Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto 150 years ago. Its publication coincided almost exactly with the eruption of revolution throughout Europe. Since then it has been read by millions throughout the world. It both explains how capitalism arose and shows how the working class can change the system. The Communist Manifesto remains the best introduction to the ideas of Marx and Engels and a great revolutionary handbook for all those who still fight to change the world. In this special issue to mark its anniversary, we show the political background against which the Manifesto was written and look at its relevance today
Marx and Engels became friends in the 1840s as their politics and ideas were leading them to see the need for working class revolution. Dave McNulty explains how they came to write the Communist Manifesto
In the second half of 1846 Frederick Engels was sent to Paris by the Communist Correspondence Committee to agitate among the German workers living there. In Paris he had to win a battle of ideas against various other sets of ideas calling themselves 'socialist' or 'Communist'. He reported in detail to the committee how he had done this:
'The various points of difference which I have had to fight out with the lads up till now have been settled... At first I had nearly the whole clique against me... The chief point was to prove the necessity for revolution by force... In the end I got furious at the perpetual repetition of the same arguments by my opponents and made a direct attack on the Straubingers... this enabled me to lure the noble Eisermann into an open attack on Communism. Whereupon I gave him such a merciless hiding that he never returned to the charge.'
Later he provoked another opponent to attack Communism as well. This allowed him to insist that the group vote whether or not they were meeting as Communists. He was asked to define Communism.
'Naturally I did not let myself be trapped by their engaging request that I should tell them...what Communism is in two or three words.'
Nevertheless, he gave them 'an extremely simple definition'.
'I therefore defined the objects of the Communists in this way: (1) To achieve the interests of the proletariat in opposition to those of the bourgeoisie; (2) To do this through the abolition of private property and its replacement by community of goods; (3) To recognise no means of carrying out these objects other than a democratic revolution by force.
'Several chaps who had never spoken before suddenly got their mouths open and declared themselves quite decidedly for me... Some of these new men, although they were trembling in deadly terror of getting struck, spoke quite nicely.'
By 13 votes to two the group accepted Engels' definition of Communism.
This episode illustrated the need for a small pamphlet, giving a short account of the key ideas of the Communists in a form which could be easily understood. Various attempts were drafted along the lines of the Catholic catechism of questions and answers. In late 1847 he used the discussion around someone else's attempt to get a free hand for him and Marx to produce a definitive version.
As he would now be writing the draft for a pamphlet Engels was thinking carefully about the proposed format.
He wrote to Marx:
'I believe we had better drop the catechism form and call the thing: Communist Manifesto... I am bringing what I have done here with me... I begin: What is Communism? and then straight to the proletariat - history of its origin, difference from former workers, development of the contradiction between proletariat and bourgeoisie, crises, results... What I have here has not yet all been submitted for endorsement, but, apart from a few quite small details, I mean to get it through in a form in which there will at least be nothing contrary to our views.'
Engels had developed these ideas in 25 questions called Principles of Communism.
Nearly 40 years later Engels recalled this period and the founding of the Communist League. He starts in 1836 when the 'most extreme, chiefly proletarian elements' of a secret organisation, the Outlaws' League, broke away to form a new, secret, League of the Just. This comprised mainly French and German workers and was 'half propaganda association, half conspiracy'. The centre of any revolution was expected to be Paris and the key demand was community of goods to ensure equality. Wherever workers' associations could be founded, the League used them to recruit new members.
During the 1840s the 'centre of gravity had shifted gradually from Paris to London' and the League became more international. By 1847 the Communist Workers' Educational Association in London had membership cards inscribed with 'All Men Are Brothers' in over twenty languages. By now they had recognised that the old notion of few conspirators seizing power in a coup wouldn't be successful. But they still had one key defect. Because the 'members, in so far as they were workers at all, were almost exclusively artisans', 'their old handicraft prejudices' were a 'stumbling block to them at every moment'.
Engels also commented, 'I do not believe there was a single man in the whole League at that time who had ever read a book on political economy.' Because of his time in Manchester at the heart of an industrial society, he realised that economic facts are a decisive historical force in the modern world. They were the basis of class antagonisms, and class antagonisms were the basis of all political history.
Engels met Marx in 1844 and 'our complete agreement in all theoretical fields became evident'. By early 1845 Marx had developed his materialist theory of history so he and Engels then tried to spread these ideas.
When the Manifesto was written, Marx and Engels were still young men. As teenagers they had begun rebelling against the restrictive, reactionary society in which they lived. They had to find their way past the disapproval of their parents, the mix of competing ideas about what was wrong with society and what to do about it, the organisations and people claiming to be revolutionary and/or socialist. Marx went to university in 1835 as a 17 year old. His father complained to him about his 'wild frolics' and spending far too much money. Marx fell in love with one of his sister's friends, Jenny, and got engaged to her. His father got him to change universities in the hope that he might study properly in a new place and might overcome his infatuation with Jenny. Instead he spent his time writing three exercise books of love poetry to her and only put his name down for 12 lectures in five years. As his father observed, how could a man who invented new philosophical systems every week and scrapped them the next, be expected to bother about trivia like bills and lectures?
Engels had been brought up in a wealthy and very religious family of cotton manufacturers. At 17 he was sent to Bremen, a large commercial centre, to serve in a business office for three years. Within two years he had rebelled against the pious evangelism of his family and was writing scathing articles attacking those ideas. He moved to Berlin and became heavily involved in writing and arguing about different philosophical systems and the need for democratic freedom. He saw himself as a 'fiery Jacobin' who sang the Marseillaise and clamoured for the guillotine.
From 1838 to 1841 Marx was active in Berlin with a group of university lecturers, teachers and writers. He hoped that when he graduated, one of them, Bruno Bauer, would be able to get him a university post in Bonn. This fell through but his contacts did enable him to become a contributor to a new newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung. This had been set up by the industrial middle class in the Rhine district to act as their voice against the aristocracy. Gradually it was taken over by young radicals who spent most of their energy on bitter criticisms of religion. Marx focused on political and social conditions. Within a few months he had become the editor and planned a series of detailed articles exposing the lack of political rights in Germany. He explained the vital role of a free press in any political progress. He also wrote at length about how the propertied classes used the law to deprive the labouring poor of customary rights to common lands.
Marx was a very effective editor and the circulation of the paper increased rapidly. This led the state to demand that he be sacked or the paper would be banned.
Marx resigned and moved to Paris to edit a new French/German paper. He also married after finally persuading both families to suspend their doubts about his prospects. Only one issue of the paper appeared which included two major pieces by Marx and contributions from Engels. Marx read endlessly, particularly about the French Revolution. He also read French writings on materialism and history from which he took the idea of history as a series of class struggles. He started to make contacts with working men.
In September 1844 Engels spent ten days with Marx in Paris. They decided that from then onwards they would work together. This work had two strands - organising a propaganda network linking cities with large groups of German workers and developing theoretical clarity. Most of the student revolutionaries and intellectuals they had mixed with before 1843 were retreating into pure philosophy. Marx and Engels had recognised that philosophy was important only insofar as it informed practical politics and within practical politics the working class would play the key role.
Now Marx and Engels tried to influence all organisations which had influence among workers. In particular they concentrated upon the various circles which ex-members of the League of the Just had organised. Marx was expelled to Brussels in January 1845 where he built up a Workers' Educational Society. As they identified the best people among various groups, they brought them together through Correspondence Committees. These were to be the basis of an international association rather than just a network of migrant German workers. By late 1846 there was a well organised central committee in Brussels, a committee in Paris organised by Engels, and a London committee. Marx was at the centre of this organisation.
In the summer of 1847 a small number of delegates met in London and agreed to unite in the Communist League. The constitution committed them to revolutionary Communism. 'The aim of the League is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie; the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of old bourgeois society based on class antagonisms, and the establishment of a new society without either classes or private property.'
Engels produced two drafts for a communist catechism. He brought it to Marx in late November 1847 to discuss before the second congress of the Communist League. He was still worried about getting this draft endorsed by other League members. He was dismissive of his own efforts, 'simply a narrative, but miserably put together in fearful haste', and had decided that as much more history was needed the format of question and answer wouldn't work. In 25 questions and answers Engels had laid out the key aspects of their ideas.
The industrial revolution was based on large machinery which only big capitalists could afford. This gave them control of production and created a society in which two new classes were swallowing up all others. These were big capitalists and propertyless workers who had to sell their labour power to survive. Meanwhile, the division of labour made possible by the new machinery continually deskilled workers. Labour power was a commodity and the wage paid for it would be the minimum required for the maintenance of life. Once industrialisation had started, it destroyed the old ways of doing things and would revolutionise all countries. The capitalists become the dominant political class. However, as fast as capitalists increase their wealth, they create more workers.
'Since proletarians can be employed only by capital, and since capital extends only through employing labour, it follows that the growth of the proletariat proceeds at precisely the same pace as the growth of capital.' These workers are brought together in large cities and thereby become aware of their own numbers and strength. Meanwhile, industrialisation allows the endless expansion of production and continually reduces costs. Capitalists rush into industry because of the prospects of profits and there are crises of overproduction as goods cannot be sold. 'Factories had to be closed, their owners went bankrupt, and the workers were without bread. Deepest misery reigned everywhere. After a time, the superfluous products were sold, the factories began to operate again, wages rose, and gradually business got better than ever.'
This system of booms and slumps provides the basis for 'general revolutionary stirrings'. But this massive increase in production also makes feasible a communist society because for the first time there is more than enough for everyone. This can be achieved through a revolution that abolishes private property. 'Take the control of industry and all the branches of production out of the hands of mutually competing individuals and instead institute a system in which all these branches of production are operated by society as a whole... according to a common plan, and with the participation of all members of society.
'Private property must, therefore, be abolished and in its place must come the common utilisation of all instruments of production and the distribution of all products according to common agreement.'
This revolution must be worldwide and will start in the industrialised countries. If successful, it will put an end to class societies and allow humans to develop all their abilities fully. It will also transform relations between men and women and end the inequalities of the family.
At the end of 1847 the second congress met, again in London. Marx and Engels brought with them their proposals for a manifesto. After ten days of often bitter arguments Marx was given the job of writing a manifesto in the name of the League. A few weeks later the central committee was demanding delivery of the manifesto. In the event the Manifesto was issued in February 1848. It brought together the ideas formulated over the previous four years and now expressed more sharply and clearly for a working class readership.
Basing their ideas on a materialist analysis of history, Marx and Engels show how classes are the product of economic development and how all history is based on class struggle. This class struggle can only end in revolutionary changes or the common ruin of the contending classes. The modern bourgeoisie which had sprouted from the ruins of feudalism had simplified class struggle by bringing it down to a struggle between itself and the working class. The process of competitive capitalism means that the capitalists continuously have to revolutionise production and bring all countries and production into one worldwide system. This has produced fantastic increases in wealth and an incredible expansion of productive powers in an astonishingly short time. But the system of profit extracted from waged workers means an increasing polarisation in society between a small number of large capitalists and the mass of people who are forced to work for a wage. The existence of huge and rapidly increasing wealth and a mass working class denied access to it provide the material and political preconditions for communism.
The way the capitalist class gets out of each crisis simply paves the way for the next. This system continually impoverishes workers and deepens class struggle. This struggle has to be a political struggle as the capitalists use the state to enforce their domination. The working class can't win power within these capitalist structures but has to smash and replace them. It has to organise to do this and it has to do it worldwide because capitalism is worldwide. This revolution will abolish private property, abolish the bourgeois family and marriage, and abolish nations.
The Manifesto, written in German, was published in February 1848 just before the revolutionary upheavals of that year. It had very little direct influence on them, although Communist League members were key figures in many places. They found that some former supporters thought their Communism was too extreme. Also some 'local bigwigs' in the movement saw them as unwanted rivals. These revolutionary outbreaks delayed the plans to translate it into all the languages of 'civilised Europe'.
The Manifesto is still the key starting point for an understanding of capitalism and the need for a working class revolution. It can be argued, as did GDH Cole, that the Manifesto had little immediate influence:
'We are apt to think of it as having given the socialist movement, from 1848 onwards, a new foundation and a new gospel. But the plain truth is that nobody, except Marx and Engels, thought of it in these terms either in 1848 or for a long time afterwards. It was nobody's bible even in the days of the First International. It was not reprinted, even in German, until 1872... no contemporary observer guessed or could have guessed that a century later the most living and often quoted document of the European revolutionary uprising would be this pamphlet issued by a small and obscure German sect, of whom most people - even most of the revolutionaries - had never even heard' (GDH Cole, Socialist Thought).
But within a few years Engels was describing its key propaganda role in building up the movement - 'Small Communist groups are being formed everywhere on the basis of the Manifesto.' And the Manifesto meant that those recruited would be far better equipped to play a leading role when the time came than those with whom he had first argued in Paris. As the process of industrialisation continued, versions of it appeared in country after country so that, as Engels remarked in an introduction to the 1888 edition, the 'history of the Manifesto reflects the history of the modern working class movement.'
The Manifesto met the need which Marx and Engels had identified when setting up the Communist League, namely, a small pamphlet giving a short account of the key ideas of the Communists in a form which could be easily understood. 'History is the judge; its executioner, the proletariat.'