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Karl Marx and Frederich Engels in lego form

Lego Marx and Engels. Photo: Andrew Becraft

The Communist Manifesto is a pamphlet that refuses to die. As incendiary as the day it was published, Paul Vernell unpacks this founding document

The striking thing about re-reading Marx's Communist Manifesto is how each time you return to it, it seems more not less relevant than the last time. Chillingly, it seems to be describing the globalised, war-torn, crisis-ridden world of the 21st century.

In many ways this is because it is a document ahead of its time, whist being firmly rooted in it. Its predictive power and vision are central to its resonance.

Economic crisis

Written at a time of economic crisis, the "hungry forties” - as the decade in which it was published became known - where in the larger cities of Western and Central Europe poverty and industrialisation were immiserating millions, there was clearly a real fear of revolution. Inside the ruling classes and the absolutist monarchies that by and large held sway, there was a recognition that the masses would not put up with their lot for much longer. There was a real fear, "a spectre haunting Europe", as the opening line of the Manifesto famously puts it, that the ruling class could not go on in the same way as before and that the masses would not put up any longer with the old order. Those in charge were right to be afraid.

After being commissioned to write the document on behalf of the League of Communists, uprisings and revolts erupted across Western and Central Europe in a manner not seen since. De Tocqueville, the French deputy, warned that, "the wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon".[1] He was right. In the few weeks after the Manifesto was published in February 1848, uprisings and rebellions had flared up from France to south west Germany and to Hungary; by March, they had spread to Northern Italy.[2]

Bourgeois and proletarians

The first section of the Manifesto, Bourgeois and Proletarians, is clearly talking about a recognisable world. It is a world in which the motor of history is identified as the class struggle. The chapter then breathlessly surveys the different forms classes have taken in different societies over time. “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to each other.” The battles between different classes drive change. Capitalism emerges from the interstices of feudal society but begins to come up against barriers to its development. These barriers are economic, legal and political, and struggles on all these fronts prepare the ground for revolution. In England this led to the civil war of 1642-9 where the monarch, Charles I, was overthrown in revolution and England’s first republic was established.

Praising capitalism

Marx next waxes lyrical about the productive power and expansion of capitalism and how a world market has been established. This new international division of labour is facilitated by the great technological innovations of the railway and the electric telegraph. This constant "revolutionising [of] the instruments of production" leads to changes in the relations of production destabilising everything. Relations of production, institutions, even ideas that had appeared to be fixed are shown to be mutable. As he poetically puts it, “All that is solid melts into air”.

The need to constantly expand the market for its products, induced by competitive accumulation, leads capitalism to spread "over the whole surface of the globe". This in turn affects not just production but consumption. A walk down any town or city street in the world today will reveal products made in one location from materials sourced from different parts of the world, transported by companies based in yet other countries.

One effect of all this is the great gains in communication systems that make the world feel smaller, and places in it closer: what one Marxist has called the experience of time-space compression.[3]

A further effect of the process that Marx describes is the ever-increasing centralisation of property and political control.[4] Disparate states, as in Germany and later Italy, for instance, are united. Laws and tariffs are harmonised.

The destructive power of capitalism and its overthrow

However, after the praise, the warning. The productive forces that are being developed eventually clash with the existing set-up. Crises of over-production, where markets are unable to absorb commodities, not because they are not needed but because no one has enough money for them or wants them. Lack of planning to meet needs leads to chaos. And this, Marx argues, is when society can "burst asunder". The ground for social revolution is actually prepared by capitalism itself.

Of course, the ruling class is not always aware of this development. It is crucial, Marx argues, that like previous ruling classes, it hides its own transitory nature. Just as slave owners and feudal landlords thought their way of doing things would always be around, the current ruling classes’ way of appropriating the surplus of production, the basis on which class society arises, is historical in character.[5]

Now some argue that Marx then falls into historical determinism by arguing that capitalism will inevitably collapse. And it is true that Marx does also talk about the inevitability of the revolution. Partly, the phraseology is a product, I would suggest, of the exciting times the young activists were living in, a calling to arms to those about to enter onto the stage of history, encouraging and offering hope.

Nonetheless, read carefully, it is clear that the Manifesto is about alternatives. In fact, Marx makes the point that many previous societies have collapsed because of the failure to revolutionise the productive relations leading to "the common ruin of the contending classes". He is clear that society is historical. Also, his famous image, which identifies the working class as the "gravedigger" of capitalism, is an image of agency, not fatalism.[6]

The second half of the text makes clear the need for action. It is a call to arms in the struggle to over throw absolutism and establish democracy. The originality, however, is in the identification of the working class as the agent of change. Even though Marx recognised that the rising bourgeoisie had a vested interest in ridding itself of the vestiges of feudalism to allow the pursuit of their interests untrammelled, the fear of what power might be unleashed and what might happen next makes the bourgeoisie untrustworthy allies. Marx realised that as capitalism has laid the foundations for the creation of the proletariat, that the fight for socialist revolution would follow on immediately after the democratic revolutions had been won.

Alternative views

In the third section of the text, Socialist and Communist Literature, others who were critical of some of the effects of capitalism on workers are the subject of withering criticism by Marx. In many ways, this today is the most challenging section of the book, as it is a polemic against different strands of thought specific to the time. Engels himself in 1872 recognised that it might be unintelligible to new readers.

Nevertheless, there are some general points that are still useful. Firstly, Marx is scathing of those who look back nostalgically to a supposed better past and want society’s clock turned back, a sort of 19th century Faragism.

The next variant - Marx calls it “Petty-Bourgeois socialism” - is a cry from small business, squeezed between capital’s power and the working class, terrified that at any moment they too might be “hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition.”

This analysis, of what he titles Reactionary Socialism, is then followed by a more familiar brand of socialism that is often expressed by the intellectuals of the bourgeoisie. These people want to redress some of the unpleasant side effects of capitalist development, not realising that the supposed ‘good’ features are a result of the unpleasant ones. In short, the 1% prosper because the 99% don’t. Today, these types can often be found writing for the Guardian newspaper.

Finally, he comes to the utopian socialists. These were people like Robert Owen in Britain and Fourier in France, who saw the working class as only a “suffering class”, not a fighting one. These thinkers view the working class as passive, and they planned social experiments - colonies of socialism - planted on the land of capitalism.

Marx was more sympathetic towards them as they had interesting and relevant things to say about the abolition of the division “between town and country, of the family” and the wage system. Nevertheless, they were against political action and ultimately positioned themselves against the most advanced elements of the rising working class, such as the Chartists in England.

Political organisation

The reason then that Marx places the working class as the active subject of this process was not based on a sentimental view that as the most suffering class it had the most to gain. The fact that capitalism organises the proletariat into collective units forced to co-operate to effectively produce surplus value, means that real power lies in the workplace. The position of the working class in the relations of production meant that it was able to take on the role of leading all oppressed classes, as when it overthrows its exploitation the whole way of extracting a surplus out of all other oppressed classes is halted because production can be socialised and planned.

This leads Marx on to defining the role of the Communist Party. Much has been written about the word ‘party’ and it is clear that at the time of publication, the types of political parties we know today did not exist. They were more loose networks than the organised membership organisations we know today. It is only with the expansion of the franchise during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the need to manage and massage electoral victories, that mass membership parties become a feature.

The meaning of the word ‘party’ shifts in Marx’s work but in the Manifesto it takes on the meaning of tendency.[7] We can see this when he writes that the Communists do not set themselves apart from other parties. This does not mean that in the struggle alongside other working-class parties - he refers to the Chartists for instance - that Communists should keep their disagreements on questions of strategy and tactics hidden. Implicit here is an approach which today we would call an example of the united front: simultaneously working with and challenging other working-class organisations in activity.[8]

Thus, the strength of the Manifesto is that following on from its clear vision of the trajectory of capitalist development and the endemic crises integral to it, Marx develops a non-propagandist, non-sectarian approach to building an anti-capitalist movement.

Workers ideas change in struggle

At the heart of this approach is internationalism. As the well-known last line proclaims, “Working men of all countries unite!”. Radical positions on nationality and religion were also combined with progressive views on women’s oppression.

Marx realises the effect of private property on marriage and the family. The outrage expressed by those who feared the Communists’ call for the abolition of the family was hypocritical, he argues, as the working-class family had in reality been destroyed by the work demands of industrialisation, with children and women working long hours down mines and in factories. His critique is aimed at the fact that marriage was based on property and inheritance.[9]

Here the Manifesto shows that the dominant ideas in society are an expression of a particular economic set-up working to defend those who controlled production. Ideas are seen by Marx as changing when the system of production changes. Of course, there are ideas that challenged the system to varying degrees, but as the ruling class owned or controlled the means of mental production - the schools, media, church etc. - the dominant ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class.

Here the question is raised again about agency and determination. If the ideas of the ruling class serve to reproduce the status quo and justify the prejudices of society, then how can workers develop a consciousness to overthrow it when they have not got control of the ideological apparatuses in society? This is a question that socialists even today have to confront from those critical of the possibility of radical change.

The Manifesto makes it clear that communists fight for the immediate interests of the working class whilst linking that to the need to overthrow the whole of society, supporting every revolutionary movement against the social order. Marx was to argue earlier in his 'Theses on Feuerbach' that in this struggle, what starts off as a fight for reform, better pay, conditions, pensions, can be generalised and in changing the circumstances in which they find themselves, workers change themselves, throwing off the ideological baggage handed down the chains of ideological command, discovering the old ideas to be wanting, ineffective in securing success. The racist worker who strikes against his boss learns quickly that on the picket line s/he has to link arms with workers of other nationalities or religions or divided s/he will not win. Workers ideas change en masse in struggle.[10]

The Communist Manifesto then is still relevant today, and perhaps more so. Marx notes the destructive power of capitalism, comparing it to a sorcerer who is no “longer able to control the powers of the underworld he has called up”. After two world wars, genocide, hunger and famine, a refugee crisis - the likes of which we have not seen since the Second World War - nuclear proliferation and environmental damage, the destructive power of capitalism is clearer today. There is a real choice, the Manifesto argues: socialism or barbarism. Neither are inevitable.


[1] The Age of Capital 1845-1875, Hobsbawm, E.J. Abacus,1977, p.21.

[2] Ibid, p.22.

[3] The Condition of Post-Modernity, Harvey, David. Blackwell 1989, pp.260-263.

[4] Reflections on The Communist Manifesto, German, L, in International Socialism Journal 79, pp.16-17.

[5] Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol 1. Draper, H. Modern Review Press 1977, p.16.

[6] How to Change the World, Hobsbawm, E.J. Little Brown, 2011, p.119.

[7] Marxism and the Party, Molyneux, J. Bookmarks, 1986 p.17.

[8] Ibid. p.17.

[9] See L. German op cit, p.23.

[10] ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ in Early Writings,  Marx, K, Penguin, 1975 p.442.

Paul Vernell

Paul Vernell

Paul Vernell is a long-standing socialist and NUT representative in a South Gloucestershire Multi-Academy Trust. He has written on trade unions, education and critical pedagogy. He blogs at In the City.


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