On February 21st in 1848 the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels is first published in London. Marx, a political exile, and Engels were both in their late 20s. In Brussels, Marx established a Communist Correspondence Committee to maintain contact with German, French and English socialists. The committee created ties with a group of German communists in London, the League of the Just, and in January 1847 the League invited Marx and Engels to become members. Before they joined the group, they stipulated that the organization be changed from an elite conspiracy of the old type into an open propaganda group, that “everything conducive to superstitious authoritarianism be struck out of the rules,” that the leading committee be elected by the whole membership as against the tradition of “decisions from above.” They won the League over to their new approach. In November 1847, Marx and Engels attended a congress of the renamed Communist League held in London, and Marx appears to have dominated the proceedings. The importance of the Communist League can be seen from Article one, which reads:–
“The aim of the League is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the establishment of the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of the bourgeois social order founded upon class antagonisms, and the inauguration of a new social order wherein there shall be neither classes nor private property.”
Also in a journal issued in 1847 only a few months before the appearance of the Manifesto, the Communist League announced:-
“We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse. There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality. We are convinced ... that in no social order will personal freedom be so assured as in a society based upon communal ownership... Let us put our hands to work in order to establish a democratic state wherein each party would be able by word or in writing to win a majority over to its ideas ...”
At the end of the conference they were invited to write a manifesto stating the League's doctrines. Marx wrote the Manifesto in December 1847 and January 1848, using as a model a tract Engels wrote (Principles of Communism) for the League in 1847. The Manifesto was published , just as the 1848 revolutions were beginning across Europe which began in Paris on February 22 and soon spread to Austria, Germany and Italy. The Communist Manifesto is just that: a manifesto. It is not a long and scholarly study but a declaration of a political programme, a short(ish) statement of purpose and a call to action. When Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, they did not believe that a socialist revolution was imminent. After the decline of the 1848 revolutions, the Communist League split, over a conflict between those who thought to substitute determined bands of revolutionaries for the real mass movement of an enlightened working class. Marx told them:-
“The minority ... makes mere will the motive force of the revolution, instead of actual relations. Whereas we say to the workers: ‘You will have to go through fifteen or twenty or fifty years of civil wars and international wars, not only in order to change extant conditions, but also in order to change yourselves and to render yourselves fit for political dominion,’ you, on the other hand, say to the workers: ‘We must attain to power at once, or else we may just as well go to sleep.’”
The original English translation by Helen Macfarlane of 1850 started with the 'a frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe’
George Julian Harney, a Chartist activist, published it in his Red Republican journal:-
“The following Manifesto, which has since been adopted by all fractions of the German Communists, was drawn up in the German language in January 1848 by Citizens Charles Marx and Frederic Engels. It was immediately printed in London in the German language and published a few days before the outbreak of the revolution of February. The turmoil consequent upon that great event made it impossible to carry out at that time the intention of translating it into all the languages of civilised Europe. The English reader will be enabled by the following excellent translation of this important document to judge of the plans and principles of the most advanced Party of the German revolutionists.”
All the different socialist forms of thought and action which have appeared and disappeared, so different in their causes, their aspects, and their effects, are explained by the specific conditions of the social life in which they were produced. Communism ceased to be a hope and an aspiration but found its expression in the realisation of its very necessity, the realisation that it is the outcome and the solution of the struggles of existing classes. These struggles have varied according to times and places but, they are all reduced in our days to the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletriat The Manifesto gives the genesis of this struggle; it details its evolution and predicts its final result. The future grave-diggers of capitalism should remember the date of the Communist Manifesto.
In later years, despite many requests, Marx refused to rewrite the original Manifesto, as he termed it ‘an historic document’ that he did not feel he had the right to change. This was not because he held that it was true for all time, but that it related to a particular set of historical circumstances, and that in crucial ways his views had progressed, although he continued to endorse its principles. Seven prefaces were written by Marx and Engels produced (although only two were signed by Marx.) For the German edition of 1872 they explain:-
‘No matter how much conditions have changed in the last 25 years, the general principles set forth in this Manifesto still on the whole retain their complete correctness today ... The practical application of these principles – so the Manifesto itself states – will depend everywhere and every time on the historically existing state of affairs.’
The Marxist analysis of capitalism is becoming increasingly relevant. In such a context it is important to go back to the classic texts of Marx and Engels unencumbered by later, and often spurious, interpretations.
The SPGB 1948 re-publication can be read here