Marx and the Communist Manifesto

This month marks a key anniversary in the development of scientific socialism. One hundred and fifty years ago the most famous document of the Marxist movement was produced: The Manifesto of the Communist Party, written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

The decision to produce such a document was taken at the second congress of the Communist League, which took place at the end of November and the beginning of December 1847 in London. Marx and Engels came there from Brussels to present their views on modern communism and to speak about the League's attitude to the workers' movement generally. According to Friedrich Lessner, who was a close friend of Marx and Engels, "The meetings, which, naturally, were held in the evenings, were attended by delegates only... Soon we learned that after long debates, the congress had unanimously backed the principles of Marx and Engels..." The Rules were finally adopted on December 8, 1847, when, too, the question of programme was settled. "All contradictions and doubts," Engels recalled years later, "were finally set at rest, the new basic principles were unanimously adopted, and Marx and I were commissioned to draw up the Manifesto."

The precise venue of the congress was in the Red Lion public house, Great Windmill Street, Piccadilly. Today a plaque commemorating the event hangs in the pub. Marx and Engels later described this congress as the first international congress of the working class.

In a speech given to the Fraternal Democrats on 29th November 1847, Engels explained the basis of their outlook: "Because the condition of the workers of all countries is the same, because their interests are the same, their enemies the same, they must also fight together, they must oppose the brotherhood of the bourgeoisie of all nations with a brotherhood of the workers of all nations."

After the congress, Marx and Engels returned to Brussels and worked jointly on the Communist Manifesto in the latter half of December. The ideas in the Manifesto were developed by Marx and Engels earlier on. In June 1847, Engels had drafted a document, which after further preparation and revision for the coming second congress of the League, became known as the "Principles of Communism". This draft was in the form of a catechism, which was used at the time in propaganda. At the end of November Engels approached Marx: "... Think over the confession of faith. I believe we had better drop the catechism form and call the thing: Communist Manifesto. As more or less history has got to be related in it the form it has been in hitherto is quite unsuitable..." Both agreed on the change and the format the Manifesto would take.

However, according to Franz Mehring, "Neither of them seems to have been in a hurry to carry out the task with which they had been instructed, and on 24th of January 1848 the Central Committee of the Communist League sent an energetic warning to the district committee in Brussels threatening measures against citizen Marx unless the Manifesto of the Communist Party which he had agreed to draw up was in the hands of the Central Committee by the 1st of February." Mehring is also puzzled by the delay and suggests: "It is hardly possible to discover now what caused the delay, perhaps it was the thorough fashion in which Marx was accustomed to carry out everything he undertook, perhaps it was the separation from Engels, or perhaps the Londoners grew impatient when they heard that Marx was zealously continuing his propaganda in Brussels."

Nevertheless, by the end of January 1848, the manuscript of the Manifesto was sent to the Central Authority of the Communist League in London. In February 1848, the book was printed at a small printing shop at 46 Liverpool Street belonging to J. E. Burghard, a member of the Communist League. The initial print run in the German language was 1,000 copies.

The booklet appeared on the eve of Europe's chain of revolutions. In England there was no revolution, although the British ruling class were terrified by the possibilities of such a development. The great Chartist movement began to stir again. Two years later the Manifesto was translated into English and published in the Red Republican, edited by the Chartist Julian Harney.

The Communist Manifesto became, in the words of Engels, a "common programme accepted by millions of workers from Siberia to California." In summing up the significance of the Manifesto, Lenin, who continued to develop the ideas of Marxism, wrote: "With the clarity and brilliance of genius, this work outlines a new world-conception, consistent materialism, which also embraces the realm of social life; dialectics, as the most comprehensive and profound doctrine of development; the theory of the class struggle and of the world-historic revolutionary role of the proletariat - the creator of a new, communist society." He went on to explain that: "This little booklet is worth whole volumes: to this day its spirit inspires and guides the entire organised and fighting proletariat of the civilised world."

by Rob Sewell
London February 1998