The Communist Manifesto: 160 years old and still causing trouble

February 29, 2008

The Manifesto of the Communist Party

Karl Marx & Frederick Engels (with a commentary by Leon Trotsky)

Resistance Marxist Library, 1998

74 pages, $8.50

Available at <>

Not many authors can publish a work before they reach 30 years of age and have it remain in publication continuously for the following 160 years. Yet, that is precisely the case with the Manifesto of the Communist Party (the Communist Manifesto), which emerged in the middle of the revolutionary upsurge of February 1848.

Moreover, the Manifesto still rings through the years to today's world with its promise of human liberty and fulfilment.

The democratic wave that swept Europe in 1848 was a consequence of the unfinished business of the Great French Revolution of 1789. In that heroic revolt the French capitalist class took control of society by winning the lower orders to their side by promising liberty, fraternity and equality. The reactionary European powers quelled the revolution, without destroying its promise.

The expansion of capitalist production that followed enlarged the working class and, by the late 1840s, an economic crisis brought conflict. The unfulfilled promises of freedom from 1789 mingled with new urges for liberty from wage slavery and helped create the explosion.

The spark of the rebellion came from Switzerland in November 1847. The struggle spread down the Italian peninsula and agitation was rife from one end of Europe to the other, with barricades being erected and epic street battles taking place in most European capitals.

During this upsurge the newly formed Communist League bent every effort to drive the movement forward, with the secret police of every country hounding them and establishment newspapers slandering them. This why the Manifesto begins famously with: "A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism." The Manifesto was the first public statement of the communists, newly surfaced from the shadows of underground organising. By the time it came off the printing press, Marx was embroiled in revolutionary Paris.

Just who were these communists? The fact is, the movement had only recently united and had barely begun to establish its intellectual foundations when the flood of revolution overtook it.

Marx and Engels were young German intellectuals, critical thinkers trained in the exacting method of G.W.F. Hegel, whose philosophical system of dialectics Marx developed and revolutionised. Exiled from Germany and having moved through radical European circles for several years, they joined the secretive League of the Just, a grouping of radical German artisans.

Within this grouping Marx and Engels argued against what they called "crude communism" and other underdeveloped thinking. It was in late 1847, at a London congress of the League, that Marx and Engels' ideas won the day, including that of moving into the public domain with the Manifesto.

The crude communists longed for a purified form of pre-capitalist society. Marx and Engels proposed a totally different vision. The Manifesto argued that the victory of the workers, leading all the downtrodden, would be built upon the economic foundations that have been constructed by the capitalists.

More than this, Marx and Engels argued, the rise of the bourgeoisie (the French name for the capitalists) actually prepares the way for socialism. "The development of Modern Industry ... cuts from under its feet the very foundations 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."

The first section of the Manifesto (entitled "Bourgeois and Proletarians") summarises the sweep of the development of class society. It begins bluntly: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." It surveys the epic development of European capitalism, which "sprouted from the ruins of feudal society" and has established "new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones".

More than that, they write: "Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses ... this distinct feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms." Out of these sharp lines of class division will emerge the new society that will free humanity of all class distinction forever.

How can such a promise be made? Because in capitalist society "capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality". For the capitalist "the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it".

Do such bold statements still apply? Yes. Even in advanced capitalist countries where many workers enjoy the fruits of consumer society, the scrap-heap of unemployment and destitution is just a recession away. As for the rest of the world, the bourgeoisie doesn't pretend to care if the bulk of humanity lives or dies.

The Manifesto is a clarion call to revolution against bourgeois culture, which is, "for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine". But what was the communists' promise about the new society that they proposed?

For a richer sense of Marx and Engels' revolutionary ideas, it is valuable to look at some of their earlier writings. In 1845, in The Holy Family, they broke new philosophical ground by speaking of how human beings are formed by the manner in which we produce our means of subsistence.

What humans are, they wrote, "coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production." As the mode of economic life has changed through history, so human nature has changed.

Thus the Manifesto's declaration for a new society formed as "an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" is the promise of a new human nature replacing "the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms".

As capitalist economic relations grew so did the tendency for such things as the products of labour, money, social relations and even ideas to appear as something dominating, separate from human beings. Marx concentrated on the alienation of labour and its debilitating consequences on human beings.

With the domination of the modern factory system, humans had ceased relating to themselves and their world except through a veil of capitalist property relations. This distortion colours our entire existence.

For Marx, "Communism is the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man", he wrote in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

With such a promise, of course the "ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution", as the Manifesto says.

The capitalist class still has no answer to the problems of this planet. As Marx and Engels stirringly concluded the Manifesto 160 years ago: "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win."

The Communist Manifesto remains a revolutionary call to action.

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