The Communist Manifesto Essay - Critical Essays

The Communist Manifesto, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx

Introduction

The Communist Manifesto Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx

The following entry presents criticism of Engels and Marx's political pamphlet, Manifest der kommunistischen Partei (1848; The Communist Manifesto). See also, Friedrich Engels Criticism.

Early in 1848, two young German intellectuals set forth their plan for proletarian revolution against the prevailing socio-economic forces in Europe, which in their eyes were corrupt. Manifest der kommunistischen Partei (The Communist Manifesto), the slim volume outlining their plan, has been described as the most influential secular document in world history, ranked behind only such religious works as the Bible and the Koran for the impact it has had on world events. Indeed, it has been characterized as the Socialist movement's “holy” book. Calling for workers of the world to unite, The Communist Manifesto examines the oppression felt by the working class in Europe, analyzes the unequal distribution of wealth under the capitalist system, and provides a vision for a new way of life, wherein the proletariat fights for and wins economic and social equality with the ruling bourgeois class. With the Russian Revolution in the early part of the twentieth century, The Communist Manifesto was catapulted from being an important philosophical text to being the framework for a new nation. Communism and the Soviet Union, both of which have their birth in this text, went on to become globally polarizing forces. The Cold War can be considered a result, in large part, of the diametrically opposed socio-economic philosophies held by the communist East and the capitalist West. While the late twentieth century saw the Soviet Union crumble, leaving capitalism seemingly the victor, the socialist plan sparked by The Communist Manifesto nevertheless remains a strong influence on the world's political and philosophical thought, and The Communist Manifesto itself is assured an eminent place in the history of human experience, both for the revolutionary philosophy it presents and for the way it changed the face of nation-building.

Textual History

The first step to understanding the The Communist Manifesto is to understand its authors. Karl Marx, who is generally considered the primary author of both the text and the philosophy that has come to bear his name, was born in Germany in 1818. He received a university education, studying law and then philosophy. Shortly after he received his degree, his anti-bourgeois sentiment growing, he realized he could not participate in the German education system. He turned to journalism—a pursuit that would help support him for the rest of his life. In this capacity he began developing his revolutionary ideas, until he was forced out of Germany in 1843. For the next several years his involvement with revolutionary, anti-capitalist organizations increased and he continued to develop his theories by studying economic science and pursuing literary study. In 1844 he met Friedrich Engels. Engels grew up in the same area of Germany as Marx, and came from a similar class and educational experience. Sent by his father to England to represent the family in its textile business, Engels observed first-hand the exploitation of textile workers, and the injustice of the industrial capitalist system. Independently, both men published critical works that questioned the existing European socio-economic system, but upon their meeting in 1844, they found in each other not only a lifelong friendship, but an intellectual partnership that would take them both to new philosophical heights. Their friendship and intellectual partnership led them to discuss all of their intellectual projects together; their mutual influence was so great that it is difficult for critics to determine where in their joint works Engels' thought ends and Marx's begins. In The Communist Manifesto the authors put forth a theory of history, an analysis of capitalism, and an outline for socialism. Their call for proletarian revolution was met with interest from other disaffected bourgeois intellectuals, hope from the increasingly mobilized working class, and fear from the supporters of the existing system. The manifesto was quickly translated and published in most European languages. It gave birth to modern Socialism, and helped change the world order; it was espoused by revolutionaries across Europe, and saw its greatest victory in 1918 with the Russian Revolution. Marx and Engels continued to hone and develop their socialist theories, and both went on to publish prolifically on the subject. Numerous essays, lectures, and articles picked up where The Communist Manifesto left off. The authors revised its preface liberally as it went through multiple editions, and they saw world changes resulting from the manifesto's influence. While the specifics of their proletarian revolution were to change as the social, economic and political climates changed, Marx and Engels always maintained the accuracy of the ideas put forth in The Communist Manifesto. Upon its fortieth anniversary, Engels decided that the preface could no longer be revised, as the text was then an historical document and needed to be preserved as such. Theories of socialism and communism continued to evolve, but the The Communist Manifesto was a finalized text. It went through no further revisions at the hands of its authors, but its influence did not lessen, as the Socialist and Communist movements of the twentieth century held to its ideals and built new societies from its revolutionary plan.

Major Themes

Divided into four parts, The Communist Manifesto begins with a theory of world history based on class struggles, and provides an explanation of the abuse of the working class by the bourgeoisie. The evils perpetrated upon the working class—the proletariat—are enumerated, and the injustice of the capitalist economic system, whereby a few get rich off the labor of many, is outlined. In the second section of The Communist Manifesto the virtues of communism are portrayed. Marx and Engels anticipate and refute the objections of the bourgeoisie and demonstrate the benefits to be gained by all through communism. The third and fourth chapters deal largely with contemporary social movements, whose inadequacies are outlined. While support for these groups is given, the ultimate virtue of the plan put forth in the previous sections is maintained. Throughout the entire manifesto, the workers of the world are called to unite and throw off the oppression of bourgeois capitalist society, so that after the proletarian revolution, a new society based on equality—economic, social, and political—could be built.

Critical Reception

Since the time of its initial publication, The Communist Manifesto has sparked a wide range of reactions, from early intellectual and revolutionary enthusiasm, to vicious condemnation, to fervent adherence to its philosophy. For millions of people The Communist Manifesto has served as an essential text, greatly affecting their ways of life. It has influenced nation-building, affected social and economic policies, and played a very important role in world politics as nations drew alliances during the Cold War. Vast amounts of commentary have been produced by both pro-communist and anti-communist scholars and critics. Marx and Engels themselves contributed to the debates through their numerous revisions of the preface to The Communist Manifesto. Upon the text's seventy-fifth anniversary, Algernon Lee explored the European influences on Marx and Engels as they were formulating their ideas. With The Communist Manifesto's one hundredth birthday, Paul M. Sweezy and Leo Huberman reexamined the text's history and its international significance. Some critics have explored the authors' own lives and education in an effort to elucidate The Communist Manifesto. Others have detected a wide and diverse range of influences on the work, including Romanticism, French materialist philosophy, millenarianism, Darwinism, and gothic melodrama. Rhetorical analyses of the text have been conducted, as have economic, political, cultural, and philosophical readings. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union The Communist Manifesto has increasingly been examined as an historical document, as the product of a particular historical moment. As one of the most important secular documents in human history, however, The Communist Manifesto remains assured of its place in the literary canon, and the philosophy it espouses retains a certain force in contemporary social, economic, and political thought.

Principal Works

“Briefe aus dem Wuppertal” [“Letters from Wuppertal”] (essays) 1839; published in Telegraph für Deutschland

*Schelling und die Offenbarung: Kritik des neuesten Reaktionsversuchs gegen die freie Philosophie (essay) 1842

Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England [The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844] (essay) 1845

*Po und Rhein (essay) 1859

*Savoyen, Nizza und der Rhein (essays) 1860

Essays Addressed to Volunteers (essays) 1861

Der deutsche Bauernkrieg [The Peasant War in Germany] (essay) 1870

Herr Eugen Dürhings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft: Philosophie; Politische Oekonomie; Sozialismus [Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science; or Anti-Dühring] (essays) 1878

Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft [Socialism, Utopian and Scientific] (essay) 1882

Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats [The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State] (essay) 1884

Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassischen deutschen Philosophie [Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy] (essay) 1888

Revolution and Counter-Revolution (essays) 1896

“Die deutsche Reichsverfassungskampagne” [“The Campaign for a German Constitution”] (essay) 1902

“Grundsätze des Kommunismus” [“Principles of Communism”] (essay) 1932

The Fourteenth of March 1883: Frederick Engels on the Death of Karl Marx (essay) 1933

Dialektik der Natur [Dialectics of Nature] (essay) 1935

Misère de la philosophie: Résponse à la “Philosophie de la misère” de M. Proudhon [The Poverty of Philosophy] (essay) 1847

Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte [The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte] (history) 1852

Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie [A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy] (history) 1859

§Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850 [The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850] (essay) 1895

Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte [Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844] (essays) 1932

Karl Marx: Early Writings (essays, histories, and criticism) 1963

Selected Letters: The Personal Correspondence, 1844-1877 (letters) 1981

Die heilige Familie, oder Kritik der kritischen Kritik: Gegen Bruno Bauer und Consorten [The Holy Family; or, Critique of Critical Critique] (essay) 1845

“Die deutsche Ideologie” [“The German Ideology”] (treatise) 1846

Manifest der kommunistischen Partei [Manifesto of the Communist Party] (pamphlet) 1848

Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie [Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production.] 3 vols. (essay) 1867-94

Historisch-Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Werke, Schriften, Briefe. 12 vols. (essays, histories, criticism, and letters) 1927-35

*These works were published anonymously.

†The essays in this collection were originally published as a series of articles in the Social Democratic party organ Vorwärts between January 1877 and June 1878.

‡The essays in this collection were originally published as a series of articles under Marx's name in the New York Daily Tribune in 1852.

§This work was written between 1850 and 1859.

Criticism

Algernon Lee (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: Lee, Algernon. “Essentials of Marx: General Introduction.” In The Essentials of Marx, pp. 1-24. New York: Vanguard Press, 1926.

[In the following excerpt, Lee discusses the political climate in Europe at the time Marx and Engels were solidifying their theories on economics and class, and maintains that they were influenced by French materialist philosophers, the German philosopher Hegel, and the British economists. Lee finds that the authors of the Communist Manifesto recognized three burgeoning movements—the struggle for political democracy, the trade union movement, and the appearance of underground revolutionary societies—all of which were filtered into their fluid...

(The entire section is 7762 words.)

Howard Selsam (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: Selsam, Howard. “The Ethics of the Communist Manifesto.” In A Centenary of Marxism, edited by Samuel Bernstein and the editors of Science and Society, pp. 22-32. New York: Science and Society, Inc., 1948.

[In the following essay, Selsam examines the ethical basis of The Communist Manifesto and the moral questions it raises. He also explores how the text passes judgment on capitalism, calling for its end, while at the same time eulogizing it as a good system that once worked.]

One hundred years is a nicely rounded period in terms of which to pass judgment on a doctrine or a document, to evaluate or re-evaluate it. How does it stand the...

(The entire section is 5187 words.)

Paul M. Sweezy and Leo Huberman (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: Sweezy, Paul M., and Leo Huberman. “The Communist Manifesto after 100 Years.” In The Communist Manifesto. Principles of Communism. “The Communist Manifesto” after 100 Years, edited by Paul M. Sweezy and Leo Huberman, pp. 87-113. New York: Modern Reader Paperbacks, 1968.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1949, Sweezy and Huberman provide an overview of the history of socialism and discuss the Communist Manifesto in terms of historical materialism, class struggle, the nature of capitalism, the inevitability of socialism, and the road to socialism.]

THE HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE OF THE MANIFESTO

What...

(The entire section is 8585 words.)

Francis B. Randall (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Randall, Francis B. “Introduction: Marx the Romantic.” In The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, translated by Samuel Moore, edited by Joseph Katz, pp. 8-41. New York: Washington Square Press, 1964.

[In the following excerpt, originally written in 1963, Randall explores the Romantic influences on both Marx and The Communist Manifesto, with special focus on Marx's experience and a close reading of the first two chapters of the Manifesto.]

Early in 1848 there were no communist states in the world and no revolutionary governments of any sort. There was no Communist party in our sense and no revolutionary organizations or even trade...

(The entire section is 5717 words.)

Haig A. Bosmajian (essay date 1963-64)

SOURCE: Bosmajian, Haig A. “A Rhetorical Approach to the Communist Manifesto.” In Karl Marx: “The Communist Manifesto,” edited by Frederic L. Bender, pp. 189-99. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1963-64, Bosmajian looks at some of Marx's literary influences and provides an analysis of the rhetorical style of the Communist Manifesto.]

Late in February, 1848, an octavo pamphlet of thirty pages published by a German printer in London at 46 Liverpool Street, Bishopsgate, appeared for the first time with a title page which read, in part: “Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei. … Prolertarier aller Länder...

(The entire section is 4807 words.)

Harold J. Laski (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Laski, Harold J. Introduction to The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, pp. 3-105. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967.

[In the following excerpt, Laski provides brief character studies of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and presents a section-by-section analysis of the Communist Manifesto. The critic acknowledges that the Manifesto is an immensely important document because it pulls from an enormous body of thought and writing to lay out a concise logical whole that goes beyond thought and philosophy to offer a revolutionary plan for the workers of the world.]

I

The Communist Manifesto was published...

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S. S. Prawer (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Prawer, S. S. “World Literature and Class Conflict.” In Karl Marx and World Literature, pp. 138-149. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Prawer details the literary devices and references present in the Communist Manifesto, while also examining the origins and intentions of the work.]

National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.

(MEW [Werke] IV, 466)

(I)

‘The combination of scientific...

(The entire section is 4249 words.)

Rondel V. Davidson (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Davidson, Rondel V. “Reform versus Revolution: Victor Considérant and the Communist Manifesto.” In Karl Marx: “The Communist Manifesto,” edited by Frederic L. Bender, pp. 93-104. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1977, Davidson examines the influence Victor-Prosper Considérant's Manifest de la démocratie pacifique (1843) had on Marx and Engels' philosophy and their subsequent writing of the Communist Manifesto. The critic considers arguments that the Communist Manifesto is a mere translation of Considérant's work, and demonstrates where the two works are similar and where they are fundamentally...

(The entire section is 5420 words.)

Donald Clark Hodges (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Hodges, Donald Clark. “Conclusion: Assessing the Manifesto.” In The Literate Communist: 150 Years of “The Communist Manifesto,” pp. 185-98. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Hodges looks at the Communist Manifesto's literary and religious tradition, and its importance to Russia in the late nineteenth century. He also follows its influence into the twentieth century as it affected the Russian revolution, the rise of Soviet power, and the subsequent fall of the Communist bloc.]

The Manifesto of Marx and Engels begins with the balance sheet of historical evolution at the threshold of the crucial...

(The entire section is 5986 words.)

Aijaz Ahmad (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Ahmad, Aijaz. “The Communist Manifesto in Its Own Time, And in Ours.” In A World to Win: Essays on the “The Communist Manifesto,” edited by Prakash Karat, pp. 14-47. New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 1999.

[In the following essay, Ahmad looks at the Communist Manifesto as both Marx's first mature work and a transitional text in the development of his philosophy. The critic also examines the Manifesto's conception of the bourgeoisie and the Marxist perspective on the laws of history.]

It is said that the Bible and the Quran are the only two books that have been printed in more editions and disseminated more widely than The Communist...

(The entire section is 13154 words.)

Irfan Habib (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Habib, Irfan. “The Reading of History in the Communist Manifesto.” In A World to Win: Essays on the “The Communist Manifesto,” edited by Prakash Karat, pp. 48-67. New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 1999.

[In the following essay, Habib considers the primary goal of the Communist Manifesto to have been the formulation of a concise text that contextualized history and took thought in a new direction by solidifying and then disseminating the ideas that would lead to revolution. However, the critic explains, the text and its theories evolved with time, and this evolution should be kept in mind by subsequent students of Socialism and The Communist Manifesto.]

...

(The entire section is 6465 words.)