The Communist Manifesto stands among the most well-read books of all time. One hundred sixty years after it was first published, it has been reprinted hundreds of times in most of the world’s languages. It has been praised, slandered, banned and distorted.
Certainly more than any other political pamphlet, the Communist Manifesto has stood the test of time. It is studied in schools, colleges, workplaces, activist study groups and underground discussion groups all over the world.
The reason that the Communist Manifesto remains such an inspiration for revolutionary change is that it is not just the musings of social reformers, philosophers or political wannabes. It is a working class guide for changing the world.
Written in the heat of battle
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote the Manifesto in 1848 when they were 29 and 27 years old, respectively. All of Europe was in turmoil. In France, there was growing dissatisfaction with the “bourgeois king” Louis Philippe. National uprisings against the Austro-Hungarian empire were just under the surface. Opposition to the feudal monarchs ruling the German and Italian states was mounting along with growing demands for national unification.
Much of this discontent came from petty-bourgeois shopkeepers and intellectuals. In France, this class had been instrumental in the 1789 bourgeois revolution but had been sidelined under Louis Philippe. In the rest of continental Europe, they were still politically disenfranchised. These forces were mainly interested in becoming the new ruling class.
Skilled artisans also felt the bite of the newly emerging capitalist social system. Loss of their guilds forced many of them into traveling communities of workers that moved anywhere to find work. The ranks of the former artisans, now workers, spawned many radical activists who believed in the struggle for, as Engels said, “total social change.”
The bourgeoisie was relatively unconcerned with addressing the problems of the new working classes. Workers were forced to labor 13 to 15 hours a day and live in run-down and disease-ridden slums. Their numbers were constantly increasing. They had been pauperized by the economic changes of capitalism around them.
The emergence of the modern working class as a political force was the main element that separated the political climate in the late 1840s from the revolutionary ferments of earlier years.
From the new working class, secretive revolutionary organizations sprung up across Europe. Some were inspired by earlier socialists like Saint-Simon or Fourier. Others were inspired by internationalists like Philippe Buonarroti and Gracchus Babeuf, leaders of the extreme left wing of the French Revolution. Militants like Louis Auguste Blanqui tried to set up insurrectionary groups in France.
One such group, the League of the Just, had participated with Blanqui’s supporters in an uprising in Paris in 1839.1 It was this group, renamed in 1847 as the Communist League, that commissioned the young radicals Marx and Engels in December 1847 to draft a program for the anticipated uprisings. In February 1848, the Communist Manifesto appeared as the fighting program of the Communist League.
The Manifesto appeared on the streets of Paris shortly before the February 1848 uprising in that city. That uprising spread with revolutionary fervor across Europe. This revolutionary wave gave the Manifesto an audience among revolutionary activists, raising Marx’s profile in the working-class movement.
The science of social change
What separated the Communist Manifesto from the dozens of programs and manifestos issued by other revolutionary groups of the day? Why are all those other programs forgotten today but the Manifesto is still widely read? What is it that has given this small pamphlet the ability to captivate Alabama sharecroppers, Russian revolutionaries and Chinese peasants alike?
Marx and Engels incorporated the most advanced political, economic and philosophical thought of the time into scientific socialism: determining the laws by which society changed and then applying those laws to bring about socialism and, in due course, a communist society.
They applied the dialectical method of the German philosopher Georg Hegel to the materialism of the most advanced scientific thinkers. In this way, they were able to identify class struggle as the motive force of history. Based on an economic analysis of capitalist society and the historical development of society’s productive forces, they identified the working class as the only “really revolutionary class,” the class that had the potential not only to liberate itself but all of humanity.
Starting with their often-quoted phrase, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle,” the two young revolutionaries sketched in a popular way the history of class struggle from its beginning until 1848. In this way, they were able to put the individual struggles of workers in this city or that country into the overall framework of the struggle of exploited against exploiters. It is that context that allows the Manifesto to speak to revolutionaries around the world struggling against capitalism.
Rooted in working-class organization
The historic significance of the Communist Manifesto is not only due to the brilliance of the ideas that Marx and Engels elaborated. They themselves acknowledged that most of the essential ideas in the Manifesto had already been elaborated—although not in a unified way.
The importance of the Manifesto can hardly be overstated. It is not just a pamphlet, but the program of a revolutionary workers’ organization in the ongoing struggle against capitialism. The defeat of the 1848 revolutions led to major reprisals against revolutionaries. The Communist League was disbanded amid the anti-communist trials in Cologne in 1852.2 Undeterred, Marx and Engels continued toward the task outlined in the Manifesto, the “organization of the proletarians into a class and consequently into a political party.”
Marx’s position in the International Workers’ Association (the First International) kept the program of the Manifesto in the minds of working-class revolutionaries, even though the specific demands had changed to meet the new political circumstances. This in turn led to the founding of mass socialist parties in Germany and France, expanding the reach of the Manifesto as the foundational document for many who considered themselves socialists and communists into the first half of the 20th century.
The triumph of the 1917 Russian Revolution opened the era of proletarian revolution. For the first time, the document that had accompanied the working class sectors of the 1848 revolutions showed itself as a guide to victory in the hands of the Bolshevik Party led by V.I. Lenin. In addition to the tremendous inspiration that the October Revolution offered for workers and oppressed people around the world, the new Soviet state was able to print, translate and distribute innumerable copies of the Manifesto to areas where it once had to be printed secretly or in limited press runs.
The text of the Manifesto is more or less unchanged since 1848. Already in 1872, Marx and Engels referred to the Manifesto as a “historical document, which we no longer have any right to alter.”
It is the reality of the class struggle that continues to make the Communist Manifesto a living document in the hands of proletarian revolutionaries. For example, the death of “laissez-faire” free market capitalism required the Communist International under Lenin’s political influence to update the Manifesto’s immortal slogan “Workers of the world, unite!” to “Workers and oppressed people of the world, unite!” Imperialism had extended the tentacles of monopoly capital to every corner of the world, meaning that the overthrow of capitalist social relations would come from revolutionary workers and the legions of nationally oppressed people around the world whose development had been brutally strangled by the machinations of trusts and combines.
Now more than ever, with the speed at which capital is being accumulated in fewer and fewer hands, as the already-socialized division of labor is becoming increasingly international, the observations of Marx and Engels provide a way forward. The Manifesto is not just a critique of capitalism or a manual for revolutionary strategy. It is a compelling argument anticipating that the modern working class would not be simply a victim of oppression but act as the new vanguard that would reconstruct society. This achievement in communist propaganda, in turn, became a material factor accelerating the formation of communist and socialist organizations wherever the workers awakened to political life.
To this day, the Manifesto inspires revolutionaries the world over to struggle for the overthrow of the rule of capital. From Venezuela and Colombia and across Latin America, with the red banner still raised high by revolutionary Cuba, from the Philippines to Palestine, from the belly of the beast of U.S. imperialism, the closing words of the Communist Manifesto still ring clear:
“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
1. Struik, Dirk, “The Birth of the Communist Manifesto,” International Publishers, 1971, p. 52.
2. Cf. Engels, Frederick, “On the History of the Communist League” (1885) in Marx and Engels Selected Works vol. 3, Progress Publishers, 1970, p. 173.