- Category: History
- Created on Sunday, 13 January 2008 11:20
- Written by Mike Ely
This historical sketch was written fourteen years ago for the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. It has since been published in many places and languages.
This is the story of how the revolutionary communist movement first emerged from the fusion of deep theoretical work and fearless revolutionary practice. And we are sharing it to inspire the work for a fresh fusion of revolutionary theory and practice that is so urgently demanded today.
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by Mike Ely
In mid-February 1848, a new communist pamphlet rolled off the presses of a small print shop on London’s Bishopsgate. It was written in German and entitled Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei.
Copies were rushed off to the mainland of Europe. Uprisings and disturbances had broken out in most of the main population centers of the continent. Small cores of revolutionary activists were waiting for a high-powered declaration that could guide their work and rally people to a thoroughgoing revolutionary movement.
The bold opening lines of this pamphlet threw down a challenge:
“A spectre is haunting Europe–the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre…. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the spectre of communism with a manifesto of the party itself.”
This work was quickly translated into many languages of Europe and the Americas. In English it became known as the Communist Manifesto. In one early English version, published in 1850, the previously unknown authors were listed for the first time: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
While countless other documents and manifestos of those days lie forgotten and dust-covered in library archives, this Manifesto lives, studied intensely in slums, jungle base areas, and even classrooms all over the world — still inspiring and training one new revolutionary generation after another.
The Communist Manifesto is the visionary founding document of the modern communist movement. Here is the story of how the Manifesto came to be.
Rise, like lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number,
shake your chains to earth like dew,
Which in sleep has fallen on you.
Ye are many, they are few!
|Percy Shelly’s tribute to Manchester workers
who faced government troops in 1819
The communist movement in the mid-1840s needed a unifying new manifesto–badly. Society was changing rapidly and the old revolutionary doctrines, copied and adapted from the great French bourgeois revolution of 1789, just weren’t cutting it anymore.
In some ways, these had been difficult times for revolutionaries. The great French revolution had ended in defeat. It was first betrayed from within — by Napoleon Bonaparte who dared crown himself emperor. Then France was crushed from without — in 1815, its armies were defeated by the combined forces of Europe’s feudal monarchies. For decades, the “Holy Alliance” of victorious monarchs kept the people in a brutal grip: kings and princes were restored, revolutionary anti-monarchist politics were suppressed, borders were closely watched, spies and snitches were everywhere.
But while the reactionary powers seemed triumphant–intense changes in the economy were undermining their power and creating powerful new discontented forces. Technology and production was being revolutionized. The so-called “factory system” had been developed in a few new industrial areas of England, and its brutal sweatshops were being copied here and there on the mainland of Europe. Children as young as 9 were often pressed into the mills, working 60, or even 72, hours a week. Sharecropping peasants were being driven off their land by new capitalist pressures in agriculture, and some were becoming part of a new, rebellious class–the modern proletariat.
And there were early signs of a new revolutionary upsurge. In July 1830, Paris erupted into street fighting and barricades. In 1831, silk weavers of Lyon marched out of their sweatshops singing:
“When our rule arrives
When your rule shall end
Then we shall weave the shroud of the old world
Listen! Revolt is rumbling.”
Ten years later, there were so many “bread-riots” that the decade started to be called “The Hungry Forties.”
Meanwhile, the most radical forces were creating a new movement they called “communism.” They dreamed of sharing society’s wealth and abolishing class distinctions. This early communism was a mix of brilliant insights, impractical “utopian” wishes and daring deeds. Some early communists thought communal movements could gradually educate humanity in new ways without a violent overthrow of the old order. Others thought that small conspiracies could change society without deep roots among the masses of people.
Increasingly, these plans and methods proved unsatisfying. And two young German revolutionaries started to gain a following because of their powerful new analyses. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had teamed up in Brussels to figure out a road to communist revolution.
Each brought powerful strengths to their partnership. Karl Marx, born in 1818, had closely and critically investigated all the different revolutionary theories and philosophies of the times. As a journalist for the progressive Rheinische Zeitung, he started a detailed analysis of the politics and conflicts of his times–especially the lives of peasants in Germany’s Rhine valley. One acquaintance described this young Marx as “domineering, impetuous, passionate, full of boundless self-confidence, but at the same time deeply earnest and learned, a restless dialectician…”
In 1843, after the Rheinische Zeitung was suppressed, Marx went into exile in France, which was then the center of revolutionary activity in Europe.
Engels, born in 1820, was a self-educated high school dropout from a wealthy German capitalist family. In 1842, he was sent to Manchester, England to work in his family’s thread manufacturing business. In those days, he later wrote, his mind was filled with revolutionary songs of the French revolution and he longed for the reappearance of the guillotine of Paris’ famous Red Terror.
In England, Engels saw the most advanced capitalist developments firsthand–the powerful industrial means of production, and the bitter slums and epidemics of the new factory towns. He had studied England’s Chartists–one of the first mass movements of workers. Engels hated capitalism and saw clearly that it was rapidly
transforming the old world.
Together, Marx and Engels worked to create a new cutting-edge synthesis–based on a deep study of politics, economics, history and philosophy. Their scientific approach lifted communism out of utopian daydreams into the breathtaking world of practical politics.
New Communist Organization, New Communist Manifesto
“Propaganda on the quiet has also borne fruit–every time I go to Cologne, or drop into a pub here, I find fresh progress, new converts. The Cologne meeting worked wonders: gradually one discovers separate communist groups which developed quite unnoticed and without direct assistance from us… People’s minds are ready and we must strike, because the iron is hot.”
Starting in 1846, Marx and Engels worked to hook up with the many different communist groups emerging in Europe. One of the most promising was the “League of the Just” in London, which had a few hundred members, including many revolutionary German exiles. This League was interested in the writings of Marx and Engels and, on their suggestion, reorganized as the Communist League. Marx (who did not attend the founding congress) struggled with them to change their old slogan “All Men are Brothers”–saying that there were men whose brother he did not desire to be. Their new battle cry became “Proletarians of All Countries Unite.”
A comrade described Marx and Engels in those days:
“Marx was then still a young man, about 28 years old, but he greatly impressed us all. He was of medium height, broad-shouldered, powerful in build and energetic in his deportment…. His speech was brief, convincing and compelling in his logic…. Marx had nothing of the dreamer about him…. Frederick Engels, Marx’s spiritual brother, was…slim, agile, with fair hair and mustache, he was more like a smart young lieutenant of the guard than a scholar.”
In September 1847, the new Communist League produced a draft “Communist Confession of Faith.”
It was an old-style utopian document based on principles divorced from real life, and modeled on a religious catechism. Marx and Engels refused to endorse it. Engels arranged to have himself assigned to write a new draft.
In October, Engels passed this draft on to Marx, and made a suggestion:
“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.”
Engels suggested that the manifesto deal with questions of party organization, but only, he cautioned, “in so far as it should be made public.”
Marx and Engels went together to the second congress of the Communist League–and for 10 days in November and December of 1847, the congress debated their startling new approach to communist politics. Their proposals were accepted.
“The overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the domination of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society based on class antagonism, and the establishment of a new society without classes and without private property.”
A communist organization had come together along new lines, and Marx was turned loose to finish writing its manifesto. He set to work in Brussels–with his usual painstaking precision and depth. His comrades in London became impatient. Revolution had broken out in Milan and Palermo, and the comrades needed their new manifesto out on the streets. In January 1848 they sent Marx a deadline: if he didn’t finish the manifesto by February 1, “further measures will be taken.” Marx finished in early February 1848 and rushed the manuscript to London.
A Weapon for the Struggle
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.”
|Karl Marx, 1845|
The Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei appeared in mid-February as the official program of the Communist League. A few days later, an uprising broke out in Paris, driving the French king from power. Within weeks, the revolution the communists had expected spread to Vienna and Berlin. Within months, governments had toppled in an area that stretched across the very core of the continent.
Marx and Engels’ Manifesto was enthusiastically received. The small communist trend across Europe now had a high caliber weapon to take into battle. The Manifesto was quickly translated from German into English, French, Polish and Danish.
The worried Belgian police arrested Karl Marx. Jenny Marx was arrested looking for her husband and jailed on charges of homelessness. They were expelled from Belgium and moved to Paris. Marx and Engels reorganized the central committee of the Communist League, and founded a German Workers’ Club which soon had 400 members. Everyone’s eyes were turning to Germany. Engels wrote:
“things are going very well indeed, riots everywhere…”
In early April, Marx and Engels slipped across the border into Germany–which at that time was made up of many semi-independent states, dominated by the kingdom of Prussia. They smuggled with them 1,000 copies of the Communist Manifesto which had just arrived from London.
Marx and Engels set up their operations in Cologne, where the revolutionary movement was most advanced. The local Communist League had grown to 8,000 members in just the last few months–but it was dominated by a rightist line that limited the workers to wage demands, and even supported calls for a constitutional monarchy. Marx founded his own revolutionary organization that soon replaced the fading Communist League. They set themselves the task of reaching the broad masses and leading them to make revolution. Engels later wrote: “We were no good at crying in the wilderness; we had studied the utopians too well for that.”
By June 1, 1848, Marx and Engels were publishing a revolutionary daily, the Neue Rheinishe Zeitung (NRZ–New Rhineland Times). It hounded the monarchies of Europe and roused the masses for a radical democratic revolution against feudalism and the autocracy. This NRZ achieved a circulation of about 5,000, one of the largest in Germany.
In Prussia, the revolution never succeeded in toppling the monarchy. The masses rose up in repeated waves during 1848 and 1849. Government offers of elections coopted the bourgeois opposition, while the Prussian army advanced on revolutionary centers.
In September, a mass meeting elected Marx, Engels and several of their supporters to posts on a “Committee of Public Safety,” named after the revolutionary organs of power which had executed the French aristocrats 50 years earlier. On September 25, the authorities sent out troops to arrest key leaders. The NRZ and all allied political organizations were banned. A wanted poster was put out for Engels. He and several other NRZ writers escaped across the border and laid low for a couple of months.
Marx had played a leading role, but had not been a spokesman in the public meetings. The authorities had no evidence to link him with the “conspiracy.” So while others had to leave, Marx stayed behind in Cologne and almost single-handedly restarted the NRZ in defiance of the military authorities. Marx was soon put on trial himself. A jury acquitted him after his sweeping political defense, while a powerful crowd in the courtroom threatened to free him by force.
In December, Marx reached a radical new conclusion: The bourgeoisie had proven incapable of leading the revolution to overthrow feudalism and the monarchies. If the working class did not lead the movement forward it would fail.
On March 2, Prussian soldiers came to Marx’s home armed with sabers. They demanded that Marx turn over one of his writers, saying that otherwise things would “turn out badly.” Marx answered that their threats “would achieve absolutely nothing with me.” The soldiers suddenly realized that Marx had a pistol sticking out of his pocket. They lost their cool and left. Engels later joked that the Prussian garrison had 8,000 armed men–while the “fortress” of the NRZ was armed with only a few bayonets, some cartridges and the red hats of its typesetters.
By late spring of 1849, the Prussian military tightened its occupation of the Rhineland, and people fought back. Engels fought at the barricades in his nearby hometown of Elberfeld. On May 9, Marx got orders from the police chief to leave the country within 24 hours. His legal documents had expired, making him an undocumented foreigner. The police chief accused him of “shamefully violating our hospitality” with his calls “for contempt of the existing government, for its violent overthrow, and for the establishment of a social Republic.”
With all its editors facing exile or arrest, the NRZ could not continue. Marx published a last issue on May 18, printed completely in red ink. Marx’s last words mocked the authorities who masked their bloody suppression with fancy excuses:
“What use are your hypocritical phrases that strain after impossible subterfuges? We are ruthless too and we ask for no consideration from you. When our turn comes we will not offer excuses for our Terror.”
Twenty thousand copies of this soon-famous “Red Issue” were printed. For years copies passed from hand to hand among revolutionary workers in Europe and North America–often together with the Communist Manifesto.
As the counterrevolution advanced, Marx and Engels retreated south, along the Rhine. Unable to stay any longer without papers, Marx went to Paris where, under a false name, he plunged into the struggle.
Engels stayed in Germany and joined the armed struggle against the advancing Prussian army. He fought in four battles before being driven across the border into Switzerland. In a letter to Jenny Marx, he claimed that “the whistling of bullets is quite a trifling matter,” and bragged that no one would be able to say that the communists hadn’t stood their ground when the fighting got heavy.
The May events marked the end of this period of revolution in Germany. Government repression went on for years. One revolutionary poet described how people would be startled in their homes by the sudden gunfire of death squads executing revolutionaries. People found carrying the Communist Manifesto were arrested on the spot.
A Manifesto for a New World Movement
Marx and Engels regrouped in England where they worked to re-establish communist organization and planned a new revolutionary organ. Marx was 31 years old, Engels was not yet 30.
Marx had learned much by the intense revolutionary practice of 1848-49. The proletarian revolutions, he wrote, “criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out:
“Hic Rhodus, hic salta!”
(Translated into modern English from Latin, “This is it, let’s throw down.”)
After 1848, communism was no longer a “specter” (a ghostly and haunting apparition) but a real flesh-and-blood international movement. And the Communist Manifesto emerged as its most prized and influential document. Engels later wrote that the Manifesto laid down “the line of action” for communists to fight “as one common army under one and the same flag.”
Exactly because the Manifesto embodied a materialist analysis, and represented a living synthesis, different parts of the document seemed dated when Marx and Engels looked back on them years later.
Over the last 150 years the world has changed in many ways, and there has been a wealth of new revolutionary experience to sum up–extending and deepening the understanding of communists in many qualitative ways.
But still, for all that, the core of this remarkable Communist Manifesto–its method of materialist dialectics, its visionary conclusions about the possibility of abolishing classes, its analysis of the historic mission of the new rising proletarian class–has maintained its freshness, power and truth over 150 years.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels had pointedly said: “The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involved the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.”
Three years later, in the wake of 1848, Karl Marx returned to this theme, summing up that communism “is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transition point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.”
These two Marxist concepts, referred by Maoists as “the two radical ruptures” and “the four alls,” remain central to our understanding of the profound changes involved in the worldwide process of communist revolution.
In 1869, a Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, translated by Bakunin, appeared in Switzerland and was smuggled across borders into the Tsar’s kingdom. When the working class seized power for the first time in the brief Paris Commune of 1871, the Communist Manifesto became the guide for a new revolutionary generation across Europe and North America. Many communists were now calling themselves “Marxists.”
In the U.S., several versions of the Manifesto were published in the 1870s, including by Albert Parsons, a leader of Chicago’s revolutionary workers who figured prominently in the famous Haymarket events. In 1882, a new Russian edition appeared to train the generation of Marxists who prepared the ground for Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.
Seventy years after the Manifesto was written, the revolutionary proletariat seized and held power for the first time–in 1917 in Russia. This historic victory proved in practice many of the key ideas of the Manifesto. And at the same time, this new state power meant that Marxist works became available for the first time around the world. A hundred years after the writing of the Communist Manifesto, the communist leader Mao Tsetung was about to seize nationwide power in China and wrote: “The salvoes of the October Revolution brought us Marxism-Leninism.”
During the 20th century, the Communist Manifesto has been translated into virtually every written language on earth–and eagerly studied by millions seeking a way to liberation. For 150 years, this Communist Manifesto has been smuggled and hunted, banned and cherished. It is a living example of ideas transforming material reality. This work has literally shaped human history and influenced the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Its impact is a testimony to the power of the scientific ideology that guides the proletariat’s struggle to emancipate humanity. As we approach the end of the 20th century, the closing words of the Communist Manifesto still stand out as a credo for all those who hate oppression:
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 communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
Workers of all countries, unite!
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Click here for the full text of the Communist Manifesto, from the Marxist Internet Archive.