The Communist Manifesto is one of the best known documents of all time, recognised and loved by people from every generation, in every country. More than 170 years after it was first published, it remains a central text for those wanting to change the world. It is not a nostalgic artefact, nor sacred scripture. It is alive with sharp analysis, searing polemic and stirring agitation: bringing into focus the profound power of the working class, and calling us to arms.
This is as Marx and Engels intended, for they were above all else political activists and revolutionaries. The Manifesto was released in early 1848 for a mass working class audience on behalf of the Communist League, of which Marx and Engels were a part. The League believed that, with revolution in the air, the time was ripe to open up and push forward the communist movement. As Marx was putting the final touches on the text, revolution was breaking out in Italy. Within days of its publication, France was in revolt, with much of the rest of Europe soon to follow.
The events of 1848 confirmed the core arguments laid out in the Manifesto. But the revolutions also taught Marx and Engels new lessons. One of the clearest articulations of these can be found in Marx’s address to a meeting of the Communist League in London in 1850. This speech, known as the “March Address”, builds upon and enriches the experience of reading the Manifesto. These texts form bookends to a momentous historical episode and, taken together, they offer some of the most profound and enduring insights of any political treatise.
At the centre of the Manifesto’s vision of communism is the self-emancipation of the working class. This put Marx and Engels at odds with the main currents on the left at the time: the romantic socialists, who idealised peasant life, and the radical liberals, who viewed bourgeois democracy as the pinnacle of freedom. In the years prior to writing the Manifesto, Marx had come to recognise that the working class, through its own activity, could overthrow bourgeois society, abolish class relations and liberate all humanity. This was the key breakthrough for Marx’s entire political approach.
The Manifesto situates this essential concept of the self-emancipation of the working class in historical context. As new classes are formed, they fight for their interests, against other classes and against the structures and systems that represent those other classes. The historical moment that the Manifesto describes is one in which two new classes are ascending: the bourgeoisie (the capitalists) and the proletariat (the workers). Rather than each developing independently, they emerge and grow “in the same proportion” as one another.
The first part of the Manifesto is concerned with the rise of the bourgeoisie. It rises aggressively, sweeping aside the old world, creating a new one “after its own image”, drawing all nations into the frenetic rhythm of competition and accumulation. At the same time as documenting the initial development of capitalism, the Manifesto accurately describes many features of modern capitalism. Marx’s interweaving of these two things is not only a testament to his foresight but also to the entwined nature of capitalism’s history and its current state. Marx observed that the establishment of capitalism depended on the “formation and augmentation of capital”. The early phase of formation, necessary to kick-start the system, Marx called “primitive accumulation”. It was a brutal and bloody process that involved forcing peasants off their land to create battalions of immiserated wage labourers. This carved out the ongoing relationship between workers and capitalists, and was the basis of building up capital that could be used in future rounds of production. The process of augmenting this capital is perpetual, expanding constantly as the capitalists compete for greater and greater profits. This competitive pursuit informs every investment, drives every market, commodifies everything and underpins the organisation of every part of society.
The economic logic is so all-encompassing that all of our lives are dominated by it. In particular, workers become “a commodity like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all of the fluctuations of the market”. The natural environment is also subjected to this logic; the breakneck chase for profits drives the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Ultimately, the logic of competitive accumulation pushes capitalism inexorably towards crisis and, in so doing, supercharges the oppression and misery of millions.
Marx and Engels predicted that capitalism would “settle everywhere, nestle everywhere, make connections everywhere”, dominating every corner of the globe. Once again, this not only describes the establishment of capitalism but also points to the ongoing dynamics of the system. The use of military might to gain territory and wealth did not end with the conquering of pre-capitalist areas of the world. Expansion is perpetual, a constant quest for new markets and spheres of influence. More and more, competition between capitalist businesses becomes competition between capitalist states, ensuring that the settling and the nestling are never permanent. The interlocking interests of businesses and states were never fully explored by Marx. But they flow conceptually from his understanding of the rapacious and expansive capitalist dynamics described vividly in the Manifesto, and later elaborated on by Russian revolutionaries Nikolai Bukharin and Vladimir Lenin.
It can be confusing to people that Marx appears to view the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie as progressive. This observation is regularly extended to the completely erroneous claim that Marx saw capitalism as politically supportable. Against this claim stands the entire purpose and content of Marx’s life work and also the Manifesto’s arguments. Marx paints a picture of a burgeoning society that is wretched yet magnificent, a new system racked by profound contradictions. It is in the potential created by these contradictions that Marx finds the secret to communism. Capitalism creates its own gravediggers, and it provides the soil and shovels. It produces the working class, whose interests lie in the overthrow of capitalism and class society. And it generates material abundance that could be used by a future society functioning according to the maxim “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.
Therefore, it is historically progressive for the bourgeoisie to crash through the structures of feudalism, especially when it does so with revolutionary force, because, ironically, it is laying the basis for socialism. Marx and Engels predicted, as many did, that there would be more uprisings along the lines of the French and US revolutions. It seemed to be in the interests of the bourgeoisie to overthrow the absolute monarchies ruling Europe at the time and to establish more political freedoms to consolidate power.
In the Manifesto, Marx argued that the workers’ movement should fight with the bourgeoisie when it “acts in a revolutionary way”. Rather than this implying a long-term alliance between workers and capitalists, he is clear that any cooperation will be fleeting, arguing that it is the responsibility of communists within the democratic movement to “instil into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat” so that they are prepared to rapidly transition into their own, independent revolutionary process. According to Marx, “the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution”. This revolution would be waged by the working class in its own interests. And for the first time in history, the revolution would not be a movement of a minority in the interests of themselves. The working class is not going to replace one form of exploitation with another because it is a mass, collectivist class, and its movement is “the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority”.
Come the “Springtime of the Peoples”, as the revolutions of 1848 were known, the bourgeoisie did not fulfil its part. It was not prepared to fight in a revolutionary way. Almost as soon as each of the revolutions began, the bourgeoisie of each country recoiled at the mass movement that had been unleashed and moved to suppress it. The reaction led down two roads, exemplified by the French and German cases. In France, the bourgeoisie succeeded in establishing a republic, albeit a weak one. As soon as the capitalists took power, they assumed the head of the counter-revolution and moved against the workers who had been the backbone of the revolution. In June 1848, an uprising of workers was viciously crushed, at the direction of the newly formed National Assembly. In Germany, the bourgeoisie cowered in the shadow of Prussian absolutism, entering an alliance with the assurance of only modest political freedoms for their class. German capitalists cheered on the reactionary forces against various democratic uprisings. As Marx noted: “All history presents no more shameful and pitiful spectacle than that of the German bourgeoisie”.
Marx and Engels were active in the revolutions of 1848. They held positions in the Democratic Associations and produced a paper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which became the extreme left wing publication of the revolution. Throughout, they always predicted treachery from the bourgeoisie. But the scale of the treachery was key to clarifying their political and strategic approach. The bourgeoisie had crossed the Rubicon to reaction; it was no longer possible to participate in broad democratic revolutions with it. It was no longer a revolutionary class. The break-up was mutual. Over the course of 1848 and 1849, Marx was expelled from Belgium, France and Prussia, his birthplace.
Now in London, he poured his energies into the communist movement with new determination. In his Address to the League in 1850, Marx draws two firm conclusions from the experiences of 1848: the proletarian revolution will be permanent, rather than a sequel to the bourgeois democratic revolution, and the working class must organise itself independently from other class movements. Both these points remain guiding principles for revolutionaries today.
Prior to the Address, the term “permanent revolution” had been used by Marx, and other radicals, in a much vaguer way. It implied the need for uninterrupted struggle but sidestepped the question of the bourgeoisie. Now, it was used by Marx to argue that the bourgeoisie and middling classes had become thoroughly cretinous. They would never again play a revolutionary role, even though many of their demands remained unfulfilled. The working class had now stepped into the breach as the next, and only, revolutionary class. Marx was aware that this did not mean that the working class could take power immediately; it was still too small in Europe. But workers were now engaged in a permanent struggle against the bourgeoisie and were the only class with an interest in social revolution.
Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution builds on this concept but is also a breakthrough that reflects the development of the working class in the intervening period. The 1905 Russian revolution proved to Trotsky that the working class was the only class capable of leading a struggle for democracy in Russia and that it could do so by gaining the support of the far more numerous peasantry. This struggle would immediately throw society into transition and provide the basis for a social revolution in which all political and economic structures could be challenged.
Trotsky argued that the transition would be part of, would help to advance, and would also be furthered by an international revolutionary process. The famous last line of the Communist Manifesto – “workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!” – is brought to life by Trotsky’s argument about how and why various national revolutionary workers movements will be intimately connected.
Trotsky was later vindicated by the events of the 1917 revolution. In the vacuum left by the tsar’s abdication, the workers’ government – based on the soviets – stood irreconcilably against the bourgeois provisional government. Only one could take forward the democratic struggle and could do so only by fighting for and consolidating its own social power. Dual power scenarios like this have emerged again and again in revolutions since 1917, in countries with vastly different sized working classes and states of development.
The other core argument made by Marx in the Address is that the working class movement must be politically and organisationally independent. This flows quite naturally from the conclusion that the bourgeoisie stands opposed to all the key demands and interests of the working class. Marx made this argument for independence with reference to the “proletarian party”. Here he does not mean a party in the strict sense it is understood today, but rather the political current that broadly stands for communism within the workers movement. Later, the question of the need for explicitly revolutionary communist parties was clarified, especially by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
Independence does not imply isolationism,, and Marx is clear in pointing out that at times the “proletarian party” can support an initiative or action taken by bourgeois or middle class political forces but this alignment does not involve political support or fusion with these forces. In fact it is precisely in the context of alignments and alliances that the question of political independence becomes most important. Marx insists that, within joint struggles, the workers must organise their own “proletarian guard”; within elections the workers must put up their own candidates and at all times must reject the accusations that by doing so they are “splitting the democratic party”. Maintaining this distinction is critical because, as Marx argues in the Address, it is ultimately these allies that are the most profound enemies of communism. The defeats experienced by workers in revolution after revolution, at the hands of their former allies, are the tragic proof of this.
These points made in the Address are not tactical asides. They remain central to any revolutionary interpretation of Marxism. For that reason, they have been wilfully ignored or buried by reformists and Stalinists, who claim to stand for Marxism but instead base their politics and strategies on attempts to build social peace within capitalism. However, for those seeking to use Marxism as it was intended – as a weapon in the struggle to overthrow this system of exploitation, destruction, war and oppression – these arguments are vital.
Important struggles and revolutions will almost always emerge as fights for democratic rights, within the framework of capitalism. This is inevitable in a system so defined by political injustice. But it is equally inevitable that there will be an unbridgeable chasm between the main class forces involved in any broad democratic struggle. Whenever such struggles emerge, it becomes clear that the winning of genuine political freedoms will require a reckoning with the core structures of capitalism itself. The oppressive essence of the system can never exist alongside democracy and equality.
Today, in a world of pandemics, extreme climate change and the drumbeat of war, this is clearer than ever. Just as clear is the fact that the working class – who are now the vast majority in every part of the world – have no interest in this system. The potential power of this class is undiminishable for as long as capitalism exists. But the process of taking that power is not inevitable; for that we need politics and organisation. There is no better place to start than by reading these two texts.