Publication Communist Manifesto

Origin, reception, style, programmatic ideas, contradictions and more of the most famous and influential text of Marxism worldwide



July 2022

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Graffiti in the Ludford Passage, Valparaíso. The man is holding Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0, Rodrigo Fernández / wikimedia commons

The Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism (HCDM) is a comprehensive Marxist lexicon which, upon completion, will span 15 volumes and over 1,500 entries. Of the nine volumes published so far in the original German, two volumes have been published in Chinese since 2017. In 2019, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung teamed up with the HCDM team to advance its "globalization" into English and Spanish, with the ultimate aim of recruiting a new generation of Marxist scholars from around the globe to the project and expanding its readership and reach. The below entry is one of a selection of these translations that are made available on our website.

For more information about the project and other translated entries, check out our HCDM dossier.

A: bayān šuyū‛ī. – F: Manifeste Communiste. – G: Kommunistisches Manifest. - R: Kommunističeskij Manifest. – S: Manifiesto comunista. – C: gongchandang xuanyan 共产党宣言

The Manifesto of the Communist Party, written in 1847/48, is the most famous and influential text of Marxism, worldwide. The intellectual precision and eloquence with which it outlines “the history of all hitherto existing society” as “the history of class struggles” (MECW 6/482 [MEW 4/462]) has led communists to confer upon it the status of a founding document of their movement. The Manifesto, the dissemination of which exceeds that of the Bible by far, was a source of strength in times of defeat, was hidden, learned by heart, and passed on anew. It even experienced reception in places where capitalism had not yet or only partially developed. The rebellious oppressed translated “proletarians” with “the exploited” or “the poor”, and “bourgeoisie” with “exploiters” or “the rich” in order to announce to the latter that their “grave-diggers” (496 [474]) were already at work. Internationalist actions gave life to the appeal that concludes the Manifesto: “WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!” (519 [493])

The work resulted from the interaction of theory and practice. “A decade of […] struggling by an advanced organization of workers for an adequate program, half a decade of the complicated, multi-layered development of Marx’s ideas led to the debates and resolutions of the second congress” of 1847 and “finally to the composition of the Manifesto”; the “fusion” of the labour movement and scientific theory could not be consummated “in a vacuum or in a study room”, but “rather only in the life of an organization that thereby underwent a qualitative change” (Hundt 1993, 386). “Capitalist globalization had never been […] extolled in more grandiose terms” (Greffrath 1998); no representative of the bourgeoisie at all has grasped its role “more powerfully and profoundly” (Berman 1982, 92) than the Manifesto. The “classical form” that won the text its “lasting place in world literature” (Mehring 1962, 148) contains an emancipatory potential that continues to have an effect in the search for alternatives to neoliberal globalisation.

Marx is the author of the Manifesto. Since Engels’s preparatory work and suggestions were indispensable to the development process, the Manifesto has always – with the exception of the anonymous first printing – been published, received, and classified in the history of their oeuvre as the work of both men. It contains an abundance of thoughts that had already been expressed previously by Marx or Engels, but it is not an abridged version of the considerations they had put to paper since 1843 (for example, the theory of alienation is omitted), and certainly not a mere collage of self-quotations. According to Franz Mehring it summarises “the world outlook of its authors in a mirror whose glass could not have been clearer or its frame smaller” (1962, 148). As a consequence of the capitalist mode of production and the development of bourgeois society the Manifesto regards the “victory of the proletariat” for just as “inevitable” (MECW 6/496 [4/474]) as the emergence on that basis of relations “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (506 [482]).

In the Manifesto, ideas are treated which at the time of its writing were the common property of socialist and communist tendencies. Kautsky countered the accusation raised by anarchists that Marx had plagiarised Victor Considérant’s Manifeste (1843) (Ramus 1906, 4; Tscherkesoff 1906, 10) by noting that both publications “only had superficial trains of thought in common […] which are all characteristic of socialism”, whereas “in all points […] that distinguish the various currents of socialism from each other, [they] constitute the direct opposite of each other” (1906, 701). For Marx and Engels, the Manifesto remained a constant point of reference; its central statements and slogans found their way into theoretical treatises and political documents; the evaluation of the Manifesto cannot, therefore, be separated from their life’s work.

1. Origin, Authorship, Reception. - The Manifesto intervened in a social crisis that broke out a few days after its publication. The industrial revolution, which in England promoted the development of capitalism like a greenhouse, had set foot upon the European continent, where the paradoxical situation prevailed that a bourgeoisie already enmeshed in struggles with the proletariat was still largely subject to feudal-absolutist administration. (MECW 6/87 et sqq. [4/53 et sqq.]) The resulting tensions, exacerbated by the economic crisis that broke out in 1846, made urgent a solution. How it would look, remained open. The views and intentions of the communists were shaped by the plebeian opposition since the Directoire, the socialist and communist schools above all of France, as well as programs of proletarianised artisans organised since the 1830s in secret societies. Unscathed by theoretical as well as tactical differences of opinion, the tendencies and groups agreed: instead of giving free reign to the bourgeois state and capitalism, it was time to build communism.

In this situation, Marx and Engels became politically and organisationally active. Through their intermediation, the Society of Fraternal Democrats was founded in London in 1845 (6/3-14 [2/611-24]); in 1846 they organised the Communist Correspondence Committee in Brussels; at the beginning of 1847 they joined the League of the Just. A few months later, they brought about its renaming as the Communist League (Hundt 1973, 87 et sq.). The first congress resolved to express the aims laid down in its statutes in a programmatic document (BdK 1, 626). Presumably in order to be able to react flexibly to political changes, after every congress, a “manifesto in the name of the party” was to be issued (II. Kongress, 08.12.1847, 629).

It is unclear exactly who was commissioned with the task of drafting the first manifesto: a document of the League (25.01.1848; BdK 1, 655) mentions Marx as the sole commissioned person (cf. Kuczynski 1995, 36 and 46); Marx and Engels had later repeatedly spoken of having been commissioned with the task together (MECW 23/174 et sq. [4/573 et sq.] and MECW 26/512 [4/578]; MECW 24/187 and 336 [19/98 and 19/182]; MECW 26/321-322 [21/214-6]). In the League, during the second half of 1847, the Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith by Engels (MECW 6/96-103) was discussed (Hundt 1973, 97 et sqq.); Engels introduced the Principles of Communism (MECW 6/341-357) into the discussion. Both documents influenced the content and structure of the Manifesto. The latter, however, is fundamentally distinct from the lists of questions, confessions of faith, and catechisms discussed until the second congress, which is due not least to the intensive debate during the congress. At least, supposedly there had never been “a syllable of protest against a formulation in the further history of the league” (Hundt 1993, 387) so that the Manifesto can be regarded as the “first modern party program”, “which emerged within a broad democratic discussion” (Hundt 1973, 8). Marx and Engels may have communicated with each other during and after the congress about questions of conceptualisation; the writing was done – as is unmistakably demonstrated by the language and style – by Marx. Marx was also the only one warned by the central authority to send the manuscript to London by the 1st of February, otherwise “further measures” would be “taken against him” (25 January 1848, BdK 1, 655); the only surviving draft originates with Marx (Engels to Bernstein, 12/13 June 1883, MECW 47/34 [36/36]); furthermore there are corresponding testimonials from members of the League (III.3/259 et sq.; III.6/247; BdK 1, 968), a disclosure by Marx himself in Herr Vogt (1860, MECW 17/90 [14/449]) as well as Engels’s disclosure that it was “substantially” [wesentlich] Marx’s work (1869, MECW 21/61 [16/363]; 1883, MECW 26/118 [4/577]).

The notions of a common authorship that have become usual have their roots in the year 1850. After the first edition was published anonymously in February 1848, a partial printing in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung refers to the Manifesto “composed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels” (1850, I.10/445); the first English publication proceeds in the same manner (BdK 2, 308). Co-authorship is repeatedly confirmed by Marx (MECW 29/264 [13/10]; MECW 17/80 [14/439]; MECW 42/530 [32/537]; MECW 43/124 [32/564]; MECW 24/336 [19/182]) – possibly, Marx owed a lot to Engels “not just with regard […] to preparatory work” but also with regard to finishing touches, as Thomas Kuczynski concludes on the basis of the hurried completion (1995, 39) – as well as by the title pages of all editions and translations authorised by him and Engels.

The acceptance of a communist founding document within parties that called themselves “socialist” or “social democratic” was based upon the assumption that “Socialism and communism are now so near each other that there is hardly any difference between them” (Dietzgen 1873/1917, 79). The older Engels saw things in a more differentiated way (1888, MECW 26/515 et sq. [4/580 et sq.]), but the German Anti-Socialist Law of 1878 equally banned “social democratic, socialist, or communist” organisations (quoted in Görtemaker 1989, 290).

Between 1848 and 1871, multiple editions and translations were published, but it was first in 1872 that the Manifesto was “discovered”, after it was read into the trial record during the trial for high treason against August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, and Adolf Hepner, which was reprinted by the Volksstaat publishing house in 1872 (Liebknecht 1894/1911, 23). Before that, only occasional references (1859, MECW 29/264 [13/10]) and quotations (1867, MECW 35/489 and 751 [23/511 and 791]) gave notice of its existence, without it being available for purchase. The reprint arranged by Sigfried Meyer at his own expense (1866, MEW 31/746 et sq.) did little to change this situation. When Liebknecht pushed for a reissue (in a letter to Marx from April 1871, MEW 33/745), the workers’ parties had united internationally, and the Paris Commune reigned. In this situation, completely different from that of 1848, the revolutionary measures developed in Section II were obsolete (see the Preface [To the German Edition of 1872] (MECW 23/174 et sq. [4/573 et sq.]; 1866, MECW 42/572 [31/588]). Since Marx and Engels evaluated the text as a “historical document”, they regarded themselves as having “no longer any right to alter” it, particularly since “the general principles […] on the whole” remained correct (MECW 23/174 et sq. [4/573 et sq.], see MEW 8/577).

With the dissolution of the Communist League, the relation to the party in its original form was obsolete; further, the IWA had prohibited “branches and societies” from “designat[ing] themselves by sectarian names such as Positivists, Mutualists, Collectivists, Communists, etc.” (1871, MECW 22/429 [17/424]), which explains the title of the German editions between 1872 and 1890 of The Communist Manifesto. This succinct, short description, which has been adopted by countless German as well as translated editions, corresponds exactly to the content.

When Marx gave the German translation of his Inaugural Address of the Working Men’s International Association the title Manifest an die arbeitende Klasse Europa’s (1864, I.20/16; from 1868 on, known as the Inauguraladresse, 920) and concluded it with the clarion call of the Manifesto: “Proletarians of all countries, Unite!” (MECW 20/13 [16/13]), both the title and concluding sentence announce the resumption of struggle after the period of reaction since 1849. The Communist parties founded after the collapse of the Second International also understood their programs in a similar sense as a rejection of a “truce”, revisionism, and opportunism, which resonates in Rosa Luxemburg’s exclamation: “we have rejoined Marx, […] we are advancing under his flag.” (2004, 363) However, she was aware of the transitional character of the Manifesto with regard to the conditions and the course of the revolution (GW 1.1, 328; 2004, 357 et sq. [GW 4/486]). Lenin also saw in the Manifesto a presentation of “the general principles of Marxism” as well as a reflection “to a certain degree” of “the concrete revolutionary situation of the time.” (CW 25, 406) He emphasised that the Manifesto “gave an integral and systematic exposition” of the doctrine of the world-historical role of the proletariat “which has remained the best to this day” (CW 18, 582; see also CW 21, 48). If Engels had written in 1888 that he and Marx had been commissioned “to prepare for publication a complete theoretical and practical party programme” (MECW 26/512 [4/578]; see also 1872, MECW 23/174 [4/573]), within Marxism-Leninism, the Manifesto was “canonically” referred to as “the birth certificate of scientific communism and the world communist movement” (Hager 1973, 5) containing “the complete and harmonic exposition of the foundations of the great doctrine of Marx and Engels” (IML, 4/XII).

2. Title as Program. - “Manifesto” is derived from the Latin word “manifestus” (palpable, apparent). Engels’s vote for the title “Communist Manifesto” – against the “catechetical form” abstracting from historical content (“Confession of Faith”; to Marx 23./24.11.1847, MECW 38/149 [27/107]) – might have also been due to usage among leftists (for example by Gracchus Babeuf, Manifesto of the Equals, 1795). The term “party” had multiple meanings: it stood for class (MEW 2, 37 [Translator’s note: in the corresponding passage in MECW 4/36, “Partei” is translated as “side” rather than “party”]; MECW 6/58) as well as for a political and/or theoretical direction (MECW 5/457 [3/443]; MECW 6/75 [4/40]) and was applicable also for an organisation, at least in Engels’s recollection: the “Communist League, which was organized as a secret propaganda society” was referred to internally as the “German ‘Communist Party’” (1884, MECW 26/120 [21/16]). The attribute ‘communist’ refers to the initiating authority, which is described, without reference to the Communist League, as “Communists of various nationalities” (MECW 6/482 [4/461]). Furthermore, the Manifesto is related to the tradition of French worker communism. “[W]e could not”, wrote Engels in 1888, “have called it a Socialist Manifesto”, since “[w]hatever portion of the working class had become convinced of the insufficiency of mere political revolutions, and had proclaimed the necessity of a total social change, that portion, then, called itself Communist. It was a crude, rough-hewn, purely instinctive sort of Communism; still, it touched the cardinal point and was powerful enough amongst the working class to produce the Utopian Communism, in France, of Cabet, and in Germany, of Weitling.” (MECW 26/516 [4/580]) But this strand of tradition is not dealt with in the Manifesto itself: “We do not here refer to that literature which, in every great modern revolution, has always given voice to the demands of the proletariat, such as the writings of Babeuf and others.” (MECW 6/514 [4/489]) One of Marx’s notebooks from December of 1847 contains a plan that does envision dealing with it: “3. the critical-utopian Literature-systems. Owen, Cabet, Weitling, Fourier, St. Simon, Babeuf. 4. Direct party literature. 5. Communist literature.” (MEGA I.6/650). That this was not realised was due, according to Martin Hundt, to the insistence of the League’s leadership upon completion (1973, 126); Wolfgang Meiser sees the lack of mention as politically and tactically motivated: it would have been “political suicide for the handful of members of the League of Communists” to turn against the numerically strong adherents of Wilhelm Weitling and Etienne Cabet, which might have been “also, and especially, clear to Marx” (1996, 83, Fn. 90).

The attribute “communist” points out that the Manifesto was issued by communists (see section II, Proletarians and Communists, MECW 6/497-506 [4/474-82]). In section III (507-517 [482-92]), which is concerned with the critique of socialist and communist literature, the authors differentiate themselves from other doctrines. The point is both theoretical and political independence: ‘Communism’ not as “an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself” but rather the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things” (MECW 5/49 [3/35]). Ultimately, the attribute refers to “communality”, the mentally consummated and practically aspired to break with all private relations of property and egoistic modes of behaviour resulting from them. Thus not only in the preamble (MECW 6/481 [4/461]) but already in the title that “looming spectre” is expected (v. Stein 1842, 4) which prepares startle the old world. In a single sentence: the title signals the end of everything that exists, it announces “Chapter II of world history” (Erich Weinert 1936/1961, 123).

3. Language and Style. - What the Moniteur of 1793 was to the Jacobins, the Manifesto was for the communists: an “infernal compulsion” whose “incantation […] called the dead from their graves and sent the living to their deaths” (Heine 1832/1980, 381). This effect was due not least to the memorable metaphors (“A spectre is haunting”), the rhythm of the compact sentences and short paragraphs, the gesture of directness of the direct form of address (“don’t wrangle with us”, MECW 6/501 [4/477]), the laconicism: “In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.” (MECW 6/500 [ibid.]) Fascinated by the message and in order to lend it new splendour, artists brought the text into other aesthetic forms, such as Bertolt Brecht’s uncompleted attempt at a hexameter version (1945), Frans Masereel in woodcuts (1948), and Erwin Schulhoff in a cantata (op. 32, 1932; see Grabner 1998b). The literary devices, sources, references, and allusions have been examined multiple times (for example, Prawer 1978; Suvin/Angenot 1997; Kemple 2000).

Like in the staging of a play in antiquity, with dialogue, monologue, and a commenting chorus, two main persons appear to be acting in the Manifesto: a “we”, a collective speaker (the communists), and a “you” (“one”, “they”, “he”), the bourgeoisie or the embodiment of the bourgeoisie. As the program of the League, the Manifesto is addressed to a membership whose process of self-clarification has been provisionally concluded. It is addressed to a proletariat whose historical position and task has been clarified, whose self-confidence and determination to struggle should be strengthened. Its claim to power and rule is proclaimed by the communists. With rhetorical questions (“Or do you mean”? MECW 6/498 [4/475]; “do you charge us”? 501 [478]), assertions (“We Communists have been reproached” 498 [475]; “It has been objected” 500 [477]), or imputations (“you must, therefore, confess” (ibid.); “he [the bourgeois] has not even a suspicion” 502 [479]), the entrance of the “you” onto the stage is performed. Common prejudices and slanders of the bourgeoisie frightened by communists are put into the mouth of this “you”.

The use of metaphor in the text can be assigned to multiple semantic fields: in the first field, the war between classes rages, opened by the rise of the bourgeoisie as “the leaders of whole industrial armies” (MECW 6/485 [4/463]) who “recruit” “industrial soldiers” from all sections of the population who are “placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants” (491 [469]). The bourgeoisie thus succeeds in having “subjected the country to the rule of the towns” (488) and in having “destroyed” (ibid. [466]) all old national industries. After this military campaign, the next aim is the conquest of the world market. The “cheap prices of its commodities are the heavily artillery […] with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate” (ibid.). The second scene demonstrates the consequences of the uninhibited development of the forces of production: in trade crises, a “social epidemic” breaks out, “famine” reigns amid plenty, as if all resources have fallen victim to a “universal war of devastation” (490 [468]; 1848: “Verwüstungskrieg”). The concluding tableau is ‘cathartic’; the unbearable tension has been resolved with the “fall” of the bourgeoisie and the “victory” of the proletariat (496 [474]). The bourgeoisie has prepared its own exit from the historical stage: it has split society “into two great hostile camps” (485 [463]), has forged the “weapons” which will brings its “death” and “called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons” (490 [468]). Their “attacks” (492 [470]) escalate into a “civil war” in which “official society [is] sprung into the air” (495 [473]; see also 508 [483]). The Second International (during its revolutionary phase) and the Comintern understood, in the terms of Marx and Engels, that “class struggle” is the “fundamental proposition that forms [the] nucleus” of the Manifesto (1888; MECW 26/517 [4/581]). The use of metaphor presenting it as a class war corresponded to the experiences and feelings of those engaged in struggle.

Within a second semantic field, the text makes use of mysterious and supernatural phenomena. The material is borrowed from the gothic novels popular in the first decades of the 19th cent. Neither feudal reaction (MECW 6/481 [4/461]), nor the bourgeoisie (489 et sq. [467 et sq.]), nor petit-bourgeois socialism (511 et sq. [487 et sq.]), nor dogmatic creators of systems from within the communist camp (516 [491]) can escape their own “downfall”. In the manner of romantic fairy tales, the story is told of a “holy alliance” “led by the powers of old Europe”, in order “to exorcise” communism, the notorious “spectre” (481 [461]). But the fairy tale is immediately placed right side up: it is not communism which is spectral, but rather the holy alliance. The bourgeoisie, after having “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation” (487 [464 et sq.]), 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” (489 [467]). Marx refers to Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but here the master himself stands powerless with regard to the conjured spirits: “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, is its own grave-diggers.” (496 [474])

The semantic field ‘concealment’/‘revelation’ links up with both the Enlightenment as well as Biblical promise: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) When the “concealment” falls away, the truth becomes tangible. Thus the bourgeoisie has reduced human relationships to “naked self-interest […] callous ‘cash payment.’” (MECW 6/487 [4/464]) It has “substituted naked, shameless, direct brutal exploitation” for “exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions […] has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. […] [It] has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” (487 [465]) These unintentional ‘self-revelations’ are strong arguments against the objectified [versachlicht] form of bourgeois-capitalist social constitution. The communists, on the other hand, practice a conscious ‘self-revelation’: they “openly” state their views and aims (481 [461]), since these are nothing other than the theoretical summary of “a historical movement going on under our very eyes” (498 [475]). This emphasis upon openness serves to establish distance from communist sects (507-510 [489-92]) and is aimed against the widespread view that the conceptions of the communists are “without clarity and awareness” (v. Stein 1842, 131).

4. Theorems, Problems, Contradictions. - The French Revolution of 1789 served as a model for the proletarian revolution arising from the contradictions of capitalism predicted in the Manifesto. The course of the French Revolution left an imprint upon the political conceptions and prognoses of Marx and Engels to such an extent that their studies of revolutionary history constitute, as it were, the “fourth source of ‘Marxism’” (Bruhat 1966, 169 et sq.; quoted in Jaeck 1979, 3). They regarded the Jacobin dictatorship as the “archetype” of the dictatorship of the proletariat (Moss 1998, 151 et sq.), similarly characterised by class struggles and the struggle for hegemony, the destruction of the old state, a dictatorship of the people to wage civil and international war, social equality, and revolution in permanence (153). The working class must and would pick up where the Jacobins were forced to leave off due to their class position: the elimination of bourgeois property (see Leys/Panitch 1998, 24). The confidence in victory has its empirical basis in the effects of petit-bourgeois opposition movements in the USA and England, Switzerland, Poland, and Germany (MECW 6/518 [4/492]). Their activity served as proof of the thesis that the possibility as well as success of communist revolution rested upon its simultaneity in developed countries (MECW 5/49 et sq. [3/35 et sq.]).

The fact that history took a different course than that predicted in the Manifesto has provided occasion for an abundance of interpretations. What is hardly problematised is the break with the historical experience that social transitions mostly reduce to the substitution of one ruling elite by another. That was not supposed to be the case for the abolition of capitalism. Marx counted upon the working class formed by capitalism bursting the ‘form’ and acting as the self-realising bearer of social labour. From this approach, the class situation of the proletariat could be understood as a source as well as driving motor of its political articulation. It’s just that the dialectic of struggle was such that successes of the social and political struggles in the 20th cent. integrated the class into the existing order. That could not be foreseen in 1847. So when dealing with the validity of the theorems and prognoses of the Manifesto, it is indispensable to take into account the conditions of its formation.

4.1 Self-Understanding and Foundations. - According to the Manifesto, the communists do not desire to construct an independent party organisation, which the political bureaucracy of the state socialist countries inverted, in the interest of legitimation: the Manifesto supposedly contained “the foundations for the doctrine of the proletarian party” (Hager 1973, 14). The Manifesto, in contrast, understands the communists to be “practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country” who “theoretically, […] have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement” and who advance the “interests of the movement as a whole” (MECW 6/497 [4/474]) and its future (518 [492]). The statement of the addressees stands in contrast to the preamble, which refers to contemporary events and people (Kuczynski 1998) and creates the impression that the point is to frighten the forces of reaction – who are entangled in an ideological notion, the “spectre of communism” (481 [461]) – with the real intentions of the communists. In this context, there is no mention of bourgeois-capitalist society; the attitude of the ‘practical’ bourgeoisie toward communism is left out of the entire text, although the struggle between it and the proletariat constitutes the basis of the historical prediction.

The presentation of the relationships between proletariat and communists moves within a petitio principii: if the spontaneous, narrow movement consisting of local isolated elements does not adopt the “understanding” (497 [474]) of the communists, it will be crushed without changing its class situation. Since the proletariat is conceived as the incarnation of the dissolution of bourgeois society (MECW 3/186 [1/390]; MECW 4/36 et sq. [2/38]; MECW 5/52 et sq. [3/70]), it will however inevitably make the viewpoint of the communists its own, which also means that their activity can only be successful.

This assumption, with which later communist cadre parties justified their vanguardism, structures the argumentation: it moves, analogue to central sections of The German Ideology, at the level of abstraction of formation theory. Only in this sense does the Manifesto “narrate history” (Engels to Marx, 23-24 November 1847, MECW 38/149 [27/107]). The abstraction from, as Marx puts it in C I, “disturbing influence” (MECW 35/8 [23/12]) sets itself above chronology – a “rule of scarce one hundred years” by the bourgeoisie (MECW 6/489 [4/467]) is only covered by England – as well as statistics – the notion that the proletariat is an “immense majority” (495 [472]). Through the formulation of a future assumed to be inevitable, the present is already pushed into the past; elements of development are extrapolated as being without alternative and made into absolutes. “In some respects, a few sentences are completely outside time and space, literally utopian, against the intentions of their authors.” (W.F. Haug 1999, 25)

4.2 The Historical Role of the Bourgeoisie, the World Market, Globalisation. - Section I of the Manifesto raises a hymn to the historically “most revolutionary part” played by the bourgeoisie (MECW 6/486 [4/464]). Gramsci generalises: “A generation that devalues the previous generation and is incapable of recognizing its great achievements and its essential significance is bound to be mean and lacking in self-confidence […] Contrast with the Manifesto that praises the greatness of the moribund class.” (PN 3, N. 8, §17, 243 et sq.)

The “progress of industry” (MECW 6/495 [4/473]) effected by the bourgeoisie revolutionises all social relations, develops unprecedented forces of production and means of communication, national and international division of labour (486 et sq., 489 [465, 467, 463]). The bourgeoisie “creates a world after its own image” (488 [466]). The truncated characterisation of the bourgeois state that leaves out elements of civil society – as the “executive of the modern State” which is “but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (486 [464]) – corresponds to the conception of the state outlined in The German Ideology as the “form of organisation which the bourgeois are compelled to adopt, both for internal and external purposes, for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests” (MECW 5/90 [3/62]).

Marx rates it as a revolutionary act that the bourgeoisie has imposed a general objectification [Versachlichung] of social as well as private relations (MECW 6/486 et sq. [4/464 et sq.]; see also MECW 4/563 [2/487] and MECW 5/180 et sq. [3/164 et sq.]). The motif of objectification (in the sense of the ‘rule of money’) is already formulated in his theoretical digressions (MECW 3/322-326 [40/562-67]; 211-222 [IV.2/447-59] and 224-228 [462-66]) as well as in Engels’s description of everyday life in England (MECW 4/329 et sq. [2/257] and 563 et sq. [487 et sq.]). An approach to scientifically grounding this phenomenon is provided by the outline of a theory of the fetish character of the commodity worked out in the critique of political economy.

According to The German Ideology, capitalism is characterised by the destruction of ideology, religion, and morality and their transformation into “a palpable lie” (MECW 5/73 [3/60]). The Manifesto states: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” (MECW 6/487 [4/465]) As in previous investigations (MECW 4/261 [2/554]; MECW 5/49 et sq. [3/35 et sq.] and 50 et sq. [45 et sq.]; MECW 6/188 [4/154]), in the Manifesto the world market is regarded as the genuine terrain of the valorisation of capital, the treatment of which Marx planned for the concluding book of the critique of political economy (MECW 28/45 [42/42]; MECW 29/261 [13/7]). Created by large industry (MECW 6/486 [4/464 et sq.]), the world market “has given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country”, has created “intercourse in every direction” between the nations, has subordinated all countries and peoples to “what it calls civilisation” (488 [466]) and effects the disappearance of “national differences and antagonisms” (503 [479]).

The debate about whether the Manifesto contains a prediction of ‘globalisation’ or whether it regards it as having already been consummated operates with criteria and assessments with which the potentiated process at the end of the 20th cent. is analysed. Marx presents capital as being compelled to create the world market. The latter is organised as a form of rule, ruled by England as its “despot” (Wage Labour and Capital, MECW 9/198 [6/398]). If one replaces “England” with the contemporary imperialist centres, the Manifesto provides “a concise characterization of capitalism at the end of the twentieth century” (Hobsbawm 1998, 18). And that at a time when the world market existed “only potentially” (Engels 1892, MECW 27/258 [2/638]).

Through the application of the theorem of “the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse” being the cause of “all collisions in history” (MECW 5/74 [3/73]) to “modern bourgeois society” (MECW 6/489 [4/467]), the Manifesto gets to the heart of all statements of crisis theory of the 1840s: periodic trade crises show that the forces of production have become “too powerful” for the relations of production, their development being fettered by them (490 [468]); the means for overcoming crises such as the “destruction” of forces of production as well as the conquest of new markets and “the more thorough exploitation of the old ones” pave the way “for more extensive and more destructive crises” (ibid.), ultimately making proletarian revolution inevitable (490 et sq. [468 et sq.]). However, the immediate “measures” arising from this expectation are only intended for “the most advanced countries” (505 [481 et sq.]), which (indirectly) admits the national differences in the maturity of capitalism, thus also admitting the possibility of further expansion. In evaluating the 1848 Revolution, Marx and Engels abandoned the direct connection between crises of overproduction and revolution that was still assumed in the Manifesto (MECW 10/338 et sqq. [7/292 et sqq.]; MECW 40, 217 [29/225]).

Like many of their contemporaries and kindred spirits, Marx and Engels were optimistic about progress. To classify this attitude as “naïve […] teleology” (Rudolph 1998, 230; in contrast, see Kagarlitsky 1998, 216) is to overlook its contemporary indicators: the revolutionary accomplishments in England and France, which were understood as the promoters of an inevitable bourgeoisification in other parts of the world, and the labour movement just forming which was seen as a guarantor of a communist future. Furthermore, Marx and Engels, even though they in principle viewed the British dominion over India and the conquest of Mexico by the USA positively (Engels 1847, MECW 6/527 [4/501]; Marx/Engels MECW 8/365 [6/273 et sq.]; see Sylvers 2005), were anything but blind to the ambivalence of such developments, as Marx’s conclusion to the studies of British colonial rule proves: “When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.” (1852, MECW 12/222 [9/226])

The unfettering of the capitalist mode of production will undermine the future of humanity: “anticipation of the future […] occurs in the production of wealth only in relation to the worker and to the land. The future can indeed be anticipated and ruined in both cases by premature over-exertion and exhaustion, and by the disturbance of the balance between expenditure and income. In capitalist production this happens to both the worker and the land.” (MECW 32/442 [26.3/303])

4.3 The Condition of the Proletariat, Class Struggle, Objective and Subjective Conditions of Revolution. - Section I opens with the assertion “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” (MECW 6/482 [4/462]), which Engels restricts, on the basis of research into prehistory, to the history of class societies reproduced by the state (ibid., Fn. **, as well as MECW 26/118 [577] and 517 [581]). The struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie is understood as the current phase of this history. The finale announces that with the victory of the proletariat, all class struggle is brought to an end, and humanity organises itself as a classless communist society.

Marx argues for this victory with reference to The Condition of the Working Class in England (MECW 4/501-512 [2/431-41]) on the basis of the fact that the class of proletarians are only bound to bourgeois society by indifference or outrage (MECW 6/494 et sq. [4/472]). The bourgeoisie has “substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” for exploitation “veiled by religious and political illusions” (MECW 6/487 [465]). This assertion reflects the state of economic theory. Marx was still “a communist Ricardian” (Hobsbawm 1998, 13), for whom the proletariat, without property, is forced to sell its “labour” (MECW 6/491 [4/469]) or itself “piecemeal” (490 [468]), for which it is compensated at best with an existential minimum (491 [469] and 499 [476]; see also: MECW 4/376 [2/307]; MECW 6/130 et sq. [4/88 et sq.]; MECW 9/197-228 [6/397-423]; MECW 6/415 et sqq. [535 et sqq.]). Since this minimum differs between nations, it “sinks always further towards the absolutely lowest level” (MECW 6/425 [6/543 et sq.]) and will never rise again. “Pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.” (495 [4/473]) The bourgeoisie loses its ability “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.” (495 et sq. [ibid.]; see also MECW 4/330 [2/258]; 376 [307] and 394 [325]) Later, based on insight into the connection between the value of the commodity labour power and the wage, within the IWA Marx propagated struggles over wages as being indispensable to improving social conditions, as well as being a school of class struggle (MECW 20/148 et sq. [16/151 et sq.]). In C I (“the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation”) immiseration is formulated as a tendency which is “modified in its working by many circumstances” (MECW 35/638 [23/673 et sq.]).

With the assumption that the international levelling of the technical conditions and content of labour (639 [674]) strips the proletariat “of every trace of national character” (MECW 6/494 [4/472]), considerations concerning the emergence of more skilled jobs and more distinguished demands placed upon the forces of labour are blocked. Engels expresses the deeper political meaning of this assumption: the more homogeneous the conditions of labour and life become, the more effortlessly and consistently will the break by the proletariat with the bourgeois order in multiple countries be consummated simultaneously, the greater will the proletariat’s readiness for fraternisation be as a precondition for revolution (1847, MECW 6/390 [4/418]).

The de-qualification of the content of labour in fact had as its consequence the displacement of male workers by women and children (MECW 6/491 [4/469]), but the notion that through that, “all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder” (502 [478]; see also: MECW 3/424 [1/504 et sq.]; MECW 4/424 [2/356]; MECW 5/181 [3/165]) is primarily an expression of Marx and Engels’s aversion (which they shared with their contemporaries) to a ‘reversal of roles’. Nonetheless, the Manifesto is acknowledged for being the first party program “in which the women question is officially taken up” (Österreichische Gesellschaft füf Kulturpolitik [Austrian Society for Cultural Policy], Vienna 1981, quoted in Grabner 1998a). With regard to the solutions offered, Frigga Haug objects, it must be regarded as “illusory” to want to derive the levelling of gender and age differences from the factory system (1998, 179 and 182). The predicted abolition of the position of women as an “instrument of production” (MECW 6/502 [4/478]) counts upon their liberation by others instead of “self-liberation”; the “role of women in the reproduction of social relations” is “not even contemplated” (1998, 179 et sq.).

In the Manifesto, contrary to the accusation of not being dealt with (De Brunhoff 1998, 160; Löwy 1998, 116), the emergence of revolutionary consciousness as well as the role of the subjective factor are outlined: competition between workers is replaced by their “association”; workers become aware of their strength (MECW 6/492 [4/470], 496 [473 et sq.]; see also: MECW 4/36 [2/37 et sq.]; MECW 5/74 [3/61]; MECW 6/210 et sq. [4/180 et sq.]; MECW 6/435 et sq. [6/554 et sq.]). The workers understand themselves to be the “independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority” (MECW 6/495 [4/472]). In the struggle, the proletariat gains “elements of political and general education”, transmitted by “bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole” and who “in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour” join the proletariat (an autobiographical note by Marx, MECW 6/493 et sq. [4/471 et sq.]; see also MECW 4/582 [2/506]; MECW 6/330 [4/349]; MECW 10/628 [7/563]). Which elements of education are good for the proletariat is determined by reference to the Manifesto during the conflict with petit-bourgeois positions within German Social Democracy (Marx/Engels [Circular Letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke, and Others], 17/18 September 1879, MECW 24/268 [19/164 et sq.]). Even if some passages sound “determinist”, if the bourgeoisie “produces, above all, its own grave-diggers” (MECW 6/496 [4/473]), then “the graves have to be dug by or through human action” (Hobsbawm 1998, 27).

The role of the proletariat, which has world-historical dimensions in the Manifesto, does not at all float above empirical realities. In the 1840s, Engels sees the proletariat as split, restricted “to their immediate, everyday interests” (1847, MECW 6/84 [4/49]), “not even capable of independent organisation”, it possessed, as he wrote in 1884, “only a vague feeling of the profound conflict of interests between it and the bourgeoisie” (MECW 26/122 [21/17 et sq.]). Marx summarises the insights in 1850: only after decades of “civil war” can the workers train themselves “for the exercise of power” (MECW 10/626 [8/598]).

The Manifesto received critique for having simplified bourgeois social structures and fields of conflict in a ‘class reductionist’ manner. But one has to take into consideration its intent, “of making understandably visible, in a simplified manner and with strong contrasts, a state of society experienced as apocalyptic” (Marxhausen 2003, 61). Marx was not concerned with presenting the ‘real history’ of bourgeois society, a goal he is accused of failing at (Krätke 1998, 37 et sqq., 40; Wood 1998, 94 et sqq.), but rather with the tendency of world history. Its presentation is directed against idealistic conceptions of history within the working class and socialist/communist circles. That explains, as Engels self-critically admits (to Mehring, 14 July 1893, MECW 50/163 et sq. [39/96 et sq.]), the one-sided emphasis upon the role of the economic against the interaction of diverse extra-economic factors, the reduction of social praxis to bipolar relationships. The replacement of the manifold social structure of pre-bourgeois societies, greeted as progressive, by “two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (MECW 6/485 [4/463]), in which all other social classes and layers are absorbed (487 [465], 491 [469], 494 [471 et sq.]), was predicted since 1843 (MECW 3/441 [1/522]; MECW 4/321 and 325 [2/250 et sq. and 254]; MECW 5/431 et sq. [3/417]; MECW 6/175 et sq. [4/141]). Thus the accusation of an undialectical “simplification of class antagonisms” (Ruge 1998, 171; see also Deppe 1998, 240) applies to the entire early works. Boris Kagarlitsky in contrast objects that the Manifesto concentrates upon the class antagonism that is fundamental for establishing the revolution (1998, 224).

From this two-classes thesis operating at a formation-theoretical level of abstraction, socialist and communist parties derived a devaluation of non-proletarian classes and layers as a “reactionary mass” (1875, Programm der Sozialistischen Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, 47) which was devastating for alliance policy. Against this, Marx maintains (MECW 24/88 et sq. [19/22 et sq.]) that the concern is with two constellations: with regard to a revolutionary bourgeoisie, those classes and layers are reactionary which wish to maintain their historically obsolete position; they are at the same time potentially revolutionary “in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat” (MECW 6/494 [4/472]).

4.4. Steps Towards Communist Society. - In the Manifesto, two time scales are bound up with one another: on the one hand the antithetically constructed prognosis that private property will be sublated by social property, class society by classless society, etc., which points toward a communist future; on the other hand, a catalogue of “measures” (MECW 6/505 [4/481 et sq.]) which take into account the processual character of revolution. The long view secures trans-temporal validity (and a worldwide reception) for the message; the individual measures document its rootedness in daily political circumstances. The combination is applied in a pronounced way with regard to the question of property.

The elimination of all forms of private property is – as in French worker communism (Blanqui 1834) – the “leading question” of the movement (MECW 6/519 [4/493]). The assumption that capitalist development eliminates all other forms of private property (491 [469]) leads however to the hasty conclusion that the abolition of capital property is relatively simple, since it ‘only’ involves “the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people” (MECW 35/751 [23/791]). In the tactical passages of the Manifesto, things sound different: there the point is “to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible” (MECW 6/504 [4/481]; see also Engels, Principles of Communism, MECW 6/348 [4/370]). Marx and Engels did not regard the identification of communal property with state property to be a contradiction, since the post-revolutionary state power is defined as the power of the working class, which loses its “political character” (505 [482]; see also Poverty, MECW 6/212 [4/182]). The “equation without further ado of the proletariat with ‘its’ state” (W.F. Haug 1999, 29) was both passed on and relativised in the following decades with reference to the Manifesto (Engels to Bebel, 18-28 March 1875, MECW 45/61 [19/7]; Engels 1883, MECW 25/336 [17/344]).

In the overthrow of the rule of the nobility, the communists will accept a bourgeoisie acting in a revolutionary way as a coalition partner, without dispensing with the need to school workers for the anti-capitalist struggle (MECW 6/519 [4/492 et sq.]). The “immediate aim of the communists” is the “formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat” (498 [474]) as well as “to win the battle of democracy” (504 [481]; see also MECW 27/515 [22/518]). On the one hand the identity of democracy/democrats and communism/communists is asserted (Engels 1846, MECW 6/5 [2/613]); on the other hand, the relationship of communists to bourgeois democracy is of a tactical nature (1847, MECW 6/295 [4/313]), which is expressed clearly in the Address of the Central Authority to the League, March 1850 (MECW 10/257-270 [7/244-54]). The revolution had confirmed “the reasonings of theory” that the “democracy of the petty traders must first have its turn, before the Communist working class could hope to permanently establish itself in power” (1852, MECW 11/389 [8/399]; see also 1884, MECW 26/122 [21/18]). Since there is no mention of a parliamentary system, ‘democracy’ might mean a coalition of workers, peasants, small tenant farmers, and the petit-bourgeoisie (Moss 1998, 150), which might create the “immense majority” that Marx ascribes to the proletariat. Democratic procedures are left out, presumably due to the aversion to “writing receipts […] for the cook-shops of the future” (MECW 35/17 [23/25]). The self-abolition of the proletariat in favour of “associated individuals” (MECW 6/505 [4/482]) in interaction with the abolition of “national differences and antagonisms” (503 [479]) appears to be guarantee enough for a harmonic, essentially conflict-free state of society (see Leys/Panitch 1998, 26 et sq.).

The absence of a proletarian seizure of power in Germany and France led Marx and Engels to understand the course and success of class struggles as resulting from the manifold socio-structural aspects and political cultures operating on each other in differentiated ways (Address of the Central Authority to the League, March 1850; Class Struggles in France; Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany; The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).

5. The reception of the Manifesto at the end of the 20th cent. was on the one hand characterised by the contradictory reaction of leftists to the failed socialist experiment – the quality of which would probably have led Marx to join the camp of its critics – and on the other hand by the paeans by neoliberal ideologues for its ‘brilliant prognosis’ of their concept of globalisation, in which of course the revolutionary consequences are left out (see Bischoff 1998, 284).

Numerous questions are open: who will stop capitalism from rendering the earth uninhabitable?  What chance does a violent revolution of the existing order have against the immense apparatus of repression and mechanisms of control? But how should capitalist relations of property and rule be abolished in a non-violent way? Is abolition still on the agenda, or has the alternative formulated by Rosa Luxemburg, following Kautsky (1892/1910, 118), of “socialism or a reversion to barbarism” (2004, 321) already been decided?

Marx and Engels have not left behind a handbook on how to organise protest and resistance. The subject of their projections for the future is the capitalist industrial proletariat. This subject no longer exists in the form familiar to them. Subsuming all the poor, exploited, and unemployed of the world to the category “workers” (Attali in Hobsbawm/Attali 2006) doesn’t achieve much. Rather, it tempts one to copy the modes of behaviour, determination to fight, strategies, and tactics of past struggles in the present, which is not appropriate to the ambivalent conflict situation.

The future is always open. The contribution of the Manifesto to the formation of human relations remains current mutatis mutandis: for one thing the globalisation of capital continues capital’s dissolution, predicted in the Manifesto, of all hitherto existing economic and social relations, cultural and moral values, ideals and norms. The differentiation of this process corresponds to the diversity of means and methods, organisational forms, and aims of those affected. The continuous transformation of forces of production into forces of destruction can only be prevented by their communal operation. The Manifesto ends with a call for the worldwide unity of the proletariat. Even if the latter no longer exists in the 19th cent. sense, the necessity of resistance at a global level is still of continuing relevance.

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Thomas Marxhausen

Translated by Alexander Locascio

→ anarchy of production, association, bourgeoisie, middle class, cadre party, civil society, civil society/bourgeois society, class consciousness, class struggle, commodity fetishism, communism, cosmopolitism, modern, critique of globalisation, democracy, despotism of capital, destructive forces, factory legislation, formation theory, gender relations, ghost, specter, globalisation, historic mission of the working class, historical vocation, ideology critique, impoverishment, immiseration, industrial reserve army, international mobility of capital, iron law of wages, just wages, labour movement, misery, poverty, parties, prehistory, Pre-March, productive forces/relations of production, progress, proletarian internationalism, proletarian revolution, proletariat, proletarisation, socialism or barbarism, state, state power, state property, urban/rural, vanguard, violence, power, women’s emancipation, women’s labour, female labour, working class

→ Anarchie der Produktion, Arbeiterbewegung, Arbeiterklasse, Assoziation, Avantgarde, Blanquismus, Bourgeoisie, bürgerliche Gesellschaft, Demokratie, Despotie des Kapitals, Destruktivkräfte, ehernes Lohngesetz, Elend, Fabrikgesetzgebung, Fetischcharakter der Ware, Formationstheorie, Fortschritt, Frauenarbeit, Frauenemanzipation, gerechter Lohn, Geschlechterverhältnisse, Gespenst, Gewalt, Globalisierung, Globalisierungskritik, historische Mission der Arbeiterklasse, historischer Beruf, Ideologiekritik, industrielle Reservearmee, internationale Kapitalmobilität, Internationalismus, Kaderpartei, Kapitalistenklasse, Kapitalzerstörung, Klassenbewusstsein, Klassenkampf, Kommunismus, Kosmopolitismus (moderner), Lohnsklaverei, Parteien, Produktivkräfte/Produktionsverhältnisse, Proletariat, proletarische Revolution, Proletarisierung, Sozialismus oder Barbarei, Staat, Staatseigentum, Staatsmacht, Stadt/Land, Verelendung, Versachlichung, Vorgeschichte, Vormärz, Zivilgesellschaft

Originally published as Kommunistisches Manifest in: Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, vol. 7/II: Knechtschaft bis Krise des Marxismus, edited by Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Frigga Haug, Peter Jehle, Argument-Verlag, Hamburg 2010, col. 1354-1374.