The Communist Manifesto – A guide to understanding society, and how to change it

Marx and Engels statue at in Oak Park, Kyrgyzstan (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Communist Manifesto was first published on this day, 21 February, in the year 1848. Why does it continue to hold such appeal to workers, the oppressed and young people everywhere?

“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”. In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels chose these famous words as the opening line of their ‘Communist Manifesto’.

Today, it’s not just the rich and powerful of Europe that fears a mass movement rising in anger against them, the same is true the world over. One hundred and seventy-three years on, those who criticise the obscene gulf between rich and poor are still attacked as being ‘communists’ – or perhaps nowadays ‘socialists’. Yet genuine socialists are rarely given the opportunity to properly explain their programme and to answer the distortions of their critics.

Marx and Engels, both still under 30 years old, at the time, wrote the manifesto in order to “meet this nursery tale of the spectre of communism” and, succinctly but boldly, set out their analysis of society and their programme to change the world. Since then, it has been printed and read by workers across the world and translated into dozens of languages.

The Communist Manifesto remains a brilliant summary of many of the key ideas of Marxism and provides valuable insights into how socialists should organise within the workers’ movement today.

In his 1888 preface to the English edition, Engels answers in advance a question that anyone picking up a book first written so long ago is bound to ask – ‘isn’t this going to be out of date?’

Marx and Engels understood that the workers’ movement must learn and adapt ideas from experience. The preface makes it clear that, even in the 40 years since it had been written, a lot had already changed. Industrial production and trade union organisation had both grown considerably.

Paris Commune

Engels emphasised that the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, when the working class had held power for two months, had been the greatest teacher of all. The original manifesto had spelt out how “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. In other words: the courts, the police, the army and the civil service, don’t act as a neutral arbiter but are there to defend the interests of capitalism.

The bloody defeat of the Paris Commune had been a harsh lesson in how “the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”. Instead, a workers’ government would need to create its own organisations. They would be vital to combat attempts by reaction to overthrow it. Sadly, as the bloody coup against the Popular Unity government of Chile in 1973 demonstrated, this lesson still has to be learned.

In further writings, Marx and Engels also explained in detail how the Paris Commune had developed new forms of democratic organisation to guard against bureaucracy. All posts were filled by election subject to recall, at any time, by their electors. All officials received only the same wage as other workers. These facts distinguish the ideas of Marx and Engels from the bureaucratic degeneration that took place under Stalin in Russia, calling itself ‘communism’.

Of course, the meaning of words can change over time. Today ‘communism’ has been tarnished by the crimes of Stalinism. But Engels explains in the preface how he and Marx decided to call themselves ‘communist’ rather than ‘socialist’ in 1848. The main reason was that socialism was then seen as being a middle-class movement, and they were looking to the working class instead – the class that they saw as being “the really revolutionary class”.

Given all that had been learned over 40 years, Engels was therefore at pains to point out that many of the specific demands listed at the end of the second chapter, the ‘What we stand for’ of the Communist League in 1848, already needed to be worded differently.

So, nobody should read the Communist Manifesto looking for a set of instructions. Specific formulations used in 1848 will certainly be outdated. The timing of events and processes is also hard to judge. Marx and Engels would not have expected capitalism to sustain itself as long as it has.

However, Engels was confident that “the general principles in the manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever”. What was required was to adapt “the practical application of the principles” to match the changed conditions of later times. So long as that approach is taken, the Communist Manifesto has a lot still to offer anyone reading it today.

The first chapter begins by explaining how Marxism analyses history, summed up in its opening sentence: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”.

It explains how, in the first pre-class, hunter-gatherer societies, sparse resources were held in common for the benefit of all. But as society advanced economically, a series of class struggles took place for control of the surplus wealth created, between exploiter and exploited.

Capitalists vs workers

Under capitalism, that struggle boils down increasingly to a battle between “two great hostile camps”. In one corner stands the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, the owners of the factories, offices and other means of production – the employers. In the other stands the mass of the population – the working class – people who don’t own those productive forces, but instead have to earn a living by selling their labour power to a capitalist employer to earn wages.

The bourgeoisie grew as a class during the preceding economic era of mediaeval feudalism. Trade grew from the developing towns, then further again into new markets as the Americas and other parts of the world were conquered by the European powers. Steam power and the industrial revolution provided the ability to produce even more goods and world trade expanded yet further.

Marx and Engels explained how those small traders, owning a few workshops, had developed into the new ruling bourgeois class, owning huge factories, building ships and railways, further concentrating property in their own hands.

This hadn’t come about without the capitalists having to mount revolutionary struggles of their own. A civil war took place in England. The old order had been decisively defeated by a revolution in France.

But now another stage in history was being prepared. The working class, by defeating the property-owning capitalist class, could return society to a system of common ownership, without class distinction and oppression, but now with the benefit of a high level of production, one that would allow needs to be fully met.

Capitalism’s profit-driven contradictions

The manifesto goes on to explain the processes driving society towards that next revolutionary change – and the end of capitalism. Above all, it outlines one of capitalism’s insoluble contradictions – something Marx would then write about in much greater detail in ‘Capital’ and elsewhere.

He explains how capitalists make profit from the “unpaid labour of the working class”, or as the old Labour Party ‘Clause 4’ put it, by not paying the working class “the full fruits of their industry”. Workers are paid less in wages than the value of the goods they have produced.

In order to maximise profit, and keep up with their competitors, capitalists are driven to try and cut costs by keeping the costs of wages down and the length of the working week up. The manifesto describes how, at the time it was being written, women were being brought into the workforce – not in the interests of ‘equality’, but as another way to pay less for labour power.

But the working class also provides the main market for the goods made by capitalism. So, if workers can’t afford to buy them, the capitalists aren’t able to sell their goods.

To find a way out of this crisis factories close, workers lose their jobs, goods go to waste, and competitors go bust. Then, those that remain in business can start up again, with wealth now concentrated in even fewer hands.

A capitalist system built on making a profit, rather than the rational planned development of society, can’t resolve this fundamental problem of ‘overproduction’. Capitalism is a system that has crisis wired into its workings, and in the declining capitalism of the twenty-first century those crises will get worse.

That’s why the world is overripe for a socialist transformation of society, one that will make sure that production is no longer held back by private ownership. Instead it will be taken into public ownership, run under democratic working-class control and management.

The working class – capitalism’s grave diggers

The manifesto outlines a range of other important ideas that were then developed further by Marx and Engels themselves, and by other Marxists that followed them.

In the 1882 preface to the Russian edition, Marx and Engels suggest an idea that was later fleshed out in more detail by the Bolsheviks. They wrote that a revolution in a less economically developed country like Russia could become “the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other”.

The manifesto discusses education, the family, religion, morality, nationality and more, explaining that “the ruling ideas of each age”, the ideology that dominates society, are always the “ideas of its ruling class”.

The manifesto raises important tactical considerations about how Marxists organise alongside other workers. It explains how Marxists should fight “for the attainment of immediate aims” but, in every movement, “bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question” – in other words, the need to change society. This is an approach later developed more fully by Leon Trotsky as formulating ‘transitional demands’.

Above all, the manifesto explains how, by increasing the size of the working-class, and by bringing workers together in the workplace, capitalism “produces its own grave diggers”.

Marx and Engels’ confidence in the ability of the working class to change society jumps out of the pages. Then, as today, many middle-class intellectuals wrote off workers as being too stupid, or too ignorant to change society.

In contrast, Marx and Engels asserted that a combination of theory and practice, of “combined action and mutual discussion … the defeats even more than the victories”, would teach the workers’ movement to ignore the false promises of the reformists and reactionaries, and instead learn what they needed to do to change society.

The manifesto explains that the working class will not become just another in the long line of ruling classes grabbing hold of society’s resources for the benefit of their small number, at the expense of everyone else. No, for the first time in history, the working class will be changing society as the overwhelming majority of society. As a present day slogan puts it: “For the billions, not the billionaires”.

To do so, they also need to build a party that is “practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others” and, at the same time, has “theoretically … the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”.

So, find a copy of the Communist Manifesto, read and discuss it. But, when you have, then put theory into practice and help build the clear, determined working-class leadership we need today. Join the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International for fight for socialist change in England and Wales, and internationally.