Hal Draper’s edition of the Communist Manifesto with commentary strips away layers of falsifications and misconceptions to reveal afresh Marx’s meaning, finds Dominic Alexander
The Communist Manifesto is possibly the single most important document in the history of the international socialist movement. Its pithy combination of polemic and analysis has had the ability to inspire a global audience under a vast array of different conditions for well over a hundred and fifty years from its original publication in early 1848. This is testament to the way it is able to outline an essence of the experience and dynamics of capitalism, which have been an ever increasing commonality.
It is in this way almost a perfect example of popular political writing. It would seem to be an affront to its very nature for it to be presented as an object of scholarly analysis, with parallel columns of different versions across facing pages, and an extensive apparatus of line-by-line commentary. In the hands of a certain type of academic scholarship, that would indeed be deadly, but this project (originally published in 1994) was the creation of Hal Draper (1914-1990), the American labour organiser turned scholar who wrote the famous essay, ‘The Two Souls of Socialism’.
Draper was very alive to the political contexts and implications of the Manifesto, and what it has meant for labour and revolutionary politics ever since. His careful eye on the merest detail of difference between editions and translations turns out to be very revealing of the kind of politics that Marx and Engels pursued, that, sadly, too many socialists have failed to grasp ever since. If Draper can sometimes come over as waspishly critical of most socialist endeavours, it is always nevertheless worth paying attention to the arguments he was trying to convey.
The commentary on the Manifesto begins with the very title, which changed from its original ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ to the now more familiar ‘Communist Manifesto’ in the new edition of 1872 (p.53). The reason for this change was the shifting implications of the term ‘party’ across these years of rapidly developing working-class organisation. The term ‘party’ did not generally denote a formalised institution as such in the 1840s, but something closer to a current of opinion. The organisation for which Marx (primarily: p.11) and Engels wrote the Manifesto, the Communist League, was certainly not conceived of as ‘party’ as such. Indeed, their concern, as Draper argues it, was to move this group away from the conspiratorial tradition from which it sprang.
From Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals in 1796 to the Blanquists in the 1840s, revolutionaries had often thought in terms of seizing power on behalf of the working class. Marx and Engels had a very different approach in mind. Their understanding of the need for the socialist revolution to be one created by the action of the working class itself was vindicated by the immense strides made in working-class self-organisation by the 1870s. The Manifesto was not intended as the programme even of the Communist League in 1848, and it was still less so in the later edition. Rather it was intended to orientate all those in the workers’ movement for whom the struggle was a revolutionary, anti-capitalist one.
Sect vs party
In the nature of an edition like this, Draper’s commentary is not in the structure of an argument, but if there is a recurring theme, then it concerns Marx and Engels’ dialectical approach to the relationships of political organisation, theory and class struggle. Draper, here and elsewhere in his writing, is scathing about what he sees as the dominant tendency of Marxist and socialist organisations of the last two centuries to operate as sects. A sect differentiates itself from the political movement of the class through its distinctive set of doctrines, and awaits the moment when the class will become enlightened enough to convert to its views. Only then can the revolution proceed. This was not remotely Marx and Engels’ view of how communists should act. Rather, revolutionaries should be acting with the most energetic movements of the class, constructively fighting for working-class interests, while seeking to raise political understanding to higher levels.
This analysis, and others, are made clear precisely through the fine-grained scholarly approach allowed by this project, which paid scrupulous and insightful attention to the historical context. Indeed, it is in the commentary that the analysis of Marx and Engels’ differences from sectarian strategy are fleshed out. Towards the end of the Manifesto, they note that communists should ‘make commons cause’ with Chartists in England and ‘National Reformers’ in the US, despite the political limitations of these movements. Their intention was to identify:
‘in America and elsewhere … a class-based movement that was not simply a socialist sect, and were ready to hail it even though it was still far from socialist ideas, provided that it represented a working class in self-motion’ (p.323).
This put Marx and Engels at odds with a surprising number of leading socialists of the time, including the anarchist founding-father, Proudhon, who actually condemned trade unions and strike activity. Indeed, Proudhon approved of ‘the shooting of strikers by gendarmes’ (p.230). It was the authors of the Manifesto alone among theorists who proclaimed the central importance of the self-organising activity of the working class.
An enormous number of standard platitudes about the Manifesto are blown away through Draper’s close commentary, not least the notion that it was published without any impact at the time. It appeared in late February 1848, just as workers led a revolution in Paris against the ‘bourgeois monarchy’ of Louis Phillipe:
‘The stormy events of February accounted for much of Europe’s subsequent history … the same storm also conditioned the publishing history of the Manifesto … four printings of the first edition were run off, and a second edition called for, by April or May’ (p.22).
These early print runs were done in such a hurry that there was no time for corrections, and so there ‘was a large number of typos and defective letters in this first edition, remaining uncorrected through the printings’. It is true that the impact of the first edition of the Manifesto was limited by its German language-only publication, as during the conditions of European-wide revolution and upheaval, there were hardly the stable conditions lending themselves to the arrangement of translations, as had originally been planned. However, the German radical diaspora meant that it was published in instalments even in London: ‘The picture that is sometimes painted of a Manifesto that came out to total indifference and disappeared to oblivion is far from true’ (p.22).
The first English translation occurred in 1850, by Helen MacFarlane, a writer for the Red Republican, a ‘left Chartist organ published by George Julian Harney, then the leading voice of the revolutionary wing of the English movement’ (p.29). MacFarlane herself, it is deduced from her writing, was:
‘an ardent feminist, thoroughly emancipated and advanced in her expression; well-read in philosophy and an admirer of Hegel; and evidently a travelled woman as well, having witnessed the Vienna revolution in 1848’ (p.29).
Little is otherwise known about her, but her translation is the second column in the facing page printing of the Manifesto, the 1848 German edition being the first, the authorised English edition of 1888 being the third, and Draper’s own ‘new English translation’ being the fourth column.
Misrepresentations and misapprehensions
In the course of the discussion of the history of the different editions, Draper compiles an important, but also entertaining, evisceration of a selection of all the hostile and tendentious misquotation to which the Manifesto has been subject. Some of these have even come from other socialists, who wished to impose their views upon this most prestigious document of the workers’ movement. Thus the highly sectarian leader of the first ‘Marxist’ party in Britain, Henry Hyndman of the Social Democratic Federation ‘attributed to the Manifesto the Lassalle thesis’ that:
‘“opposed to us all other parties form a reactionary mass” … This Lassalleanism had appeared in the text of the Gotha Program of the German party in 1875, and had been denounced in Marx’s critique of that program. While Marx’s critique was not yet known [in English] in 1886, the important point is that the thesis was nowhere in the Manifesto’ (p.60).
This kind of thinking was to become a recurring mistake for the socialist movement in the future. The absurd Stalinist denunciation of the German Social-Democrats as ‘social fascists’, at a time when the entire German labour movement needed to unite against Nazism, particularly springs to mind as an example of dangerous, indeed disastrous sectarianism.
This misrepresentation is a telling instance more generally also. It illustrates how difficulties in access to translations, or even accurate editions, of Marx and Engels’ writings were the fuel for a whole range of misconceptions about their views. The mistakes that resulted were clearly not random, however, but the result of the predilections of individuals, whether they were anti-socialists or participants in labour movements.
The failure to understand that the revolution was ‘a matter of class dynamics, and not primarily as a vision of a certain New Social Order’ (p.230), seems to be part of many of the distortions introduced by various socialist figures. This issue goes back to the centrality of the self-organisation of the working class. Marx and Engels’ concern to be sensitive to the particular context of the working class in an individual country may have had a role in the notable differences between Helen MacFarlane’s translation and the one with which readers will be familiar.
Class and language
Her opening line of the Manifesto reads: ‘A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe’. The famous introduction also closes in this translation with a reference to ‘the bugbear of Communism’. These figures of folklore stood in for the now familiar ‘spectre’ of the later English translation (pp.110-11). Later on MacFarlane adds another folkloric image that is not present in the original version, or the later translation. Where the labourer is ‘set upon by other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker’, she adds ‘like so many harpies’ (pp.130-1). The vital resonances of these images will be lost to readers now, but it has been argued, against those who dislike this translation, that they would have spoken to working-class sensibilities of the time.[i] In a similar vein, the English radical working-class accusation that the bourgeoisie was no more than a ‘shopocracy’, even more vicious than the aristocracy, is reflected in MacFarlane’s deployment of the phrase ‘Shopocrat Socialism’ instead of the more technical term ‘petty bourgeois Socialism’ (pp.168-9).[ii]
Whatever their virtues, these variants have certainly been overridden by the later English translation, but seem to underline the importance of historical context even to the most basic aspects of the language of socialist analysis. Marxism created a new vocabulary of class in particular which has always been absolutely necessary in order to reveal the real workings of capitalist society. Also, however, it has meant that the language of Marxism can appear to be divorced from ordinary experience.
Helen MacFarlane’s translation is interesting here in the number of different solutions it adopts, sometimes using the term ‘bourgeois’, but at others the more English ‘middle class’, even to the point of referring to the ‘social system of the middle class’ instead of ‘bourgeois society’ (pp.126-7). Here, certainly, it is far preferable to insist on the need for the concept ‘bourgeois’, particularly now that the capitalist class and the actual middle strata are far more distinctly different social groups.
It is in these matters of class that Draper perhaps seems less than fully in tune with Marx’s use of the concepts. He claimed that the ‘terminology is not thought-through’ in some respects with regard to the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie (p.214). Where Marx talks of the labourer being set upon ‘by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker etc’ (paragraph 40 of the Manifesto, p.131), Draper objects that his terminology is sloppy:
‘If landlords and shopkeepers are to be taken as “bourgeois”, then the term is being used very loosely; and such usages are indeed characteristic of many parts of the Manifesto, as we have seen’ (p.226).
Now it is true that Marx was not writing technical sociology here, but Draper seems, uncharacteristically, not to be giving him credit for subtlety within the limits of popular writing. Class is not a fixed and positivistic position that can be defined by exact boundaries. Rather, it is a social relationship, and individuals are always bound within a mesh of different such connections. The result is a complex of social tendencies, not static categories. Social groups can be subject to contradictory forces, but one of the major points Marx was making in the Manifesto is that capitalism creates a tendency towards polarisation along a single opposition: that of capital and labour.
This, Marx is saying, makes capitalism different from earlier class societies, which all had tended to create a messy multitude of social ranks and sectors. Capitalism instead tends towards the standardisation and simplification of social relations around the commodity relationship. It never quite achieves a purity in this, as it retains countervailing forces that continually create new middle layers. This is the contradictory nature of the petty bourgeoisie, and its later analogues.
The petty bourgeoisie are beholden to the interests of capital in one respect, even though they are not true capitalists in another. They occupy a contradictory position, in which in one breath they are bourgeois, and in another they find themselves outside the magic circle of capital. In a less complex way, landowners were being absorbed fully into capital relations in Marx’s time; politically they may have been remnants of a pre-bourgeois order, but in practice their interests had become entwined with the larger interests of capital.
Marx is not therefore being sloppy or imprecise in his different usages of the term ‘bourgeoisie’ in the Manifesto. Rather he is being alive to the dialectical nature of social relations. Later on, Draper was in fact clear on the centrality of historical tendencies to Marx’s thinking. On the falsity of the claim that Marx was predicting the disappearance of the middle classes, he argued that ‘the Manifesto was not intended to be predictive, but rather to explain the tendencies of past and present’ (p.235). It is somewhat puzzling that Draper was not able to apply this principle to closely related sections of the commentary.
Marx and imperialism
In other areas, Draper brought out the subtleties of the writing in ways that very usefully refute various accusations that have been made about Marx and Engels’ attitudes. For example, the Manifesto has sometimes been accused of Eurocentric, even pro-colonialist and ‘ethnocentric’ views, on the basis of an admiration for capitalism’s disruptive and developmental impact on the world.[iii]
Draper emphasised that this is a misinterpretation. Marx’s formulation at the end of the famous paragraph describing the impact of capitalist trade makes clear his critical distance from imperialist attitudes. In Draper’s new translation it reads:
‘It [capitalism] forces all nations to adopt the mode of production of the bourgeoisie if they do not want to go under; it forces them to introduce so-called civilisation at home, i.e., to become bourgeois. In short, it creates a world after its own image’ (my emphasis, p.121).
Marx was very soon, in 1853, looking forward to ‘the effect the Chinese revolution seems likely to exercise upon the civilized world’, so never saw non-European societies as passive receivers of Western progress. Moreover, in the same article, Marx noted the ‘profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization’ (p.220). It seems very unlikely that this represents any profound change in attitude on his part, in respect of European imperialism, from the time of the Manifesto.
Although certainly recognising the tremendous possibilities opened up by technological advances, Marx was not, by any means, making any statement in the Manifesto about the superiority of Western ‘civilisation’. Draper commented: ‘For the mid-nineteenth century, the noteworthy contribution of the Manifesto … was to link the connotations of “civilisation” to bourgeois conceptions of progress’ (p.219). Thus, the use of the terms ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’ in the Manifesto should not be read as pejorative, or even quite as neutral, but as actively ironic. Closer attention to Marx’s habit of lacing his writing with irony, sarcasm and black humour would do much to clear up other similar misapprehensions elsewhere also.
Undoubtedly, one great value of a text of the Manifesto which contains one or even two unfamiliar translations, arranged for ease of flicking the eye between one and another, is to be able to read the Communist Manifesto afresh. It is a text that for many socialists is almost over-familiar, read many times, endlessly quoted and excerpted, and not always with great care. Yet, more than that, it is also a text that has been subject to the preconceptions of many readers over more than one hundred and fifty years, who have often seen in it the views that they wish to see, rather than what Marx and Engels actually meant.
Among many important discussions that Draper pursued in his commentary, the theme of working-class and socialist political organisation is perhaps the most important. Here, Draper revealed how many of the same problems and dynamics remain, and that far from being abstract theoreticians, Marx and Engels were closely concerned with strategies for mobilising the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. The Communist Manifesto therefore remains an essential text for achieving that goal.
i For the argument that the term ‘hobgoblin’ would have had resonance ‘as a central subversive trope in plebeian radicalism in England since at least the fifteenth century,’ see Thierry Drapeau, ‘The Frightful Hobgoblin against Empire: Karl Marx, Ernest Jones, and the World-Revolutionary Meaning of the 1857 Indian Uprising,’ Historical Materialism 27.4 (2019), pp.29-66, at p.39. Indeed, the point could be extended, as associations of faerie with the expression of social conflict against the violence of the powerful can be traced back to the twelfth century in English sources.
ii For example, the socialist journalist Henry Hetherington characterised the 1832 Reform Act as ‘an invitation to the shopocrats to join the Whigocrats to … make common cause with them in keeping down the people,’ cited in Eric Evans The Great Reform Act (Routledge 2008), p.58
iii See Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins (Chicago 2010), p.2.
Before you go...
Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).
More articles from this author
- What Britain Did to Nigeria - book review
- Economics as self-harm: why the Bank of England is risking stagflation
- The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution - book review
- Socialist Register 2022: New Polarisations, Old Contradictions, The Crisis of Centrism - book review
- The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity - book review
- Energy prices and the real cost of inflation
- Why is the labour theory of value so important? - explainer