The Communist Manifesto

by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx

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Algernon Lee (essay date 1926)

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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 conceptualization of Socialism, Communism, and Marxism.]

In the field of social history all beginnings are relative. Back of whatever we may call the date of origin of any institution or movement lie the conditions and tendencies out of which it grew. With this qualification, 1848 may be counted as the birth-year of modern Socialism, and the issuance of the Communist Manifesto as the first step in the development of a new social force which, challenging all the accepted ideas, assailing all the established institutions, threatening all the vested interests of aristocratic and of capitalist society, boldly set itself the task of putting an end to the exploitation of man by man and of building from the bottom up a free and classless world. Obstructed by the ignorance and self-distrust of the very classes whose cause it champions, beaten down again and again by savage persecution, broken again and again by dissension within its ranks, it has rallied more strongly after each defeat, surer of itself after each schism. Launched by an obscure little group of hunted exiles, at the end of seventy-eight years it counts its adherents by the tens of millions, its organizations spread all over the civilized world, and in a number of the leading countries of Europe a slight further increase of strength will put the powers of government definitely into its hands. Such a movement is worth the trouble of understanding, even in a land where it is for the moment at low ebb.

The three little works reprinted in this volume have an importance out of all proportion to their size. Whoever has really mastered their contents—something which cannot be done in a single hasty reading—holds the clue which will guide him in any further study of the Socialist movement and its theories. Some account of their authors and of their historic setting may help the reader to grasp their significance.


Karl Marx was born at Trier or Treves, not far from the Rhine, in March, 1818. He came of a highly cultured family, Jewish by race though not by religious belief. From his youth on he showed an insatiable thirst for knowledge and an unusual capacity for thorough and critical thinking. His first interests were in literature and languages, which he learned with great ease, but history and philosophy soon won his attention. In several years of study at the universities of Bonn and Berlin he prepared himself first for the practice of law and then, changing his plans, for the life of a teacher of philosophy. Hardly had he taken his doctor's degree, however, when it became clear to him that he could never be servile enough to the ruling powers to hold a professorship in the Germany of those days. He next turned to journalism, both as a means of livelihood and as a channel for self-expression. For a short time in 1842-'43 he edited the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhenish Gazette) at Cologne, but resigned when its proprietors decided to soften its...

(This entire section contains 7762 words.)

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opposition to the reactionary policies of the Prussian government. Marx left Germany shortly before the issuance of an order for his arrest. Settling for the time in Paris, he collaborated on theDeutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (German-French Yearbooks), but was expelled by the French government in 1845 and found refuge at Brussels. Here in 1847 he published his Poverty of Philosophy, in answer to Proudhon's Philosophy of Poverty. In this book the whole future development of his economic thinking is broadly foreshadowed, and it is important also as beginning to draw the line between what were later to be known as the Socialist and Anarchist movements. The next year the Belgian government, subservient to that of France, drove him again into exile.

At Paris and Brussels, besides carrying on a tireless literary activity, of which the writings just mentioned represent but a portion, Marx had plunged into a profound study of economic science, had come into contact with refugees from many parts of Europe and with the underground movements of discontent which were then becoming very active, and had also been watching with keen interest the efforts of the British working class on both the industrial and the political field.

It was at Paris in 1844 that he met Frederick Engels, with whom he was for the rest of his life so closely associated, both as personal friend and as fellow thinker, that it is hard to say just how much either of them may have contributed to the other's work. Engels, who was two years younger than Marx, was a native of the industrial city of Barmen, also in the valley of the Rhine. Representing his father in the textile business, he had already spent some years in England, and in that country he resided mostly until his death in 1895. A man of keen and powerful mind, while his interests lay largely in the same field with those of Marx, he was more conversant than was his friend with natural science and anthropology on the one hand, and on the other hand with business and practical affairs. Within a few months after their first meeting he published his Condition of the Working Class in England, which was in certain aspects an epoch-making book. Of his later works the one best known to English readers is Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, published in 1880.

It is perhaps significant that both these men were born and reared in the Rhine country. There for centuries the forces of French and of German civilization had met and fought and trafficked, producing a blended culture of a rich and active type. Lying between the old republican strongholds of Switzerland and the Low Countries, and itself in the Middle Ages studded with all but independent free cities, it had preserved traditions of liberty which the rule of the Hapsburgs, the Bourbons, and the Hohenzollerns had been able to repress, but not altogether to destroy, and which had been quickened into life at the beginning of the century, when Napoleon's arms had brought into Western Germany at least some of the emancipatory results of the French Revolution. Moreover, its great navigable river was the principal thoroughfare by which British travel and trade penetrated Central Europe, and into its valley machine industry, born in England, was transplanted earlier than into almost any other part of the Continent. Altogether, it was a fit nursery for internationalist, democratic, and scientifically forward-looking revolutionists.


Three powerful intellectual currents, drawn from three great and diverse nations, were assimilated, transformed, and made to produce something greater than themselves in the thought of Marx and Engels.

First there is the influence of the French materialistic philosophers of the later eighteenth century—such men as Diderot, Helvetius, d'Alembert, and Holbach. These had been forerunners of the Great Revolution, spirits of denial, ruthless critics of church and state and social convention, doubters and questioners, unwilling to believe anything on authority, confident of the power of human reason to solve every problem it might take up. Their great contribution was that they looked always to material facts, not to metaphysical abstractions nor to the alleged will of God, for the explanation of the nature of man and of society. Their weakness was that, on the whole, their thought-method was static, dealing with supposed eternal truths, not sufficiently recognizing the fact of continuous change.

The second of these influences was that of the German philosopher Hegel, who died in 1831. Marx and Engels always avowed themselves his disciples, though they turned his system topsy-turvy in using it. To Hegel, abstract ideas were the sole reality, material things but their fleeting shadow. In this respect, his philosophy was at odds with the whole trend of modern science, and on this point Marxism takes a diametrically opposite view. But Hegel's immense service was that he thought in terms of process or evolution. Instead of saying simply “This is and that is not,” he said “In every moment of its being, everything is ceasing to be what it was and becoming what it is not yet.” His working-out of this conception—his so-called dialectic thought-method—cannot be explained in further detail here. A good idea of it can be obtained from Engels' Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. In the hands of Marx, Engels, and their successors, who combined it with reliance on observed fact as the raw material for thought, it became an instrument, not only for exploring the past and explaining the present, but for predicting the general course of future development with a degree of certainty such as no other social thinkers have attained.

To these must be added a third influence—that of the British economists, foremost among whom stood and still stands David Ricardo, author of the Principles of Political Economy, published in 1817. Just as Hegel was the accepted philosophical champion of Prussian nationalist monarchy, and as Marx, in developing Hegel's system, made it the philosophy of democratic internationalism, so had Ricardo's work been hailed as a complete justification of industrial capitalism, and in like wise did Marx, not destroying but fulfilling it, make it demonstrate the anti-social and ultimately self-destructive nature of the capitalist system, and thus turn it to the service of the revolutionary proletariat.

Ricardo unquestioningly accepted production for sale, private ownership of the means of production, and the relations of landlord to tenant and of employer to wage-worker as things eternal for the future, if not in the past. Taking these for granted, he analyzed with marvelous acuteness the normal inner workings of a system of production and exchange founded upon them. In the light of his demonstration, the economic laws of value, of rent, of wages, and so forth seemed to have the same validity as the laws of gravitation or of chemical affinity. The processes by which, in the capitalist system, the incomes of wage-worker, landlord, investor, and enterpriser are determined appeared as “natural” and therefore as little to be resisted or found fault with as the motions of the earth and the alternation of the seasons. As for poverty—well, the physical world too had its painful aspects, such as cyclones and earthquakes, which those who suffered from them must bear as best they could.

To this system of thought, so comfortable for the new ruling class, Marx did two things. First, Marx the economist carried Ricardo's analysis a little farther, completed the statement of the law of value and of wages, and thereby exhibited the capitalist pure-and-simple as a parasite pure-and-simple. In other words, he showed that the actual capitalist is a collaborator in production only in so far as he still functions, not as owner of capital, but as director of industry; and that, in proportion as the growth of capital itself divorces these two functions, the capitalist becomes socially useless and harmful. In the second place, for Marx there were no finalities. Marx the historian saw the capitalist form of property as but the latest in a series of property systems, each of which by its own full development destroys itself and at the same time evolves its successor. To the strictly economic analysis he added the social-psychological analysis which brought to light the perfectly normal process by which capitalism “produces its own grave-diggers.”

Such, in brief, are the roots of the theoretical system of Marx and Engels, which is the theoretical system of modern Socialism.

But Marx and Engels did not make modern Socialism out of nothing. They probably would not have worked out their theories, and even if they had done so the theories would have remained barren, had there not already existed the vague and unlinked elements of a movement of social discontent, which they were able to understand, to which they devoted themselves, and which their clear thinking greatly helped to unify, to guide, and to inspire. Here again three main sources are to be noted, with one or two minor ones.


The speculative radicalism of such men as Rousseau, Condorcet, Priestley, Godwin, and Shelley spent itself mostly in literary effort, and never constituted an actual movement. Yet it did something to break down conservative traditions and to generate moral enthusiasm.

The Utopian socialisms of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, Cabet, and other ingenious picturers of society “as it ought to be” had a little more nearly the character of a movement. In so far, however, as the attempt was made to realize their dreams by founding colonies and communities, not only did these fail, but they retarded the movement of the working class as a whole in the same way as a mirage retards the desert traveler by diverting him from his right course. On the other hand, each of these four thinkers rendered a real service by his illuminating criticism of certain aspects of the existing social order.

Of the three really vital tendencies that merged to form modern Socialism, the most general was the striving for political democracy. Even in the United States, manhood suffrage did not become fairly universal till the 1840's. Nowhere in the Old World did it prevail at that time, but in the more advanced nations of Western Europe it was being vigorously demanded. In each country, when the rising capitalist class undertook to wrest power from monarchs and aristocrats, it needed the help of all the lower classes and accordingly made democracy its slogan. In France the democratic movement triumphed in 1789-94, and then the bourgeoisie promptly kicked away the ladder by which it had climbed. Under the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire, the Bourbon Restoration of 1814-30, now broader and now narrower sections of the propertied classes monopolized political power. In the revolution of 1830 the Paris workers bore the brunt of the fighting, but when the old government had been overthrown, the propertied classes united to seize upon the fruits of victory; and as a result, under the Orleans Monarchy, not only the artisans and wage-workers, but even a large part of the lower middle class, were excluded from political activity. Germany was yet far behind France on the road toward popular self-government. Only in some of its thirty or forty loosely connected states did even the richer bourgeois share power with the aristocrats. It was therefore still possible for the middle classes to hold democratic opinions, except in so far as they were deterred by fear of what the lower classes might do if once the revolution got under way.

As for Great Britain, by the later 1820's there came a powerful protest against the continued political monopoly of a small fraction of the population, composed chiefly of great landowners. The wage-working class, here larger and more self-conscious than in any other country, joined heartily in the movement. Violent revolution was near at hand; but in 1832 the reactionaries gave way—just enough to avert the crisis, not an inch more. The Reform Bill largely increased the representation of the industrial districts and lowered the property qualification for voters enough to take in the upper and most of the lower middle class. This gave the capitalists a dominant influence and left the urban and rural workers voteless and unrepresented. Paralyzed for a moment by the unforeseen treachery of their bourgeois allies, the workers soon rallied and launched an independent movement commonly known as Chartism, from their “People's Charter” or statement of demands, which included manhood suffrage, secret ballot, equal districts, annual elections, and payment of members. The life of this movement was marked by three great waves of activity, with intervals of depression. Its third high tide came in 1848, simultaneously with revolutionary crises all over Western and Central Europe. By 1852 it had ceased to exist. In form, Chartism was only a demand for political democracy; but, being almost exclusively a movement of wage-workers, it inevitably focussed attention on economic questions and was essentially a movement of social revolution. Not one of its specific aims was achieved till long afterward, yet its efforts were by no means wasted. Through the fear which it put into the hearts of the ruling class it did much to promote labor legislation and other valuable reforms. What is more, it educated the workers, trained them in organized struggle, made them class-conscious.


Second among the roots of modern Socialism we must name the trade-union movement. In England some unions had existed as early as 1720. Throughout the eighteenth century, however, this kind of organization was confined to a few of the skilled hand trades. The unions were neither large nor numerous, they were locally isolated and often short-lived, and they could hardly be said to constitute a movement. But in the 1760's, 70's, and 80's the invention of the steam engine, the spinning jenny and mule, the power loom, and many other kinds of power-driven machinery brought about a great change known as the Industrial Revolution. Large factories came into existence, whose competition was ruinous to many of the old hand trades. Industrial capital was rapidly increased and concentrated. Its owners became the economically dominant class, while thousands of petty manufacturers went to the wall. Artisans and craftsmen by the tens of thousands, whether self-employers or employed in small shops, lost their custom or their jobs. In place of these old types of workingmen came a new one—the modern proletarian, necessarily a city dweller, unable to own his home, have a garden, or keep a cow, absolutely dependent on daily wages for his daily bread. Women and children could now do what had been men's work. The labor market was glutted, unemployment became chronic, wages went down, and at the very moment when wealth was being piled up as never before, the working people were plunged into unprecedented misery, from which they hardly began to emerge till the middle of the nineteenth century. Their sufferings incited them to revolt, their individual helplessness forced them to think of united action, their aggregation in mill towns and mining centers made it easier for them to organize, their increased mobility suggested general instead of merely local organization. A real trade-union movement was beginning to be born when, as a part of the general system of reaction to which the British ruling classes resorted in their fear of the effects of the French Revolution, parliament in 1799-1800 passed the Combination Acts, which made mere membership in a union a criminal offense. For twenty-five years these laws were drastically enforced, and the normal growth of trade unionism was held in check. Secret organizations of course were formed, but spies and provocators easily found their way into them, and had much to do with inciting the campaign of machine-breaking and other violence known in history as the Luddite disturbances, for which many working-men were hanged.

On the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824-25 there was a hectic outburst of union organization and of strikes, followed by a sharp decline. Next came the attempt to organize the working class as a whole, rather than the various trades and industries, culminating in 1834 in the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, which hoped to make a complete social revolution by means of the general strike. This was a fiasco, at once ridiculous and sublime. In the early 1840's there began a slow but steady growth of labor organization of a very conservative type, chiefly in the more skilled and better paid trades, but consciously revolutionary unionism did not revive in Great Britain for more than fifty years.

The story of unionism in Western and Central Europe down to the middle of the century need not detain us so long. In these regions the factory system arose from thirty to sixty years later than in Great Britain. The workingmen felt the competition of British machine-made goods, which caused great misery among them, and of course stirred them to discontent; but only in a few localities had any considerable proletariat of the modern type come into existence at the time of which we are speaking. In general, too, the poorer classes had even less of civil rights and political liberty than their British comrades, and were therefore less able to organize on the economic field. As early as 1791 the National Assembly of the new-born French republic enacted a penal statute which forbade “any sort of combination of citizens of the same profession or trade”—a law which was rigorously enforced against labor unions, but not against employers' associations. Legislation such as this prevailed almost without interruption on the Continent until the 1860's, and in some countries much longer. Naturally there were many attempts of workers to unite secretly for economic resistance, but they had little success. It took the genius of a Marx to see in 1848 the vast historical significance of the trade unions.


And so we come to the third of the main sources of modern Socialism as a movement—that is, to certain of the underground revolutionary societies which inevitably were formed under a regime which gave no open outlet to the discontent of the oppressed classes. There were of course many secret societies which pursued only political aims of a more or less democratic character, and which had no necessary connection with the movement of the working class. But, from the time when it became evident that the French Revolution had only put a new ruling class in the saddle, conspirative organizations among the lower strata of the population, aiming to translate the formula “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” into economic fact, were always on the order of the day. The earliest and most famous was the Society of Equals led by François Noel Babeuf, which in 1795-96 planned to overthrow the French government by armed insurrection, nationalize the land, and reorganize the whole population on a communistic basis. The plot was discovered, Babeuf and one other were guillotined, a number were imprisoned or driven into exile, and the society disappeared. But for more than half a century thereafter, especially in France, but also in other parts of Europe, groups of a more or less similar sort were forever being formed, unearthed, broken up, and formed again.

This underground communism was in general of a utopian character. That is, to use Plekhanoff's expression, “starting from an abstract principle it sought to devise a perfect society.” Like the Saint-Simonians or the Fourierites, each group had its ready-made scheme, which was in general based, not on a study of the actual tendencies of economic development, but on some particular conception of justice or equality or other moral abstraction. But whereas the former expected all “good” people, regardless of class, to accept their proposals as soon as they understood them, these conspirative communists were free from that illusion. They did not imagine that they could persuade the propertied classes to abdicate; they relied, perhaps not specifically on the working class, but at any rate on the “poor and oppressed” in general, who they thought, would rally to them whenever they were ready to raise the standard of revolt and impose the new system by armed force. In a sense, too, their schemes were often backward-looking, in that they aimed to revive local small-scale production by hand labor, rather than to socialize the economies of the now rapidly developing system of great machine industry. In these respects, however, some clarification of ideas went on among the underground communists in the course of the half-century. As, with the growth of modern industry, “the poor” came to be more nearly synonymous with “the wage-working class,” this type of communism took on a more definite class character. In any event, it kept alive a seed-fire of social aspiration among masses whose wretchedness might otherwise have reduced them to utter degradation and impotence.

In 1836 there was organized a society which called itself the League of the Just and which had its headquarters for some time in Paris, but afterwards in London. In the beginning its membership was made up almost wholly of Germans and German-speaking Swiss. There were among them few industrial wage-workers of the modern type. The majority were skilled hand workers—tailors, shoe makers, watch makers, cabinet makers, and so forth—and with these were mingled a good many intellectuals whose ideas had set them at odds with existing institutions and who more or less understandingly sympathized with the working class. Many of them, and those the most prominent, were political refugees. At first a conspirative group of the ‘Babeuvist type, the League of the Just developed rather into a propaganda society, which sought to prepare the way for a mass movement. While not able itself to throw off the veil of secrecy, it organized wherever possible workingmen's educational societies, which held open meetings for the discussion of social questions, and in which its own members naturally played the leading part. This kind of activity reacted upon the mother organization. Utopian creed gradually gave way to critical thinking. At the same time, through the adhesion of a considerable number of Scandinavian, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, and other exiles and of some English workingmen, it acquired an international character.

Marx and Engels were in touch with this organization as early as 1844, though they did not join it till 1847. Early in this year it was becoming obvious that another revolutionary crisis was near at hand, and the leaders of the League of the Just felt that it was necessary for that body to define its ideas more clearly and to determine upon a course of action to be pursued when the open struggle should begin. For this purpose two congresses of the League were held in London, one in August, the other at the end of November. Engels was a delegate to both gatherings, Marx only to the second one.

At the August meeting the society was thoroughly reorganized on a more democratic basis, the propaganda of communistic ideas and the organization of the toiling masses for self-directed action were definitely accepted as its purpose, its international character was strongly emphasized, and the passing of its former utopian, sentimental, and conspirative aspects was symbolized by the adoption of a new name—that of Communist League—and by the substitution for its old motto, “All men are brothers,” of the aggressive slogan, “Proletarians of all countries, Unite!” The November congress, at which English, French, German, Belgian, and Swiss branches were represented, devoted ten full days to a thorough discussion of principles and of the manner in which they were expressed in a manifesto which it had been resolved to put forth. The proposals of Marx and Engels were accepted and by a unanimous vote these two men were commissioned to put them into final shape for publication in the name of the League. Early in February, 1848, they fulfilled this mandate by delivering to the printer the original German text of the Communist Manifesto, which was almost immediately translated and published also in the French language.


In that same month the storm burst in Paris. The monarchy fell, and for a little while the Second Republic seemed to offer a possibility for the realization of the communist ideal of economic freedom and equality. But the upper and lower bourgeoisie joined forces and, with the support of the peasant class, made it clear that the rights of labor must count for nothing as against the interests of profit-making property. In June the proletariat met reaction with revolt, but their rising was drowned in blood. The mutual antagonisms of the propertied classes then broke loose and soon destroyed the republic. In its place, from 1852 till 1870, stood the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon, founded on the consent and promising to serve the interests of the masses of the people, but undemocratic in its very essence, and in practice increasingly dominated by financiers, militarists, priests, and police-spies.

In the year 1848 revolutionary disturbances had broken out also in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, and elsewhere, and were participated in by the most varied elements, some striving only for national independence, some for more or less complete democratization of government, some looking beyond political to social-economic aims. The Communists fought bravely wherever they saw an opening. But within two years the forces of reaction had triumphed all along the line. On the surface, it looked as though nothing had been gained, and not until the sixties did the revolutionary elements even begin once more to raise their heads. One thing, however, had been gained—a fund of bitter but valuable experience.

Marx himself went back to Germany early in 1848, where he edited the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhenish Gazette) and threw all his energies into the struggle. When the fight was lost he returned to London, and here he dwelt from that time till his death in 1883. For a number of years he and his family suffered great hardship, his only regular income being the pound a week that Greeley's New York Tribune paid for his correspondence on European affairs. Most of his other writing was unremunerative. Engels was able to spare him a small sum from time to time. Later, when Engels became fairly wealthy, Marx's modest wants were amply cared for, and such was the relation between the two friends that this involved no sense of patronage or dependence.

Marx's activities and his writing henceforth fall into two classes—those which have to do directly with current events in the movement, and those which embody the systematic statement of his economic thought. Yet these are by no means unconnected. Marx the publicist was also Marx the theoretician; for him every question of organization or party tactics involved the application of scientific principles, while theoretical study was valuable only as it enabled the movement to understand the world and guide its own conduct.

Under the first head come three works of contemporary history—Revolution and Counter-Revolution, which deals with Germany in 1848; The Class Struggle in France and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which together cover the rise and fall of the Second Republic. To this group belong also the statutes of the International Workingmen's Association and several addresses of its General Council, in the period from 1864 to 1873, among them those called forth by the Paris Commune of 1871, generally known under the title The Civil War in France.

The lull in revolutionary activity which prevailed for a dozen years after 1850 and again, at least in France, for a long time after 1871, gave Marx more leisure than he had hitherto been able to devote to strictly economic research and thought. In 1859 his studies in this field bore fruit in the publication of a volume entitled A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This, however, was but the prelude to a greater work. In 1867 appeared the first volume of his monumental work Capital, dealing with “The Process of Capitalist Production.” Poor health, as well as preoccupation with the affairs of the contemporary movement, hampered Marx in the further prosecution of this work. At his death in 1883 he left a huge mass of manuscript, in various stages of completion, which Engels, now sixty-three years of age, undertook to edit and publish. In 1893 and '94 respectively, he brought out the second and third volumes, which deal with “The Process of the Circulation of Capital” and “The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole.” When Engels died in 1895 there remained a considerable manuscript, treating in a critical manner of the history of economic thought, which was subsequently edited by Karl Kautsky and published under the title Theories of Surplus Value.

While performing this vast labor, Marx found time for a very heavy correspondence—the letters exchanged between him and Engels alone fill four large volumes—and for many lectures, besides writing numerous articles for German, French, and English periodicals. Some of these minor works are of inestimable value.


This introduction makes no pretence either to explain, even in broad outline, the body of economic and historicophilosophical thought known as Marxism, or even hastily to sketch the development of that indomitable Socialist movement of which Marxism is the theoretical expression. All that has been attempted in the preceding pages is to point out the sources from which both the movement and the theory were derived and the circumstances under which they first took definite form, thus indicating their place in the whole social-political history of the modern world, and to tell so much of the life-story of the two great thinkers and leaders as is necessary to that end. It remains to say a few words which may help to the understanding of the three small Marxian classics contained in this volume, or to forestall certain possible misunderstandings.

The Communist Manifesto, whose origin has already been related, is a truly unique work. In form it is the campaign address of a special group issued in a special emergency. But the campaign has proved to be an age-long one, and the group has grown into a world-wide class movement. Moreover, while the writers of this proclamation of course could not foresee just how remote victory might be, nor just what vicissitudes might intervene, they knew well enough that 1848 was to be but one battle in a very prolonged conflict, and that the class struggle then beginning to take definite shape involved issues far more fundamental than had any revolution of the past. They knew also that, while historical events are acts of human will, yet what men will to do is determined by the conditions under which they act, and above all by their economic status and relations. In their view, therefore, all class struggles were explainable and predictable through study of the development of the means of production and exchange and the forms of property. Accordingly, when called upon to write a campaign document, they wrote not only as party leaders and agitators, but also as historians—and again, as historians not of the past only, but of the future as well. Through whole pages of the first section they give in the present tense a vivid account of historical processes which, even in England, the first home of modern industrial capitalism, had at that time hardly more than well begun. Three-quarters of a century later we can find some error in the details of their prediction, but in its essentials it has been or is being fulfilled.

The reader will note that the Communist Manifesto consists of four sections. Of the first section and a large part of the second—to the exclusion, however, of the “immediate program” near its close—it may with some qualification be said that they are as live now as when they were first given to the world. The third and fourth sections deal in the main with movements and tendencies that no longer exist, at least in their old forms. If read without due recognition of this fact, they are in part unintelligible, in part misleading. To the serious student of social history, however, they have their value.

At this point we must take up the question of party names. Marx and his associates in 1848 called themselves Communists and spoke critically, in some cases scornfully, of various species of Socialism and Social-Democracy. To the casual reader this may be confusing. He may conclude that only those who now bear the name of Communists can rightly claim to be Marxians, and that the existing Socialist or Social-Democratic parties deserve all the reproaches Marx heaped upon those who were so called in 1848. This is by no means the case.

It is necessary to remember that words often change their meaning in the course of time. Especially is this true of the names of parties. Many examples might be given, but two must suffice. In the history of France and also of several Latin American republics, the advocates of a decentralized form of government have always been known as Federalists; but when we speak of Federalism in the United States, we mean the party which, during the first thirty years of our national existence, strove to exalt the powers of the central government. In France or in Mexico, Jefferson would have been called a Federalist; in this country it was Hamilton who bore that name. Again, the Jeffersonian opponents of centralization and upholders of “states' rights” called themselves Republicans; but ever since 1856 we have had a Republican party proclaiming and acting upon the principle for which Hamilton stood in his time.

Just such a shifting of names has taken place in the history of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat. Within twenty-five years after the Communist Manifesto was written, its authors were calling themselves Socialists, while the name of Communist was becoming attached to certain elements with whom they sharply disagreed—especially to those who dreamed of dissolving modern society into innumerable little “communes” or autonomous communities. The conflict between the tendencies represented by Marx and by Michael Bakunin, which culminated in a complete splitting of the International in 1872-73, made it necessary to distinguish more sharply. As the Socialist name might be claimed by either wing, the Marxians often preferred to be designated as Social-Democrats. In the course of time the followers of Bakunin—notable among them Peter Kropotkin—took to calling themselves Communist-Anarchists; moreover, toward the end of the century their movement rapidly declined; thenceforth Socialist and Social-Democratic remained as synonymous appellations, either of which might be applied to such men as Engels, Bebel, Liebknecht, Kautsky, Bernstein, Adler, Plekhanoff, Turati, Guesde, Lafargue, Vaillant, Jaurès, Vandervelde, Hyndman, Hardie. In some countries the party bore one of these names, in some the other; and there were variant titles, such as Labor party, Independent Labor party, Socialist Labor party, Social-Democratic Labor party, while at one period the word “Collectivist” was often used to designate the same ideas and tendencies.

Finally, the problems raised by the World War and the Russian Revolution brought on another great schism in the Socialist movement. By 1919 it was everywhere so definitely split into two distinct camps that it was no longer possible for both to use the same party name. On the one side stood the Bolshevist or majority wing of the old Russian Social Democracy, with Nikolai Lenin as its foremost leader, and along with it larger or smaller groups in all other countries. These resumed the party designation which had been used by Marx and his associates in the 1848 period. They constitute the Communist parties of the various countries (that of the United States calls itself Workers' party) which are linked together in the Third or Communist International, with headquarters at Moscow. On the other hand, those who reject Bolshevist theory and tactics continue to call themselves Socialists or Social-Democrats, and their national organizations are affiliated with the Socialist and Labor International, whose headquarters are at Zurich. Each of these factions claims for itself and more or less emphatically denies to the other the right to be considered as the legitimate continuation of the movement which first took definite form with the issuance of the Communist Manifesto. The plan of this introduction does not permit a discussion here of these conflicting claims.

It has been said a little ways back that “with some qualification” the greater part of the Communist Manifesto may be considered as live today as it was in 1848.

One qualification has to do with the tone of the controversial parts. In our day many readers are scandalized at the vehemence with which the spokesmen of the Communist League hurled back the accusations of their adversaries. Let those who are shocked read what pious clergymen and learned professors in this country have written against Paine and Jefferson, against Jackson, against the Abolitionists, against the early advocates of Woman Suffrage—not to mention the utterances of many eminent “hundred-percent Americans” during and since the war—and they will get some idea of the flood of shameless slander which it was necessary for Marx and Engels to repel. Certainly they wrote with passion and sometimes exaggerated for the sake of emphasis. Rhetoric has its place, when there is honest feeling behind it. And after all, what made their most savage taunts rankle so deeply is the fact that in substance they were true.

The second and more important qualification is of a different sort. Of the Communist Manifesto, even more than of most books, it is to be said: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” To be valuable, Marx's writings must be read in a Marxian spirit. That which makes Marxism one of the greatest products of the human intellect is its power of growth through self-criticism. Marx himself had scant patience with those who froze his living thoughts into frigid formulas, who treated a historical analysis as if it were meant to be a sacred code. Superficial or disingenuous opponents of Socialism cannot be prevented from speaking of the Communist Manifesto as “the Gospel according to Saint Karl” and by their own shallow interpretation making much of it appear false and absurd. The intellectually honest student, not to say the intelligent Socialist, in reading this little book, will say to himself: “This is the way a great thinker expressed his thought under such-and-such circumstances at such-and-such a stage in the development of the capitalist system and of the working-class movement. What can I draw from it to help me, not in flooring an opponent nor in ‘putting over’ some pet project, but in understanding the problems of the movement at this later stage of its development?” To one who uses it thus, the study of the Communist Manifesto is worth all the effort it may cost.


The inclusion in this volume of Engels' elaborate introduction makes it superfluous to say much here about Wage-Labor and Capital, which, although it bears Marx's name, may be regarded as a joint work, in view of the very thorough editing it underwent at the hands of his surviving friend.

Marxian economic and social theory cannot be fully stated in the space of forty pages; but as nearly as that is possible, it is done in this remarkable work. It is more than a statement of economic theory, for it leads up to a conclusion whose importance as a rule of working-class tactics can hardly be overestimated. There is no better illustration of Marx's masterly use of dialectic than in his treatment of the paradox that the interests of capitalists and wage-workers as individuals, and likewise those of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as classes, are at the same time mutually dependent and diametrically opposed. It follows that the right policy for the working class is not one of opposition pure-and-simple, any more than it is one of collaboration pure-and-simple; that anything which hampers or distorts the normal growth of capitalism retards or perverts the progress of the working class as well; that the emancipation of labor can be achieved only when the full development of capitalism and of the class struggle within it shall have endowed the proletariat with the capacity to “grasp this sorry frame of things entire” and—not

                                        shatter it to bits and then
Remold it nearer to the heart's desire—

not just to destroy capitalism and afterward build something else in its place, but to bring it to an end by the positive process of transforming it into that desired something-else. It is at this point that Socialism parts company with Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, as well as with agrarian and petty-bourgeois movements such as that of our Populists in the 1890's; and at this point, the Socialists hold, Neo-Communism has parted company with Marx.

To set the reader on the right track for understanding Value, Price, and Profit, which is much more difficult than the other two works here presented, it is necessary to impress upon him the fact that in writing it Marx was not trying to state his economic theory as a whole, but was dealing with one specific question—a very practical question, which he characteristically treated as one of theory. We have no record of the speeches of Weston, to which this is a reply. It is clear, however, that Weston upheld a thesis which is dear to the hearts of all enemies of the labor movement, but which, alas! is too often accepted in good faith by men of Weston's type—workingmen or honest friends of labor who have begun to think in the field of economics but have not thought far enough—the thesis, namely: That every increase in the workers' wages results in at least an equal increase in their cost of living, and that accordingly it is a waste of energy for them to struggle for higher wages. If this were true, trade unionism would be a tragic mistake. Marx took up the task of showing that it is not true. Such is the origin of this rather abstruse, but yet fascinating work, which lay in manuscript till some years after its author's death, and was then printed with but slight editing by his daughter Eleanor and her husband Edward Aveling.

In addition to the three works printed in full in this volume there are included at the end small portions of three other books, each of which standing by itself has a certain completeness. First comes the short passage in the preface to Marx's Critique of Political Economy in which the materialistic conception of history is tersely summarized. The second is a chapter on “The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation” which occurs near the end of the first volume of Capital. Finally, we include the first page or two of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in which Marx contrasts the proletarian revolution—“the revolution of the nineteenth century,” as he too sanguinely calls it—with all the revolutions of the past. …

One closing word—let no one suppose that he can gain a real knowledge of Socialism as a living movement from the study of books alone. To vitalize what he gets from such study, he should observe the movement itself by following its periodicals and propaganda literature and if possible by attending Socialist mass meetings and lectures.

Howard Selsam (essay date 1948)

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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 test of timeq Can it be used today or is it only of antiquarian interestq Of the Communist Manifesto we can also ask: Has its ethics been repudiated or confirmedq Has the world acquired a new ethic which supersedes that of the Manifestoq How has the century that has passed illuminated the ethical issues it raisedq Can the bourgeois world today avoid, as it tries to evade, the moral judgment pronounced on it by Marx and Engelsq

But the question can be raised as to whether the Communist Manifesto is a moral document, whether it embodies an ethic in the sense of an all-embracing system of morality. It plainly does not if one seeks an explicit system of fully developed premises from which a body of conclusions logically flows. The young Marx and Engels were not writing a textbook on ethics but were drawing up the theory and program of a revolutionary movement. They were revolutionaries, however, by principle—deeply concerned with philosophy and problems of scientific method. This fact alone required them to seek a rational foundation for their condemnation of the existing order and their demand for its overthrow. At the same time their experience with capitalism and their scientific analysis of it led them to an ever stronger and clearer moral revulsion against it.

It is often said today that Marxists repudiate all morality, that they deny the validity of ethical judgments, that they eliminate the “moral factor” from history, whether past or in the making. As absurd and untrue as such pronouncements are, they have this much justification—Marx and Engels early became weary of the mere “ethical” examination of capitalist society, of mere moral assaults on it. The utopians had done enough of that. Besides, capitalism had neither come into being because of moral considerations nor would it pass away because of them. Scientific analysis is required to understand it and a mighty organized physical force is required to overthrow it.

Nevertheless, the reading of the Manifesto reveals that Marx and Engels had the “highest” moral reasons for abhorring capitalism and seeking to achieve socialism. But such moral reasons, they believed, were rooted in the historic process itself as scientific study reveals it to us; not imposed upon it by any whim or fancy of this or that individual or class. Such an approach does not take ethics out of the realm of human life and place it in some impersonal or cosmic force, for the simple reason that for the authors of the Manifesto the historic process is a human one; it is men making history. If this be forgotten we get not Marx but Hegel or Spencer, not a scientifically grounded morality but philosophical idealism or social Darwinism. For Marx and Engels, as materialists, of all things in the heavens or on the earth, good and evil are to be found only in human society. Ethics arises and has its nexus alone in human life. And as dialecticians, they can see “man” only in the form of real men, of men living in society in constant process of change and development in accordance with ascertainable laws.

It is our purpose, on the basis of these few introductory considerations, to elucidate the ethical principles that are employed in the Manifesto and that are revealed by it. As far as possible attention will be limited to this single document, to the question of its ethical premises and conclusions. For here is the heart of Marxism, and we can well ask today, amidst so much moral confusion and hypocrisy in high places, what moral principles the Manifesto offers the contemporary world as well as what ethical grounds it has for urging the workers of the world to unite.

Much more attention is conventionally paid to relatively incidental moral issues raised in the Manifesto than to the basic ethical philosophy it employs. A few of these should be noted, if only to show their essentially incidental character. The bourgeoisie, it stated for example, “has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egoistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In a word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”1 In other writers of the period such a statement would constitute an absolute indictment of capitalism. Not so for Marx and Engels. Here it has a dual character, depending on the use to be made of it. On one side it points to a progressive feature of capitalism, its tearing asunder “the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’” and thus enabling the working class to see their oppression without illusions. On the other side, it presents the essential inhumanity of capitalist relations.

Similarly, in Section II of the document many ethical questions are raised in the discussion of such charges as: the communists seek to abolish private property, they threaten the destruction of culture; they seek abolition of the family, of countries and nationality. The first and obvious answer given to these questions is that the bourgeoisie has done these things far beyond the communists' power to add or to detract, and the authors sometimes with biting wit and sometimes with passionate seriousness discuss the charges. But the real answer occurs at the end of the discussion and is often missed. It points in the direction of our subsequent analysis. The answer is: “The charges against communism made from a religious, a philosophical and, generally, from an ideological standpoint, are not deserving of serious examination.”2 This is because all such arguments are from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, for they are expressions of the ruling ideas of the age which are inevitably “the ideas of its ruling class.” Marx and Engels believe, in short, that the proletarian condemnation of the bourgeois order is so profound and so devastating, its justification for revolution so overwhelming, that the bourgeoisie has lost all right to question the proletariat in this manner. Bourgeois moral principles are but the ideological expression of its class rule, and once the latter is under sentence the former cannot be invoked in its behalf.

The central feature of the Manifesto from an ethical viewpoint is that it passes judgment on a whole order of society and finds it wanting. It pronounces the death sentence on capitalism and demands that the sentence be carried out. But even while passing sentence, it reads a eulogy of its victim. It was a great system, “it has accomplished wonders”; it “has created more massive and colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.”3 A paean of praise is sung to the achievements of the bourgeois system. Its world, however, is not good enough, and its greatest achievement is that it makes possible and necessary the transition to socialism. Thus it is the reasoned judgment of the Manifesto that capitalism will be remembered in history as that system of class society which prepared the way for the abolition of classes.

But when we look for the grounds upon which such sweeping condemnation is passed we find none of the conventional ethical ideas of the philosophers. Neither “right” nor “justice” is anywhere invoked. There is no appeal to a “golden mean” or a “moral law.” Men are neither told that they do nor that they should follow their self-interest or pursue their happiness. Sympathy, benevolence, charity are sarcastically scorned. None of the traditional moral appeals are made; no accepted standards invoked. Whyq The clue is to be found in this simple statement: “The communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.”4 Professor E. H. Carr, in writing of Marxism correctly said: “A true revolution is never content merely to expose the abuses of the existing order, the cases in which its practice falls short of its precept, but attacks at their root the values on which the moral authority of the existing order it based.”5 Since in this case the attack is not only on the existing order, but on the very form of all previous historic society as well, its attack on their moral authority cannot be made by means of the moral ideas or precepts derived from them. If “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” then all previous ethics, too, is at least suspect, for it “moves within certain common forms or general ideas which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms.”6

The problem is highlighted by the use of two terms, throughout the Manifesto, which ordinarily have a moral meaning and which are frequently taken to have such in Marxist usage. Indeed, a first reading of the Manifesto might easily lead one to conclude that the basic ethical concept hinges on a judgment of exploitation. Historical society has always been divided into exploiters and exploited: the worker is exploited by the capitalist, and so on. But the careful study of the whole document reveals that these are not expressions of moral judgment but are simply descriptions of social relations. No ethical conclusion is intended, none is derived from these terms. To the objection that they are weighted terms the answer might be given that they have been used for ages to describe a feature of class-property relationships. It is clear, further, from the Marxist use of them here as elsewhere that they contain no essential moral element, inasmuch as they are used in relation to slavery and feudalism, as well as capitalism, and these systems are not condemned forthright but are recognized as having had progressive phases in the sense of having made contributions to human social development.

This brings us to the root of the problem, which is found only in the conception of the historic process itself. But this, too, can be viewed only from the standpoint of one or another class in society—in this case, obviously, that of the proletariat. The concepts of class and history are here so interwoven that neither can be taken without the other. The basis of the moral judgments of the Manifesto is to be found only in the historical position of the proletariat. Hegel quoted from Schiller that the “history of the world is the world's court of judgment.”7 This is equally true for Marx and Engels, except that for them such judgment is pronounced not by a world spirit but by the historical process itself, and the instrument of the historical process has been the struggle of classes. Under capitalism it is the proletariat which necessarily pushes this struggle to its logical conclusion and is therefore the leading class and the best representative, today, of history's judgment.

In this approach there is no need for an eternal moral law. Capitalism is bad because the proletariat finds it so from the standpoint of its own class needs and interests. It became bad at the point when the proletariat, having become conscious of itself as a class, could also project a plan for the reorganization of society without classes and give birth to communist theory and practice. These arose precisely because “the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society and to impose its conditions of existence on society as an overriding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him.”8 (If this seems an exaggeration or appears to the reader not to describe existing conditions, let him only think of capitalism today on a world scale and of the economic dilemma of the United States in relation to the world market; of the simple fact that no one can buy the products we must sell to maintain our economic system unless we give them the money to do so.)

There still seem to be, however, conventional moral premises in the Manifesto. One could even claim to find one of the chief dicta of Kant's moral law, namely, that men should be treated as ends only, never as means. Marx and Engels say: “All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation [that is, the personal appropriation of the products of social labor] under which the laborer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it.”9 And Marx wrote years later: “The worker himself appears in the [bourgeois] conception as what he really is in capitalist production—a mere means of production; not as an end in himself and the goal of production.”10 The words may be the same as Kant's, but both the theoretical basis and the practical application are vastly different. Unlike Kant, Marx and Engels find no such rule in “the starry heavens above us” or in “the moral law within us.” Nothing in heaven or earth, in short, has decreed that men ought to treat their fellows as ends only, never as means. Nothing, that is, except men themselves as a result of the concrete condition of their social development. It is doubtful whether Kant really meant by this any more than Adam Smith meant when he described capitalism's “obvious and simple system of natural liberty” as that system in which “Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men.”11

For the authors of the Manifesto such a principle as Kant's is unquestionably moral in nature. But it originated, as all moral principles do for them (as also for Spinoza), in the strivings and desires of men. Marx and Engels are not here invoking an a priori moral principle to justify the attack on capitalism and the demand for a socialist world, but rather should be understood as describing the fact that the workers are becoming aware that they are being treated only as a means to production and are demanding that they be the end of production.

The whole problem of the ethical judgment of the Manifesto will appear in clearer light if we recognize the basic Marxist thesis that ethics or morality, like all other forms of ideology, arise out of and reflect specific modes of production and resultant class interests. Heretofore, however, every class struggling to maintain and justify its power or struggling to become the ruling class, represented its needs and desires in the form of eternal principles, commandments, and so on. Or, in the case of the radicals among the early bourgeoisie, as dicta of human nature, inviolable laws of human conduct, such as the pursuit of self-interest. Marx and Engels have, through their whole philosophy of historical materialism, forsworn any attempt to justify the claims of the modern working class in this way. This does not mean at all that the working class cannot and does not adduce ethical principles to support its demand for the overthrow of capitalism. It means that the working class cannot and does not need to derive its principles from anything other than its own interests which are eventually those of mankind as a whole. It means that the working class has discovered that it is exploited, that it doesn't like being exploited, and means to do away with exploitation. It means that the conditions of modern industry—the productive forces developed by capitalism taken together with the capitalist relations of production—are such that the workers cannot see any good reason why they who do the work of the world should not themselves reap the fruits of their labor, that is, be the end of production.

These simple assumptions of the Manifesto, factual in the first instance rather than moral, are pointed up by the eulogy given capitalism for its development of the productive capacities of society. It is precisely capitalism that has, through its inherent compulsion to revolutionize the instruments of production,12 created the conditions which both enable and impel its “slaves” to demand its overthrow. It has created the conditions which first make it possible for man to be the end of production, not the means. It has created the conditions which make it possible for all exploitation to be abolished. To put it in ethical terms and somewhat fancifully, behind the demands and new ethical understanding of the proletariat stand all the slaves and the serfs of the ages. They could struggle only to change the condition of their servitude, while the modern proletariat, thanks to its creator, capitalism, can abolish servitude. Engels expressed this most clearly in his original draft for the Manifesto. “The slave can become free by rupturing one relation of private ownership, the relation of slavery; the proletariat can achieve emancipation only by destroying private property relations in their entirety.”13

Our first conclusion is that the ethical principles employed in the Manifesto are expressions of the world-outlook, the needs and interests, the hopes and desires of the working class. At this point we stand only on the revolutionary doctrine that no ethical principles of ruling-class ideologists are sufficient for the class struggle of the proletariat. The only conclusion possible is that they must formulate the moral principles of their struggle. No higher authority is invoked, no eternal truths, no ultimate principle of righteousness. Just as it is the doctrine of the Manifesto that the workers must achieve their own liberation (a doctrine not to be confused with any denial of the need for allies, in the form both of individuals who come over to the workers and groupings of the petty bourgeoisie, the farmers, etc.) so must it necessarily follow that the ethics of their struggle must be theirs and can't be anyone else's.

But this is only the first major conclusion or generalization that can be drawn from the Manifesto, basic and indispensable as it is. It called for the abandonment of reliance on all forms of altruist approaches—approaches which for Marx and Engels can lead only to confusion and compromise, to the attempt to alleviate the class struggle, not eliminate it. This is that without which no one is a Marxist, but at best a utopian socialist, for, as the Manifesto observed, “Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.” The ethics of the utopians, like their “fantastic pictures of future society” correspond not to the position in society and the understanding of a developed proletariat but only to the “first instinctive yearnings of that class for a general reconstruction of society.”14 Communist principles, on the contrary, are not invented but discovered. They express the actual relations of capitalist society,15 in that developed form when it has already produced its own “grave-diggers.” And the only moral justification its grave-diggers require is that the system is inimical to their needs and interests, stands in the way of their living the life they want to live. And, thanks to society's newly developed productivity, a life they can live under new social and economic relations.

Fundamental as is the position described above, it is not the whole picture. A second equally important ethical idea runs through the Manifesto as it does through all the subsequent writings of Marx and Engels. The struggle of the working class for the overthrow of capitalism is justified and right not only because it expresses their needs and interests, hence their ethics, but because their ethics is the highest or best possible at this stage of history. This is so because, in the nature of things, moral judgments reflect reality, and the judgments of the workers today reflect the contradictions in this reality. As Engels eloquently expressed it: “When the moral consciousness of the masses declares this, that, or the other economic phenomenon to be wrong, as happened at one time in the case of slavery and at another in the case of serfdom, this means that the phenomenon in question has already outlived its time, that new economic conditions have arisen, thanks to which the old ones have become intolerable, and must be swept away.”16

There is a direction of history, Marx and Engels believe, which the struggle of the working class is carrying forward. This is expressed in many places in the Manifesto. They call reactionary, for example, the fight of the lower middle class against the bourgeoisie: “for they try to roll back the wheel of history.”17 They say again, “In bourgeois society, … the past dominates the present; in communist society, the present dominates the past.”18 There is a “march of modern history” the feudal socialists are unable to comprehend, and they forget further “that the modern bourgeoisie is the necessary offspring of their own form of society.”19 But this conception of the direction of history from a lower to a higher form appears most clearly of all in the very analysis of the achievements of capitalism. What are some of these “achievements” which merit the praise of capitalism's foremost enemiesq It has established the world market, “the universal interdependence of nations.” “It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about” by accomplishing wonders of production. It “draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization.” By creating great cities it “has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” Unlike all previous industrial classes, the bourgeoisie “cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instrument of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” But the heart of it all is the fact that the bourgeoisie “during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” It has developed fabulous instruments of production and communication, cleared continents, changed the course of rivers. It has in a word subjected “nature's forces to man.” And they ask, “what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor”q20

The greatness of the bourgeois world lies in its development of productive forces, in its increase of man's mastery over nature. But this was an inevitable development out of feudalism; such is the direction of social evolution. Right here is found the fatal weakness of capitalist relations. For capitalism “is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”21 The capitalist forces of production come into conflict with capitalist relations, are fettered by them. Only the proletariat can take the next step, can free the forces of production from capitalist fetters, can create such social relations as can carry ever further mankind's ability to produce, man's mastery over nature. History is therefore on the side of the working class, or to put it better, the working class in its revolutionary struggle is on the side of history. Engels had made such an approach in his early draft. He wrote: “It is obvious that hitherto the productive forces had not been developed widely enough to provide a sufficiency for all members of society, and that private property had not yet become a chain, a hindrance, to these productive forces. … [These] mighty and easily multiplied productive forces have vastly outgrown the bourgeois and his private property and thus constantly involve society in colossal disturbances—the abolition of private property is not only possible but necessary.”22

The objection can be raised at once that this proves nothing, that it is a circular argument, that there is already a moral judgment implicit in such an interpretation of history. Why is increasing productivity goodq Why should it be taken as an index of progressq Why is man's increasing mastery of nature desirableq Have there not been, and are there not still noteworthy opponents of such viewsq Marx and Engels, neither in the Manifesto nor elsewhere argue this point. Perhaps, because they consider it irrelevant. They are social scientists, not “moralizers.” Like Hegel they do not believe in placing personal whims and fancies up against that scientific knowledge which explores “the march of cold necessity in the subject-matter.” But better still, they know, first, that history moves that way; second, that the proletariat becoming class conscious under the conditions created by capitalism will struggle to free the productive forces from private property relations. Finally, they know that the members of the classless society of the future will recognize the prevailing ideological attacks on communism for what they are: the moral cynicism or nihilism of those who would hold back the wheel of history.

There is no other way. Either ethics and morality are derived from the concrete changing conditions of human life or they are not. Materialism must insist that they have no other basis. Under the conditions of class struggle Marx and Engels are discussing, therefore, the inevitable tendency is for two positions to crystallize, that of the bourgeoisie and that of the proletariat. But when the struggle is seen in its broadest historical terms, they can say that the position of the proletariat conforms to the needs and interests of the human race as a whole.

On one side, recurrent crises, war, famine, mass misery, reversion to barbarism. On the other side, free men freely developing their relations with one another and with nature in the interests of all. On one side, each for himself, “dog eat dog,” men as means to profits and as appendages to the machine; on the other side, men as the end and goal of production, guided by the principle that “the free development of each [is] the condition for the free development of all.” The proletariat works for the interests of all men in furthering its own interests; that is why it has the allies without which, as Lenin said, it could never win. Marx and Engels, taking their stand only on the concrete and ever changing nature of men in society in constant development are led by all their studies to believe that the ethics of the proletariat is a higher ethics than is that of the bourgeoisie, higher in the sense that it represents a movement in a direction which mankind, in its subsequent historical development, will pronounce good. And here history's judgment means, of course, nothing but the collective opinions of men in historical development. In reference to any particular form of society at any particular time, such a judgment is relative. From the standpoint of the historical process as a whole it is absolute. But it is absolute only in the sense of direction, not as a state or stage conceived as eternally existing or as realized at any one time.

This paper has sought to bring forward only two points: (1) that the ethics employed in the Manifesto is simply the expression of the needs, hopes and desires of the modern working class, and (2) that this ethics alone accords with the necessary and desirable (in the sense of being desired) direction of social evolution. To forget the first is to leave out the very soul of Marxism: its partisanship in the class struggle. To ignore the second is to deprive Marxism of both its historical perspective and its moral power. It is no “mere” class doctrine. It is not pragmatism which has no ends or goods beyond the immediate situation and thus supports or becomes opportunism at every turn. It is not an amoral taking of sides nor a loyalty for loyalty's sake. The essential unity of the two points inheres in the Marxist recognition that it is the nature of capitalism itself which compels the working class, in struggling for its emancipation, to struggle for the emancipation of all oppressed humanity. It is the nature of capitalist relations which has created a class that must struggle to abolish all classes. It is the capitalist development of productivity that makes the abolition of all classes, of all exploitation of man by man, possible for the first time in history. In short, it is the historic process itself which requires the working class to liberate all mankind, and which gives concrete meaning to the word “liberation” for the majority of the world's population.

It is no exaggeration to say that this is the first document in history to achieve any such organic unity of scientific social analysis with ethical ideals. Previous attempts at social science had either sought to eliminate values or had added on, extraneously, values derived from religious or secular traditions. In the first case no rational guide for action was possible. In the second, the values were divorced both from what in fact existed and also from any possible effective program of action.

The success of Marx and Engels was due to the fact that they derived their values from their scientific study of capitalist society itself, and they were able to make such a study because they approached the subject from the standpoint of the proletariat.


  1. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Karl Marx, Selected Works (New York, International Publishers, n.d.), I, p. 207 f.

  2. Ibid., p. 225.

  3. Ibid., p. 208 and 210.

  4. Ibid., p. 226.

  5. Edward Hallett Carr, The Soviet Impact on the Western World (New York, 1947), p. 94.

  6. Marx and Engels, op. cit., p. 226.

  7. Hegel's Philosophy of Right, transl. by T. M. Knox (Oxford, 1942), sect. 340.

  8. Marx and Engels, op. cit., p. 218.

  9. Ibid., p. 221.

  10. Marx, Theorien über den Mehrwert, ed. by Karl Kautsky (Berlin 1923), II, p. 334.

  11. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York, Modern Library, 1937), p. 651.

  12. Marx and Engels, op. cit., p. 208 f.

  13. The Communist Manifesto, ed. D. Ryazanoff (New York, 1930), p. 322 f.

  14. Marx and Engels, op. cit., p. 238.

  15. Ibid., p. 219.

  16. Quoted by D. Ryazanoff in his edition of The Communist Manifesto, p. 172.

  17. Marx and Engels, op. cit., p. 216.

  18. Ibid., p. 221.

  19. Ibid., p. 230.

  20. Ibid., p. 206–10.

  21. Ibid., p. 211.

  22. In Ryazanov, op. cit., p. 329.

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

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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.]


What gives the Manifesto its unique importance? In order to answer this question it is necessary to see clearly its place in the history of socialism.

Despite a frequently encountered opinion to the contrary, there was no socialism in ancient or medieval times. There were movements and doctrines of social reform which were radical in the sense that they sought greater equality or even complete community of consumer goods, but none even approached the modern socialist conception of a society in which the means of production are publicly owned and managed. This is, of course, not surprising. Production actually took place on a primitive level in scattered workshops and agricultural strips—conditions under which public ownership and management were not only impossible but even unthinkable.

The first theoretical expression of a genuinely socialist position came in Thomas More's Utopia, written in the early years of the sixteenth century—in other words, at the very threshold of what we call the modern period. But Utopia was the work of an individual genius and not the reflection of a social movement. It was not until the English Civil War, in the middle of the seventeenth century, that socialism first began to assume the shape of a social movement. Gerrard Winstanley (born 1609, died sometime after 1660) was probably the greatest socialist thinker that the English-speaking countries have yet produced, and the Digger movement which he led was certainly the first practical expression of socialism. But it lasted only a very short time, and the same was true of the movement led by Babeuf during the French Revolution a century and a half later. Meanwhile, quite a number of writers had formulated views of a more or less definitely socialist character.

But it was not until the nineteenth century that socialism became an important public issue and socialists began to play a significant role in the political life of the most advanced European countries. The Utopian socialists (Owen, Fourier, St. Simon) were key figures in this period of emergence; and the Chartist movement in Britain, which flourished during the late 1830s and early 1840s, showed that the new factory working class formed a potentially powerful base for a socialist political party.

Thus we see that socialism is strictly a modern phenomenon, a child of the industrial revolution which got under way in England in the seventeenth century and decisively altered the economic and social structure of all of western Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By 1840 or so, socialism had arrived in the sense that it was already widely discussed and politically promising.

But socialism was still shapeless and inchoate—a collection of brilliant insights and perceptions, of more or less fanciful projects, of passionate beliefs and hopes. There was an urgent need for systematization; for a careful review picking out what was sound, dropping what was unsound, integrating into the socialist outlook the most progressive elements of bourgeois philosophy and social science.

It was the historical mission of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to perform this task. They appeared on the scene at just the right time; they were admirably prepared by background and training; they seized upon their opportunity with a remarkably clear estimate of its crucial importance to the future of mankind.

Marx and Engels began their work of transforming socialism “from Utopia to science” in the early 1840s. In the next few years of profound study and intense discussion they worked out their own new socialist synthesis. The Manifesto for the first time broadcast this new synthesis to the world—in briefest compass and in arrestingly brilliant prose.

The Manifesto thus marks a decisive watershed in the history of socialism. Previous thought and experience lead up to it; subsequent developments start from it. It is this fact which stamps the Manifesto as the most important document in the history of socialism. And the steady growth of socialism as a world force since 1848 has raised the Manifesto to the status of one of the most important documents in the entire history of the human race.


How has the Manifesto stood up during its first hundred years? The answer we give to this question will depend largely on the criteria by which—consciously or unconsciously—we form our judgments.

Some who consider themselves Marxists approach the Manifesto in the spirit of a religious fundamentalist approaching the Bible—every word and every proposition were literally true when written and remain sacrosanct and untouchable after the most eventful century in world history. It is, of course, not difficult to demonstrate to the satisfaction of any reasonable person that this is an untenable position. For this very reason, no doubt, a favorite procedure of enemies of Marxism is to assume that all Marxists take this view of the Manifesto. If the Manifesto is judged by the criterion of one-hundred-percent infallibility it can be readily disposed of by any second-rate hack who thus convinces himself that he is a greater man than the founders of scientific socialism. The American academic community, it may be noted in passing, is full of such great men today. But theirs is a hollow victory which, though repeated thousands of times every year, leaves the Manifesto untouched and the stature of its authors undiminished.

Much more relevant and significant are the criteria which Marx and Engels themselves, in later years, used in judging the Manifesto. For this reason the prefaces which they wrote to various reprints and translations are both revealing and important (especially the prefaces to the German edition of 1872, the Russian edition of 1882, the German edition of 1883, and the English edition of 1888). Let us sum up what seem to us to be the main points which emerge from a study of these prefaces:

(1) In certain respects, Marx and Engels regarded the Manifesto as clearly dated. This is particularly the case as regards the programmatic section and the section dealing with socialist literature (end of Part II and all of Part III).

(2) The general principles set forth in the Manifesto were, in their view, “on the whole as correct today as ever” (first written in 1872, repeated in 1888).

(3) The experience of the Paris Commune caused them to add a principle of great importance which was absent from the original, namely, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” In other words, the “ready-made state machinery” had been created by and for the existing ruling classes and would have to be replaced by new state machinery after the conquest of power by the working class.

(4) Finally—and this is perhaps the most important point of all—in their last joint preface (to the Russian edition of 1882), Marx and Engels brought out clearly the fact that the Manifesto was based on the historical experience of western and central Europe. But by 1882 Russia, in their opinion, formed “the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe,” and this development inevitably gave rise to new questions and problems which did not and could not arise within the framework of the original Manifesto.

It is thus quite obvious from these later prefaces that Marx and Engels never for a moment entertained the notion that they were blueprinting the future course of history or laying down a set of dogmas which would be binding on future generations of socialists. In particular, they implicitly recognized that as capitalism spread and drew new countries and regions into the mainstream of modern history, problems and forms of development not considered in the Manifesto must necessarily be encountered.

On the other hand, Marx and Engels never wavered in their conviction that the general principles set forth in the Manifesto were sound and valid. Neither the events of the succeeding decades nor their own subsequent studies, profound and wide-ranging as they were, caused them to alter or question its central theoretical framework.

It seems clear to us that in judging the Manifesto today, a century after its publication, we should be guided by the same criteria that the authors themselves used twenty-five, thirty, and forty years after its publication. We should not concern ourselves with details but should go straight to the general principles and examine them in the light of the changed conditions of the mid-twentieth century.


The general principles of the Manifesto can be grouped under the following headings: (a) historical materialism, (b) class struggle, (c) the nature of capitalism, (d) the inevitability of socialism, and (e) the road to socialism. Let us review these principles as briefly and concisely as we can.


This is the theory of history which runs through the Manifesto as it does through all the mature writings of Marx and Engels. It holds that the way people act and think is determined in the final analysis by the way they get their living; hence the foundation of any society is its economic system; and therefore economic change is the driving force of history. Part I of the Manifesto is essentially a brilliant and amazingly compact application of this theory to the rise and development of capitalism from its earliest beginnings in the Middle Ages to its full-fledged mid-nineteenth-century form. Part II contains a passage which puts the case for historical materialism as against historical idealism with unexampled clarity:

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 of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.

When people speak of ideas that revolutionize society, they do but express the fact, that within the old society, the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence.


The Manifesto opens with the famous sentence: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” This is in no sense a contradiction of the theory of historical materialism but rather an essential part of it. “Hitherto existing society” (Engels explained in a footnote to the 1888 edition that this term should not be interpreted to include preliterate societies) had always been based on an economic system in which some people did the work and others appropriated the social surplus. Fundamental differences in the method of securing a livelihood—some by working, some by owning—must, according to historical materialism, create groups with fundamentally different and in many respects antagonistic interests, attitudes, aspirations. These groups are the classes of Marxian theory. They, and not individuals, are the chief actors on the stage of history. Their activities and strivings—above all, their conflicts—underlie the social movements, the wars and revolutions, which trace out the pattern of human progress.


The Manifesto contains the bold outlines of the theory of capitalism which Marx was to spend most of the remainder of his life perfecting and elaborating. (It is interesting to note that the term “capitalism” does not occur in the Manifesto; instead, Marx and Engels use a variety of expressions, such as “existing society,” “bourgeois society,” “the rule of the bourgeoisie,” and so forth.) Capitalism is pre-eminently a market, or commodity-producing, economy, which “has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’” Even the laborer is a commodity and must sell himself piecemeal to the capitalist. The capitalist purchases labor (later Marx would have substituted “labor power” for “labor” in this context) in order to make profits, and he makes profits in order to expand his capital. Thus the laborers form a class “who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital.”

It follows that capitalism, in contrast to all earlier forms of society, is a restlessly expanding system which “cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” Moreover, “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” Thanks to these qualities, “the bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” But, by a peculiar irony, its enormous productivity turns out to be the nemesis of capitalism. In one of the great passages of the Manifesto, which is worth quoting in full, Marx and Engels lay bare the inner contradictions which are driving capitalism to certain shipwreck:

Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and of its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity—the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed. And why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand, by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.


The mere fact that capitalism is doomed is not enough to ensure the triumph of socialism. History is full of examples which show that the dissolution of a society can lead to chaos and retrogression as well as to a new and more progressive system. Hence it is of greatest importance that capitalism by its very nature creates and trains the force which at a certain stage of development must overthrow it and replace it by socialism. The reasoning is concisely summed up in the last paragraph of Part I:

The essential condition for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage labor. Wage labor rests exclusively on competition between the laborers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of modern industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.


There are two aspects to this question as it appears in the Manifesto: first, the general character of the socialist revolution; and, second, the course of the revolution on an international scale.

The socialist revolution must be essentially a working-class revolution, though Marx and Engels were far from denying a role to elements of other classes. As pointed out above, the development of capitalism itself requires more and more wage workers; moreover, as industry grows and the transport network is extended and improved, the workers are increasingly unified and trained for collective action. At a certain stage this results in the “organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party.” The contradictions of capitalism will sooner or later give rise to a situation from which there is no escape except through revolution. What Marx and Engels call the “first step” in this revolution is the conquest of power, “to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” It is important to note—because it has been so often overlooked—that basic social changes come only after the working class has acquired power:

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e. of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive powers as rapidly as possible.

This will be a transition period during which the working class “sweeps away by force the old conditions of production.” (In view of present-day misrepresentations of Marxism, it may be as well to point out that “sweeping away by force” in this connection implies the orderly use of state power and not the indiscriminate use of violence.) Finally, along with these conditions, the working class will

have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

So much for the general character of the socialist revolution. There remains the question of the international course of the revolution. Here it was clear to Marx and Engels that though the modern working-class movement is essentially an international movement directed against a system which knows no national boundaries, “yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.” And from this it follows that “the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.” At the same time, Marx and Engels were well aware of the international character of the counter-revolutionary forces which would certainly attempt to crush an isolated workers' revolution. Hence, “united action of the leading civilized countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.” Thus the various national revolutions must reinforce and protect one another and eventually merge into a new society from which international exploitation and hostility will have vanished. For, as Marx and Engels point out:

In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.

As to the actual geography of the revolution, Marx and Engels took it for granted that it would start and spread from the most advanced capitalist countries of western and central Europe. At the time of writing the Manifesto, they correctly judged that Europe was on the verge of a new revolutionary upheaval, and they expected that Germany would be the cockpit:

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 civilization and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England was in the seventeenth, and of France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.

This prediction, of course, turned out to be overoptimistic. Not the revolution but the counter-revolution won the day in Germany, and indeed in all of Europe. But at no time in their later lives did Marx and Engels revise the view of the Manifesto that the proletarian, or socialist, revolution would come first in one or more of the most advanced capitalist countries of western and central Europe. In the 1870s and 1880s they became increasingly interested in Russia, convinced that that country must soon be the scene of a revolution similar in scope and character to the great French Revolution of a hundred years earlier. No small part of their interest in Russia derived from a conviction that the Russian revolution, though it would be essentially a bourgeois revolution, would flash the signal for the final showdown in the West. As Gustav Mayer says in his biography of Engels, speaking of the later years, “his speculations about the future always centered on the approaching Russian revolution, the revolution which was to clear the way for the proletarian revolution in the West.” (English translation, p. 278.) But “he never imagined that his ideas might triumph, in that Empire lying on the very edge of European civilization, before capitalism was overthrown in western Europe.” (P. 286.)


What are we to say of the theoretical framework of the Manifesto after a hundred years? Can we say, as Marx and Engels said, that the general principles are “on the whole as correct today as ever”? Or have the events of the last five or six decades been such as to force us to abandon or revise these principles? Let us review our list item by item.


The last half century has certainly provided no grounds whatever to question the validity of historical materialism. Rather the contrary. There has probably never been a period in which it was more obvious that the prime mover of history is economic change; and certainly the thesis has never been so widely recognized as at present. This recognition is by no means confined to Marxists or socialists; one can even say that it provides the starting point for an increasingly large proportion of all serious historical scholarship. Moreover, the point of view of historical materialism—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”—has been taken over (ordinarily without acknowledgment, and perhaps frequently without even knowledge, of its source) by nearly all social scientists worthy of the name. It is, of course, true that the world-wide crisis of the capitalist system, along with the wars and depressions and catastrophes to which it has given rise, has produced a vast outpouring of mystical, irrational theories in recent years, and that such theories are increasingly characteristic of bourgeois thought as a whole. But wherever sanity and reason prevail, both inside and outside the socialist movement, there the truth of historical materialism is ever more clearly perceived as a beacon lighting up the path to an understanding of human society and its history.


The theory of class struggle, like the theory of historical materialism, has been strengthened rather than weakened by the events of the last half century. Not only is it increasingly clear that internal events in the leading nations of the world are dominated by class conflicts, but also the crucial role of class conflict in international affairs is much nearer the surface and hence more easily visible today than ever before. Above all, the rise and spread of fascism in the interwar period did more than anything else possibly could have done to educate millions of people all over the world to the class character of capitalism and the lengths to which the ruling class will go to preserve its privileges against any threat from below. Moreover, here, as in the case of historical materialism, serious social scientists have been forced to pay Marx and Engels the compliment of imitation. The study of such diverse phenomena as social psychology, the development of Chinese society, the caste system in India, and racial discrimination in the United States South, is being transformed by a recognition of the central role of class and class struggle. Honest enemies of Marxism are no longer able to pooh-pooh the theory of class struggle as they once did; they now leave the pooh-poohing to the dupes and paid propagandists of the ruling class. They must admit, with H. G. Wells, that “Marx, who did not so much advocate the class war, the war of the expropriated mass against the appropriating few, as foretell it, is being more and more justified by events” (The Outline of History, Vol. II, p. 399); or, with Professor Talcott Parsons, Chairman of the Social Relations Department at Harvard, that “the Marxian view of the importance of class structure has in a broad way been vindicated.” (Papers and Proceedings of the 61st Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association, May 1949, p. 26.)


In political economy, bourgeois social science has borrowed less from, and made fewer concessions to, the Marxian position than in historiography and sociology. The reason is not far to seek. Historical materialism and class struggle are general theories which apply to many different societies and epochs. It is not difficult, with the help of circumlocutions and evasions, to make use of them in relatively “safe” ways and at the same time to obtain results incomparably more valuable than anything yielded by the traditional bourgeois idealist and individualist approaches. When it comes to political economy, however, the case is very different. Marxian political economy applies specifically to capitalism, to the system under which the bourgeois social scientist lives (and makes his living) here and now; its conclusions are clear-cut, difficult to evade, and absolutely unacceptable to the ruling class. The result is that for bourgeois economists Marxian political economy scarcely exists, and it is rare to find in their writings an admission of Marx's greatness as an economist stated so specifically as in the following: “He was the first economist of top rank to see and to teach systematically how economic theory may be turned into historical analysis and how the historical narrative may be turned into histoire raisonnée.” (J. A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 1st edition, p. 44.)

Does the neglect of Marx as an economist indicate the failure of the ideas of the Manifesto? On the contrary; the correlation is an inverse one. What idea has been more completely confirmed by the last century than the conception of capitalism's restless need to expand, of the capitalist's irresistible urge to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere”? Who can deny today that the periodical return of crises is a fact which puts the “existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly”? Who can fail to see that “the conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them”? In short, who can any longer be blind to the fact that capitalism is riddled with contradictions which make its continued existence—at least in anything like its traditional form—impossible and unthinkable?


There are, of course, many who, recognizing the dire straits to which the capitalist world has come, believe that it is possible to patch up and reform the system in such a way as to make it serve the real interests of society. But their number is diminishing every day, and conversely the great international army of socialism is growing in strength and confidence. Its members have every reason for confidence.

When the Manifesto was written, socialism was composed of “little sects,” as Engels told the Zurich Congress of the Second International in 1893; by that time, two years before his death, it “had developed into a powerful party before which the world of officialdom trembles.”

Twenty-five years later, after World War I, one sixth of the land surface of the globe had passed through a proletarian revolution and was, as subsequent events showed, securely on the path to socialism.

Three decades later, after World War II, more than a quarter of the human race, in eastern Europe and China, had followed suit.

If capitalism could not prevent the growth of socialism when it was healthy and in sole possession of the field, what reason is there to suppose that it can now perform the feat when it is sick to death and challenged by an actually functioning socialist system which grows in strength and vigor with every year that passes? The central message of the Manifesto was the impending doom of capitalism and its replacement by a new, socialist order. Has anything else in the whole document been more brilliantly verified by the intervening hundred years?


Much of what Marx and Engels said in the Manifesto about the general character of the socialist revolution has been amply confirmed by the experience of Russia. The working class did lead the way and play the decisive role. The first step was “to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class.” The proletariat did “use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, … and to increase the total of productive powers as rapidly as possible.” The conditions for the existence of class antagonisms have been “swept away.” On the other hand, the relative backwardness of Russia and the aggravation of class and international conflicts on a world scale have combined to bring about the intensification rather than the dismantling of state power in the USSR. The achievement of “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” remains what it was a century ago, a goal for the future.

It is also true that an important part of what is said in the Manifesto about the international course of the revolution has been corroborated by subsequent experience. The socialist revolution has not taken the form of a simultaneous international uprising; rather it has taken, and gives every prospect of continuing to take, the form of a series of national revolutions which differ from one another in many respects. Such differences, however, do not alter the fact that in content all these socialist revolutions, like the bourgeois revolutions of an earlier period, are international in character and are contributing to the building of a new world order. We cannot yet state as a fact that this new world order will be one from which international enmity will have vanished, and the quarrel between Yugoslavia and the other socialist countries of eastern Europe may seem to point to an opposite conclusion. The present status of international relations, however, is so dominated by the division of the world into two systems and the preparation of both sides for a possible “final” conflict, and the existence of more than one socialist country is such a recent phenomenon, that we shall do well to reserve judgment on the import of the Yugoslav case. In the meantime, the reasons for expecting the gradual disappearance of international exploitation and hostility from a predominantly socialist world are just as strong as they were a hundred years ago.

We now come to our last topic, the geography of the socialist revolution. Here there can be no question that Marx and Engels were mistaken, not only when they wrote the Manifesto but in their later writings as well. The socialist revolution did not come first in the most advanced capitalist countries of Europe; nor did it come first in America after the United States had displaced Great Britain as the world's leading capitalist country. Further, the socialist revolution is not spreading first to these regions from its country of origin; on the contrary, it is spreading first to comparatively backward countries which are relatively inaccessible to the economic and military power of the most advanced capitalist countries. The first country to pass through a successful socialist revolution was Russia, and this was not only not anticipated by Marx and Engels but would have been impossible under conditions which existed during the lifetime of their generation.

Why were Marx and Engels mistaken on this issue? We must examine this question carefully, both because it is an important issue in its own right and because it is the source of many misconceptions.

At first sight, it might appear that the mistake of Marx and Engels consisted in not providing explanatory principles adequate to account for the Russian Revolution. But we do not believe that this reaches the heart of the problem. It is, of course, true, as we pointed out above, that during the 1870s and 1880s Marx and Engels denied the possibility of a socialist revolution in Russia. But at that time they were perfectly right, and it is not inconsistent to record this fact and at the same time to assert that the pattern and timing of the Russian Revolution were in accord with the principles of the Manifesto. What is too often forgotten is that between 1880 and World War I capitalism developed extremely rapidly in the empire of the tsars. In 1917 Russia was still, on the whole, a relatively backward country; but she also possessed some of the largest factories in Europe and a working class which, in terms of numbers, degree of organization, and quality of leadership, was almost entirely a product of the preceding three decades. Capitalism was certainly more highly developed in Russia in 1917 than it had been in Germany in 1848. Bearing this in mind, let us substitute “Russia” for “Germany” in a passage from the Manifesto already quoted above:

The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Russia, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilization and with a more developed proletariat than that of England was in the seventeenth, and of France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Russia will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.

Clearly, what Marx and Engels had overoptimistically predicted for Germany in 1848 actually occurred in Russia seventy years later. What this means is that, given the fact that the socialist revolution had failed to materialize in the West, Russia was, even according to the theory of the Manifesto, a logical starting point.

Furthermore, there is no contradiction between Marxian theory and the fact that the socialist revolution, having once taken place in Russia, spread first to relatively backward countries. For Marx and Engels fully recognized what might be called the possibility of historical borrowing. One consequence of the triumph of socialism anywhere would be the opening up of new paths to socialism elsewhere. Or, to put the matter differently, not all countries need go through the same stages of development; once one country has achieved socialism, other countries will have the possibility of abbreviating or skipping certain stages which the pioneer country had to pass through. There was obviously no occasion to discuss this question in the Manifesto, but it arose later on in connection with the debate among Russian socialists as to whether Russia would necessarily have to pass through capitalism on the way to socialism. In 1877 Marx sharply criticized a Russian writer who

felt obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch [in Capital] of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophical theory of the marche générale imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man.

(Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 354)

And Engels, in 1893, dealt with the specific point at issue in the Russian debate in the following terms:

… no more in Russia than anywhere else would it have been possible to develop a higher social form out of primitive agrarian communism unless—that higher form was already in existence in another country, so as to serve as a model. That higher form being, wherever it is historically possible, the necessary consequence of the capitalistic form of production and of the social dualistic antagonism created by it, it could not be developed directly out of the agrarian commune, unless in imitation of an example already in existence somewhere else. Had the West of Europe been ripe, 1860-70, for such a transformation, had that transformation then been taken in hand in England, France, etc., then the Russians would have been called upon to show what could have been made out of their commune, which was then more or less intact.

(Selected Correspondence, p. 515)

While this argument is developed in a particular context, it is clear that the general principle involved—the possibility of historical borrowing—applies to, say, China today. Unless both the theory and the actual practice of socialism had been developed elsewhere it is hardly likely that China would now be actually tackling the problem of transforming itself into a socialist society. But given the experience of western Europe (in theory) and of Russia (in both theory and practice), this is a logical and feasible course for the Chinese Revolution to take.

Thus we must conclude that while of course Marx and Engels did not expect Russia to be the scene of the first socialist revolution, and still less could they look beyond and foretell that the next countries would be relatively backward ones, nevertheless both of these developments, coming as and when they did, are consistent with Marxian theory as worked out by the founders themselves. What, then, was the nature of their mistake?

The answer, clearly, is that Marx and Engels were wrong in expecting an early socialist revolution in western Europe. What needs explaining is why the advanced capitalist countries did not go ahead, so to speak, “on schedule” but stubbornly remained capitalist until, and indeed long after, Russia, a latecomer to the family of capitalist nations, had passed through its own socialist revolution. In other words, how are we to explain the apparent paradox that, though in a broad historical sense socialism is undeniably the product of capitalism, nevertheless the most fully developed capitalist countries not only were not the first to go socialist but, as it now seems, may turn out to be the last? The Manifesto does not help us to answer this question; never in their own lifetime did Marx and Engels imagine that such a question might arise.


To explain why the advanced capitalist countries have failed to go socialist in the hundred years since the publication of the Manifesto is certainly not easy, and we know of no satisfactory analysis which is specifically concerned with this problem. But it would be a poor compliment to the authors of the Manifesto, who have given us all the basic tools for an understanding of the nature of capitalism and hence for an understanding of our own epoch, to evade a problem because they themselves did not pose and solve it. Let us therefore indicate—as a stimulus to study and discussion rather than as an attempt at a definitive answer—what seem to us to be the main factors which have to be taken into account.

If we consider the chief countries of Europe, certain things seem clear. First, even under conditions prevailing in the middle of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels underestimated the extent to which capitalism could still continue to expand in these countries. Second, and much more important, this “margin of expansibility” was vastly extended in the three or four decades preceding World War I by the development of a new pattern of imperialism which enabled the advanced countries to exploit the resources and manpower of the backward regions of the world to a previously unheard-of degree. As Lenin concisely put it in 1920: “Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the people of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries.” (Collected Works, Vol. XIX, p. 87.) (This development only began to take place toward the end of Marx's and Engels' lives, and it would have been little short of a miracle if they had been able to foresee all its momentous consequences.) Third, it was this new system of imperialism which brought western Europe out of the long depression of the 1870s and 1880s, gave capitalism a new lease on life, and enabled the ruling class to secure—by means of an astute policy of social reforms and concessions to the working class—widespread support from all sections of society.

The other side of the imperialist coin was the awakening of the backward peoples, the putting into their hands of the moral, psychological, and material means by which they could begin the struggle for their political independence and their economic advancement.

In all this development, it should be noted, Russia occupied a special place. The Russian bourgeoisie, or at least certain sections of it, participated in the expansion of imperialism, especially in the Middle and Far East. But on balance Russia was more an object than a beneficiary of imperialism. Hence few, if any, of the effects which imperialism produced in the West—amelioration of internal social conflicts, widespread class collaboration, and the like—appeared in Russia.

To sum up: imperialism prolonged the life of capitalism in the West and turned what was a revolutionary working-class movement (as in Germany) or what might have become one (as in England) into reformist and collaborationist channels. It intensified the contradictions of capitalism in Russia. And it laid the foundations of a revolutionary movement in the exploited colonial and semicolonial countries. Here, it seems to us, is the basic reason why the advanced capitalist countries of western Europe failed to fulfill the revolutionary expectations of the Manifesto. Here also is to be found an important part of the explanation of the role which Russia and the backward regions of the world have played and are playing in the world transition from capitalism to socialism.

But, it may be objected, by the beginning of the twentieth century the United States was already the most advanced capitalist country, and the United States did not really become enmeshed in the imperialist system until World War I. Why did the United States not lead the way to socialism?

Generally speaking, the answer to this question is well known. North America offered unique opportunities for the development of capitalism; the “margin of expansibility” in the late nineteenth century was much greater than that enjoyed by the European countries even when account is taken of the new system of imperialism which was only then beginning to be put into operation. There is no space to enumerate and analyze the advantages enjoyed by this continent; the following list, compiled and commented upon by William Z. Foster in a recent article (“Marxism and American Exceptionalism,” Political Affairs, September 1947), certainly includes the most important: (1) absence of a feudal political national past, (2) tremendous natural resources, (3) a vast unified land area, (4) insatiable demand for labor power, (5) highly strategic location, and (6) freedom from the ravages of war.

American capitalism, making the most of these advantages, developed a degree of productivity and wealth far surpassing that of any other capitalist country or region; and it offered opportunities for advancement to members of the working class which—at least up until the Great Depression of the 1930s—were without parallel in the history of capitalism or, for that matter, of any class society that ever existed. (On this point, see the article on “Socialism and American Labor,” by Leo Huberman, in the May 1949 issue of Monthly Review.) This does not mean, of course, that the United States economy was at any time free from the contradictions of capitalism; it merely means that American capitalism, in spite of these contradictions, has been able to reach a much higher level than the capitalist system of other countries. It also means that capitalism in this country could go—and actually has gone—further than in the European imperialist countries toward winning support for the system from all sections of the population, including the working class. It is thus not surprising that the United States, far from taking the place of western Europe as the leader of the world socialist revolution, has actually had a weaker socialist movement than any other developed capitalist country.

We see that, for reasons which could hardly have been uncovered a hundred years ago, capitalism has been able to dig in deep in the advanced countries of western Europe and America and to resist the rising tide of socialism much longer than Marx and Engels ever thought possible.

Before we leave the problem of the advanced countries, however, a word of caution seems necessary. It ought to be obvious, though it often seems to be anything but, that to say that capitalism has enjoyed an unexpectedly long life in the most advanced countries is very different from saying that it will live forever. Similarly, to say that the western European and American working classes have so far failed to fulfill the role of “grave-diggers” of capitalism is not equivalent to asserting that they never will do so. Marx and Engels were certainly wrong in their timing, but we believe that their basic theory of capitalism and of the manner of its transformation into socialism remains valid and is no less applicable to western Europe and America than to other parts of the world.

Present-day indications all point to this conclusion. Two world wars and the growth of the revolutionary movement in the backward areas have irrevocably undermined the system of imperialism which formerly pumped lifeblood into western European capitalism. The ruling class of the United States, threatened as never before by the peculiar capitalist disease of overproduction, is struggling, Atlas-like, to carry the whole capitalist world on its shoulders—and is showing more clearly every day that it has no idea how the miracle is to be accomplished. Are we to assume that the western European and American working classes are so thoroughly bemused by the past that they will never learn the lessons of the present and turn their eyes to the future? Are we to assume that, because capitalism was able to offer them concessions in its period of good fortune, they will be content to sink (or be blown up) with a doomed system?

We refuse to make any such assumptions. We believe that the time is not distant when the working man of the most advanced, as well as of the most backward, countries will be compelled, in the words of the Manifesto, “to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.” And when he does, we have no doubt that he will choose to live under socialism rather than die under capitalism.


On the whole, the Manifesto has stood up amazingly well during its first hundred years. The theory of history, the analysis of capitalism, the prognosis of socialism, have all been brilliantly confirmed. Only in one respect—the view that socialism would come first in the most advanced capitalist countries—has the Manifesto been proved mistaken by experience. This mistake, moreover, is one which could hardly have been avoided in the conditions of a hundred years ago. It is in no sense a reflection on the authors; it only shows that Engels was right when he insisted in his celebrated critique of Dühring that “each mental image of the world system is and remains in actual fact limited, objectively through the historical stage and subjectively through the physical and mental constitution of its maker.”

How fortunate it would have been for mankind if the world socialist revolution had proceeded in accordance with the expectations of the authors of the Manifesto! How much more rapid and less painful the crossing would be if Britain or Germany or—best of all—the United States had been the first to set foot on the road! Only imagine what we in this country could do to lead the world into the promised land of peace and abundance if we could but control, instead of being dominated by, our vast powers of production!

But, as Engels once remarked, “history is about the most cruel of all goddesses.” She has decreed that the world transition from capitalism to socialism, instead of being relatively quick and smooth, as it might have been if the most productive and civilized nations had led the way, is to be a long-drawn-out period of intense suffering and bitter conflict. There is even a danger that in the heat of the struggle some of the finest fruits of the bourgeois epoch will be temporarily lost to mankind, instead of being extended and universalized by the spread of the socialist revolution. Intellectual freedom and personal security guaranteed by law—to name only the most precious—have been virtually unknown to the peoples who are now blazing the trail to socialism; in the advanced countries, they are seriously jeopardized by the fierce onslaughts of reaction and counter-revolution. No one can say whether they will survive the period of tension and strife through which we are now passing, or whether they will have to be rediscovered and recaptured in a more rational world of the future.

The passage is dangerous and difficult, the worst may be yet to come. But there is no escape for the disillusioned, the timid, or the weary. Those who have mastered the message of the Manifesto and caught the spirit of its authors will understand that the clock cannot be turned back, that capitalism is surely doomed, and that the only hope of mankind lies in completing the journey to socialism with maximum speed and minimum violence.

Francis B. Randall (essay date 1963)

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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 unions of any size. A few countries of northwest Europe and a few areas of the United States were industrializing rapidly, but there was no city in the world—even London—much bigger than two million people, and no state—even Great Britain—in which a majority of the people did not live in the country and farm for a living. Every country in the world—except the Americas and Switzerland—was a monarchy of some sort, and in most of them the king, emperor, tsar, or sultan ruled absolutely and without any formal check. Even in free America there were millions of slaves, and even in free Great Britain most men were too poor to qualify for the vote. No woman in the civilized world—save possibly Queen Victoria—was fully and legally free from control by father, husband, or some other man. Every country was what we would now call “backward,” and way over ninety per cent of the world's population lived in what we would call horrible and unendurable poverty—1848 was very long ago.

Into this now vanished world Karl Marx was born in 1818, in the western German city of Treves (Trier), which still boasts of the finest Roman ruins in northern Europe. Treves then belonged to Prussia, the second most powerful of the many independent German states, and the most efficient reactionary police tyranny in Europe. Marx always detested the Prussian regime. He renounced his Prussian citizenship while still in his twenties, and spent most of his life in exile, wanted by the Prussian police.

The Marxes were a Jewish family; both father and mother had come from families of rabbis. But Marx's father, educated in the anti-religious atmosphere of the late eighteenth-century Enlightenment, gave up Judaism and the Jewish community, and became a lawyer and a Prussian official. Eventually, when Karl Marx was six, his father had himself and his whole family baptized as Lutherans not because he admired Luther or believed in Jesus, but to save his career in what was officially Lutheran Prussia, although Treves itself was a Catholic city.

An enormous amount of nonsense has been written about Marx because he was born into a Jewish family. He was never taught much about Judaism or Jewish life, and he was proud of his ignorance. He was often twitted and sneered at in his youth for being Jewish, but he never suffered much when he was young or later from the prevailing anti-Semitism, either in his career, or, so far as we can tell, in his psyche. He had few Jewish friends. He wrote a fair amount about the Jews of Europe, always regarding Judaism as a stupid superstition, and the Jews as a community caught in the vise of capitalism from which only the revolution could free them. He adopted from his Christian neighbors the habit of calling ideas and people he did not like “dirty-Jewish” whether they were Jewish or not, and when he really hated someone (for instance, Ferdinand Lassalle, a man of Jewish origin who became the greatest German socialist and trade union leader in the 1860's), Marx would call him a “dirty Jew of Negro blood.” Marx was not really a Jew. Hitler thought that communism was one vast Jewish plot, citing as proof the “fact” that Marx was Jewish. But Hitler was crazy, and other anti-Communists would do well to avoid this mode of thought.

Other kinds of nonsense are written by people who know that Marx, in spite of his family background, was not really Jewish. One often reads that Marx was cut off from European society by being Jewish, and from Jewish society by no longer being Jewish, and that he was able to fathom the future socialist society because he was thus alienated from his own. One often reads that Marx had the moral indignation of a Hebrew prophet because of his Jewish background, that he was concerned with human happiness in this world rather than in the next because of his Jewish background, and that he was given to fierce self-righteousness, absolute dogmatism, and violent abusiveness because of his Jewish background. People who believe such things are usually at a loss to explain why most denouncers of the evils of early industrialism were of Christian origin, as were most socialists, and why most Christian intellectuals of the day also expressed themselves in strong terms. Marx was far outdone in alienation, in wrathful denunciation, and in dogmatic abusiveness by such sons of Christian noblemen as Mikhail Bakunin and Vladimir Lenin. Marx's Jewish background is not the key to Marx.

Marx's father wanted his son to become a lawyer like himself, and sent him through the best schools in Treves, and then, in 1835, to study law at the University of Bonn. The University was something of a country club, and young Marx joined the other students in drinking, brawling, scarring each other in dueling games, piling up debts, and joining “subversive” (i.e., politically liberal) clubs. Old Marx in disgust transferred his son to the University of Berlin, which had a justified reputation for a more intellectual faculty and student body—much as an American father, a generation ago, might have transferred his son from Princeton or Williams to Columbia. By and large, it worked. Young Marx stayed at Berlin until 1841, studying law and philosophy, and he became as heavy an intellectual as any father could have wished. In one respect it did not work. Young Marx became increasingly and incurably subversive, but his father died in 1838 before he became fully aware of his son's political bent.

The intellectual world in which Marx formed his mind was one of the most complicated of any in the history of humanity. Marx belonged to the third generation of the great Romantic current in European thought and culture. Romanticism, like the other important abstract nouns in the history of culture, is not a term to be defined but a field to be explored. To most Americans today, the word “romantic” implies sentimental love stories and swashbuckling adventure tales of the Hollywood type. There were plenty of those in the Romantic age, but the term is used by historians in many broader senses. A grim realistic novel by Balzac was just as Romantic in its way as a romance by Sir Walter Scott. There were Romantic plays and poems as well as stories, Romantic painting and sculpture, Romantic architecture and music—all familiar enough. But there were also Romantic politics, Romantic history, Romantic religion, Romantic philosophy, and Romantic science—in fact, every human activity could be conducted Romantically.

It is difficult to find anything common to all the aspects of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European (and American) culture that historians call Romantic. A great deal of Romanticism involved the cultivation of human emotions, especially love, but also exalted joy and profound melancholy, youthful protest, delight in struggle, artistic sensibility, and many more. On public questions, a Romantic might pursue a liberal or radical course inspired by the French Revolution, or he might react conservatively against it. In either case, he would probably be much concerned with his people or nation, its characteristics, its history, its folklore and folk arts. In the natural sciences or the social sciences, a Romantic would usually be concerned with tracing the history, development, and progress of the stars, the earth, plants and animals, man, a nation, a social institution—in short, he would be concerned with evolution, one of the key Romantic ideas. Romantic philosophers often emphasized the evolution of the world and human society. Many Romantics participated in the revival of religion in the early nineteenth century, usually a private and emotional religion. In the arts and in literature, Romantics usually reacted against the many rules and restraints of the French Classical culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in favor of their own national traditions, of freer forms, and of greater emotional expression.

Most Romantics were concerned with some small individual part of the world, a poet with some of his own emotions, a scientist with a few specimens in his laboratory, but the more ambitious Romantics tried to build up vast philosophical or scientific systems to describe the evolution of the universe and the nature of man (e.g., Hegel's philosophy), or vast artistic syntheses to express the emotional life and predicament of man (e.g., Wagner's operas). Obviously no one Romantic personality could combine all the currents mentioned above in himself, least of all Marx. The mature Marx would have angrily denied that he was a Romantic, for he used the term in a narrower sense to denote and abuse a number of emotional, religious, and mushy-headed men he despised. He called himself a scientific philosopher and a scientific socialist. For all that, it is fair and useful to call Marx's science, philosophy, and socialism a Romantic science, philosophy, and socialism. Marx was the greatest of the high Romantic ideologists of the mid-nineteenth century, just as his contemporary, Wagner, was the greatest of the high Romantic composers, and just as another contemporary, Darwin, was the greatest of the high Romantic scientists. Marxists would still deny this heatedly, but a less partisan observer can perhaps see that Marx will always be misunderstood unless he is set against the background of his own Europe of the high Romantic age.

In his years at the University of Berlin, Marx became imbued with the following convictions that were not necessarily Romantic in themselves, but which, taken together, and taken in the peculiar emotional way of young men in Marx's day were Romantic: He came to believe that all the various sciences and philosophies were part of one over-arching system, which, when completed, would give a true and total picture of the universe and man. (The Romantics had transformed this faith, which they had inherited from their scientific predecessors.) He came to believe that the core of such a science and philosophy was the growth, development, progress, and evolution of the world, human society, and the individual, particularly the mechanism by which such evolution took place. He came to believe that nature and man evolve according to certain inexorable scientific laws, whose working out can be embodied but not opposed by even the greatest men, such as Napoleon. Marx and his fellow students found the most thorough statement of these views in the works of the then recently deceased philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, but they were by no means all straightforward disciples of Hegel.

Unlike Hegel, Marx came to believe that there was no God. He even spent some time trying vainly to prove that Hegel had also been an atheist. He became sure that Europe was trembling on the edge of reaction and revolution, that existing societies were dark, cruel, tense, and unstable, and that most of mankind was ground down, unhappy, of divided mind, disaffected from society, and cut off from its own true nature. This was the unfortunate condition that Marx and his contemporaries called man's alienation. Such convictions were a variety of radical Romanticism, which in the Germanies was called Left Hegelianism.

Having become a radical, Marx was in no mood to take up the practice of law in reactionary Prussia when he left the University of Berlin. Instead, he became a radical journalist. Early in 1842 he joined the staff of a liberal newspaper in Cologne, the Rheinische Zeitung. By the end of the year the twenty-four-year-old Marx was made editor-in-chief. Five months later, in 1843, the radicalism and venom of Marx's editorials provoked the Prussian police into suppressing the whole paper. At this point Marx finally got around to marrying his fiancée of long standing, Jenny von Westphalen, a childhood neighbor of his in Treves, who came from a family of Lutheran officials and was four years older than himself. The couple moved from their homeland forever, first to Paris for four years, where Marx tried not very successfully to make a living at journalism and other writing.

During 1843 and 1844, Marx was acquiring, through his reading, another set of convictions that was to be crucial to his future doctrine. He was absorbing the books of Malthus, Ricardo, and other British economists of the earlier Romantic period. Marx accepted much of their economic analysis, but disagreed wholly with their Romantic pessimism and their Romantic reactionary political judgments of the workingmen. Instead, Marx was led to choose the industrial workingmen (for whom he adopted, Romantically, a term out of ancient Roman history, the “proletarians”) as the key to the future development of society, as the great Romantic cause of his life.

In the last generation, scholars such as Professor Sidney Hook of New York University and Professor Leonard Krieger of Yale have shown that Marx's ideas during 1843 and 1844 were exceedingly interesting and complex, and much more broad-minded and attractive to our ways of thinking than his later dogmatic obsession with proletarian revolution. More recently a New York psychoanalyst named Erich Fromm has written a curious and unconvincing book on Marx that has dwelt on this early period in an attempt to show that Marx was really a kind of existentialist sage like his Danish contemporary Kierkegaard, and that Marx was chiefly concerned with the sick divided souls of men, with their revulsion and alienation from their work and their lives. Marx, in this view, hit on revolution chiefly as a therapeutic means to heal the sick souls of the working class and the rest of humanity. If this is so, then the world has been long deceived.

By the end of 1844, Marx had established his lifelong friendship with Friedrich Engels. Engels was born in 1820 in Barmen, Prussia, a town just south of the then developing industrial district of the Ruhr. His father, a tyrannical Calvinist, was a manufacturer who owned cotton mills near the Ruhr and in England. Young Engels became converted to radicalism during a brief stay at the University of Berlin in 1841. His father at once dispatched him to England to learn the textile business. Engels learned it, and with it he learned of the grim life led by English workers in the early days of the industrial revolution. He also acquired an Irish factory girl, Mary Burns, as a mistress. He never married, but stayed with her over twenty years until her death. Engels' relationship to Mary Burns, during the height of the Victorian age, alienated him from society far more than communism could have. Since Marx and Engels discussed all projects together, even when they did not actually write a piece together, it is often hard to sort out their respective contributions. But everyone, starting with Engels himself, has judged that Marx had the more striking and original mind of the two.

During the middle 1840's, Marx and/or Engels produced a number of works in which they depicted the ghastly condition of the growing working class, engaged in vigorous debates with other radicals, and began to set forth their own version of what they called “communism” in the 1840's, which has usually been called “socialism” since 1850. Today one can usually tell the difference between the Socialist and Communist parties of any given country. Although attempts have been made to distinguish between socialism with a small s and communism with a small c—often by saving the term “communism” to indicate a more radical, more violent, or more evolved stage of “socialism”—the two words have usually been used overlappingly if not interchangeably. Attempts at formal definition, such as the old chestnut that “socialism is the public ownership of means of production, distribution, and exchange,” break up on the rocks of divergent common usage.

No matter what the definition, it is clear that the socialist movement arose in the Romantic age, and is one of the major Romantic legacies to the twentieth century. The hundreds of millions of people who have called themselves Socialists and/or Communists have all believed that the system of private property they knew—whether it was in industrial capital, piles of money, landed estates, serfs, or slaves—was wrong, and that the consequent inequality between the rich and the poor was wrong, and that any exploitation of one human being by another was wrong. This highly Romantic sense of social wrong, and the consequent highly Romantic drive toward social justice, which Marx and Engels shared to a high degree, are the ethical and emotional bases of any socialist movement.

Virtually all socialists have subscribed to a characteristically Romantic solution to these social problems: to end all or much private property; to turn the land, the factories, and the banks, at least, over to the community. Beyond these essentials, socialists disagree among themselves. There is a clear distinction between the religious socialists and the atheist socialists, who are the majority. There is another clear distinction between socialists who want to accomplish their aims by peaceful political means, and those who are willing to engage in violent revolution. Some socialists want to turn private property over to national or international governments; others (including most Russian socialists up to 1917) want to turn private property over to small decentralized social units, co-operatives or village communes. Some socialists want to establish a libertarian democracy soon after the revolution; others insist on a long period of dictatorship for the sake of political consolidation and economic buildup.

Marx and Engels were atheist socialists who urged violent revolution to be followed by a brief “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the course of which much private property would be turned over to the government. Marx furthermore insisted that his was the only scientific socialism, based not on wishful thinking but on the inexorable laws of nature and history, which would drive men toward socialism no matter what anybody or everybody thought, felt, or did. These classifications are difficult because almost all socialist groups take their doctrines so seriously that they deny the name of socialism—and all honorable intention—to all rival socialist groups.

In 1847, while Marx was calling most other socialist thinkers in Europe “dirty Jews of Negro blood,” he was kicked out of Paris and France by the French police, in order to please the Prussian police. He moved to Brussels, and then to London to join Engels. Throughout the 1840's they had been involved with one or another miniscule group of socialist intellectuals and/or workingmen. In 1847 they were most interested in the Communist League, an allegedly international group of workingmen, chiefly composed of exiled German intellectuals. They attended a minute congress of this League in London in November, 1847—indeed they dominated it. They had themselves commissioned to draw up a complete theoretical and practical party program. The Communist League lasted only long enough to see some of its members railroaded to prison in 1852 by the Prussian police. But the program of Marx and Engels, which was printed in German and published February, 1848, in London, has survived as the first definitive statement of their variety of socialism. Their program—The Communist Manifesto—has become the most widely read and influential pamphlet in the history of the world.

The Communist Manifesto was allegedly addressed to the workingmen of the world (by which Marx and Engels meant Europe). In fact, it seems to be addressed as much if not more to educated middle-class people who rejected communism; there are whole pages of argument directed to such people. Today it is read mainly by students. In communist countries the pamphlet is read in all the schools; in America it is read in college courses on European history, economics, and Western civilization. To most American students it seems windy and rhetorical in style, and simultaneously radical and old-fashioned in substance. The argument can hardly have converted any American to socialism for decades. At this late date, it is wholly “non-subversive”!

Marx and Engels began with the famous sentence, “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism.” Nowadays this makes most people smile because it is true today as it never was in 1848, but with a wholly different meaning. At the beginning of 1848, the tsar of Russia and his fellow rulers feared a revolution, but it was a liberal revolution by the middle classes they feared, not a socialist revolution by the workingmen. Marx and Engels Romantically exaggerated the importance of their movement.

The Communist Manifesto is divided into four chapters of decreasing importance. The first chapter, “Bourgeois and Proletarians,” is crucial. There are a number of ways of sub-dividing humanity—by sexes, by age groups, by religions, etc. The most characteristic Romantic way to sub-divide humanity was into nations. Most Romantic thinkers were nationalists to some degree; they were much concerned with their own nation, or people, a group that usually shared a common territory, language, religion, culture, and history. If the people had already been unified into a common nation-state—as the English, French, and Russians had—a nationalist was concerned with the past and present glories of the state, and with strengthening and perfecting the unity of the people. If the people had not yet been unified—as the Germans and the Italians had not—or if they were occupied by foreign powers—as the Irish and Poles were—a nationalist was concerned with the past glories of his people, and with political campaigns to expel the foreigners and unify the country. Nationalists tended to play down the class divisions within a people in the interest of national unity. These nationalist movements were very widespread and deep in Romantic Europe. Nationalist sentiment has been a major legacy of the Romantic age to the later Europe of the two World Wars, and to all the backward and colonial peoples of the world.

It is therefore amazing that Marx and Engels, who lived right in the middle of it all, not only failed to share the nationalist feelings of their fellow Germans, but failed to recognize the force of Romantic nationalism in others. “The workingmen have no country,” they wrote in The Communist Manifesto. “National differences and antagonisms are vanishing gradually from day to day, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market. …” This was flatly false, more obviously and stupidly false than anything else in Marx's whole doctrine. On the eve of the revolutions of 1848, a titanic set of nationalist explosions, Marx judged that national feeling was on the way out. At the beginning of a hundred-year period in which workingmen were to become increasingly swept up by nationalist feelings, Marx declared that they had no country.

Marx's feelings, but not Marx's blindness, are explained by the fact that he and many other socialists divided humanity in another characteristically Romantic way, into social classes. At a time when most European countries were still ruled, or at least co-ruled, by kings and nobles, Marx had the vision to see that the bourgeoisie was taking over. “Bourgeoisie” had originally meant the inhabitants of cities, but by the Romantic age the term had come to mean the middle classes, whether they lived in cities or not. Businessmen from the greatest textile magnates to the smallest hole-in-the-wall shop-keepers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and other educated and professional people, all the groups that we now call “white collar workers” were part of the bourgeoisie. Marx often felt compelled to give a narrow economic definition of the bourgeoisie—“the owners of the means of capitalist production”—but he used the term to indicate the middle classes as a whole.

The proletarians had originally been the poverty stricken masses of ancient Rome, who had no property save their children (proles). The Roman poor had nothing whatsoever to do with factories, but Marx took over the term for modern factory workers because he liked its grand Romantic historical sweep. In spite of his formal economic definitions, Marx usually included all the urban poor in the proletarians, whether they worked in factories or not. He was convinced that with the evolution of industrial society, almost everybody would become proletarian. The peasants would be drawn into the cities by economic necessity, and most of the bourgeoisie would become bankrupt by capitalist competition, and would sink into the proletariat. This has never happened; it was one of Marx's most famous wrong predictions. As industry advances the working classes grow, but the middle classes grow more rapidly still. There has never been a country in which the industrial workers were a majority. In most advanced countries, such as America, Great Britain, and Germany, the middle classes form a majority.

In the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto, Marx pictured Europe as being in the throes of a tremendous struggle for “the upper hand” between the rising bourgeoisie and the developing proletariat. The struggle was marked by strikes, lock-outs, sabotage, wage slashes, bankruptcies, business crises, the simultaneous rise of industrial combines and trade unions, increasing proletarian “class consciousness” (realization of its nature and predicament), and violence. This vast dramatic clash between sharply contrasted antagonists was precisely the sort of thing a Romantic thinker would hope to find in society, especially a follower of Hegel, who believed that progress came about through “the fruitful struggle of opposite principles.”

Following Hegel's Romantic tenets, Marx saw the contemporary struggle in Europe as only one chapter in the whole vast sweep of universal history, which they both believed to be a continuous evolutionary sequence of struggles between mutually interacting opposites, each struggle producing something higher that would in its turn struggle with its opposite. This supposed process of struggle and evolution, to which Hegel gave the celebrated name “dialectic,” included absolutely everything, as Hegel presented it—God, spirit, reason, the universe, and man. Marx got rid of God, spirit, and some of the other abstractions, a process which he snidely called “standing Hegel on his head.” This left him with an earthly, visible, tangible, material world as the scene of the evolutionary struggle—the subject matter of his celebrated doctrine, dialectical materialism. For Marx, the Romantic struggle of universal history was reduced to an economic struggle between social classes. “The history of all hitherto existing societies has been the history of class struggles.”

In the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto, Marx sketched the dramatic history of the world, the struggles of ancient patricians and ancient slaves, of feudal lords and feudal serfs, and above all, the struggles of the bourgeoisie. For Marx, the bourgeoisie was the collective hero of a Romantic tragedy. Like many heroes of Romantic tragedies, the bourgeoisie rose from low estate against enormous odds, burst its chains and hurled the older masters from their seats of power. Like many heroes of Romantic tragedies—Prometheus and Faust—the bourgeoisie was possessed of an enormous and restless energy. Marx wrote, “It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that have put in the shade all former migrations of nations and crusades … it batters down all Chinese walls.” Finally, in Marx's view, the bourgeoisie accomplished what so many Romantic heroes strove for, what only God was previously thought to have achieved: “In one word, it creates a world in its own image.”

So far, Marx's bourgeoisie was the hero of a Romantic triumph beyond the dreams of Goethe or Byron. But this triumph was so Romantically extreme as to approach blasphemy. Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, lay in wait, as she did in so many other tragedies. In its pride of triumph the bourgeoisie became insolent, and in its insolence it forgot that in the depths from which it had risen so far, it was itself producing its fatal enemy, the proletariat. “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” The more the bourgeoisie produces, the stronger its subterranean antagonist grows. Marx believed that in the last act of this inevitable Romantic tragedy the bourgeoisie, grown old and tyrannical, would be hurled from its thrones into the abyss, like the haughty kings and insolent titans of so many Romantic dramas. “Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

In the full sense of the term, the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto is a high Romantic drama on a vast scale, in which the bourgeoisie plays the role of the most immense of all Romantic tragic heroes. It was doubtless very satisfying for Marx to feel that he understood and approved the course of the grand drama of history. One might ask why Marx threw himself so wholeheartedly into revolutionary work if he was convinced that the revolution would inevitably come at a given moment, no matter what he or the rest of the world did to hurry or prevent it. The answer, of course, is that Marx was possessed of an activist temperament, like many other believers in universal determinist schemes (e.g., Mohammed and Calvin). He was constantly driven from within to write, to make speeches, to organize, to act, driven by what the arch-Romantic Goethe would have called a Daemon, which meant not a devil, but an insatiable psychic compulsion. It is intellectually silly for a determinist to be an activist; all the efforts of Marx and his followers to make logic out of such illogic are unconvincing. Yet for Marx and his followers, these two inconsistent mental traits seemed to go naturally together.

The second chapter of The Communist Manifesto, “Proletarians and Communists,” is essentially an argument with bourgeois critics of communism about whether communism is good or not. This was necessary at some point, for many things may be inevitable without being desirable (e.g., death and taxes). Marx began, “In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?” The honest answer would have been that they stood in no relation to the proletarians, for there wasn't any communist organization to speak of. Instead, Marx wrote as if there was already a well organized international network of Communists which sought to offer its services to the various national proletarian movements, and to co-ordinate their revolutionary work.

The communist program was “the abolition of private property.” This was expected to bring a thrill of horror to any bourgeois reader, and Marx spent the rest of the chapter arguing with and/or taunting such bourgeois readers. In this mock debate, Marx changed his tone drastically from the first chapter. He no longer sang of the bourgeoisie as heroes of a high historic drama; he squabbled with them and sneered at them as if the bourgeoisie were thieving, bloated, stupid villains of some vulgar horse opera—a tone that has been adopted by most people who call themselves Marxists.

Why should the bourgeoisie squawk about losing their private property, Marx wanted to know, when they themselves have stolen all their property from the hard-working, upstanding proletarians and farmers who produced it? Why should the bourgeoisie cry out that the Communists want to abolish freedom and individuality, when the bourgeoisie have themselves enslaved the huge majority of the population in the factories? The bourgeoisie moan that the Communists want to annihilate the state, culture, religion, and the family but they have themselves deprived the workers of any state, any culture, any true religion, and any decent family life, and so on.

This is certainly the least convincing part of The Communist Manifesto. The charges against the bourgeoisie are so exaggerated that one realizes that Marx was not entirely serious. He depicted the bourgeoisie screaming in chorus that the Communists wanted to nationalize all women, and then went on to assert that the bourgeoisie spent its own time seducing proletarian girls, and each other's wives as well. This, in the depths of the Victorian age, was presumably a heavy jest. Even if the arguments were true, all Marx proposed in this section was to drag the bourgeoisie down into the depths with the workers, apparently for the sake of sheer revenge. In other writings he dealt with the problem more seriously, and asserted that the abolition of bourgeois privilege would lead to a tremendous resurgence of true freedom, true creativity, and true culture among the former proletariat, which would more than make up for the loss of bourgeois freedom and culture in the revolution.

The chapter ends with Marx's famous ten-point communist program, which often startles and amuses modern readers by its combination of proposals that we still regard as “communist” or otherwise extremely radical—such as the nationalization of factories, banks, transport and land—with calls for reforms long established in advanced capitalist societies—such as income and inheritance taxes, and free public schools. The program was not intended to be a detailed or well-thought-out blueprint for the future beyond the revolution, nor was Marx ever to provide such a detailed blueprint in his other writings.

The last two chapters of The Communist Manifesto are only of historical interest, and not much of that. First Marx explained why he was right, and why every other group that called itself socialist was inadequate, unscientific, wrong, and vile. Right or wrong, all those groups soon disappeared as Marx predicted. Then Marx indicated his support—usually qualified—for various revolutionary groups scattered around Europe, the more extremist the better. None of those groups were destined to amount to anything. At the very end of the pamphlet, Marx returned to his vein of ringing Romantic rhetoric. He insisted on “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions” with uninhibited abandon. “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” Millions have thrilled to this most memorable of all appeals that have come down to us from the Romantic age.

Haig A. Bosmajian (essay date 1963-64)

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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 vereinigt Euch.” The ideas expressed in this Manifest had been presented, for the most part, previously in speeches, books, and pamphlets by predecessors and contemporaries of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In fact, Marx and Engels, in their own writings, had previously presented the ideas that finally made up the Communist Manifesto. However, of the many “socialist-communist” tracts written during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was the Communist Manifesto which survived to be translated into almost one hundred different languages.

Why has it been the Manifesto which has survived to influence so many people in so many lands during the past one hundred years when other “socialist-communist” works stand undisturbed on dusty library shelves? Certainly a major factor is Marx's ability to present his content in such a form as to make the arguments appear forceful and valid, to arouse the emotions of his audience, and to make the author of the tract worthy of belief. If he were going to influence and move people, Marx realized that he would have to use all available means of persuasion, including what Aristotle called the “good style” in the Rhetoric, parts of which Marx had translated in his university days.1

There is no doubt that Marx was aware of and thoroughly conscious of various rhetoric devices. He was an avid reader of plays, speeches, poetry, and novels. He did various translations and wrote verse, the latter of questionable literary value. In a letter to his father, Marx wrote in November, 1837, that he had translated Tacitus's Germania, Ovid's Tristium libri, and parts of Aristotle's Rhetoric. Paul Lafargue, who married Marx's second daughter, Laura, wrote that Marx “had a preference for eighteenth century novels, and was especially fond of Fielding's Tom Jones. The modern novelists who pleased him best were Paul de Kock, Charles Lever, the elder Dumas, and Sir Walter Scott, whose Old Mortality he considered a masterpiece. Marx looked upon Cervantes and Balzac as “the greatest masters of romance,” and Don Quixote was for him “the epic of the decay of chivalry.”2

Two orators of whom Marx thought highly were John P. Curran and William Cobbett. Of Curran, Marx said in a letter to Engels: “I consider Curran the only great advocate—people's advocate—of the eighteenth century and the noblest nature. …”3 Lafargue tells us that Marx sought out and classified the characteristic expressions in some of the polemical writing of William Cobbett, “for whom he had great esteem.”4 Many of the characteristics of Cobbett's pamphleteering and oratorical style, especially the lucidity, sarcasm, and invective, seemed to appear later in the Manifesto. Upon Cobbett's death in June, 1835, The Times commented on his style: “The first general characteristic of his style is perspicuity, unequalled and inimitable. A second is homely masculine vigor. A third is purity, always simple, and raciness often elegant. His argument is an example of acute, yet apparently natural, nay, involuntary logic, smoothed in its progress and cemented in its parts, by a mingled storm of torturing sarcasm, contemptuous jocularity, and slaughtering invective. …”5

Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of Marx's “pupils” who was for a time a daily visitor to Marx's home in London, writes in his reminiscences that “Marx attached extraordinary value to pure correct expression and in Goethe, Lessing, Shakespeare, Dante, and Cervantes, whom he read every day, he had chosen the greatest masters. He showed the most painstaking conscientiousness in regard to purity and correctness of speech.”6 Marx's attitude towards words and language is displayed in his efforts to achieve clarity in his own works. Lafargue wrote that Marx “would not publish anything until he had worked over it again and again, until what he had written obtained a satisfactory form.”7 It may well have been this thoroughness which delayed Marx's completion of the Manifesto, much to the displeasure of the Communist League. …


From the beginning of the Manifesto, Marx establishes that communism is a powerful force to be reckoned with; in so doing, he establishes at the same time a part of his ethos by identifying himself with a movement opposed by great powers, a movement which is itself powerful and which openly publishes its aims and views for all to see. He does this in the exordium by pointing out that “all the powers of old Europe have entered a holy alliance to exorcise” the spectre of communism and by asserting that “communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power.”

The Manifesto's short exordium is followed by a narration which follows Aristotle's advice: “… if there is narration at all [in deliberative speaking], it must be of the past, and its object to remind your audience of what happened in the past, with a view to better plans for the future: It may be used in condemning people. …”8 After stating in his exordium that it is about time that the communists openly publish their views, aims, and tendencies “to meet this nursery tale of the spectre of communism with a manifesto of the party itself,” he follows, in the narration, not with elaborations of these aims and views, but with a historical description of the growth of the bourgeois with all its evils: new forms of oppression, “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitations,” breakdown of the family relationship, enslavement and pauperization of the labourer. In this process of discrediting his opponents by identifying them with all that is evil, Marx has again added to his ethos; he has branded his adversaries as selfish, oppressive, unjust, intemperate, and dishonorable, and in the process of linking his opponents with that which is not virtuous he has focused attention upon the probity of his own character. From the very beginning, he attempts to establish character and good will, not by elaborating on his own cause and its virtues (this will come later), but by condemning his opponents, their cause, and their actions: it is the bourgeois that has “reduced the family relation to a mere money relation,” it is the bourgeois that has forced labourers to sell themselves piecemeal, it is the bourgeois that has reduced poets, priests, and doctors to its paid wage-labourers. It is this bourgeois against which Marx and the communists stand.

Not only does Marx establish his ethos by calling his adversaries selfish, oppressive, and dishonorable; he also arouses, in the narration, the emotions of anger, hate, and fear. Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, has defined anger as “an impulse attended by pain, to a revenge that shall be evident, and caused by an obvious, unjustified, slight with respect to the individual or his friends.” By portraying the bourgeois as contemptuous of and insolent to the proletariat, Marx arouses the worker's anger towards the bourgeois. Has not the bourgeois, after taking all that it can from the labourer, handed him over to “other portions of the bourgeois, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker?” Has not bourgeois industry benefited only the ruling class and sent the labourer “deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class?” Has not the bourgeois transformed the proletarian children “into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor?” Has not the bourgeois taken for its own pleasures the wives and daughters of the workers? The bourgeois has shown only indifference and insolence to the plight of the labourer and his family, and as Aristotle explained, just as a sick man is angered by indifference to his illness, so too is the poor man angered by indifference to his poverty.

Marx not only attempts to arouse anger, which is always attended by a certain pleasure arising from the expectation of revenge against a particular person or persons, but he also attempts to arouse hatred which is directed not only against an individual, but also against a class. Marx obviously was interested in more than arousing his audience to anger which would induce them to wish the object of their anger to suffer; his goal was to arouse his listeners to that state in which they would wish the bourgeois eradicated. As Aristotle put it, “the angry man wishes the object of his anger to suffer in return; hatred wishes its object not to exist.”

In his narration, Marx also seems to be trying to arouse fear, which is caused by whatever seems to have a great power of destroying us or of working injuries that are likely to bring us great pain. One way of arousing fear is to argue that others greater than the listener have suffered. “Have not men of science, lawyers, doctors become the paid wage-labourers of the bourgeois?” asks Marx. Another way of arousing fear is to portray injustice coupled with power. “Has not the bourgeois organized the workers like soldiers and placed them under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants?” asks Marx. However, at the same time, he is careful not to arouse so much fear as to create in his listeners the feeling that there is no hope of deliverance. The proletariat may be ruled, enslaved, and oppressed by the bourgeois, but still there is hope that things will change for the better; in fact, it is inevitable that things will get better. “Fear sets men deliberating,” said Aristotle, “… but no one deliberates about things that are hopeless.” And things are not hopeless, Marx tells the proletariat in his narration, which he ends with the logical conclusion to all the historical evidence he has compiled up to that point: the bourgeois is unfit to rule; society no longer can live under the bourgeois; the fall of the bourgeois and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable. It is on this note that the narration ends, a narration in which the word communism never once appears.

If the evils of the bourgeois predominate in Part I of the Manifesto, the virtues of communism pervade Part II. This is not to say that Marx ceases his attacks against the bourgeois; the attacks continue, but the perspective is different. The evils of the bourgeois, as they appear in Part II, are juxtaposed with the virtues of communism: In bourgeois society, living labor is but a means to increase accumulated labor. In Communist society, accumulated labor is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the laborers.” In bourgeois society, “the past dominates the present; in communist society, the present dominates the past.”

Section II takes on the characteristics of a debate in which logic and rhetoric are blended. Marx's character, the character of his adversaries, argument, and the arousing of emotion are all fused, thus making the whole more forceful and more moving. By using the refutative process to present his case for communism, Marx places side by side the evils of the bourgeois and the virtues of communism; he places side by side the weak objections of the bourgeois and the sensible answers of the communists: “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. …” “Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” This type of presentation is effective, for as Aristotle has explained, “The refutative process always makes the conclusion more striking, for setting opposites side by side renders their opposition more distinct.” Marx seems to further take Aristotle's advice when the latter suggests: “You should … make room in the minds of the audience for the argument you are going to offer; and this will be done if you demolish the one that pleased them. So combat it—every point of it, or the chief, or the successful, or the vulnerable points, and thus establish credit for your own arguments.” Through this process Marx builds his case for the acceptance of the various measures the communists will put into effect once they gain control; the presentation of the positive measures comes late in Section II.

In answering bourgeois objections, Marx often takes the line that the communists cannot take from the masses that which they never had in the first place while living under bourgeois rule. The communists, he asserts, cannot take from the masses private property they never possessed; they cannot take from the masses a happy family relationship never possessed by the masses while living under bourgeois rule; they cannot abolish nationality, for “the workingmen have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got.” After answering bourgeois questions and objections with communist answers, Marx says, “let us have done with the bourgeois objections to communism,” and it is only then that he presents, for the first time, the specific measures which the communists advocate.

Whereas Marx focused attention upon the probity of his character in Part I by linking his opponents and their cause with what is not virtuous, in Part II he establishes his ethos by associating his message with what is virtuous and desirable to his audience. Further, he minimizes unfavorable impressions of his cause previously presented by his opponents. It is his cause which wants to create a world in which children will be educated and women will be respected; it is his cause which wants to see the workers given their just rewards for their labour; it is his cause which wants a world where there will be no exploitation of one individual by another, no hostility of one nation to another. It is his cause which will be inevitably successful. Just as he added to his ethos early in the Manifesto by attributing injustice coupled with power to his adversaries, so too has he added to his ethos by joining justice and the inevitability of its success to his own cause.

Marx concludes Section II with a sentence which sets side by side “the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonism,” and the communist society which will be “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” But he cannot conclude the Manifesto on this note.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were too many other “socialists” and “communists” who asserted that their movements and their philosophies were the ones that would bring to the labourers what they deserved. Marx could not ignore these other movements. He may have persuasively argued early in the Manifesto that the bourgeois was not fit to rule, but there were others who had said or were saying the same thing. He may have shown that the private property of the bourgeois should be abolished, but there were others preaching much the same doctrine. So Marx had to go on in his Manifesto to tell the world that these other “socialists” and “communists” were false prophets. In Section III, he proceeds to point out the absurdities and falsities of Feudal Socialism, Petty Bourgeois Socialism, “True” Socialism, Conservative Socialism, and Critical-Utopian Socialism. The representatives of these movements, said Marx, only appeared to have the answers; in some cases their analyses were incorrect; in others, their tactics were inappropriate. Some of these false prophets, Marx contended, want only to restore the old means of production and the old society; others reject the class struggle; still others, “the philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organizers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics,” want the proletariat to remain within the bounds of existing society and “cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeois.” The representatives of these other movements, Marx attempted to demonstrate, were either deceitful, self-deceived, impractical pedants, innocent reformers, or starry-eyed experimenters.

Marx's peroration is as trenchant as is his exordium. After stating that the communists “everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” and that they “labor everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries,” he reaches the climax toward which he has been building. “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!”

From “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism” to “Working men of all countries, unite!” Marx has clothed his message in a rhetorical style permeated with tropes and figures of speech. Through the use of numerous different rhetorical tropes and figures, the author of the Manifesto has emphasized, clarified, and elaborated through sheer repetition, through exaggeration and comparison. Marx's style is that of controversial speaking, not that of written prose. Aristotle has pointed out in his Rhetoric that “such devices as asyndeta and repetition of the same word, which are rightly enough censured in the literary style, have their place in the controversial style when a speaker uses them for their dramatic effect.” To a very great extent Marx uses rhetorical stylistic devices which rely for their effectiveness not so much on silent reading as on oral presentation.

Marx was very conscious of style; in his evaluations of various personages whom he admired and some he did not admire, he would comment on their style. For instance, concerning Pierre Joseph Proudhon's What is Property?, Marx wrote: “This book of Proudhon's has also, if I may be allowed, a strong muscular style. And its style is in my opinion its chief merit. … The provocative defiance, laying the ordinary bourgeois mind, the withering criticism, the bitter irony, and, revealed hands on the economic ‘holy of holies,’ the brilliant paradox which made a mock of here and there behind these, a deep and genuine feeling of indignation at the infamy of the existing order, a revolutionary earnestness—all these electrified the readers of What is Property? and produced a great sensation on its first appearance.”9 Again his concern for style is reflected in his criticism of Proudhon's The Philosophy of Poverty: “The style is often what the French call ampoulé [bombastic]. High-sounding speculative jargon, supposed to be German-philosophical, appears regularly on the scene when his Gallic acuteness of understanding fails him. A self-advertising, self-glorifying, boastful tone and especially the twaddle about ‘science’ and sham display of it which are always so unedifying, are constantly screaming in one's ears. Instead of the genuine warmth which glowed in his first attempt [What is Property?], here certain passages are systematically worked up into a momentary heat by rhetoric.”10 From these comments, and comments on the style of Cobbett and others, it appears that Marx favored the style which avoids the abstract and displays the concrete, which is lucid, ironic, and trenchant. His appreciation for this kind of style is reflected in the Manifesto.

Marx did not hesitate to pile trope and figure one upon another in succession. Perhaps he had read Longinus, who wrote: “Nothing so effectively moves, as a heap of figures combined together.”11 In the following four-sentence paragraph Marx has combined his rhetorical questions with metaphor, irony, personification, antithesis, and anaphora (beginning a series of clauses with the same word):

Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the state? Has it not preached in the place of these charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.

Into the two sentences preceding this paragraph, Marx incorporates balance, metonymy (use of the name of one thing for that of another associated with or suggested by it), metaphor, synecdoche (a trope which heightens meaning by substituting the part for the whole or the whole for the part), and antithesis: “In political practice, therefore, they join in all coercive measures against the working class; and in ordinary life, despite their high-falutin phrases, they stoop to pick up the golden apples dropped from the tree of industry, and to barter truth, love, and honor for traffic in wool, beetroot-sugar, and potato spirits. As the parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord, so has Clerical Socialism with Feudal Socialism.” It is important to note that the foregoing translated lines do not have the same overall flavor and effect that the original German text has; the sentence beginning “In political practice, therefore, they join,” for instance, has lost much of its impact in translation. An underlying irony in the entire sentence is lost. That particular sentence reads, in Marx's German, “In der politischen Praxis nehmen sie daher an allen Gewaltmassregeln gegen die Arbeiterklasse teil, und im gewöhnlichen Leben bequemen sie sich, allen ihren aufgeblähten Redensarten zum Trotz, die goldenen Äpfel aufzulesen und Treue, Liebe, Ehre mit dem Schacher in Schafswolle, Runkelreuben und Schnaps zu vertauschen.” Obviously, the “golden apples” referred to in the English translation are not the same “golden apples” of the original German text. However, it is the English version of the Manifesto with which I am concerned here, and my purpose is not to examine the discrepancies between the German and English versions of the Communist Manifesto; but it must be remembered that some of Marx's impact and irony is lost in the translation.

To give his presentation force and clarity, Marx has made extensive use of various figures which rely for their effect on repetition of one type or another; hence we find him using accumulation, anaphora, epistrophe (ending a series of clauses or sentences with the same word), and anadiplosis (repetition of the word ending one clause or sentence at the beginning of the next). He precedes an anadiplosis with a rhetorical question: “What does this accusation reduce itself to? The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs.” Of the many figures, Marx is particularly fond of using anaphora and asyndeton (omission of conjunctions); he uses them singly, he uses them combined with other tropes and figures. In the following sentence he combines anaphora and asyndeton with personification and antithesis: “In this way arose feudal socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty, and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart's core, but always ludicrous in its effect through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.”

Another figure which adds to the speech-like quality of the Manifesto is Marx's use of correctio. In the first instance below correctio is used alone; in the second instance it is combined with the periodic sentence; in the third, it appears with antithesis and metaphor: (1) “Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class.” (2) “Capital is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion.” (3) “They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.”

As one would expect of a person who thought in terms of class conflict and thesis-antithesis-synthesis, Marx incorporated into the Manifesto many phrases, sentences, and paragraphs which rely heavily for their effectiveness on balance and antithesis. “This kind of style [antithesis] is pleasing,” said Aristotle, “because things are best known by opposition, and are all the better known when the opposites are put side by side; and is pleasing also because of its resemblances to logic—for the method of refutation is the juxtaposition of contrary conclusions.” One simply cannot escape the antithesis in the following sentence, which appears at the beginning of Section I to support Marx's contention that the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Then, at other times, the antitheses appear sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph:

In bourgeois society, living labor is but a means to increase accumulated labor. In Communist society, accumulated labor is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the laborer.

In bourgeois society, therefore, the past dominates the present; in Communist society, the present dominates the past. In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.

To emphasize and clarify, Marx not only uses antithesis, but he also sets similarities side by side; sometimes the balance and antithesis are combined: “Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semibarbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.”

Marx uses the device of disputation to display the thoughts of his opponents, to anticipate objections, and to answer those objections. He uses the figure synchoresis, whereby the speaker, trusting strongly in his own cause, freely gives his questioner leave to judge him. This particular device reappears often in Section II of the Manifesto combined with irony. His procedure here is to present the adversary's contentions and then to answer them; for the first time he begins to refer to his opponents as “you.” Edmund Wilson has pointed out that Marx's opinions seem always to have been arrived at through a close criticism of the opinions of others, as if the sharpness and force of his mind could only really exert themselves in attacks on the minds of others, as if he could only find out what he thought by making distinctions that excluded the thoughts of others.”12 By using this procedure in Section II, Marx cuts into his adversary's contentions with a savage irony, discrediting them and at the same time pointing out the positive features of communism:

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. … You reproach us, therefore with intending. …

In a word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.

“Undoubtedly,” it will be said, “religion, moral, philosophical and judicial ideas have been modified in the course of historical development. But religion, morality, philosophy, political science, and law, constantly survived this change.”

“There are, besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc., that are common to all states of society. But communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes. …”

What does this accusation reduce itself to? The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs.

Just as the Manifesto begins with “the spectre of communism” and “this nursery tale of the spectre of communism,” so too does it end with the proletarians having nothing to lose but “their chains” and with “a world to win.” Excellence of style, wrote the author of On the Sublime, comes from five sources, the third of which consists “in a skilful application of figures, which are twofold, of sentiment and language.”13 These figures, continued Longinus, “when judiciously used, conduce not a little to Greatness.”14 The proof that Marx has “judiciously used” his rhetorical tropes and figures is in his ability to disguise the means he has employed, so that he seems to be speaking “not with artifice, but naturally.”


  1. Karl Marx, Selected Works (New York, 1933), I, p. 85.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Correspondence, trans. Dona Torr (New York, 1934), p. 281.

  4. Marx, Selected Works, p. 84.

  5. G. D. H. Cole, The Life of William Cobbett (London, 1947), p. 431.

  6. Marx, Selected Works, p. 111.

  7. Ibid., p. 91.

  8. All the quotations from Aristotle are taken from Aristotle, The Rhetoric of Aristotle, trans. Lane Cooper (New York, 1932).

  9. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, pp. 169-70.

  10. Ibid., p. 173.

  11. Longinus, On the Sublime, trans. William Smith (London, 1752), p. 97.

  12. Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station (New York, 1940), pp. 152-53.

  13. Longinus, op. cit., p. 24.

  14. Ibid., p. 85.

Harold J. Laski (essay date 1967)

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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.]


The Communist Manifesto was published in February, 1848. Of its two authors, Karl Marx was then in his thirtieth, and Friedrich Engels in his twenty-eighth, year. Both had already not only a wide acquaintance with the literature of socialism, but intimate relations with most sections of the socialist agitation in Western Europe. They had been close friends for four years; each of them had published books and articles that are landmarks in the history of socialist doctrine. Marx had already had a stormy career as a journalist and social philosopher; he was already sufficiently a thorn in the side of reactionary governments to have been a refugee in both Paris and Brussels. Engels, his military service over, and his conversion to socialism completed after he had accepted the view of Moses Hess that the central problem of German philosophy was the social question, and that it could only be solved in socialist terms, had already passed nearly fifteen months of his commercial training in his father's firm in Manchester by the end of 1843. He had gained a deep insight into English conditions. He had come to understand the meaning of the conflict between the major political parties, the significance of Irish nationalism, then under the leadership of Daniel O'Connell, and all the stresses and strains within the Chartist Movement; he appreciated the meaning of Chartism, and he had joined its ranks. He realised how great had been both the insight and the influence of Robert Owen. He had been an eager reader of the Northern Star, and had been on friendly terms, after the summer of 1843, with George Julian Harney, then, under Feargus O'Connor, the main influence on the paper, and one of the few Chartists aware of conditions and movements on the European Continent. He had written a good deal in Owen's paper, The New Moral World, among his contributions being a very able essay on Carlyle's Chartism, and a really remarkable attack on the classical political economy. In the months of his return to Barmen, from the autumn to the end of the winter of 1844-45, he had published his classic Condition of the Working Class in England, influenced, no doubt, by the earlier and interesting work of Buret,1 but with a freshness and a power of philosophic generalisation far beyond Buret's grasp. He had already become certain that the antagonism between the middle classes and the proletariat was the essential clue to the history of the future.

No partnership in history is more famous than that of Marx and Engels, and the qualities of each were complementary to those of the other. Marx was essentially the thinker, who slowly, even with anguish, wrestled his way to the heart of a problem. At times a writer of remarkable brilliance, he was not seldom difficult and obscure because his thought went too fast or too deep for words. Erudite in an exceptional degree—his pre-eminence in scholarship was recognised by all the young Hegelians of his German years—he had something of the German gelehrte's impractical nature, a passion for systematisation, not a little of that capacity for stormy ill-temper which often comes from the nervous exhaustion of a mind which cannot cease from reflection. He had fantastic tenacity of mind, a passion for leadership, a yearning, never really satisfied, for action; born of the difficulties he encountered from the outset of his career, he had too, a brooding melancholy, a thirst for recognition, which made him too often suspicious and proud, and, despite the noble self-sacrifice of his life, in a special way a self-centred personality who, outside his family, and a very small circle of friends of whom Engels was always the most intimate, found it, normally, much easier to give others his contempt or his hate than his respect and his affection. There were deeply lovable traits in Marx's character; but they emerge much more clearly in his private life than in his capacity either as agitator or as social philosopher. All his immense power, moreover, both of diagnosis and of strategy, rarely enabled him to conceal his inner conviction of intellectual superiority, so as to remain on easy terms with the rank and file in each phase of the movement he was eager—mostly selflessly eager—to dominate.

Engels had a quick and ready mind. He was always friendly, usually optimistic, with great gifts both for practical action and for getting on with others. He knew early where he wanted to go, but he had the self-knowledge to recognise that he could neither travel alone, nor be the leader of the expedition. Widely read, with a very real talent for moving rapidly through a great mass of material, he was facile rather than profound. He was utterly devoid of jealousy or vanity. He had a happy nature which never agonised over the difficulties of thought. After a brief moment of doubt at their first meeting, he accepted the position of fidus Achates to Marx, and it never occurred to him, during a friendship of forty years, marked only by one brief misunderstanding, to question his duty to serve Marx in every way he could. He was a better organiser than Marx; he had a far more immediate sense of the practical necessities of a situation. He was far quicker in seeing what to do than to recognise the deep-rooted historical relations out of which the necessity for action had developed. If Marx showed him vistas of philosophy he had never realised, he explained to Marx economic realities with a first-hand insight Marx could otherwise hardly have obtained. Not least, he made Marx see the significance of Great Britain in the historical evolution of the mid-nineteenth century at a time when Marx still thought of Germany as the central factor in its development. Without him Marx would have been in any case a great social philosopher of the Left; with him it became possible for Marx to combine superb intellectual achievement with immense practical influence. Their partnership was made when the practitioners of socialism were incoherent groups of doctrine and of agitation. When it ended they had laid the foundations of a world movement which had a well-integrated philosophy of history, and a clear method of action for the future directly born of that philosophy.

When Marx and Engels, then, came to write the Communist Manifesto they were not only close friends, but they combined an insight built on firm philosophic foundations with a breadth and depth of historical and contemporary knowledge unequalled in their day in its relevance to the problems of social development. They had both been enchanted by the Hegelian dialectic; they had both been driven, almost from the moment of their original acquaintance with it, first to the Hegelian Left, and then beyond it to the point where, as Marx said, it was necessary to stand Hegel on his head. They both knew from intimate personal acquaintance the deep tyranny of the German princes, always dull, always petty, and always bureaucratic. They both saw that the state-power was used to maintain a special system of legal relations which were set in a given historical mode of production; and they had both realised that nothing could be expected from the aristocracy, and little from the middle classes, except what the proletariat became self-conscious enough to realise it must take. They both understood that, without this self-consciousness, nothing could prevent the exploitation of the wage-earners by their masters; and that every social agency, from the pietism of the Churches, through the pressure of the newspapers and the censorship exercised over them, to the brutal and deliberate use of the army and the police, would be employed to break any rebellion against this exploitation. They knew that every society was a class-society, that its education, its justice, its habits, were limited by their subordination to the demands of the class which owned the instruments of economic power. They had come to see, in the famous aphorism of Marx, that “the ruling ideas of an age were the ideas of its ruling class.” They had come to see also that freedom is never given from above, but must be taken from below; yet it can only be taken by men who have philosophy as well as habit. They had both seen through the hollowness of the official churches, and measured the gap between their actual and official practice. Not least, as Marx was later to add to his famous addition to the Theses on Feuerbach, they had both come to have an intensely practical view of the mission of philosophy. “Hitherto,” Marx was to write, “it was the mission of philosophers to interpret the world: now it is our business to change it.” It was to secure that change that their unique partnership had been formed.

Nor was the historical basis of their approach less ample in its survey when they came to write the Communist Manifesto. Marx was not merely a philosopher of competence and a jurist of considerable knowledge. He had read widely in German history. He had made a special and profound study of the eighteenth century in France, and, in quite special fullness, of 1789 and its consequences; and, with his usual omnivorous appetite, he had begun those remarkable studies of English economic history and theory which were to culminate, in 1867, in the publication of the first volume of Capital. Engels knew the working-class movement in England from the end of the Napoleonic wars in massive detail. He knew the Chartist and trade union movements as one who had not only seen them from the inside, but with a perspective of historical knowledge and insight into contemporary European conditions that were hardly rivalled anywhere at the time. It is, in particular, important to emphasise that, apart from their specialised knowledge, both Marx and Engels, and especially Marx, had an extraordinarily wide general cultivation; each could say, with truth, that nihil a me alienum putat had been a choice of inner obligation. They were both polymaths; and one of the striking characteristics they shared, from an early age, was an appreciation of the significance of science in the context of each epoch in which its major developments influence human relations. Few eminent thinkers in social philosophy had, at their age, so superbly prepared themselves for the task which lay to their hand.


The Communist Manifesto has passed beyond the stage where it requires any eulogy. It is admitted by every serious student of society to be one of the outstanding political documents of all time; in the influence it has exerted it compares with the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, and the French Declaration of Rights of 1789. Its character is unique, not only because of the power with which it is written, but also because of the immense scope it covers in its intense brevity. It is a philosophy of history, a critical analysis of socialist doctrines and a passionate call to revolutionary action. In each of these phases, it is written as a deliberate and provocative challenge. Its aim is to make the working class conscious of a great historical mission, and to communicate to it the deep sense of urgency about that mission which Marx and Engels themselves possessed. Its savage invective is intended to strip the veil from those bourgeois foundations of the existing order the concealment of which is one of the ways in which capitalist civilisation hides its real purposes from the workers whom it makes its slaves. But its invective is intended also to safeguard the workers from being deceived by other doctrines, claiming to be socialist, which, in the judgment of Marx and Engels, are intended to turn the workers from their vital task of abolishing a society built on the exploitation of one class by another and so building the classless society. The Manifesto, it must be added, is a remarkable feat of compression; and though its ringing sentences make it, on a first reading, seem simple and straightforward, there are, in fact, behind almost every phrase of it the marks of profound intellectual conflict, without the grasp of which the reader is only too likely to miss both the decisiveness of the document and its great complexity. For one of the purposes of the Manifesto is the definition of a doctrine which, though rooted in the massive discussions which had taken place ever since the conspiracy of Babeuf and, in particular, since the French Revolution of 1830, was intended to supersede all competing theories, and thus to unify a chaos of ideas into a philosophy which bound the workers together and prepared the basis of action.

The originality of the Manifesto does not lie in any single doctrine that it enunciates. It draws upon an immense body of literature, not all of it socialist, in which a number of the doctrines which lie at the heart of classical Marxism had already been set out with clarity and with vigour. Its originality lies in the skill, first of all, with which these doctrines are woven together so as to form a logical whole; and, second, in putting in the perspective of ultimate revolutionary prophecy the outlines of an immediate programme so conceived as to be directly related to the demands of the workers in the major European countries, as these had been born out of their practical experience of capitalist domination. Two other things, moreover, must be said. It is evident from the whole content of the Manifesto that when it was written both Marx and Engels were convinced that the day of reckoning was close at hand, and this was why there was a certain apocalyptic note of urgency about their discussions. It is not less evident that they believed—of course quite mistakenly—that the birthplace of the social revolution they anticipated was certain to be Germany. No one can seriously doubt that they had immensely overestimated the degree to which revolutionary socialist ideas had penetrated the German working class; and brave as was the fight they put up in particular places, remarkable as was the literature they published in their cause, their enthusiasm allotted to the German movement a priority it was far from ready to assume. On any detached analysis the France of 1848 was, alike in ideas and in action, far more mature than the Germany of the same years; it is impossible not to feel that this emerges in Marx's own two classic pamphlets, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) and the Class Struggles in France (1850). Anyone who compares these with his account of the German struggles of the same years, cannot fail to note what it is difficult not to call an almost Utopian element in his description of German events and their implications. They pitched their expectations of the outcome of the German Revolt unjustifiably high; they tended to exaggerate both the influence and the significance of their own supporters. It may even be doubted whether they fully realised how deep were the internal divisions in the movement they sought to lead; or how difficult was the achievement of that democratic centralism which the Manifesto put forward as the basis of organised proletarian action.

It is, moreover, obvious, both from their references to the Owenite movement and to Chartism, that, though Marx and Engels were aware of important trends in English thought, they tended to underestimate their significance both for doctrine and for action. Even though Engels' studies had since 1842 brought him into close contact with the English workers' movement, it is doubtful if at this stage he fully understood its possibilities; Marx who, apart from two brief visits to England in 1845 and 1847, knew only of the British movement at second hand from Engels, had hardly begun those massive studies of English political activity and theory which, in the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and the first volume of Capital (1867), were to bear such remarkable fruit. It was not until they had both settled down in England, after the failure of revolution in France and Germany, that they really began to grasp the full importance of an English tradition which not only bourgeois economists like Sir William Petty, Adam Smith, Malthus and Ricardo had their share in making, but in which that classical tradition had been challenged by Owen and his followers, by Hodgskin and Bray; only then did they understand how much more was to be gained from a full study of the English scene than from that of France or of Germany. Here, they began to see, was already the most mature expression of capitalism's habits; and they could only prophesy its outcome by the careful and detailed study of its operation. But, by that time, the Communist Manifesto had already taken a dogmatic position in their thinking; and their tendency, henceforward, was to judge the English movement less by the scene which unfolded itself before their eyes, than by the degree to which they could fit its postulates of action into those they had so stoutly defended in the Manifesto. In the early years of their exile, they assumed that the habits of the English trade union movement were due to their theoretical backwardness; they awoke with relative slowness to its significance alongside the magnificent slogans with which the French and German workers were accustomed to decorate their doctrines. It was not until both men had realised that the English movement was to be the context in which the major part of their lives was likely to be passed that they gave it the full consideration it deserved. Even then, when they could desert its analysis for the large-scale Weltanschaung of some German or French doctrinaire, they continued to feel far more at home in socialist exegesis. However much Engels made himself at home with English habits it is important to remember that Marx was always a German who lived, very consciously, in partibus infidelium, and was never able to alter the categories of his thinking from those of his native land. Engels, for him, was always a remarkable source of fertile English illustration; the core of Marx's approach was Franco-German experience. Late in life, he realised the significance of Russia; but England was an illustration of a thesis in the main largely formed when he first entered the library of the British Museum.


The actual construction of the Communist Manifesto is brilliantly simple. Affirming, with justice, the dread of communism felt by the governments of Europe, it goes on to insist that the struggle between classes is the central clue to historical change. But whereas in previous periods the structure of society is a “complicated arrangement,” in the new “epoch of the bourgeoisie” society is being ever more “simplified” by being forced towards the dual division between bourgeoisie and proletariat. The Manifesto emphasises the revolutionary part the bourgeoisie has played in history, its relentless drive to make the “cash nexus” the only bond between men. It has dissolved innumerable other freedoms for the one freedom which gives it command of the world market—freedom of trade. It lives by exploitation, and its unresting search for markets means an unending and profound change in every aspect of life. It gives a “cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.” It compels the breakdown of national isolation; as it builds an inter-dependent material universe, so it draws, as a common fund, upon science and learning from every nation. It means the centralisation of government, the supremacy of town over country, the dependence of backward peoples upon those with more advanced methods of production in their hands.

The Manifesto describes with savage eloquence how the development of bourgeois society makes the workman a wage-slave exploited by the capitalist. The latter spares neither age nor sex. He makes it increasingly impossible for the small producer to compete with him; on every side economic power is increasingly concentrated and the little man, in every category of industry and agriculture, is driven into the dependent condition of the working class. So ruthless is this exploitation that in sheer self-defence the workers are compelled to combine to fight their masters. They form unions, ever more wide, which come at last to fight together as a class and as a political party representative of that class. If the battle sways backwards and forwards, with gains here and losses there, the consolidation of the workers as a class hostile to their exploiters has one special feature which distinguishes it from all previous struggles between rulers and ruled; the working class becomes increasingly the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. If at first it struggles within the framework of the national state, it soon becomes evident that this struggle is but one act in a vast international drama. A time comes in the history of capitalism when “its existence is no longer compatible with society.” It cannot feed its slaves. It drives them to revolution in which a proletarian victory is inevitable.

The Manifesto then turns to the special functions of Communists in the working-class movement. It insists that the Communists do not form “a separate party opposed to other working-class parties.” They have no interest apart from the workers. More than this: “They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own,” says the Manifesto, “by which to mould and shape the proletarian movement.” Their task is to insist on the international solidarity of the working class, to stand in its vanguard in each country, to aid, by their deeper theoretical grasp of the movement of history, in the workers' drive to the conquest of power. They do not aim at the abolition of individual private property, but of that bourgeois form of the ownership of the instruments of production which deprives nine-tenths of society of the capacity to acquire individual property. Communists admit freely that they desire to abolish the bourgeois corruption of the family and to replace home education by social education. They do so because the bourgeois family is a means of exploiting the labour of women and children, and because bourgeois education means its subordination to the ends of the ruling class. If Communists are charged with seeking to abolish love of country, the Manifesto answers that the workers can have no country until they are emancipated from bourgeois domination; with their acquisition of political power, the hostility between nations will disappear. So, also, it will change traditional ideas in religion and philosophy. Since it puts experience on a new basis, it will change the ideas which are their expression.

The Manifesto recognises that the emancipation of the workers will never come in exactly the same way in every country; differences in development make that inevitable. Yet it suggests a programme of measures, “generally applicable” in advanced countries, which will enable the workers to win the battle of democracy. When this victory has been won, under these conditions class distinctions will disappear and the state-power will wither away, since it is necessary only to preserve class-distinctions. In its place there will be a free association of citizens “in which the free development of each will be the condition of the free development of all.”

Such a summary as this, of course, is bound to do injustice to the superb sweep of the Manifesto itself. But it is important to dwell upon it for the implications upon which it insists. First, perhaps, a word is useful on the title of the document itself. It was to have been the “Catechism” by way of question and answer, from the Communist League; it became the Communist Manifesto. What is the reason for the change? Partly, no doubt, the decision of Marx and Engels to alter what would have been an essentially temporary domestic piece of propaganda into one that would have permanent historical value. It is hard not to believe that they called it a Manifesto in tribute to the memory of the Babouviste Manifestoof the Equals. They always recognised Babeuf as a real precursor, and do honour to him in their own work. The word Communist, it may fairly be suggested, has a double implication. On the one hand, it emphasises the relation of their work to the Communist League, by which they were authorised to undertake it; on the other, it serves to mark their own sense of profound separation from the “true” socialists of Germany, and especially of Karl Grün, against whom their criticism was so evident in the Manifesto itself. They reproached “true” socialism with sentimentality, with pretentiousness, and with an abstract approach to concrete problems which deprived them of any sense of reality. One can already see the depth of their hostility to Grün in articles they had written against him in August and September, 1847.2 It would not be surprising that they should choose a title for their pronouncements which at once looked back to a great revolutionary predecessor, and avoided the danger of any confusion with a group whose “socialism” seemed to them no more than a vapid humanitarianism.

What lends support to this view is the emphatic declaration of Marx and Engels that the Communists do not form a separate party. On the contrary, they are ready to work with all working-class organisations genuinely dedicated to the socialist task; more, they repudiate any claim to “sectarian” doctrines of their own which might result in their separation from the rest of the working-class movement. It is vital to insist upon this emphasis. However critical Marx and Engels may be of other socialist principles than their own, their regard for unity among the working-class forces is paramount. That is shown by their careers from the very outset. Engels lent his support to Chartism even before the appearance of the Manifesto; yet there must have been few among its leaders who had any real insight into the doctrines of which he was the exponent. He and Marx were often bitterly hostile to the German Social Democratic Movement; they attacked Lassalle, Liebknecht, Bebel, Kautsky. But they never sought to found a separate German Communist Party. The hostility of Marx to the dominant elements in French socialism is obvious from his attack on Proudhon as early as 1847; but though he and Engels always encouraged the “Marxist” elements in the French party, the Civil War in France (1871) of Marx himself shows their anxiety to assist it, even when they thought its policy mistaken. Indeed, Section IV of the Manifesto itself insists upon this view. The Communists support the Chartists in England and the Agrarian Reformers in America; they “ally themselves” with the Social Democratic Party in France; they support the radicals in Switzerland, “without forgetting that the party consists of contradictory elements”; in Poland they support “the party that has seen in an agrarian revolution the means to national freedom, that party which caused the insurrection of Cracow in 1846”; in Germany they fight with any bourgeois elements which see the need to “act in a revolutionary manner against the absolute monarchy, the feudal landlords, and the little middle class.”

The Manifesto, without question, insists that the Communists enter into relations with other groups to give them direction, to spread their own revolutionary creed, to make the workers aware of the “hostile antagonism” between bourgeoisie and proletariat. They “openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” But this declaration follows upon the announcement of three purposes which must be kept closely in mind if it is to be fully understood. They support “every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.” In every movement, moreover, whatever its stage of development, they put the question of property in the first place. “Equally,” says the Manifesto, “they labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.”

If all this is read in the context of Engels' famous introduction to Marx's Class Struggles in France,3 which he wrote in 1895, and of the joint Address of the Central Council of the Communist League,4 it is clear that the Manifesto is presenting a doctrine of permanent revolution. By that famous phrase they do not mean a continuous series of attempts to seize the state-power by the workers in the manner advocated by Blanqui. They had learned that revolution was an art, and that it needs certain special historical conditions if it is to be successful. They meant that when an alliance of the progressive forces in society overthrows the reactionary forces, the workers must not allow bourgeois democrats or social reformers to stop at the point where private ownership of the means of production remains unchallenged. They must always drive them on from this reformist outlook to the revolutionary stage where direct attack is made on private property. Even if the conditions do not permit of success, at least they will have done much to educate those workers who are not yet class-conscious into a realisation of their position. And, with the coming of universal suffrage, the revolutionary idea will, by force of historical circumstances, enable the Communists to

conquer the greater part of the middle section of society, petty bourgeois and small peasants, and grow into the decisive power in the land, before which all other powers will have to bow, whether they like it or not. To keep this growth going without interruption, until of itself it gets beyond the control of the ruling governmental system, not to fritter away this daily increasing shock force in advance guard fighting, but to keep it intact until the day of the decision—that is our main task.5

The continuation is not less significant. “The irony of world history,” wrote Engels,

turns everything upside down. We, “the revolutionaries,” the “rebels,” we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and revolt … The parties of order, as they call themselves, are perishing under the legal conditions created by themselves … and if we are not so crazy as to let ourselves be driven into street fighting in order to please them, then nothing else is finally left for them but to break through this legality so fatal to them.6

Nothing here written by Engels means that he assumed the likelihood that the final transition from capitalism to socialism would be peaceful. On the contrary, it is quite evident that he expected the peaceful forces of socialism so to develop that their strength became a threat to the interests of property. That threat, he prophesied, would lead the interests of property themselves to break the Constitution. Where that occurred Social Democracy would then be free to act in its own defence. That, for him, is the moment when a revolutionary struggle would begin. He did not neglect the danger that progress towards socialism might be halted by war on a global scale. “No war is any longer possible for Prussia-Germany,” he wrote,7

except a world war, and a world war indeed of an extension and violence hitherto undreamed of. Eight to ten millions of soldiers will mutually massacre one another and, in doing so, devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any swarm of locusts has ever done. The devastations of the Thirty Years' War compressed into three or four years; and spread over the whole Continent; famine, pestilence, general demoralisation both of the armies and of the mass of the people produced by acute distress; hopeless confusion of our artificial machinery in trade, industry and credit, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their traditional state-wisdom to such an extent that crowns will roll by dozens on the pavement, and there will be no one to pick them up; absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will end, and who will come out of the struggle as victor; only one result is absolutely certain: general exhaustion, and the establishment of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class. This is the prospect when the system of mutual outbidding in armaments, driven to extremities, at last bears its inevitable fruits. This, my lords and gentlemen, is where, in your wisdom, you have brought old Europe. And when nothing more remains to you but to open the last great war dance—that will suit us all right. The war may perhaps push us temporarily into the background, may wrench from us many a position already conquered. But when you have unfettered forces which you will then no longer be able again to control, things may go as they will; at the end of the tragedy you will be ruined, and the victory of the proletariat will either be already achieved, or, at any rate, inevitable.

Nor does he fail to note, in a letter to Sorge, of 7 January 1888, that “American industry would conquer all along the line, and push us up against the alternatives: either retrogression to production for home consumption … or—social transformation … but once the first shot is fired, control ceases, the horse can take the bit between his teeth.”8

To this should be added what Marx and Engels had to say in the edition, prepared by the latter, of Marx's famous address to the General Council of the First International on the Civil War in France which arose out of the defeat of Louis Napoleon in the Franco-Prussian War. “In reality,” wrote Engels, in his preface of 18 March 1871,9

the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and, indeed, in the democratic republic, no less than in the monarchy; and, at best, an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides, the proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid leaving to lop off until such time, at the earliest possible moment, as a new generation, reared in new and free social conditions, will be able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap-heap. Of late, the Social Democratic philistine has once more been filled with terror at the words: dictatorship of the proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this Dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat!

No one can examine this section of the Manifesto honestly without coming to two conclusions, especially when it is set in the light of the subsequent comments upon its meaning by its own authors. They did not expect that capitalist society would be transformed into socialist society without violent revolution. They were insistent that the people who shared their views must never divide the organised working-class forces, that it was their duty to avoid sectarianism, and that they must not form a separate party. Their task was to be the vanguard of their party, to proclaim, indeed, their views, to do all in their power to get them accepted as the basis of action, but still to remain within the political ranks of the organised working class. More than this: in the last edition of the Manifesto edited by Engels, though he remained emphatic in his belief that violence would accompany the final disappearance of capitalism, he was also emphatic that the workers would be foolish to rely upon the old methods of street-fighting at the barricades, because new methods and new weapons had altered the situation in favour of the armed forces and the police. Fighting might still be necessary, but it would be folly for the workers to abandon legal methods until a stage had been reached when the position they confronted compensated for the new strength a capitalist society possessed in the power at the disposal of the state authority.

Under what circumstances did the workers reach that position? The answer, surely, is given by the fact that Marx saw the dictatorship of the proletariat as the outcome of the Paris Commune when France was defeated by Prussia in the war of 1870. Engels saw it, as is evident from the preface of 1895 to the Manifesto, and from his introduction to Borkheim's book, as the outcome of the catastrophic conditions produced by global war. It is of decisive importance to consider these views in the light of the interpretation that Lenin himself put upon them. He pointed out, with perfect fairness, the immense step taken by Marx between the publication of the Manifesto and the Eighteenth Brumaire,10 and between these pamphlets and both the Letters to Kugelmann and the Civil War in France,11 he draws attention, too, again quite fairly, to a similar change in the outlook of Engels between the production of the Manifesto and the careful analysis of the Anti-Dühring;12 but the vital outlook of Lenin is set out in his classic State and Revolution and the documents therewith connected. It is sufficient here to say that Lenin was here concerned to establish to the comrades in Leningrad the necessary conditions of successful revolution; for he, like Marx and Engels, was careful to distinguish his outlook from that of Blanqui. He thought it necessary, first, that the armed forces of the state-power should be disloyal. He thought that the machinery of the state must be in ruins; there must be widespread revolutionary disturbance among the working class, as evidenced by strikes and demonstrations and there must be a solid and coherent working-class power able to lead the working class to the conquest of power. On these conditions, working-class victory was a possibility with a real prospect of success. Here, it will be noted that Lenin is considering a condition in which the overwhelming breakdown of the machinery of government opened the prospect of new orientations.13 The breakdown of ancient state-powers as the outcome of the war of 1939 had resulted in something akin to that which Lenin had foreseen. That was the result of defeat in war. The form of state has remained unaltered in the states which remained victorious in that struggle. Lenin was pretty clearly right in insisting that the “democratic republic,” based on universal suffrage, was the last rampart of bourgeois socialism rather than the first of democratic socialism in the Marxian sense of that term; that can be seen from utterances like those of Macaulay and of Daniel Webster. But nothing in his discussion deals with the fundamental point of whether and why that extreme Left he represented was justified in dissenting from the continuous insistence of Marx and Engels that the working class opposed to the imposition of bourgeois capitalism should form a separate party from the old social democrats. In this regard, the famous split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, at the Congress in London in 1903, was an innovation unconsidered by his predecessors. Whether it was wise or unwise, together with all the immense consequences to which, since the foundation of the Third International in 1919, it has led, lies outside the scope of this introduction.


From this remarkable analysis, the Manifesto goes on a little cursorily and haphazardly, to consider the literature of socialism which had appeared up to 1848. It condemns, first of all, what it calls “reactionary” socialism as a form of capitalism the roots of which lie deep in a feudal outlook. It seems probable that the author had in mind, without naming them, two groups of thinkers. On the one hand they were attacking the attempts of men like Herman Wagener and Bismarck who were seeking an alliance between the Prussian Crown and the proletariat, primarily at the expense, immediately, of the bourgeoisie, but ultimately, of the proletariat. These were seeking, in the old technique, how first to divide in order that their royal master might govern without question. They were in all probability attacking also the soi-disant socialism of Louis Rousseau and Villeneuve-Bargemont in France, who sought, by putting the French unemployed into agricultural colonies, to prevent them from strengthening the army of the proletariat by leaving the supporters of the “juste milieu” face to face with their bourgeoisie. Above all, they were dismissing that “Young England” group, of which Disraeli, as in Sybil, with some support from George Smythe and, at a remoter distance. Thomas Carlyle, supplied the ideas, and for which Lord John Manners provided, with occasional support from Lord Ashley (the later Earl of Shaftesbury), the political leadership. They, together with the Christian Socialists, of whom F. D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley were the outstanding figures, were groups of which Engels, with his accustomed prescience, had already seen the danger in his Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.

Engels, at least, had not failed to understand the importance of Carlyle's Chartism (1840) and of his Past and Present (1843); he had already written about them in the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher.14 He had fully understood the reality of their horror of the new factory system, the new poor law, the invasion of happy lives by the new and grim industrialism. But the Manifesto regarded this type of socialism as no more than feudalism, however much its plea might be garbed in eloquence. Marx saw that they loathed the effects of industrialism; but he realised that they wanted to go backwards to a paternalistic feudalism, not forward to a democratic socialism. They were afraid of a rebellion from the oppressed, and they hoped to buy it off by paternal concessions which would still leave Tory Democracy in power. Since this was in its essence aristocratic and would, as in the Ten Hours Bill, improve factory conditions without removing the indignity of an unemancipated class, the Manifesto rejects this attempt to return to “Merrie England” as an effort without serious meaning for socialists who had really grasped the problem before the proletariat.

They then turned to the analysis of petty-bourgeois socialism. The Manifesto admits freely the achievements of this school of doctrine, at the head of which, both for France and England, it places the distinguished name of Sismondi. But it argues that, apart from its important criticism of modern production, the petty-bourgeois school has no positive aim but to restore “the old property relations, and the old society.” It is therefore dismissed as both “reactionary and utopian”; “this form of socialism,” says the Manifesto, “ended in a miserable fit of the blues.”

This is far from being a fair picture. It is true enough that Sismondi announced his hopeless sense of bankruptcy before the results of the new system of production, the outcome of which he described so well. But it is curious that there is no tribute to French writers like Buret—to whom Engels owed a special debt—and Vidal, still less to Constantin Pecquer, who had the keen insight to see that the petit bourgeois is part of a numerous class which forms, as it were, the rag-bag into which are thrown both bankrupt peasants and outmoded craftsmen.15 Nor is it fair to the remarkable English school, like Hodgskin and Thompson and Bray, some knowledge of whom it is difficult to suppose was absent from men as eagerly interested in Chartism as Marx and Engels. It may be that the abrupt brevity with which the “petty bourgeois school” is dismissed is partly due to their failure to depict the revolution, the coming of which is, of course, the main prophecy of the Manifesto; this leads naturally into the bitter attack that is made, in the next section, on “true” or German socialism.

This attack may be regarded as the final breach of Marx and Engels with that Hegelian Left to which both of them had once belonged. It is the demonstration not only that its leaders were living by concepts and not by things, but also that the result of their effort was merely to serve the ends of German reaction. It is here that Marx and Engels break with their own past. They have done with Ruge and Moses Hess, with Karl Grün and Hermann Kriege. The stride beyond Hegel which Feuerbach had taken, which was in large part the basis of “true” socialism, now is declared not only inadequate but also deceptive. The votaries of “true” socialism are using the great principles of revolutionary experience and thought in France to elucidate a situation to which they are inapplicable. They fail to see that French socialism is an attack upon a bourgeoisie already in power. In Germany this is not the case. There the bourgeoisie has only begun to fight against the feudal aristocracy. To fight for socialism under these conditions is to delay the success of the bourgeois revolution by frightening it with the threat of a proletarian attack for which the conditions are completely unripe. “True” socialism, the Manifesto argues, thus “served the governments (of Germany) as a weapon for fighting the German bourgeoisie.” It thus delays the march of the necessary historical development by serving up as “eternal truths” concepts the value of which depends wholly upon their relevance to the concrete situation. The “true” socialists are thus guilty of an abstract philosophy which appears like a call to arms; but it is a call which can have no other result than to aid the victory of feudal reaction by seeking a revolutionary temper in a class which has not yet decisively appeared upon the historic stage.

That Marx and Engels were wholly right in their attitude to “true” socialism was shown conclusively by the events of 1848 in Germany. There is indeed an important sense in which their criticism of German socialism has remained valid right down to our own time. The “true” socialists, as they said, borrowed the formulae of French socialism. They then not merely refrained from universalising them. What was worse, they made their realisation seem a special German mission, the task to be accomplished by a German nation which was a “model” nation, by a German “petty philistine” whom they looked upon as the “typical man.” It is a high tribute to the insight of Marx and Engels that they had thus perceived what, indeed, they had begun to realise as early as 1845, that “true” socialism was deeply infected with the taint of German romanticism; and that this, in its nationalist form, gave to the socialist expression of its ideals the same arrogant sense of a superior place in the fulfilment of their purpose as, upon another plane of thought, Fichte and Hegel gave to Germany as a compensation for its humiliation by Napoleon. When Hess called the German people the nation “at once the most universal and the most European,” he was claiming for it the same supreme place in the hierarchy of socialist effort as was Hegel when he made the Prussian monarchy coincide with the ultimate purpose of the absolute. It was an analogous reliance upon what the Manifesto calls “speculative cobwebs embroidered with flowers of rhetoric” which made German socialism in 1914 so overwhelmingly take up arms in an imperialist war and in 1918-19, by manipulating concepts instead of realities, rejoice, as the Weimar Republic was built, in the success of a revolution that had not yet happened. There is no part of the Manifesto more rich in understanding than the bitter paragraphs in which Marx and Engels so severely attack men with whom, but recently, they had been in close alliance. Nor should we omit to note the important sense in which this criticism is as much directed against an earlier phase of their own thinking at it is against their friends. It is because Hess and Grün had failed to see that the idealist methodology of Hegel, and even of Feuerbach, could never be the basis of an effective Socialist movement, that they were handled with so determined a severity.

The section on literature continues with a discussion of “conservative or bourgeois” socialism. “The socialistic bourgeois,” says the Manifesto, “want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting from them. They desire the present state of society without its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” The “conservative” socialist may be an economist or a humanitarian; he is found among “hole and corner reformers of every kind.” If he systematises his doctrine, he emerges with a body of ideas like those expounded by Proudhon in his Philosophie de la Misère. Or he may refrain from system-making, and devote his attention to attacks on revolutionary movements intended to persuade the workers of their folly. Political reform will not do. Nor is anything gained by abolishing the bourgeois relations of production. In the eyes of the “conservative” socialist the supreme need is a change in “the material conditions of existence.” When we analyse what he means by this change, we find that it is no more than “administrative reforms” which, though they simplify the work and diminish the cost of government, leave the relations between capital and labour unchanged. He is in favour of free trade, or protective duties, or prison reform, for the benefit of the working class. What, nevertheless, is vital to his outlook is that the proletariat should cease to hate the bourgeoisie, and accept the capitalist system as final. By that means the “social New Jerusalem” can be built without the haunting fear that revolution is necessary to its establishment.

It is obvious enough that this attack is directed against the men whose palliatives Marx agreed with Proudhon in dismissing with contempt in his Poverty of Philosophy—Proudhon himself, be it noted, being added by Marx to the list of those to be so dismissed. Michel Chevalier, Adolphe Blanqui and Léon Faucher in France, with their remedies of technical education, profit-sharing and state-compensation for workers displaced by the development of machine-technology, are typical examples of this kind; they have, as the Manifesto says, to mitigate the harsher consequences of capitalism without interfering with the relations of production upon which it is based. The reference to free trade is, I think, pretty obviously an arrow launched against Cobden and Bright and their supporters in the Anti-Corn Law League who believed that the social problem would be solved by the adoption of universal free trade; and this view is the more likely since both Marx and Engels, and especially Engels, had seen at first hand how the propaganda of the League had done much to break the hold of the Chartist Movement upon the workers. It is reasonable to suppose that the reference to tariffs is primarily a thrust at Friedrich List—who had died only the year before—and his system of German national economy based upon a closed customs union as the unit of prosperity. If this is so, it links the Manifesto to the growing economic literature from America, the famous Report on Manufacture (1791) of Alexander Hamilton, for example, and the works of Henry C. Carey, to which we know Marx and Engels gave careful attention, though without being convinced that the protectionists had found an answer to the central issue of productive relations. What they were rejecting was the notorious doctrine of the “harmony of interest” between capital and labour, which, though Adam Smith at the rise and John Stuart Mill at the end of the first half-century of classical political economy had already seen it to be fallacious, was still the main ground upon which the growth of trade unions was discouraged and repressed. Men of good will, the Manifesto says in effect, can never build a society capable of justice by philanthropy of palliatives. It is nothing less than the whole system of productive relations that must be changed.

In a sense, the final section on previous socialist literature, which deals with what the Manifesto calls “critico-Utopian” writers, is a little disappointing. It quite properly emphasises the fact that the literature of the first proletarian strivings produces “fantastic pictures” of future society, that it thinks of the workers as a suffering rather than a revolutionary class, that it appeals, for the most part, to ethical principles beyond and above class-antagonism, that it seeks to change society “by peaceful means” and “by small experiments.” It agrees that Babeuf, Owen, Cabet and Fourier attack the existing foundation of their civilisation at its roots, that they are “full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class.” But their proposals are dismissed as “purely Utopian,” and though it is admitted that they were themselves “in many respects revolutionary,” it is insisted that their followers have always “formed merely reactionary sects.” “They therefore endeavour,” wrote Marx and Engels, “and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle, and to reconcile the class-antagonisms. … They sink into the category of the reactionary conservative socialists, differing from them only by more systematic pedantry.” They became, we are told, the violent opponents of working-class political action. Like the followers of Owen who oppose the Chartists, and the followers of Fourier who oppose the Reformistes, they have a “fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science.”

The praise is grudging, and a good deal of the criticism is, in fact, unfair. It is unfair to Babeuf, to whom, through Buonarrotti, the debt of Marx and Engels themselves was great. It is unfair to a great deal of Bronterre O'Brien's work, to the remarkable trade union achievements of John Doherty, and to the profound writer in the Poor Man's Guardian of 1831 whom Beer, the careful historian of British socialism, has given good reasons for thinking was a self-educated working man. No doubt it is fair to conclude that Owen and Saint-Simon, Hodgskin and Fourier, with all their piercing insight into social conditions, never had faith enough in the working class to believe that it could accomplish its own emancipation, or enough interest in political action to recognise the real nature and function of the state-power. But it ought to be compared with the tribute—which Marx approved—paid to Owen, Saint-Simon and Fourier by Engels in 1874 in his preface to the reprint, as a book, of the article he had written in 1850 for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung on the Peasants' War in Germany of the sixteenth century. “Just as German theoretical socialism will never forget,” he wrote,

that it rests on [their] shoulders … three men who, in spite of all their fantastic notions and Utopianism, have their places among the most eminent thinkers of all times, and whose genius anticipated innumerable ideas the correctness of which we are now scientifically proving, so the practical workers' movement in Germany must never forget that it has developed on the shoulders of the English and French movements, that it was able directly to utilise their hardly-bought experience, and that it could now avoid the mistakes that were unavoidable at the time they made them. Without the English trade unions and the French workers' political struggles before them, without the great impulse given, in particular, by the Paris Commune, where should we be now?

And that eulogy was repeated in the quite masterly preface which Engels wrote to the English edition of 1892, of his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. There, though the same point is made as in the Manifesto itself, it is made in a perspective far more just and profound. “Scientific socialism,” as Engels again wrote in a footnote to a German reprint of the same work, “is not an exclusively German, but just as much an international, product.”

What is the reason for this difference of emphasis? It lies, I suggest, in the desire to show in the Manifesto that “true” socialism is a species of the genus Utopian socialism and can make no claim to be regarded as scientific. Marx and Engels belittled the achievements of the Utopians in 1847 because their victory over men like Grün and Hess in Germany itself was not yet complete, and the valuation they then made of their great predecessors was part of a polemic in which they were not yet sure of victory. In 1878, their outlook held the field, still more fully in 1892; and they could afford to be more generous about the men who laid the foundations of the edifice they themselves had brought so remarkably to completion. That is essentially the attitude of Marx himself when he sought to assess his own personal contribution to socialist philosophy.16


The final section of the Manifesto is essentially an outline of the correct Communist strategy in view of the coming struggle. The Communists, it affirms, will fight for the immediate interests of the workers, without losing sight of the need to assist the emergence of the future in their aid to the present. Thus, if in France they support the social democrats—the party led by Ledru-Rollin—that will not prevent them from seeking to correct the tendencies in that party which are no more than an empty tradition handed down from the Revolution; if in Germany they support the bourgeoisie in its revolutionary struggle against absolute monarchy, the feudalism of the landlords and the reactionary outlook of the petty-bourgeois elements, that will not prevent them from awakening the workers to the realisation that, once the bourgeois revolution has been accomplished, the proletarian revolution must begin.

The Communists concentrate their efforts on Germany, Marx and Engels say, because a successful bourgeois revolution there, in the conditions of the nineteenth century, where the proletariat is so much more advanced than it could have been either at the time of the English or of the French Revolutions, is bound to be the prelude to an “immediate and subsequent” proletarian revolution. Their general position assumes three clear principles. They must support every revolutionary movement against the conditions of the time. They must make the question of property—that is, the ownership of the means of production—the central issue in every movement in which they participate. They must, finally, “labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.” Their position is thus unmistakable. They will always support working-class parties, even when these are not communist, without forming a separate party of their own; even though such a party may have an inadequate programme, its proletarian character makes it the appropriate instrument through which to exercise communist influence. Where the party they support, like that of Ledru-Rollin, is not proletarian, they support it because it offers the workers the chance first of a greater rôle in politics, and second, of great social reforms.

The position of the Manifesto on Germany needs a somewhat more elaborate analysis. It says quite clearly that Germany is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution, and that its makers must be supported because their success will be the prelude to a proletarian revolution. We have to put this affirmation alongside the insistence of Marx and Engels themselves, at the Communist Congress in London, not many weeks before the writing of the Manifesto that the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the workers is more developed in England—an inference clearly drawn from their judgment upon Chartism—than in any other country. We must compare it further, as Charles Andler has pointed out in his remarkable commentary on the Manifesto,17 with the passage in Marx's article on the Hegelian philosophy of Law, published in 1844, where he argued that Germany could no longer make a partial revolution, since the only class in Germany capable of revolutionary action was the “class of the purely déclassés.” That class could not, in his submission of 1844, seek for any rights but those of all humanity, since it had been bowed down by suffering to a point where nothing less would enable it to reaffirm its manhood. It thus, in his view, became the proletariat; and when it made its revolution it would, by suppressing itself, inaugurate the classless society.

The change in the Manifesto, compared with the article of 1844, admits of a simple explanation. As Andler rightly points out, in the three years that intervened between them Marx himself had ceased to be a “true” socialist, like Grün and Hess, and had come to realise the full significance of historical materialism. He no longer, therefore, thought conceptually, but concretely, of the German workers; and he realised in 1847 that they could not move directly to revolutionary emancipation since German capitalism had not yet developed sufficiently to make them in a full sense a proletariat bent on freeing itself by revolution from its chains. This was later pointed out by Engels in the remarkable articles he wrote for the New York Tribune in 1861-2.18 “The working-class movement itself,” he wrote,

is never independent, is never of an exclusively proletarian character, until all the different elements in the middle class and, particularly, its most progressive element, the large manufacturers, have conquered political power, and remodelled the state in terms of their needs. It is then that the inevitable conflict between the employer and the employed becomes imminent, and cannot be adjourned any longer; that the working class can no longer be put off with delusive topics, and promises never to be realised; that the great problem of the nineteenth century, the abolition of the proletariat, is at last brought forward fairly, and in its proper light.

The reason why Marx and Engels in the years immediately preceding 1848 looked to Germany for the revolution they were expecting has, I think, one personal and two historical grounds. The first is that they were, after all, Germans, with the passionate nostalgia of the exile for his native land; no one can fail to see in their correspondence that, with all the width of their interest in other countries, the interest they took in German development had an intensity which put it on a different plane. They recognised, moreover, that the revolutionary content had, at least for the time being, gone out of the English movement, as was proved in the abortive Chartist demonstration in London on 10 April 1848, and that it would provide no opportunity of vital change. But in Germany, as Engels wrote in the New York Tribune, in the second of his articles, “people were either constitutional monarchists or more or less clearly defined socialists or communists.” So sharp an antithesis made it natural, therefore, to look to Germany for some important opportunity. “With such elements,” wrote Engels,

the slightest collision must have brought about a great revolution. While the higher nobility and the older civil and military officers were the only safe supporters of the existing system; while the lower nobility, the trading middle classes, the universities, the schoolmasters of every degree, and even part of the lower ranks of the bureaucracy and military officers, were all united against the government; while behind these there stood the dissatisfied masses of the peasantry, and of the proletarians of the large towns, supporting, for the time being, the Liberal Opposition, but already muttering strange words about taking things into their own hands; while the bourgeoisie was ready to hurl down the government, and the proletarians were preparing to hurl down the bourgeoisie in its turn; this government continued obstinately in a course which must bring about a coalition. Germany was, in the beginning of 1848, on the eve of a revolution; and this revolution was sure to come, even had the French Revolution of February not hastened it.

That explains the special significance the Manifesto attached to German events. But Marx and Engels did not look upon those events as isolated and complete in themselves. They were a part only of a much vaster perspective in which the proletariat of one country could be seen handing on the revolutionary torch to the proletariat of another. That is why the Manifesto appeals to the workers of all countries to unite. The famous sentence which concludes it is not the formula of an empty ritual. It is inherent in the whole Manifesto as an expression of the interdependence of a class which, as capitalist society takes the whole world into its grasp, must act internationally if it is to act successfully. It is the anticipation of what Marx was to say, some sixteen years later, in his inaugural address to the First International. “To conquer political power,” he told the meeting in St. Martin's Hall,19

has become the great duty of the working classes … One element of success they have—numbers; but numbers weigh only in the balance if united by combination, and led by knowledge. Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts … The emancipation of the working classes requires their fraternal concurrence.

The men who had lived through ardour to failure in 1848 were there reaffirming their conviction that the “immediate combination of the still disconnected movements” in different countries was the indispensable condition of working-class emancipation; to achieve it was not “a local nor a national, but a social, problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists, and depending for its solution on the concurrence, practical and theoretical, of the most advanced countries.” So only could the workers throw off their chains.


Time has added to the lustre of the Communist Manifesto; and it has achieved the remarkable status not only of being a classic, but a classic also which is directly relevant to the controversies which rage a century after it was written. Inevitably, therefore, it has become the subject of rival interpretations; and it is not seldom read as though its eminent authors were still fighting for one or another of the different schools of contemporary socialist thought. It is, indeed, hardly an exaggeration to say that, under the leadership of the Communist Party of Soviet Russia, an attempt has been made to secure the prestige of the Manifesto for those only who accept the leadership and direction of Moscow, and to argue that it has no meaning outside the canons of orthodoxy which first Lenin, and later Stalin, have applied to its scrutiny. One may go even further and suggest that those who do not accept these canons are regarded by the adherents of the Muscovite school with the same furious indignation as Marx and Engels regarded the “true” socialists of their own day.

Of certain things there can be no doubt at all. Marx and Engels were both convinced that the victory of the proletariat, and the consequential establishment of a classless society would normally be established by violent revolution. They were convinced, also, that only by the alliance of the working classes in the most advanced countries would a proletarian revolution in any one of them be able to hope that its successful consolidation might be seriously expected. They were emphatic that Communists must not form a party which separates itself from the mass organisations of the working class; and they insisted that Communists must, while they ceaselessly bear in view the ultimate and decisive proletarian revolution, never forget the high importance of helping to realise those lesser, if more immediately realisable, gains which improve the position of the worker. They were ready to make alliances with non-working-class parties, if the result of their joint action was strategically progressive. When, jointly, they re-published the Manifesto in 1872, they remarked that while its “general principles … are, on the whole, as correct to-day as ever,” nevertheless “the practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing.” On that account, they said, the revolutionary measures they proposed in 1848 needed “no special stress.” They thought, also, that the immense industrial development since the Manifesto first appeared, as well as “the practical experience” of the February Revolution and of the Commune made some of the measures obsolete. Above all, they argued, one thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” This last sentence is a quotation from Marx's famous pamphlet, the Civil War in France; and in a letter written to Kugelmann on 12 April 1871,20 during the existence of the Paris Commune, Marx explained what this meant by referring his German admirer to the last chapter of his Eighteenth Brumaire where “you will find that I say that the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to the other, but to smash it; and this is essential for every real people's revolution on the Continent.” The virtue of the Commune was that it was elected by universal suffrage, had a majority of working men “or acknowledged representatives of the working class,” and was “a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time,” the members being elected for short terms, and subject to recall. In his preface to the reprint in 1891 of the Civil War in France, Engels wrote that “of late, the Social Democratic Philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat.’ Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what the Dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

Almost all these phrases have been the subject of violent conflict, of which the best known, perhaps, is that between Lenin and Trotsky, in one camp, and the German social democrat Karl Kautsky in the other; Rosa Luxembourg, who was martyred in the Spartacus revolt of 1919, and the Russian Menshevik leader, Jules Martov, may fairly be described as occupying an intermediate position between the two extreme interpretations. It is impossible here to enter upon the kind of detailed and special scrutiny of texts in which not only is every word important, but in which, also, what is really a subjective valuation of their importance in their total context, plays a very considerable part. It must suffice to examine certain major themes in the dispute, and, somewhat dogmatically, to suggest the main results of research about them.

It is quite clear that both Marx and Engels expected that most proletarian revolutions would be successful only after heavy fighting, and that the only possible exceptions they saw to this rule were Great Britain, the United States and, perhaps, Holland. They thought that the critical moment would come for Great Britain when Ireland and India had secured their independence, since this would deprive Great Britain of a source of exploitation which enabled it, in a considerable degree, to give its proletariat a bourgeois character and outlook. They were confident that, in all cases, the arrival of the working class in power would mean a period of transition marked by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

No phrase has been subject to so much misinterpretation as the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Let us be clear at once that neither for Marx nor for Engels was it the antithesis of democracy; for them, its antithesis was the “dictatorship of the bourgoisie” which, as they believed, obtained in every country, even when concealed by formally democratic political institutions, so long as the ownership of the means of production remained in middle-class hands. Marx and Engels meant by the “dictatorship of the proletariat” an organisation of society in which the state-power was in the hands of the working class, and used with all the force necessary to prevent it being seized from them by the class which formerly exercised its authority. They assume that the representatives of the working class will use the state-power to change the relations of production and to repress any attempt to interfere with this change. But it is obvious from Engels' identification of the Paris Commune with proletarian dictatorship that he regards it as based on the support of the majority, that it employs the technique of universal suffrage, and that its acceptance of the people's rights to frequent elections, and to the recall of their representatives implies full popular participation in the working of the dictatorship. It is obvious, further, from Marx's account of the Commune as a legislature and executive in one, that it denies the validity of the separation of powers, and assumes that the dictatorship is exercised through the elected body based upon popular choice and subject to public opinion, through the right of each constituency to recall any representative it may have chosen; that, surely, was what Marx meant when he wrote that “nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune than to supersede universal suffrage by hierarchic investiture.” Marx even points out that the “great bulk of the Paris middle class … the wealthy capitalist alone excepted” admitted that “this was the first revolution in which the working class was openly acknowledged as the only class capable of social initiative”; he noted that it supplied the republic with the basis of really democratic institutions; and he compares the peace and order it secured within Paris, with the fanatically repressive atmosphere of Versailles under the domination of Thiers.

From this angle, it seems to me inescapable that Marx and Engels did not conceive the dictatorship of the proletariat to mean the dictatorship of the Communist Party over the rest of the community, that is, the centralisation of the state-power in the hands of a single party, which imposes its will by force on all citizens outside its ranks. It is conceivable that the struggle for the state-power may be so intense that the government has no alternative but to proclaim a state of siege until it has consolidated its authority. It is undeniable, also, that a workers' government in possession of the state-power may find it necessary to penalise persons or parties who threaten its safety, in the same way as the British Government found it necessary to assume drastic powers when it was threatened by invasion after Dunkirk in 1940. It was, I think, this second situation that Marx and Engels had in view. They assumed that the use of the state-power by and for the workers would mean an expansion, and not a contraction, of democratic forces; it would permit, that is, vastly greater numbers to participate in social life effectively than is possible when democratic institutions operate only within the framework of capitalist production. They could not, therefore, have envisaged the Communist Party acting as a dictatorship over the working class and excluding all other parties from the right to share in, and influence over, the exercise of power.

I think this view is borne out by other evidence. The Manifesto itself declares quite explicitly that Communists are the vanguard of the working class. They are not its masters; they are in the forefront of the co-operative effort to abolish capitalist society. Still more important, the Communists do not form a separate party of their own. They ally themselves with other organisations, especially of the working class, which aim at the same end as themselves, or may objectively be regarded as assisting that end even though unconsciously. That was why, for example, the Communist League supported Ledru-Rollin in 1845, even though he hated Communism. That was why, also, they persuaded the First International to support the Paris Commune, and why those of its members, who were also members of the International, cooperated in its heroic struggle with others who did not belong to it. Unless, indeed, Marx and Engels had taken this view, they would have been arguing that the dictatorship of the proletariat means the rule of that party leadership to the guidance of which any political organisation of large size must give heavy responsibilities. They never argued for this outlook. On the contrary, their deepest concern was to make the state-power, when it passed into the workers' hands, not only the organ through which the capitalist relations of production were transformed into socialist relations of production, but the organ also through which the unreal democracy of capitalist society became the real democracy of socialist society. Repression in all its forms was for them a transitory necessity. That was why they could argue that, with the establishment of socialism, the state would “wither away.”

The “withering away” of the state is another famous phrase that has been much discussed and much misunderstood. In one sense it is a purely logical inference from the definition of the Manifesto. The state is there defined as the “executive committee of the bourgeoisie.” Obviously, therefore, as the power to govern is taken out of the hands of the bourgeoisie by the workers, the state as a bourgeois institution ceases to exist because being in the workers' hands it becomes transformed into a proletarian institution. Marx and Engels then argued that its coercive authority, the army, for example, the police, and the civil service, would have so to be adapted as to be capable of use by the workers for socialist purposes, as they had been adapted by the bourgeoisie to be used for capitalist purposes. They thought in 1872, as Marx had suggested 20 years before, that a socialist society would have to “break” the political machinery of the régime it took over in order to make the adaptation successful. What did they mean by “breaking” the machinery of the capitalist state? The answer is, I think, that it was to be deprived of that character of an “hierarchical investiture” which, as Marx had written in Civil War in France, prevented the defective power of numbers from being authoritative. The organs of government were to be genuinely democratised. They were to be in and of the new proletarian society, not, as in capitalist society, over and above the workers, separated from them by caste-like walls, so that they could impose upon the workers the discipline necessary to maintain in its fullness the capitalist mode of production. The defence forces, the police and the civil service were to have no special privileges, and no special place in the new régime. Their members were to be looked upon as workers performing a necessary social function in the same way as any other groups of workers. They were to be deprived of their “hierarchical” attributes.

It should be added that when Marx and Engels spoke of the “withering away of the state” there is no reason to suppose they believed that in a socialist country the hopes of the philosophical anarchists would be fulfilled and that all authority would be the outcome of express assent to its orders. No doubt both of them strongly believed that as the private ownership of the means of production passed away there would be far less need for a coercive apparatus in society. That was a natural view for them to take since they held that it was the private ownership of those means which was responsible for most of what was evil in the social process. Their insistence that the state-power was essentially used to protect that private ownership from attack was, of course, held with great emphasis by Adam Smith himself. “It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrates,” Adam Smith wrote,21 “that the owner of that valuable property, acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security.” Marx and Engels agreed with the implications in Adam Smith's statement, though the inference they would have drawn was different. But there is nothing to suggest in all they wrote that with the establishment of a socialist society government itself becomes unnecessary. They rarely spoke of what a socialist society would be like; and the few references they did make to its character only justify us in saying that they looked to a fuller and freer expression of individuality when the capitalists' fetters upon the forces of production had been finally removed.

Some discussion is desirable of the materialist conception of history which is the vital thread upon which the whole of the Communist Manifesto hangs; the more so because it continues to be strangely misrepresented by historians and social philosophers. It is not a claim that all actions are the result of economic motives. It does not insist either that all change is economically caused. It does not mean that the ideas and behaviour of men are fatalistically predetermined and that, whether he will or no, the emergence of a socialist society is inevitable. It is the argument that, as Engels puts it,22 “production and, with production, the exchange of its products, is the basis of every social order; that in every society which has appeared in history, the distribution of the products, and, with it, the division of society into classes or estates, is determined by what is produced, and how it is produced, and how the product is exchanged.” This is the basis from which Marx and Engels were led to that philosophy of history which led them to part company with their former allies, the Left Hegelians, whose conceptions are attacked in the Manifesto. For it led them to see that the way in which the total social production is divided in a community is not the outcome of the purposes, either good or bad, of the members of the community, but of the legal relations which arise out of given modes of production, and that these legal relations are independent of the wills of those engaged in production. Since changes in the modes of production and exchange are ceaselessly taking place, legal relations which were, at one time, adapted to the conditions of that time, cease to be adapted to them. It is in this disproportion between legal relations in the community and the forces of production in it that the changes in men's ideas of good and bad, justice and injustice, are to be found. That class in a community which legally owns the means of production uses the state-power to sanction that division of the product of which it approves. It therefore seeks through the coercive authority at the disposal of the state-power, to compel the general acceptance of its approved division; and systems of values, political, ethical, religious, philosophical, are ways in which, directly or indirectly, men express their agreement or disagreement with the nature of the division which the owners of the instruments of production endeavour to impose.

This does not mean that changes may be regarded as irrelevant to the ideas of men; but it does mean that men's ideas are continually evolving as their minds come to realise that changes in the methods of production and exchange render some ideas obsolete and require new ideas. As feudalism became transformed into capitalism, the legal relations it implied hindered the full use of the forces of production. The values the feudal system had been able to maintain before the advent of the capitalist method of production emerged became no longer acceptable. Then, as Engels wrote, “the bourgeoisie shattered the feudal system, and, on its ruins established the bourgeois social order, the realm of free competition, freedom of movement, equal rights for commodity owners and all the other bourgeois glories.” Now, the Manifesto argues, changes in the forces of production have rendered the legal relations of capitalism obsolete in their turn; and socialism emerges as the claim to new relations, and, therefore, to new values which the workers, as the class which suffers most from this obsolescence, seek to put in its place.

No serious observer supposes that the materialist conception of history is free from difficulties, or that it solves all the problems involved in historical interpretation. But no serious observer either can doubt that it has done more in the last hundred years to provide a major clue to the causes of social change than any other hypothesis that has been put forward. There can really be no valid reason to deny that, over the whole space of recorded history, class struggle has been a central principle of its development. Nor can it be denied that class struggle is intimately bound up with the relations of production in some given society and the ability to develop the full possibilities of the forces of production at any given time. It is equally clear, on any close analysis, that the class which owns the instruments of production uses the state-power to safeguard that ownership, and seeks to repress the emergence of ideas and values which call that ownership into question. Anyone, moreover, who examines objectively any period in which the mode of production is rapidly changing, the age of the Reformation, for example, or the period between the two world wars, cannot fail to note that they are also periods marked by the grave instability of traditional values and of traditional institutions. There is nothing in the theory of the Manifesto which argues more than that the occurrence of such a period means that, if the traditional values and institutions continue to function in the new economic setting, they will deprive large numbers of their means of living, and that they will, therefore, seek to emancipate themselves from a position of which they are the victims. To do so, as Marx and Engels point out, they must possess themselves of the state-power that they may adapt the relations of production to the implications of the new order. And, on the argument of the Manifesto, since the passage from capitalist to social ownership marks the end of a history in which the instruments of production have been predominantly the possession of one class, the transition to public ownership means, when it is successfully effected, the emergence of the classless society.

It is this doctrine which the Manifesto is concerned to get accepted by socialists as against the other doctrines with which it was competing. It was not enough, Marx and Engels were saying in effect, for some men or group of men to proclaim a new principle as true and hope by the force merely of rational argument to persuade others to see also that it is true. What makes the new principle acceptable is the fact that changes in the mode of production have produced the material environment which makes it seem the natural expression of what people want. The duty to be tolerant is rarely likely to receive wide acceptance when it is advanced as an abstract metaphysical obligation. But when intolerance hinders the attainment by society of a full command over its material resources, men begin to see a validity in arguments advanced on its behalf, some religious, some ethical, some political, some economic, the strength of which had not previously been apparent to them. All the world applauded Robert Owen so long as he made the operation of that “revolution” in the mind and practice of the “human race” a philanthropic experiment confined to his own factories in New Lanark. But when he argued that his principles were so obviously rational that all social organisation should be adapted to their application, the world turned angrily upon him and showed him that, in the absence of the necessary material conditions, a principle which has justice and truth and reason on its side will still be unable to conquer the world by the inherent force of its own virtue. It is not until men see that the “anarchy of social production” caused by capitalism in decay can be replaced “by a socially planned regulation of production in accordance with the needs both of society as a whole, and of each individual,” that they are prepared to get rid of capitalism.

“The forces operating in society,” wrote Engels,23

work exactly like the forces operating in nature: blindly, violently, destructively, so long as we do not understand them and fail to take them into account. But when we once have recognised them, and understood how they work, their direction and their efforts, the gradual subjection of them to our will, and the use of them for the attainment of our aims, depends entirely upon ourselves. And this is quite especially true of the mighty, productive forces of the present day.

That is, I think, the central principle which underlies the whole of the Communist Manifesto; it is the social application of Bacon's great aphorism that “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” It is our attempt to show that every pattern of social institutions presupposes a stage in the development of productive forces, and that those who seek for the achievement of the pattern in which they believe will succeed only if their aim is justified by the character of those productive forces at the time when they make their effort. That was why, though Carlyle and Ruskin saw the evils of their own day, their remedy was an anachronism when they preached it; they preached a sermon to men who, as it were, had already left their church. That was why, to take a contemporary instance, the New Deal of President Roosevelt was able only to assuage temporarily the wounds he sought to heal; for those wounds were not some temporary infliction, but the symptoms of a disease far more deep and deadly than he was prepared to recognise.

One last aspect of the Manifesto required to be clarified. Why was it given this title? Those who sponsored it had not thought of it in that form; it was rather a catechism, more easily capable of being memorised, that they had in mind. The word “Communism” had no special sanctity for them; their organisation, in one or another of its forms, had operated under a variety of names. It is not a question we can answer with any certainty; Engels himself did not deal with it in the recollections he wrote later—themselves not always accurate—of how it came to be composed in the form in which we have it. Perhaps it was a “Manifesto” in half-conscious tribute to the memory of the Babouvian Manifeste des Egaux,24 a salute to one of the supreme documents of that French Revolution which Marx and Engels recognised as one of the great climacterics of history, and from which they learned so much; perhaps it is also due to a faint recollection of the once well-known pamphlet which Victor Considerant had published shortly before.

Why “communist” and not “socialist” Manifesto? Obviously, in the first instance, because it was the official publication of the Communist League. We have little other evidence on which to base speculations. It was possibly the outcome of a recollection of the Paris Commune in the French Revolution, an institution to which all socialists did homage. It was possibly a desire to distinguish the ideas for which they stood from socialist doctrines which they were criticising so severely. The one thing that is certain, from the document itself, is that the choice of the term “Communist” was not intended to mark any organisational separation between the Communist League and other socialist or working-class bodies. On the contrary, Marx and Engels were emphatic in their insistence that the Communists do not form a separate Party and that they ally themselves with all the forces which work towards a socialist society. The idea of a separate communist party dates from the Russian Revolution; it had no place in the thought either of Marx or of Engels.


Few documents in the history of mankind have stood up so remarkably to the test of verification by the future as the Communist Manifesto. A century after its publication no one has been able seriously to controvert any of its major positions. All over the world the crises of capitalism have grown both more frequent and more profound. The fact that America has reached its last internal frontier has brought into being there precisely the same problems, if on a vaster scale, as in Europe, and the rising nationalisms of the Far East and the Pacific, while they hasten the decay of capitalism in the older industrial societies, quite obviously prelude their rise in the new. For, unmistakably, whether in Japan or China, whether in India or Indonesia, the central problem is the sheer misery of the masses; and our experience makes it clear that, within a capitalist framework, there is little likelihood of its effective mitigation. Nor is anyone likely to look at the prospect either in Latin America or in Africa and conclude that in either continent the business of government is carried on with the consent, or for the good, of the governed. Vice in both may pay to virtue the homage of occasional hypocrisy, but, in the intervals between those tributes, the squalor and vigour with which the many are exploited by the few, have changed less their character than the rhetoric under which they seek to conceal themselves.

But it is in Europe, above all, that the principles of the Communist Manifesto have found their fullest vindication by far. It is not only that even after two world wars fought in the name of democracy and freedom each of them has either perished altogether, or is in grave danger; it has been shown that, whereas in Great Britain and Scandinavia, deep historical traditions give to democracy and freedom an exceptional strength, the regard of the Right for their form is greater than their regard for their substance. The British Labour Party won a notable electoral victory at the close of the second World War. It has thus embarked upon the tremendous task of beginning to build the foundations of a socialist society in Great Britain in a period when, a large part of Europe having been devastated by war and the resources of the victorious powers, like Great Britain itself, drained almost to breaking-point, its task, both as a Socialist Party, and as a Government, is to ask for the continuance of great sacrifices from a people fatigued by the immense effort of war. To keep its authority, as Mr. Attlee himself has said,25

the Labour programme must be carried out with the utmost vigour and resolution. To delay dealing with essentials would be fatal. To show irresolution or cowardice would be to invite defeat. A Labour Government should make it quite plain that it will suffer nothing to hinder it in carrying out the popular will. In all great enterprises it is the first steps that are difficult, and it is the way in which these are taken that makes the difference between success and failure.

It is not, I think, merely patriotic emotion that makes British socialists feel that here, as nowhere else, the truth of their principles will be tested. It was in Great Britain that capitalist society first came to full maturity in the generation subsequent to the Napoleonic Wars. It was largely from the observation and analysis of that maturity that Marxism became the outstanding philosophic expression of socialist principles and methods; and it was largely from British socialist writers, and the early British socialist movement, alike on its political and on its trade union side, that Marx and Engels moved to the understanding that men make their history by their power, through their grasp of the forces which make it move, to give a conscious direction to that movement. Mr. Attlee has never been himself a Marxist; but there is not a word in the sentences of his that I have quoted which could not have been eagerly accepted by the authors of the Communist Manifesto; and they would, I think, have inferred from them that in the degree to which the first Labour Government with a majority puts the spirit of those phrases into operation, it would fulfil the great objectives for which it was formed. By unbreakable loyalty to its own principles it could lead its own people, even in the hour of crisis, to cast off its chains. A British working class that had achieved its own emancipation could build that working-class unity everywhere out of which the new world will finally be won.


  1. La Misère des Classes Laboreuses en France et en Angleterre (Paris, 1840. 2 volumes).

  2. They were originally printed in the Westphalische Dampfboot; they were reprinted in the Neue Zeit for 1895-6 (vol. I, pp. 51 et seq.).

  3. I use the full text as published in Selected Works of Karl Marx (Moscow, 1935), vol. II, p. 169. Marx's analysis originally appeared in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung from March to June, 1850.

  4. It was written at the end of March, 1850.

  5. Engels, op. cit., vol. II, p. 189.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Preface to Borkheim's In Memory of the German Martyrs who died for their Fatherland 1806-1807, quoted in Correspondence of Marx and Engels (London, 1934), p. 456. Cf. also ibid. p. 429, 455.

  8. Preface to Borkheim's In Memory of the German Martyrs who died for their Fatherland 1806-1807, quoted in Correspondence of Marx and Engels (London, 1934), p. 456, and pp. 489-91.

  9. Selected Works, vol. II, p. 460.

  10. The State and Revolution in Select Works (London, 1937), vol. VII, p. 5.

  11. Letter of 12 April, 1871, and cf. Lenin, op. cit., p. 27.

  12. Ibid., p. 16.

  13. As is made clear in the preface to the first edition of the State and Revolution. “An international proletarian revolution,” Lenin writes, “is clearly maturing. The question of its relation to the state is acquiring practical importance.”

  14. Paris, 1844, pp. 152-81.

  15. C. Pecquer, Des Intérêts du Commerce (1844), vol. II, pp. 208-9.

  16. Letters to Kugelmann, 12 April 1871.

  17. La Manifeste Communiste, Introduction Historique et Commentaire (Paris, 1901), p. 204.

  18. Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution. These articles, first published as a book in England in 1896, were long supposed to have been written by Marx. It is, of course, clear that Engels wrote them in the fullest consultation with him. The quotation in the text is from the first article.

  19. Selected Works, vol. II, p. 440.

  20. Cf. Lenin's comment, preface to Letters to Kugelmann (London, 1934), pp. 16-19.

  21. Wealth of Nations. Bk. V, chap. 1, S. 2.

  22. Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, S. 3.

  23. Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, S. 3.

  24. Written by Sylvan Maréchal.

  25. The Labour Party in Perspective (London, 1937).

S. S. Prawer (essay date 1976)

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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)


‘The combination of scientific analysis with moral judgment’, Bottomore and Rubel have said, ‘is by no means uncommon in the field of social studies. Marx is unusual, and his work is exceptionally interesting, because, unlike any other major social thinker, he was the recognized leader, and subsequently the prophet, of an organized political movement.’1 The document, however, which was to do more than any other to ensure such recognition, the Manifesto of the Communist Party,2 went almost unnoticed when it first appeared in London in February 1848. Composed jointly by Marx and Engels at the invitation of the Communist League, this manifesto is pervaded from the very start by what may justifiably be called ‘literary’ imagery: metaphors, images, from oral and written literature, from publishing, and from theatrical performance. ‘A spectre is haunting Europe’, the famous opening words proclaim; and lest we mistake the fictional source of this image, Marx and Engels proceed at once to speak of the need to confront ‘this nursery-tale [Märchen] of the spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself’.3 Many related images follow: ‘spectacle’ (Schauspiel), ‘song of lamentation’ (Klagelied), ‘lampoon’ (Pasquill), ‘pocket-edition (Duodez-Ausgabe) of the New Jerusalem’; and, more elaborate than these, a ‘palimpsest’ image which Marx and Engels may well have borrowed from Heine:

It is well-known how the monks write silly lines of Catholic saints over the manuscripts on which the classical works of ancient heathendom had been written. The German literati reversed this process with profane French literature. They wrote their philosophical nonsense beneath the French original. For instance, beneath the French criticism of the economic function of money, they wrote: alienation of humanity …4

German readers, in fact, will more than once feel that the Communist Manifesto is itself a palimpsest: that beneath the utterances of Marx and Engels they detect those of German poets. This may be just a matter of an image, or a phrase, that brings reminiscences of another context with it:

The aristocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms-bag in front for a banner. But the people, as often as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coats of arms, and deserted with loud and irreverent laughter.

[my italics]5

erblickte es auf ihrem Hintern die alten feudalen Wappen …—no reader of Heine will fail to hear the echo of Germany. A Winter's Tale:

Das mahnt an das Mittelalter so schön
An Edelknechte und Knappen,
Die in dem Herzen getragen die Treu
Und auf dem Hintern ein Wappen.
This is a beautiful reminder of the Middle Ages,
Of noble servants and squires,
Who bore loyalty in their heart
And a coat of arms on their behind.(6)

Another and more complex kind of palimpsest effect is produced by the following passage:

Modern bourgeois society with its relation of production, of exchange, and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer [gleicht dem Hexenmeister] who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world that he has called up by his spells.7

In Goethe's poem ‘The Sorcerer's Apprentice’ (Der Zauberlehrling) it is the apprentice who calls up spirits he cannot, in the end, subdue, and it is the master, the Hexenmeister, who repairs the damage. In The Communist Manifesto the master-sorcerer himself has lost control: the magnitude of that disaster can be best felt if we perceive Goethe's contrasting text in and through that of the Manifesto.

The terms ‘literature’ and ‘literary’, Literatur and literarisch, occur frequently in The Communist Manifesto, and are used in three different ways. The first example is to be found only in the German version; it is absent from the familiar English translation:

Thus arose petty-bourgeois socialism. Sismondi was the head of this school, notably in France but also in England.

Es bildete sich so der kleinbürgerliche Sozialismus. Sismondi ist das Haupt dieser Literatur nicht nur für Frankreich sondern auch für England.8

Here the term Literatur denotes ‘the body of technical books, pamphlets, etc., that treat of a given subject, and the writers who produce it’.

The sentence about Sismondi occurs in a section of The Communist Manifesto which is entitled Socialist and Communist Literature and opens as follows:

Owing to their historical position, it became the vocation of the aristocracies of France and England to write pamphlets against modern bourgeois society. In the French Revolution of July 1830, and in the English reform agitation, these aristocracies again succumbed to the hateful upstart. Thenceforth, a serious political struggle was altogether out of the question. A literary battle alone remained possible. But even in the domain of literature the old cries of the restoration period had become impossible.

In order to arouse sympathy the aristocracy was obliged to lose sight, apparently, of its own interests and to formulate its indictment against the bourgeoisie in the interest of the exploited working class alone. Thus the aristocracy prepared itself the vengeful satisfaction of singing scornful songs [Schmählieder] about their new master and whispering into his ear more or less sinister prophecies of coming catastrophe.9

Here ‘literature’, it would seem, denotes more than just the ‘pamphlets’ mentioned in the opening sentence. Poems, plays, and novels could qualify for inclusion if they had some sort of political slant or ‘message’. We find one such novel, Étienne Cabet's Journey to Icaria (Voyage en Icarie. Roman philosophique et social, Paris, 1840 and 1842), mentioned a little later in this section.10 This is, of course, the work to which ‘communism’ owes its very name; and it had already figured prominently in The German Ideology where it was used, through contrast and comparison, to show up the plagiarisms and misunderstandings which Marx and Engels ascribed to Karl Grün and other ‘true socialists’.11 Literature is not, for Marx, a separate, self-enclosed region. Poems like those of Heine and the song of the Silesian weavers, novels like those of Gustave Beaumont, Étienne Cabet, and George Sand, plays like Gustav Freytag's The Journalists (which Marx was to see much later in life), are clearly related to other, more utilitarian forms of writing, and may profitably be discussed alongside these.

The Communist Manifesto uses the term ‘literary’, however, in yet another sense—one which will not surprise readers of Marx's earlier works. In the section devoted to ‘German or “true” Socialism’, Marx and Engels discuss, once again, the introduction of French socialist and communist writings in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Germany:

German philosophers, would-be philosophers, and beaux esprits eagerly seized on this literature, only forgetting that when these writings immigrated from France into Germany, French social conditions had not immigrated along with them. In contact with German social conditions, this French literature lost all its immediate practical significance, and assumed a purely literary aspect [ein rein literarisches Aussehen] … Thus, to the German philosophers of the eighteenth century, the demands of the first French Revolution were nothing more than the demands of ‘Practical Reason’ in general, and the utterance of the will of the revolutionary French bourgeoisie signified in their eyes the laws of pure Will, of Will as it was bound to be, of true human Will generally.

[my italics]12

Here ‘purely literary’ implies—as so often in Marx—a world of words floating loose, words cut off from things, cut off from social and political reality. The Manifesto goes on to describe this effect, in terms which carry suggestions of the sentimental, belletristic, and rhetorical, as a ‘robe of speculative cobwebs, embroidered with flowers of rhetoric, steeped in the dew of sickly sentiment …’, and to make the important point that such literature, however ethereally interpreted, is in nineteenth-century society itself an item of commercial transaction. Its writers and translators are concerned with the sale of their commodity (Absatz ihrer Ware) among the German public.

As such terms show, and as is not surprising in such a context, The Communist Manifesto bids us look at the way writers function in modern society, and concludes that romantic illusions can no longer hide the actualities of the market-place: ‘The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers’ [my italics].13 Even poetry, then, is a commodity in the modern world and subject to its economic laws. Nor are poets exempt from that determination of men's thoughts which the Manifesto proclaims in uncompromising terms: ‘Your very ideas are … outgrowths of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property.’14 And if writers are in this way a product of their society and the social groups for whom they write, those social groupings in their turn are affected by the writings they have indirectly produced and inspired: ‘With very few exceptions, all the so-called socialist and communist publications that now circulate in Germany belong to the domain of this foul and enervating literature’ [my italics].15 The nemesis of converting writers into paid hirelings is that their productions enervate their readers instead of enlivening and refreshing them with new ideas, new hopes, and new energies.

But if a nation's writings are the product of economic and social conditions, they will alter as those conditions alter—and The Communist Manifesto itself is clearly seen, by its authors, as a sign of the inevitability of change as well as a call to effect change:

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 of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.16

The Communist Manifesto, we must infer, heralds the coming change by its resolute adoption and proclamation of ideas which, its authors think, will become those of the proletariat, the ruling class of a future in which ‘the free development of each’ will be ‘the condition for the free development of all’.

The passage about the relation of consciousness to material existence which I have just quoted has often been attacked, by non-Marxists, as bleakly deterministic. Yet as René Wellek has rightly pointed out, Marx's wording seems designed to obviate this charge. Consciousness, he avers, changes with the conditions of material existence. ‘If’, René Wellek comments, ‘one interprets the word “with” freely, no complete economic determinism is yet proclaimed; the intellectual life of man changes with the transformation of economic order. A parallelism, an analogy is taught—not one-sided dependence.’17

Marx and Engels proclaim, in particular, one great change in literature; a change that Goethe had foreseen in his old age, when he looked at the way increase in international exchange of material goods was bringing related increase in intellectual and spiritual traffic and interchange. The old Goethe therefore spoke, more and more frequently, of ‘world literature’, Weltliteratur.18 For Goethe, such ‘world literature’ did not imply an abandoning of national characteristics. On the contrary, each national literature would be valued by readers abroad for its distinctiveness and difference, for the special instrumental colour it added to the symphony of world literature. Through becoming conscious of the specific contributions of other nations and learning to value them, we would also learn to value our own. Our own literature, it is true, would to some extent change its character through such contacts; but this would be an enrichment, and the resulting symbioses, like Goethe's own West-Eastern Divan and Chinese-German Seasons and Times of Day, would continue to bear the imprint of the specific national culture within which the foreign works had been received, as well as that of their authors' genius and individual bent.

Such a conception was clearly congenial to Marx and Engels, who had described in The German Ideology how one generation after another learnt to develop further the material wealth, capital, and forces of production it had inherited:

In the course of this development, the circles which act upon one another expand—and the more they do this, the more the pristine isolation of individual nationalities is annihilated by perfected means of production, exchange and commerce [Verkehr] and a consequent division of labour between different nations, the more history becomes world history.19

The Communist Manifesto supplements this with speculations about the effect such developments will have on literature:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-fashioned national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.20

What is chiefly remarkable about this passage, as about so many others in Marx's work, is the compliment it pays to the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. Not for him the out-and-out anti-capitalism of the German Romantics, or of Thomas Carlyle—he never forgot the extent to which the order he wanted to overturn had in fact served the cause of progress. And what ‘progress’ meant in this context had once again been clearly spelt out in The German Ideology, where Marx and Engels had looked forward to a time when ‘separate individuals will be liberated from the various national and local barriers, be brought into practical connection with the material and intellectual production of the whole world and be put into a position to acquire the capacity to enjoy this all-sided production of the whole earth (the creations of man)’.21

The Communist Manifesto goes on to consider the part a victorious working class would play in a process which affects literature along with all other spheres of life:

National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the condition of life corresponding thereto.

The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster.22

It may well be thought that The Communist Manifesto does not, in this passage, make enough allowances for resistance to the trends it detected: national antagonisms and differences have not vanished as fast or as universally as the logic of production and commerce seemed to suggest. Marx came, in fact, to realize this and consistently distanced himself, in his later life, from would-be followers who underestimated the power of national feeling. In 1866 he ridiculed French delegates to a Council meeting of the First International for announcing ‘that all nationalities and even nations were “antiquated prejudices”’. For these delegates, he added, ‘negation of nationalities seemed to mean their absorption into the model French nation’. Later still he praised the Russian economist Flerovsky because he had ‘a great feeling for national characteristics’, and he took up the cause of the Irish as ‘a national question’.23

The prophecy of The Communist Manifesto has not, however, gone wholly unfulfilled. We have seen, in this our twentieth century, a world-wide dissemination and mingling of ‘national and local’ literatures, through translations, paperbacks, theatre-tours, broadcasts, films, and television, which have transformed our cultural perspective in ways that would not have surprised Marx. ‘World literature’ has arrived with a vengeance—as a vast Imaginary Museum, as a great Library of Babel.

The Communist Manifesto is essentially a call to action. As such it commits itself, in the main, to what one might call a Dives and Lazarus view—or better, perhaps: a Master-Slave view—of modern society: the opposition of two classes, haves and have-nots, bourgeoisie and proletariat. But as a Polish scholar has pointed out,

if all political or religious struggles are to be interpreted as class struggles, if we are to correlate the various literary and artistic trends with underlying class relations, if we are to look for a reflection of class interests and class prejudices in moral norms, then we must make use of a greater number of classes than the two basic ones in The Communist Manifesto.24

This may help to explain why one can detect, in Marx's works, three-layered and other multi-layered models of class structure as well as the dichotomous one of the Manifesto; and also, perhaps, why, when Marx at last addresses himself to a definition of ‘class’ in what was later to become volume III of Capital, his manuscript should so tantalizingly break off before the definition has properly begun.

What, then, of the intellectual, what of the artist, and his class-affiliations? Here we must remember what had been said about ‘oppositional’ writers and thinkers in The German Ideology. Such men, Marx and Engels had there suggested, can oppose dominant ideas because of the contradictions in society itself at any given moment. They can identify themselves with forces already at work in their society, or in similar societies beyond the frontiers of their own country; forces which are destined to change radically the socio-economic relations obtaining in a given society and hence, ultimately, to change intellectual and artistic life too. ‘A portion of the bourgeoisie’, we read, therefore, in The Communist Manifesto, ‘goes over to the proletariat; in particular a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.’25 In this dynamic situation the bourgeois intellectual—whether as artist, as economist, or as historian—can free himself, through the exercise of his theoretical consciousness, from the shackles of the class to which he would seem to belong by birth and upbringing. The Communist Manifesto is clearly written from the point of view of men who think they have done just that; men who have constituted themselves champions of the proletariat and now address the bourgeoisie in that role:

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.

The famous last sentence of the Manifesto is the more dramatic because here, for the first time, the authors directly address the proletariat instead of the bourgeoisie.

The Communist Manifesto was based on a ‘catechism’ drafted by Engels—but its final redaction belongs entirely to Marx. A single page of the manuscript, preserved by chance, shows how much trouble he took over the filing and refining of its formulations; and an outline plan for section III demonstrates the careful attention he paid to coherent and ordered presentation of his case. To him, therefore, must go the credit for the lucid over-all structure of the Manifesto, for its clear exposition, its subtle changes of tone and perspective, its indignation and humour, its powerful imagery, its skilful deployment of revolutionary slogans,26 and its use of a multitude of rhetorical devices not for their own sake, but for the sake of the social message that was to be conveyed. David McLellan has listed some of the devices Marx constantly used in his works, though not always with the appositeness and the success characteristic of their use in the Manifesto: ‘climax, anaphora, parallelism, antithesis and chiasmus’. To this should be added the distinctive rhythm and word-music of the Manifesto in its original German. The opening lines afford as good an example as any with their tolling word-repetitions, their linking alliterations and assonances (some of which I have underlined below), and their effective pairing of less and less well-matched partners, first monosyllabic titles (der Papst und der Zar), then polysyllabic names with two main stresses separated by four slacks (Metternich und Guizot), and finally the more intricate rhythms of the last deliberately ill-matched pair (französische Radikale und deutsche Polizísten).

Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa—das Gespenst des Kommunismus. Alle Mächte des alten Europa haben sich zu einer heiligen Hetzjagd gegen dieses Gespenst verbündet, der Papst und der Zar, Metternich und Guizot, französische Radikale und deutsche Polizisten.

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to track down and exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French radicals and German policemen.27

Marx did not always write with such distinction—but at his best he shows a command of didactic and polemical prose which assures his work a place in the history of German literature as well as in the history of ideas and political action. …


  1. BR [Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy] 40.

  2. From now on this work will be called by its better-known title: The Communist Manifesto.

  3. SW [Selected Works in Three Volumes] I, 108; MEW [Werke] IV, 461.

  4. SW I, 131; MEW IV, 486. Heine used the palimpsest image in Die Harzreise and Französische Maler. The image is not, however, an uncommon one.

  5. SW I, 128; MEW IV, 483.

  6. Even the famous phrase which concludes The Communist Manifesto may be an echo of Heine. In his essay on Ludwig Marcus (Ludwig Marcus. Denkworte) Heine had spoken ‘of that fraternal union of the workers of all lands [Verbrüderung der Arbeiter in allen Ländern], of that wild army of the proletariat [von dem wilden Heer des Proletariats], which is bent on doing away with all concern about nationality in order to pursue a common purpose in Europe, to call into being a true democracy’. Cf. Dolf Sternberger, Heinrich Heine und die Abschaffung der Sünde (Hamburg and Düsseldorf, 1972), p. 360.

  7. SW I, 113; MEW IV, 467.

  8. SW I, 130; MEW IV, 484.

  9. SW I, 127; MEW IV, 482-3.

  10. SW I, 136; MEW IV, 491. Marx had mentioned Cabet's Utopian novel before—in the letters to Ruge published in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (MEW I, 344).

  11. MEW III, 507 ff.

  12. SW I, 130-1; MEW IV, 485-6.

  13. SW I, 111; MEW IV, 465.

  14. SW I, 123; MEW IV, 477.

  15. SW 132; MEW IV, 488.

  16. SW I, 125; MEW IV, 480.

  17. R. Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950, Vol. iii, p. 235.

  18. Cf. F. Strich, Goethe und die Weltliteratur (Berne, 1946), pp. 13-103.

  19. MEW III, 45.

  20. SW I, 112; MEW IV, 466.

  21. GI 55.

  22. SW I, 124-5; MEW IV, 479.

  23. Letters to Engels, 20 June 1866 and 12 Feb. 1870—MEW XXXI, 228-9 and XXXII, 443; to S. Meyer and A. Vogt, 9 Apr. 1870—MEW XXXII, 668.

  24. S. Ossowski, Class Structure in the Socialist Consciousness, trans. S. Patterson (London, 1963), p. 88. It is not irrelevant to recall that Disraeli's Sybil; or The Two Nations had been published in 1845, and that a character in Heine's William Ratcliff had as early as 1822 divided mankind into two warring nations: the wellfed and the hungry.

  25. SW I, 117; MEW IV, 471-2.

  26. The Communist Manifesto is almost an anthology of revolutionary rhetoric, and some of its most effective slogans are borrowed. Werner Sombart has shown that “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains” and “The workers have no country” are Marat's, and that “the exploitation of men by men” is from Bazard. The nexus of “cash payment” is Thomas Carlyle's, and had been quoted in Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 …’ (S. E. Hyman, The Tangled Bank (1966 edn.), p. 100.)

  27. MEW IV, 461. Cf. Pamela Hansford Johnson, ‘The Literary Achievement of Marx’, The Modern Quarterly, New Series, ii (1946-7), 240: ‘This paragraph demonstrates two of his most notable stylistic traits. Firstly, the brief simple statement in the form of a metaphor, followed by a long and rolling sentence of qualification. Secondly, the use of bathos, the sharply descending curve of glory from the Pope to the German police spy. Examples of bathetic irony abound throughout his work …’

List of Abbreviations

BR Karl Marx, Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, ed. T. Bottomore and M. Rubel (Harmondsworth, 1963).

MEW Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Werke. Herausgegeben vom Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED (Berlin, 1956-68).

SW Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works in Three Volumes (Moscow, 1969).

Rondel V. Davidson (essay date 1977)

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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 different.]

Despite voluminous publications relating to the development of Marxism, the specific origins of the Communist Manifesto remain subject to scholarly debate. One of the most important and unresolved controversies deals with the relationship between Marx and Engels' publication of 1848 and the French Fourierist, Victor-Prosper Considérant's Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique, originally published in 1843 as the introduction to his newspaper, Démocratie pacifique, and reissued in book form under the title, Principes du socialisme, Manifeste de la démocratie au XIXe siècle, in 1847. What little scholarship has been produced on this subject is extremely polemical, superficial and inconclusive. For a more acurate assessment of the contributions of Marx and, more particularly, of Considérant to nineteenth-century socialism, a comprehensive understanding of the connection between these two documents is imperative.1

Although several scholars have noted the relationship between Considérant's thought and that of Karl Marx, no one has made a thoroughgoing comparison of the two manifestoes. In an effort to discredit the communist movement, anti-Marxist writers have made much of the argument that Marx and Engels drew heavily from Considérant's manifesto. Writers such as Sorel (n.d.:32) and Cohen (1946:111) have accused Marx of plagiarizing from the Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique, and Brandes (1925:115) states in his biography of Ferdinand Lassalle that the Communist Manifesto is “almost a mere translation from Victor Considérant …”

The only serious attempt to analyze the two manifestoes was made by the Russian anarchist, W. Tcherkesoff. In Pages of Socialist History (1902:56-57), Tcherkesoff, referring to the first section of the Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique, declares, “In these fifty short pages the famous Fourierist, like a true master, gives us so many profound, clear and brilliant generalizations, that even an infinitesimal portion of his ideas contains in entirety all the Marxian laws and theories—including the famous concentration of capital and the whole of the Manifesto of the Communist Party,” and he concludes, “This ‘Manifesto,’ this Bible of legal revolutionary democracy, is a very mediocre paraphrase of numerous passages of the ‘Manifesto’ of V. Considérant.” To prove this point, Tcherkesoff cites and compares numerous quotations from both documents which indeed reflect a striking similarity in both content and phraseology. Tcherkesoff, however, is guilty of utilizing a familiar technique of deceptive propaganda. He conveniently omits statements from both works which indicate substantial differences in the basic concepts of the two socialists. Partly because of its excessively polemical nature and partly because of its errors of omission, Tcherkesoff's work remains inconclusive and has received little recognition.

Pro-Marxist writers have responded to these charges of plagiarism by a rather effective ruse of their own—they have, by and large, ignored them. Most Marxian accounts of the development of the Communist Manifesto do not mention Victor Considérant. The only serious attempt by a pro-Marxist to counter these charges was made by Bernstein. Writing in Science and Society, Bernstein (1949:58-67) recognizes these allegations against Marx and simply declares that they are false. Without comparing the two documents or without indicating the contents of Considérant's manifesto, he proceeds to acclaim the originality and profundity of the Communist document. As with the anti-Marxist polemics, Bernstein's vague generalities prove of little value to the serious student of socialism.

Unfortunately, the most able scholars have passed over the opportunity to resolve this controversy. While briefly alluding to a possible connection between the two manifestoes, intellectual historians such as Barzun (1958:177), Lichtheim (1961:61-62), and Hammen (1969:171), in their otherwise brilliant and penetrating analysis of Marxism, refrain from describing the relationship. None of these writers makes any attempt to compare the two works or to indicate what Considérant's manifesto contains or how it might be considered a forerunner of the communist declaration. Their failure to clarify the problem has left a serious hiatus in the history of socialism.

It is certain that Marx and Engels were thoroughly familiar with the activities and writings of Victor Considérant. Despite the fact that most United States' historians have inexplicably ignored Considérant's role in European history, he was one of the best known and most influential social critics of the period 1836-1849. After having obtained the rank of captain in the French army, he abandoned a secure military position for an uncertain career as a socialist writer and propagandist. As the leader of the Fourierist movement, Considérant, more than any other individual, popularized its ideas. He authored over 20 books, numerous pamphlets and essays, and edited three newspapers. His publications, particularly Destinée sociale (1836-1844) and the Exposition abrégée du systéme phalanstérien de Fourier (1845), brought Fourier's ambiguous and sometimes preposterous ideas out of obscurity, rationalized them and placed them before the public. Under Considérant's leadership, the École societaire, the official Fourierist society, organized branch societies in almost every major city in Europe and in the United States and disseminated propaganda throughout the world.

Considérant played a significant role in the French Revolution of 1848, serving the Second Republic in the Constitutional Assembly, the Luxemburg Commission, the Constitutional Committee, the Committee of Work and the National Assembly. As a result of his bitter opposition to the presidency of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Considérant was exiled from France in 1849. In 1855, he established an unsuccessful, although important, communal experiment near Dallas, Texas, known as La Réunion. When Napoleon III lifted the ban on him in 1869, Considérant returned to Paris where he lived the remainder of his life as a socialist sage of the Latin Quarter. He died in Paris in 1893, a citizen of the United States (Davidson, 1973:277-296; Bourgin, 1909:7-9, 121-125; Dommanget, 1929:167-214).

When Marx arrived in Paris in November 1843, Considérant and his numerous publications were as well known as those of Louis Blanc, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Etienne Cabet, and Ledru-Rollin. By mid-nineteenth century standards, Considérant's books and his newspapers were circulated widely. The Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique was probably a more influential document in socialist history prior to the 1870s than was the Communist Manifesto. In addition to its publication in newspaper form in 1843, Considérant's manifesto went through three editions in book form in Paris, two in 1847 and one in 1849, and it was published in Italy in 1894 (Bo, 1957:11-14).

Although Marx was anxious to contact Considérant on his first visit to the French capital, no relationship ever developed between the two. Arnold Ruge attempted to induce Considérant, along with several other Paris radicals and socialists, to collaborate with Marx in writing for their proposed German-French publication, Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher. Considérant refused any contact with the German radicals. He apparently did not know, in 1843, who Marx was, and he was unwilling to associate himself with the revolutionary image of Ruge. There is no evidence to indicate that Marx and Considérant ever met during any of Marx's visits to Paris. Moreover, the voluminous letters and manuscripts of both men which have been preserved indicate that the two never corresponded with each other. Although Considérant (“Correspondances,” 1826-1893) did join the First International in 1871, he never considered it a Marxist organization, and he had no contact with the Marxist members.

What relationship existed between Marx and Considérant was theoretical and confined specifically to the impact of Considérant's writings on the development of Marx's thinking during the formative years of 1843-49. By their own admissions, Marx and Engels were thoroughly familiar with Considérant's writings, particularly his newspaper and the Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique. In fact, the two communists frequently indicated their respect and preference for the Fourierist critique of contemporary society (Rheinische Zeitung, 1841-1842). This affinity is particularly evident in Engels' unpublished essay, “A Fragment from Fourier on Trade.”

The Communist Manifesto clearly demonstrates Considérant's influence on Marx and Engels' thinking. The charge of plagiarism stems from the similarity between the two manifestoes concerning their analysis of nineteenth-century society in general and capitalism in particular. In this regard, the Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique definitely foreshadows the Communist Manifesto. Throughout Marx and Engels' declaration, the rhetoric parallels Considérant's. Such words as “class struggle,” “class war,” “feudal lords,” “oppressed proletariat,” and “exploitation” appear profusely in both documents. In a few places, whole sentences demonstrate a striking similarity. For example, in the Fourierist manifesto Considérant (1847:10-11) stated, “Society tends to split more and more distinctly into two great classes: a small number possessing all or nearly all the domain of property, of commerce and of industry; and the great numbers possessing nothing, living in absolute collective dependence on the holders of capital and the machines of work, compelled to hire out for an uncertain salary and always losing their power, their talents, and their forces to the feudal lords of modern society.” In the declaration of 1848, Marx and Engels (1964:3) proclaimed, “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—bourgeoisie and proletariat.” Regarding the development of economic imperialism Considérant (1847:22-23) declared, “Industrial nations try mightily to obtain foreign markets for their manufactured goods. England, tormented by overproduction of goods, makes superhuman efforts to pour her products over all the earth. She breaks open by cannon shot the closed doors of the Chinese Empire. She incessantly crosses the globe with arms in hand demanding consumers.” And in the Communist Manifesto (1964:7), one reads, “The need of a constantly expanding market for products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. … The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate.” Regarding the affinity of rhetoric it is interesting to note that Considérant (1847:45-46) used the term “communism” with the exact same meaning as did Marx and Engels. Apparently, the two adopted the term as Considérant had defined it in the Fourierist declaration. In the Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique, Considérant attacked those he termed as “Political Communists” for attempting to dupe the proletariat into establishing “Egalitarian Communalism” and for propounding the destruction of private property through revolution and force.

In addition to phraseology, Considérant pointed to the same societal defects as did Marx and Engels. In fact, Considérant's attack on nineteenth-century capitalism is a more comprehensive analysis. According to Considérant (1847:1-2), the past was characterized by the exploitation of one class at the expense of another. In ancient society the free men oppressed the slaves, and in the feudal society, the nobility “trampled under foot” the peasants and serfs. The French Revolution of 1789 supposedly established freedom and equality by destroying the old order, by proclaiming equality before the law, and by creating a system of political democracy through various forms of representative government. But, as Considérant (1847:4-6) argued, the Revolution only destroyed the old order; it did nothing to organize and guarantee the principles of equality and democracy which it theoretically proclaimed. In reality, the Revolution of 1789 was a destructive force which replaced an old form of feudalism with a “new feudalism.” The new feudalism created a different, but no less powerful and oppressive aristocracy based upon capital and not land.

Under the mask of protecting individual freedoms, the systems of laissez-faire economics and free enterprise forced the masses of working people into abject slavery. In Considérant's opinion, the term free enterprise was an insidious catch phrase which had been utilized by one class of people to subjugate another class. He argued that economic anarchy was as bad as political anarchy. Under the prevailing system of “anarchical competition” and “blind warfare,” a few individuals possessed all the advantages, capital, education, talent, and powerful positions in society. The proletariat, the most numerous class, could not possibly compete on an equal basis with the upper classes because they had no capital, no education, and no opportunity to develop their skills. Thus, he concluded, “The system can lead to nothing but general bondage, the collective infeudation of the masses who are destitute of capital, of the instruments of work, of education, and of industrial arms, to the endowed and well-armed capitalist class.”

According to the Fourierist, the system not only enslaved the lower class, but it progressively increased their misery. Unregulated capitalism produced a process of triple competition which resulted in the continual depreciation of workers' salaries. Competition between entrepreneurs for markets motivated them to lower prices and this, in turn, forced them to lower salaries. Because the ranks of the proletariat were rapidly increasing, competition between workers for jobs forced them to agree to work for lower wages. Finally, scientific and technological advances forced the worker to compete with machines for employment. These three forms of rivalry placed the worker in a defenseless position (Considérant 1847:8-9).

The proletariat was not the only class which suffered from anarchical competition. Considérant (1847:9-10) was one of the first nineteenth-century writers to sound the alarm for the middle class. According to him, the large enterpreneurs “sucked up” and “progressively crushed” small and middle-sized industry, commerce, and agriculture. At the present rate of attrition, the middle class would soon be reduced to the position of proletariat and would disappear from the social and economic scene.

With the exploitation and decline of both the lower and middle classes, the system of unlimited competition led directly to the establishment of monopolies. Considérant (1847:11) declared, “Our system of free enterprise is a colossal mechanism of enormous power, which incessantly sucks up the national riches to concentrate them in the great reservoirs of the new aristocracy and which creates the starving legions of the poor and the proletarian.” Moreover, this development of monopolies created serious economic and political problems. The consolidation of wealth, both in terms of capital and land, established a “vicious circle” which would stop the flow of products and result in economic chaos and instability. Because only a few controlled the money, the masses, whose salaries continually depreciated, were unable to purchase all the goods. The outcome was overproduction followed by economic depression. He (1847:23) argued, “The most civilized nations collapse under the deadly weight of overproduction, and the legion of workers, falsely stripped of purchasing power by the conditions of their salary, cannot participate in the consummation of this exorbitant production: Is it not logical that this inhuman industrial regime which threatens fatal ruin to the consumers and which so miserably remunerates the workers destroys itself by closing all markets and channels of consummation?”

In addition to economic instability, the system produced two alarming political consequences. First, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few resulted in the “infeudation of the government to the new aristocracy.” With economic power came political domination. In Considérant's mind, it did not matter what political system prevailed in what country; they all succumbed to economic domination. The “financial barons” controlled the king in France, the czar in Russia, and the Parliament in England. Even in the United States, which was so proud of its democracy, the economic giants had subjugated the Congress (Considérant 1847:12-13, 42, 70-71). Second, the free enterprise system, with its overproduction and cyclic tendencies, led directly to economic imperialism. Because of the masses' deficient purchasing power, capitalist countries sought colonial empires as an outlet for their goods. Often this frantic search resulted in the use of force and imperialistic war. Again, the political structure made no difference. England, supposedly the most liberal and democratic of the European nations, most vigorously pursued the subjugation of foreign peoples for the purpose of economic domination (Considérant 1847:23-24).

The defects and inequities in the social and economic structure above delineated, created a “social hell” characterized by the division of classes into two warring camps. Considérant's manifesto (1847:20) is profuse with statements such as, “The capitalist and the workers are in flagrant warfare. The workshop of production, of distribution, and of remuneration is nothing but an eternal battlefield.” But the deplorable conditions of the majority of people in Europe could not continue indefinitely. Considérant argued that the masses would not starve while the “financial lords” amassed great wealth. If reform did not come, violent revolution would erupt between the haves and have nots. As he put it, “If the wisest minds in the governments, the intelligent and liberal bourgeoisie, science, and technology do not perceive this problem, it is certain that the movement which is dominating European societies [laissez-faire capitalism] will lead directly to social revolution, and we will march to a European Jacquerie” (Considérant 1847:13-14).

Anyone familiar with the Communist Manifesto can see that the above summary of the critique of laissez-faire capitalism found in the Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique could almost serve as a résumé of “Part I” of the communist declaration. Indeed, recent scholarship has emphasized the diverse French origins of many of the ideas expressed in the communist document. But most of these writers have concluded that Marx and Engels made an important contribution by drawing a proliferation of concepts together from numerous sources and synthesizing them in their manifesto.2 It must be stated categorically, however, that Considérant's publication synthesized and lucidly expressed all of Marx and Engels' critical interpretations of nineteenth-century society several years before the publication of the Communist Manifesto. As demonstrated, the basic components of the Marxian analysis of unregulated capitalism—the growth of monopolies, the concentration of wealth, the political preponderance of big business, the exploitation of the proletarian masses, the destruction of the middle class, class antagonism, over-production, cyclical tendencies in the national economy, economic imperialism, and the historical development of classes based on economic conflicts of production, an idea Marx considered as one of his most original and important contributions—are enunciated with much detail and clarity in the Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique—in fact he expressed most of the concepts in various other writings as early as 1832. See, for example, Considérant (1832; 1835).

Although both manifestoes attacked the social and economic structure with an almost identical analysis and both demanded a complete reorganization of society, the similarity ends at that point. Anyone who reads the two documents in their entirety will note that following the criticism of capitalism Marx and Considérant went their separate ways. In terms of both the model social structure and the methods to be employed to establish their utopian societies, the two documents differ markedly. Regarding the means to the ends, a fundamental and significant conflict must be noted between the two declarations. Marx and Engels looked to class war and revolution to overturn the prevailing system. Moreover, they viewed the proletarian revolution as inevitable and as historically determined by economic forces.3 Although Considérant recognized the possibility of such a conflict and even predicted civil war if reform did not come, he rejected revolution as a solution. As a pacifist, Considérant denounced all forms of violence and war. More important, he believed that revolution simply replaced one form of tyranny with another. The Revolution of 1789 provided the best example. As a result of that conflagration, the capitalistic class had replaced the old feudal nobility as the masters and oppressors of society. In Considérant's mind, future revolutions would be no better, as he (1847:21) declared, “When a class of people make a revolution for the purpose of redistributing the wealth, and when they are victorious, they do not share their spoils. They pursue the conquered and take everything.”

Fundamental to this disagreement over revolution and the use of force was a difference between Considérant's and Marx's attitude toward the proletariat. Although Considérant's clearly defined the class conflict as an historical development, he did not consider class struggle as inevitable or as an instrument for social progress. He consistently rejected the Marxian appeal to only one class. Although the Fourierist program called for total amelioration of the destitute position of the working people, Considérant (1847:24, 51-53) viewed the inequities of nineteenth-century society as a threat to all classes, and in his manifesto he petitioned all elements of society to support a reform program for the lower ranks of society. As with the use of force, he argued that any program appealing to only one class would increase class antagonism and hatred and could never create a harmonious society.

Considérant's concept of democracy reflects his aversion to revolution and class dictatorship. In explaining why he chose the term “Peaceful Democracy” for the title of the manifesto and for the title of his newspaper, he warned that various revolutionary groups were perverting the concept of democracy. Because of the growing popularity of the term democracy, particularly among the lower classes, radical parties were seizing the term and using it as “a flag of revolution and war.” Considérant (1847:60-62, 67) argued that true democracy could never be based on the use of force; democracy and coercion were antithetical. Democracy must be based on “intellectual combat” as opposed to force, because “martial arms” could never destroy ideas. Democracy, as he indicated, implied the organization and guarantee of political, social, and economic freedom and equality of opportunity for all classes, not just the proletariat. In his mind, any democratic structure must be based upon the voluntary and peaceful reorganization of society, and the majority must never be allowed to crush the minority.

Marx clearly understood this intrinsic conflict between his concept of revolution and Considérant's attitude of peaceful democracy. Attempting to negate the influence of those advocating class amelioration by satirizing their views, Marx and Engels (1964:58) declared, “They, the followers of Fourier, Saint Simon, and Owen, endeavor, therefore, and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms. They still dream of experimental realization of their social Utopias, of founding isolated ‘phalansteres,’ of establishing ‘home colonies,’ of setting up a ‘Little Icaria,’ duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem, and to realize all these castles in the air, they are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeoisie.” Although Marx and Engels were ridiculing the Fourierists, Considérant would not have objected to the basic premise of the above quotation, only to its tone.

Finally, regarding the ultimate, perfect society, the manifestoes differ on many points. It is somewhat true, as Lansac (1926), and others have noted, that there are similarities between Marx's communal structure and the Fourierist phalanstery. When Marx and Engels (1964:33-41, 62) called for an international movement based upon “the union and agreement of democratic parties of all countries” and the abolition of nationalism, the “centralization of the means of communications and transportation in the hands of the state,” the “establishment of industrial armies,” the “combination of agriculture and manufacturing industries,” the “gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country,” “free education for all children in public schools,” “the combination of education with industrial production,” and the political, economic and social emancipation of women, they were reiterating programs which Considérant (1836; 1840; 1842; 1844; 1847), and others, had been advocating for several years. In a more general sense, both Marx and Considérant sought to create a social and economic structure which would effect a compromise between individual needs and aspirations and the needs of society as a whole. Particularly, both hoped to create a social structure which would allow the individual to act in his own best interest and to be able to do so without adversely affecting others in society. And it is interesting that Marx and Engels (1964:41) referred to their proposed social structure as “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” As every social and political activist of the 1848 period understood, the term association, made popular earlier by the Saint-Simonians, belonged to the Fourierist domain. When Considérant and a few of his colleagues founded the Fourierist movement in 1832, they selected the name École sociétaire (Association School) for their official organization, and the Fourierists always referred to their phalanstery as an association in which individual activities would improve society (Considérant 1847:20-22).

Despite these specific and general parallels in their proposed social organizations, Considérant and Marx differed significantly in their concepts of an association. These fundamental contradictions are clearly demonstrated in the two manifestoes. Marx and Engels (1964:25-31, 62) in adopting the labor theory of value, proposed the establishment of a totally equalitarian society based upon the complete abolition of private property and private capital. Considérant never accepted the labor theory of value nor the concept of equalitarian communalism. In fact, Considérant, or Fourier for that matter, should not even be classified as a socialist, at least not in the pure definition of socialism. In the Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique and in other writings, Considérant rejected the idea of totally abolishing private capital and private property holding. He argued that the development of property holding was a civilizing and essentially historical development which was now impossible to destroy. He declared that “the sentiment of property is a formal element of human individuality,” and that it would be dangerous and impossible to destroy the individual drive to collect personal wealth through property and capital. Rather than abolish private wealth, Considérant declared, “On the contrary, it is a question of finding and establishing the most perfect, the most secure, the most free, the most mobile, and, at the same time, the most social forms of property holding by harmonizing the individual interests with the general interests. It is necessary to unite property, not by promiscuous and egalitarian communalism, confused and barbaric, but by the Hierarchical Association, a voluntary and intelligent combination of all individual property” (Considérant 1847:45).

Considérant viewed the association as an arrangement whereby private property and capital would be united with labor. His communal structure depended on the investment of private capital and property. The phalanstery would serve simply as the tenant, and remuneration would be based upon the input of capital and labor. For the practical application of this principle, Considérant abolished salaries in the association and devised an elaborate system of dividends, the rudiments of which were first propounded by Fourier, which would be distributed to all participants in proportion to the amounts of capital, labor, and talent contributed by each. Considérant's concept of talent included not only managerial skills, as has been assumed by some students of Fourierism, but included any particular proficiency which added measurably to the wealth of the commune. Annually, the value of all production would be divided, three twelfths for skill, four twelfths for capital, and five twelfths for labor. Thus, the Fourierist association provided, not for the abolition of property and capital and the completely equal distribution of wealth, but for a combination of capital value and labor value based on a more equitable relationship than presently existed under laissez-faire capitalism. It is significant to note, however, that labor would receive a slightly higher share of the profits than capital in Considérant's system.

The preceding comparison of the ideas expressed in the Communist Manifesto and in the Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique, thus, demonstrates a similarity in some areas but a marked divergence in others. With regard to critical analysis of laissez-faire capitalism, Considérant clearly predates Marx. Whether or not Marx and Engels lifted ideas from Considérant's document, it is certain that they were familiar with the Manifeste de la démocratie pacifique, that it influenced their thinking both positively and negatively, and, concerning the critique of society, Marx had nothing new to add.

Concerning methods, solutions, and proposed social structures, however, the two documents are profoundly antithetical. The claim that the Communist Manifesto is “almost a mere translation of Victor Considérant,” is a distortion of the facts. All three writers, Marx, Engels, and Considérant, would have rejected such an interpretation. History must continue to recognize Marx, for better or for worse, as the prime popularizer of the ideas of the proletarian revolution and dictatorship. Conversely, historical scholarship needs to accord Victor Considérant a more significant role for his early synthesis of unregulated capitalism and for his proposals for a more equitable social structure based upon a voluntary and democratic association of capital and labor.


  1. Although Marx expressed many of the ideas found in the Communist Manifesto in earlier writings, particularly his and Engels' The Holy Family (1845), and Poverty of Philosophy (1847), none of these works predates the first publication of Considérant's manifesto in August, 1843. Since the Communist Manifesto represents a more comprehensive and a more thoroughly developed expression of Marx's concepts than these earlier writings, this essay will focus its analysis on the manifesto of 1848. Also, in frequently referring to Marx and his contributions in this article, I do not intend to neglect Engels and his important role in drafting the Communist Manifesto. Of particular significance is Engels' unpublished essay of 1847, “Principles of Communism,” which the two used as a starting point for their manifesto of 1848. Although certainly a coincidence, it is interesting to note that Engels drafted this document while he was in Paris at almost the same time Considérant's manifesto appeared in book form under the similar title, Principes du socialisme.

  2. In a weak moment, Marx himself admitted that he borrowed many of the ideas found in the Communist Manifesto in a now famous letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, March 5, 1852. It is also important to note that numerous other writers had been or were attacking laissez-faire capitalism in a similar vein, most notably Sismondi and Proudhon. But none of their expositions on society compares so closely with Marx as does Considérant's manifesto.

  3. For interpretations of Marx's concept of revolution, see Tucker (1970), Schaff (1973), and Hook (1973).

Works Cited

Barzun, J. Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1958.

Bernstein, S. “From Utopianism to Marx,” Science and Society 14.1 Winter 1949-50: 58-67.

Bo, D. D. Charles Fourier e le Scuola Societaire. Milan: Feltrinelli Editore, 1957.

Bourgin, H. Victor Considérant, son oeuvre. Lyons: Imprimeries réunies, 1909.

Brandes, G. Ferdinand Lassalle. New York: Bernard G. Richards Co., 1925.

Cohen, M. R. The Faith of a Liberal. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1946.

Considérant, V. “La Civilisation ruinant ses pauvres,” Phalanstère (Paris, 1832) 2.25-27.

———. Destinée sociale. Paris: Bureau de La Phalange, 1835.

———. Nécessité d'une dernière débâcle politique en France. Paris: Librairie phalanstérienne, 1836.

———. De la politique générale et du rôle de la France en Europe. Paris: Bureau de La Phalange, 1840.

———. Bases de la politique positive, Manifeste de l'École sociétaire. Paris: Librairie phalanstérienne, 1842.

———. Chemins de fer. Paris: Librairie sociétaire, 1844.

———. Principes du socialisme, Manifeste de la démocratie au XIXe siècle. Paris: Librairie phalanstérienne, 1847.

———. Le Socialisme devant le vieux monde ou le vivant devant les morts. Paris: Librairie phalanstérienne, 1849.

Davidson, R. V. “Victor Considérant and the Failure of La Réunion.” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 76.3 (January 1973): 277-96.

Dommanget, M. Victor Considérant, sa vie, son oeuvre. Paris: Éditions sociales internationales, 1929.

Hammen, O. J. The Red '48ers: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.

Hook, Sidney. “Myth and Fact in the Marxist Theory of Revolution and Violence,” Journal of the History of Ideas 34.2 (April-June, 1973): 263-80.

Lansac, M. Les conceptions méthodologiques et sociales de Charles Fourier. Paris: Librairie philosophique de J. Vrin, 1926.

“Les Correspondances de Victor Considérant.” 1826-1893. Housed in the Archives Nationales (Paris).

Lichtheim, G. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1961.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. Paul M. Sweezy and Leo Huberman. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964.

Rheinische Zeitung. 1841-1842. (Cologne).

Schaff, Adam. “Marxist Theory on Revolution and Violence,” Journal of the History of Ideas 34.2 (April-June, 1973): 263-80.

Sorel, G. La décomposition du Marxisme. Paris: Alcan, n.d.

Tcherkesoff, W. Pages of Socialist History: Teaching and Acts of Social Democracy. New York: C. B. Cooper, 1902.

Tucker, Robert C. The Marxian Revolutionary Idea. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1970.

Donald Clark Hodges (essay date 1999)

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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 year 1848. A new balance sheet is called for today.

Lucien Laurat, Le Manifeste communiste de 1848 et le monde d'adjourd'hui (1948)

How has the Manifesto stood the test of time? As Engels proudly observed, “the history of the Manifesto reflects, to a great extent, the history of the modern working class movement.” Besides hope for the toiling masses—albeit a false hope—he believed that it had opened their eyes to the reality underlying the surface of modern society. Would that it were so!

Looking backward, one is struck by two sides to the Manifesto's ledger. On one side, it appealed to workers and intellectuals alike, as the German Social Democratic and the Bolshevik parties gained adherents. On the other side, its popularity was ephemeral, as seen by the loss of interest in the Manifesto after these parties enjoyed their stint in power.

After 150 years of the Manifesto, its eclipse stares us in the face. Neither the humanist highroad nor the egalitarian low road to communism turned out to be passable. There is, however, a third communist alternative—an expanding public sector of free goods and services—a pacifier of the discontented and a sanctuary for the insecure.

For almost a century and a half, the Manifesto has been the centerpiece of communist ideology, the leading manual of international communism. It still ranks as one of the modern world's most consequential political documents. It helped to establish the first mass-based socialist parties in the 1860s and 1870s, and it paved the way to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. As one of America's leading historians notes, “the Russian Revolution … [was] arguably the most important event of the century,” while its repercussions “would be felt in every corner of the globe.”1 If the Russian Revolution was that important, then no less consequential was the Communist Manifesto that fueled it.

The Manifesto's invaluable service to the communist movement was to transform it from a sect into the secular equivalent of a church, a worldwide mass movement whose only rivals in greatness, numbers of adherents, and geographical expansion were Islam and Christianity. Just as St. Paul's Christology helped to sanitize the spiritualized communism of Jesus and the Apostles, so Marx's humanism helped to defang the secular communism of Babeuf, Buonarroti, Blanqui, and their disciples. And as Christianity took the heart out of the messianic doctrine of the carpenter from Nazareth, so Marxism toned down the revolutionary communism of Blanqui's German followers with the socialist humanism of the Manifesto.

If communist extremists were ever to join forces with trade unionists in struggles for the workers' daily bread, it was necessary for communists to moderate their demands. Wrote Kautsky in the first major updating of the Manifesto,The Class Struggle (1892), an exposition of the Erfurt Program of German Social Democracy: “In their [Marx and Engels'] Communist Manifesto … they laid the scientific foundation of modern socialism. They transformed the beautiful dreams of well-meaning enthusiasts into the goal of a great and earnest struggle.”2

As a public relations coup, the Manifesto was a success; like the religious faiths it resembled, it came to mean all things to all men. It thus offers a prime illustration of Machiavelli's dictum that “the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances.”3 Bakunin's and Lenin's readings of the Manifesto made a brief for relentless class struggle, but its humanist and demoliberal readings justified Khrushchev's reforms and Gorbachev's perestroika, leading to the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union.

The Manifesto was meant to be open-ended, to be continually revised in response to economic changes and the appearance of new political forces. Yet in 1872 Marx and Engels decided it was a “historical document which we have no longer any right to alter.” So their amendments to it were not incorporated into the text. It was superseded in 1891 by the Erfurt Program of German Social Democracy and again in 1919 by the program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But German Social Democrats and Russian Communists could not agree on whether the Russian Revolution was a bastard or a “legitimate child of The Communist Manifesto.” If illegitimate, then the Manifesto did not represent a rupture with the liberal democratic tradition in the West; otherwise it did.4

Wherever Socialist and Communist parties have contended for power, the Manifesto has outshone all rivals on the Left. But once entrenched, those parties favored their own manuals of revolution at the Manifesto's expense. Paradoxically, the Manifesto's eclipse is correlated rather with the strength than with the weakness of the parties it represented.

Before the turn of the century there had been more German editions than English and French ones combined. Between the time of the first Russian translation in 1869 and half a century later in 1919, however, there were more than twice as many editions in the former Czarist Empire and its Soviet successor than in Germany during the same period. The Manifesto topped its original record of six German editions in 1848 on at least three occasions. In 1899 and again in 1905 and 1917, the number of new Russian editions reached two digits.5 For the most backward and despotic regime in all of Europe was on the eve of a combined liberal-democratic revolution that would soon match the Great French Revolution of 1789.

It is hardly surprising that both 1905 and 1917 saw the publication of a record number of editions. The first Russian revolution occurred in 1905. Although it failed, it was followed by a second, this time successful, revolution in February 1917 and by the Bolshevik seizure of power eight months later.

But why was the Manifesto such a big hit in 1899? That was the year of the first student general strike. Despite its innocent origins, that strike came under the leadership of an “organizing committee”—militants of the new Russian Social-Democratic Labor party founded in 1898. The student strike has been aptly described as the “prelude to the Russian Revolution.”6 Thanks to the work of the “organizing committee,” Russia's restive students and burgeoning intellectuals began rallying behind the Communist Manifesto.

The high point in the Manifesto's reception was reached in 1905-1906, and that point was nearly attained again in 1917-1918. Then the Manifesto began facing stiff competition from N. Bukharin and E. Preobrazhensky's The ABC of Communism—a commentary on the Communist party's new 1919 program. A few years later, in his bid for power after Lenin's premature death in 1924, Stalin published his best-selling Foundations of Leninism, which soon overtook the Manifesto in total sales.

Stalin's book reigned supreme until 1938, when it was displaced by the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Short Course), drafted by a commission of the Party's Central Committee under Stalin's active supervision. As many as twelve million copies of the Russian edition and another two million in the other languages of the Soviet Union were initially published in October. A decade later, some two hundred editions had appeared in more than sixty languages, amounting to some thirty-four million copies. The distribution of the Short Course so dwarfed the circulation of the Communist Manifesto that at the Party's Eighteenth Congress in March 1939, Stalin's presumptive heir, Andre Zhdanov, announced that “since the inception of Marxism, no Marxist book has ever had such wide circulation.”7

The Manifesto would never recover from this literary coup. Two decades later it was again overshadowed, this time by the Short Course's successor, Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism. Under the general editorship of Otto V. Kuusinen, the new manual responded to the Bolshevik party's change of line beginning with the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. When the first edition was followed in 1963 by a second revised edition, the Manifesto continued to lose ground.

The successive revisions and adaptations of the Manifesto point to failures as well as successes on the part of those who attempted to translate its precepts into practice. When the Communist League in 1852 and the International Working Men's Association in 1872 failed to live up to the Manifesto's program and strategy, Marx scuttled both organizations. When the Socialist International during World War I refused to implement the 1912 Basel Manifesto's reaffirmation of the Manifesto's opposition to national wars and imperialism, it too fell apart. Lenin founded the Communist International in 1919 with the aim of implementing the Manifesto's program, but Stalin dissolved it during World War II under pressure from the Soviet Union's Western allies—when it, too, was no longer an asset to socialism but a liability.

Contrary to expectations, socialism made the Manifesto's communism increasingly irrelevant. The Manifesto was a huge success as a socialist manifesto. But the hopes raised by Stalin's second Bolshevik Revolution were dashed when Khrushchev's communism failed to deliver the goods, when Gorbachev's humanism proved to be a mirage, and when Soviet citizens regretfully concluded that socialism had not lived up to its promises. So the Manifesto had outlived its usefulness, save for the boondocks and backwaters of world civilization.

During the Bolshevik struggle for power, the Manifesto provided the rationale for a grand alliance of workers, peasants, and petty bourgeois toward the ultimate conquest of the state. But once in power, the alliance dissolved. The same Manifesto that had furthered the unified and concerted action of the parties of discontent became a cause of dissension. Universal self-development was supposed to flourish with the extension of civil liberties to all, followed by the institution of universal suffrage and the replacement of private property in the means of production by collective ownership. But socialism under Bolshevik leadership began by trashing the humanist and demoliberal legacies and then reviving them. In effect, a Leninist revolution built the Soviet Union, and a Marxist counterrevolution destroyed it. The Manifesto cut both ways.

Lenin placed a lid on humanism and its demoliberal offspring by giving precedence to uncivil “Reds” over civil “Pinks,” by loosening the reins on equalizing tendencies, and by attempting to build socialism and communism simultaneously instead of sequentially. Stalin succeeded in abolishing capitalism and fulfilling the promise of socialism in the Soviet Union, but at the same time offered nominal support to humanism, liberalism, and democracy. Khrushchev's new program gave a major impetus to humanism, liberalism, and democracy, but prepared the ground for Gorbachev's betrayal that nullified communism altogether.

Such was the logic of unintended consequences that took its toll beginning with Khrushchev's and ending with Gorbachev's phoney communism. In both instances the contradiction between personal and collective fulfillment was resolved by the path of least resistance. By then the Manifesto had lost most of its appeal. Although Khrushchev made one last effort to salvage it, Gorbachev looked to the Western legal tradition for inspiration.

We have seen that the Manifesto is not just a communist manifesto; it can be read as a humanist, demoliberal, technocratic, and socialist manifesto, and as a set of guidelines to a future anarchism. By preserving part of this ideological heritage, the Manifesto effectively compromised its goal of communist revolution.

In view of the foregoing, is it feasible to rewrite the Manifesto, to revive its ailing body? Or should one give it a decent burial? Bernstein claimed that neither the Marxist building nor its scaffolding was any longer salvageable. More recently, Lucien Laurat notes that it is time “to oppose [to Paleomarxism] a new synthesis embodying the scientific socialism of our times … [since a] new balance sheet is called for today.” But if Laurat is correct in claiming that the managerial elites share power with the capitalists, then his updating of the Manifesto's socialist program would tend to play into the hands of Bakunin's nonmanagerial elites.8

The Achilles heel of the Manifesto was its assimilation of the so-called progressive ideologies that competed with communism—the humanist credo of the supreme worth of the individual, the demoliberal legacy of civil rights and majority rule, the technocratic utopia of salvation through scientific and material progress, and the socialist class struggle against the bourgeoisie. This constellation of social preferences virtually defines modernism in political philosophy.

The Manifesto's communism is obsolete because of its modernist premises. Unrestrained economic growth on behalf of universal self-cultivation leads up a blind alley. More work implies less leisure for those on the industrial treadmill. Technocracy represents a threat to communism, because the producers of the economic surplus can be made to produce more when the screws are tightened, not loosened. To push at once for optimum economic growth and for the abolition of exploitation is to push in opposing directions. Thus far, the former push has been the more forceful; for the latter requires immense outlays for welfare and education that cut into the reserves set aside for research and development. The Manifesto, however, suggests we can have the best of both possible worlds!

The multiplication of needs in response to increasing wealth means that the more one gets, the more one wants. That is not to say that the Manifesto favors consumption for its own sake. Marx's humanism makes a brief for high-quality over low-quality consumption, the enjoyment of music, art, and literature rather than the enjoyment of material possessions. But he set no limit to the educational treadmill other than the vacuous condition that the free development of each must be compatible with the free development of all. Why vacuous? Because “free development” opens the door to privileged shares in the economic surplus needed to defray the higher costs of a liberal arts education at its higher levels.

The Manifesto's cult of self-development claims to be universally applicable. To become fully literate in the arts and sciences, however, their devotees must become industrially exempt and give priority to what is higher instead of lower on the scale of being. Lenin loved the theater, according to his wife Krupskaya, but he was driven to sacrifice the liberal arts for the sake of ordinary literacy. His urge for personal fulfillment did not stop him from trying to close down the pride and joy of Russia's intellectual and artistic circles—the Bolshoi Theater. As he instructed Vyasechslav Molotov: “I propose the Politburo issue the following orders … keep just a few dozen artistes for Moscow and Peter[sburg] to perform (as singers and dancers on a self-financing basis), that is, avoid any large expenditure on scenery. … Give not less than half the billions thus saved for the liquidation of illiteracy and [for] reading rooms.” As one hostile critic observed, “a lowering of the nation's intellect would be the price for raising the general population's awareness.”9

Although the Manifesto's goal of free development is utopian, it can be achieved on a limited scale. For those unwilling to wait for communism prior to their own emancipation, however, humanism becomes a sanction for egoism under conditions of exploitation. It is this humanist-sanctioned selfishness that communists find intolerable. The Manifesto's slogan, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” is a communist slogan, but it hardly fits the Manifesto's goal of the free development of all.10

The vicious side of humanism has been traditionally concealed by a veil of hypocrisy. Britain's governing classes, according to Bernard Shaw, consist of “people who, though perfectly prepared to be generous, humane, cultured, philanthropic, public spirited and personally charming, are nonetheless unalterably resolved to have money enough for a handsome and delicate life.” For that purpose they will “batten in the doors of their fellow-men, sweat them in fetid dens, shoot, stab, hang, imprison, sink, burn and destroy them in the name of law and order … for a sufficient income is indispensable to the practice of virtue.”11

Marx's claim to fame was that he made communism credible. Instead of Babeuf's “principle of equalization” to be achieved by leveling downward, he proposed to raise ordinary workers to the status of a literate communist like himself. He believed that self-cultivation, a patrician ideal, was what every proletarian secretly wanted.

This is what theologians mean by original sin. In the Biblical account of the fall, Eve is tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit because of the serpent's prodding. Lucifer, the Light-Bearer, assures her that her eyes will be opened, that she will become wise like the gods (Gen. 3:4-6). Eve then shares the fruit with Adam. Did Lucifer lie? On the contrary, God confirms the serpent's words: “Behold, the man has become as one of us” (Gen. 3:22). But as punishment for aspiring to divine heights, they must thereafter suffer the consequences by being driven from paradise.

Man's fate, according to Milton, is to aspire to a higher form of life, to human self-fulfillment, not just to knowledge of good and evil. But “This higher degree of life … cannot be but to be Gods, or Angels, [i.e.] Demi-gods.”12 For Milton, paradise is lost because Adam and Eve want to be more than merely human, to be superman and superwoman—a godlike condition with a style of life inaccessible to the immense, underlying population. But like Icarus in the Greek myth, when they fly too close to the sun, the wax melts on their wings and they plunge to their death in the sea. For man's cardinal sin, no less than Lucifer's, is to set himself in glory above his peers.

Renaissance man claimed nothing less. Castiglione's “Courtier” not only was a perfect horseman for every saddle, but also “set all his delights and diligence to wade in everie thing a little farther than other men.” To what purpose? For the sake of excellence. Socrates' lover, the great Alcibiades, “excelled … everie man in the thing that he had most skill in. So shall this our Courtier passe other men, and everie man in his owne profession.”13

This Renaissance credo is thinly disguised in Marx's celebrated Manifesto: “In place of the old bourgeois society … we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”—a condition at the opposite extremity from “universal asceticism and social leveling in its crudest form.” But how in this world of irremediable scarcity is the multiplication and refinement of one person's needs to be prevented from infringing on the needs of others?

Milton was right. Humanism is the offspring of presumption and self-adulation compounded by the most insidious and unrestrained selfishness. It is but a short distance from “Man is the measure of all things” to the tempting but deceptive conclusion that, since I am a man, “I am the measure of all things.” Remember Faust! There is no more a limit to the craving for knowledge—the apple of discord—than there is to the desire for money or other tangible assets needed for fulfillment. In the Marx-Engels correspondence between 1844 and 1855, one finds references to the great literary figures of both the ancient and modern worlds, but not a single line on Milton. Evidently, the father of literate communists had not studied Milton; or, if he had, he found nothing in Milton's work worth citing.

Like wealth, knowledge is a form of power. Wrote Mencius (390-305 BC): “There are those who use their minds and there are those who use their muscles. The former rule; the latter are ruled. Those who rule are supported by those who are ruled.”14 Evidently, nothing has changed in this respect some 2,300 years later! There's progress for you!

For Marx, man's goal is to become rich in needs rather than rich in the sense of wealthy, as if money were not a condition of both. It is clear from his early writings that a mature communism aims to sever the link between cultivation of the personality and the accumulation of material wealth. It is unrealistic, however, to believe that riches, and therefore freedom from time-consuming cares and the burdens and frustrations of everyday life, are not conditions of human excellence. Although one can enjoy music, art, and literature without “owning” them, ownership is a mighty boon to enjoying them.

Like precious jewels, books filled with knowledge do not come cheaply. What the ancient Cynic, Lucian of Samosata (ca. 125-180 AD), said about luxuries that have become necessities applies to books as well as to jewels: “All that costly array of means of enjoyment which you so gloat over is obtained only … through how many men's blood and death and ruin. To bring these things to you many seamen must perish; to find and fashion them many laborers must endure misery.”15

No wonder that the pampered will be punished—if only in the hereafter! With 2,000 years of hindsight and another 2,000 years of foresight, Lucian spelled out what they deserved. “Whereas many lawless deeds are done in life by the rich who plunder and oppress and in every way humiliate the poor: Be it resolved by the Senate and people [of Hades] that when they [the pampered] die … their souls be sent back into life and enter into donkeys until they have passed two hundred and fifty thousand years in the said condition, transmigrating from donkey to donkey, bearing burdens and being driven by the poor.” There's a communist for you—with a vengeance!16

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the French misanthrope and cynic, was not one to take the doctrine of original sin and divine punishment as sacred truth. But he astutely recognized its usefulness in unmasking Marx and the Marxists' humanist hoax. At least the Church says we are inherently vile and acquisitive, unlike Marxists who believe in human perfectibility and a classless society. The one good thing about Christianity, he told his Soviet hosts in 1936, is that it acknowledges human beings to be the greatest scum on earth. But Marxist humanists have the gall to dress up a turd and call it a caramel.17

Marx objected to communism for being crude and ascetic. But precisely those features define its perennial nature. The ideas of equality, sharing, and caring owe their existence to a memory of what used to be, “a small voice left over from our kindergarten experience, a sort of super ego or conscience … to a memory buried deep in the primitive brain, a memory of things past when sharing and loving were much more in vogue than in contemporary life.” At the dawn of civilization, people who were barely human learned to survive through solidarity and group action, through what Kropotkin called “mutual aid.” Primitive communism is a “natural phenomenon in the sense that the sharing, equality, and caring which characterized it flowed out of the extended family network on which the tribe was based.”18

However, primitive or fraternal communism is irretrievably naïve. It demands more of both workers and their leaders than either is prepared to deliver. To expect leaders of a Marxist party to risk their necks in a struggle from which they would not emerge as beneficiaries is to expect too much. To suppose that a Marxist party in power would act on the few hints of communism in the Manifesto is tantamount to “expecting the Catholic Church to preach and practice the tenets of primitive communism held by the first Christian communities.”19

Pre-Marxist communism suffers from an ascetic virus and the voluntarist foible of believing in a “new man” capable of renouncing the good things of life, in a “new era” to be ushered in by acts of heroism and the sheer discipline of will. Experience shows that it, too, is slated for defeat, not just from without but also from within. Since subtracting from human needs is as self-destructive as multiplying them, communism is the loser either way.

The vain and interminable search for individual happiness, according to Céline, is the bête noire of communism. “That's what makes life so difficult! What makes people so poisonous, disgusting, intolerable. … It's out of happy people that the best damned are made!” A genuine communism, he believed, would not sacrifice the spirit of fraternity to the selfish pursuit of personal well-being—especially since one cannot honestly have both. “Communism, above all, is much more the sharing of all troubles than the sharing of wealth.” But it demands also that wealth be shared, really shared, instead of the socialist principle of rewarding each according to his work. “I'm all in favor, me, of sharing! I've never wanted anything else! There! My four halfpennies on the table! … I'll put all I have on the table. If there's a total share-out.” But that is not what the masses want.20

The typical proletarian, says Céline, is infected with ambition. He emulates his social betters. The most ardent working-class militant “has about as much desire to share with his luckless brother worker as has the winner in the national lottery.” One becomes a communist not only out of self-interest, but also because of deep feelings for others. Communists are born, not made. “Communism is a quality of the soul. A spiritual state which can't be acquired.” As he lays down the conditions of his egalitarian and ascetic—but also eminently aesthetic—communism: “Income … to be based on what is necessary to provide for the basic needs of each human being, and not on the kind of work performed nor on the degree of responsibility.” In this way the absence of differences due to unequal incomes would make possible the total reform of the nation, as a “family whose members care for one another.”21

By appealing to human selfishness and by relying on material instead of moral incentives to get workers to produce more, Céline concludes, Soviet communism was a monstrous imposture. But are ordinary people as yet ready for communism? On the contrary, they are too depraved to appreciate it. No matter! “What is attractive in communism, its great advantage if truth be told, is that it sets out to unmask man at last.” Like the Fathers of the Church, it promises happiness not in this world, but in the New Jerusalem that never arrives. It tells us that original sin is not a myth, that man is basically a rat. As in George Orwell's 1984, in a real pinch most people will betray their closest friends. “Do it to Julia! Not me!”22

Céline offers no hope for humankind. But is such an ultra-degree of cynicism warranted? We have seen that the Scylla and Charybdis of modern communism are respectively its sectarianism and its ecumenicism—the pre-Marxist legacy and Marx's revision of this legacy in the Manifesto. It would be stretching credibility to claim that either one is feasible. But like Odysseus, cannot communists steer a middle course between the wreckage on both shores?

Indeed, traces of a third communist project may be found in the Manifesto. As Marx interpreted the Manifesto's “Communistic abolition of buying and selling,” the cooperative economy that replaces capitalism includes—besides the exchange of goods for labor certificates that do not circulate and therefore do not function as money—a welfare sector for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health care, and relief for those unable to work. In the lower stage of communism the exchange sector prevails in matters of distribution; but with the progress of industry and the overcoming of scarcity the sector of free goods and services expands until it becomes the dominant sector. Hence, “To each according to his needs”!23

The Manifesto's transitional program favors a “community of goods” to be achieved in conjunction with income redistribution. It combines upward and downward leveling through a set of halfway measures, including gradual socialization, the restriction of wage labor, the application of rents to public purposes, a progressive income tax, and the abolition of the right of inheritance. Having ridiculed the identification of communism with Babeuf's Republic of Equals and the placing of the principal stress on equality, Marx's communist alternative was to raise the welfare sector to the leading position in the cooperative economy.

The future of communism and the future of welfare are thus closely connected. Escalating pressures from below combined with grudging concessions from above have made welfare the least objectionable road to social peace. Since “all modern market economies are to some degree welfare economies,”24 the Manifesto's prognosis of a future communism has borne fruit without, as well as with, the direct intervention of Communist parties.

The modern Welfare State first took root in Marx's Germany. The term “Wohlfahrsstaat” was coined by journalists to describe Bismarck's comprehensive program of workers' insurance against sickness and accidents in a series of laws in 1883, 1884, and 1885; and another in 1889 insuring the aged and disabled. “Bismarck, the revolutionary against his will,” wrote Engels, became the first European statesman to introduce “Staatssozialismus” (State Socialism)—later, a model for every other country in Europe.25

What led to this startling innovation? In order to curb the growing influence of German Socialists under the influence of the revived 1848 Manifesto, Bismarck relied on the age-old strategy of the carrot and the stick. The stick was the Anti-Socialist Law (1878-1890); the carrot was the Welfare State. As the Iron Chancellor declared in 1884, “assure him [the workingman] of care when he is sick and maintenance when he is old … then if the state will show a little more Christian solicitude for him, the Socialists will sing their songs in vain.”26

Welfare communism is defined by a sector of free goods and services either completely or partially subsidized by the state. With the emergence of strong Labor and Social Democratic parties in the early twentieth century, public welfare made impressive gains in Germany, Austria, France, the United Kingdom, the British Dominions, and Scandinavia. In response to the worldwide depression of the 1930s, World War II, and the postwar economic boom, the United States and the other market economies in Europe developed similar but more modest welfare programs.

Welfare communism also had a counterpart in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, and in still larger measure in both China and Cuba during the 1960s. In both countries efforts were made to bridge the gap between Marx's lower and higher stages of communism by reducing wage differences and by gradually withdrawing goods from commercial circulation.27

Contrary to popular belief, communism is not just an ideal, myth, utopia, ideology, political movement, or any combination of these. Although no longer a “historical movement going on under our very eyes,” communism is a fact of life common to all contemporary societies. As a spin-off of the Manifesto's communism, it has become feasible in miniature—especially when the sector of subsidized goods is not acknowledged as communist.

Although whittled down and partly scuttled in the new Russia and in Eastern Europe under post-Communist rule, welfare communism is here to stay. However, welfare has an underside; it is not what it appears. It leaves intact the social status of Mister Drudge Forlyfe, Esquire. First, it is a token communism—like “Bread and Circuses” in the ancient world—marginal to and overshadowed by the private and public sectors where buying and selling are the rule. Second, it is a communism that has passed its zenith, that is currently eroding under pressure from the technocrats concerned with making their firms and national economies “competitive.” Third, it is a Machiavellian device for managing social unrest, for preventing social explosions under both late capitalist and postcapitalist conditions, “a political response to political disorder.” That is the sinister reality of communist welfare—a device for regulating the poor.28 Thus the welfare carrot serves the interests of old and new masters, not just working stiffs.

Far from attaining the final abolition of buying and selling, the Manifesto has to its credit only socialism and welfare in small and easily digested doses. Socialism was no ordinary achievement. But was exploitation abolished—other than capitalist-induced misery? On the contrary, the Manifesto contributed to making revolutions, but the exploited and oppressed got only a token share of the benefits.

For the semiprivileged but exploited workers—those earning more than the minimum but less than the average wage—conditions have markedly improved. On this score, Céline is mistaken. But for those at the bottom of the social pit, Céline is right. For the Lazarus-layers of society there are only degrees of Hell.

When not inventing heavenly kingdoms, people fabricate earthly substitutes. The various forms of communism are witness to this extravagant levity among communist thinkers. After 150 years of trial, the Manifesto's communism is in agony almost everywhere. Yet it would be hazardous to predict the long-range outcome. The communist phoenix does more than self-destruct; it has a two-thousand-year history of rising from the ashes.29


  1. Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1991), xxi.

  2. Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program), trans. W. E. Bahn (New York: Norton, 1971; orig. pub. 1892), 199.

  3. Machiavelli, The Prince and The Discourses, 182; from The Discourses, 1:25.

  4. Marx and Engels, “Preface to the German Edition of 1872,” in Bender, 44; and Harrington, “The Democratic Essence of Socialism,” in Bender, 109.

  5. Bert Andréas, Le Manifeste Communiste de Marx et Engels (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1963), Appendix: Tableaux Synchronoptique (1848-1919), 380-382.

  6. Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 6-7.

  7. Paulo Spriano, Stalin and the European Communists, trans. Jon Rothschild (London: Verso, 1985), 79, 80.

  8. Laurat, “If One Were to Rewrite the Communist Manifesto Today,” in Bender, 146, 147.

  9. Volkogonov, Lenin, 356, 357.

  10. See my Socialist Humanism: The Outcome of Classical European Morality (St. Louis: Warren H. Green, 1974), 281-315, 330-337.

  11. George Bernard Shaw, “Preface” to The Irrational Knot, in The Works of Bernard Shaw (London: Constable, 1930-38). Cited by Paul A. Hunwert, Bernard Shaw's Marxian Romance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973), 10.

  12. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey, 1935), 9:934-937.

  13. Ibid., 1:39; and Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, 41.

  14. John M. and Patricia Koller, A Sourcebook in Asian Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 483.

  15. Lucian of Samosata, “Cynicus,” as cited by Farrand Sayre, ed., Diogenes of Sinope (Baltimore, MD: J. H. Furst, 1938), 8.

  16. Lucian of Samosata, “A Journey to Hades,” as cited by John Jay Chapman, ed., Lucian, Plato and Greek Morals (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931), 334. For a contemporary equivalent of this communist transmigration of souls, see Hodges, Sandino's Communism, 126-140, 182-186.

  17. Cited by Florence King, With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), 131.

  18. James R. Ozinga, The Recurring Dream of Equality: Communal Sharing and Communism Throughout History (Lanham/New York/London: University Press of America, 1996), 1-2. See Piotr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, A Factor of Evolution (London: William Heinemann, 1915), 11-62.

  19. Nomad, Rebels and Renegades, 119.

  20. Merlin Thomas, Louis Ferdinand Céline (London/Boston: Faber & Faber, 1979), 126, 127, 140. Cited from Céline's pamphlet, Mea Culpa (1936), and Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937).

  21. Ibid., 157 and 169. From Céline's L'Ecole des cadavres (1938).

  22. Ibid., 125-126. From Céline's pamphlet Mea Culpa; and George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet, 1950), 197, 215, 218.

  23. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” Selected Works, 2:22-24.

  24. George N. Halm, Economic Systems: A Comparative Analysis, rev. ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961), 270-271.

  25. See Engels' letters of 23 April and 13 November 1885 in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, 460, 464.

  26. Cited by Walter Phelps Hall and William Stearns Davis, The Course of European History Since Waterloo, 4th ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957), 310.

  27. On the guiding principles and prospects of these Communist “heresies,” see Donald C. Hodges, The Bureaucratization of Socialism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), 155-160, 163-168, 168-173.

  28. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Pantheon, 1971), 3-8, 104-111, 196-198; and Hodges, America's New Economic Order, 154-163.

  29. A revival of interest in the Manifesto occurred in anticipation of its 150th anniversary. See Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, Introd. by Mick Hume (Chicago: Pluto Press, 1996); K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Introd. by A. J. P. Taylor (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997); Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, Introd. by Eric Hobsbawm (London: Verso, 1998); and Mark Cowling, ed., The Communist Manifesto: New Interpretations, trans. Terrell Carver (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

Aijaz Ahmad (essay date 1999)

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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 Manifesto. This brief and terse text thus has a pre-eminent position in the entire history of secular literature. Some sense of the breadth of its influence can be gauged from the fact that some 544 editions are known to have been published in 35 languages—all of them European languages, one might add—even prior to the Bolshevik Revolution; there must have been during that same period other editions which are not known, and infinitely greater number of editions were to be published, in very many more languages, European and non-European, after the Revolution of 1917. It is worth emphasizing, furthermore, that, unlike the two religious books that are said to have had a wider circulation, the Manifesto is barely one hundred and fifty years old: rather a young text, all things considered. It is much too early to fully assess the influence this young little pamphlet has had in the past and is likely to have in the future.

One can also say without fear of refutation that the Manifesto has been more consequential in the actual making of the modern world than any other piece of political writing, be it Rousseau's Social Contract, the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, or the French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’. The first reason is of course the power of its political message which has reverberated throughout the world and determined the destinies of a large cross-section of humanity over the past one hundred and fifty years. Then there is the style itself: no call to arms has ever been phrased in a language of such zest, beauty and purity. Third, there is the stunning combination of diagnosis and prediction. Marx describes the capitalism of his own times and predicts its trajectories into the indefinite future with such force and accuracy that every subsequent generation, in various parts of the world, has seen in the Manifesto the image of its own times and premonition of the horrors yet to come. And, fourth, concealed in the direct simplicity of its prose, like the labour of the tailor that disappears into the coat,1 is the distillation of a multifaceted philosophical understanding that had arisen out of a series of confrontations with the thinkers most influential in the Germany of his times: Hegel, Feuerbach, Proudhon, Stirner, Bruno Bauer, Sismondi, the ‘True Socialists’ and the all the rest whom the authors of the Manifesto broadly describe as ‘would-be universal reformers’.2

Much of the richness of the Manifesto is owed to the fact that it is the text of an intellectual and political transition. Marx alone—and then, increasingly, Marx and Engels together—had written so very much before coming to draft the Manifesto that one now quite forgets how very young (not quite thirty years old) he really was. This is the first mature text of a very young man. So, it concludes certain lines of argument Marx had been developing previously—in his first significant text, Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State and “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: An Introduction”; and then in “The Jewish Question”, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (also knows as “Paris Manuscripts”), the famous “Theses on Feuerbach”, and The German Ideology. Of these, Marx published only the Critique and ‘The Jewish Question’ in his own lifetime; the rest were drafted mainly for self-clarification and were then ‘abandoned’—in the famous self-ironical phrase about The German Ideology—‘to the gnawing criticism of mice’. These texts, together with The Holy Family,The Poverty of Philosophy, and a number of minor essays of that time serve both as a prelude to the formulations that are so familiar to us now from the Manifesto, but also as a series of confrontations with the most influential tendencies in the Philosophy, Economics and Political Thought that were central to the intellectual universe within which Marx had first learned to think. They are, in short, oppositional texts, texts in which Marx stutters and stammers, refuses other people's thoughts, tries to think his own thoughts and define his own premises, tries to come out from under the whole weight of that immensely powerful body of thought that has come down to us under the labels of the Enlightenment, post-Enlightenment, Romanticism, Anarchism, utopian socialism, not to speak of the discourse of Rights and the fetishization of the market and the State.

Those earlier texts include passages and entire sections of great originality. However, virtually all of them are written in opposition to some particular writers or tendencies, i.e., Hegel and the others we have mentioned above. This kind of focussed criticism is continued in the latter section of the Manifesto as well, but the memorable first part can be viewed as perhaps the first of Marx's texts that is written entirely in the declarative, in opposition to not this or that thinker, this or that tendency in thought, but in opposition to bourgeois society as a whole. It is a text written at the end of a difficult apprenticeship, so as to scatter the spectres that had haunted European thought until that time and to define a new kind of relationship between political economy, history and philosophy, with the ambition of realizing the aims of philosophy through a double movement. This double movement consisted, on the one hand, of a theory of history which makes concrete the intellectual project of philosophy by explaining the fundamental motion of the material world in its generality—what postmodernism these days dismisses as a ‘modes of production narrative’. But, on the other hand, it also demanded from philosophy that its ethical project be materialized as the praxis of a revolutionary transformation of an ethically intolerable world—what postmodernism now dismisses as ‘the myth of Progress’.

Marx's mature studies of the world economy in general, and of the principles of capitalist economy in particular, belong of course to the period after the composition of the Manifesto. The engagement had begun much earlier, however, as we see in the systematic and constantly improving expositions of the subject in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and The German Ideology which he did not publish in his own lifetime, as well as The Poverty of Philosophy which he did. A principle that had struck him quite early was that the rate and quantum of historical change in the forces and relations of production was much quicker under capitalism, and tended to get even quicker in each successive phase, as compared to antecedent modes of production where changes in the relations of production remained relatively limited and the pace of technological change relatively very slow; not ‘unchanging’ as he sometimes hastily said, but on the whole glacially slow. As a fundamental methodological principle, then, Marx adopted the view that it is impossible to grasp the essence of capitalism if we were to study it as a static reality, or mainly as it quite evidently is at a given time. Rather, the pace of change within this mode of production required that it be studied as a process, whose past had to be understood historically and whose future trajectory could be deduced from its past and present with reasonable degree of accuracy, not in all details but in its overall structure. This explains why the picture that the Manifesto presents of capitalism tells us so little about how capitalism was in his own time, and tells much more of how it had been and how it was likely to unfold.

Even so, within the larger corpus of Marx's work the Manifesto cannot be regarded as a text of some final illumination. As was said above, it is a transitional text, the first mature text of a very young man. It not only transits from earlier texts but also gropes toward those more comprehensive studies that were to follow over the next many years. The range of that corpus is breathtaking. Three preoccupations were paramount in that whole range of work, however. There was, first, the effort to offer the most incisive, most detailed account of the capitalist mode of production as such: the first principles and the first premises for an account of the modern world as a whole, from the standpoint of labour, production and the struggle of classes. The massive Grundrisse, which too Marx drafted only for self-clarification, in 1857-58, and of course the three volumes of Capital and Theories of Surplus Value are the key texts of that historic project. Second, there was extensive engagement with the history and politics of his own time as these unfolded all around him; among numerous such texts, “The Class Struggle in France”, first published as a series of articles in 1850, and “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, composed two years later as yet another series of articles, are the most magisterial. Rarely, if ever, has journalism risen to such heights of analytic and theoretical grandeur. Finally, there are equally numerous writings of Marx as a militant of the labour movement, most famously the “Critique of the Gotha Program” which he drafted almost thirty years after the Manifesto, in the wake of the experience of the Paris Commune and, thanks to that experience, directly concerned, in whatever preliminary fashion, with what a Communist society of the future may in broad outline strive to be. All three preoccupations of later life—the history and political economy of capitalism as a whole; contemporary politics of the ruling classes; the premises of the labour movement—are foreshadowed in the Manifesto itself. If it refines the general statement of the materialist conception of history as it had been defined up to The German Ideology, its thrust toward a theory of the political economy of capitalism would be immeasurably improved by the time Marx came to write Capital. It is on the basis of this whole edifice, with the Manifesto serving as a beam in the middle, that later masters of Marxism, such as Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, were to make seminal contribution to the Marxist theory in general as well as to a fuller understanding of their own time, notably on the issue of imperialism and the actual strategy and tactics of the labour movement.


There are many ways of looking at the Manifesto. Each one of its significant proposition had received detailed, though sometimes less rigorous, treatment in the earlier texts and was to surface again, often in very much more precise and enriched forms, in later writings. The pithy characterization of the state executive as ‘the managing committee of the whole bourgeoisie’, for example, would be understood in a much more nuanced and dialectical fashion if we were to read it in the perspective of the far more detailed treatment of the subject in the earlier Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State and “The Jewish Question” and the later, maturer “The Eighteenth Brumaire”. Similarly, the cryptic comment on the nature of consciousness in Section Two—‘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’—can be usefully compared with the sharper formulation of twelve years later, in the ‘Preface’ to The Critique of Political Economy: ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, it is their social existence that determines their consciousness’. Indeed, this had been a constant theme in Marx's writing after he had developed his own critique of Hegel's idealism soon after finishing his university education. But our understanding of these very condensed formulations can be vastly enriched through a reading of The German Ideology where Marx makes the fundamental point that all consciousness is intrinsically class consciousness in the sense that all consciousness is formed within class society, from the moment of birth onward, so that one may have the consciousness of the class into which one is born or one may adopt the consciousness of some other class (e.g., a proletarian internalizing a consciousness propagated by the capitalist system) but there is no such thing as a class-less consciousness. Antonio Gramsci was to make much of this insight, for example, arguing that since one imbibes one's consciousness from different and conflicting segments of society, individual consciousness is necessarily a contradictory and incoherent consciousness which can be made coherent only through great effort of education, reflection and practical interaction with others who are comrades in the same struggle. A reading of this kind, where elements of the thought expressed in the Manifesto are systematically related to the more detailed exposition of those same elements in other, earlier and later texts of Marx, as well as to the thought of later Marxists, is perhaps the most fruitful way of approaching the Manifesto. In itself, individual sentences in the text can mislead as to what Marx thought on the subject.

Or, one can read the Manifesto as a text of its own time. For all its timeless grasp of the fundamental premises of capitalist society, it is also a text very much of its time, i.e. of the working class movement living with a great sense of urgency because all could see that a great revolutionary upheaval was fast approaching in which the proletariat would be necessarily involved, so that the correct political standpoint was a matter not only of the long future but of the very palpable present. And, indeed, the first edition of the Manifesto was published in London weeks before the revolution of 1848 broke out in Paris and spread like wildfire through what today would be known as thirteen different countries in Europe. It was expected, as undoubtedly happened, that the urban proletariat would provide the bulk of the revolutionary mass, and the Manifesto was very much a call for the international class unity and political self-organization and autonomy of the proletariat, across the diverse countries, in a way that the proletariat had not been united in independent action in the previous revolutionary upheavals. Programmatic statements like ‘The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties’ would be opaque to today's reader without grasping that (a) the Communist League was so small an organization that an attempt to convert it into a political party in today's sense would have been futile and sectarian at best; (b) that the various segments of the working class were deeply fragmented along the ideological lines that are dealt with in Section III so that ideological struggle against those other tendencies was perceived as being a precondition for the subsequent formation of the ‘party of the whole’; (c) that most European countries at the time had nothing resembling a constitutional, representative government, so that the unity not only of different sections of the politically active proletariat but also of what in Section IV are described as ‘democratic parties’ was seen as a precondition for a successful revolutionary offensive;3 and (d) that the formulation is directly connected with the central emphasis on the unity of the class as a whole, which was then reflected with the call to arms with which the text concludes: ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’4

One could also read the Manifesto, especially Section I, purely from the philosophical point of view. It is well to recall that Marx's original training, and a very rigorous training at that, was in philosophy. He was deeply steeped in the thought of Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, not to speak of scores of lesser philosophers such as Feurbach who had been at the time very influential among German youth, especially in contestation with the thought of Hegel. At every step in his philosophy of history Marx is engaged with various aspect of Hegel's thought. His conception of the proletarian consciousness as the ‘true’ consciousness, for example, is directly in line with the Master-Slave dialectic in Hegel's Phenomenology where Hegel argues that the slave always knows more about himself as well as the Master, hence about society as a whole, because he needs to know not only about himself but also the whole condition of his enslavement, including specially the character and conduct of the master, whereas the master need know nothing about the slave more than that the latter labours for him.

By contrast, Marx's theory of the state as inevitably the instrument of the ruling class is counterpoised directly against Hegel's view of the state as a superior, disinterested mechanism for reconciling antagonisms in civil society—indeed, Marx's theory of the State, which is stated so economically in the Manifesto, arose initially out of his close, critical, passage-by-passage reading of Hegel when he was still a student. One could go even further and argue that it was his rejection of the Hegelian concept of the state as the highest form of social synthesis, and his theoretical discovery that the state exists not as a resolution of social conflicts but as a precise expression of those conflicts, which eventually led him to posit the theory of class struggle itself, i.e., the idea that class conflict is the most fundamental conflict in any society and that no state authority can be neutral in, or suspended above, this conflict. This Marx had first argued philosophically, while settling his accounts with Hegel, well before he set out to prove the thesis empirically, through a careful study of the laws of political economy.

In another direction, his sweeping denunciation of commerce as being a mechanism of conquest and exploitation of the dominated peoples and regions is counterpoised directly against Kant's view of commerce as an instrument of peaceful exchange and friendship among nations. One could offer many more such examples of his engagements with philosophical masters of the past, in a wide range of philosophical discourses from political theory to ontology. The main point here, however, is that just as Marx was to later become a master of political economy essentially by formulating an unassailable critique of political economy, he was already launched, well before drafting the Manifesto, on a critique of philosophy so fundamental and extensive that Balibar, the contemporary French philosopher, has called it an ‘anti-philosophy’.5 Marx was determined, in other words, never to become a philosopher in the sense in which German Idealists, for example, were philosophers, even though so much of the language of German Ideology itself is imbued with the language of that idealism. One would want to add that this ‘anti-philosophy’ was possible precisely because of the extent to which he had mastered the philosophical discourse as such. Marx is in fact so deeply conversant with philosophical concepts—theory of consciousness, dialectics, the universal and the particular, and so on—and he uses them so casually that one does not quite feel the weight of philosophical thought that undergirds the lightness and clarity of his prose. I have myself published an essay on his radically new way of employing and re-defining the concept of ‘universality’ in the Manifesto which simply overturns, on this particular subject, the whole legacy of eighteenth and nineteenth century European philosophy.6

There are so many approaches to the Manifesto that if one were to adopt them all one could go on writing virtually indefinitely. My main concern throughout the present reflection on the text is to demonstrate, mainly by giving examples, how rich and complex and elusive a text this brief pamphlet really is. I have by and large refrained from commenting on the latter sections of the Manifesto, although those too are replete with surprises. A reflection on the varieties of ‘reactionary socialism’, and on ‘utopian socialism’, may at the end in fact bring us closer to some strands in the dominant Indian political discourse, including that of Gandhi who was himself deeply influenced by the utopian movement (though not by the specific utopians Marx discusses) and by conservative, right-wing critiques of capitalism, as in Carlyle or Tolstoy or Ruskin. All that I have set aside, for lack of space. In the rest of this essay, I want to comment only on a few more issue at some length, which too shall bring up some related concerns: In what sense, and to what extent, is the bourgeoisie perceived to be revolutionary? And, what is the Marxist conception of the ‘laws’ of history? In his portrait of globalization as it was to unfold over time, does Marx give us an equally accurate picture of the capitalist economy as well as the attendant political and aesthetic forms? And, what do we learn about the proletariat, then and now?


Numerous commentators have noted that whereas the Manifesto declares the proletariat to be the revolutionary class of the future (‘grave-diggers’ of the bourgeois order), the great exploits that it narrates are those of the bourgeoisie as it overturns the older order and establishes its dominion over the surface of the entire globe.7 Some have even made out that Marx suffers from the progressivist ideology of nineteenth century positivism in which the bourgeoisie is the real hero of modernity and history is the history of constant improvement. While the former point has considerable merit, the latter is simply absurd.

The main principle of narration in the Manifesto is not that of a teleological unfolding of Progress (a unilinear development that always goes in the direction of greater improvement) but that of a contradictory process of both construction and destruction that proceed simultaneously until the point where the process becomes incapable of resolving or even containing the contradictions it has produced: that is the moment of revolutionary rupture, if the proletariat succeeds in making a revolution, or a moment of ‘mutual destruction of contending classes’, as the Manifesto puts it, if no revolutionary resolution is found.8 If history was always moving in the direction of progress, there would be no need for revolution as such. We shall come momentarily to how Marx, and then later Marxists have conceived of the progressive role of the bourgeoisie in relation to the antecedent modes of production and their correlative political structures. Suffice it to say here that the authors who associated the capitalist mode of production with what the Manifesto calls ‘a universal war of devastation’ or who wrote the following lines, could hardly be thinking of the role of bourgeoisie as simply and mainly a revolutionary role in the positive sense of that word:

It [capitalism] has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless, indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up the single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. … It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its own paid wage-labourers. … It compels all bourgeois nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization in their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world in its own image.

That ironic phrase, ‘what it calls civilization’, reminds one of a superbly contemptuous phrase that Engels was to use later for the colonizing European bourgeoisie: ‘civilization-mongers’. This is the language of outrage and denunciation, not of unalloyed enthusiasm.

The other point—that the Manifesto treats the proletariat as only an ascendant revolutionary class and tells mainly of the exploits of the bourgeoisie—is certainly correct. This has to do with Marx's punctual method of describing the existing conditions and deducing from them the future directions. It is worth recalling here that even limited trade union rights in the most advanced capitalist country, Britain, were at the time less than a quarter century old; that the first political party which could be viewed as a working class party, namely that of the Chartists, was itself less than a decade old and could hardly be described as ‘revolutionary’; even the successful struggle for an 8-hour day was to come very much in the future, and mass working class parties in Europe itself were not to arise until the 1880s, some forty years after the publication of the Manifesto. The Communist League, whose manifesto Marx was writing, was a small organization of German emigres in London with even smaller branches in some cities of the Continent. The revolutionary role of the proletariat that Marx was visualizing and theorizing for the future was so very much greater than anything that could be associated with that Communist League that even the name of the organization does not appear in the text of what was its own manifesto. The Manifesto does not tell of the revolutionary achievement of the working class for the good reason that in all the revolutions up to that time the proletariat had played a large but a subaltern role, under the flag of the bourgeoisie, and Marx was drafting a call to arms that would put an end to that subaltern position and would for the first time bring the proletariat on to the stage of history as a revolutionary class in its own right. What is important here is not that Marx has no revolutionary exploits of the proletariat to celebrate. What is much more important is the quality of the prediction. If his description of capitalism itself gives us an image of a capitalism not the way it was in 1848 but what it was to become much later, his conception of the revolutionary agent also has that same extraordinary orientation toward the future.

As for the bourgeoisie, it is conceived as a class that has undoubtedly played a revolutionary role in relation to the older regimes of exploitation but, in the same sweep, it is also conceived as class that can no longer extricate itself from the cycle of crises (e.g., ‘the epidemic of overproduction’) and a ‘universal war of devastation’. What, then, has been the revolutionary role?

The Manifesto conceives of the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class in two radically different senses, drawing alternately on the very different historical experiences of Britain and France. There is, on the one hand, the objectively revolutionary role that has to do mainly with the economic sphere and the social relations necessary for the expanded reproduction of this sphere. Here, Marx draws mainly on the experience of the British capitalist class and focuses on this bourgeoisie's need to constantly revolutionize the forces and relations of production, optimize the pool of the propertyless, maximize the rate of surplus value, generalize the wage relation and ‘the cash nexus’, and carry market relations to the farthest corner of the earth. This is the logic of industrial capitalism per se, and even though only in Britain had such an industrial bourgeoisie fully emerged as the dominant class, Marx had the acumen to see that such was going to be the fate of every other national bourgeoisie which hoped to compete with the more advanced one. Britain was of course to remain in the lead during the rest of his lifetime but other such centres were to soon develop, notably in Germany and the United States even more than France, giving rise to a kind of imperialist rivalry that was qualitatively different from colonial competitions of the mercantilist era.

On the other hand, however, there was also what one might call the subjectively revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie which had to do largely with the political sphere and which had been most marked in the French Revolution and the subsequent revolutionary upheavals in many parts of the Continent, including later upheavals within France itself, right up to 1848. Whereas the modern British state had evolved on the basis of a class compromise between the new bourgeoisie and the old aristocracy, with the latter also transforming itself into a bourgeoisie of the ground-rent, as Engels in particular was to emphasize in his writings on Britain, it was the French Revolution, with its Jacobin and even communistic elements, that had sought to fully destroy the ancien regime as well as the whole social edifice upon which it had rested. The Restoration there had only led to successive revolutionary upheavals, with the aim of erecting a modern, secular, representative state. If the revolutionary role of the British capitalist class in the economic sphere had led to polarization of classes and universalization of ‘the cash nexus’, the political revolutions of the French bourgeoisie had sought to create civic and juridic equality of citizens, the class cleavages notwithstanding. If the British bourgeoisie had done all it could to keep the proletariat out of the political process, not even granting a minimum of trade union rights until the third decade of the nineteenth century, the French bourgeoisie had, in each of its revolutionary surges, sought to organize the unprivileged and the proletarianized masses for active participation in the struggle for civic equality, though it too stringently suppressed aspirations of the working classes to organize themselves in autonomous ‘combinations’ (as these were called at the time). If British political economy had perfected the theory of the free market, the philosophical representatives of the French bourgeoisie had formulated the most extensive thought on social, political, and religious freedoms. And, if British factory production was to set the pattern for later industrializations in the rest of the world, especially in the imperialist core, it was the French theories of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ which have marked the nature of oppositional political agitations right down to our own day. It is in this specific sense that Marxism appropriates the Enlightenment project but also tries to supersede it by concentrating on removing the class virus, and it is precisely on the issue of the class character of the Republican notion of ‘freedom’ that Marx had criticized the French revolutionary thought the most stringently.

As Germans settlers in Britain, with intimate knowledge of such places as Paris and Brussels, Marx and Engels well understood this whole range of bourgeois experience in Europe. Nor did they romanticize the ‘revolutionary’ role of either the British or the French bourgeoisie. If the chapters on primitive accumulation in Capital tell the story of the many swindles out of which the British bourgeoisie was born, and if Engels' Conditions of the Working Class in England details the moral and material degradation of the great majority that was inherent in the ‘revolutionary’ phase of the British capitalist class, Marx's mature work was conceived as a critique of primarily British political economy as an illusory science that merely reflects the phenomenal form of the capitalist mode of production; inter alia, he shows how unfree the so-called ‘free market’ really is, and how freedom of the market itself leads to monopoly. Similarly, in analyses of the British state, they had shown how much the aristocracy had been absorbed in its key institutions, especially the Armed Forces and the colonial governments. As for the French Revolution, Marx had contemptuously written of ‘the self-conceit of the political sphere’ precisely in relation to the French representative state and its juridic equalities, and as early as “The Jewish Question” (1843), well before the Manifesto, he had also shown, through careful analyses of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ and of key clauses of the French Constitution, how juridic equality was based on much more fundamental inequalities and how the right to private property is the most fundamental right guaranteed therein. In their numerous writings, Marx and Engels make quite explicit the distinction between the British and French experiences, showing how neither is capable of completing the revolutions they have set in motion; as the Manifesto puts it, ‘The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to encompass the wealth created by them’.

In the condensed, epic prose of the Manifesto, however, they present these two tales of the respective bourgeoisies as a single story of the structural imperative inherent in the generalization of the capitalist mode of production as such, as if the bourgeoisie that had revolutionized the forces of production was the same that was revolutionizing the political structures. Some writers, including many admirers of this text, have viewed this condensing of the respective experiences into one as a weakness, an over-generalization and an inaccurate characterization of the French bourgeoisie. That is to a certain extent true. The weakness would surely be more significant if we were dealing with a descriptive text that would require distinctions of that kind. Instead, the very method of the Manifesto assumes that each national bourgeoisie shall grow in historical conditions specific to it and that in the process of its own maturation each national bourgeoisie is beset with its own set of anachronisms and its own realties of uneven development. What is of central importance, however, is that no mature system of capitalist production can arise without generalized ‘free’ labour which must then be translated, sooner or later, into juridic equality, all the more so because this formal equality of otherwise unequal citizens is itself a reflection of the capitalist market that organizes commodity exchange in the language of equivalences. Thus, it did not matter, from the historical standpoint of the long-term trend, that production in the Southern United States of Marx's own time was based on unfree, slave labour, despite the Bill of Rights that had bravely, and with no small degree of duplicity, proclaimed that ‘All men are created equal’. What mattered, rather, was that the United States could not emerge as a uniform labour market and an industrialized society without, sooner or later, abolishing slavery and establishing some kind of juridic equality among its citizens. That process spanned over a hundred years or so, from the abolition of slavery during the 1860s to the Civil Rights legislations and movements of the 1950s and 1960s. But the process did occur, even though that newly-won juridic equality rests on top of a whole heap of social and economic inequalities, along lines of race as well as class.

But this question of the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie we could approach from another angle as well. Since the Manifesto, many Marxists have addressed a particular question: when does the bourgeoisie cease to be a revolutionary class? At the most general level, Lenin argued that the decisive turn in Europe came with (a) the completion of the process of forming nation-states in the latter half of the nineteenth century; (b) the emergence of the revolutionary movements of the working class during roughly the same time; and (c) the onset of imperialism which established the supremacy of ‘coupon-clippers’ within Europe and prevented the consolidation of the classes of modern capitalism in the colonies—an onset that Lenin dates also from about the 1880s. Within the colonies, however, the emergent national bourgeoisies could play a constructive role in anti-colonial struggles but the attempt had to be made to organize a leading role for worker-peasant coalitions within the liberation struggles. For Russia itself, Lenin argued that capitalism had produced sufficient concentrations of the proletariat in key areas of class conflict for the struggle for a socialist revolution to begin, and that contradictions of Russian capitalism were such that neither the economic task of further, full-fledged, independent industrialization nor the political task of creating a modern state could be left to the bourgeoisie.

Generally, Marxists have tended to argue that the shift in the role of the bourgeoisie as a ‘revolutionary’ class comes between the aborted revolutions of 1848, immediately after the publication of the Manifesto, and the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871. In other words, the bourgeoisie's fear of the proletarianized masses which was already palpable during the revolutions of 1848 turned, after the Commune, into a full-fledged nightmare of a possible proletarian revolution. Antonio Gramsci, however, makes an arresting point. He argues that the bourgeoisie's fear of the proletariat goes back to the French Revolution itself. It had fully mobilized the proletarianized masses in the course of its own struggle against the ancien regime, but then counterrevolutionary terror came as soon as it became clear that the masses were gathering on a platform of radical equality, with increasing talk of the abolition of property and full democratization of state administration, that threatened the supremacy of the bourgeoisie itself. The masses were of course suppressed. Gramsci argues that the European bourgeoisie learned from that experience so well that in every subsequent revolutionary upheaval the bourgeoisie always compromised with the landowning classes in defence of the rule of property as such. He traces the reactionary character of the bourgeois regimes in nineteenth century Europe, especially in Germany and Italy, to this enduring class compromise on the part of the bourgeoisie. In the case of Italy, with which he was mainly concerned, he argues that the weakness of parliamentary democracy and the rise of fascism were both related to the crisis created by the rise of the most modern capitalist relations arising in one sector of the economy, mostly in Northern Italy, and the most backward and anachronistic structures persisting in the rest of the country, especially in the South. This extreme form of uneven development he traces to the fact that the bourgeoisie never really confronted the landowning classes, even though it played a relatively progressive role in obtaining independence and unity of the Italian nation-state. According to this argument, then, the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie came and went rather quickly.

This sheds interesting light on the role of the bourgeoisie in India. Some sections of it certainly played a progressive role during the struggle for Independence. However, five countervailing factors should also be noted. First, key sectors of the Indian bourgeoisie, such as the house of Tata, remained closer to the colonial authority than to the national movement. Second, even those who drew closer to the national movement, mainly through Gandhi's mediation, such as the Birlas, adopted an attitude of collaborative competition with regard to the colonial authority, while fully anti-colonial positions were more common among sections of the smaller bourgeoisie. Third, the bourgeoisie was always suspicious of mass movements and, during the crucial two years between the end of the Second World War and the moment of Independence, as the revolutionary wave began to rise, the bourgeois leadership was no less keen on a quick settlement than the British themselves, even if it meant partition of the country; better partition than revolution, it effectively said. Fourth, after Independence the bourgeoisie made a far-reaching alliance with the landed classes, old and new, making impossible land reforms that would radically alter the conditions of life for the poor peasants, the rural proletariat, the bonded labourers, the adivasis and the like. It thus preempted the chance of extensive social reforms in the antiquated, traditional society which are simply not possible without radical re-distribution of land and other agricultural resources in the first place. The most advanced forms of capitalist development in some areas has been combined with the most extensive backwardness of social and property relations in much of the country. Much of the social pathology we witness today, giving rise to all manner of fascistoid violences, is ultimately rooted in this fact. Finally, the fear of the proletariat and the peasantry has meant that this bourgeoisie has found it easier to compromise with imperialism than to undertake radical transformation of Indian society, even for its own purposes; they would rather have an extremely restricted home market and an unhealthy, socially backward, illiterate or semi-literate work-force than undertake a social transformation that may slip out of their control. Instead of a ‘revolutionary’ bourgeoisie, we have something of a permanent, pre-emptive counterrevolution, which only goes to show that in a society such as the one we have, even the tasks of a bourgeois revolution cannot be fully carried out except within a socialist transition.


Schematically speaking, we could say that the Manifesto, and the science of Marxism of which this is a document of very great importance, is built around two kinds of principles or ‘laws’. One set consists of ‘laws’ pertaining to the very motion of the capitalist mode of production which are fundamental and immutable throughout the whole history of this mode, without which capitalism would cease to be capitalism as such. Three such laws can be summarized here, simply to illustrate a part of this theoretical core, or what Marx might have called the ‘rational kernel’ of this theory.

There is, first, the proposition that throughout its history, capitalism drives toward greater and greater polarization between the fundamental classes. This does not mean that no intermediate classes or strata are present at any given time; indeed, with the increasing complexity of administration, management and technical expertise required for expanded reproduction of capital, such intermediate strata arise all along the axis of this class polarization. What the law means, rather, is that the means of production for the expanded reproduction of capital tend to get concentrated at one end of the class polarization, while the increasingly more numerous majority gets proletarianized (i.e., loses control over these means of production) and is forced to sell its labour-power, whether in the ‘organized’ or the ‘unorganized’ sector, and whether on the full-time, permanent basis or as casual and temporary labourers. ‘Repression’ or ‘poverty’ are punctual features of this class relation, but what defines it as specifically ‘capitalist’ is the category of ‘exploitation’, i.e., expanded reproduction and accumulation of capital by one class that appropriates the labour-power of the other class. It is in relation to this polarization of classes that the concept of class struggle is derived, and the main point is that all classes, especially the two polar classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, participate in this struggle. We tend to think of class struggle only in relation to the proletariat, as revolutionary struggle. Marx's point is that the possessing class itself wages a brutal and permanent struggle in defence of its own class interests, through violence and threats of violence, through exploitations both extensive and intensive, by maintaining a permanent army of the unemployed, and through thousand other means in the social, political, economic, ideological and cultural arenas. Class struggle has, in other words, not one side but two.

Second, there is the iron ‘law’ of increasing globalization of the capitalist mode of production, first extensively by bringing more and more territories and populations under its dominion, and then intensively by constantly imposing newer and newer labour regimes and processes of production, which are first invented at the core of the system and then get enforced in its peripheries as and when the need arises. This globalizing tendency was there well before the Industrial Revolution came about and is an ongoing process today, in myriad forms. No pre-capitalist mode had this constant expansion as an inherent law of its own reproduction; capitalism does. The feudal lords of Britain had neither the design nor the capacity to extend their feudal mode into the rest of the world; the British bourgeoisie was increasingly embroiled in perfecting precisely such designs and capacities. Today, when some celebrated theorists in the advanced capitalist countries are talking of ‘late capitalism’, ‘post-imperialist capitalism’, even a ‘postmodern’ and ‘cybernetic’ capitalism in which production is said to have been replaced by information technologies, the basic fact is that, according to the calculations of the World Bank, the number of workers in the ‘modern’ (i.e. fully capitalist) sector has doubled during the thirty years between 1965 and 1995, the very years when capitalism is said to have abolished historic forms of labour (a book was recently published in the United States, by eminent labour theorists in the postmodern Left, simply called Post-Work).

The third such law that we can cite as a permanent feature of capitalism is the class nature of the state, i.e., that no capitalist society can exist and reproduce itself without a state that is the state of the bourgeoisie as a whole. Now, on the Left at least, we take this for granted. On Marx's part, this was a revolutionary discovery. For the political theory that he had inherited, from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and right up to Hegel, the normal and desirable state was one that stood above all classes and fractions of civil society, mediating their disputes and itself embodying the General Will. It is in this sense that Hegel had described the bureaucracy as ‘a universal class’; in other words, a class that represented not the interest of a particular class but a universal interest, of the whole society. It is directly in response to Hegel's description of the bureaucracy as the universal class that Marx was to say so emphatically that only the proletariat is potentially a universal class, since as an object of universal exploitation it has no particular interests to defend, and that the proletariat can actually become such a ‘universal class’ through a revolutionary re-structuring of society into one where ‘the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all’—free, above all, from exploitation. This definition of ‘freedom’—as a freedom, first of all, from exploitation—was also a new one. Through a dense and brilliant analysis of some founding texts of the French Revolution—‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ as well as some key clauses of the Republican Constitution—Marx had shown in “The Jewish Question” that the fundamental freedom granted by the Declaration is the right to private property, that the fundamental right granted was the right to defend one's property against encroachment by others, and that the core of legal government were laws pertaining to right and freedom of property. This, he argued, was certainly an advance over the arbitrary powers of the monarchical state, but, in a dialectical move, freedom from exploitation was now posited as the true freedom that could only be guaranteed through abolition of capitalism as such, as against the illusory and class-based freedom of private property as guaranteed by documents of the bourgeois revolution. The main point, in any case, was that a state that guaranteed the right to private property, hence the system of exploitation, could not possibly represent, either in theory or in practice, the General Will. Such a state had to be a class state, and that class society could not be abolished without simultaneously abolishing the class state.

Such are some of the fundamental ‘laws’ of motion under capitalism, and without some strict conception of such laws Marxism ceases to be a coherent theory. This does not mean that such laws function in exactly the same way in all places and all times. It does mean, though, that capitalism cannot exist without the operation of such laws. However, most of what passes for ‘laws of history’ or ‘laws of nature’ and even ‘laws of political economy’ are in fact what we might call laws of tendency, i.e., the view that since capitalism is on the whole an intelligible structure a correct understanding of the existing structure can reasonably predict that, all else being equal, certain phenomena would tend to take particular directions and particular forms. For example, Marx speaks in the Manifesto of the inherent tendency of capitalism toward periodic crises, and he speaks specifically of ‘the epidemic of overproduction’. In later, more mature studies of political economy, he was to closely demonstrate that the inherent tendency in the average rate of capitalist profit was toward decline, thanks to competitions of various sorts, crises of overproduction, etc. These are obviously laws of tendency that gives to capitalism a peculiarly unstable character. However, the rate of profit does not always fall, not in every period, not in every branch of production, not in all phases of the class struggle, not in every national space of investment. The bourgeoisie is always trying to maintain at least a constant, if not rising, rate of profit. Much of the drive behind imperialist expansion and exploitation of more and more regions and peoples of the world is precisely to stabilize and push up these rates in the core countries; and the bourgeoisie wages an unremitting class struggle against workers everywhere to simultaneously raise the productivity of labour, depress the wage rate and yet expand the market for its products—by raising, for example, the level of consumer debt, by extending to them a purchasing power beyond their earned incomes, so that the capitalists can sell their products while also collecting interest on the generalized debt. We have, in other words, not a teleological unfolding of an iron law but the contradictory structure of tendencies and counter-tendencies.

Broadly speaking, the guiding principle here is that, as Engels was to put it, ‘men make their own history but they make it in circumstances given to them’. History is, in other words, a dynamic and ever changing mix of intentions and constraints. The choices people make and the outcomes they produce are deeply constrained by the ‘circumstances given to them’. However, they could not make ‘their own history’ if intentions did not matter and if tendencies inherent in the system could not be reversed. Indeed, revolution is a moment where intentions—the subjective factor; the collective human agency—would confront the constraints and transform them in radically new directions.


This distinction between laws that are fundamental to the structure as a whole and laws that are only laws of tendency can be grasped if we look at the way the Manifesto speaks of (a) the process of globalization strictly in terms of the expansion of capital on the one hand, and (b) on the other, the probable consequences it attempts to foresee in diverse other areas, such as on the issue of ‘national specificity’ or on the issue of a ‘world literature’ arising in the distant future out of the dissolution of national literatures.

It is really quite extraordinary how frequently words like ‘global’ and ‘universal’ appear in the brief first part of the Manifesto. A very considerable conquest of the globe had been happening since at least the early part of the sixteenth century, driven largely by very powerful merchants' capital. The colonization of the Americas, the extermination of the bulk of their populations, the mass enslavement of Africans (thirty million slaves shipped out of Africa, with half of them dying before reaching the American and Caribbean shores), the network of trading and military posts all along the coasts of Africa and Asia, the virtually complete colonization of India itself—all this, and much more, had happened by the time the Manifesto was drafted. Indeed, the process had been much accelerated after the Industrial Revolution (it was actually Engels who was to call it that). Between 1770 and 1848, the British alone acquired Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, in addition to most of India, while France took chunks of North Africa.

How different was Marx's view of all that can be gauged from the fact that Hegel, the philosopher whom Marx admired as well as fought against the most, had seen in this wave of colonization a necessary and welcome solution, one almost ordained by nature itself, for the surplus population of Europe. Marx's great achievement was that he saw this process as part of what the Manifesto calls a ‘universal war of devastation’, connected it all with the inherent nature of capitalism, and then tried to make this perception a key element in the consciousness of the European working class itself. It needs to be said, however, that the colonialism of his day was nothing like the imperialism about which Lenin was to write some seventy years later and the beginning of which Lenin himself was to date around the 1880s, i.e., not in the days of Marx's youth but in the very last years of his life. And, during the seventy years since Lenin wrote his famous pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, some of the basic features of imperialism have again changed more radically than they did during the previous seventy years.

The astonishing fact is that when Marx writes specifically of the economic and technological expansion of capitalism on a global scale, and of the deep penetration of capitalist logic into regions very remote from Europe, today's reader tends to think not of the capitalism and colonialism of Marx's time but the capitalism and imperialism of our own time—despite all the historic shifts that have taken place and that have transformed the processes of globalization in very fundamental ways. He asserts that ‘modern industry has established the world market’, that ‘the bourgeoisie … must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere’, and that ‘in place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations everywhere’—at a time when most of Europe itself, let alone the rest of the world, did not have industrial economies. Even France was then an overwhelmingly rural society and Germany, which was to emerge by the end of the nineteenth century as one of three most industrialized societies alongside Britain and France, was at that time not even a unified nation-state. Similarly, Marx speaks here of capitalism's drive to unify the globe through a ‘revolution’ in transport—at a time when steamboats and railways were a bare novelty. The first steamboat had sailed from the Americas to Europe in 1819, and as late as 1840 railways in England itself covered merely 843 miles of track. Yet the vivid metaphors of speed and compression that Marx employs in speaking of the world having been transformed into a single entity through industry, technology, the global chase of commodities and the ‘cash nexus’, conjures up in the reader's mind today's world of jet travel, international TV channels, globalized patterns of fashions and fast foods, and the computerized network of stock exchanges across the globe where billions of dollars can be moved around in seconds. In rapid, sharp strokes necessary for so brief a text, Marx condenses description and prediction in a single sweep. He sees what is there already, and he grasps the long-range dynamics at work behind and beyond what he actually sees, so that if one sentence of the Manifesto gives us the capitalism of 1848 the very next one gives us an image of what was yet to be, in the indefinite future, right up to our own and beyond. What is of key importance here is the firmness and accuracy with which Marx was able to perceive the future development of capitalism by grasping its inexorable operative laws.

But there is also a structure of secondary formulations—also regarding ‘globalization’—essentially deductive and speculative in nature, about the likely consequences of this capitalist logic as it was expected to unfold in diverse areas of national formations, the arts, etc. Several of those formulations had to do with the kind of world European expansion into the rest of the world was to make. Here, in areas that are at some distance from economy as such, and which are areas essentially of political and cultural forms, two kinds of problems arise. The first, and in the long run less significant historically and theoretically, is the uncritical use of some inherited categories which was at best unpleasant, e.g., the description of capitalist Europe and precapitalist China as ‘civilized and ‘barbarian’ respectively. The second kind of problem pertains to the kind of expectation which subsequent history has proved to be wrong, especially in relation to the colonized countries. As colonialism fully matured and at length gave us what Lenin was to designate as ‘imperialism’, which is still very much with us, national differences, far from disappearing, in fact became more recalcitrant and more hierarchically structured. Nationalism itself was to have a history very different from what we can deduce from the Manifesto. Some of the correctives came in the later writings of Marx and Engels themselves, other and even more substantive ones came from a later generation of Marxists, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg in particular.

When Marx drafted the Manifesto he had studied great many things, but there is very little evidence that he had really studied the whole complexity of the colonial enterprise. It was only later, after the revolutions of 1848 had been defeated and he settled down to a life-long exile in London the next year, that he undertook any systematic study of colonialism, especially after Engels persuaded him to undertake the writing of some journalistic pieces for the New York Herald Tribune regularly, mainly in order to make a little money. This study then meant that both Marx and Engels started paying much greater attention to the actual events of colonial history as it unfolded over the next three or four decades, and this they did to the extent that it was possible to grasp those events from accounts in the British press. As I have argued at some length elsewhere, it was in those later years that Marx became much more thoroughly disillusioned with the ‘progressive’ results that he had expected of colonialism earlier, in his youth, and that both he and Engels began affirming the right of resistance on the part of the colonized peoples.9

With all the benefits of hindsight one hundred and fifty years later, one can make four points with some degree of certainty. One is that Marx and Engels themselves were to understand the phenomenon of colonialism much better in later years than they did at the time of writing the Manifesto; in 1847-48, they fully understood the key role of colonialism in the global expansion of the capitalist mode but not that, far from unifying the globe politically, colonialism would divide and sub-divide the world into numerous entities large and small, so that ‘national specificity’ would on the whole rather increase than decline.10 Second, even though they understood colonialism much better in later years, the structure itself was to alter very drastically and a wholly more complex and in some ways quite different theoretical apparatus would then be required, which was to be the focus of attention for a later generation of Marxists, Lenin most particularly, but also Bukharin, Luxemburg, Hilferding, and some of the Austro-Marxists such as Otto Bauer, who were to make very seminal contribution to theories of colonialism as well as nationalism. Third, if the political consequences could not be gauged with precision, less still was it possible to do so with respect to the cultural consequences; far from there arising a ‘world literature’ in any meaningful sense, as the Manifesto had envisioned, the cultural consequences of colonialism were such that the literatures of the colonized people were to remain regional and/or national, while in the global marketplace of capitalism they were always subordinated to the literatures of the advanced metropoles. Finally, Marx's own discovery that the rate and quantum of change under capitalism is greater than under any previous mode, and that this rate of change increases in every succeeding phase, also means that the world has by now changed so very much since the time not only of Marx but also of Lenin or even Gramsci that an immense new theoretical labour is required to understand the world as we now have it.

This discrepancy between the stunning prescience of Marx's summation of the fundamental structure in the strictly economic sphere, and the much less assured a touch in foreseeing the coming changes in some of the political and cultural spheres, can perhaps be looked at from another angle as well. Several years after drafting the Manifesto, in a famous formulation in his ‘Preface’ to A Critique of Political Economy of 1859, Marx was to write:

… a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of their conflict and fight it out.

What is striking about this distinction is that only ‘the transformation of the economic conditions of production’ are said to be available for being ‘determined with precision’, in a scientific manner. The ‘consciousness’ of that fundamental conflict is said to belong elsewhere—in ‘the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic’ forms—which evidently cannot be ‘determined’ with equal ‘precision’ even though—or, more likely, because—that is where people actually ‘fight it out’, so that, presumably, those forms are less the outcome of objective structural laws and much more ‘determined’ by the very way human subjects ‘fight it out’ in collective struggles that take not only ‘legal, political’ forms but also ‘religious, aesthetic, or philosophic’ forms. According to this principle, then, it is only logical that Marx could foresee with far greater precision much of the course that the globalization of the capitalist mode of economic production was to take but could not predict with anything like that degree of precision what ‘political’ or ‘aesthetic’ forms were to ensue.


Marx conceptualized the proletariat as a ‘universal class’ at a time when no country in Asia or Africa could be considered as having something resembling a modern proletariat. In the larger American countries, like the U.S. and Brazil, there were many more slaves than proletarians. Russia was steeped in serfdom; certainly the whole of Eastern and Southern Europe, and much of the rest as well, was predominantly agrarian. The term ‘universal class’ was used, I believe, in two senses. The first was in part a philosophical proposition: since what all proletarians have in common is an experience of exploitation and a location in processes of production that were collective as well as impersonal, they had an inherent (within the class, a universal) interest in a revolution against the system of exploitation as such; and since the system of exploitation could not be abolished piecemeal, nor could it be abolished without abolishing both capital and ‘wage-slavery’ at the same time, along with all the political, social and ideological superstructures that arose on the premise of that exploitation, the proletariat could not emancipate itself without abolishing the system as a whole, emancipating society as a whole; it was the class par excellance of universal emancipation.

That was the first sense and, as pointed out earlier, it was initially a philosophical proposition posited in opposition to Hegel's description of the bureaucracy as a ‘universal class’. But there was also the other sense that since capital had an inherent drive toward globalization, i.e., toward establishing its dominion in all corners of the earth, it was destined to constantly increase the number of proletarians around the globe so that, eventually, the proletariat would come to be comprised of the great majority of humanity, spread universally in all parts of the world: a world proletariat, in other words, over and above all national bounds. Universal in scale as well! This was also projected as a process of greater class polarization (‘simplification of the class structure’, as the Manifesto calls it) as well as absolute immiseration of the majority.

This is what has now come to pass, for the first time in history: not in Marx's time, not in Lenin's time, but in ours.

I have mentioned earlier that according to World Bank calculations the number of proletarians doubled in the course of the thirty years between 1965 and 1995. This number in now said to stand at roughly two and a half billion (i.e., two thousand five hundred million) of whom 120 million are said to be currently unemployed, roughly one billion are said to subsist on less than a dollar a day, and many unknown millions are said to have stopped looking for work. Needless to add that the overwhelming majority of this immiserated bulk lives in the poorer continents of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. For China alone, the World Bank calculates that there is, besides the employed and semi-employed proletariat, already a ‘floating population’ of 80 million who have ceased to be peasants and are not yet part of the ‘modern’ sector and that over a hundred more million peasants will leave the Chinese countryside over the next decade or so to look for work in the cities. Similar processes are at work in other countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America as well. The same statistics also suggest that no more than 12 to 15 per cent of labouring activity is now left on the surface of this earth which is not in one way or another, directly or remotely, connected with the world market; well over 80 per cent now produces for this integrated market—a novel ‘universalization’ in its own terms. As regards increasing immiseration, the May 1998 issue of Monthly Review published the following statistical table about shifts of wealth from the poor and the middling to the rich over a short span between 1965 and 1990:

shares of world income, per cent

1965 1990
Poorest 20 per cent 2.3 1.4
Second 20 per cent 2.9 1.8
Third 20 per cent 4.2 2.1
Fourth 20 per cent 21.2 11.3
Richest 20 per cent 69.5 83.4

The long and short of it is that for 80 per cent of the people around the globe share of wealth was cut by half in the course of barely 25 years, or over roughly a single generation, while the share of the lower 40٪ at the later point dropped to just over 3 per cent of the total. What is also significant is that the share of the second highest 20 per cent—presumably, the so-called ‘middle class’ or even perhaps ‘upper middle class’—also saw its share in total wealth cut by almost half. So much for the expansion or the financial security of this ‘middle class’! For the average share to be cut so drastically, at least a good number must have fallen into the category of ‘low income’ or even ‘poor’ and great many more must have seen their standards of living decline sharply and perhaps their levels of indebtedness rising proportionately. What is striking in any case is the absolute polarization: roughly 3 per cent of the income for 40 per cent of the people and 83 per cent of the wealth for the top 20 per cent.

Thus, increasing polarization, immiseration, proletarianization and primitive accumulation are ongoing processes in our own time. In the imperialist centres of the world which have experienced the highest concentration of accumulated capital, and where the processes of proletarianization and primitive accumulation were completed earlier, the emphasis has shifted more toward intensive exploitation and accumulation of relative surplus value, based on more advanced technologies. In formations of backward capital, the intensity of labour rather than of capital is still very substantially at the heart of ‘globalization’; for China, which has had spectacular though now declining success in expanding its exports, something like three-fourths of all exports are now labour-intensive whereas less than forty percent were labour-intensive a decade ago when the volume of exports was much more limited. The great increase in exports is owed, in other words, not so much to any technological ‘modernization’ of the process of production but to the more methodical, more intensified exploitation of labour.

Simply in terms of the global spread, the proletariat is now infinitely more ‘universal’ than ever before, which then means that, in objective terms, the imperative for workers of the world to unite is greater than ever before. This universal proletarianization does not come without its own problems, however. As David Harvey puts it:

The workforce is now far more geographically dispersed, culturally heterogeneous, ethnically and religiously diverse, racially stratified, and linguistically fragmented. … Differentials (both geographical and social) in wages and social provision within the global working class are likewise greater than they have ever been.11

Problems of this kind, as regards stratification within the working class, which compound the difficulty of obtaining working class unity, are then further compounded by several other factors such as increasing proportion of casual and temporary work as against more secure full-time employment; increasing weight of the ‘unorganized’ sector relative to the ‘organized’ one; great mobility and transience of the labour force, as well as the greater mobility of capital itself, and so on.

In sum, then, capital has more than completed what was once conceived as its historic mission: it has created a single world market and it has taken the process of proletarianization deep into the farthest nook and corner of this earth. Obtaining working class unity, starting at the point of habitation and production and spiralling up to national levels and across the nation-states, shall be the more exacting task for militants of a socialism yet to come. When the Manifesto reminds us that ‘every class struggle is in essence a political struggle’ it calls upon us to recognize that same distinction which I tried to clarify a bit earlier with the help of Marx's formulation in his ‘Preface’ to A Critique of Political Economy of 1859. Let me repeat that formulation for greater emphasis:

… a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of their conflict and fight it out.

In order to transform the class struggle that is forever going on in ‘material transformation of the economic conditions of production’ into a properly ‘political struggle’, all the ‘ideological forms in which men become conscious of their conflict and fight it out’—legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic forms—need to be addressed together. Otherwise, those issue of subjective consciousness and objective stratification which divide the working classes of the world cannot be addressed. The more diverse the populations that get proletarianized, the more diverse will have to be the forms that are designed to bring about that unity. For, as the scope of proletarianization has escalated rapidly, every ‘political struggle’ has become accordingly more complex, encompassing a greater variety of ‘forms’ (‘religious, aesthetic’ etc.). For, one bitter lesson we have learned in the course of this process is that the fact of immiseration itself does not produce a consciousness of class unity. For that, the domain of consciousness has to be addressed in the very forms in which it experiences the world, and those forms are social and ideological in nature.


  1. The vivid phrase, ‘labour of the tailor that disappears into the coat’, is from Louis Althusser who coined it in an entirely different context.

  2. The Communist Manifesto has always been published as the joint product of Marx and Engels. That is not entirely inaccurate. In the present essay, however, I refer punctually to Marx as the author of this text. This calls for some explanation. The simplest reason is a matter of stylistic convenience; it is easier to refer to one author than constantly refer to both of them. There is also the question of historical accuracy in the strict sense, on two counts. First, we know that the final draft was prepared by Marx alone, at a time when Engels was not available for consultation and the Communist League was threatening punitive action against ‘Citizen Marx’ for the delay; the responsibility was his and was perceived to be as such. Second, any comparison between the text of the Manifesto with the two earlier texts, ‘Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith’ and ‘Principles of Communism’, which Engels had produced only a few months earlier, would show how very sweeping were Marx's departures from those preparatory materials. Quite aside from the radical revision of substance, virtually every sentence in the key first Part, ‘Bourgeois and Proletarians’, bears the inimitable signature of Marx's style, demonstrating, as was usual in his writing, that Marx was one of the great stylists in the history of nineteenth century prose. Engels' contribution to this text was substantive but more indirect, in the sense that the materialist conception of history which the text so pithily summarizes was developed by both of them together, notably in The German Ideology. Earlier versions of this conception are also to be found in such texts as The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts which belong to Marx alone, and in The Holy Family which began as a 15-page pamphlet by Engels and which Marx then expanded into a whole book. As Engels himself always recognized, Marx was the senior partner in what they humourously called their ‘joint firm’.

  3. It is in this perspective that ‘to win the battle of democracy’ is seen as ‘the first step in the revolution’ for establishing ‘the political supremacy of the working class’. Elsewhere, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would itself be described as ‘democracy carried to its fullest’ and as the right of the majority to act in the interest of the majority. Since the majority is necessarily proletarianized under capitalism, and since democracy is conceived of as rule of the majority, Marx sometimes uses words ‘proletarian’ and ‘democratic’ to mean the same thing, and the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was initially designed to convey the same nuance. All of that is at least very confusing for today's reader but makes perfect sense when the standpoint is understood.

  4. As indicated partially in the previous note, the terminology of the Manifesto can pose many problems for the unwitting reader. In his famous commentary on the Manifesto, Ryazanoff points out that in the foreword to the original German edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels tells us that he makes use of words like worker, proletarian, working class, non-possessing class, and proletariat to refer to the one and the same phenomenon. Some of that generalized sense of the word ‘proletariat’ is there in the Manifesto as well; much of what got called the ‘Paris proletariat’ then was comprised of the more pauperized craftsmen, struggling shopkeepers, and a variety of proletarianized urban clusters living as often by wit as by wage but overwhelmingly outside modern factory production. A further example refers to the much maligned formulation regarding ‘the idiocy of rural life’. Hobsbawm points out that the original German word ‘idiotismus’ is much closer to the Greek ‘idiotes’ which has the meaning not of ‘stupidity’ or ‘soft-headedness’ but of ‘narrow horizon’ or ‘isolation from wider society’ and, more interestingly, ‘a person concerned only with his own private affairs and not with those of the wider community’. The import of Marx's use of the word ‘idiot’ is thus closer to ‘isolated’ in one sense and ‘individualist’ in another. This, then, is connected with the crucial Marxist distinction between the individual character of peasant production and the collective character of the production of the industrial proletariat. There are numerous other misunderstandings of this kind, pertaining to our text, which are unfortunately much too common.

  5. Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, London 1995; French original, 1993.

  6. Aijaz Ahmad, ‘The Communist Manifesto and the Problem of Universality’, Monthly Review, June 1998.

  7. The most stimulating statement of this problem can be found in Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘The Communist Manifesto After 150 Years’, in Monthly Review, May 1998; reprinted in the new edition of the Manifesto issued from the Monthly Review Press, 1998. In the following couple of paragraphs I have drawn upon but also partly departed from that very fine-grained analysis.

  8. Rosa Luxemburg was to summarize these alternative possibilities in a pithy phrase when she said that capitalism does not necessarily lead to socialism, so that the choice facing humankind was ‘socialism or barbarism’. Looked at from the vantage-point of today, Marx's own phrase ‘mutual destruction of contending classes’ is more apt than might appear to those who are unduly impressed by the achieving side of capitalist domination today. Examples are myriad, but we shall confine ourselves to only one. A fundamental contradiction that is inherent in the profit-driven capitalist mode is the destruction—first rather slow, and then increasingly more massive destruction—of a kind of environment that is necessary for sustaining human life, so that we now have an ecologically unsafe planet to the extent that survival of the human species into the coming some centuries cannot be confidently predicted, affecting all the ‘contending classes’ equally.

  9. Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, London 1992; Delhi 1994; pp. 228-29. Two passages, from Marx and Engels respectively, should clarify this point. The first, from Marx, occurs in a letter written rather late in life (to Danielson, in 1881):

    In India serious complications, if not a general outbreak, are in store for the British government. What the British take from them annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless for the Hindoos, pensions for the military and civil servicemen, for Afghanistan and other wars, etc., etc.,—what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India,—speaking only of the value of the commodities that Indians have to gratuitously and annually send over to England—it amounts to more than the total sum of the income of the 60 million of agricultural and industrial laborers of India. This is a bleeding process with a vengeance.

    [Italics in the original]

    And, well before Marx referred to colonialism as a ‘bleeding process with a vengeance’, Engels had this to say about what we today call ‘national liberation’:

    There is evidently a different spirit among the Chinese now. … The mass of people take an active, nay, a fanatical part in the struggle against the foreigners. They poison the bread of the European community at Hongkong by wholesale, and with the coolest meditation. … The very coolies emigrating to foreign countries rise in mutiny, and as if by concert, on board every emigrant ship, fight for its possession. … Civilization mongers who throw hot shell on a defenseless city and add rape to murder, may call the system cowardly, barbarous, atrocious; but what matter it to the Chinese if it be but successful? … We had better recognize that this is a war pro aris et focis, a popular war for the maintenance of Chinese nationality.

    (‘Persia and China’, 1857)

  10. In the imperialist core this ‘national specificity’ is of course declining at the current, far more mature stage, as indicated for example in the ongoing European integration. Such was not to be the case in the rest of the globe, however, and even in Europe this is a very recent and still very, very uneven process.

  11. David Harvey, ‘The Geography of Class Power’, The Socialist Register 1998, Merlin Press (in UK) and Monthly Press (in USA), 1998.

Irfan Habib (essay date 1999)

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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.]

Set to draft The Communist Manifesto for publication early in 1848, Marx and Engels were called upon to give a popular form to their understanding of philosophy, history, economics and politics, and to frame a practical programme on this basis. The effort was at once both summation and creation: summation of principles that they had come to grasp both independently and together in the preceding five years, and creation to deal with lacunae that to be filled up. The task was brilliantly performed making the Manifesto undoubtedly the most important single document in the annals of the Communist movement. There is no need of special justification, therefore, to analyse its contents with exceptional care.


The Communist Manifesto is a product of that basic departure from the materialism of the Young Hegelians which led to the initial formulation of Marx's own conception of history. In 1845 when he wrote his Theses on Feuerbach, the very first thesis was as follows:

The chief defect of all previous materialism—that of Feuerbach included—is that things, reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. … Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from conceptual objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity.

The matter is further elaborated in the third thesis:

The [Feuerbachian] materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated.

The theses lead up to the following celebrated finale:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.1

The crucial importance of these Theses has often been ignored by critics of Marxism (and, unluckily, some of its followers as well), who attribute to it a very determinist aspect, as if ‘material’ factors simply determine consciousness, which then merely serves as a medium for bringing about changes that those material circumstances have made ‘inevitable’. Such interpretations have often relied upon Marx's Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), in which he speaks of how ‘the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life,’ and goes on to assert that ‘it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but, on the contrary their social existence that determines their consciousness’.2

But if we look at these words closely, we musk ask, what, after all, ‘production of material life’ consists in. Surely, human labour (and, therefore, human consciousness) is the driving element behind all processes of production, and man's social being itself is the result in a large part of his own practice. The ‘consciousness’ that man's social being ‘determines’ or sets limits to is, then, only what stands outside the realm of material production, the seemingly pure realm of intellect. The position is clarified in Marx's conclusion that mankind always ‘sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve; since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation’.3 It, however, still remains of decisive moment for human intellects to correctly discover the soluble question and define its solution: ‘the educator must himself be educated’. And once individuals have grasped the questions to be taken up, the ideas attained have to be propagated in order to have practical consequence. This surely constitutes ‘the significance of “revolutionary”, of “practical-critical”, activity’ of which Marx speaks in his Theses on Feuerbach.4 Gramsci, the Italian Communist thinker in his Prison Notebooks argued insightfully that ‘fatalism’ (i.e. determinism, the belief in the inevitability of a certain process) is at best ‘the clothing worn by real and active will when in a weak position’. He urged that ‘it is essential to demonstrate the futility of mechanical determinism’; for otherwise it would become ‘a cause of passivity, of idiotic self-sufficiency’—a fatal position for any revolutionary movement.5

While Marx and Engels paid full attention to limits on immediate ‘practice’, set by the historically inherited circumstances, they did not subscribe to any belief in any automatic or blind force of history. The action to change the world could come only by the diffusion of ideas leading to revolutionary practice. It was, therefore, inherent in the philosophical conclusions they had reached in 1845-46, that they should now come forward with a clear clarion call for revolution—which was the main object of The Communist Manifesto. The Manifesto is thus a splendid monument to the confident belief of Marxism's founding fathers that it was for thinking men, not blind ‘matter’, to rise and overthrow the existing order.


Complementing Marx's and Engels's belief that theory must lead to revolutionary practice, was their application of the dialectical method to history, which implies that changes are to be seen as the results of the interplay of contradictions. Dialectics came to Marx from Hegel, but, as he put it in his Preface to the second German edition of Capital, I (1873), the ‘mystified form’ which had been given to dialectics by Hegel needed to be transformed into a ‘rational form’. In this form,

it [dialectics] includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up, because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence, because it lets nothing impose upon it and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.

And he then goes on to speak of the ‘contradictions inherent in the movement of capitalist society’.6

Whether what Marx did with Hegel's dialectics was merely an inversion (‘turned right side up again’, as Marx said in the Preface above quoted), or a fundamental ‘break’ with Hegel (as Althusser has urged)7 is an important question; but whatever the answer, Marx's use of dialectics to fashion his vision of history is hardly to be disputed. Marx's application of dialectics to society and history first appeared appropriately enough in his ‘Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law’, an article written in March-August 1843. It was here that the concept of a major contradiction in society, the contradiction of classes, was identified. The struggle it gave rise to must result in ‘part of civil society emancipating itself and attaining universal supremacy’.8 In Marx's and Engels's joint work The Holy Family, written the following year, and published in 1845, the relationship between ‘the proletariat and [men of] wealth’ is presented as one of ‘antitheses’,9 and Engels in a speech in 1845 spoke of this as a ‘contradiction which will develop more and more sharply’.10

In The German Ideology (1845-46), the next step was taken of sketching a succession of major classes based on different ‘property relations’, the development from one social formation to another taking place as a result of class struggle. Here it is assumed that human society from the very beginning had a form of ‘division of labour’, giving rise to a corresponding form of ‘property’. As the division of labour become more and more complex, the forms of property changed, giving rise to corresponding classes, with mutually antagonistic interests. Thus, first, there was ‘tribal property’ with patriarchal relations growing into slavery; then ‘ancient communal and state property’ where ‘the class relations between citizens and slaves are now completely developed’. The third form was ‘feudal or estate property’, which had ‘landowners’ on one side and ‘the enserfed small peasantry’ on the other.11 From out of these relationships developed the system of manufactures; and then, with large scale industry, came the modern ‘bourgeois society’, with possessors of ‘industrial capital’ being confronted by ‘the proletarians’.12

It was clearly this understanding of the past attained within some five or six years by Marx and Engels that found its ultimate generalization in the sentence with which the main text of the Manifesto begins: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. ‘Despite such modification of the words ‘all hitherto existing society’ that Marx and Engels were to make later, this sentence undoubtedly represents the core of the materialist conception of history, and the basic premise on which any Marxist historiography can be constructed.


The reason why Marx and Engels came later to restrict the application of classes and class struggles to only the later (or historical) periods of ‘all hitherto existing society’ was because zoological science and social anthropology, which had seemingly lagged behind the progress of philosophy and political economy, made up the lag in the period following the Manifesto. In The German Ideology it had been assumed by Marx and Engels that the appearance of mankind, the formation of society and the division of labour were all inseparable and simultaneous events. Natural scientists had not as yet seen any evolutionary sequence in the origins of the various species, including homo sapiens; and there was yet no answer to the assertion that man, with his specific anatomical structure, was created all at once. In his Paris Manuscripts of 1844, Marx had found it easier to refute the conception of the creation of the world, by bringing up the results of geological observation, which pointed to spontaneous evolution. But for human evolution at the anatomical plane, there was nothing that Marx could urge, except to assert vehemently the fact of man's ‘self-creation, his own formation process’;13 but this, on the basis of knowledge then available, could be valid only for the social, not anatomical, history of man. The current scientific belief still relied on the dictum of the immutability of each species that had been so authoritatively pronounced by Linnaeus (d. 1778).

The scientific breakthrough came with the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Evolution (and, therefore, dialectics) was at work even in the anatomical formation of man; and, no wonder, Marx was extremely excited by Darwin's great discovery.14 This immediately opened the question of the transition from ape to man (on which Engels was to write a pamphlet in 1876),15 and the nature of the evolution of society. In his 1844 Paris Manuscripts Marx had distinguished man from animals by his ability to produce more than what he immediately needed;16 but now this capacity could also be seen as an acquired one after man had anatomically evolved.

The solution, for Marx and Engels, came to hand, when in 1877 the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan published his Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Marx took copious notes from the book, though death (1883) prevented him from critically evaluating the results of Morgan's researches. But Engels carried out the required undertaking and published his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884. In the Morganian state of ‘savagery’, human society existed, with production ‘essentially collective’; the producers being also the consumers. The ‘division of labour’ came late, and, as it evolved, generated classes, until ‘with slavery, which reached its fullest development in civilization, came the first great development of society into an exploiting and an exploited class’.17 Classes and class struggles thus originated at a late stage in the time-span of human existence, when man could produce, and, therefore, be forced to produce, a surplus—and this the exploiting class could seize.

Once this decisive elucidation of the origin of class divisions in human society had been made, it became necessary for Engels to introduce a note in the 1888 English edition of the Manifesto to the effect that the phrase ‘all hitherto existing society’ should be modified to cover only the period of ‘written history’. Since writing in all societies originated long after the ages of ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarism’ were past, this was a good counsel of caution. But Engels's note made it clear that what he wished to exclude was not the entire period previous to written history (now generally called prehistory), but the period of ‘the primitive communistic society’ when owing to the low level of production and collective organization, classes did not exist. Only when the primitive society decayed, did ‘separate and finally antagonistic classes’ appear on the scene.


In its short description of the pre-modern classes, based mainly on European history, the Manifesto follows the longer description attempted in The German Ideology, already mentioned.18 It particularly underlines two important points, both relating to the nature of class struggle in pre-modern epochs.

First, the class struggle though ‘uninterrupted’, was ‘now hidden, now open’. In other words, since class interests were always in contradiction, class conflict was always present. But the extent to which the struggle was grasped as a class struggle in the contestants' consciousness varied: this seems the best way of how the words ‘now hidden, now open’ are to be understood. Here a passage in The German Ideology may again be taken to have presaged more explicitly what the Manifesto here touches on, with rather tantalizing brevity:

… all struggles within the state, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc., etc., are mere illusory forms—altogether the general interest is the illusory form of common interests—in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another.19

In other words, written records of the past cannot, of themselves, always be expected to give a direct explicit exposition of the class struggles as were then taking place. Marx was to note in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that a period of social transformation cannot be judged ‘by its own consciousness’ in the same way as ‘one does not judge an individual by what he says about himself’.20 One major change from earlier times brought about by the rise of capitalism is that the oppressed class, the proletariat, is becoming more and more conscious of its own existence as a class and of the fundamental antagonism between itself and the owners of capital.

The second feature of pre-capitalist formations that the Manifesto mentions, explains why the class struggle could so often remain dormant in the consciousness of the oppressed classes. This was because of the complexity of those earlier class structures:

In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradations of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.

In The German Ideology Marx and Engels had already explained how such complexities in medieval Europe hindered the development of class struggle.21 In that text a further important point was made, that such complexity was to be expected in all societies where human relations were based not purely on exchange, but on custom and other social institutions (‘personal relations’). But things change, when, as in modern bourgeois society, individuals are ‘independent of one another and are only held together by exchange’. Here as labour (or, as Marx would say later, labour power) itself becomes a commodity, in conditions of ‘large-scale industry’, the class contradictions become overwhelmingly dominant and sharper.22

This conclusion is repeated in more vibrant language in the Manifesto:

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

These ideas about the nature of class structures and class struggles were offered in the Manifesto in respect of Europe, to which till then the knowledge of Marx and Engels had been largely restricted. But in the 1850s Marx began to read extensively about India, and it clearly seemed to him that the caste system was another form of those complex gradations which had marked pre-bourgeois societies in Europe. Writing in 1853 he saw that the foundations of the caste system lay in ‘hereditary divisions of labour’, divisions that, as he noted later, were carried to the extreme of ‘conversion of fractional work into the life-calling of one man’. By their divisiveness, the castes constituted ‘decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power’. Yet these divisions, like the pre-modern gradations in Europe touched upon in the Manifesto, could not withstand the introduction of bourgeois conditions: ‘Modern industry, resulting from the railway system will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes …’.23

Marx might have been optimistic here, and did not allow for the continuing ideological backwardness which would sustain the caste system, even after its main economic basis in the form of division of labour had been removed or curtailed. But what is important for us is that within almost five years of composing the Manifesto, he was essentially recognizing a prospective historical process in India similar to the one that had taken place in Europe—a complex of class gradations being immensely simplified by the onset of capitalist relations. Here, therefore, there was no desire in Marx to seek any exceptionalism for areas outside Europe.


It will be noticed that in the Manifesto there is not yet any use of the term ‘mode of production’. The term with its sense definitely established occurs in the Grundrisse, Marx's extensive manuscript notes, composed in 1857-58;24 but the locus classicus for the term is the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, which Marx published early in 1859 immediately after Grundrisse. In the Preface the ‘mode of production’ appears as the sum total of ‘the relations of production’—the base—and the ‘legal and political institutions’ and ‘forms of social consciousness’ which correspond to it. A ‘mode of production’ having passed its prime begins to decay from its own contradictions, whereafter ‘an era of social revolution’ ensues, leading to the rise of new ‘superior relations of production’. And so ‘in broad outline’ Marx could distinguish ‘the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and bourgeois modes of production’ as successive social formations.25

It could be said that the succession of ancient, feudal, and bourgeois modes, with slave, serf and wage-labour as the respective defining basic forms of relations of production, is implied in the text of the Manifesto (and in the earlier German Ideology), as we have seen. Essentially, what the Preface to the Critique does, is to put that description into a more theoretically refined mould, through a clearer application of the dialectical method to social history.

The reference to the Asiatic mode is, however, one singular addition, since there is no trace of it in the Manifesto or earlier writings. Marx and Engels appear to have become interested in the economic formations outside Europe for the first time in 1853; and there is much reflection in the Grundrisse (1857-58) on the Indian (‘Asiatic’) community and the despotic states that arose to exploit these communities.26 When Marx listed the ‘Asiatic’ as the earliest mode, preceding the ancient and feudal, he probably had in mind not a territorial mode but the earliest form of ‘tribal property’ which he thought lasted in Asia much longer than in Europe. This becomes clear from his statement in the Grundrisse that

Slavery and serfdom are thus only further developments of the form of property resting on the clan system. They necessarily modified all of the latter's forms. They can do this least of all in the Asiatic form.27

The intrusion of the ‘Asiatic’ in a succession of ‘modes’ was not without its problems, especially since its persistence would imply, as Marx rather incautiously stated in 1853, that

Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history is the history of successive intruders who founded their empires on the basis of that unresisting and unchanging society.28

Clearly, the emergence of individual petty production within the community, the production of a marketable surplus and so the emergence of a commodity sector along with the presumed ‘natural’ economy of the village, the appearance of a ‘despotic’ power, taking ‘rent’ as ‘tax’, processes recognized by Marx himself as taking shape within the ‘Asiatic’ system, meant that the Asian continent, or India (to Marx, the main ground for his ‘Asiatic’ evidence), could not be devoid of historical change.29 One should moreover remember that the denial of history to India, expressed in 1853, was never repeated by Marx and Engels; and that, while in 1888 Engels did suggest a modification to the ‘history of class struggles’ formulation in the Manifesto in order to accommodate the stage of primitive communism, he proposed no further modification in order to provide for the history-less ‘Asiatic Mode’. There is, therefore, no doubt the universality of the Manifesto's principal historical dictum about class struggle continued to be upheld by its authors, as applying to all societies blessed by the exploitation of one class by another (as the ‘Asiatic’ mode in its ‘despotic’ form certainly was). There could be no exceptions to this rule.30


The Manifesto provides us with a sketch of the emergence and development of the bourgeoisie, tracing its origins to ‘the serfs of the Middle Ages’, from amongst whom ‘sprang the chartered burghers’, from whom, in turn, came ‘the first elements of the bourgeoisie’. In Marx's usage the terms ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘capitalists’ are not always synonymous. ‘Bourgeoisie’ is generally the broader term, representing not only the owners of capital, who employ wage-labour in modern industry—and to whom he restricts the term ‘capitalist’ in Capital—but is a much larger class with much earlier origins, and includes merchants, and pre-industrial manufacturers, from whose fold ‘the modern bourgeois’, the industrial capitalists proper, have arisen.

The Manifesto identifies two important factors for the rise of the bourgeoisie and the emergence of capitalism. The first was the growth of the market, initiated by the discovery of America and the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, which resulted in Europe's access to the ‘East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonization of America, [and] trade with the colonies …’. These markets required production on a scale for which the feudal craft-guild system was unsuitable; large workshops had, therefore, to be established, with ‘division of labour’ not, as previously, between guilds but within ‘each single workshop’: this was the basis of ‘the manufacturing system’, which was ultimately dissolved or transformed by machinery into the modern factory system.

This account was based on Marx's and Engels's economic and historical studies, carried on till that date. The relationship of market to production was at the heart of the great controversy between the Mercantilists and their opponents, out of which controversy the science of Political Economy originated. The increase in productivity caused by the division of labour within the workshop had been classically emphasized by Adam Smith in 1776.31 And the transformation wrought by machinery was especially studied by Ricardo in a new chapter added to his text in 1821.32 Marx had already discussed in his Poverty of Philosophy (1847) the matter of the markets (‘the increase of commodities put into circulation from the moment trade penetrated to the East Indies, by way of the Cape of Good Hope; the colonial system; the development of maritime trade’), of the ‘workshop’ of the ‘manufacturing industry’, and of the transformation in the division of labour brought about by machinery,33 what the Manifesto does is to reproduce the essential points made there.

But, if the Manifesto sums up what classical Political Economy had already expounded with regard to the growth of bourgeois relations of production, it necessarily lacked what came to be Marx's own crucial contribution to the history of capitalism, viz. the theory of the primitive or primary accumulation of capital. In 1857-58 in the Grundrisse Marx made some important observations about ‘the original accumulation of capital’, but this was done mainly in order to show that not money, but social changes, helped to bring such accumulation about.34 These remarks can hardly be considered to anticipate the main theory that was presented in all its fullness in the last portion of Capital, Volume I, Part VIII: ‘The So-called Primitive Accumulation’.35

Marx here begins by pointing out that the initial circuit of capitalist production can take place only when possessors of capital and free labourers can come together ‘face to face’. This is made possible only if the former have accumulated wealth (convertible into capital) outside of, or previous to, capitalist production, and the latter have been ‘freed’ of their means of production as petty producers. There must therefore be a process of ‘expropriation’ of the one class by the other before capitalist production can begin. It is this process that constitutes ‘Primitive Accumulation’.36

Marx describes two such major processes or forms of primitive accumulation: one, internal; the other, external. Taking England as the classical case he describes at length how the English peasant was deprived of his land, from the period of the Tudor enclosures to the private and parliamentary enclosures of the eighteenth century.37 Primitive accumulation here was achieved by brute force, its principal moments those when

great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and ‘unattached’ proletarians on the labour market. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process.38

The second process, the external, consisted of the forcible plunder and expropriation of colonial peoples:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal [Amerindian] population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.39

Of these proceedings Marx then offers a trenchant account, touching on the colonial regimes of terror, the loot of India, the slaughter of the Amerindian people and, not the least, the African slave trade.40

This picture of the rise of capitalism is profoundly different from that given in the Manifesto, where we see burgesses growing into modern bourgeois by simple expansion of trade and gains from production. But Marx now dismisses this simple mode of growth (transformation of guild-masters and artisans into ‘full-blown capitalists’ through ‘gradually extending exploitation of wage-labour and corresponding accumulation’) as a process that would have given only ‘snail's pace’ to the development of capitalist production.41 Primitive accumulation, forcible expropriation, internal and external, could alone give the necessary pace and scale to capital accumulation. Force was central to this process—the whole process of primitive accumulation illustrated how ‘force is the midwife of every old society, pregnant with a new one. It is in itself an economic power.’42

One must, therefore, realise that the description of the rise of capitalism in the Manifesto is seriously incomplete. The forcible expropriation of the peasants and colonial peoples (as against simple conquests of rural and colonial markets) do not appear in the Manifesto: even the infamous trans-Atlantic slave trade is not mentioned. This was because, as we have seen, the Manifesto had basically accepted what classical Political Economy had till then taught about the growth of production through an expansion of the market and forms of division of labour. Marx subsequently made his own historical discoveries, leading to another decisive break (comparable to the one in the realm of surplus value) from the legacy of Adam Smith and Ricardo.


At the time of the drafting of the Manifesto, Marx was well aware of the effect of England's industrial development on crafts and employment in non-capitalist countries. In 1845-46, he and Engels noted in The German Ideology how ‘if in England a machine is invented [it] deprives countless workers of bread in India and China’.43 A year later in the Poverty of Philosophy, while speaking of economists' optimism with regard to ‘improvement’, Marx asked sarcastically whether they ‘were thinking of the millions of workers who had to perish in the East Indies so as to procure for the million and half workers employed in the same [textile] industry in England three years' prosperity out of ten’.44

These statements are not repeated in the Manifesto, though it does say that ‘all old established national industries have been destroyed or are being destroyed’, where the authors might have had in mind colonial craft industries as well. Then follows a passage which touches upon the new condition of dependence that capitalism was imposing on the rest of the world:

Just as it [the bourgeoisie] has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.

It should be recognized that this dependence is visualized in the Manifesto in economic terms, not political. ‘The prices of its commodities’, it says a few lines earlier, ‘are the heavy artillery with which it [the bourgeoisie] batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate’. Yet as Marx was himself later to note, it had been not cheap prices, but canon with which Britain forced China to open its markets to opium and other goods through the infamous First Opium War, 1840-42.45

In a very important (but rather neglected) article of 1859 Marx noted that Chinese goods could not be undersold by British exports because Britain did not yet have the necessary political power in China to undermine the position of Chinese rural producers, in the way it had done in India.46 And with respect to India, Marx had seen as early as 1853 that the Free Traders needed first to conquer it (‘to get it’) ‘in order to subject it to their sharp philanthropy’.47 In 1859, again, he remarked on the financial burdens England had to accept ‘for the “glorious” reconquest of India’ after the 1857 Revolt, for the purpose of ‘securing the monopoly of the Indian market to the Manchester free traders’.48 It nearly seems as if Marx was anticipating the notion of imperialism of free trade, which Gallagher and Robinson introduced in a seminal article published almost a hundred years later, in 1953.49 In general, Marx's attitude towards colonialism hardened perceptibly as he read more about it. One can see from his articles in the New York Daily Tribune in the 1850s what harsh and uncompromising indictment of the colonial system he was capable of.50

Since the Manifesto precedes its authors' attainment of the recognition of colonialism as a necessary adjunct of free trade, it naturally does not put forward any explicit objective of colonial emancipation. But within very few years of its publication, Marx himself was savouring the prospect of a free China and free India. In 1850 he closed a report on China with the words:

When in their imminent flight across Asia our European reactionaries will ultimately arrive at the Wall of China, … who knows if they will not find there the inscription: ‘The Chinese Republic—Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’51

And three years later, he was looking forward to ‘the Hindus [Indians] [having] grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether’.52


The Communist Manifesto was written to meet an important need—the need to put in a short text the main principles of Communism, a task that was brilliantly performed—the stirring language conveying the main ideas without loss of precision. If the Manifesto was written in time to offer to the proletariat a guide before it entered the revolutionary upsurge of Europe in 1848, its value has only grown further in that today, after the grave retreat of socialism on the world scale in the last decade and more, the working class of all countries needs to be rallied to the cause of socialism still more urgently and more resolutely. But these very circumstances also require that Marxian theory should be closely and critically grasped. One needs, therefore, to look at the Manifesto's contents carefully in the light of the stage in the evolution of Marxism at which it was written. The perception of historical development, especially of the development of capitalism, was considerably enriched by Marx and Engels in the years after the publication of the Manifesto. The present paper is an attempt to indicate in what areas we must supplement the theoretical framework of the Manifesto by drawing upon the later discoveries and insights of its authors. A reading of the Manifesto, with these kept in mind, can surely help us to serve its cause only still better.


  1. ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, the original version, as published in English translation in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, V, Moscow 1976, pp. 3-5. Emphasis as in the original. The final thesis reappears in The German Ideology, composed by Marx and Engels in 1845-46, in the following words: ‘… in reality and for the practical materialist, i.e. the communist, it is a question of revolutionizing the existing world, of practically coming to grips with and changing the things found in existence’. Ibid., pp. 38-39. The portion containing this passage seems to be omitted in S. Ryazanskaya's translation of The German Ideology, Moscow 1964; it should have come on p. 39.

  2. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, translated by S. Ryazanskaya, edited by M. Dobb, Moscow 1978, pp. 20-21.

  3. Ibid., p. 21.

  4. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, V, p. 1.

  5. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, New York 1971, pp. 336-37. Also see Louis Althusser, For Marx, translated by Ben Brewster, Harmondsworth 1969, pp. 105-06, n. 23.

  6. Capital, I, translated by S. Moore and E. Aveling, edited by F. Engels, London 1889, photographic reprint, edited by Dona Torr, London, 1938, pp. xxx-xxxi. All references to Capital are from this edition unless otherwise specified.

  7. Althusser, For Marx, pp. 89-116, 203-04, etc.

  8. For a summary and analysis of this article, of signal importance in the development of Marx's thought, see David McLellan, Marx Before Marxism, London 1980, pp. 142-57. The quoted words are given on p. 152.

  9. Collected Works, V, pp. 35-36.

  10. Ibid., p. 224.

  11. Collected Works, V, pp. 32-36.

  12. Collected Works, V, pp. 66-89; The German Ideology, translated by Ryazanskaya, pp. 66-85.

  13. See McLellan, Marx Before Marxism, pp. 190-91.

  14. Marx wrote to Lassalle (16 January 1861): ‘Darwin's book is very important and serves me as a natural scientific basis for the class struggle in history. … Despite all deficiencies, not only is the death-blow dealt here for the first time to ‘teleology’ in the natural sciences, but its rational meaning is empirically explained’. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow 1956, p. 151.

  15. The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Moscow 1949.

  16. McLellan, Marx Before Marxism, pp. 171-72.

  17. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Moscow 1948, pp. 247-50, to be read with the Preface to the first edition (pp. 13-14).

  18. One can compare the passages in the Manifesto with the detailed description of forms of property and corresponding classes in The German Ideology, Collected Works, V, pp. 32-35; The German Ideology, translated by Ryazanskaya, pp. 32-36.

  19. Collected Works, V, pp. 46-47; The German Ideology, translated by Ryazanskaya, p. 45.

  20. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p. 21.

  21. Collected Works, V, pp. 64-66; The German Ideology, translated by Ryazanskaya, pp. 64-66.

  22. Collected Works, V, pp. 63-64; passage not traceable in Ryazanskaya's translation.

  23. ‘The Future Results of British Rule in India’ (New York Daily Tribune, 8 August 1853), in Marx and Engels, On Colonialism, Moscow 1976, p. 85. The reference to division carried to fractional work is from Capital, I, p. 331.

  24. See Grundrisse, translated by Martin Nicolaus, Harmondsworth 1973, p. 495 (Marx, Pre-capitalist Economic Formations, translated by Jack Cohen, edited by E.J. Hobsbawm, pp. 94-95), for possibly the first occurrence of the term, with a clear indication of sense.

  25. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, pp. 20-22.

  26. Grundrisse, pp. 473-86; Pre-capitalist Economic Formations, pp. 70-82.

  27. Grundrisse, p. 493; Pre-capitalist Economic Formations, p. 91.

  28. ‘Future Results of British Rule’, On Colonialism, p. 81.

  29. I venture to refer to my own detailed discussion of problems in Marx's changing perceptions of the Asiatic Mode in ‘Marx's Perception of India’, Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception, New Delhi 1995, pp. 16-35.

  30. But see Hobsbawm, who attributes the view to Marx that ‘the Asiatic society’ is ‘not yet a class society, or if it is a class society, then it is the [its?] most primitive form’. Introduction to Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, p. 34. There are no statements in Marx and Engels to support this extreme inference.

  31. An Inquiry into the Nature and Cause of the Wealth of Nations, I, London 1910, pp. 4-11.

  32. David Ricardo, The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation; London 1911, pp. 263-71 (Chapter XXXI, ‘On Machinery’).

  33. Collected Works, VI, pp. 184-87; The Poverty of Philosophy, Moscow n.d., pp. 151-57.

  34. Grundrisse, pp. 259, 506-10.

  35. Capital, I, pp. 736-800. It is, perhaps possible that ‘primary’ may be a better rendering than ‘primitive’ as in Eden and Cedar Paul's translation of Capital, I, London 1951, II, p. 790. But since ‘primitive’ is authorized by Engels, who supervised the Moore-Aveling translation, and has been in general use, it seems better to stick to it here.

  36. Capital, I, pp. 736-39.

  37. Ibid., pp. 740-57.

  38. Ibid., p. 739.

  39. Ibid., p. 775.

  40. Ibid., pp. 775-78, 784-85.

  41. Ibid., p. 774.

  42. Ibid., p. 776.

  43. Collected Works, V, p. 51; The German Ideology, translated by Ryazanskaya, p. 60.

  44. Collected Works, VI, p. 160; The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 113.

  45. In 1853 Marx spoke of ‘British canon forcing [opium] on China’, New York Daily Tribune (NYDT), 14 June 1853, On Colonialism, p. 19.

  46. NYDT, 3 December 1859; Collected Works, XVI, p. 539. For some reason this article is not included in On Colonialism.

  47. NYDT, 11 July 1853; On Colonialism, p. 49.

  48. NYDT, 30 April 1859; Collected Works, XVI, p. 286; omitted in On Colonialism.

  49. John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’, Economic History Review, second series, VI, 1953, pp. 1-15.

  50. The two major collections of these articles are On Colonialism, used in this paper, and Shlomo Avineri (ed.), Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, New York 1969; the latter is the more extensive collection. The volumes of the Collected Works are not only the most comprehensive in their coverage, but have the most accurate texts as well.

  51. Neue Rheinische Zeitung, No. 2 (1850); On Colonialism, p. 18.

  52. NYDT, 8 August 1853; On Colonialism, p. 85.


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