Through most of the twentieth century, the importance of The Communist Manifesto was uncontested. It was important not because of its intrinsic merits, but because of the brute facts of world politics. In the twenty or thirty years after 1950, millions in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Eastern Europe lived under communist rule. Millions more, whether engaged in civil wars in Southern Africa, Latin America and South East Asia or in political struggles in France, Greece, Italy or Portugal, lived in countries in which communism was a powerful and inescapable presence.
In Western Europe communism was rejected as unacceptably authoritarian. But, strange though it now seems, until the 1960s it continued to be identified with an image of ruthless and energetic modernity. At the time of the Soviet five-year plans in the 1930s it had been thought to possess an answer to mass unemployment. Through to the 1970s it was widely believed to have the most effective solutions to economic backwardness. In many parts of the Third World national liberation and anti-colonial movements concocted their creeds from a mixture of Marxism and nationalism, while even in Northern and Western Europe, a blend of Keynesian-ism and moderate versions of socialist planning appeared to be in the ascendant. In Britain in 1964, for example, the prime minister, Mr Wilson, as champion of the forces of modernity, believed he had to produce a 'national plan' to regenerate the country. Only in the United States – and even there, only after a sustained period of persecution in the McCarthy era – did the population appear immune to the appeal of socialism. Clearly, therefore, an understanding of the modern world appeared to require a knowledge of Marx; and Marx's message was most memorably set out in The Communist Manifesto.
But in the 1980s and 1990s the political landscape of this mid twentieth-century world was transformed beyond recognition. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 and the extinction of communist parties everywhere outside China and South East Asia brought to an abrupt end a 'Cold War' that most had come to accept as part of the order of things. No one had anticipated that communism would make such a rapid and undignified exit from history.
Socialist and Social-Democratic parties had also been forced onto the defensive. From the time of the events in Paris in May 1968 libertarian and anti-authoritarian movements had emerged both on the left and on the right. The rise of a new and more aggressive laissez-faire conservatism, spearheaded by Mrs Thatcher in Britain and President Reagan in the United States, brought to an end the post-Second World War consensus built upon exchange stability, full employment and social security. At the same time, the electoral basis of social democracy began to break up as traditional industrial occupations throughout the developed world disappeared in the face of a shift of manufacture to the Third World. In addition, developments in electronics and information technology led to the down-sizing of corporations, the casualization of office employment and yet more shedding of manual labour. In the new era, a growing prosperity of the majority of wage earners in the advanced economies was accompanied by increasing insecurity and the emergence of an underclass lacking any useful function in the post-industrial economy. Traditional socialist and social-democratic aspirations to shape the economy or to redistribute wealth were all but abandoned.
The increase in female employment has made the language of the Manifesto appear dated: appeals for the unity of 'working men' have all but ceased. The growth of more individualized political concerns and the proliferation of single-issue campaigns have made the ambition to turn the working class into a party appear incomprehensible. Belief in the possibility or even the desirability of a future communist society has become extinct. In this new era the Manifesto can no longer command automatic attention and its importance needs to be thought out afresh. Will it become one of a very small number of political texts – Plato's Republic, Machiavelli's Prince, Hobbes's Leviathan, Rousseau's Social Contract may be others – that even centuries after their original composition still retain their power to shock? Or will it, like the communist movement it once inspired, shrink in importance until it is little more than an object of curiosity for specialists in the history of political thought?
To this question, there is one simple answer. The Manifesto will remain a classic, if only because of its brief but still quite unsurpassed depiction of modern capitalism. Marx was the first to evoke the seemingly limitless powers of the modern economy and its truly global reach. He was first to chart the staggering transformation produced in less than a century by the emergence of a world market and the unleashing of the unparalleled productive powers of modern industry. He also delineated the endlessly inchoate, incessantly restless and unfinished character of modern capitalism as a phenomenon. He emphasized its inherent tendency to invent new needs and the means to satisfy them, its subversion of all inherited cultural practices and beliefs, its disregard of all boundaries, whether sacred or secular, its destabilization of every hallowed hierarchy, whether of ruler and ruled, man and woman or parent and child, its turning of everything into an object for sale.
In short, the Manifesto sketches a vision of reality that, at the start of a new millennium and against a background of endless chatter about globalization and deregulation, looks as powerful and contemporary a picture of our own world as it might have appeared to those reading it in 1848.
In the period before 1870, political economists were slow to recognize the transforming power of industrialization because they remained haunted by fears of overpopulation and the spectre of diminishing returns.¹ It was left to socialists in the 1830s and 1840s, particularly the followers of Robert Owen, as apostles of what was then called 'social science', to identify themselves with the prospect of abundance and the possibility of a society freed from scarcity. But these potentialities were identified with science and cooperation. They were not usually associated with the market, which was denounced as a system of unequal exchange, of the 'war of all against all' or of 'buying cheap and selling dear'. From this position it was easy to slip back into a nostalgia for a 'simpler' society with predictable expectations and fixed needs. What was unusual, if not unique, about the Manifesto – and this is by no means true of all Marx's other writings – was its unflinchingly modernist vision, in which the capitalist world market was not simply identified with destabilization and exploitation but also with a liberating power, the power to release people from backwardness and tradition-bound dependence.
The continual process of innovation, the incessant invention of new needs and the creation of new markets have not ceased since the time the Manifesto was written. The tendency towards limitless expansion remains, even if it is now hindered by environmental dangers, as it once was by diminishing returns. Communism, as subsequent history was to prove, was not the answer to the contradictory tendencies at work in the world depicted by the Manifesto. But, whatever is said about the rest of the Manifesto, its great achievement was to have built its theory upon a highly distinctive and strikingly novel vision of the modern world that, for all the immense changes of a century and a half, still remains visibly our own.
The case for the historical importance of the Manifesto is also powerful. For a century or more, its now seemingly extraordinary theory of history as a class struggle leading inevitably towards the triumph of world communism constituted a credo embraced by tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of adherents in every
1. On the continuing fear of diminishing returns, see in particular E. A. Wrigley, Continuity, Chance and Change: the Character of the Industrial Revolution in England, Cambridge, 1988; on the lateness of a recognition of an 'industrial revolution' among economists, see D. C. Coleman, Myth, History and the Industrial Revolution, London, 1992, pp. 1–42.
part of the world. Enunciated not as a statement of principle or an expression of desire, but as a set of predictions, the formulations of the Manifesto underpinned the creation of a worldwide labour movement in the last third of the nineteenth century and, in the twentieth century, fuelled many of the political struggles – and not a few of the wars – that tore the world apart from 1917 to 1989.
A more diluted form of the view of history expressed in the Manifesto also made an impact far beyond the ranks of socialists and communists. It profoundly affected both the writing of history and the understanding of society among those without any direct acquaintance with the works of Marx. In place of a battle of ideas and creeds, it substituted the clash of social forces judged according to the goal of imminent or eventual social revolution. The 'materialist conception of history' that Marx and Engels applied to the history of communism in the Manifesto also gained wide acceptance beyond the ranks of communists, and it was to generate a mode of social and historical understanding which continues even after communism itself has begun to fade into history.
Even now, for example, a spectrum stretching from despairing veterans of the 'old left' to brash new champions of the free-enterprise right have appeared to agree that the development of world capitalism encountered only one major challenge in its history, that of revolutionary socialism representing the industrial working class. Both groups appear to conclude that with the final overcoming of this challenge, the future progress of an unconstrained and fully globalized capitalism will proceed unimpeded.
If this short-term stocktaking after the Cold War reveals the lingering after-effects of the Manifesto, so perhaps at a more stylish level does the stance adopted by a certain strand of post-modernist writing. This is the approach of all those French and American theorists who have concluded that because the class struggle over communism is over, history itself must have come to an end. One way to counter such conclusions is to point out that challenges to the global development of laissez-faire capitalism did not begin with industrialization and revolutionary socialism. Nor is it likely that the collapse of communism and the end of the industrial epoch will bring about their disappearance.
Already the end of the old millennium has witnessed the beginnings of other and differently inspired attempts to set the global economic system within a more sustainable and ethically acceptable framework.
But the best answer to this kind of post-modernism is to draw attention to the now forgotten sequence of events which resulted in the construction of the grand historical narrative associated with Marx. An investigation into the construction of the Manifesto can explain how this still compelling vision of the world was first stitched together. Such an explanation requires the telling of a rather lengthy and complicated story. But the story is important because it makes clear that much of what was first put forward in the Manifesto and later accepted as a commonsense understanding of the making of the modern world belongs more to the realm of mythology than fact.
In particular, such an account will show that what became Marxian socialism in Germany in the beginning had nothing to do with industrialization or the social and political aspirations of industrial workers. On the contrary, it emerged from debates among radical disciples of the German philosopher Hegel, about what should replace Christianity or Hegel's rationalized variant of it, 'absolute spirit'. Furthermore, when seen in a larger European perspective this emergence of German socialism out of a movement of religious reform was not particularly surprising. Socialism had also emerged out of post-Christian movements of religious reform in Britain and France at the beginning of the nineteenth century.²
2. In France, the origins of what came to be called socialism went back to the 1790s, the decade of the French Revolution, and the search for a replacement for the Christian religion, which, it was hoped, would disappear like the monarchy. Socialism – the 'harmony' of Fourier or 'the religion of Newton' (later 'the new Christianity' of Saint-Simon) – was to provide 'the spiritual power' once possessed by the Catholic Church. In Britain, 'the new moral world' promised by Robert Owen was presented without irony as a message from the second Messiah. The 'rational religion' of the Owenites was a direct extension of the eighteenth-century tradition of rational dissent. It was put forward as the scientific replacement of traditional Christianity based upon original sin. What distinguished the German path from religious reform to Marxian socialism was not a difference in kind from the process that had produced so-called 'utopian socialism' in France and Britain, but a difference between preceding religious and philosophical traditions. This account of the origins of socialism is elaborated in my forthcoming work, Before God Died: The Rise and Fall of the Socialist Utopia.
In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels made a successful effort to cover over these religious tracks and to set in their place a socio-economic genealogy appropriate to their new communist self-image. In fact, as this introduction will show, they not only wrote out the religious prehistory of communism, but also any form of intellectual prehistory. There was therefore no mention of the Manifesto's intellectual debt to German classical historians, nor to the so-called 'German Historical School of Law' on the history of forms of ownership, to Adam Smith or Simonde de Sismondi on the operation of commercial society, to Proudhon's criticism of both property and community, to the development within the seventeenth-century natural law tradition of a historical conception, both of community and of private property. In the drafting of the Manifesto, any reference to these ideas, religious or secular, disappeared. Attention was deflected from socialist or communist ideas to the social forces supposedly represented by them. In this way, the history of socialism or communism appeared to become synonymous with the emergence of the industrial proletariat and the transition to modern society, starting from the industrial revolution in Britain and spreading to Europe and North America. Wars and revolutions became by-products of the social and political struggles engendered by the global industrializing process.
But despite the Manifesto, socialism or communism was never to become synonymous with the outlook of the 'proletariat'. The speculative or quasi-religious origins and character of socialist creeds, including that built upon the pronouncements of the Manifesto itself, continued to shine through the laboriously elaborated socioeconomic facade. It was not the mere fact of proletarianization that generated the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century, but the experiences of social and political upheaval, shaped and articulated through the militant and apocalyptic languages of communism or revolutionary socialism. For this reason, historians have rightly likened the passions, intransigence and extremism of twentieth-century revolutions to the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Similar reasoning also needs to be applied to the question of socialist decline in the second half of the twentieth century. Although the crises of socialist doctrine and the collapse of communist states were clearly hastened by political, military and socio-economic factors, the marked secularization of political beliefs in the decades after 1950 was equally important. The end of communism was not 'the end of history', but the end of an epoch in which criticism of global capitalism overlapped with the rise and fall of a powerful and organized post-Christian religion that, in the name of science, addressed itself to the oppressed.
The last general point to be made about the continuing historical importance of the Manifesto concerns its power as a text, its rhetorical force. Its claims and slogans were remembered even by those who had never read it – 'A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism' . . . 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles' . . . 'Proletarians have nothing to lose except their chains' . . . 'WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!'
But the power of the Manifesto did not simply consist of these memorable phrases. Nor could it be claimed that its impact derived from its overall design. The last section was hurriedly jotted down and looks unfinished, while the third section, despite its occasionally brilliant jibes, is arbitrary and sectarian. Undoubtedly, then, its power is concentrated in the first two sections. Propelled forward by the caustic and apparently undeviating logic of its argument, and enlivened by its startling rhetorical shifts, each paragraph still preserves the capacity to surprise and disconcert.
Even now – and certainly in the 1840s – readers of a 'manifesto' might have expected to find (as they would have found in an earlier draft composed by Frederick Engels) a declaration of 'The Principles of Communism', or even (in a yet earlier version proposed by another member of the Communist League, Moses Hess) 'A Communist Confession'.³ In the 1840s, as will become clear, communism was overwhelmingly identified either with radical traditions of Christianity or
3. See F. Engels, 'Principles of Communism', in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, CollectedWorks, London, 1976 – (hereafter MECW), vol. 1, pp. 341–58; Moses Hess, 'Kommunistisches Bekenntniss in Fragen und Antworten', in W. Mo¨nke (ed.), Moses Hess, Philosophische undSozialistische Schriften 1837–1850, Vaduz, 1980, pp. 359–71.
with the extremes of Jacobin rationalism deriving from the French Revolution. The starting point of the Manifesto is quite different. It opens with a sustained tribute to its declared antagonist – the very epitome of private property and egoism – the 'bourgeoisie' and 'modern bourgeois society'. The 'bourgeoisie' had 'accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals'. In a mere hundred years, it had 'created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together'. If 'modern bourgeois society' were now approaching its end and about to yield to its opposite, communism, it was not because of the failings of the bourgeoisie, but because of its triumphs.
This end was nigh. 'Like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells', the bourgeoisie, through the very magnitude of the material advance which it had accomplished, had 'forged the weapons that bring death to itself'. It had also 'called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians'. The first section then concludes with an account of the formation of the proletariat into a class. Modern industry or the industrial revolution, the great bourgeois achievement, had replaced the isolation of the labourers with their 'revolutionary combination' into a group. The fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat 'are equally inevitable'.
The second section is no less striking, though wholly different in tone. In a remarkable switch from epic to bathos, the scene shifts from the factory and the counting house to the bourgeois interior. There the bourgeois stands, no longer a herculean artificer, a world-transformer, rather a self-pitying paterfamilias, a wheedling householder, wiping the cold sweat of fear from his brow and wringing his pudgy hands in an entreaty to escape the retribution which communism is sure to bring.
Despite its title, 'proletarians and communists', this section mainly consists of an imaginary dialogue between the communist and the bourgeois, a dialogue in which the physiognomy of the communist 'spectre' is delineated in all its most lurid and flesh-creeping detail. The passage is both bitter and teasing. Most of the wild charges against communists – that they practised the community of women, the abolition of nationality, the destruction of property and civilization – are thrown back at the bourgeois' feet. A few, the communists cheerfully accept. If, therefore, the 'spectre' is exorcized, it is in a wholly un-reassuring manner. For the bourgeois is invited to cast away his childish fears only to confront the real and grown-up terrors of a coming revolution.
The playful sadism of this passage is in turn only made possible by a third and equally arresting feature of the Manifesto, the changed identity of 'the communist'. It is no longer 'the communist' who threatens the bourgeois. Communists take no personal responsibility for the imminent expropriation of the bourgeoisie and even the proletariat will only be playing the role which history has assigned to it. Communists are no longer those who espouse a particular set of 'ideas or principles', they 'merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes'. This 'historical movement' is an expression of
the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and of its rule.
The sole defining feature of the communist is a clear awareness of this fact.
The communist, therefore, is one who has the advantage of 'clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement'. Among these 'ultimate general results' are the disappearance of 'class distinctions' and the concentration of all production in the hands of 'the associated individuals' or, as the later English version termed it, of 'a vast association of the whole nation'. Eventually, 'the public power will lose its political character' and in place of 'the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms' there will arise 'an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all'.