Celebrating 175 years of The Communist Manifesto
Written by: Humphrey McQueen on 27 March 2023
Australian Marxist historian Humphrey McQueen looks at the beauty (for us) and the terror (for the class enemy) of the most important work of the last couple of centuries – The Communist Manifesto -eds.
Celebrating 175 years of The Communist Manifesto
Marx and Engels composed The Communist Manifesto in a revolutionary surge. The Chartists had rocked the United Kingdom throughout the 1840s before the years from 1848 to 1851 saw uprisings across Europe, from Ireland to Poland. Engels fought on the battlefront in south-west Germany. Richard Wagner heaved a piano onto the barricades in Dresden. Marx had been forced into exile because of his writings. In July 1847, he organizes the Communist League which commissions The Manifesto, published in February 1848.
Poetry in motion
Parts I and II are a prose poem – perhaps the world’s first prose poem as Marshall Berman shows in All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982). The energy of its style captures the power of the subject matter. In preparing this Missile, I found myself reciting The Manifesto aloud. It lends itself to declamation, helping Berthold Brecht to shape the text into a cantata with music by his fellow Communist, Hanns Eisler.
The opening pages are a paean of praise for capitalism, and could be called ‘A capitalist manifesto’:
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part …
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.
Marx and Engels go on to reveal how capitalism makes possible its opposite in communism.
One trap in approaching the Manifesto is that its pace sweeps us along so that we miss much of what Marx and Engels are saying. We need to apply the brakes, starting with its opening sentence:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Stirring words. But wrong. Forty years later, Engels adds a footnote since not all history has been class struggle – only ‘all written history.’ Human beings had been remaking ourselves for tens of thousands of years before classes emerged. No classes struggled on the Australian continent before the late 1700s. Engels’s correction does not go far enough. What he calls ‘written history’ came after the emergence of classes. Evidence about earlier epochs is from archeology, not written records. Objects tell us next-to-nothing about what their makers thought or how their societies were organised.
Their first paragraph goes on:
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, Guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another,
What divided them? The pairings are of economic categories, which Marx and Engels sum up in terms of oppression, which indicates a broader set of power relationships. Although they do not say so, we can sense the long arm of the state enforcing economic relations. They describe the conflicts as ‘constant’ which means that they go on all the time. Then they introduce a vital qualification. The struggle might be relentless but it takes different forms:
carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight,
To be an historical materialist is to reject explanations which impose an ‘eternal, natural and universal’ order on human activity. The question around each time and in every place is ‘how more exactly?’
Since the struggle is relentless, one more point needs to be drawn out from ‘uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight’
The class struggle is not a pantomime dragon, stirring itself for the final act but otherwise snoozing through the drama. 1789, 1848, 1917 and 1949 manifested class conflict. Under capitalism, however, the struggle goes on every second of every day – and throughout the night. Working longer, working harder, working broken shifts, being out of work – all impact on the quality of our sleep, our dreams, our sex lives and our sociability.
At the end of the first paragraph, Marx and Engels have a further shock in store. They see that the class struggle is ‘a fight’ which can end
in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large
to which they devote their lives. But what happens if we do not win? The answer is grim:
the common ruin of the contending classes.
Progress is not inevitable. Marx and Engels never fell for the cheery view that things, by and large, get better and better. They knew too much about the Ancient World to suppose that life always improves - more or less – and if not soon then later. A glorious socialist future is no sure bet. Like every other advance, its likelihood depends on how each side wages the class struggle, changing and interpreting our circumstances as we go.
A fighting program
The Manifesto sweeps across thousands of years before proposing ten immediate demands. They ‘will be different in different countries.’ Once more, there can be no eternal, natural or universal. Four of the ten relate to agriculture, which might come as a bit of a surprise. Marx always includes agriculture under his definition of ‘industrial,’ (I: ) having learnt not to restrict ‘industrial’ to steam-powered factories.
Their final proposal might also shock. After insisting on the
Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form
they call for the
Combination of education with industrial production, etc. etc.
How does that differ from the bleats out of today’s employers and so-called education ministers for schools to mass produce students who are ‘job-ready’?
Marx makes the same call nearly thirty years later:
‘… an early combination of productive labour with education is one of the most potent means for the transformation of present-day society.’
I suspect that a few Marxists also might be taken aback.
These proposals are expressions of historical materialism. The German Ideology dealt with the links between with interpreting the world and changing it. Here, Marx and Engels apply that insight to education. We learn by doing. That Marx and Engels could not know how exactly that precept should be put into practice is clear from their lapse into ‘etc. etc’. Only by doing could they fulfil the third ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’: ‘The educator must be educated.’
To put The Manifesto into effect in the 2020s we must follow its lead with demands related to everyday life. The immediate and ceaseless concerns for working people are the ‘Five Pillars’ of housing, transport, work, health and education. The sixth is to weave the environment into each. Our bio-system is not a thousand miles away from our daily doings, in worksites and wildernesses, backyards and the Barrier Reef, front streets as well as forests.
The seventh pillar is the limited freedom to protest and to strike that our class has won from the capitalists and their state. Without them we cannot defend what we have left of the five pillars or keep advancing our needs.
Deciphering the text
Slow reading alone is not enough to enjoy the ingredients that Marx and Engels stir into the rich pudding of The Manifesto. Their text is a short course on Western thought since the Greeks. In a notorious passage, Marx and Engels praise capitalism because it has
rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.
The phrase ‘rural idiocy’ is not a swipe at people who live in the countryside for being naturally stupid. It combines Aristotle and Rousseau.
‘Idiocy’ is not an IQ score. Aristotle is the source for the term ‘idiocy’ in contrast to his view of humans as ‘political, social animal.’ For him, only the active citizen could be fully human. This view links to The Manifesto’s call to even up the conditions of urban and rural life.
The ‘idiocy of rural life’ whacks Rousseau for whom the ‘state of nature’ is happy and free while society corrupts. No. As Marx puts it in Capital: even if we are not Aristotle’s political animals, we are ‘at all events a social animal.’ Not Robinson Crusoe. Without society, there can be no speech. Only through interacting with others do we become human.
Helen Macfarlane made the first English translation in 1850. Engels supervised an English edition in 1888, with adjustments and corrections. A few of those which are significant. All the editions on offer today indicate these improvements. If all you want are the thirty pages of the text, pick any version to download from the Marx Archive.
To locate The Manifesto in its historical context, however, two other considerations come into play. First, how insightful is its ‘Introduction’? Secondly, how much supporting material is given? On both those criteria, the 1971 edition from International Publishers in New York wins hands-down. The editor was the Dirk J Struik, a Dutch-born Marxist, mathematician and historian of mathematics and of technology, who provides a seventy-page Introduction and ninety pages of related writings by Marx and Engels.
Read The Manifesto at full belt for its thrills. Go back and ponder it sentence by sentence – savour phrase after phrase. Be richly rewarded.
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