“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
On 21 February 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, members of the London-based Communist League, changed the course of history.
With Europe poised to explode into a series of left-wing revolutions later that year, the stage was set for this short Manifesto to both create and destroy great nations by introducing the new doctrine of Communism.
The Age of Revolution?
Like any work of literature, the Manifesto was a product of the world in which it was written. In 1848 almost all of Europe was still ruled by an Emperor or a King, backed by both the aristocracy and the emerging class of wealthy businessmen and entrepreneurs, which Marx would dub the Bourgeoisie.
Change had been briefly promised under Napoleon’s earlier rule, which had exported the values of the epoch-defining French Revolution, but at the time of the writing of the book even France was back under the rule of the hated Bourbons, as if the revolution had never happened.
Terrified of a repeat of the seismic events at the start of the century, Europe’s rulers had been highly reactionary for decades, and by the time of the “hungry” 1840s discontent was growing amongst liberal intellectuals like Marx and Engels. After the French Revolution the educated classes would not pretend that nothing had changed.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were two such dissatisfied intellectuals. Both born into middle-class families in the conservative German nation of Prussia, they held radical views early in life and were often forced into exile for fear of recrimination.
Communism in its infancy
During one of these periods, they helped set up the new Communist League in London in 1847 as two of its most influential members. They were not the founders of Communism itself – which had grown in popularity in Europe throughout the decade – but quickly became the public faces of the new ideology.
Engels in particular was concerned and irritated that no adequate summary of the League’s aims had been written, and penned a letter to his friend Marx before its second meeting in November, telling him that Moses Hess’ first attempt had not been nearly combative enough.
He thought that the two of them could steer the course of the movement if they produced their own Manifesto for Communism, which was still in its ill-defined infant stages.
They came up with a rough outline of their plan at a meeting in Ostend, Belgium, and then bullied the other members of the League into accepting the writing of the new more radical Manifesto at the second Congress. After this victory, Marx in particular was specially commissioned to write the immortal manifesto of Communism.
The finished Manifesto is fairly short and divided into three main parts. The introduction is famously strong, starting with the idea “that a spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism” before going on to explain how the reactionary powers were clubbing together in fear of a spectre that was now being given form for the first time on the page.
The first section then outlines Marx’s materialist view of history, that it is decided by the great forces of class struggle, which in the 19th century has taken the form of the oppressive Bourgeoisie and their oppressed workers in a modern post-feudal society.
The second describes the role of Communism by changing this – through international socialist co-operation, in a bid to finally create a classless equal society.
The third distinguishes Communism from other more selfish and short-sighted forms of socialism, stating that calls for united and international working-class co-operation, before going on to analyse the progress of Socialism in the European powers of Marx’s time.
The book ends by confidently claiming that revolution in Germany will precede a world revolution. Its utopian message is one of the main reasons for its extraordinary power, for miserable working men across the next few decades, this book was the most hopeful thing they would ever have read or heard of.
Luckily for Marx, his predictions about revolutions in the German states would prove accurate. 1848, the year of the book’s publication, has been known since as the year of Revolutions, as almost every European nation was rocked by unrest. Marx, having returned to Germany, was heavily involved.
His presence and his manifesto played an active role in the uprisings in Cologne, setting up a new Communist League and editing the radical newspaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Unfortunately for the Communists, however, 1849 was a year of counter-revolution, and Marx was forced to flee to London for good in May.
After this he and his movement endured some leaner years, until Europe was once again shaken up by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, which toppled Napoleon III’s French government. In the ensuing chaos the Paris Commune, a radical far-left government, ruled Paris for a few months before being crushed by the regular army.
This was the renewed injection of energy that Communism needed, and Marks and Engels, who had publicly supported the Commune, were once-again in the spotlight. More interest in the ideology meant more emphasis on the Manifesto, which was re-published in many different languages – including Russian – with a new introduction.
Spread and legacy
From there Marxism became more and more popular across Europe, culminating in the Russian Revolutions of 1917, which deposed the Tsar’s autocratic regime and then the successor Bourgeois government before installing the charismatic Lenin and his radical Marxist Bolshevik Party into power.
There Marx was venerated, and continued to be until the final fall of the Communist government in 1991. From Russia, however, Marxism spread, and at its height during the Cold War was religiously followed by the ruling elites of half the world.
Its legacy is now bitterly divisive, for in truth it had not worked anywhere it was tried, creating new inequalities and brutalities rather than abolishing them, and leaving hundreds of thousands dead from war starvation and internal purges.
Marx’s vision had been an equal stateless society, but the result of his dreams was a form of totalitarian regime that was far worse than anything Napoleon III or the German Princes could have imagined.
The power of his words, however, cannot be disputed, nor can their influence on history for the good as well as the bad. For though attempts at pure Marxism were ultimately disastrous, the class consciousness that he inspired became a vehicle of change across the western world, where it has challenged Conservatism ever since 1848.