Thoughts on the 170th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto
At some point between 23 February and 1 March 1848 – the exact date remains disputed – a political text comprising a small 23-page pamphlet was published in London. The document was written following a congress held by the Communist League in the British capital in the middle of December 1847, during which it had been decided that the League would meet on an annual basis every August and subsequently commission a “manifesto in the name of the party”. The League member tasked with drawing up the (first) manifesto, Karl Marx, did not assign any particular importance to the job and took weeks to complete it; a sharply written warning from the central authority at the end of January was required to spur Marx on to finalise the text. After receiving the manifesto, the central authority then waited a couple of weeks before printing it. Two reprints were issued by the end of May and a total of around 2,000 copies were printed, an amount which evidently lasted until the end of the 1848 revolutions. Incidentally, the congress never met again after the revolutions erupted, hence there was never a second manifesto.
None of those involved in the publication had any idea that this small pamphlet would make history. The first to sense the potential power of the piece were Cologne’s young communists who in 1850, after the failed uprising, and for want of appropriate legal statutes, saw the manifesto as “our bible [...] on which we swore our oath” (Roland Daniels). But during the Cologne Communist Trial of 1852, it was completely “pushed to one side” (Friedrich Engels). For years, the authors turned down requests to reprint the pamphlet, to add a short preface, to edit it so the text could be used to inspire political agitation, etc., their excuse being that it was a “historical document” and that it was already “outdated in parts”. Nevertheless, the text was still occasionally published and translated, but the Manifesto’s real turning point did not come until the Second International was formed in 1889. Engels thus closes his preface to the edition of the Manifesto dated 1 May 1890 with words imbued with unprecedented historical optimism: “Because today, as I write these lines, the European and American proletariat is reviewing its fighting forces, mobilized for the first time, mobilized as one army, under one flag, for one immediate aim: the standard eight-hour working day to be established by legal enactment, as proclaimed by the Geneva Congress of the International in 1866, and again by the Paris Workers’ Congress of 1889. And today’s spectacle will open the eyes of the capitalists and landlords of all countries to the fact that today the proletarians of all countries are united indeed. – If only Marx were still by my side to see this with his own eyes!”[i]
It thus took more than forty years for the Manifesto to realise its full historic potential within the proletarian movement and then over a century before the piece became the world’s most widely read political text. Its powerful impact can be attributed mainly to the unique way it combines five separate elements.
Firstly, it drew upon historically proven, empirical facts that were presented to its readership in a comprehensible manner; secondly, the text arranged these facts so that they offered readers a plausible interpretation of the existing social order; thirdly, the past and the present were used to offer a convincing perspective on the readers’ own development; fourthly, it was the result of a commission made by the party at that specific time, and thus championed the cause of its readership in the present; fifthly, it was written in a language that moved its readers and which later on led to the text becoming viewed as a piece of German prose in its own right – in spite of all the political debates that ensued. No other political document written in German that has followed in the years since has matched the Manifesto in terms of eloquence and sway.
Behind this influential power lay an entire world view; a conscious perception of society and history that despite requiring elaboration in some finer points, seemed to be rooted in unshakeable foundations. This basis for the main line of argument, which is never explicitly named in the Manifesto itself, had been developed by Marx and Engels between autumn 1845 and spring 1847 in their manuscripts on The German Ideology, and it is clear that the Manifesto would never have had mass appeal if the piece did not exude such confidence right from page one. Conversely, the Manifesto’s effective rhetoric resulted in Marx’s text no longer being critically adopted but – against the wishes of its writers – zealously praised and eventually held up as a new gospel. After the end of the short twentieth century (i.e. since 1989/91), this ultimately led to the Manifesto being celebrated by a handful of capitalists and their ideologues as a brilliant piece that foreshadowed globalisation, but largely abandoned as a major work in the development of socialist-communist political theory and praxis. Individual sections are cited completely out of context (such as the much-lauded Full Development of the Individual), but the text as a whole is often – too often – shelved without any discussion, just as it had been previously acclaimed without question. There was no desire for further critical development prior to 89/91, and such wishes have failed to materialise to this day, despite the fact that critical consideration is urgently needed and, in my opinion, also possible. The Manifesto still contains plenty of food for thought and two of the “meatiest” passages are explored in the following sections.
The Manifesto states: “The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the commune, just as the petty bourgeois, under the yoke of the feudal absolutism, managed to develop into a bourgeois. The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.”[ii]
This prediction led the European and North American proletariat into difficult class struggles ad absurdum. Some of the many gains won through decades-long battles included wage increases and a reduction in working hours, unemployment, welfare and pension payments, as well as the right to strike and to vote. The members of this class were thus able to work their way up to becoming members of the bourgeoisie, which is why, when viewed from a contemporary perspective, their struggles no longer seem to transcend current society but are confined to its own boundaries. They are comparable to those of serfs and the petty bourgeoisie that took place within a feudal society and equally failed to hold sway beyond the confines of that structure.
These early classes were thus then believed, to quote one of the opening lines of the Manifesto’s first chapter, to have “carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”. In effect, the warring classes that existed before were collectively ruined during the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large: neither slaves nor slave owners experienced the development of feudalism as a class (!); neither serfs nor landowners experienced the growth of capitalism as a class (!) – in both cases, the two sides disappeared at the same time. Why should this be any different in the current revolutionary reconstitution of our existing society with regard to the proletariat and the bourgeoisie? Does the years-long strategy of “protecting vested rights” not clearly point towards collective ruin?
The relevance of these questions becomes more obvious when this protection strategy is examined more closely. Yes, it is used in opposition to “the rich” but it is just as much aimed against those who are even poorer. Jobs are kept safe – but from the rich? Surely not – what use is work to them – but they move current jobs to places where goods are produced more cheaply and where the impoverished work for even lower wages. “Securing vested rights” thus leads us down the same path as isolating “Fortress Europe” from the so-called Third World.
The Manifesto states, “The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got.” But in the wake of the First World War, revolutionary political realist Lenin realised when considering the issue of “defence of the fatherland” that “the overwhelming majority of the working people will inevitably decide [this question] in favour of their bourgeoisie” (Collected Works, Vol. 33, p. 433 et seqq.). Today it is glaringly obvious that the “overwhelming majority of the working people” in the so-called First World have decided the question of defence of the fatherland, including from a non-militarised perspective, i.e. defending a country’s economy and its welfare state, imposing immigration quotas and tightening asylum legislation, fighting against low-wage countries, etc., in support of precisely what Lenin would describe as being “in favour of their bourgeoisie”. And no other outcome was possible because the overwhelming majority of working people have risen to become members of the “white industrialised class”. Their revolutionary reconstitution is almost certain to bring about the collective ruin of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
In the final section of the Manifesto, the authors assess that in all revolutionary movements, the communists bring to the fore “as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time”.
The majority of the visionaries behind Germany’s Left Party (Partei Die Linke – PDL) have been denying the truth inherent to this sentence for years, claiming it would suffice to simply apply “social criteria” to the “availability” of property. Not only do such musings put them on a par with Max Stirner, who, in his magnum opus The Ego and Its Own, posited that “private property lives by grace of the law” (also quoted in The German Ideology; cf. Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe 2 (MEGA 2), Vol. I/5, p. 418, and Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW), Vol. 3, p. 345); it is also vital to ascertain what these social criteria should be. From a moral standpoint, one may, of course, deem profitability an anti-social criterium, but that does little to change the fact that, in this society, profitability is considered a primary social-economic criterium. Anyone wishing to change this hierarchy must first address the fundamental issue.
What is of even greater interest, however, is that the question itself is also “a leading question of the movement” in a very different way, i.e. in the sense that we have no answer to it. Of course, “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property”, as stated in the Manifesto – but what should be used in its stead? What is the positive answer to the leading question of the movement? If one wishes to answer by making reference to the “socialisation of the means of production”, they are simply deferring the real question: what is socialisation?
Of course, private property does not necessarily have to be replaced with state property; after all, it is, as described by Engels in Anti-Dühring, nothing less than private property taken to the extreme. In such cases, there is only one property owner – the state. This is partly why all of the member states of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) designed their economies in such a way that in negotiations with each other, their governments principally acted in the interest of “their” states as private owners. What took place here could in no way be described as international solidarity, nor could the term “public property” be used. Despite the fact that Engels was cautiously optimistic when he wrote in Anti-Dühring, “State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.” (MEGA2, Vol. I/27, p. 534, and MEW, Vol. 20, p. 260). But in hindsight it must be said that the technical conditions were not enough to serve the real purpose.
A second opportunity was even celebrated by Marx as a “victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of capital” in his Inaugural Address to mark the founding of the International Working Men’s Association: “We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold ‘hands’. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that […] labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.” (MECW, Vol. 20, p. 11/12)
This too was evidently a heroic illusion, as evidenced not only by the fate of the co-operative movement in the age of capitalism, but also that of collective property-based socialism in the former Yugoslavia or that of communes in China. If we ignore taxes owed to the state, these small-scale associations remain either de facto subsistence operations, seeming only to generate enough to cover their own needs and repeatedly (as well as unavoidably) succumbing to private property in the competitive markets of the real world, or they successfully beat out other small-scale associations and, in so doing, were transformed into property that was associated in name but private in nature. Eventually, there was nothing left of “associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart” but fond memories of the wild days of revolutionary optimism. The same applies to more recent eco-social communities – here too there is ultimately “no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation” to once again cite the Manifesto.
Let us be under no such illusions. Marx and Engels mostly (and justifiably) took great care not to put forward any specific visions as to where they would position their “association of free producers”, but these few statements clearly illustrate that their thought processes were also fairly “compartmentalised”. In the Manifesto they derided the founding of isolated “phalansteres”, the establishing of “Home Colonies” or the setting up of a “Little Icaria”, but their catalogue of demands listed in the same text was firmly located at the national level, as was their assertion that the “proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie”. However, this very statement was proven wrong by the demise of so-called real socialism, as in all of these countries the proletariat had already settled matters with its own bourgeoisie, but not with the bourgeoisie “of foreign countries”, those who continued to dominate this one global economy and ultimately defeated their enemy.
The Principles of Communism, which Engels had written shortly before, also declared that “the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilised countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France and Germany.” In other words, “It is a universal revolution and will, accordingly, have a universal range.”[iii] This prediction, rejected by Stalin in 1926, at least turned out to be true in the sense that any communist revolution that does not achieve universal range is ultimately doomed to failure.
Those who speak of a global revolution today in the sense of it being more than just simply technocratic change are suggesting the very universal revolution with universal range espoused by Engels, i.e. the idea that had been politically expressed as a “world revolution” during the age of Lenin. But how does that help us answer the leading question of the movement?
A solution that extends beyond state ownership as a technical condition, Engels continues to argue in Anti-Dühring, “can only consist […] in the harmonising of the modes of production, appropriation, and exchange with the socialised character of the means of production. And this can only come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces which have outgrown all control except that of society as a whole.” It is evident that the global problems we face – catastrophic climate change, population growth, energy provision, food, health, education, to name but a few – can only be resolved on a global scale, i.e. the world’s society as a whole must “openly and directly” take possession of “the productive forces which have outgrown all control except that of society as a whole”.
The most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the solution to the leading question lies in the creation of “global property”. But how should this be realised? How can we go beyond mere intellectualism and bring this idea to life? Should today’s hopelessly divided global society be replaced by a global government equipped with sophisticated computers that, being all-knowing, will have the ability to solve all our problems? A puerile idea … which leaves us to continue to ponder the real solution as well as the leading question of the movement.
 Evidence to support these historical facts can be found in my commentary that appears in Das Kommunistische Manifest (Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Trier 1995 = Writings from the Karl Marx House, Trier, No. 49.
[i] Engels, Friedrich. Preface to the 1890 German edition of The Communist Manifesto. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf
[ii] Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf
[iii] Engels, Friedrich. The Principles of Communism. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/11/prin-com.htm