The Writing of the Communist Manifesto


The Writing of the Communist Manifesto
Vol. 107 No. 11


The following article is reprinted from the WEEKLY PEOPLE of May 1, 1948, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO.

To a small band of German refugees who lived in Paris a century ago, the working class and all humanity owe a debt of gratitude. It was those workers, organized in the League of the Just, who persuaded Karl Marx and Frederick Engels to draft a manifesto. About the same time the society changed its name from League of the Just to Communist League. And the manifesto, when it emerged, was the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO -- one of the most tremendously significant documents of all time.

The Socialist Labor Party, the party that today embodies in its program the great principles and theory of the MANIFESTO, proudly salutes and honors the Communist stalwarts of a century ago. Their struggle for clarity on the revolutionary issue to which they devoted their lives bore a fruit in which generations of toilers have shared.

What was the Communist League? From whence did it come?

Frederick Engels, in a sketch written in 1885, says that the proletarian wing split off the democratic-republican secret Outlaws' League (a society set up in Paris in 1834 by German refugees) and founded the "League of the Just." This occurred in 1836. The new League of the Just was "half propaganda association, half conspiracy," in its early years. But after it had participated with some French secret societies in an attempted putsch on May 12, 1839, and shared the defeat, the League of the Just lost faith in putsches, although it still operated necessarily as a secret society.


Soon the League spread to London and Switzerland and became, in fact, "the first international workers' movement of all." Engels wrote that he didn't believe a single member in the whole League had ever read a book on political economy. "But that mattered little," he added, "for the time being 'equality,' 'brotherhood' and 'justice' helped them to surmount every theoretical obstacle." Engels met three of the League's most active members in London, in 1843. They were the first revolutionary proletarians he had ever met. "...I shall never forget," he said, "the deep impression that these three real men made upon me, who was just then wanting to become a man."

This was about the time when both Marx and Engels, each laboring independently of the other, were working out the materialist conception of history, a discovery that revolutionized the science of history and poured a flood of white light upon the past, revealing it to be a succession of class struggles. Economic facts -- how men produced and distributed real wealth -- and the changes that took place in the tools and modes of production, were seen for the first time as the primary motivating force in history. It was a coincidence of immense importance that these two young social scientists met and formed one of the most fruitful and harmonious partnerships of all time.

Engels had been invited to join the League in 1843 but he had refused. However, both Marx and Engels remained on intimate terms with the League's leading figures and were kept informed on the organization's affairs. "On the other hand," said Engels, "we influenced the theoretical views of the most important members of the League by word of mouth, by letter and through the press." This association, plus the League's own experience, produced a "quiet revolution" among the League's leaders in London. They began to perceive the inadequacy of the various movements that are criticized with such incisive brilliance in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO -- "true socialism," sentimental "socialism," etc. And they began to understand the necessity for understanding the economic structure of capitalist society and for consciously participating in the historic process of the revolutionary transformation of society going on before their eyes.


In the spring of 1847, the Central Committee of the League sent Joseph Moll, a watchmaker from Cologne, "a medium-sized Hercules" as Engels describes him and a man capable of "theoretical insight," to visit Marx in Brussels and Engels in Paris. His mission: To invite the young intellectual giants who had so mightily influenced the committee's thinking to join the League. They were to be given the opportunity of expounding their critical communism before a congress of the League, after which their ideas would be embodied in a manifesto of the League.

"Could we say no?" asks Engels. "Certainly not. Therefore, we entered the League; Marx founded a local section of the League in Brussels from among our close friends, while I visited the three sections in Paris."

That summer the League was reorganized and "whatever remained of the old mystical name of the conspiratorial period was now also abolished; the League was organized in local sections, circles, leading circles, Central Committee and congress and from now on called itself the 'Communist League.'...The organization itself was thoroughly democratic, with elected committees always subject to dismissal. And by this means alone a barrier was put in the way of all hankerings after conspiracy, which requires dictatorship, and the League converted -- during ordinary peace times at least -- into a pure propaganda society."

A second congress took place in November and the beginning of December. Marx attended this and the principles he expounded were unanimously adopted. Here Marx and Engels were commissioned to draw up the MANIFESTO. A few weeks before the February Revolution (1848) the manuscript was sent to London to be printed.

By this time the Communist League was truly international. In March a new Central Committee was organized by Marx in Paris, but soon after Marx was arrested and expelled from France.

The Communist League began large-scale agitation in Germany during this period and founded the Communist Party there. However, although the League had proved an excellent school for revolutionaries, it was far too weak to assume control of the revolutionary forces then in ferment. Marx and Engels understood perfectly the bourgeois-democratic character of the upheaval and when it subsided they continued to stress, as a point essential to ultimate working-class victory, the achievement of political democracy.

In 1852 a number of Communists in Cologne (members of the Central Committee) were arrested and accused of high treason. Many of them were found guilty on crudely manufactured evidence. Immediately after the Cologne trial the League was dissolved.

Engels concluded his sketch with a salute to his comrades of 1847-1852 that might well be inscribed on a monument to their memory.

"The doctrines," he said, "which the League represented from 1847 to 1852, and which at that time could be treated by the wise philistines with a shrug of the shoulders as the hallucinations of extreme lunatics, as the secret doctrine of a few scattered sectarians, has now innumerable adherents in all civilized countries of the world, among those condemned to the Siberian mines as much as among those toiling in the gold mines of California; and the founder of this doctrine, the most hated, most slandered man of his time, Karl Marx, was, when he died, the ever-sought-after and ever-willing counselor of the proletariat of both worlds."