The Communist Manifesto

by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx

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What is the purpose of The Communist Manifesto and how do you know?

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Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were prolific authors of economic and political theory. Marx in particular was a serious commentator on economic theory who wrote voluminously about the dehumanizing nature of capitalist economics. His multivolume series on Capital (Das Kapital) and his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts set forth Marx’s predilections on what he viewed as the autocratic consequences of free enterprise and the evolution of society away from capitalism and towards socialism. In contrast to these other works, however, the Communist Manifesto is intended less as a protracted and sometimes utopian denunciation of capitalism, and more as a political call to action. Note in the final passage of the Manifesto the author's rallying cry to the masses:

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!

Marx’s most thoughtful writings describe an evolutionary process, the end-state of which is a near-utopian worker's paradise in which each individual contributes according his or her ability and receives according to his or her needs. That evolutionary process necessitates a period of capitalist economics that Marx viewed as essential to the industrialization of modernization of any given society. Indeed, it was his antipathy towards the archaic Russian society and his favorable view of the more technologically and industrially advanced nations of the West that convinced him that such societies would inevitably be the models for socialist development and not the backwards, unsophisticated model presented by czarist Russia.

In contrast to the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and Das Kapital, the Communist Manifesto was a relatively brief political call to arms. Intended less as a scholarly dissertation and more as a political treatise or “manifesto,” which, by definition, is a public declaration of an individual or organization’s goals, Marx and Engels intended this document as a more immediate rallying cry for major changes in the status quo. While his earlier, more ponderous works reflected the realities of a more gradual, incremental evolutionary theory, the Communist Manifesto represented an impatience with that theory.

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The Communist Manifesto was primarily intended as a statement of the European Communist movement's beliefs. It was explicitly commissioned by the Communist League for this precise purpose at two conferences held in London in November and December 1847. Europe was in considerable turmoil at the time, with revolutions on the brink of breaking out across the length and breadth of the continent. European Communists wanted to take advantage of the growing tumult, and Marx and Engels hoped that their work would galvanise the workers and their supporters into action. In that sense, the Manifesto was also a call to arms. Though explicitly geared towards revolutionary praxis rather than theory, the Manifesto over time took on a life of its own, eventually forming the basis of a highly influential theoretical critique of capitalism. The Manifesto served, and still serves, as a useful primer in Marx's diagnosis of capitalism's many defects.

Ironically, despite Marx and Engels's best efforts, the Communist League proved unable to exploit the revolutions of 1848 to good effect. The main problem was that it had, for too long, been a clandestine organization, unable to engage actively and effectively in revolutionary agitation.

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On February 21 1848, the Communist Manifesto was published in London by a group of German-born revolutionary socialists. This pamphlet was not written on the spur of the moment by Marx and Engels: it was a project commissioned by the Communist League, a newly-formed group in London. We can an see evidence of this on the first page:

"Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London, and sketched the following manifesto."

The word 'manifesto' also gives us an important clue about the purposes of this pamphlet. A manifesto is defined as a 'public declaration of policy and aims by a political party'. In other words, this pamphlet was not a typical book; it was designed to give the public a complete overview of the Communists League purpose and beliefs. This view is strengthened by the following sentence (also on the first page): 

"to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages."

By publishing the manifesto in so many languages, the Communists hoped to not only educate all of these countries in their aims but also, perhaps, recruit some new members from across Europe. 

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