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Communist Manifesto Published

Communist Manifesto Published

England 1848

Synopsis

In February 1848 one of the world's most influential documents was published. The Communist Manifesto, coauthored by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, was a statement of the key principles of the Communist League. The league had been established in 1847 by scattered groups of German socialist exiles. In the atmosphere of revolutionary expectation in the late 1840s, the manifesto was intended as a call to arms. However, as copies were coming off the printing press in London, revolution erupted in Paris and soon spread to other major European cities. As a result, the manifesto appeared too late to influence the actions of those involved in the 1848 revolutions. With the eventual victory of reactionary forces and the dissolution of the Communist League, the manifesto seemed to be consigned to oblivion. However, the formation of the International Workingmen's Association in the 1860s and the Paris Commune in 1871 resulted in increased interest in Marx's socialist theories. As the most concise account of Marxist ideas, the Communist Manifes to took on new significance until it became one of the most widely read political documents in the world.

Timeline

  • 1824: French engineer Sadi Carnot describes a perfect engine: one in which all energy input is converted to energy output. The ideas in his Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire will influence the formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics—which shows that such a perfect engine is an impossibility.
  • 1833: British Parliament passes the Slavery Abolition Act, giving freedom to all slaves throughout the British Empire.
  • 1838: As crops fail, spawning famine in Ireland, Britain imposes the Poor Law. Designed to discourage the indigent from seeking public assistance, the law makes labor in the workhouse worse than any work to be found on the outside, and thus has the effect of stimulating emigration.
  • 1842: In Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, British reformer Edwin Chadwick draws attention to the squalor in the nation's mill town slums, and shows that working people have a much higher incidence of disease than do the middle and upper classes.
  • 1845: From Ireland to Russia, famine plagues Europe, killing some 2.5 million people.
  • 1846: The Irish potato famine reaches its peak.
  • 1848: Mexican War ends with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico gives up half of its land area, including Texas, California, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. In another treaty, with Great Britain, the United States sets the boundaries of its Oregon Territory.
  • 1848: Discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California starts a gold rush, which brings a tremendous influx of settlers—and spells the beginning of the end for California's Native Americans.
  • 1848: Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, launches the women's suffrage movement.
  • 1850: German mathematical physicist Rudolf Julius Emanuel Clausius enunciates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, stating that heat cannot pass from a colder body to a warmer one, but only from a warmer to a colder body. This will prove to be one of the most significant principles of physics and chemistry, establishing that a perfectly efficient physical system is impossible, and that all physical systems ultimately succumb to entropy.
  • 1854: In the United States, the Kansas-Nebraska Act calls for decisions on the legality of slavery to be made through local votes. Instead of reducing divisions, this measure will result in widespread rioting and bloodshed, and will only further hasten the looming conflict over slavery and states' rights.
  • 1858: In a Springfield, Illinois, speech during his unsuccessful campaign for the Senate against Stephen Douglass, Abraham Lincoln makes a strong case against slavery, maintaining that "this Government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free."

Event and Its Context

The Socialist Movement in the 1840s

The most important context for the publication of the Communist Manifesto lies in the doctrinal disputes of the 1840s. This was a period of intense intellectual ferment, as a multitude of writers attempted to explain and analyze the problems of modern society. At this stage, Marx was merely one of many socialist writers. Fourier, Saint-Simon, Blanqui, Blanc, Proudhon, Weitling, Owen, and many others had theories on how society might be improved. Some of these theorists already had a substantial following, whereas Marx was an obscure young journalist. However, with his typical intellectual arrogance, Marx believed that he had exposed the misconceptions of the others. By studying the insights of German philosophy, French socialist thought, and British political economy, Marx had not merely produced another socialist theory. Instead, he claimed to have discovered the fundamental principles of modern society, indeed, of the whole of human civilization. With the support of Engels, Marx set out to convince the various socialist groups of the superiority of his ideas.

One such group was the League of the Just, established between 1836 and 1838 by German exiles in Paris. This was a secret society, influenced by the ideas of German socialist Wilhelm Weitling. Some of its members were involved in an abortive uprising in Paris 1848 and were forced to flee to London. There, Karl Schapper, Joseph Moll, and Heinrich Bauer established another branch of the League of the Just. The group established connections with various members of the labor movement in Britain.

With revolution on the Continent looking increasingly likely, there were advantages in creating an organization to coordinate socialist activity across Europe. Marx had become the center of a small group of German exiles living in Brussels. In 1846 he and Engels established the Communist Correspondence Committees to exchange information and ideas between German, French, and English socialists. Marx also published several pamphlets that attacked the ideas of some of the other socialist theorists. He aimed to wean people away from adherence to what he disparagingly referred to as utopian socialist ideas and convert them to his "scientific" socialism.

The London branch of the League of the Just approached Marx in 1847. Although the Londoners had been in touch with Marx and Engels, they held important reservations about the group in Brussels. They disagreed with Marx's ideas, and they disliked his intellectual arrogance, especially his attacks on other German socialists. However, the advantages of a compromise outweighed their concerns, and the groups decided to meet to hammer out their differences. A congress convened in London from 2 to 9 June, and the League of the Just became the Communist League. As Marx was unable to attend, Engels represented his position. The statutes of the new organization still reflected the influence of socialist ideas that were at odds with Marx's theories. However, the league's slogan was changed from "All Men are Brothers" to "Workingmen of all Countries, Unite!," a clear indication that Engels was able to make some progress.

A second congress met in London from 29 November to 8 December 1847. This time, Marx attended, and there were heated and lengthy debates as he defended his theories against his critics. The fact that Marx and Engels were given the task of writing up a statement of belief for the Communist League indicates that they were able to persuade their audience. Given the turbulent atmosphere in Europe, the organization needed to recruit people quickly to its cause, and Marx had only a couple of months in which to write the statement. The London leaders sent him a letter in January 1848 threatening to take away the task from him if he did not finish it quickly. In writing the manifesto, Marx used drafts written by Engels, and both their names appeared on the finished document. The first copies were published in London at the end of February 1848.

The Manifesto

The manifesto was an evocative call to revolutionary action. By exposing the true nature of modern society, Marx and Engels hoped to engage their audience in the revolutionary cause of the Communist League. Marx sought to explain the development of modern society in terms of historical materialism, which he and Engels had developed throughout the 1840s. Marx had deduced from his reading of German philosophy, French socialism, and English economics that the basis of society was not ideas, but how the productive forces of that society were organized. This resulted in the claim that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Throughout history, social change occurred when the productive forces in society clashed with the conditions of production, resulting in massive social upheaval. This was always to the benefit of one social class at the expense of another. Modern society was the result of a long series of revolutions in the modes of production, of which the bourgeois class was the main beneficiary. The result was the modern industrial age, which had increased the productive capacity of society to unparalleled levels, producing "wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals."

Nevertheless, these achievements of bourgeois society relied on the oppression of the great majority of people. This resulted in the creation of the proletariat class, whose members were reduced to the level of a mere commodity and "daily and hourly enslaved by the machine." However, as with previous societies, bourgeois society contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. Marx predicted that the economic crises that afflicted Europe in the 1840s would increase in severity and frequency, an indication that modern productive forces were revolting against the constraints of modern conditions of production. In modern society, the capitalist system of production had sharpened class divisions, resulting in the worldwide unification and organization of the proletariat. Thus, it was inevitable that the revolutionary proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish a new society in which the conflicting elements of previous societies would be entirely resolved.

The role of the communists was to organize the proletariat to fulfill their destiny as the agents of revolutionary change. Probably heavily influenced by the other leaders of the Communist League, Marx suggested a program for revolutionary change that aimed to instruct those involved in the revolutionary struggle. Given that the manifesto was intended to win over the adherents of the various socialist sects, a large part of the manifesto was also concerned with highlighting the weaknesses of other kinds of socialist thought. Inevitably, Marx wrote with a particular audience in mind, which influenced what he included in the manifesto and the way he presented many of his ideas. However, the manifesto still stands as the most concise and direct example of Marxist theory. Marx was not the first to critique bourgeois capitalism. However, in terms of its systematic explanation, not only of modern society, but also the whole of human history, as well as predicting future developments, the Communist Manifesto was outstanding.

The Influence of the Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto represents the results of Marx's synthesis of different strands of European intellectual and social thought. By putting this into service for the Communist League, Marx and Engels created a political classic. However, the manifesto had little opportunity to reach the audience for which it was originally intended. The manifesto was supposed to win supporters and shape strategy in the approaching revolutions. However, it came too late to have any influence in 1848. Revolution broke out in Paris at the same time that the Communist Manifesto was being published in London. The revolutions quickly spread to the German states, and the members of the Communist League, including Marx and Engels, returned home to participate. However, no coordinated action based on the principles of the manifesto was possible, given that the Communist League consisted of only about 20 members and had little influence on the working-class movement in Europe. In the atmosphere of reaction that followed the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, the socialist movement was forced to retreat. The Communist League itself disintegrated, and it seemed that the manifesto would be destined for oblivion.

However, the establishment of the International Workingmen's Association in 1864 provided the manifesto with another audience. Although it represented a broad range of positions within the labor movement, the First International was an opportunity for Marx to gain exposure for his theories. In 1871 Marx and the International gained notoriety, as the blame for the Paris Commune was laid at their feet. Although this eventually contributed to the dissolution of the International, it raised Marx's profile and stimulated interest in his theories. As a result, a number of new editions of the Communist Manifesto in various languages were published in the 1870s. By then, Marx and Engels had admitted that parts of it were outdated but insisted that the basic principles remained relevant. As the most concise application of Marx's theories of historical materialism and class struggle, the Communist Manifesto became required reading for the worldwide socialist movement.

Key Players

Engels, Frederick (1820-1895): A German socialist, Engels helped write the Communist Manifesto, and although he later gave all the credit to Marx, the manifesto should be seen as the result of his close collaboration with Marx during the 1840s.

Marx, Karl (1818-1883): Marx was a German socialist theorist, one of the most influential writers in modern history. Marx's work, including the Communist Manifesto, has been the inspiration for millions of people all over the world.

Moll, Joseph (1812-1849): German exile, one of the London leaders of the League of the Just, Moll was sent to Brussels in 1847 to ask for Marx's cooperation in reorganizing the League of the Just.

Schapper, Karl (1812-1870): Schapper was a German exile, one of the London leaders of the League of the Just. Although suspicious of Marx and his ideas, Schapper agreed to join forces with the Brussels socialists, leading to the creation of the Communist League in 1847.

Weitling, Wilhelm (1808-1871): One of the first leaders of the German workers' movement, Weitling influenced the socialist ideas of the League of the Just. Although Marx initially praised Weitling, Marx came to reject his mix of moral socialism and utopian Christian ideas and worked hard to counter the influence of Weitling's ideas.

See also: First International; June Days Rebellion; Paris Commune; Revolutions in Europe.

Bibliography

Books

Cole, G. D. H. A History of Socialist Thought. Vol. 1,Socialist Thought: The Forerunners 1789-1850. London: Macmillan & Co., 1953.

Lichtheim, George. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961.

——. The Origins of Socialism. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.

Lindemann, Albert S. A History of European Socialism. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1983.

McLellan, David. Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. London:Macmillan, 1973.

Taylor, A. J. P., ed. The Communist Manifesto.Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK; Penguin Books, 1967.

Other

"Letters of Marx and Engels: 1847" [cited 7 November2002]. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/letters/index.htm>

"Manifesto of the Communist Party." 1987, 2000 [cited 7November 2002]. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/index.htm>

Additional Resources

Books

Hodges, David Clark. The Literate Communist: 150 Years of the Communist Manifesto. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

Ryazanoff, D., ed. The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. New York: Russell & Russell Inc., 1963.

Struik, Dirk J. Birth of the Communist Manifesto. New York:International Publishers, 1971.

Toews, John E., ed. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels with Related Documents. New York and Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.

—Katrina Ford

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