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The Militant, 2 February 1948

Historical Background of
Communist Manifesto

From The Militant, Vol. XII No. 5, 2 February 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


One hundred years after its first appearance, the Communist Manifesto remains the most remarkable and illuminating pamphlet of all time. Representing the battle-cry of the movement of scientific socialism, it was only natural that it won the undying hatred of despotism of every variety.

In our own time, Hitler ordered it burned; Stalin, who permits it to be printed, daily violates its most elementary principles and murders those who uphold them; Roosevelt’s FBI agents seized copies of it on sale in the headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party as “evidence” for the famous Minneapolis “sedition” trial in 1941.

But neither capitalist reaction nor the betrayals of the Stalinists and Social Democrats have been able to extinguish the flame ignited by the Manifesto.

This history-making document had its origins in the coming together of a small, illegal organization consisting mainly of skilled workers, and two young intellectuals, who had already dedicated themselves to organizing the overthrow of the rising capitalist system.

“All Men Are Brothers”

The organization, known as the League of the Just, was formed in the middle 1830’s. with headquarters first in Paris and later in London.

In the beginning it was composed almost exclusively of Germans, many of them political refugees. Later it was joined by members of other nationalities. It was a secret society based on a program of utopian socialism, many varieties of which then enjoyed popularity among radical-thinking people. Its slogan was: “All men are brothers.”

The League of the Just organized workers’ educational societies, which discussed the social questions of the day, and issued literature explaining the need for a new kind of society. In the middle Forties these views were subjected to sharp criticism by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on the ground that the “task was not to work out a utopian system but to participate consciously in the historic process of social transformation taking place before our eyes.”

Marx, who was not yet 30 years old when the Manifesto was published, had been born near the Rhine in Germany. He was a brilliant scholar, first in law and then in philosophy, and for a while considered earning his livelihood by teaching. But when he got his degree, he found he could not be a professor in Germany, because teachers were supposed to be unquestioning servants of the ruling class. He turned to journalism, becoming editor of the Rhenish Gazette but resigned when the publishers tried to soften its tone against the Prussian government. He went into exile shortly before an order was issued for his arrest.

In 1884 he met Engels for the first time in Paris. Thus began a life-long friendship and intimate collaboration in which each contributed to the scientific and political development of the other- That same year Engels, two years younger than Marx, wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, a work which showed he and Marx were thinking along the same lines.

In 1847 it was clear that Europe was on the verge of revolution. The criticisms of Marx and Engels had a strong effect on the leaders of the League. They sent an emissary to notify Marx and Engels that they planned to hold a congress in London, and to revise their program along the lines of Marx’ and Engels’ criticisms. Marx and Engels thereupon joined the League.

“Workers of the World, Unite!”

One congress, attended by Engels, was held in August. The organization’s name was changed to the Communist League and its motto to: “Workers of the world, unite!” A second congress, attended by Marx, was held in November and unanimously adopted the principles set forth by the two friends, who were directed to prepare them for publication as a manifesto. The Manifesto was sent to the printers in February, 1848.

A few weeks later the revolution began in France, and was followed by others on the continent. Marx, Engels and the other communists were all active participants. But the revolutions of 1848 were defeated; within two years reaction had triumphed all along the line and the revolutionary movement was hurled back. The Manifesto, as Engels recalled more than 40 years later, had been “greeted with enthusiasm, at the time of its appearance, by the not-at-all numerous vanguard of scientific socialism ... With the disappearance from the public scene of the workers’ movement that had begun with the [French] February Revolution, the Manifesto too passed into the background.”

But that was not the end of theManifesto. It became the guide of the Communist elements in the First International. And by the time of the formation of the Second International in 1889, virtually every socialist group in the world had accepted the principles of the Manifesto.

The Manifesto was first published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages. It has since been published in countless editions not only in these but in virtually every existing language and dialect. Just ten years ago it was issued by the Trotskyites in Afrikaans, the language of the people of Dutch ancestry in the Union of South Africa.

Marx and Engels never dreamed that it would have such a long and active history, because they believed that socialism would conquer in the 19th century. While some of its contents have become outdated, it remains on the whole almost as timely as though it were written a few years ago. And so it will remain until the working class has completed its historical task of replacing capitalism with a new social and economic system.

Ideas Still Valid

Here, briefly, we can indicate only a few of the main ideas contained in theManifesto which still guide the revolutionary movement 100 years after they were first written.

New Understanding

Just as important as the lessons it drew, which established the basis of the modern socialist movement, the Communist Manifesto provided the revolutionary workers with a new method for analyzing and understanding the historical processes of the past and present. This was the materialist conception of history, which revolutionized sociology and, as Engels predicted, did “for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology.” Trotsky said of it ten years ago: “We can state with certainty that it is impossible in our time not only to be a revolutionary militant but even a literate observer in politics without assimilating the materialist interpretation of history.”

The Communist Manifesto cannot be adequately described in a short article – it must be read and studied for a full appreciation. To those still unacquainted with it, it will be a revelation. For it is one Of the mightiest weapons in the arsenal of the working class movement.

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