The Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto
Vol. 107 No. 11

The following article is reprinted from the WEEKLY PEOPLE of March 3, 1973, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and the 75th anniversary of WHAT MEANS THIS STRIKE?




Rereading the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO today, a century and a quarter after it was drawn up, one is filled anew with profound admiration for the tremendous intellectual feat accomplished by its authors in so brief a document. Charged with preparing a statement of principles and aims that could immediately serve the fledgling Communist League as an agitational tract, particularly in Germany, Marx and Engels composed an enduring classic, a concise masterpiece of historical and social science which has brought instruction and inspiration to millions of workers in virtually every country of the world.


The two collaborators were superbly equipped for the task entrusted to them. Both possessed brilliant, highly educated minds. Both had been intensely interested since youngest manhood in the intellectual, ideological and political crosscurrents of their times. Spurred by a passionate and critical spirit of inquiry, both had been striving to attain an understanding of the forces underlying the turbulent history of early 19th-century Europe. And, in the measure that one and the other gained the desired understanding, they had been publishing the fruits of their thought. Thus, when Marx and Engels set to drafting the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, they were ready to communicate a well-developed historical viewpoint with masterly terseness and clarity. As Franz Mehring remarked in his biography of Karl Marx, "...[The COMMUNIST MANIFESTO] contained no idea which Marx and Engels had not already dealt with in their previous writings. It was therefore not a revelation, but a presentation of the world outlook of its authors in a mirror whose glass could not have been clearer nor its frame smaller."

Central to that world outlook was a new conception of human history, a MATERIALIST conception which Engels later summarized as follows in his preface to the 1888 English edition of the MANIFESTO: "...In every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following 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...."

In the light of this mode of viewing history, the MANIFESTO rapidly sketches the rise of capitalist society. It does so with broad strokes that lay bare the principal factors that promoted capitalism's development and how these reacted on each other to accelerate that development. The exposition builds to an exhilarating tempo and sweep. And what enlightenment it supplies! The bewildering march of events that crowded hundreds of years are here reduced to their essence, allowing the reader to plainly perceive the main lines of capitalism's meteoric career.


The like is done with the role played by the system's beneficiaries, the capitalist class:

"The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part." For, "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society...."

"The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce 100 years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together...." "...It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades."

"The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere."

"The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world's market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country...."

"The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization....It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production...."


This prodigious economic transformation effected under the capitalists' rule is revolutionary in another portentous sense. By enormously expanding the scale, efficiency and geographic distribution of the world's productive forces, the capitalists have been steadily rendering their society less and less viable. "Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put on its trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the bourgeois society....In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity -- the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them...."


Hence, just as emerging capitalism eventually and necessarily smashed the fetters imposed by the property relations of the feudal society that engendered it, so was capitalism, in its turn, necessarily doomed to see smashed the fetters imposed on society's now greatly enlarged productive forces by capitalist property relations. And just as the growth of capitalism assembled on the social stage a class of capitalists who ultimately combined to bury feudalism, so the continuing growth of capitalism was assembling on the social stage a class of workers who would ultimately combine to bury IT. "In the proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed; a class of laborers who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital...."

Moreover, the way was being paved for an ultimate revolutionary combination of the working class by the constant advance of capitalist industry, which caused formerly scattered workers to be marshaled and concentrated in ever greater numbers. "The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of modern industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

The foregoing conveys the gist, although very far from the full richness, of the historic insights contained in Section I of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. Had its authors carried their joint work no farther, it would still have stood as an almost perfect achievement. But Marx and Engels had some specific propaganda and programmatic requirements to satisfy. To these they devoted three additional sections.

Section II opens with a short statement of the relation to the entire working class of the then active Communists (who are not, of course, to be confused in any way with the post-1917 variety). It turns next to a discussion and refutation of stupid objections offered by bourgeois apologists to the aims of the proletarian revolution. The refuting arguments are unfailingly incisive and often blasting.

For example, among the paragraphs dealing with capitalist tirades against the avowed intent to abolish their property occurs this frequently cited one:

"You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its nonexistence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the nonexistence of any property for the immense majority of society."

Other examples are found in the devastating reply made by Marx and Engels to the ideological claptrap with which bourgeois apologists were seeking to discredit the materialist conception of history:

"Does it require deep intuition," they demanded, "to comprehend that man's ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man's consciousness changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?

"What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.

"When people speak of ideas that revolutionize society they do but express the fact that within the old society the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence."

"'Undoubtedly,' it will be said, 'religious, moral, philosophical and juridical ideas have been modified in the course of historical development. But religion, morality, philosophy, political science and law constantly survived this change.'

"'There are besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc., that are common to all states of society. But communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion and all morality, instead constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.'

"What does this accusation reduce itself to? The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs.

"But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms."

Because it then seemed that the proletarian revolution which would bring the total disappearance of class antagonisms might be close at hand, the MANIFESTO'S authors proceeded to outline a plan of revolutionary action and set down a list of 10 transitional measures that they thought would be pretty generally applicable in the most advanced countries.

Serious and unexpected reverses suffered by the proletarian movement shortly afterward made these proposed measures a dead letter. And in referring to them in their joint preface to the 1872 German edition of the MANIFESTO, Marx and Engels wrote: "That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of modern industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organization of the working class; in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held power for two whole months, this program has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that 'the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.'"

Yet even in the context of the seriously unripe conditions prevailing in 1848, Marx and Engels did not appear to harbor the illusion that the workers could seize the "ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes." For in proposing that the working class win political supremacy in order "to centralize all the instruments of production in the hands of the state," they significantly qualified their proposal by adding, "i.e., OF THE PROLETARIAT ORGANIZED AS THE RULING CLASS." (Our emphasis.) And they unmistakably indicated what this implied for the future in these two paragraphs that conclude Section II:

"When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms, and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

"In place of the old bourgeois society with its classes and class antagonisms we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

(The men who penned those lines were obviously not contemplating the sort of bureaucratic political state that presently rules over the Russian and Chinese workers -- the former of which has now had 55 years to "wither away.")


Section III of the MANIFESTO presents a critical examination of the socialist and communist literature of various inspirations and tendencies that was being circulated on the European continent. The examination is trenchant and illuminating; and it is conducted with an irony and wit that make it a delight as well as an education to read. Since literature of similar inspirations and tendencies is still appearing and sowing social confusion, this section retains much more than a mere academic or literary interest for our age.

Section IV consists of a short statement of the relation of the Communists of 1848 to the existing opposition parties. It closes with these imperishable words:

"...The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

"Workingmen of all countries unite!"


Capitalist ideologues have long sought to demolish the great historic stature of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, as they have long sought to demolish everything ever written by the cofounders of scientific socialism. A favorite line of attack is to harp on the belief expressed in the MANIFESTO that the proletarian revolution was imminent in 1848. By pointing up that Marx and Engels were quite wrong in this important respect, the would-be demolishers hope to spread the impression that they were probably quite wrong in other important respects.

Well, Marx and Engels did err in believing that the proletarian revolution was not far off. Their error was, however, understandable and pardonable. They never professed to be infallible. They simply presented themselves as materialist thinkers who strove to understand and foresee historic developments by the light of all the data available -- economic, social and political. Since that data was subject to rapid change, since it comprised so many extremely variable or imponderable factors, since they were dealing with a social system of unprecedented dynamism whose development could be radically extended and its life span indefinitely prolonged by (for instance) the accidental discovery of gold in California -- they were naturally bound to err on occasion. When they did, they behaved as all true scientists must: they corrected their positions in obedience to the new data furnished by history's onward flow.


Furthermore, the very depth of their historical perspective made Marx and Engels prone to telescope the chronology of history. They could see so far, far ahead that they were excusably susceptible to believing that what they foresaw was near at hand.

But does this inevitable failing diminish, no less invalidate, the findings of their deep historic foresight? Most certainly not! For thanks to that foresight, the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO was shaped into an educational instrument of transcendent value. And when, in the language of its authors, "man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind," when the workers of all countries do at last unite politically and industrially to replace capitalism with an international socialist society, that epochal event will in large measure be due to the invaluable guidance the workers received from the teachings of the MANIFESTO.