Skip to main content
By Doug Enaa Greene
September 16, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — With the exception of the Bible, no other work in history has been more praised and denounced, analyzed and criticized, both seriously and superficially, than the Communist Manifesto. Whenever the ruling class imposes censorship on works which contain “subversive” ideas, the Communist Manifesto is inevitably at the top of the list. Students of history, politics, philosophy, sociology and economics who ignore the impact of the Communist Manifesto, do so at their peril. The Communist Manifesto is the one piece of writing by Marx and Engels that most people, not merely leftists, have read. It has been translated into almost every major language in the world and is the most influential political pamphlet ever written. There is not a single wasted word in the Communist Manifesto with its sweeping historical vision that simultaneously indicts and praises the capitalist order, while call upon the workers of the world to take action to overthrow it. Despite being written over 160 years ago, the Communist Manifesto remains as relevant as ever. For generations of workers, socialists and communists, whether in factories, manning the barricades, students, guerrillas in the jungles and hills, the Communist Manifesto was, and remains, a weapon of war.
I. The dual revolution
The Communist Manifesto cannot be understood without knowledge of the twin events that the historian Eric Hobsbawm calls the “dual revolution” — the political, philosophical and ideological changes of the French Revolution and the economic and social changes of the Industrial Revolution — which ushered in the capitalist era. France before 1789, like most of Europe, was ruled by an absolute monarch, Louis XVI, who claimed his legitimacy from the “divine right” of God. Despite the immense power of the Bourbon Dynasty, France was on the brink of financial ruin and a social explosion. Aside from the first two “Estates” of the nobility and the clergy, the vast majority of the French population was in the “Third Estate,” who lived in poverty and without rights. The old feudal order was crumbling as “new social and economic relations were growing up within it.” The storming of the Bastille marked a radical break as the ordinary people of France stepped onto the stage of history. In a series of protracted struggles, the radical bourgeoisie (or capitalists), led by Jacobins such as Robespierre, headed a movement of peasants, small-shopkeepers and the city poor, which swept away the privileges and power of the old regime and defended the newly-created Republic by force of arms against the combined monarchs of Europe.
The French Revolution changed the face of the world. France was purged of feudalism and created the conditions that allowed private property and free enterprise to develop. Even more drastically, the French Revolution transformed the masses of people from subjects subordinate to the whim of the king to citizens equal before the law. The armies of the French Republic, who marched across the Europe, carried the ideals of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" on their banners. However, the ideals of 1789 and 1793 meant vastly different things to the classes who carried out the revolution. For the capitalists, a revolution should not go to the radical extreme of democracy or challenging the “natural rights” of private property; rather, those with wealth, who possessed a stake in the country, should rule and the government would protect their property. On the other hand, the revolution enabled the oppressed social layers to articulate their own demands, since they were not simply fighting to establish bourgeois rule, but “they were making their own revolution and their enemy was privilege and oppression, whether clerical, noble or bourgeois in form.” It was from the radical currents of the French Revolution that modern communism was born – such as Gracchus Babeuf (1760-1797), the leader of the Conspiracy of Equals, who believed in a society without private property where social and economic equality would flourish. According to Frederick Engels, Babeuf's communism, despite its crude nature, “is the idea of the new world order.”
However, the French Revolution had ended with a double defeat. From within, the brilliant general Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor and established a new aristocracy, while his armies carried revolutionary ideas on their bayonets as they conquered Europe. From without, France was defeated by the monarchs of Europe in 1815. The victorious “Holy Alliance” restored overthrown kings and queens to power, while republican and revolutionary ideas were driven deep underground, hopefully to never reemerge.
In spite of the hopes of the Holy Alliance to freeze the old order in place, it was already too late for that. The forces unleashed by the Industrial Revolution created immense changes in the economy and brought forth new volatile social forces. The Industrial Revolution that had begun in 18th century, specifically in Britain, transformed both technology and production. New machinery allowed mass production on a scale never imagined before. Railroads changed travel, allowing goods and people to move from one city to another in a matter of hours instead of days or weeks. Industry flourished not only in England, as exports found their way to the rest of the world. From 1780 to 1800, the exports of cotton from Manchester increased over 38 times. It was no wonder that England was called “the workshop of the world.” The doctrines of “laissez-faire,” “free trade” and “competition” became a religion to the British bourgeoisie. Increasingly, capitalism blossomed not only in England, but found fertile soil in Belgium, France and Germany.
The steam engine and other new inventions, allowed manufacturing to be centered in new urban factories, replacing the old handicraft industries, and facilitating the centralization and concentration of production. A new class of laborers emerged to work in these factories — the proletariat (or the working class) — a class with no property, no means of production, who were forced to sell their labor-power for subsistence. The proletariat was the source of the massive wealth created by the industrial revolution, but they did not share in it. Children, some as young as 9 years old, were forced to labor for up to 72 hours a week. Peasants were driven off their land and forced into the factories and subjected to industrial discipline. Yet wages were barely enough to live on and conditions were dangerous and deadly.
However, the proletariat was not simply a pitiable class who passively endured their exploitation; it fought back relentlessly against its conditions. Early outbreaks of resistance could be seen in the struggles of the sans-culottes during the French Revolution for bread and rights and the opposition of artisans and journeymen to the encroaching free market that threatened their livelihoods. As capitalism marched forth, the working class resisted in many ways – “Luddism” (breaking machines that either led to unemployment or lowered wages), mass demonstrations that were often met with police violence (such as the Peterloo massacre in 1819), strikes, trade unions, and the development of cooperatives. By the 1830s, Chartism emerged in Britain — a mass movement of hundreds of thousands of workers for universal suffrage, the secret ballot and other far-reaching reforms.
By the 1830s, the threat of the revolution once more stalked Europe. In July 1830, a revolution in France overthrew the restored Bourbon monarch Charles X, who was quickly replaced by the “bourgeois king” Louis-Philippe. Although the situation in Europe was contained, capitalism was on the march. In France, the new Orleanist dynasty now expressed the interests of bankers and industrialists, while disappointing republicans and workers who felt they had been cheated by the revolution. In 1831 and 1834, the silk weavers of Lyons revolted against their conditions with the slogan: “Live working or die fighting!” In 1839, the communist Society of Seasons launched an abortive insurrection in Paris. The fear of spontaneous revolt of workers and organized communists joining together terrified the ruling classes of France.
The July Revolution encouraged mass movements and revolutionary action in England, Belgium, Germany and Italy. Yet the danger passed and reaction continued to rule. However, the middle classes were hesitatingly demanding more political power in the face of aristocratic intransigence; workers fought for the most basic of rights and, by the 1840s, famine stalked the continent. Finally, in 1848, Europe exploded in revolution. Eric Hobsbawm describes the many contradictions that led to the 1848 revolution as follows:
The forces of economic, technical and social change released in the past half century were unprecedented, and even to the most superficial observer, irresistible.... It was inevitable that landed aristocracies and absolute monarchies must retreat in all countries in which a strong bourgeoisie was developing, whatever the political compromises or formulae found for retaining status, influence and even political power. Moreover, it was inevitable that the injection of political consciousness and permanent political activity among the masses, which was the great legacy of the French Revolution, must sooner or later mean that these masses were allowed to play a formal part in politics.
II. Socialism and communism
The conditions of the working class horrified many humanitarians, reformers and even aristocrats (who looked fondly on the “natural order” of feudalism and detested the new industrial society), propelling them into action. These forces, which were not in the least radical, pressured for laws to curb the fierce exploitation in the factories and limit working hours. And certainly, there were notable reforms passed which prohibited the employment of children less than 9 years old and limited the number of hours worked for older children to just 72 hours a week. Marx and Engels described these social reformers as “bourgeois socialists” who “desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat ... It is summed up in the phrase: the bourgeois is a bourgeois — for the benefit of the working class.”
Alongside the well-meaning humanitarians and reformers, there was a revival of socialist and communist movements. Although the terms are often used interchangeably now, the words socialism and communism possessed different meanings in the mid-nineteenth century. According to the Marxist Hal Draper,
The central notion around which the term socialism ... was not so much any particular proposal regarding property or ownership. The central notion was concern with the “social question" ... the plight of the masses of people in the new society of growing industry and bourgeoisification, and the need to do something about it. The new term literally meant social-ism; and it could be applied, and was abundantly applied, to any ideas and proposals about reforms directed to the “social question", whether or not any changes in the system of property ownership were involved, whether or not any government action was sought-in short, whether or not there was anything socialistic about them in a more definite modern sense.... Abolition of private property implied community of goods — or “community" for short — and provided the core distinction for the differentiation of communism from the broader penumbra of socialism.
In time, socialism would come to mean a post-capitalist society, but at this point, to be a socialist did not necessarily mean the abolition of private property, but was merely a catch-all term identifying those concerned with social problems (although there were many different strategies and solutions contained under the socialist umbrella). By contrast, communism stood for a commitment to create a communal ownership, the radical abolition of private property, Moreover, the term was more likely to be used by radical proletarians. This last difference between socialism and communism is important to note — while even aristocrats could be “socialists,” the idea of communism was revolutionary and conjured up fears of the “dangerous classes.” Thus, it was no accident that Marx and Engels primarily identified themselves as communists (although they describe themselves as “scientific socialists” to distinguish their socialism from other variants).
While dreams of a classless society can be traced back before capitalism, all the way to the origin of class society itself, and proto-socialism and communism can be found in revolts from Spartacus to the German Peasants' War of the 16th Century — the political and social atmosphere after the dual revolution revived these ideas. New utopian reformers and visionaries emerged, such as Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and Robert Owen (1771-1858), with their dreams of a socialist society.
The utopians, despite their many differences (Saint-Simon was a technocrat, while Fourier took a progressive position on the role of women), were all fierce critics of the capitalist order and the suffering of the working class (something always acknowledged by Marx and Engels). The utopians each had their own blueprints to remodel society without classes, inequality and poverty. Despite their penetrating attacks on bourgeois society, the utopians saw the workers as passive victims and not as active subjects who could liberate themselves. The utopians eschewed politics and revolution, rather, they believed it was necessary to appeal, according to the dictates of “reason” to men of good-will — such as technicians, philanthropists, and even the nobility and kings — in order to redress class conflict.
However, the fantastic blueprints of the utopians did not emerge from the historical process; rather their plans existed outside of history. The utopians did recognize the existence of class struggle, but they conceived of class relations not as one of conflict, but of harmony. According to this conception, human history developed in rationally and progressively. In time, the upper classes would accept the dictates of “reason” and collaborate with the workers to create a new society. Yet the utopians developed their beautiful dreams when capitalism was still in its infancy, which colored their belief that it was a progressive agent of change and could be tamed. In time, the utopians found themselves separated from the working class and reduced to impotent sects, while appealing to wealthy men of conscience to implement their schemes.
The utopians were not the only flag in the field. Philippe Buonarroti (1761-1837), a comrade of Babeuf, passed on the communism of the Equals to a new generation. The Jacobin communist militants were everything the utopians were not. The communists saw a state of open war between the rulers and the ruled, viewed their struggle as inherently political and believed that an egalitarian society could only be achieved by a violent revolution. No one embodied this vision more than the French communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881), an incorruptible revolutionary and conspirator who spent half his life in jail for his service to the workers' cause. His strategy was decidedly simple — a secret conspiracy would rise up on an appointed day and seize political power. Despite Blanqui's undoubted merits, his vision only attracted a minority of workers, and his theory could not understand changing social conditions and his organization was divorced from the working class. All of Blanqui's coups failed again and again.
Influenced by Blanquist communism were a group of German artisans and workers living in French exile, organized into the League of the Just. The League was led by a self-educated artisan Wilhelm Weitling (1809-1864), who organized socialist clubs and workers' societies in Germany, Switzerland and France. The League of the Just took part in Blanqui's coup in 1839, but afterward, they were outlawed and ceased to exist as a central organization, causing its members to scatter throughout Europe. Weitling went to Switzerland and wrote a number of works outlining his own variant of communism, which he saw as a messianic religion. Weitling's works became a “Bible” among German workers and exiles. Yet Weitling believed the proletariat was simply another section of the oppressed with no separate class interests of its own. Nor did he believe that the proletariat could liberate itself, rather an intellectual elite was necessary.
When Weitling moved to London in 1841, he encountered opposition from other League members such as Karl Schapper. The London exiles had spent a great deal of time in Britain, where they learned much from Chartism, the labor movement and the teachings of Robert Owen. These men were interested in new ideas since the old forms of communism, including that of Weitling, didn't seem to be working. They followed the writings of two young communists – Karl Marx and Frederick Engels - with interest. At the same time, Marx and Engels believed that the League could serve as a vehicle for working class revolution, provided it was reorganized. Before continuing, we need to ask who were Marx and Engels?
III. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818 in the city of Trier in Prussia into a well-off Jewish-turned-Lutheran family. This region of Prussia had been annexed by Napoleon and bore traces of liberal legislation emanating from the French Revolution. Significantly, Trier was one of the most industrialized areas of Prussia. Liberal influences extended into the Marx family; Karl's father, Heinrich was a great admirer of the French Enlightenment and a reformer (which Heinrich passed onto his son), persisting in those beliefs even after reaction prevailed in Prussia.
The Young Karl stood out as a brilliant student who loved to read and study. Heinrich Marx had great hope for his son, hoping that he would become a lawyer, which he considered a “practical subject.” At the age of 17, Marx entered the University of Bonn and later transferring to Berlin, where he studied law, philosophy and history. Despite his father's wishes, Marx grew interested in philosophy. Marx was particularly interested in the works of the great idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and a group of radical thinkers known as the Young Hegelians. The Young Hegelians drew atheistic and democratic ideas from Hegel's philosophy, which placed them in conflict with the Prussian police state.
Marx completed his university degree in 1841, submitting his doctoral degree on the philosophy of Epicurus. Marx had hopes of becoming a professor, but any hope of an academic career was blocked by the Prussian government, which forbade the teaching of liberal and Young Hegelian ideas. In 1842, Marx moved to Cologne, where he became a journalist for the Rheinische Zeitung, a radical newspaper. Marx's growing radicalism brought him to the attention of the Prussian authorities, who censored the paper multiple times. In the face of censorship, Marx resigned from the paper in March 1843.
By now, the newly-married Marx was growing more interested in questions of political economy and more critical of the Young Hegelian milieu. He moved to Paris in 1843, where he became editor of the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, which only lasted a single issue. While there Marx met circles of communist workers and his radicalism deepened. Marx came to embrace both communism and the need for proletarian revolution, declaring: "As philosophy finds its material weapon in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapon in philosophy ... The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat." In September 1844, Marx met Frederick Engels, a young German radical, in Paris. A friendship and a lifelong collaboration was established between the two men. Engels commented on this fateful encounter:
our complete agreement in all theoretical fields became evident and our joint work dates from that time. When, in the spring of 1845, we met again in Brussels, Marx had already fully developed his materialist theory of history in its main features form the above-mentioned basis and we now applied ourselves to the detailed elaboration of the newly-won mode of outlook in the most varied directions.
Frederick Engels was born on November 28, 1820 in Barmen, Prussia — a production center for the cotton and wool industries. Engels' father, Frederick, Sr., was a Pietistic Protestant (who raised his son accordingly) and a wealthy textile manufacturer (owning factories in both Manchester and Prussia), who expected his eldest son to take charge of the family business one day. To that end, at age 17, Frederick Junior was sent to work in a business office in Bremen. While in Bremen, Engels lost his religious faith and began reading Hegel. He also became an adherent to the radical group “Young Germany,” writing articles which condemned the effects of industrialization under the pseudonym of “Friedrich Oswald.”
At age 21, Engels volunteered for the Artillery Guards of Berlin. While in the Prussian army, he gained a life-long fascination with warfare which would later prove useful during barricade fighting in 1848 and in understanding the dynamics of the US Civil War. While stationed in Berlin, he managed to attend lectures at the University of Berlin, made associations with the Young Hegelians, and wrote articles for the Rheinische Zeitung (then edited by Marx) on the conditions of factory workers. In 1842, Engels moved to Manchester, England to work in his father's factory. En route, Engels met Marx for the first time, but neither man made much of an impression on each other. While in Manchester, Engels wrote his first economic work, entitled Outline of a Critique of Political Economy, which was published by the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher in 1844 (Marx himself hailed this work).
Engels observed the slums and wretched living conditions in Manchester, which he condemned in his first book The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), although the book was not published in English until 1887. Engels continued to associate with radicals including the Chartists and the English labor movement. By now, Engels was in favor of working class revolution against the capitalist order. In 1844, Engels returned to Germany, and on the way, he met with Marx for the second time. At this meeting, the two men (as mentioned above) discovered that they shared the same materialist and communist outlook, beginning their lifelong collaboration.
At first, Marx and Engels worked together on a series of joint works which criticized the philosopher Bruno Bauer in the Holy Family (1845), and the Young Hegelians in the German Ideology (1846). In 1845, Marx was banished from Paris at the request of the Prussian government. While in Paris, Marx and Engels had been in contact with members of the League of the Just, but refused to join them (although they maintained correspondence with its members). Through this correspondence, Marx and Engels learned of internal developments within the League and, through their writings, proceeded to influence the theoretical and political views of its members. Changes began to take place in the League, particularly amongst their leaders in London. They recognized that Weitling's communism and other rival schools were inadequate, while Marx and Engels' new theories were proved attractive.
In 1846, Marx and Engels had formed the Communist Correspondence Committee, a small circle of radical German emigres based out of Brussels (where Marx had now settled), but with members in London and Paris. By now, the League of the Just had moved closer to the views of Marx and Engels and in the Spring of 1847, the League approached the two men to join. The League was prepared to drop their old utopian theories and conspiratorial organization. In the summer of 1847, Marx and Engels agreed to join, thereby fusing their organization with the League of the Just. The new group named itself The Communist League and it now possessed a new mission:
The aim of the League is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of the old, bourgeois society based on class antagonisms and the foundation of a new society without classes and without private property.
The League also changed its old motto “All Men Are Brothers” to “Workers of the World, Unite!” since as Marx pointed out, there were men whose brother he did not desire to be. Marx and Engels were asked to write a new manifesto expounding their theory, which would be published by the League after the previous Communist Confession of Faith was rejected by the two in September (on grounds that it was divorced from real life, utopian and based on abstract moral principles). In October, Engels wrote a first draft which consisted of 25 questions and answers, now entitled the Principles of Communism. Although this work contained the basic theories of historical materialism, it was more an outline which lacked the historical sweep and lyrical style of the Communist Manifesto. When Engels passed his draft onto Marx, he said:
I believe that the best thing to do is to do away with the catechism form and give the thing the title: Communist Manifesto. We have to bring in a certain amount of history, and the present form does not lend itself to this very well.
In November and December 1847, Marx and Engels spent ten days at the Second Congress of the Communist League where their proposals for the program were fiercely debated and ultimately accepted. Marx was charged with finishing the manifesto and returned to Brussels. However, he worked slowly and members of the League grew increasingly impatient. One Marx biographer described his writing process as follows:
This, too, is very typical of Marx. With all his literary ability he was a bit slow of movement. He generally laboured long over his works, particularly if it was an important document. He wanted this document to be invested with the most nearly perfect form, that it might withstand the ravages of time.
On January 26, 1848, the central committee of the League sent Marx a letter with a deadline of February 1 to deliver the final copy of Manifesto, otherwise “further measures will be taken.” Marx got the message and he finished writing in early February. The Manifesto of the Communist Party (the full name of the Communist Manifesto) was published on February 21, 1848, two days before revolution erupted in Paris (revolutions had already occurred in Milan and Palermo).
IV. The Communist Manifesto
What then does the Communist Manifesto say? Its starting point is that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” This is the basic view of the Marxist theory of history, and while class struggles were recognized as a factor in history by bourgeois writers before Marx and Engels, what they did was to recognize that the class struggle was a law of social change. Throughout history, there have been struggles between different classes: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight...” In the class struggle, one side or the other would prevail and push society forward, if not, then there was regression and “the common ruin of the contending classes.” In other words, the outcome of the class struggle was not preordained. The struggle between classes ultimately led to the transformation of society from one mode of production to another, as witnessed by the English and French Revolutions where the bourgeoisie triumphed over feudalism.
Following this, the Manifesto begins by looking at the rise of the bourgeoisie and capitalism. While the utopians saw capitalism as a disaster and either looked nostalgically to the past social harmony of feudalism or their blueprints to replace it, Marx and Engels lauded the great achievements of the bourgeoisie. As the Marxist economist Paul Sweezy observed, “There are . . . in all literature probably no passages which paint the achievements of capitalism in more glowing terms than those devoted to the subject in the Manifesto." The Manifesto portrays capitalism as a dynamic and ever-revolutionizing system which reshapes all of society after its own image. Rather than looking back fondly on feudalism, Marx and Engels saw capitalism as a progressive advance on what came before. In 1848, when capitalism was still in its infancy, the Manifesto was prophetic in its future vision of capitalism conquering the world:
The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.... The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of 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. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
Marx and Engels were able to perceive the long-term historical development of capitalism as a revolutionary system of production that swept away old social relations before it:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.
The new system of factories and mass production changed the very conditions of life and caused leaps in technological advancement. Thanks to new inventions, one worker could perform the labor of ten or even a hundred in a fraction of the time. Markets expanded across the world, propelled by the steam engine, cheap goods and the railroad. Capitalism changed the face of the earth more quickly and drastically than any other system in history:
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. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?
Capitalism spelt the end of the “idiocy of rural life” as peasants were subjected to the domination of industry. Life in the cities, religion, ideology, education, customs, family and every aspect of life was utterly transformed by the relentless march of capital. The condition of women changes as they enter the workforce. Old ways of life, whether indigenous cultures or feudal certainties were unable to resist the advance of capitalism, bringing not only the great advances of production, but utter devastation in its wake.
The advance of the bourgeoisie does not simply increase the productive forces at the disposal of society, but brings about their political domination – as evidenced by the French Revolution of 1789 which gave the bourgeoisie state power. State power meant that the bourgeoisie now had the political power to enable them to reshape society to their needs. Marx and Engels, contrary to the utopians, did not view the state as a neutral institution which stood above class; rather they believed the state represented the interests of the bourgeoisie in protecting private property, maintaining social cohesion and suppressing the resistance of the working class. In their words:
The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
Indeed, Marx and Engels conclude that through the broad sweep of history that:
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”.
However, their praise of capitalism is conditional; in fact, the Manifesto is a funeral oration for the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels saw capitalism as releasing forces which it could not control “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world that he has called up by his spells.” Capitalism lacks any plan or logic, its goal is not the satisfaction of human needs, but subordinating everything to the needs of profit and capital accumulation. The system periodically succumbs to crisis of overproduction. When people go hungry, food goes to waste because it cannot be sold at a profit. All of this is a consequence of the unplanned nature of capitalism. Crises bring unemployment, the closure of factories, and general want. Although capitalism strives to overcome its limits by expanding its markets and ruthless exploitation of old ones, it merely paves “the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.” Indeed, the productive forces of the bourgeoisie
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.
There seems to be no way out of this morass, as capitalist society goes from one crisis to another and the masses of people suffer. Yet Marx and Engels recognized that while the victory of the bourgeoisie was an advance over feudalism, it is still the replacement of one group of exploiters over another. However, capitalism unknowingly creates another force in its midst: the proletariat:
In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.
The working class is the unique product of capitalism – a class of wage-earners without property, country, or means of subsistence with only their labor-power to sell. They are the creators of social wealth, but their labor only serves to enrich the bourgeoisie. They are reduced to the appendage of a machine and live only to fill the pockets of another. As soon as a worker can no longer be squeezed for profit, they are cast into oblivion. At first, the working class resists by small acts like breaking machinery. Other brush fires of resistance crop up, but they are put out, only to emerge elsewhere. For the bourgeoisie, it is imperative to keep the working class permanently divided. Yet as local battles prove insufficient to challenge capitalism, the workers are forced to unite on a larger scale – first local, then nationally, and finally, on an international level. In order to strengthen their organization as a class, the working class creates permanent organizations such as trade unions. However, this is continually undone by competition within the working class itself and the onslaught of the bourgeoisie. However, the needs of production keep concentrating the working class together in ever greater numbers and power:
But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more. The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalised, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level....commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes....
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.
According to Marx and Engels, the working class is the only revolutionary class under capitalism and their position in production makes them uniquely placed to overthrow it. The very conditions of life compels the working class to organize and resist, producing a larger movement. Their location in the workplace is where they produce wealth and are forced to work together for capital. With organization and consciousness, the proletariat can organize themselves collectively to run society in their own interests. The interests of the working class as a whole, regardless of whether they are consciously revolutionary, are diametrically opposed to the interests of capital, which leads them to struggle. The general course of working class struggles, with ever-increasing boldness and radicalism, leads them outside of a bourgeois framework. Ultimately, the proletariat is the only class with the social weight and potential power to lead a revolution. While past revolutions replaced one ruling class with another minority ruling class, the proletarian revolution is different: “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” The proletarian revolution is, thus, not simply a revolution of the working class, but it is a struggle against all forms of exploitation and oppression, no matter what class or stratum they affect. The proletariat is
a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it... This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.
The proletariat is not merely the object of history, but once it is conscious of its conditions of life, it will become history's subject and its revolution will create a communism, where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
However, a proletariat revolution could not come to fruition by following the dictates of other socialist schools, such as the utopians. According to Marx and Engels, the utopians saw the proletariat as a class “without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.” From the utopian viewpoint, “they are conscious of caring chiefly for the interests of the working class, as being the most suffering class.” As opposed to promoting the independent organization of the working class, the utopians seek “an organisation of society especially contrived by these inventors.” To achieve their detailed plans for socialism, the utopians did not look to the working class, but “they habitually appeal to society at large, without the distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class.” In rejecting political action, and “especially all revolutionary action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel.” The end result is that in regards to proletarian organization, the utopians “violently oppose all political action on the part of the working class; such action, according to them, can only result from blind unbelief in the new Gospel.” Ultimately, the utopians can offer no way out of capitalism.
By contrast, Marx and Engels offered a different orientation of communist politics - where the Communist Party must base itself on the gradual organization of the proletariat as a class. In this view, Communists need to fuse their activities with those of the working class, become its most resolute section in order to lead it on the path of revolutionary struggle. According to the Manifesto, the relation between communists and the working class was as follows:
The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.
They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they 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.
Upon an initial read, this quotation could mean that Marx and Engels opposed the creation of an independent revolutionary party. A look at their lives will show that was not the case. True, Marx and Engels were not part of political organizations for long periods when the level of struggle was at an ebb, but when it picked up, they were in the vanguard of the movement. For instance, Marx was a leading figure in the First International, while Engels discussed tactical and political questions with the leading participants of the socialist parties from the 1880s onward. In 1848, they were trying to build a Communist Party (hence the need for the Manifesto), but the word “party” meant something different than its modern usage. “Party” meant a tendency or current, which was seen as part of a larger class movement, which ultimately needed its own organization. When Marx and Engels stated that communists did not form a separate party, this meant they argued against erecting forced barriers between their ideas and the interests of the proletariat. Rather, communists must be the vanguard, both theoretically and practically, of the working class movement. Communists must organize as a part of the working class, not alongside or above it, as its most active and active section, representing its general, international and universal principles (not its particular, national or sectarian ones) in every struggle. The communist party's task was the “formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.” The ultimate goal of the communist party, according to Marx and Engels, was not reforming bourgeois society, but undertaking a revolution to overthrow class rule.
The final section of the Communist Manifesto (the most dated) lists the tactics to be pursued by communists and their relations with bourgeois parties in the forthcoming revolution. Where the bourgeoisie is dominant, communists lead the workers against them. In Germany, where the bourgeoisie is not dominant, the communists work alongside them, provided they really do fight the monarchy and the nobility. However, the domination of the bourgeoisie is only a prelude to the forthcoming rule of the proletariat. Despite these variations in approach, Marx and Engels declare: “the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.” The Manifesto ends with a passionate and defiant battle-cry that the goal of communists everywhere is international working class revolution:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
Working Men of All Countries, Unite!
Throughout most of history, the exploited classes have had no way to understand the world or how to change it. Most people have believed themselves to be at the mercy of cosmic forces far beyond their comprehension or doomed to their miserable fates in the “best of all possible worlds.” True, there have been utopian visions of classless societies, but they have remained fantasies with no hope of realization. However, the great hope of a world beyond class exploitation and oppression remained alive in the hearts of the toiling classes. And sometimes, the oppressed have launched “premature” revolts from Spartacus to Thomas Muntzer to Gracchus Babeuf, to cast off their rulers and create a new world. All those struggles failed, as the time for their realization had not come. None of those “premature” revolts were in vain, though, since they proved that the reign of the ruling class is not eternal, but that resistance is possible, and eventually, a day of reckoning for the dominated would come. After 1848 and the Communist Manifesto, that victory is finally possible. It is only with the emergence of modern capitalism and the proletariat, through the fusion of Marxist theory and practice with the working class, that communism can be realized. The materialist conception of history shows that we can understand how the world functions and that, rather than suffering our lot in life, we can collectively change it. Communism, as Marxism declares, is a material necessity of the proletariat and not simply a moral ideal to realize. The German communist Karl Korsch summed up this new view of the world: “The Marxist system is the theoretical expression of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat...". Marxism is the theory and practice of proletarian revolution which will enable the working class to settle accounts with the past, overthrow bourgeois rule, and establish communism, a new age free from all forms of exploitation and oppression.
The Communist Manifesto made no immediate impact during the revolutions of 1848 which swept across Europe. Its only effects were felt in Germany, where Marx, Engels and the Communist League were active. As the revolutions went down to defeat, the Communist Manifesto went out of print and was largely forgotten, amidst a triumphant wave of reaction. A revival of interest in the Communist Manifesto occurred due to Marx's prominence in the First International and, especially, his impassioned defense of the Paris Commune, where he was seen as the leader of a dangerous subversive movement. By the time of Marx's death, socialist parties were forming and gaining strength across Europe and adopting the principles of the Communist Manifesto. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution brought to state power an avowedly Marxist party over one-sixth of the globe. The new Soviet Republic and its allied communist parties reprinted the Communist Manifesto in tens of millions of copies, spreading its ideas to the farthest reaches of the world.
Marx and Engels recognized in 1872, that the Communist Manifesto's “programme has in some details been antiquated,” but stated that “the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever.” In what sense did Marx and Engels say the Manifesto was outdated? For one, their expectations for the imminent overthrow of capitalism and the course of the German revolution were not born out, and the revolutionary demands proposed “would, in many respects, be very differently worded today.” Marx and Engels did not see the Communist Manifesto as holy writ, but that the application of its guiding principles depends “everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing...” Furthermore, the experience of the Paris Commune (the world's first dictatorship of the proletariat) showed that the view of the state advanced in the Manifesto was outdated. Marx and Engels said that working class “cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” but would need to smash it and establish their own state (a point Lenin would develop in State and the Revolution). And in 1882, Marx and Engels thought it possible that the first outbreak of communist revolution may not come from the advanced capitalist countries, but could come from underdeveloped Russia – words which were to prove prophetic in 1917.
Even now, the Communist Manifesto is not simply a historical document; it remains linked to concerns of contemporary politics. The Manifesto's description of capitalism on its death bed was premature, but it offered a farsighted view of the bourgeoisie conquering the globe. And 160 years later, the transformation of the world prophesied by the Manifesto has come to pass, and now, it threatens the survival of humanity and the planet. In 1848, the working class was a tiny segment of the population, largely confined to northwestern Europe, but Marx and Engels correctly foresaw that as capitalism grew, the working class would expand alongside it. Despite the fierce struggles waged, the working class has not yet fulfilled the mission laid out in the Manifesto to be the grave-diggers of capitalism.
Still, whatever qualifications and limitations we can list, the Communist Manifesto has lost none of its power as a description of capitalism and a call to the working class to action. Marx and Engels’ great achievements were to bring communism out of the realm of fantasy and locating its basis in objective historical circumstances and the class struggle of the proletariat. The Communist Manifesto remains a weapon of war that continues to inspire communists and working class militants throughout the world to fight for revolutionary change.
 Isaac Deutscher, Russia in Transition (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 167.
 Mike Haynes and Jim Wolfreys, ed., History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism (New York: Verso Books, 2007), 58.
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The Holy Family,” Marxists Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/holy-family/ch06_3_c.htm
 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 303.
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ (All quotations from the Communist Manifesto are from this edition).
 Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol. 1: State and Bureaucracy (New York: Monthly Review, 1977), 97-8.
 Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm
 Frederick Engels, “On the History of the Communist League,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/communist-league/1885hist.htm
 Quoted in Dirk Struik, ed., The Birth of the Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 60.
 David Riazanov, “Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: An Introduction to Their Lives and Work,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/riazanov/works/1927-ma/ch04.htm
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of Communist Party,” (note 5).
 Quoted in Samuel Bernstein, “From Utopian to Marxism,” Science & Society 14.1 (Winter, 1949/1950): 65.
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of Communist Party,” (note 5).
 Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” (note 7).
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of Communist Party,” (note 5).
 Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of Communist Party,” (note 5).