx and Engels to compare capitalist society with the sorcerer who can no longer control the forces he has conjured up. The system is not logical or planned – its whole motor is capital accumulation for its own sake. It is therefore periodically prone to what the Manifesto describes as crises of overproduction which its authors describe in the most graphic terms: ‘There is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce’. [10] The overproduction results from the unplanned nature of the system: production based on blind accumulation becomes an end in itself, the means of maintaining the capitalist’s profit, rather than having any relationship to whether goods produced are needed.

Capitalist society – based on private commodity production and on the exploitation of wage labour – becomes a barrier to further production rather than a spur. Private property prevents the productive forces from being developed as they could be to supply the needs of the whole humanity. Instead capitalism’s answer to the crisis is to destroy wealth. Factories close, workers are left unemployed, and those who could benefit from the goods produced in those factories have to go without.

So precisely the people who produce the wealth for the capitalists are not only denied any share in the riches of capitalism, they are also the victims in times of crisis when they lose their means to a livelihood. The solution to this deprivation, however, lies in their own hands.

The working class

The working class or the proletariat – meaning literally those without property – is the unique product of capitalism, which creates a class of wage labourers who have no means of subsistence other than to sell their labour power. The workers become slaves to machinery, their lives dominated by the process of exploitation. Marx and Engels describe the early development of the working class as a conscious class. Workers’ struggles tend to be directed against the machinery which is destroying their old livelihoods. Their first political protests are not directed at the capitalists themselves but at the old order – ‘at this stage, therefore, the proletarians do not fight their enemies, but the enemies of their enemies, the remnants of absolute monarchy, the landowners, the non-industrial bourgeois, the petty-bourgeoisie’. [11] But as industry grows this tendency changes. The working class is organised in larger and larger numbers, the wages and conditions of different trades become more similar and the experience of factory work leads them towards collective organisation, trade unions and political organisations. The constant struggle between the classes, centred on production in the workplace, leads workers to co-operate and act together, and to develop ideas of collectivity and solidarity.

Marx and Engels describe the working class as the only really revolutionary class: workers’ position as a class makes them uniquely placed to overthrow capitalist society. It does not matter, in the first instance, that they do not think of themselves as revolutionary. Their position in the workplace is key. Here they potentially have the power to run society because they produce the wealth and they are forced through their work experience to organise collectively. This means that they are the only class capable of leading a revolution. Whereas previous revolutions, even when they were victorious, resulted in one ruling class being replaced by another minority ruling class, acting in its own interests, such an outcome is not possible in a successful proletarian revolution. The working class can only make a revolution by abolishing the class society which creates its exploitation, thus emancipating all the dispossessed: ‘All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority’. [12] The development of industry itself therefore creates the weapon for the destruction of the capitalist class and the establishment of a class whose collective power enables it to run society on an equitable basis – in the famous phrase, it creates the ‘gravedigger’ of capitalism.

Capitalism is marked by the increasing dominance of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the two major contending classes. The old classes tend to disappear in the face of capitalist development, the vast majority of their members being pushed towards the proletariat. ‘The lower strata of the middle class – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which modern industry is carried on. They are swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production’. [13] Greater numbers of people are forced to sell their labour power in order to make a living – a process which is still continuing at the end of the 20th century. Over recent decades, for example, peasants have moved from the land to the cities, migrants have crossed the world to work in the advanced industrial countries, and women in these countries have been drawn into the labour market in unprecedented numbers.

When workers do begin to organise collectively their struggles, if successful, usually lead to advances in society as a whole. Whereas the old classes when they fought tended to do so on a conservative basis, trying to preserve their threatened position inside capitalist society, the workers’ struggle against the capitalists tended to lead to improvements in society and in the conditions of working people. In most capitalist societies today where workers have relatively high living standards and benefits, there is likely to be a relationship with high working class expectations, and often resulting from high levels of workers’ organisation in the past or present.

Questions and answers

This first section of the Manifesto stands in opposition to those who claim that Marxism cannot address the modern world. It anticipates the speed and direction of actual capitalist development in countries such as the US and Germany by decades and explains a lot about 20th century capitalism, especially in many of the so called ‘Third World’ countries. The description of the growth of the proletariat, of capital accumulation and of the onset of crisis could all apply to the recent history of the Asian ‘Tigers’. It is unsurprising therefore that a growing number of people are looking once again at the ideas of Marxism and socialism in trying to explain what is wrong with the world.

Marx and Engels were active revolutionaries who found an audience of potential socialists bitterly unhappy about what capitalism was doing to workers’ lives and looking for an alternative. The second section of the Manifesto tries to deal with their arguments. It is in effect a series of questions and answers about socialism and communism and what it will achieve. Many are familiar to socialists today who find themselves faced with questions from those who are attracted to ideas of revolution but believe it will never take place. Take for example the question of private property. Central to Marx and Engels’ view of communism is the need to abolish private property, since this is based on the exploitation of the vast majority. Yet they met an objection still commonly raised today – doesn’t this mean you want to take away someone’s personal possessions, and that you are denying them their personal means of choosing how to express themselves? What will be the incentive to work if people have no property of their own? The Manifesto explains that capital – or property – is not a personal but a social power: ‘to be a capitalist is to have not only a purely personal but a social status in production’. [14]

Abolition of private property would not therefore result in every small item owned by a worker being taken away. Instead the social aspect of property would change: it would not be controlled by a tiny minority class and it would not form the basis of the oppression of everyone else. In fact ‘communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society: all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriation’. [15]

Complaints about property are in any case hypocritical coming from the capitalists. Capitalism has destroyed the property of the small peasantry, the artisans and small businessmen. Many of them have been forced to sell their labour power on the market; the wages of the labourers, which barely cover the costs of reproduction for them and their families, hardly allow the possession of very much individual property:

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is, the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society. In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so: that is just what we intend. [16]

Despite talk of property-owning democracies in modern capitalism, the concentration of property among a tiny minority is still staggering, especially when housing – or debt in the form of mortgages – is excluded. For example, in Britain in the 1980s the share of marketable wealth for the richest 1 percent was 28 percent, while that of the richest 5 percent was 53 percent. [17] Another common objection to communism is that no one would work if there were no private property. Marx and Engels answer that if this were the case society would long ago have collapsed since ‘those of its members who work acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work’. [18]

The Manifesto also points to a contradiction that while the forces of capitalism are turning the world upside down, destroying much of the fabric of the old societies, the capitalists themselves cling to the old customs, habits and ideas as though they spring from an eternal human nature. The capitalists can see clearly what was wrong with ancient or feudal society but not what is wrong with their own. They can see no other way of living and working. ‘The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property, historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production – this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you’. [19]

The Manifesto is completely scathing about some of the bourgeois horror stories of communism which arise from such attitudes. To accusations that they are out to abolish the family, Marx and Engels reply that the capitalist system has already destroyed communities, ripped working class families apart, enforced migration and pushed every member of the family, including small children, onto the labour market. This explains ‘the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and prostitution’. [20] The attitude of the bourgeoisie towards its own family and the sanctity of family life is hypocritical in the extreme. It bases its family on property, and its views on monogamy and sexual morality are based on inheritance and the idea of women as the property of men, to be bought and sold, either as wives or as prostitutes. Instead communism would free women from loveless and enforced sexual relations by taking away the economic constraints which dominated love and marriage under capitalism.

Underpinning these ideas – and Marx and Engels’ equally radical ideas on nationality and religion – was the understanding that in the process of changing society and of moving from one mode of production (capitalism) to another (socialism) all the old ideas would be thrown into ferment and replaced with new forms of consciousness:

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?

What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas have ever been the ideas of its ruling class. [21]

Any society based on the exploitation of one group by another, as class societies are, will develop ideas which justify the rule of its exploiters. It is not surprising that the ideas of the capitalists sanctify and protect property. The struggle for a new form of society which overcomes those class antagonisms means not just a material struggle against exploitation but an alternative ideological explanation of the world. The history of ideas has to be understood not as a series of disparate religions and thinkers, but as themselves being tied to the development of particular modes of production. The notion that there can be ‘eternal truths’ which transcend different societies and even different epochs does not stand up to historical scrutiny.

The radical social changes which Marx and Engels set out and the establishment of communism itself could only be achieved by sweeping away the old system of production, based on private property, which allowed a minority to accumulate wealth while the majority suffered. Only by ridding itself of these conditions can the working class begin to end the class antagonisms which the conditions produce. Eventually production for need based on workers themselves running society would lead to a classless society – communism – where ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. [22]

What sort of socialism?

The analysis of scientific socialism spelt out in the Manifesto was the first simple attempt by the authors to define their form of socialism and communism in relation to the various other sorts of socialism which had sprung up in England, France and Germany during the 1840s. They had direct experience of a number of these tendencies. Engels had been in contact both with the followers of Robert Owen and then with the Chartist movement when he first came to England in the early part of the decade. Marx had written his work The Poverty of Philosophy in response to the ideas of the French socialist Pierre Joseph Proudhon. Many of the German exiles in Paris, Brussels and London during the 1840s were influenced by the ideas of the German ‘true socialists’.

The various forms of socialism on offer at the time tended to be backwards looking, towards a supposedly better society before the excesses of capitalism. Their proponents lacked any strategy for changing society except for appeals to representatives of the old classes themselves under attack from capitalism, or to the more liberal minded capitalists themselves, or to general but abstract appeals to ‘truth’ or ‘justice’. Marx and Engels were fiercely critical of these various strands of socialism, as the final sections of the Manifesto explain in some detail. Having spelt out their theory of socialism, they engage in a polemic against those competing to win workers to different ideas. They consider the various sorts of socialism popularised in the years before the Manifesto was written, and start with a material analysis of why these sorts of socialism have found an audience. The different socialist theories express the various attempts by different classes and social forces to come to terms with the phenomenon of capitalism.

Many of the early forms of socialism were inspired, led and articulated by the representatives of those classes who had lost out the most in the transition from feudalism to capitalism and whose critique of the new system was based on the desire to preserve its old place in the social order. Even the aristocracy was prepared to attack the emerging bourgeoisie in words, although it was compromising with it in deeds and in sharing the spoils of wealth. The ‘Young England’ movement was not really a socialist movement at all but it had some following in the early 1840s. Disraeli, later to be a Tory prime minister, wrote two novels, Sybil and Coningsby, which ‘can be read as textbooks of the [Young England] school ... These Tory scions of the aristocracy had an idealistic aim: to counteract the rising bourgeoisie and regenerate the power of the aristocracy by appealing to the working classes of the factories and farms, not simply by social demagogy but by real amelioration of the workers’ lot – exclusively at the expense of the rival ruling classes’. [23] These forces therefore represented divisions inside the ranks of the rulers and a real conflict of interests between different sections of the ruling class. However, they had no desire to see the working class acting in its own interests, since this would threaten the property and position of the landowners and the church as much as it would the factory owners. Their critique of capitalism, therefore, attracted the most compliant and least class conscious of the workers, those most likely to be deferential to their ‘betters’.

The ‘petty bourgeois’ socialists also based their ideas on a class whose time had passed and which found its existence threatened by the creation of modern industry and the growth of the proletariat. Their social base lay among the peasantry, which was substantial in France and Germany, and the remnants of the old medieval producers. ‘In its positive aims ... this form of socialism aspires either to restoring the old means of production and of exchange, and with them the old property relations, and the old society, or to cramping the modern means of production and of exchange, within the framework of the old property relations that have been, and were bound to be, exploded by those means. In either case, it is both reactionary and utopian’. [24] An example of ‘petty bourgeois’ socialism was the German ‘true socialism’ which was influential before 1848. The ‘true socialists’ drew on the socialist ideas which had first come out of France but formulated them in such a way that they became totally distorted. They did not take into account the differences between the countries in terms of capitalist development and reduced socialist ideas to abstract philosophising rather than the product of a real struggle between the classes. ‘True socialism’ tried to straddle the basic conflict between the classes, and therefore identified with the status quo. It was popular in Germany in so far as it represented a rejection of the horrors of industrial capitalism, but ‘true socialism’ also stood for the preservation of petty bourgeois values and ideas against the rise of a new revolutionary working class. It placed store in eternal values such as ‘truth’ which supposedly transcended the limits of class society but in reality tried to ignore the fundamental class divisions. Put to the test by real events, ‘true socialism’ failed:

German socialism forgot in the nick of time, that the French criticism, whose silly echo it was, presupposed the existence of modern bourgeois society, with its corresponding economic conditions of existence, and the political constitution adapted there, to the very things whose attainment was the object of the pending struggle in Germany. To the absolute governments, with their following of parsons, professors, country squires and officials, it served as a welcome scarecrow against the threatening bourgeoisie. [25]

The ‘true socialists’ epitomised reactionary interests in the German context and this came from their petty bourgeois class base; their attempts to preserve this class meant opposing revolution in Germany, since they feared the dominance of both the industrial bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Capitalist development in Germany would mean the petty bourgeoisie being completely squeezed, which is why despite the high sounding rhetoric of the ‘true socialists’ they presented no real challenge to the existing order.

Socialist and communist ideas had been in existence long before Marx and Engels started writing. However, all previous such theories started from a completely justified sense of moral revulsion at the outrages of the system but could not explain how these ‘excesses’ could be stopped and how society could be changed. Marx and Engels divided such socialists into two sorts: first were the conservative or bourgeois socialists, represented above all by Proudhon. These socialists denied the fundamental class antagonism of capitalist society and tried to appeal to ‘progressive’ sections of the bourgeoisie over ‘humanitarian’ issues. Some sections of the bourgeoisie did want limited reforms of the system because they felt that untrammelled capitalism was less likely to survive, its own existence being threatened by its excesses. They aimed to reform away the worst aspects of capitalism, thereby preserving the system. The Manifesto was completely scathing about such aims, which it classed as follows: ‘To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole and corner reformers of every imaginable kind’. [26] Proudhon offered a 19th century version of market socialism – it’s not the market itself which is the problem, but the market distorted by banks and monopolies.

The ‘utopian socialists’ were the other group considered by the Manifesto. Their ideas had heavily influenced Marx and Engels and they retained a degree of respect for the individuals and their ideas. But even the best of them, the French socialists Claude Henri de St Simon and Charles Fourier, and the English socialist Robert Owen, were subject to criticism in the Manifesto. A short while after 1848 Engels wrote of the ‘three men who, in spite of all their fantastic notions and all their utopianism, have their place among the most eminent thinkers of all times, and whose genius anticipated innumerable things the correctness of which is now being scientifically proved by us’. [27] Years later Engels continued to repay the theoretical debt he owed to the utopian socialists when he praised them in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.

The utopians developed their theories of socialism when the working class was in its infancy. This affected their view both of how capitalism could be changed and which forces could be the agency of change. Rather than seeing the working class in this role, they looked instead to great plans and schemes for building the new society. Their theories crystallised into some speculative and some actual social experiments – Fourier’s ‘phalansteries’ or societal palaces or Owen’s model workers’ settlement in New Lanark – but there was a huge gulf between their visions of society and the means of achieving it. The utopians saw the working class as passive victims of exploitation, not agents of change in their own right. The grand visions of the utopians did not extend to the working class; instead they saw ‘the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement’. [28] So for the utopian socialists ‘only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them’ and this led them, like all the other socialists whose methods Marx and Engels dismissed, to look to forces other than the working class to achieve socialism:

The undeveloped state of the class struggle...causes socialists of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favoured. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see in it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society? [29]

The value of the utopian socialists’ critique of capitalism was further diminished by the growth of capitalist development and the corresponding growth of the working class. The followers of the great utopian socialist thinkers were incapable of relating to the real struggles of workers when they broke out. Marx and Engels pointed out that ‘the Owenites in England, and the Fourierists in France, respectively oppose the Chartists and the “Reformistes”.’ [30] The latter day utopians became irrelevant sects who dreamed of setting up socialist colonies financed by the wealthy, of course. They had no impact on the class struggle and no relevance for workers. Indeed their politics led them in the opposite direction: forced to rely on the (limited) goodwill of the wealthy, they tried to smooth over class antagonisms and were opposed to independent workers’ action. ‘To realise all these castles in the air they are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois. By degrees they sink into the category of the reactionary conservative socialists’. [31]

The failure to recognise and act on the class antagonisms which formed the basis of capitalism led to a practice which has many parallels in the socialist movement today. The emphasis on ‘humanism’ and on appealing to ‘the whole of society’ is widespread in the ecological and Green movements, where appeals to moral decency are supposed to be enough to save the environment and where major capitalists such as Anita Roddick (owner of the Body Shop and the seventh richest woman in Britain) can pose as eco-friendly. Parallels are also apparent in movements against nuclear weapons such as CND in the early 1980s, which consciously downplayed the class interests which led to the deployment of nuclear weapons in the first place. The history of the working class movement contains numerous examples of sects who have a formally socialist or even revolutionary programme but who refuse to engage in the day to day struggles of working people and who have found themselves doomed to extinction.

The final section of The Communist Manifesto disproves any idea that Marx and Engels played down building revolutionary organisation. In it they spell out their attitudes to existing organisations in various countries – for example, their support for the Chartists in England. They support all revolutionary movements against the existing order, but add two provisos: they always bring to the fore the question of property as the key class dividing line; and they publicly support revolution to overthrow all existing social conditions. [32] Earlier in the Manifesto they state, ‘In what relation do the communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole’. [33] Does this mean that Marx and Engels were against building specific working class revolutionary organisation? Any brief acquaintance with their lives will show that is not the case. Although there were long periods when they were not members of any organisation or party, whenever the level of struggle or the needs of the working class movement enabled them to build organisation they were in the thick of it. This was true of the early communist organisations in the 1840s, and of Marx’s central role in the building of the First International in the 1860s. Although Engels was not himself directly involved in the parties built around the Second International towards the end of the 19th century, he was central in discussing tactical and political questions relating to those parties with some of their leading participants.

The use of the word ‘party’ has to be seen in a different light from its meaning today. Its meaning in 1848 was much closer to the idea of a political current or to a set of ideas. When Marx and Engels argued that the communists do not form a separate party, they meant that their ideas and the interests of the proletariat coincided and they did not put up artificial barriers between the two. At the same time, their fierce criticism of the other forms of socialism are not simply an academic exercise: they are part of a polemic in favour of building the Communist League. They also emphasise the importance of theoretical clarity: ‘The communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, 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’. [34] This description of the role of the communists suggests a commitment to building an active and politically developed body of people united by a set of ideas and a commitment to activity – very close to the modern version of a party.

Background to revolution

The Manifesto’s publication in February 1848 coincided almost exactly with the outbreak of revolution throughout Europe. Signs of discontent had been there much earlier. The old rulers throughout Europe were incapable of delivering the most basic democratic reforms or of guaranteeing decent living standards. In Italy and Germany, still not unified as nations but comprising numbers of small states, and in much of the Austrian Empire which included dozens of nationalities, the feeling for national liberation was paramount, as it was in Poland and the Russian Empire. Everywhere there were calls for an end to autocracy and the absolute powers of monarchs and princes. Political protests reflected the mood for constituent assemblies, for parliaments and for legal reforms. Demands for reform reflected the clash between the old way of organising the world and the new. As Marx and Engels had already predicted, the spread of capitalist development was making its impact felt socially and politically as well as economically. The new towns and cities and the new industries and professions tended to form centres of opposition to feudalism, which was based on the Catholic church, the monarchy and aristocracy, and the landowners. Pitted against these conservative forces were the emerging capitalist class of factory owners, the small businessmen, the lawyers, students, the poor peasants and the growing numbers of workers. The authors of the Manifesto believed that a coalition of these various classes and groups would form the basis of the democratic revolution which was to come.

Enthusiasm for revolution in Europe could only be enhanced by the terrible social and economic conditions in which many found themselves in the late 1840s. There was famine in Europe, most notoriously in Ireland but also in Belgium. In spring 1847 there were disorders relating to food shortages in Scotland, south west England, Brussels, Berlin, Ulm, Vienna and in the Italian areas of Genoa, Tuscany, Romagna and Lombardy. [35] The depression of 1847 exacerbated the problems with millions suffering wage cuts, unemployment and business failures.

Revolution first broke out in a leading bastion of reaction in Europe, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which incorporated Sicily and most of present day southern Italy. A revolt against the monarchy in the Sicilian capital of Palermo led to the king in Naples granting a constitution on 10 February 1848. The big explosion took place in France, however. In the second half of 1847 discontent had been growing with the regime of the ‘bourgeois monarch’ Louis Philippe and there was clamour for electoral and parliamentary reform. Thousands took part in ‘reform banquets’ around the country. The aim of much of the middle class opposition was to win moderate reforms without having to take to the streets. A huge reform banquet was planned for 22 February 1848 in Paris. This would have been the 71st such banquet but it was banned by the government. Crowds gathered and over the next two days there were demonstrations and barricades were thrown up. Louis Philippe abdicated and the Second Republic was declared. The new government included radicals and socialists and its programme was influenced by the radicalism which had swept the monarchy from power. ‘From 25 February to 2 March the government lived in constant fear of being swept away, either by the crowds massed before the Hotel de Ville which, according to the latest rumours, either acclaimed or booed it, or by the delegations which invested it and demanded an immediate hearing’. [36]

The year 1848 was one of the great years when revolution seems both desirable and possible. It spread throughout Europe, affecting both Austria and Germany by March. As uprisings broke out clashes between the feudal order and the emerging capitalist class were played out in the streets of Vienna and Berlin. The sense of euphoria was everywhere in the early months of 1848. It seemed that the old world of a tiny parasitic and dictatorial class ruling over a poor peasantry was coming to an end. Nowhere was this more true than in Germany. Its fragmentation was a significant political and economic barrier to capitalist development. The demand for national unification was therefore central for many of the democrats. Marx and Engels took the view that they were on the extreme left of the democracy movement and that they supported demands which they felt would lead inevitably to unification. Bourgeois revolution in Germany would, they believed, lead very rapidly to working class revolution. ‘The communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution, that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation, and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England was in the 17th, and of France in the 18th century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution’. [37]

The bourgeois revolution was necessary in order to free German society from the fetters of feudalism, thereby allowing the development of capitalism and the creation of a working class which in turn had the potential to make its own revolution. However, the commitment of Marx and Engels to the democratic movement went far beyond calls for the suffrage or the establishment of parliaments. These very important demands were preconditions for political organisation in many countries but political democracy on its own meant little without economic freedom. Most sections of society in Germany wanted to achieve the freedoms which had been won in revolutionary France after 1789. The middle classes and the intelligentsia were acutely conscious that over half a century later most German states had still not achieved the legal, social and political freedoms taken for granted in France. At the same time, however, there was a crucial difference between the revolutionary movements of 1789 and 1848: by the middle of the 19th century the working class was a real force in a number of European countries – in Britain especially but also in Belgium and France – and even in the countries with a less developed capitalism, the growing importance of the working class was clear. In Germany the working class was fully behind the demands of the bourgeois revolution. But it also increasingly wanted to go further and raise its own economic and social demands.

In France the bourgeois revolution had taken place long before 1848 and the working class was relatively well developed, so it was here that class polarisation was most acute – and the fate of the French Revolution of 1848 determined the outcome of revolution throughout Europe. The dramatic nature of France’s February Revolution led the new radical and republican government to make a number of concessions to working class demands, most notably that of the right to work, with the establishment of national workshops to ensure work for the unemployed. However, these were soon vociferously opposed by some of those who had initially supported the February Revolution. Once the questions of economics and who controlled wealth came to the fore, the tensions between the different classes which had made the revolution became apparent. By April the left and the revolutionaries had lost the initiative. By June the class divisions had come into the open and the workers were once again forced to the barricades to defend themselves, this time not against the monarchy but against the bourgeois forces which ruled the new republic. After four days of street fighting in Paris the workers were cruelly defeated by the National Guard and the process of counter-revolution began in France – a process which was to lead within a few years to the dictatorship of Louis Napoleon.

Marx and Engels, along with many other exiled revolutionaries, decided to return to Germany once the revolution had broken out. Marx went to Cologne, part of the most progressive region of Germany, the Rhineland, which was still under the legal code enacted during French rule under Napoleon. This constitution allowed more possibilities for agitation and political discussion than were available in Prussia. Although the members of the Communist League returned to different parts of Germany merely as individuals, their impact was substantial in the months of upheaval during the spring and summer of 1848. As Marx’s biographer Franz Mehring put it, ‘Wherever the revolutionary movement in Germany showed any signs of vigorous development the members of the League were seen to be the driving force behind it: Schapper in Nassau, Wolff in Breslau, Stephan Born in Berlin and other members elsewhere. Born hit the nail on the head when he wrote to Marx: “The League has ceased to exist and yet it exists everywhere”.’ [38]

In Cologne Marx and Engels raised the money to launch a newspaper which Marx edited. The first edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung appeared on 1 June. It was devoted to spreading the revolution and to arguing the case for the most left wing revolutionary course. Almost immediately Marx was faced with the task of analysing the June days in France: ‘The plebeians are tortured with hunger, reviled by the press, abandoned by doctors, abused by honest men as thieves, incendiaries, galley-slaves, their women and children thrown into still deeper misery, their best sons deported overseas: it is the privilege, it is the right of the democratic press to wind the laurels around their stern and threatening brows’. [39]

The paper had already lost a number of its well heeled backers who found the first issue too left wing for their tastes. Now, Mehring pointed out, this article ‘cost the Neue Rheinische Zeitung the greater number of those shareholders who still remained’. [40] The dilemma which Marx and Engels faced was symbolic of the German Revolution itself. The backwardness of economic development in Germany meant that the bourgeoisie was from the outset hesitant and timid in making the revolution. At every stage it would rather compromise with the old order than align itself with more radical forces to take the revolution forward. This was particularly true in Berlin where ‘on 18 March the revolution overthrew the Prussian government, but in the given historical situation the fruits of victory fell first into the lap of the bourgeoisie, and the latter hurried to betray the revolution,’ according to Mehring. [41] The new Prussian government decided in April that a constitution would be drawn up in agreement with the crown. The national assembly held in Frankfurt in May, supposedly the prelude to unification, remained nothing more than a talking shop.

The old order was therefore able to survive the wave of revolutions in Germany, if not in every respect then in all the fundamentals. The June events in France made the bourgeoisie even more scared and ineffective and after the defeat of the Austrian Revolution in October 1848, counter-revolution was on the agenda everywhere. The revolutionary movement was destroyed within the next few months and the revolutionaries were forced into exile, Marx and Engels among them. Writing in December 1848 Marx summed up the nature of the German capitalists:

Whereas 1648 and 1789 had the infinite self confidence that springs from standing at the summit of creativity, it was Berlin’s ambition in 1848 to form an anachronism. Its light was like the light of those stars which first reaches the earth when the bodies which radiated it have been extinct for a hundred thousand years. The Prussian March Revolution was such a star for Europe – only on a small scale, just as it was everything on a small scale. Its light was light from the corpse of a society long since putrefied.

The German bourgeoisie had developed so sluggishly, so pusillanimously and so slowly, that it saw itself threateningly confronted by the proletariat, and all those sections of the urban population related to the proletariat in interests and ideas, at the very moment of its own threatening confrontation with feudalism and absolutism. And as well as having this class behind it, it saw in front of it the enmity of all Europe. [42]

So the great revolutionary year ended in defeat for those who wanted a working class revolution. It was also a defeat for those who wanted the complete overthrow of feudalism. In Germany reaction triumphed and unification was completed not by a bourgeois government but by the conservative Bismarck. Both there and in Italy it took over 20 more years until this process was complete. The revolutions were the first major tests of Marx and Engels’ political ideas. So how did the analysis put forward in the Manifesto measure up to the events of 1848 and how far did it provide an explanation for the development of capitalism in Europe after their defeat?

The impact of the Manifesto after 1848

The Manifesto had little direct impact on the revolutions themselves in 1848. They had already effectively broken out when the book was published and events in France had a much greater impact in spreading the revolution to Germany the following month than any single publication could have done. However, the revolutionaries did their utmost to ensure a wide readership for the Manifesto which was into its second edition by April. So 100 copies were shipped to German workers in Amsterdam in March, then 1,000 were sent to Paris. Early in April the communists in Paris gave Manifestos to 3,000 or 4,000 German émigrés returning home to join the revolution. In March 1848 the émigré newspaper the Deutsche Londoner Zeitung serialised the book. When Marx and his allies returned to Cologne they distributed the Manifesto there, and in early 1849 it was serialised in the left wing paper Die Hornisse. Plans for translations into other languages were ambitious and not quickly realised. Despite claims in the Manifesto itself there was no published French translation until after the Paris Commune of 1871. The only certain translation in 1848 was into Swedish. [43] The first English translation was serialised in the left Chartist paper Red Republican in November 1850 and was translated by the Burnley socialist Helen Macfarlane; its opening line (later translated as, ‘A spectre is haunting Europe’) stated, ‘A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe’. [44] The decline of the left wing and radical movement following the defeat of the 1848 revolutions did not create the conditions for further translations. As Engels put it, ‘The manifesto has had a history of its own ... it was soon forced into the background by the reaction that began with the defeat of the Paris workers in June 1848 ... With the disappearance from the public scene of the workers’ movement that had begun with the February Revolution, the manifesto too passed into the background’. [45] It was only with the revival of the socialist movement internationally from the 1880s onwards hat significant translations were undertaken, including the French one by Marx’s daughter Laura Lafargue and the ‘authorised’ English translation by Sam Moore, which clearly had Engels’ hand in it. [46]

The fate of the Manifesto was bound up with the political situation. It was ahead of its time in, for example, the description of the development of industry. ‘Modern industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers ... they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlookers, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself’. [47] This was still not the picture in most parts of the world when they wrote it; it became the reality within the next half century, and then only in Germany, the US and France as well as in Britain.

The revolutions of 1848 taught Marx and Engels a great deal. Lenin wrote in 1907:

In the activities of Marx and Engels themselves, the period of their participation in the mass revolutionary struggle of 1848–1849 stands out as the central point. This was their point of departure when determining the future pattern of the workers’ movement and democracy in different countries. It was to this point that they always returned in order to determine the essential nature of the different classes and their tendencies in the most striking and purest form. It was from the standpoint of the revolutionary period of that time that they always judged the later, lesser, political formations and organisations, political aims and political conflicts. [48]

In addition to serving as a school of revolutionary tactics and strategy, the experience of 1848 also showed them the real nature of the capitalist class. The Manifesto based its revolutionary scenario on previous bourgeois revolutions, notably the English and French, which had produced leaders in Cromwell and Robespierre who understood the need to act decisively and courageously to further the aims of the revolution and destroy the old order. The bourgeoisie in 1848 had shown itself incapable of providing such decisive leadership. Only the embryonic workers’ movement – led in parts of Germany by the communists – was capable of doing so. The root of the cowardice of the bourgeoisie was fear of raising a serious political challenge which might threaten property itself. So from the beginning it compromised and wheedled round the old absolutist forces and joined with them in defence of law, order and property against fundamental change. Before the revolution Marx and Engels had feared this would happen. Engels wrote just before the events of 1848 erupted that the bourgeoisie would only have a short period of rule following a successful bourgeois revolution. ‘The hangman stands at the door,’ he said, quoting the poet Heinrich Heine – the working class would soon usurp the rule of the capitalists. [49]

However, in the Manifesto it appears also that in spite of itself the bourgeoisie would be forced to act much more decisively than it might want. But in the course of 1848 it became increasingly obvious just how little could be expected. The June Days in Paris when the working class was defeated marked, as Marx wrote afterwards, ‘the first great battle ... between the two great classes which divide modern society. It was a fight for the preservation or destruction of the bourgeois order’. [50] The implications were not lost on anyone engaged in the revolution in Germany. By autumn the situation became increasingly polarised when insurrection in Frankfurt and the threat of it in Cologne were met by state repression, including the temporary banning of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. In Vienna in October there was an insurrection in protest at military intervention against Hungary. It was successful for three weeks but was put down by the generals Jellacic and Windischgratz. Marx had already warned that the Vienna Revolution was ‘in danger, if not of being wrecked, at least of being obstructed in its development, by the bourgeoisie’s mistrust of the working class’. [51]

The Prussian monarchy took advantage of this counter-revolutionary move to appoint the reactionary Brandenburg ministry in Berlin. Marx’s response to this was increasing bitterness against the bourgeoisie. By December he was absolutely clear that the bourgeoisie lacked the strength of purpose or inclination to make the revolution and that any revolution would have to be made without it. However much the working class held back its demands or tried to compromise, its very existence was enough to terrify the bourgeoisie into compromise with absolutism. So it is no surprise that Marx put more and more emphasis in his writings in the aftermath of the defeated revolutions of 1848–1849 on the independent role of the working class. He repeatedly refers to the ‘revolution in permanence’ or ‘permanent revolution’ meaning revolution which continues or is ongoing. This was a shift of politics from the ‘springtime of revolution’ to the stark reality of class warfare under capitalism – 1848 marked a real turning point in this respect.

Marx did not make the mistake of believing that a relatively weak working class could have made a proletarian revolution immediately in the backward Germany of 1848, but he understood that any revolutionary role in leading mass struggles against the oppressive structures in society could no longer be expected from the bourgeoisie and would pass increasingly to the working class. Writing to the central committee of the Communist League from London in 1850 he stressed that German workers would have to go through a period of development as a revolutionary class before they could make a revolution but also argued that they could not put their trust in the ‘democracy’ as was possible before 1848: ‘They themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organised party of the proletariat. Their battle cry must be: The Permanent Revolution’. [52]

The defeat of the revolution meant coming to terms with other questions. Marx and Engels were forced to leave Germany and ended up in England. London was full of German émigrés most of whom, including Marx and Engels, believed that the resurgence of revolution in Europe was imminent. Marx’s eventual conclusion was that it was not, and that revolutionaries would have to operate under the difficult circumstances of capitalist stability and expansion against a background of working class defeats. This led him to breaking politically with many of his colleagues from 1848 and Marx remained in political isolation for many years. Engels was based in Manchester where he worked in the family firm and supported Marx morally and financially. Marx spent his time studying for his eventual writing of Capital. The popular assessment of Marx as an academic, a dry student of socialism, dates from this period. The direct revolutionary experience which both Marx and Engels gained in 1848 belies this view, as do many of Marx’s later actions. His assessment of the likelihood of political upheaval was cautious but his enthusiasm for left wing causes was undiminished. For example, he supported the continued battle for Polish independence. He also followed the American Civil War, which broke out in 1861, very closely and was a strong partisan of Northern victory and the abolition of slavery. He saw the outcome of this struggle as central to the future of capitalism and therefore to future prospects of revolution.

There are, of course, many issues of contemporary politics which The Communist Manifesto does not address. Some of these became much clearer during the remainder of Marx’s lifetime. This is most obviously true of Marx’s views following the defeat of the Paris Commune, which demonstrated that any attempt to win democracy and control of society by the working class will be crushed by the bourgeoisie because it threatens private property. His conclusion from this experience was that workers have to smash the state machine of the bourgeoisie and create their own democratic instruments of working class rule. Just as he had nailed his revolutionary colours to the mast in 1848, so Marx in 1871 was openly supportive of the Communards, even though this meant a political break with some of those he had worked with previously in the First International.

However, there were many issues that only arose after Marx’s death in 1883. The growth of reformism as a current within the working class movement, the role of the large working class parties and of the trade unions with their bureaucracies were only just becoming apparent around the time of Engels’ death in 1895. The full nature of imperialism and capitalism’s tendency towards monopoly were also only apparent after Marx’s death. So it was left to the generation of socialists involved in the revolutionary upheavals which emerged from the First World War to build on the experience and ideas of Marx. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky developed the theory of permanent revolution. The failure of the 1905 Russian Revolution, whose defeat left Tsarism weakened but still intact, led him to argue that in the Russian situation the bourgeoisie was so weak and cowardly that it was utterly incapable of leading any kind of revolution. The revolution against Tsarism would have to be a working class revolution, despite the relative weakness numerically and organisationally of the Russian working class, and despite the economic backwardness of Russian society. This scenario proved to be the case in 1917. Similarly, events from 1914 through to 1919 clarified a number of vital issues: the need to build soviets or workers’ councils rather than rely on changing society through parliament, the necessity of building independent working class parties based on working class power, the impossibility of taking over and running the existing state machine. In developing these theories socialists like Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg built on the ideas of Marx and Engels but also had to apply the actual experience of the growing workers’ movement to new circumstances.

The relevance of the Manifesto today

A cheap paperback edition of the Manifesto published in 1996 sold tens of thousands of copies. Articles towards the end of 1997 in magazines as diverse as the New Yorker and the Modern Review have praised the insights of Marx. A new generation is beginning to look to Marxist ideas again and the Manifesto is often the first port of call. The Manifesto’s durability is partly due to its sweeping style. It provides a broad brush picture of capitalist development and of the nature of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It extrapolated from trends in the mid-19th century to present a clear and definite view of the future and because it pointed to tendencies in capitalism it is still able to help us comprehend a global system where capital’s tentacles stretch into every corner of the world, and where the traditional ways of doing things are destroyed by the impact of commodity production. The spread of global capital and the revolution in technology have made this analysis even more relevant. People now buy exotic fruits from all over the world by just going to Sainsbury’s. Clothes come from the Philippines or Malaysia, electrical goods from Korea. Migrant labour travels the world and international communications are instantaneous. Events taking place around the world can be beamed onto our television screens via satellite as they happen. But this global spread of capital has done little to overcome the inequalities of capitalism. Indeed industrial production or agricultural products designed for supermarkets in the advanced capitalist countries have often destroyed livelihoods, not enhanced them. Millions are denied the benefits of global production, and agricultural innovations have not touched many parts of the world. In China textile mills operate similarly to those Engels wrote of in Manchester in the 1840s. The combined and uneven development of capitalism portrays capitalism’s strength and power but also its fundamental failings. In many parts of the world ox carts can exist alongside designer trainers, washing ells beside mobile phones.

Nor is global capital free from crisis, as recent events in the Far East have shown. The crisis of overproduction has hit countries such as South Korea, Indonesia and China, leading to waste and misery for millions who had expected the supposedly new era of ‘crisis free’ capitalism to deliver for them. Ruling classes everywhere have used the latest period of global expansion to attack jobs, hold down wages and generally increase the rate of exploitation. Even in the richest countries workers have found their lives becoming more miserable and constrained. The welfare cushion which was introduced in these countries during the long post-war boom is under sustained attack, with further devastating consequences to the social wage. Those who argued that capitalism could slowly and gradually reform and improve itself have been shown to be wrong.

Meanwhile, the Manifesto’s predictions about the growth of the working class have been borne out beyond any expectation. Everywhere in the world the gravedigger of capitalism, the working class, is bigger, more organised and more powerful than at any time before. Clerical workers, nurses, teachers, bank workers, have all joined transport workers and post office workers as part of the new working class. Countries from Brazil to South Africa have seen the development of new generations of workers with more power than ever before.

The whole point of the Manifesto was to make the case for working class revolution. It even states that the fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat are both equally inevitable. [53] Subsequent events have shown this to be wrong. Capitalism is still with us 150 years later and the working class has not permanently and successfully conquered power – even the most successful workers’ revolution lasted barely ten years before the rise of Stalinism. Many critics take this phrase to mean that Marx and Engels based their materialist theory of revolution on a historical inevitability, that they believed socialism would come automatically. However, the refutation for this idea exists within The Communist Manifesto itself, when it argues that there is no guaranteed transition from one mode of production to another. Either society can go forward or the failure of one side to win decisively can lead to the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’. [54] There was nothing preordained about revolution happening or being successful: the wheels of history did not move automatically. Changes in history depended on the objective clash between the different social forces but also on the subjective actions of men and women.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the role of the capitalist state, of the reformist working class parties, and the refusal by a number of those parties to engage in united work against the common capitalist enemy, have all been crucial at certain times in defusing or defeating revolutionary upsurges. The need to learn from and understand the lessons of history, and to organise around the strategy and tactics of an independent revolutionary workers’ party was one of the crucial developments of revolutionary Marxism contributed after Marx and Engels’ deaths, most notably by Lenin. In developing these ideas, however, the groundwork provided by The Communist Manifesto was invaluable in providing a unique introduction to Marxist politics and to the theory of revolution. It remains one of the great political texts which still inspires new generations of socialists and it can still serve as a guide to action.


1. Engels’ preface to the English edition of 1888, quoted in H. Draper, The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto (Berkeley 1994), pp. 79–80.

2. F. Engels, Principles of Communism, in Collected Works, vol. 6 (London 1976), pp. 341–357.

3. Ibid., p. 349.

4. See H. Draper, op. cit., p. 10.

5. The Communist Manifesto, in H. Draper, op. cit., p. 107.

6. Ibid., p. 109.

7. Ibid., p. 113.

8. Ibid., p. 113.

9. Ibid., p. 117.

10. Ibid., p. 121.

11. Ibid., p. 127.

12. Ibid., p. 133.

13. Ibid., p. 125.

14. Ibid., p. 141.

15. Ibid., p. 145.

16. Ibid., p. 143.

17. J. Westergaard, Who Gets What? (Cambridge 1995), p. 124.

18. The Communist Manifesto, in H. Draper, op. cit., p. 145.

19. Ibid., p. 147.

20. Ibid., p. 147.

21. Ibid., p. 151.

22. Ibid., p. 157.

23. H. Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. IV (New York 1990), p. 183.

24. The Communist Manifesto, in H. Draper, The Adventures …, op. cit., p. 165.

25. Ibid., pp. 169–171.

26. Ibid., p. 173.

27. Quoted in H. Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory ..., vol. iv, op. cit., p. 3.

28. The Communist Manifesto, in H. Draper, The Adventures ..., op. cit., p. 177.

29. Ibid., p. 179.

30. Ibid., p. 181.

31. Ibid., p. 181.

32. Ibid., p. 185.

33. Ibid., p. 137.

34. Ibid., p. 137.

35. See J. Sigmann, 1848 (London 1970), p. 183.

36. Ibid., p. 219.

37. See H. Draper, The Adventures ..., op. cit., p. 185.

38. F. Mehring, Karl Marx (Harvester 1981), p. 155.

39. K. Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, (ed.) D. Fernbach (Harmondsworth 1973), p. 134.

40. F. Mehring, op. cit., p. 159.

41. Ibid., p. 157.

42. K. Marx, The Revolutions ..., op. cit. , p. 193.

43. H. Draper, The Adventures ..., op. cit., pp. 21–22.

44. Ibid., p. 104.

45. F. Engels, Preface to German edition, 1890, quoted ibid, p. 32.

46. H. Draper, The Adventures ..., op. cit., pp. 75–80.

47. Ibid., p. 123.

48. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 13 (Moscow ??), p. 37.

49. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works (London 1976), vol. 6, p. 529.

50. K. Marx, The Class Struggles in France, in D. Fernbach (ed.), Surveys from Exile (Harmondsworth 1973), pp. 58–59.

51. K. Marx, The Revolutions ..., op. cit., p. 165.

52. Ibid., p. 330.

53. H. Draper, The Adventures ..., op. cit., p. 135.

54. Ibid., p. 107.

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