The Communist Manifesto as a Classic Text

This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here:

‘The Communist Manifesto as a classic text’, In S. Eliaesen and N. Georgieva, eds, New Europe: Growth to Limits, Oxford: Bardwell Press, 199-219, 201o.



To re-read the Communist Manifesto today is to engage in a strange and paradoxical encounter in time and space. There are some passages which seem so prophetic that they could have been written just a few years ago and others that are clearly dated, if not antiquated or plain wrong. The language of the Communist Manifesto is certainly not that of the media-hungry politician of today’s audio-visual age nor is it that of today’s ‘value-neutral’ social scientist. But who can deny the vivid imagery of the Communist Manifesto or the power of its arguments? Another text by Marx, the 1859 Preface to a ‘Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, which is more theoretical than political, has also significantly influenced the interpretation of Marx’s intellectual project, historical materialism, and Marxism more generally. This chapter considers both texts and asks, among other things, whether they offer useful guidelines for the transition from capitalism to socialism or, conversely, from state socialism to capitalism.

Changing Fortunes of the Communist Manifesto

Despite its cult-status for generations of Marxists and diabolic status for opponents, for many years the Communist Manifesto actually had little impact in the political world outside the future Germany and radical German-speaking diasporic circles.[1] Its initial print runs were limited, its circulation in its complete form[2] was restricted, its promised translation into other languages was generally long delayed, and Marx and Engels failed in their efforts to import copies of later, limited American editions to Europe. The Manifesto was read in certain socialist and communist circles for some years after 1848 even though the revolutionary moment had already passed within months of its publication (Engels 1888: 514-515). Serious attention to its contents had to await the world-shaking events of the Paris Commune in 1871, the growth of a strong working class movement committed to ‘Continental Socialism’, and, much later, the Bolshevik Revolution. The Commune was crucial because state managers, the security forces, and the bourgeois press claimed that the Communards had been inspired by that well-known Communist revolutionary and architect of conspiracies, Karl Marx! The Commune resurrected the spectre of communism that had apparently been exorcised for good by the counter-revolutionary turn after the 1848 revolutions. The events of 1871 prompted broad interest in the Manifesto not only within the dominant classes and state security apparatuses, who wished to discover who or what was behind the insurrection in Paris, but also within the organized labour movement, which was the main addressee of the Manifesto.[3]

There is a double irony in this turn of events. Not only was the Commune a spontaneous public uprising rather than a long-planned event but Marx and Engels had intended the Manifesto to end the conspiratorial tradition of German communism in favour of building a mass movement that would grow stronger as capitalism developed. Subsequent revolutionary events (such as the Russian Revolutions in 1917) and capitalist crises (such as the Great Depression) also spurred waves of interest in the Communist Manifesto. It was in the 20th century that it won its widest circulation and its hallowed status as ‘one of the world’s greatest books’. And, just as interest had been spurred earlier by broader economic and political events, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the apparent demise of the communist movement led to declining political interest in the Manifesto and its contents. Its iconic status continues nonetheless because it is now being re-interpreted as a prophetic, scientific text on the role of capitalism as the main driving force behind globalization.

The Manifesto as an Historic Document

The Manifesto of the Communist Party was drafted hastily (in 2-3 weeks at most) in a particular political conjuncture and was intended as a broad statement of the views of scientific socialism in the 1847-8 period. It was never intended as the definitive programme of an organized party that would be implemented if, and when, that party won power, whether through peaceful means or violent revolutionary action. Indeed, there was no organized Communist Party as such in 1848 and the very concept of ‘party’ referred only to a broad current of political ideas (Draper 1994: 13-14). Marx and Engels later described the Manifesto as an ‘historical document’, insisted that they had no right to alter it, and therefore refused to correct or update it. At most, its authors wrote short prefaces to later editions in German, French, Russian, and English; and Engels honed the first authorized English translation and provided a few addenda and corrigenda in some footnotes (1888). Overall, as Marx and Engels noted in their preface to the 1872 German edition:

the general principles laid down in this Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever. [But t]he practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and for that reason no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II (1872: 174-5).

Thus, while its authors maintained their theoretical commitment to the historical materialist analysis of capitalism and its dynamic and their political commitment to a communist revolution based on a democratic revolution, they certainly changed their views on the more detailed historical analysis, questions of political strategy, and, of course, the famous ten-point ‘party’ programme. The nature of these changes can be seen on a section-by-section basis.

Regarding section I, Marx’s views on the dynamic of capital accumulation were still developing. They would receive their near-definitive statement only in Das Kapital and even this never achieved the completion Marx himself wanted – with at least three books (those on labour, the state, and crisis and the world market) missing out of the six at one time projected and with two of the ultimately published three volumes being edited by Engels on the basis of Marx’s often confused, confusing, and incomplete draft manuscripts.

Regarding section II, Marx and Engels altered their views on communism, party organization, and political democracy on several occasions. They did so both as political events unfolded (most famously with the Paris Commune, which Marx proclaimed had revealed, at last, the proper form of the dictatorship of the proletariat) and as parliamentary democracy became more common in advanced capitalist states (Marx 1871; Marx and Engels 1872). Marx’s revolutionary ideas were first formulated before capitalism was consolidated even in England (the leading industrial capitalist economy) and at a time when profits rested primarily on absolute surplus-value (which made it hard to concede democratic rights to the working class in comparison with the mass production-mass consumption system that was enabled by the increased importance of relative surplus-value for capitalist expansion).

With the subsequent development of capitalism and capitalist democracy, Marx and Engels would need to consider the prospects of an essentially parliamentary road to socialism as opposed to their earlier view that a bourgeois democratic revolution would make it easier for the organized working class and its allies to overthrow capitalism through political and military means. Both suggested that a peaceful revolution could be attained through parliamentary class struggle rather than violent means and that this was most likely to occur in America, England, and possibly the Netherlands – states with relatively advanced capitalist economies, relatively democratic political regimes, and relatively large and well-organized working classes. The capacity of the organized working class to win votes where there is universal suffrage is, wrote Engels (1884: 270), ‘a gauge of political maturity’ in Germany, England, France, etc. But universal suffrage was certainly no guarantee that socialists could win power through a simple parliamentary struggle without extra-parliamentary mobilization as well, both to reinforce the parliamentary majority and to prevent a military coup or other form of counter-revolution. Marx stressed the importance of democratic majorities on several occasions (e.g., ‘revolutions will be made by the majority. No revolution can be made by a party, but [only] by a nation’, Marx 1879: 576). In short, it is probable that both Marx and Engels came to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the trend towards universal suffrage and the adoption of parliamentary democracy would make it possible to pursue a democratic path to socialism. This is indicated by the authors’ own arguments regarding the second and third sections, namely, that, while the principles remain, the practical application must change (Marx and Engels 1872: 174-5).

Regarding section III, which summarizes and criticizes competing views of socialism, there was clearly a massive expansion in the range of socialist and communist views that Marx and Engels would have been obliged to address in any up-dated critique of alternative positions. Indeed, as a later preface notes, ‘it is self-evident that the criticism of Socialist literature is deficient in relation to the present-time because it comes down only to 1847’ (1872: 175). In addition, the ten-point programme had ‘in some details become antiquated’ because of industrial advances, extended political organization of the working class, and the experience of the Paris Commune, the political situation had been entirely changed (1872: 175). We should also note that Marx wrote little on communism per se compared to capitalism after his more philosophical period in the 1840s and his political energies were largely devoted from 1867-1874 to organizational work in the International Working Men’s Association and the campaign for democracy. It would also be mistaken to read too much into his reflections on post-capitalist social order (for further discussion, see below).

The very brief section IV concerns the ‘position of the communists in relation to the various existing opposition parties’ in France, Switzerland, Poland, and Germany and concludes with the celebrated exhortation ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’. Its authors generalized the original analysis beyond these initial four countries, noting in particular that the Manifesto had ignored Russia and the United States (Marx and Engels 1882). They also claimed that ‘the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things’, foregrounding the property question and labouring for the solidarity and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries (1872: 174-5). This is probably why they described the broad argument in this section as ‘in principle still correct’ (1872: 175). But this conclusion and its subsequent reinforcement provide only the vaguest guidelines for political action and they are based on a ‘strategic essentialism’ that prioritizes a united democratic front based on the property question and led by the most advanced sections of the working class.

The preceding comments might suggest that the Manifesto is an unimportant document from the viewpoint of Marx’s intellectual development and this would not be far wrong. This does not make it unimportant for the development of Marxism, socialism, or communism, however, either as such or in terms of their reception and critique. It is nonetheless best to describe its status in the late 19th century and after as a ‘classic’ text. Such a text offers an interconnected set of claims that has been superseded by later developments and is no longer convincing in its original form. Yet it survives as a theoretical challenge, desideratum, or problem because its way of posing problems remains productive. Thus its authority is ambivalent: it indicates what must be done but not how to achieve it (Luhmann 1982: 4; cf. Baehr and O’Brien 1994). This holds for the Manifesto both as a theoretical statement about historical materialism and as a proclamation about the nature and aims of socialism or communism as a political movement. Thus it has remained a central reference point for theoretical and political development and, even as its political relevance appears increasingly irrelevant, this text has helped (and still helps) to shape the agenda of historical materialism. This was particularly important in the nineteenth century when the Manifesto was one of the few works available from Marx and Engels (as opposed to Engels alone) to introduce historical materialism, the salience of classes and class struggle, and the basic economic and political agenda of revolutionary socialism and communism.

Historical Materialism and Class Struggle

The Communist Manifesto draws heavily on Marx and Engels’s emerging historical materialism from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Marx 1844) and The Condition of the Working Class in England (Engels 1845) through The German Ideology (Marx and Engels 1845-46) and Poverty of Philosophy (Marx 1847) to ‘Principles of Communism’ (Engels 1847) as well as on contemporary French political theory and practice (Gregory 1978, 1983). It offers a succinct restatement of historical materialism, a positive evaluation of the progressive and revolutionary role of capitalism as propelled by its profit-oriented, market-mediated activities, and a prophetic sketch of the logic of capitalism as a world-historical and dynamic global force. It also repeats earlier arguments from The German Ideology on the economic foundations of capitalist social formations, the development of a centralized capitalist state, the grounding of ruling ideas in the dominant relations of production, and the connection between social being and social consciousness. In this context, Marx and Engels argue that the contradictions and conflicts of capitalist class-society cannot be resolved solely at an economic level (through trade union struggles); nor purely at a political level – which would leave private property untouched. The proletariat must move from being a class against capital to a class for itself, i.e., move from tactics of local resistance to a revolutionary strategy oriented to conquest of political power, which will then be used to transform the economic foundations of contemporary society. This raises important questions about class analysis and class struggle.

The opening section famously describes the history of all hitherto existing societies as the history of class struggles. Engels later restricted the scientific scope of this claim to societies with a written history (1888 English translation: 484n). Even this is insufficient. For in this form it is essentially a propagandistic claim, intended to provide a clear strategic orientation and a firm social basis for long-term political mobilization in a complex and unstable conjuncture. For this was a period in Continental Europe when market relations were still being disembedded from broader political and ideological relations, when the dominance of the capitalist mode of production over other relations of production was still being established, when an emergent bourgeoisie was still struggling in a complex political conjuncture to overthrow or change Anciens Régimes in order to consolidate its hold in an emerging ‘civil society’, and in a period of widespread famine (‘the hungry forties’) and popular unrest. In this sense their claim is as much a performative statement based on a ‘strategic essentialism’ that prioritized class struggle for political ends as it is a foundational scientific statement of historical materialism requiring elaboration and qualification during detailed analyses of actually existing social formations.

This raises the question whether Marx’s and Engels’s observations really concern the period of primitive accumulation and transition to capitalism or anticipate a future period dominated by the logic of a fully consolidated capitalist mode of production. Capitalism has since become the dominant mode of production on a world scale and we are now much closer to the integrated world market that was the ultimate theoretical and practical horizon of Marx’s analysis of the dynamic of capital accumulation (Jessop 2002). Indeed, in this regard, the increasing integration of the world market under the dominance of profit-oriented, market-mediated accumulation has made Marx’s analysis more relevant today than in the transition period during which the Manifesto and Capital were written. But this consolidation has seen the social bases of conflicts become far more complex than Marx and Engels envisaged in the Manifesto – though not necessarily more complex than the struggles they described in their more historical works, such as The Peasant War in Germany, The Class Struggles in France, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, or Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany (Engels 1850, Marx 1850, Marx 1852, and Engels 1851-52 respectively). This makes it all the more important to combine a class perspective with the recognition of other social identities, interests, and struggles. Gramsci’s revisions to historical materialism make important theoretical and political contributions here (cf. Gramsci 1971, 1995).

From a theoretical viewpoint we also need to prioritize the critique of political economy of capital (as indicated by Marx’s Capital) over a political sociology of class. The Manifesto presents only an embryonic critique of political economy and even its political sociology is confusing. Yet the overall description of the dynamic expansion of capitalism on a world scale is still powerful and prophetic. It identifies what are still, some 160 years later, major sites of antagonism in the struggle to establish bourgeois hegemony not just economically but also in the wider political, social, and ideological sphere. We might note here their stress on the constant revolutionizing of the forces of production, the rise of machinofacture (later described as the formally adequate type of labour process for capitalism), the tendential formation of national economies and national states, the emergence of crises of overproduction coinciding with growing poverty, the resort to economic expansion abroad, the coercive force of international competition in the world market, and the growing significance of capitalist relations of production as fetters on the further development of productive forces and their potential to free workers from toil and poverty. I will comment on these claims later in terms of their spatio-temporal significance. The Manifesto also identifies major sites of antagonism in the struggle to establish bourgeois hegemony not just economically but also more generally that remain significant today.

At this stage in the development of historical materialism, however, there are serious difficulties in the class analysis offered by Marx and Engels in terms of the critique of political economy as well as the political sociology of class. The Manifesto signals the advance that Marx had made (with much help from Engels’ early work on political economy and his analysis of the working class in England) in two respects. First, he retreated from his earlier grounding of the need for revolution on a philosophical anthropology, i.e., a general view about the intrinsic nature of man, to basing it in an economic and political sociology of class relations. Second, he moved from his earlier view that the proletariat – those without property – represent the interests of humankind in general to a specific analysis of the proletariat in terms of the wage relation in capitalism. But problems about the nature of proletarian revolution remained in the Communist Manifesto. Given Marx’s views on how capitalist advances prepared ground for development of revolutionary consciousness in proletariat, one might expect the revolution to begin in England, move to France, and then to Germany. Yet the Manifesto was initially intended for a German readership and Marx inverted this sequence by suggesting that Germany’s vanguard role in Europe in philosophical – if not economic and political – struggle had already led it to adopt communist positions. Moreover, because the German bourgeoisie was organizationally ill-prepared to overthrow the old order and establish a full liberal bourgeois revolution, its half-hearted attempts to do so would open a space for the German proletariat to push forward to a communist revolution. This would only survive, however, if supported by the French and English working class in an act of international class solidarity.

These difficulties are compounded by Marx’s and Engels’s failure to provide a theoretically-grounded definition of classes, resorting to the polarized propagandistic language of “oppressor-oppressed”. It seems that this language is required because pre-capitalist forms of class exploitation are disguised beneath non-economic forms of oppression – whereas capitalist exploitation is based on a formally free exchange in the market place that is nonetheless rendered substantively unequal by the distribution of private property in the means of production. Does this mean that rigorous class analysis can only begin with the emergence of the wage relation and must then explore their political and ideological overdetermination? The real focus of the class analysis in the Manifesto is the bourgeoisie and proletariat with other classes fated to disappear or become marginal to the main line of class conflict. Indeed their analysis owes more to the contemporary political sociology of class conflict than to a sustained critique of political economy and to the co-authors’ desire to focus attention on what they regarded as the imminent revolution. Hence their claim that capitalism also creates its own gravediggers – the proletariat. This class slowly begins to develop a political class-consciousness and learns to direct its struggles against the bourgeoisie – every defeat is a learning experience and opportunity to regroup, develop greater solidarity, and to organize through the power of association. Whether this is an accurate prediction, a performative claim, or an illusion born of revolutionary optimism would be worth exploring.

The Geography of the Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto argues that the global expansion of capital first postpones, and eventually intensifies, the inherent crisis-tendencies of capitalism and the prospects for communist revolution as capitalism reaches its global limits and can no longer escape a terminal crisis precipitated by working class struggles. It is common nowadays to claim that Marx and Engels anticipated contemporary accounts of globalization in the Manifesto (Dirlik 2000: 11-12; Harvey 1996: 2; Renton 2001). In this context, it is said to contain five substantive geographical themes (Harvey 2000):

  1. The successive stages in the development of the countryside-city relation and the need to overcome antagonism between exploited rural and urban classes.
  2. The development of the world market and the resulting division of world into civilized and barbarian nations and a more general centre-periphery model of capital accumulation, emphasizing uneven and dependent development rather than a linear, modernizing catch-up model of economic development.
  3. The key role of innovation and investment in transport and communications.
  4. The formation of national territorial states through political centralization and the key role of national markets and states in promoting interests of national bourgeoisies in their mutual competition.
  5. Communist politics begin at local level and are later organized around the national state – this is basis for international cooperation and global spread of initial revolutionary movements, organized under guidance of communists.

However, although Marx and Engels identified important spatial moments of capitalism in the Manifesto and, indeed, presented the world market as the eventual outcome of capital accumulation, it does not follow that their analysis was essentially spatial. Indeed, as Neil Smith notes, commenting on Marx’s work as a whole, ‘the lively spatial implications of Marx’s analyses were rarely developed’ (1984: 81). Moreover, in another seeming paradox, this is especially clear in the Manifesto itself. For, if it has a grand narrative, it is not a spatial story of inevitable globalization but a temporal story of inevitable revolution. It describes a history of class struggles that must culminate in the victory of the proletariat as the universal class. When dealing specifically with capitalism, of course, it also presents a spatial narrative. It argues that capitalism is inherently global in its scope and dynamic, involving cosmopolitan production, the world market, the rise of world literature, etc. But this spatialization is still subordinate to a revolutionary telos: its primary function is to universalize the capital relation and thereby prepare the conditions for a worldwide revolution. Likewise, as capitalism develops, workers are concentrated into factories and cities and power is centralized in the hands of a few large capitalists. This also serves to enhance the growth of revolutionary consciousness and to politically isolate the exploiting class before, finally, the workers of the world unite to overthrow it.

A similar subordination of space to time, albeit one that endows capitalism with a broad direction rather than a specific telos, occurs in Capital (Postone 1993). This magnum opus certainly offers a spatialized account of primitive accumulation, the industrial revolution,[4] and, indeed, England’s pioneering, pre-figurative role in industrial capitalism (de te fabula narratur).[5] It also offers many incidental comments on space and place, town and countryside, the social division of labour, changes in means of transportation and communication, colonialism and the world market, and many other spatial themes. When Marx unfolds the basic logic of the fully constituted capitalist mode of production, however, he systematically privileges time over space.[6] In this respect, place and space appear both as the material support (Graham 2001) and material effect of the logic of capitalism considered as an economy of time. Thus Marx explains capital’s self-expansion in terms of the complex articulation between multiple concrete temporalities and the singular abstract time of exchange value (Postone 1993: 292-3 and passim). He was a pioneer in both respects and, given the absence of relevant concepts in classical political economy, Marx himself had to develop an appropriate language for addressing the dialectic among the concrete and abstract moments of the time factor. Among his key concepts were labour time, absolute surplus value, socially necessary labour time, relative surplus value, machine time, circulation time, turnover time, turnover cycle, socially necessary turnover time, interest bearing capital, and expanded reproduction.[7] None of this could have been anticipated from the ideas in the Communist Manifesto and this indicates the distance that Marx still had to travel before he could develop a well-grounded critique of political economy and grasp the historical specificity of capitalism.

The State and Politics in the Manifesto

As part of its more general development of historical materialism based on ideas first adumbrated in The German Ideology, section one of the Manifesto argues:

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing associations in the medieval commune; here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany), there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France), afterwards, in the period of manufacture proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general, the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative state, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie (Marx and Engels 1848: 486).

This suggests zigs-and-zags, leads-and-lags in the formal constitution of the modern state – it took economic and political struggles, trial-and-error experimentation to develop the modern representative state. Unsurprisingly, given the contradiction at the heart of the democratic constitution, i.e., it secures the political power of the majority on condition they refuse to claim social power and it secures the social power of the dominant classes on condition that they abandon their monopoly on political power (Marx 1850: 79, 131), this is also a fragile political regime. It is vulnerable to destabilization through the refusal of the subordinate classes to accept only political emancipation and/or the refusal of the dominant class(es) to be satisfied with social domination (i.e., with the de facto subordination of the exercise of state power to the imperatives of capital accumulation) and their desire to restore their hold on political power. Subsequent work by Marx and Engels would develop these ideas and move them away from the apparently ‘instrumentalist’ claim in the last sentence of the quotation above – which others, at least, seek to interpret in terms of the necessary relative autonomy of the state on the grounds that Marx and Engels see it as administering the common affairs of the whole bourgeois class. This raises interesting points of interpretation that are better resolved by considering subsequent work on the state that examines specific epochs and conjunctures. For only later in Marx’s work do we get an appropriate combination of general form analysis, historically specific institutional analysis, and conjunctural class analysis of the state in capitalist social formations. Nonetheless, even on the basis of what can be discerned in the Manifesto, the analysis is a programmatic and inspirational document and claims (holds out the hope that), once a liberal democratic state is established, the growing numerical and organizational strength of the proletariat and its allies will enable a peaceful transition to social as well as political power. Even here an inconsistency is introduced by Marx and Engels, who expect a proletarian revolution to break out first in undemocratic Germany rather than a semi-parliamentary English state.

Bourgeois Hypocrisy Then and Now

The next two sections merit less attention in what must be a short comment on the Manifesto. The presentation of communist political principles is best read as an historical document. It is an excellent and rhetorically well-crafted critique of the hypocrisy of bourgeois responses to communism. It is also a fine statement of the broader historical materialist principle that the leading ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class. But certain of the views expressed or implied (e.g., on patriarchy and the family) are best interpreted in their historical context. And the ten-point programme was clearly becoming an anachronism by the 1870s.

The third section, on other forms of socialism, has been rendered largely irrelevant, as Marx and Engels themselves foresaw, by the continued development of capitalism. But one can derive some continuing pleasure from noting how certain forms of socialism have survived to emerge in new guise. Few critical observers in Britain today, for example, would fail to recognize in Tony Blair’s Labour Government the same species of socialism that Marx dismissed as ‘conservative or bourgeois socialism’, i.e., a movement that wants the bourgeoisie without the proletariat or, at least, to lessen for the bourgeoisie the cost of maintaining its rule. As Marx and Engels wrote, ‘its socialism consists precisely in the assertion that the bourgeois are bourgeois – in the interests of the working class’. Indeed, this is a feature of the little-lamented Third Way more generally – which regards capitalists as entrepreneurial wealth-creators who generate the resources needed to pay for the welfare state and whose beneficent action needs to motivated by higher incomes, lower taxes, and light-touch regulation.

Some Faulty Predictions?

To reinforce the point that the Manifesto should be seen as a classic text, it is worth recalling some of its predictions that have been shown theoretically and empirically – and, in part, even by Marx himself in theoretical terms – to be mistaken or, at best, partial in their application:

  • the growing polarization of classes
  • the growing immiseration (impoverishment) of the working class
  • the steady de-skilling of labour power
  • the expulsion of men from the labour force in favour of women and children
  • the eventual organization of all proletarians into a single political party
  • the proletarian rejection of bourgeois morality, religion, and ideology
  • the proletarian rejection of nationalism in favour of international solidarity
  • the reduction of national differences through accumulation on a world scale
  • Germany is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution as a prelude to immediate proletarian revolution

It is not worth rehearsing all of the reasons for these errors, which would take a book or two to develop (for an early political critique, see Bernstein 1961; and, for a book-length academic review of the economic predictions, Gottheil 1966). It is worth noting subsequent changes in economic and political developments that would undermine or modify some of these predictions. First, Marx and Engels were writing during a period dominated by primitive accumulation and absolute surplus-value rather than relative surplus-value, which would change the dynamic of capital accumulation, creating conditions for rising wages and expansion of the new petty bourgeoisie. This would change the context of class struggle. Second, they were writing before the completion of bourgeois democratic revolutions and the expansion of opportunities for mass politics inside normal bourgeois democratic conditions. Third, the Manifesto was commissioned by the Communist League and focused on the immediate situation in Continental Europe. Thus the increased importance of Russia, the United States, the Indian sub-continent, and China (to name four regions to which Marx paid increasing attention economically and politically) and the growing integration of the world market were bound to change assessments of the political conjuncture, the initial site of a revolutionary rupture, and the conditions for its consolidation (see Marx to Zasulich 1881a-d; Marx and Engels 1882; Husain 2006). And, fourth, in this context, the increasing importance of monopoly capitalism, changing forms of imperialism, and the world market would modify the stakes and forms of class struggle in metropolitan nations.

The Manifesto as a Literary Text

Regardless of its scientific merits, the Manifesto is a powerfully crafted literary text. It combines a number of genres within one overall format – that of the Manifesto, i.e., a ringing public declaration of theoretical principles, political aims, and activities to achieve them. The decision to publish a manifesto marked a turn away from previous attempts to state the principles of the Communist League in the form of a credo or catechism and was prompted in part by Engels’s recommendation to Marx that ‘we would do best to abandon the catechetical form … since a certain amount of history has to be narrated’ and, hence, write a manifesto that would enable the presentation of historical arguments (Engels to Marx, 23-24 November 1847). Various scholars have subjected the Manifesto to literary, rhetorical, argumentative, narrative, critical discourse, and other forms of critique. Among the most evident genres are the gothic horror story, historical narrative, the catechism, the political programme, critique, literary review, a cross-examination in court, a theatrical script with different roles for bourgeoisie and proletariat, and instruction in the meaning of a classless society compared with contemporary bourgeois society.

Excursus: The 1859 Preface

The declared purpose of the 1859 Preface is to provide a clear statement of Marx’s theoretical development over many years of scientific study and to identify the guiding threads of his past and current research. It is widely read as a foundational text of historical materialism but it is often ambiguous, enigmatic, or obscure. It was written as hastily as the Manifesto (Marx regularly failed to meet deadlines) in order to get his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy published (Marx needed the money) by enabling it to seem innocuous enough to pass the Prussian censors (Marx pulled his revolutionary punches in favour of making the text appear historical and für ewig). Accordingly, the Preface focuses on the general logic of historical development and emphasizes evolutionary tendencies that are driven forward by emerging structural contradictions rather than by direct revolutionary action. This is reflected in the absence of a focus on class struggle that is even more (or, perhaps, not at all) remarkable given that the Prussian censors would know him through his association with the Manifesto as well as his political activities. Like the Manifesto, it also deploys many metaphors; but these are not so much used for rhetorical effect as to indicate sites of theoretical problems and possible directions of research. Like the Manifesto, it was little read at the time and had little impact. Its guidelines were relegated to a footnote to the first volume of Capital when this text was eventually published (Marx 1886: 82, 85-86n; cf. 1873: 27-28; and 1894: 791). Yet, like the Manifesto, it has since acquired an inordinate significance for the interpretation of Marx and Marxism – in large part because of its celebration by Engels as the definitive statement of the scientific principles and laws of historical materialism and the importance of the ultimately determining role of the economy in historical development. This had the result that

[t]he better-illustrated discussions of the Manifesto, the more intensely political analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire, and the more exploratory conceptual studies in the economic works, from the Grundrisse through the various drafts and published volumes of Capital, were then ‘rigorously’ judged against Marx’s ‘guiding’ insights (Carver 1996: xiv).

This inordinate attachment to the 1859 Preface can be seen in the conflation that Engels makes between the Communist Manifesto and arguments in the Preface. Thus, in his preface to the 1888 English translation of the Manifesto, he argues that:

The Manifesto being our joint production, I consider myself bound to state that the fundamental proposition which forms its nucleus belongs to Marx. That proposition is: That in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily follows from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction and class struggles (Engels 1888: 517).

Here Engels introduces ideas from the later Preface into his account of the Manifesto but it would be harder to introduce ideas from the Manifesto into the Preface. For, as many have noted, class and class struggle are absent from the latter text. Prinz (1969) offers the most plausible explanation for this: Marx consciously suppressed the revolutionary passion and references to class struggle that might have been expected because he hoped to reach German public in an officially sanctioned work by misleading Prussian censors about the true import of his long delayed work.

Taking the Manifesto and the 1859 Preface as ‘foundational texts’ of historical materialism is deeply problematic. Indeed their emblematic status as master works of historical materialism owes less to Marx than Engels – who promoted them as key documents in the development of historical materialism, the incisive statements of the primacy of economic relations, and the basis for socialist political organization from the 1880s onwards. Gramsci highlighted the 1859 Preface in his prison notebooks because of its radical implications for the horizons of the political class struggle and the appropriate forms of revolutionary activity. In particular, he concluded that (a) ‘mankind only poses for itself such tasks as it can resolve’; and (b) ‘a social order does not perish until all the productive forces for which it still has room have been developed and new and higher relations of production have taken their place, and until the material conditions of the new relations have grown up within the womb of the old society’ (1971: 432). This reinforced his arguments for a long, open, and democratic war of position in the West as a necessary moment in revolutionary mobilization – which reflects in a new conjuncture the approach of Marx and Engels to political organization in periods when mass politics dominates the political scene.

Both texts were actually produced in circumstances that cast doubt on their foundational character. The 1859 Preface is the product of an urgent need to complete the preface to a much-delayed work or have the contract cancelled. It introduces an abstract scientific study, The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, rather than a polemical work or a detailed empirical analysis of current political events. It presents the guiding threads of Marx’s historical research and covers the full span of human ‘pre-history’ (i.e., before the time is ripe for a future communist society). And it stresses that the work that it introduces is a scientific study, based on many years of disinterested research rather than a work of propaganda or an overt intervention into Prussian politics. Conversely, the Manifesto is the product of internal political disputes within a broad international network of communists and socialists of very diverse persuasions. Its function as a manifesto affects its formulation – it is not a scientific document. This is reflected in its programmatic statements and predictions about the centrality of the imminent German revolution.


Notwithstanding all these qualifications, the Manifesto is still worth reading as a stepping stone in the development of the theoretical and political ideas of Marx and Engels. Thus it can be seen as a useful summary of the current state of its authors’ ideas in the period when it was written. This was well before Marx had:

  • refined his critique of the capitalist mode of production as presented in Capital
  • made progress in his detailed empirical analyses of different stages and varieties of capitalism and their associated state forms,
  • discovered the secret of state power as a social relation and that the proletariat could not just lay hold of the existing state machinery and use it to overthrow capitalist relations of production but needed a new form of state (as evidenced, eventually, in the Paris Commune) (Marx 1871; see also Marx and Engels preface to the 1872 German edition).
  • begun to reflect on different routes to revolution, especially with the extension of the franchise and the growth of parliamentary democracy in more advanced industrial societies and the growth of communism in backward economies such as Russia (e.g., Marx to Vera Zasulich 1881a-d; cf. Borowska 2002; Paxton 1998; Shanin 1984).

As these qualifications suggest, a new edition of the Manifesto for the 1880s would have been fundamentally revised in many respects by its two authors in the light of their subsequent theoretical, historical, and empirical investigations. A key point remains, namely, that Marx and Engels were committed to the overthrow of capitalism by the organized working class based as far as possible on a prior bourgeois democratic revolution (even if the revolution began elsewhere, in Russia, for example, in more oppressive conditions and on the basis of violence, its eventual consolidation would depend on support from workers in more advanced democratic societies). The failure of this support to materialize in the necessary degree following the Bolshevik Revolution contained the seeds, as Marx and Engels had anticipated, for the increasingly dictatorial turn in the USSR and Soviet Bloc. And, equally, once the later, more peaceful revolutions, had dealt the coups de grace to an internally contradictory, steadily decomposing state socialist system, the failure to resist the restoration of capitalist property rights and to introduce real democracy lies behind the authoritarian and inegalitarian turn in many of the ex-soviet socialist republics and to the triumph, at best, of ‘bourgeois socialism’ in the new nations of Central Europe. Drawing on Marx and Engels it would be possible to write a historical materialist analysis both of the failures of the Bolshevik Revolution and of the neo-liberal turn in many post-socialist societies. But this could not be successfully undertaken on the basis of the Manifesto and/or the 1859 Preface alone.


Note: MECW = Marx-Engels Collected Works (all volumes published in London by Lawrence & Wishart, in Moscow by Progress Publishers, and in New York by International Publishers)

Andréas, B. (1963) Le Manifeste communiste de Marx et Engels: histoire et bibliographie 1848-1918. Milan: Feltrinelli.

Baehr, P. and O’Brien, M. 1994: Founders, classics and the concept of a canon. Current Sociology, 42 (1), 1-151.

Bernstein, E. (1961) Evolutionary Socialism: a Criticism and Affirmation, New York: Schocken.

Booth, W.E. (1991) Economies of time: on the idea of time in Marx’s political economy. Political Theory, 19 (1), 7-27.

Borowska, E. (2002) Marx and Russia. Studies in East European Thought, 54, 87-103.

Carver, T. (1996) Editor’s introduction. Pp. ix-xx, in idem, Marx: Later Political Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Draper, H. (1994) The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto. Berkeley: Center for Socialist History.

Engels, F. (1845) The Condition of the Working Class in England. Pp. 295-583 in MECW 4 (1975).

Engels, F. (1847a) The Principles of Communism. Pp. 341-57 in MECW 6 (1976).

Engels, F. (1847b) Engels to Marx, 23-24 November. Pp. 146-50 in MECW 38 (1982).

Engels, F. (1850) The Peasant War in Germany. Pp. 397-482 in MECW 11 (1978).

Engels, F. (1851-52) Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany. Pp. 3-96 in MECW 10 (1979).

Engels, F. (1883) Preface to the 1883 German Edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pp. 118-19 in MECW 26 (1980).

Engels, F. (1884) The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Pp. 129-276 in MECW 26 (1990).

Engels, F. (1888) Preface to the English Edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pp. 512-18 in MECW 26 (1990).

Engels, F. (1890) Preface to the 1890 German Edition. Pp. 137-141 in D.J. Struik, ed., The Birth of the Communist Manifesto, New York: International Publishers (1971).

Findlay, L.M. (2004) Introduction. Pp. 13-40 in The Communist Manifesto. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Ontario: Broadview Editions.

Gottheil, F.M. (1966) Marx’s Economic Predictions, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Graham, P. (2001) ‘Space and Cyberspace. On the Enclosure of Consciousness’, unpublished paper, 2001.

Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Gramsci, A. (1995) Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Gregory, D. (1978) The influence of French Socialism on the thought of Karl Marx. Proceedings of the Western Society on French History, 6, 242-251.

Gregory, D. (1983) Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’s knowledge of French socialism in 1842-43. Historical Reflections, 10, 143-193.

Grossman, H. (1977a) Marx, classical political economy, and the problem of dynamics. Part one. Capital and Class, 2, 32-55.

Grossman, H. (1977b) Marx, classical political economy, and the problem of dynamics. Part two. Capital and Class, 3. 67-99.

Harvey, D. (2000) The geography of the manifesto. Pp. 21-40 in idem, Spaces of Hope, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

Husain, I., ed. (2006) Karl Marx on India. From the New York Daily Tribune (including articles by Frederick Engels) and Extracts from Marx-Engels Correspondence 1853-1862, New Delhi: Tulika Books.

Jessop, B. (2002) The Future of the Capitalist State. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Luhmann, N. (1982) The Differentiation of Society. New York: Columbia University Press.

Marx, K. (1844) The Economic and Political Manuscripts. Pp. 229-346 in MECW 3 (1975).

Marx, K. (1850) The Class Struggles in France. Pp. 47-145 in MECW 10 (1978)

Marx, K. (1852) The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Pp. 31-127 in T. Carver, ed., Marx: Later Political Writings, Cambridge: CUP (1976).

Marx, K. (1859) Preface. Pp. 261-5 in idem, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. MECW 28 (1987).

Marx, K. (1871) The Civil War in France. Pp. 37-357 in MECW 22 (1986).

Marx, K. (1872) Afterword to the second German edition. Pp. 22-9 in idem, Capital, vol I. London: Lawrence & Wishart (1976).

Marx, K. (1879) Account of Karl Marx’s interview with the Chicago Tribune correspondent (5 January 1879 [conducted 18 December 1878]). Pp. 568-579 in MECW 24 (1976).

Marx, K. (1881a-c) Drafts of the Letter to Vera Zasulich. Pp. 346-69 in MECW 24 (1989).

Marx, K. (1881d) Letter to Vera Zasulich, 8 March. Pp. 370-1 in MECW 24 (1989).

Marx, K. (1886) Capital, vol I. London: Lawrence & Wishart (1976).

Marx, K. (Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1845-6) The German Ideology. Pp. 19-539 in MECW 5 (1976).

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1848) Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pp. 477-519 in MECW 6 (1976).

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1848) Demands of the Communist Party in Germany. Pp. 3-7, in MECW 7 (1977).

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1872) Preface to 1872 edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pp. 174-5 in MECW 23 (1988).

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1882) Preface to the second Russian edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pp. 425-6 in MECW 23 (1989).

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1888) Manifesto of the Communist Party (English translation of 1848 German text, with footnotes by Engels). Pp. 477-519 in MECW 6 (1976).

Nimtz, A.H. (1999) Marx and Engels – the unsung heroes of the democratic breakthrough, Science & Society, 63 (2), 203-231.

Paxton, S. (1998) The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s theory of history and the Russian revolution. Pp. 86-96 in M. Cowling, ed., The Communist Manifesto: New Interpretations, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Postone, M. (1993) Time, Labor, and Social Domination: a Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prinz, A.M. (1969) The background and ulterior motive of Marx’s Preface of 1859, Journal of the History of Ideas, 30 (3), 437-450.

Renton, D. (2001) Introduction: Marx on globalization. Pp. 3-21 in D. Renton, ed., Marx on Globalization, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Shanin, T. (1984) Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and the “Peripheries of Capitalism”, London: Routledge.

Smith, N. (1984) Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space, Oxford: Blackwell.


[1] The details in this paragraph are drawn from Hal Draper’s superb book, The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto (1994); and supplemented by information from Findlay’s Introduction to his recent translation (2004). They in turn draw on the definitive work of Andréas (1963). Engels himself wrote that the Manifesto was soon forced into the background by the reaction that began with the defeat of the Paris workers in June 1848 – it was excommunicated ‘according to law’ in 1852, and passed into the background (Preface to German edition of 1890: 139).

[2] When the second and third reprints were exhausted, extracts were produced and circulated in working-class and political circles, see Findlay (2004: 39).

[3] Marx and Engels also engaged the bourgeoisie in mock dialogue, accusing it of hypocrisy and seeking to allay their fears in some respects, to stoke their fears in others.

[4] This involves, inter alia, the transition from ‘putting out’ to machinofacture in factories.

[5] Marx explains that, although his material is drawn primarily from England, the story could also be that of other social formations undergoing the transition to the dominance of the capitalist mode of production (1867: 19).

[6] Booth suggests that, for Marx, ‘(a) all economic formations can be grasped as ways in which persons produce and distribute free time (or surplus time — the difference will be discussed further on); (b) the distinctions between these formations can be expressed as differences in the use and distribution of time; and (c) the idea of time as the realm of freedom and as the scope or space for human development leads to the embedding of the economic conception of time (and so, indirectly, the idea of the economic sphere itself) in an overarching normative inquiry’ (Booth 1991: 9).

[7] This point was emphasized by H. Grossman, Das Akkumulations- und Zusammenbruchgeschichte des kapitalistischen Systems, Leipzig 1929; reprinted in part as Grossman (1977a, 197b). I have extended the list of temporal categories to reinforce its significance and link it to more recent scholarship on the centrality and originality of Marx’s work on time.

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