the communist manifesto: an overview

A presentation given to a recent London meeting of The Commune.  The original Communist Manifesto can be read here.

by Sharon Borthwick

In 1847 Marx and Engels joined The League of The Just, a working men’s association made up initially of exclusively German workers, the majority membership being tailors and woodcutters. This was “unavoidably a secret society” according to the political conditions before 1848, as Engels tells us in his preface to the 1888 English edition. This edition was translated by Samuel Moore and approved by Engels. It continues to be the English translation most read to date and we’ll use it here for this overview. The first English translation of the Manifesto, by Helen Macfarlane, was published in the Chartist journal, The Red Republican in 1850.

Under the influence of Marx and Engels, The League of The Just became, Bund der Kommunisten, The League of Communists and their motto changed from, ‘All Men are Brothers’ to, ‘Workers of the World Unite’. Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, The Manifesto of the Communist Party (more generally known as The Communist Manifesto since 1872) was written in 1848 probably exclusively by Marx, after some draft runs by Engels, as The Leagues platform. Though the manifesto had small bearing on the political upheavals immediately following its publication, the time was ripe. Within weeks of it going to press, France had seen off the Orleans Monarchy with the February 1848 revolution. There was deep unrest throughout most of Europe. In Britain the Chartist movement was battling for universal male suffrage. In April 1848, Feargus O’Conner led a mass rally on Kennington Common with a view to petition parliament yet again on behalf of that cause. There was widespread suffering in Prussia. Previous years failed harvests had spurred a mass exodus from the countryside to cities where conditions were wretched.

The Industrial revolution had altered forever ways of being and living. And it was not just the workers who had lost their footing amidst the shocking speed of progress. The gentleman writer, Thomas Carlyle, a Tory ideologically, wrote in 1843: “What is to be done with our manufacturing population … our ever increasing population? … This one thing of doing for them by underselling all people, and filling our own bursten pockets and appetites by the road; and turning all care for any population or human or divine consideration except cash only, to the winds, with a ‘laissez-faire’ and the rest of it: this is evidently not the thing.” And, “Cotton-cloth is already 2 pence a yard … yet bare backs were never more numerous among us.” Societies upper classes were getting jumpy. The success of the bourgeoisie made clear there was to be a new order of things.

The Manifesto itself is divided into four parts:

  1. Bourgeois and Proletarians
  2. Proletarians and Communists
  3. Socialist and Communist Literature
  4. Position of the Communists in relation to the various existing opposition parties.

There have been various ways of interpreting the text according to its literary merit besides the political content. It is made up mainly of short, aphoristic paragraphs, a style which carves ideas into the memory.  In, All That is Solid Melts into Air, Marshall Berman cites it as a Modernist masterpiece to be read alongside Flaubert, Baudelaire and Kafka. Others have viewed it as a gothic novel. It begins, “ A Spectre is haunting Europe” (Spectre is sometimes translated as hobgoblin) “the spectre of Communism”. “All the powers of old Europe have entered have entered into a holy alliance to exorcize this spectre.” Some of the lead characters of that old Europe are now historical – The Tsar and Prince Metternich of Austria, for instances. But the pope is still very much with us, pacifying billions of the world’s poor with kingdoms to come for their meekness.

Marx declares the communist’s internationalism at the outset: “Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London and sketched the following manifesto to be published in English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish.” Though this didn’t happen as quickly as he had anticipated and its initial impact was confined to German speakers. From here Marx goes on to describe the rise of the bourgeoisie, and it may surprise us how laudatory he appears in listing their exploits: The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, colonization, trade, and the scientific inroads made in communication and navigation. As Marshall Berman has said, the text builds speed, leaving us breathless, actually enacting the inexorable pace of Capitalism: “the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising … steam and machinery revolutionized industrial production.” Marx describes how Capitalism’s insatiable appetite for new trade ventures have relaxed old prejudices, with the demand for yet more commercial opportunities intellectual property such as scientific breakthroughs have become more readily shared. He approves of how the bourgeoisie have paved over forever the ancient feudal systems and reveals his belief that Capitalism is a necessary and inevitable period of world history. Later he will describe his equally certain belief that the next great show on earth will be the rise of the proletariat.

Marx now changes tack as he berates the bourgeoisie for their callous, self-serving scheming. “They have “left remaining no other nexus between man and man other than naked self interest.” Under the impetus of profit for profit’s sake everything is devalued, “the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science” are become wage labourers. Under this system all is flux, nothing can rest for the least instant, “everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguishes the bourgeois epoch.” Bigger, better, faster machines up the work pace, cities are bursting with populace, national states arise accumulating great power: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.” We are heading for a Wagnerian climax: “society as a whole is splitting into two great hostile camps – bourgeoisie and proletariat,” whilst capitalism continues, creeping, insinuating into every nook of the globe.

But capitalism is unstable. Marx describes it as like a sorcerer losing control of its netherworld powers. All is teetering on the edge of disaster. There are economic crises because there is too much civilization, commerce and industry. There is superfluous labour and overproduction. “Work has lost its charm”. Workers are mere appendages to machines, slaving as unskilled labour – mere cogs of the system, no longer hands on with the product from start to satisfying conclusion. And whilst the burden of work increases according to increased machine speed and the profits multiply, the wages decrease according to competition. Then once the day’s unholy grind is ended, the worker is set upon by the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, and the rest of the petit bourgeois graspers.

Under these miserable conditions the bourgeoisie has forged the very weapons that will fell them in the proletariat, Marx thinks: “all previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities.” But the proletarian movement “is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority.” He describes the proletariat’s various struggles, acknowledging that some small victories have been gained. In England the Trade Unions won the battle for the ten-hour bill. But his optimistic outlook rests with the ever expanding union of workers enabled as industry by improved communications such as the railway. When they rise, Marx

Says, “The whole superincumbent strata of official society will be sprung in the air.”

In part two, Proletarians and Communists, Marx is selling us Communism. Communists are internationalists, he explains, they promote the cause of the entire proletariat and do not “set up sectarian principles by which to mould the proletariat”. He then lays out various arguments the bourgeoisie have used against communism: “You reproach us with intending to do away with your property, precisely so; that is just what we intend.” Marx declares that the communist party is the most advanced of the working parties, for it always and everywhere represents the interests of the movement as a whole, whilst theoretically clearly understanding the line of advance and the ultimate goal. He recognises that capital is produced by the united effort of all society and should be converted into common property instead of the wage labourer barely existing as per the average price of labour, the minimum wage, whilst a few fat cats rip off unseemly profits.

This is not the entire story according to today’s terms. In the West and increasingly elsewhere, there are many layers of bourgeois society. Some manage to cream off far more than the minimum wage in newly invented areas, utterly superfluous to existence – estate agents, public relations people, advertising executives and hoards of managers. But these life-styles rest, as always under capitalism, on the bare existence of the vast majority of the world’s populace – those at the real labour to ensure existence and modern civilisation such as farm labourers, sweatshop workers and those extracting the raw materials from the earth. Under this system countries such as Britain who have more and more management positions have much of their unskilled labour done by immigrant workers who have often been forced to leave their own countries due to the poverty created in them through massive exploitation by richer countries.

Marx continues to answer all arguments set up against communism: “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality, yet the bourgeois say abolishing this is abolishing freedom and individuality.”  They consider intellectual property under threat whilst most people undergo, “a mere training ground to act as a machine.” “Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property”. He notes that the bourgeois think that the family is under threat and explains how for the proletariat the family is absent already. Children are exploited and sent to work. There’s prostitution. “The bourgeois sees in his own wife a mere instrument of production” so fears she will become common property under communism. The bourgeois abuses all women using the proletarian women as slaves and prostitutes and then seduce each other’s wives, Marx accuses. He is most dismissive of arguments suggesting that religion is under threat but answers the case anyway, asking rhetorically, can’t they see that man’s ideas vary according to changes to his material existence and social relations? “The ruling ideas of each age have been the ideas of its ruling class.” “The communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas”, he concludes.

The actual plan of action set out at the end of part 2 is already historical by 1872 according to Marx and Engel’s preface for the 3rd German edition. Actions were always intended to be flexible according to conditions of the time. In his 1844 humanist essays Marx appropriates Hegel’s absolute negating for his own ends. Franklin Dmitryev (1998) writes that Marx transcends alienated reality, overthrowing old and creating anew: “revolution in permanence”, which strangely recalls Marx’s description of the permanent flux under capitalism. Dmitryev says that Marx’s philosophy goes beyond the vulgar communism of abolishing private property and sets its sights on transforming human relations. Indeed the means set out in part 2 were towards the ultimate aim of doing away with class distinctions, antagonisms to be replaced by “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” The eventual intention is that once “the public power” is in the hands of the proletariat, it will aim to lose “its political character”. In the list of measures numbered 1 – 10 in this chapter, one recalls with horror how literally Soviet Russia must have taken on each point, “the bringing into cultivation of waste lands”, the “establishment of industrial armies”. The ways and means to the eventual overthrow of capitalism continues to stir up arguments among various left factions. Whether or not, once the proletariat are the party in power, all modes of production, communication and transport should be centralized in the hands of the state as Marx and Engels thought in 1848, for instance. But in 1872 and with the experiences of the1848 revolutions well behind them and even more especially considering the turn of events arising from the Paris Commune in 1871, Marx and Engels reveal a different outlook. They say that these experiences make clear that the “working classes cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Ray Miliband notes how in State and Revolution (1917) Lenin lays special emphasis on this point.

Part 3 is titled Socialist and Communist Literature. It describes various political battles fought on paper. Marx describes how the aristocracy, with unbelievable hypocrisy, tried appealing to the lower orders in their jeering, lampooning pamphlets against the bourgeoisie. In their “total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern industry” they advocate feudal socialism. The Clerical  ‘socialists’ ring in their support for the landlords, Christian asceticism was always against private property for the masses after all. With reactionary and utopian scripts the petty bourgeoisie whinge forth their case as mega industries steal over their terrain, threatening to thoroughly level their petty concerns. Marx has particular contempt for this class. Later he writes, “to preserve this class is to preserve the existing state of things in Germany.” Marx goes on to describe how an exchange of philosophical ideas between France and Germany lost all touch with revolutionary causes and became mere exercises in literature: “The French socialist and communist literature was thus completely emasculated”. Next to be dismissed with contempt is the section of the bourgeoisie who advocate measly socialist measures in order to preserve their own lot: “They desire the existing state of society minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements”. Listed among these are the philanthropists, the members of societies against the prevention of cruelty to animals and temperance fanatics.

Marx then considers the literature of Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism. He acknowledges that in attacking “every principle of existing society … they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class.” He deems worthy many of their ideas such as the abolition of the distinction between town and country, which earlier he listed among his own measures towards communism. But he accuses them of “standing apart from the contest”. Although the originators of the texts were in many respects revolutionaries, he says, their disciples hold too fast by “the original views of their masters, in opposition to the progressive historical development of the proletariat.” The utopian “Owenites in England, and the Fourierists in France, respectively oppose the Chartists and the Reformistes.”

In part 4, Marx shows that communists everywhere unite in the common cause of the proletarian movement. They will align themselves with other factions on behalf of that cause but will continually “instil into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat”. This is a call to arms. Communists declare openly, “that their ends can only be attained by the forcible overthrow of all existing conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!” the manifesto so famously ends.

Eric Hobsbawn describes the manifesto as “by far the most influential single piece of political writing since the French Revolutionary, Declaration of The Rights of Man and Citizen”. Hobsbawn tell us that “it played a not insignificant part in the German Revolution”, but “dropped out of sight with the failure of the 1848 revolutions” and remained in obscurity as did most of Marx’s writings until he became prominent in the International Working Men’s Association (the First International, 1864-72). With the rise of Socialist or Labour parties over the next forty years, “the Manifesto conquered the world.” After the October 1917 Revolution the Russian Bolsheviks became a Communist Party and knowledge of Marxism became a prerequisite. “Its main region of influence was the central belt of Europe from France in the West to Russia in the East”, only having a small impact in S.W. Europe. It was moderately well represented in both S.E. Europe and Northern Europe. In 1932 a cheap edition was published by “the official publishing houses of the American and British Communist Parties in ‘hundred of thousands’”. This was “probably the largest mass edition ever issued in English” according to Hal Draper. It entered the teaching programme of universities, “where the Marxism of intellectual readers was to find its most enthusiastic public in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Reading the manifesto today one is overwhelmed by its descriptive powers, for remarkably Marx does not seem to be describing so much the state of things under Capitalism in 1848 as he is seeing the world as it is right now in 2010. Industrialisation was but an infant in 1848. By 1850 the 24,000 miles of railways built were mostly confined to Britain and America and 70 per cent of the world’s steel was manufactured in Britain, yet the magical predictive powers of Karl Marx sees the entire globe industrialised and clearly pictures the catastrophic end of Capitalism the death throes of which we right now are existing in as this avaricious system eats through the planet’s every kind of resource, be it raw materials or human happiness. The Communist Manifesto is a text that simply will not die because it describes with brutal accuracy the conditions of living under Capitalism. We hold our breath as we await its inevitable end. The workers have nothing to lose indeed.


The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Verso. London 1998 (translation 1888). Including an introduction by Eric Hobsbawm and the preface to the English Edition of 1888 by Friedrich Engels.

Ray Miliband’s entry on The Communist Manifesto in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, ed. By Tom Bottomore: Blackwell, 1991, Oxford, Cambridge, Oxford, Massachusetts.

Revolution in Permanence as Marx’s Organising Idea, Franklin Dmitryev, 1998

All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman: Penguin: London, New York 1988

‘Working Aristocracy’, from Past and Present, Thomas Carlyle: in The Victorian Reader ed. Gordon S Haight, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1972