The Labour Party and the Communist Manifesto

In 1947 the Labour Party decided to reprint the Communist Manifesto, with an historical introduction by Harold Laski, to mark the document's centenary. We're reprinting the foreword to reflect just how significant Marxism has been within the British labour and trade union movement. The Labour Party didn't see the Manifesto as just another historical document, as can be seen clearly in the text. It was a document vitally relevant to the policies of the 1945 Labour government.

Of course, the present Labour leadership would rather forget such things. Their programme is not measured against the ideas of the Manifesto, but against the policies of the former Tory government and the doctrines of the "market". The radicalism and reformism of the 1945 government has been replaced by the counter reforms of the present Labour administration.

But whatever the Blair leadership do they can never break the links between Marxism and British working class. Marxists like Tom Mann and Will Thorne helped set up the modern trade union movement. John Maclean and James Connoly were both products of the socialist movement at the turn of the century. These facts alone disprove the old adage that the movement in Britain "owes more to methodism than to Marxism."

Marx and Engels made their home in Britain, the first industrial nation, and it played a central part in their lives. They used its economy as the basis of their economic analysis.

Today, with the wholesale adoption of "market capitalism" by the Labour leadership, the ideas of Marxism are more important than ever as the only way of understanding and analysing what's really going on in society. As we stand on the brink of the twenty first century those ideas will emerge as the only viable alternative to the chaos and anarchy of capitalism.

Foreword to the 1947 Labour Party edition of the Communist Manifesto

In presenting this centenary volume of the Communist Manifesto, with the valuable Historical Introduction by Professor Laski, the Labour Party acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two men who have been the inspiration of the whole working class movement.

The British Labour Party has its roots in the history of Britain. The Levellers, Chartists, Christian Socialists, the Fabians and many other bodies, all made it possible to carry theory into practice. John Ball, Robert Owen, William Morris, Keir Hardie, John Burns, Sydney Webb, and many more British men and women have played outstanding parts in the development of socialist thought and organisation. But British socialists have never isolated themselves from their fellows on the continent of Europe. Our own ideas have been different from those of continental socialism which stemmed more directly from Marx, but we, too, have been influenced in a hundred ways by European thinkers and fighters, and, above all, by the authors of the Manifesto.

Britain played a large part in the lives and work of both Marx and Engels. Marx spent most of his adult life here and is buried in Highgate cemetery. Engels was a child of Manchester, the very symbol of capitalist industrialism. When they wrote of bourgeois exploitation they were drawing mainly on English experience.

The authors were the first to admit that principles must be applied in the light of existing conditions, but even the detailed programme they put forward is of great interest to us. Abolition of private property in land has long been a demand of the Labour movement. A heavy progressive income tax is being enforced by the present Labour government as a means of achieving social justice. We have gone far towards the abolition of the right of inheritance by our heavy death duties. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state is partially attained in the Bank of England and other measures. We have largely nationalised the means of communication while extending public ownership of the factories and instruments of production. We have declared the equal obligation of all to work. We are engaged in redressing the balance between town and country, between industry and agriculture. Finally, we have largely established free education for all children in publicly-owned schools. Who, remembering that these were the demands of the Manifesto, can doubt our common inspiration.

Finally, a word about the introduction. in his preface to the 1922 Russian edition of the Manifesto, Riazanov pointed out that a commentary would need to do three things:

  1. To give the history of the social and revolutionary movement which called the Manifesto into life as the programme of the first international communist organisation.
  2. To trace the genesis, the source, of the basic ideas contained in the Manifesto, to show their place in the history of thought, to bring out what was new in the philosophy of Marx and Engels, what differentiates them from earlier thinkers.
  3. To indicate to what extent the Manifesto stands the test of historical criticism and how far it needs amplification and correction in certain points.

Riazanov did not produce such a massive work; Professor Laski has gone far towards it, and we look forward to the further material he promises. Since his publication of Communism, twenty years ago, he has been the foremost English authority on the subject. It is unnecessary to do more than command to all the present scholarly Introduction which he has presented to the Labour Party for this special centenary edition of the Manifesto.

November 1947