Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.