By Joseph Magyar with contributions from Ben Robinson
In February of 1848, the Communist Manifesto was published in London by Karl Marx, laying the basis for communist ideology and inspiring revolutionaries for generations.
Commissioned by The Communist League after lengthy struggles in its first two congresses, it was published to little fanfare or attention, but earned its place as one of the fundamental documents for proletarian ideology as its ideas were tested and proven in the furnace of history.
The Communist League was formed after a merger between the remnants of The League of the Just and the Communist Correspondence Committee. The political lines which are represented in its Manifesto were the result of the scientific struggles Marx and Engels had against idealist (prioritizing conscious ideas over material reality) trends in previous organizations.
The Communist Correspondence Committee was founded in early 1846 by Marx and Engels. The organization was made up of various local committees to consolidate communists in different countries in an effort to create an international all-communist organization. Marx lead the Brussels committee and Engels the Paris committee, both holding correspondence with contacts in many countries in their efforts to develop this organization.
The merger between the Communist Correspondence Committee and the League of the Just came out of Marx’s struggles against idealist trends within the latter, one of the major ones being Wilhelm Weitling’s utopian “Christian Communist” ideas. Its stated goal was “the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, based on the ideals of love of one’s neighbor, equality and justice.”
While Marx initially respected Weitling as one of the first German thinkers to write on working class emancipation, he would later condemn Weitling’s ideas in the Manifesto. Weitling believed that the best way to reach communism was to make current society unbearable. Similar to some anarchist and revisionist ideas today, he argued that the lumpen (career criminals and those completely removed from production) were best suited to causing destruction and harm, and consequently the most revolutionary class.
As a Christian Communist, Weitling tied all of his ideas to god and found justifications in the Bible, believing that communism was essentially Christian doctrine without the Church. He was opposed to the bourgeoisie as a ruling class for any period of time and was therefore opposed to the overturning of feudalism and the development of capitalism. He is known as an utopian socialist since his ideas for establishing socialism were not based on a scientific analysis of historical and economic development, and were consequently doomed to failure.
Proudhon, who was the first thinker to label himself an ‘anarchist,’ was another idealist who influenced the League of the Just through his disciple Karl Grün. Proudhon and Grün were “Mutualists” and as such believed in the importance of private property in the hands of peasants and small business owners. They believed that workers could not liberate themselves by strikes and militant actions but that instead they should all seek to become small property owners themselves.
Proudhon and Grün believed that production and distribution should be based on mutual agreements between workers, seeking to ‘out-compete’ capitalist production. Due to this emphasis on peaceful agreements, they rejected violent revolution and the seizure of political power altogether, believing that authority itself was wrong.
The League of the Just for most of its existence was structured in the manner of a conspiracy and largely isolated from the masses, with the small amount of workers in the organization disagreeing with Weitling’s ideas. A separate organization attempted a failed coup in Paris in the May of 1839, and as a result of the following crackdowns the League would cease to be centrally organized, from then on existing only in various cities independently.
This fractured existence allowed for Marx and the Correspondence Committee to better struggle with the separate groups for unity one by one. The gap between the workers and the League of the Just’s utopian ideas grew larger once Weitling abandoned the organization altogether and left for the United States in May 1846.
Marx’s idea of Historical Materialism stands in direct contrast to the ideas of Weitling and Proudhon. Historical materialism posits that society develops from lower to higher stages through advances in the mode of production and the cooresponding class struggle.
While Weitling wanted to move straight to a warped ideal of communism, Marx understood that there had to be a period wherein the bourgeoisie would overthrow feudalism and the develop capitalism, creating a revolutionary proletariat. While Proudhon and Grün wanted to create their own society based on voluntary agreements without central organizations, Marx understood that workers must organize themselves into a united party to seize political power and organize society with the goal of reaching communism. As a materialist, Marx also rejected Weitling’s appeals to the Bible and Christianity, believing that these were irrational and pushed workers further from a scientific understanding of society.
After a prolonged period of struggle among the groups, the Brussels Correspondence Committee was able to convene a congress in London in the Summer of 1847. Ironically, despite being the principal orchestrator of the meeting, Marx was unable to attend due to financial reasons. Due to Marx’s absence, Engels was the principal figure pushing Marx’s line in this first congress. The Committee and the remnants of the League of the Just decided to unite into a single organization.
Engels struggled with the group and won over the majority to change the name of the organization to the Communist League and its credo from “All Men are Brothers!” to “Workers of All Countries, Unite!” The constitution was also amended, now proclaiming that “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 establishment of a new society without either classes or private property.”
The newly united group also established a “catechism of faith,” written in a rhetorical question-answer format, which would become the basis of the party program. Engels’ work “Principles of Communism” was his draft of this catechism. Later however, Engels would reject this method, saying to Marx, “I think we would do best to abandon the catechetical form and call the thing Communist Manifesto. Since a certain amount of history has to be narrated in it, the form hitherto adopted is quite unsuitable.”
Soon after in November and December 1847, the newly formed Communist League held its Second Congress with Marx in attendance. This Congress required a great deal of struggle from Marx to convince the League that his program was correct, and they eventually commissioned Marx and Engels to write the organization’s Manifesto. While both Marx and Engels had been given this assignment, political responsibility for writing it laid mainly on Marx and he did the majority of the work.
In the preface to the 1883 German edition immediately following Marx’s death, Engels later summarized the Manifesto and attributed its foundational ideas to Marx, writing:
“The basic ideas of the Manifesto: that in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of production and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently at the different stages of social development (since the dissolution of the primitive community of property in the soil) the history of mankind has been a history of class struggles, struggle between exploited and exploiters, oppressed and ruling classes; that this struggle has however now reached a stage where the exploited and oppressed class — the proletariat — cannot attain its emancipation from the exploiting and oppressing class — the bourgeoisie — without, at the same time, and for all time, emancipating society as a whole from all exploitation, oppression, and class struggles — these fundamental ideas belong entirely and solely to Marx.”
The prefaces to various editions are extremely important for any student of Communism, as they were written by Marx and Engels, and offer important insights into their process and how they situated the manifesto in history following its original publication. In the 1872 preface to the German edition, Marx and Engels wrote, “However much that state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever.” The prefaces introduce the many translations that started to be produced after 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, which elevated Marx to the position of the ideological leader of the proletariat for his vigorous defense of the Commune and his synthesis of its lessons. The Manifesto was in high demand as revolutionaries across Europe united more around Marxism.
The Communist Manifesto was incredibly important to The Great October Socialist Revolution in the Russian Empire. Mikhail Bakunin, despite being one of Marx’s opponents, recognized the importance of the work and published the first Russian translation of The Communist Manifesto in Geneva in 1869. Later, in 1882, a more accurate translation was published by Georgi Plekhanov while he was in exile.
The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, the party of the working class in the Russian Empire, formed largely out of study groups which would read Plekhanov’s translations of Marx’s works, including the Manifesto. Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the revolution, quoted the Manifesto in his first theoretical work in 1894 (What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats) as well as in many other later works. The Great Lenin applied the profound lessons of the Manifesto and Marx’s subsequent writings to the concrete conditions of his country.
The lessons from the Manifesto were not contained to Russia. In 1920, Chen Wangdao completed its first Chinese translation. Mao Zedong and other Chinese revolutionaries learned from the example set by Marx and applied it to their own conditions, developing upon its ideas as Lenin did to reach a higher level of knowledge. These developments led to the Cultural Revolution, in which the Manifesto became widespread reading. Red Guards (groups of revolutionary youth and students) considered the Manifesto essential reading and would hold studies and discussions on the book; its influence was felt everywhere.
In the United States, the Manifesto has heavily shaped working class revolutionaries for over a century. On September 4, 1922 the Communist Party USA published its own Manifesto in a style modeled after Marx’s work. The original Communist Manifesto was required reading for party members and was a regular object of study and attention. Party affiliated papers and book clubs sold the Manifesto and spread its revolutionary message, teaching fellow workers the lessons Marx had taught them. This revolutionary tradition has been continued by the working class of the United States up to today.
The Communist Manifesto and its revolutionary conclusions were the result of hard-fought struggle in the working-class movement. It has shaped revolutionary parties and movements since its publication, and it continues to inspire and teach modern-day revolutionaries today, 173 years after its initial publication. Those years have seen their own struggles which have further enriched the proletariat in experience and theoretical knowledge. As a result of this, the working class remembers and celebrates the Communist Manifesto as one the foundational documents on which its ideology, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, principally Maoism, was formed.