The Story of the Communist Manifesto
Revolutionary Worker (Voice of the Revolutionary
Communist Party, USA), No. 936, December 14, 1997
In mid-February 1848, a new communist pamphlet rolled off the
presses of a small printshop on London’s Bishopsgate. It was written
in German and entitled Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei.
Copies were rushed off to the mainland of Europe. Uprisings and
disturbances had broken out in most of the main population centers
of the continent. Small cores of revolutionary activists were waiting
for a high-powered declaration that could guide their work and rally
the masses of people to a thoroughgoing revolutionary movement.
The bold opening lines of this pamphlet threw down
a challenge: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.
All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to
exorcise this spectre.... It is high time that Communists should
openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their
aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the spectre
of communism with a manifesto of the party itself.”
This work was quickly translated into many languages
of Europe and the Americas. In English it became known as the Communist
Manifesto. In one early English version, published in 1850,
the previously unknown authors were listed for the first time: Karl
Marx and Frederick Engels.
While countless other documents and manifestos of those
days lie forgotten and dust-covered in library archives, this
Manifesto lives, studied intensely in ghettos, jungle base areas,
and even classrooms all over the world—still inspiring and training
one new revolutionary generation after another.
The Communist Manifesto is the visionary founding
document of the modern communist movement. It is the opening statement
of that scientific ideology now known as Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.
In honor of its 150th anniversary, here is the story of how the
Manifesto came to be.
Rise, like lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number,
shake your chains to earth like dew,
Which in sleep has fallen on you.
Ye are many, they are few!
– Percy Shelly’s tribute to Manchester workers who
faced government troops in 1819
The communist movement in the mid-1840s needed a unifying
new manifesto—badly. Society was changing rapidly and the old revolutionary
doctrines, copied and adapted from the great French bourgeois revolution
of 1789, just weren’t cutting it anymore.
In some ways, these had been difficult times for revolutionaries.
The great French revolution had ended in defeat. It was first betrayed
from within—by Napoleon Bonaparte who dared crown himself emperor.
Then France was crushed from without—in 1815, its armies were defeated
by the combined forces of Europe’s feudal monarchies. For decades,
the “Holy Alliance” of victorious monarchs kept the people in a
brutal grip: kings and princes were restored, revolutionary anti-monarchist
politics were suppressed, borders were closely watched, spies and
But while the reactionary powers seemed triumphant—intense
changes in the economy were undermining their power and creating
powerful new discontented forces. Technology and production was
being revolutionized. The so-called “factory system” had been developed
in a few new industrial areas of England, and its brutal sweatshops
were being copied here and there on the mainland of Europe. Children
as young as 9 were often pressed into the mills, working 60, or
even 72, hours a week. Sharecropping peasants were being driven
off their land by new capitalist pressures in agriculture, and some
were becoming part of a new, rebellious class—the modern proletariat.
And there were early signs of a new revolutionary upsurge.
In July 1830, Paris erupted into street fighting and barricades.
In 1831, silk weavers of Lyon marched out of their sweatshops singing:
“When our rule arrives
When your rule shall end
Then we shall weave the shroud of the old world
Listen! Revolt is rumbling.”
Ten years later, there were so many “bread-riots” that
the decade started to be called “The Hungry Forties.”
Meanwhile, the most radical forces were creating a
new movement they called “communism.” They dreamed of sharing society’s
wealth and abolishing class distinctions. This early communism was
a mix of brilliant insights, impractical “utopian” wishes and daring
deeds. Some early communists thought communal movements could gradually
educate humanity in new ways without a violent overthrow of the
old order. Others thought that small conspiracies could change society
without deep roots among the masses of people.
Increasingly, these plans and methods proved unsatisfying.
And two young German revolutionaries started to gain a following
because of their powerful new analyses. Karl Marx and Frederick
Engels had teamed up in Brussels to figure out a road to communist
Each brought powerful strengths to their partnership.
Karl Marx, born in 1818, had closely and critically investigated
all the different revolutionary theories and philosophies of the
times. As a journalist for the progressive Rheinische Zeitung,
he started a detailed analysis of the politics and conflicts of
his times—especially the lives of peasants in Germany’s Rhine valley.
One acquaintance described this young Marx as “domineering, impetuous,
passionate, full of boundless self-confidence, but at the same time
deeply earnest and learned, a restless dialectician...”
In 1843, after the Rheinische Zeitung was suppressed,
Marx went into exile in France, which was then the center of revolutionary
activity in Europe.
Engels, born in 1820, was a self-educated high school
dropout from a wealthy German capitalist family. In 1842, he was
sent to Manchester, England to work in his family’s thread manufacturing
business. In those days, he later wrote, his mind was filled with
revolutionary songs of the French revolution and he longed for the
reappearance of the guillotine of Paris’ famous Red Terror.
In England, Engels saw the most advanced capitalist
developments firsthand—the powerful industrial means of production,
and the bitter slums and epidemics of the new factory towns. He
had studied England’s Chartists—one of the first mass movements
of workers. Engels hated capitalism and saw clearly that it was
rapidly transforming the old world.
Together, Marx and Engels worked to create a new cutting-edge
synthesis—based on a deep study of politics, economics, history
and philosophy. Their scientific approach lifted communism out of
utopian daydreams into the breathtaking world of practical politics.
New Communist Organization, New Communist Manifesto
“Propaganda on the quiet has also borne fruit—every
time I go to Cologne, or drop into a pub here, I find fresh progress,
new converts. The Cologne meeting worked wonders: gradually one
discovers separate communist groups which developed quite unnoticed
and without direct assistance from us... People’s minds are ready
and we must strike, because the iron is hot.”
– From an 1845 letter written by
Frederick Engels to Karl Marx
during a trip to Germany
Starting in 1846, Marx and Engels worked to hook up
with the many different communist groups emerging in Europe. One
of the most promising was the “League of the Just” in London, which
had a few hundred members, including many revolutionary German exiles.
This League was interested in the writings of Marx and Engels and,
on their suggestion, reorganized as the Communist League. Marx (who
did not attend the founding congress) struggled with them to change
their old slogan “All Men are Brothers”—saying that there were men
whose brother he did not desire to be. Their new battle cry became
“Proletarians of All Countries Unite.”
A comrade described Marx and Engels in those days:
“Marx was then still a young man, about 28 years old, but he greatly
impressed us all. He was of medium height, broad-shouldered, powerful
in build and energetic in his deportment.... His speech was brief,
convincing and compelling in his logic.... Marx had nothing of the
dreamer about him.... Frederick Engels, Marx’s spiritual brother,
was...slim, agile, with fair hair and mustache, he was more like
a smart young lieutenant of the guard than a scholar.”
In September 1847, the new Communist League produced
a draft “Communist Confession of Faith.” It was an old-style utopian
document based on principles divorced from real life, and modeled
on a religious catechism. Marx and Engels refused to endorse it.
Engels arranged to have himself assigned to write a new draft.
In October, Engels passed this draft on to Marx, and
made a suggestion: “I believe that the best thing to do is to do
away with the catechism form and give the thing the title: Communist
Manifesto. We have to bring in a certain amount of history,
and the present form does not lend itself to this very well.” Engels
suggested that the manifesto deal with questions of party organization,
but only, he cautioned, “in so far as it should be made public.”
Marx and Engels went together to the second congress
of the Communist League—and for 10 days in November and December
of 1847, the congress debated their startling new approach to communist
politics. Their proposals were accepted.
The Communist League replaced their old program of
agitating for a “community of goods” and adopted a much more sweeping
and hard-edged goal: “The overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the domination
of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society based
on class antagonism, and the establishment of a new society without
classes and without private property.”
A communist organization had come together along new
lines, and Marx was turned loose to finish writing its manifesto.
He set to work in Brussels—with his usual painstaking precision
and depth. His comrades in London became impatient. Revolution had
broken out in Milan and Palermo, and the comrades needed
their new manifesto out on the streets. In January 1848 they sent
Marx a deadline: if he didn’t finish the manifesto by February 1,
“further measures will be taken.” Marx finished in early February
1848 and rushed the manuscript to London.
A Weapon for the Struggle
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways,
the point is to change it.”
– Karl Marx, 1845
The Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei appeared
in mid-February as the official program of the Communist League.
A few days later, an uprising broke out in Paris, driving the French
king from power. Within weeks, the revolution the communists had
expected spread to Vienna and Berlin. Within months, governments
had toppled in an area that stretched across the very core of the
Marx and Engels’ Manifesto was enthusiastically
received. The small communist trend across Europe now had a high
caliber weapon to take into battle. The Manifesto was quickly
translated from German into English, French, Polish and Danish.
The worried Belgian police arrested Karl Marx. Jenny
Marx was arrested looking for her husband and jailed on charges
of homelessness. They were expelled from Belgium and moved to Paris.
Marx and Engels reorganized the central committee of the Communist
League, and founded a German Workers’ Club which soon had 400 members.
Everyone’s eyes were turning to Germany. Engels wrote: “things are
going very well indeed, riots everywhere...”
In early April, Marx and Engels slipped across the
border into Germany—which at that time was made up of many semi-independent
states, dominated by the kingdom of Prussia. They smuggled with
them 1,000 copies of the Communist Manifesto which had just
arrived from London.
Marx and Engels set up their operations in Cologne,
where the revolutionary movement was most advanced. The local Communist
League had grown to 8,000 members in just the last few months—but
it was dominated by a rightist line that limited the workers to
wage demands, and even supported calls for a constitutional monarchy.
Marx founded his own revolutionary organization that soon replaced
the fading Communist League. They set themselves the task of reaching
the broad masses and leading them to make revolution. Engels later
wrote: “We were no good at crying in the wilderness; we had studied
the utopians too well for that.”
By June 1, 1848, Marx and Engels were publishing a
revolutionary daily, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (NRZ—New
Rhineland Times). It hounded the monarchies of Europe and roused
the masses for a radical democratic revolution against feudalism
and the autocracy. This NRZ achieved a circulation of about 5,000,
one of the largest in Germany.
In Prussia, the revolution never succeeded in toppling
the monarchy. The masses rose up in repeated waves during 1848 and
1849. Government offers of elections coopted the bourgeois opposition,
while the Prussian army advanced on revolutionary centers.
In September, a mass meeting elected Marx, Engels and
several of their supporters to posts on a “Committee of Public Safety,”
named after the revolutionary organs of power which had executed
the French aristocrats 50 years earlier. On September 25, the authorities
sent out troops to arrest key leaders. The NRZ and all allied political
organizations were banned. A wanted poster was put out for Engels.
He and several other NRZ writers escaped across the border and laid
low for a couple of months.
Marx had played a leading role, but had not been a
spokesman in the public meetings. The authorities had no evidence
to link him with the “conspiracy.” So while others had to leave,
Marx stayed behind in Cologne and almost single-handedly restarted
the NRZ in defiance of the military authorities. Marx was soon put
on trial himself. A jury acquitted him after his sweeping political
defense, while a powerful crowd in the courtroom threatened to free
him by force.
In December, Marx reached a radical new conclusion:
The bourgeoisie had proven incapable of leading the revolution to
overthrow feudalism and the monarchies. If the working class did
not lead the movement forward it would fail.
On March 2, Prussian soldiers came to Marx’s home armed
with sabers. They demanded that Marx turn over one of his writers,
saying that otherwise things would “turn out badly.” Marx answered
that their threats “would achieve absolutely nothing with me.” The
soldiers suddenly realized that Marx had a pistol sticking out of
his pocket. They lost their cool and left. Engels later joked that
the Prussian garrison had 8,000 armed men—while the “fortress” of
the NRZ was armed with only a few bayonets, some cartridges and
the red hats of its typesetters.
By late spring of 1849, the Prussian military tightened
its occupation of the Rhineland, and people fought back. Engels
fought at the barricades in his nearby hometown of Elberfeld. On
May 9, Marx got orders from the police chief to leave the country
within 24 hours. His legal documents had expired, making him an
undocumented foreigner. The police chief accused him of “shamefully
violating our hospitality” with his calls “for contempt of the existing
government, for its violent overthrow, and for the establishment
of a social Republic.”
With all its editors facing exile or arrest, the NRZ
could not continue. Marx published a last issue on May 18, printed
completely in red ink. Marx’s last words mocked the authorities
who masked their bloody suppression with fancy excuses: “What use
are your hypocritical phrases that strain after impossible subterfuges?
We are ruthless too and we ask for no consideration from you. When
our turn comes we will not offer excuses for our Terror.”
Twenty thousand copies of this soon-famous “Red Issue”
were printed. For years copies passed from hand to hand among revolutionary
workers in Europe and North America—often together with the Communist
As the counterrevolution advanced, Marx and Engels
retreated south, along the Rhine. Unable to stay any longer without
papers, Marx went to Paris where, under a false name, he plunged
into the struggle.
Engels stayed in Germany and joined the armed struggle
against the advancing Prussian army. He fought in four battles before
being driven across the border into Switzerland. In a letter to
Jenny Marx, he claimed that “the whistling of bullets is quite a
trifling matter,” and bragged that no one would be able to say that
the communists hadn’t stood their ground when the fighting got heavy.
The May events marked the end of this period of revolution
in Germany. Government repression went on for years. One revolutionary
poet described how people would be startled in their homes by the
sudden gunfire of death squads executing revolutionaries. People
found carrying the Communist Manifesto were arrested on the
A Manifesto for a New World Movement
Marx and Engels regrouped in England where they worked to reestablish
communist organization and planned a new revolutionary organ. Marx
was 31 years old, Engels was not yet 30.
Marx had learned much by the intense revolutionary
practice of 1848-49. The proletarian revolutions, he wrote, “criticize
themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their
own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to
begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies,
weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw
down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength
from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil
ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims,
until a situation has been created which makes all turning back
impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus,
hic salta! Here is the rose, here dance!”
After 1848, communism was no longer a “spectre” but
a real flesh-and-blood international movement. And the Communist
Manifesto emerged as its most prized and influential document.
Engels later wrote that the Manifesto laid down “the line
of action” for communists to fight “as one common army under one
and the same flag.”
Exactly because the Manifesto embodied a materialist
analysis, and represented a living synthesis, different parts of
the document seemed dated when Marx and Engels looked back on them
years later. Over the last 150 years the world has changed in many
ways, and there has been a wealth of new revolutionary experience
to sum up—extending and deepening the understanding of communists
in many qualitative ways.
But still, for all that, the core of this remarkable
Communist Manifesto—its method of materialist dialectics,
its visionary conclusions about the possibility of abolishing classes,
its analysis of the historic mission of the new rising proletarian
class—has maintained its freshness, power and truth over 150 years.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels
had pointedly said: “The Communist revolution is the most radical
rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its
development involved the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.”
Three years later, in the wake of 1848, Karl Marx returned
to this theme, summing up that communism “is the declaration
of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship
of the proletariat as the necessary transition point to the abolition
of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the
relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of
all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production,
to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social
These two Marxist concepts, referred to by Maoists
as “the two radical ruptures” and “the four alls,” remain central
to our understanding of the profound changes involved in the worldwide
process of communist revolution.
In 1869, a Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto,
translated by Bakunin, appeared in Switzerland and was smuggled
across borders into the Tsar’s kingdom. When the working class seized
power for the first time in the brief Paris Commune of 1871, the
Communist Manifesto became the guide for a new revolutionary
generation across Europe and North America. Many communists were
now calling themselves “Marxists.”
In the U.S., several versions of the Manifesto
were published in the 1870s, including by Albert Parsons, a leader
of Chicago’s revolutionary workers who figured prominently in the
famous Haymarket events. In 1882, a new Russian edition appeared
to train the generation of Marxists who prepared the ground for
Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.
Seventy years after the Manifesto was written,
the revolutionary proletariat seized and held power for the first
time—in 1917 in Russia. This historic victory proved in practice
many of the key ideas of the Manifesto. And at the same time,
this new state power meant that Marxist works became available for
the first time around the world. A hundred years after the writing
of the Communist Manifesto, the communist leader Mao Tsetung
was about to seize nationwide power in China and wrote: “The salvoes
of the October Revolution brought us Marxism-Leninism.”
During the 20th century, the Communist Manifesto
has been translated into virtually every written language on earth—and
eagerly studied by millions seeking a way to liberation. For 150
years, this Communist Manifesto has been smuggled and hunted,
banned and cherished. It is a living example of ideas transforming
material reality. This work has literally shaped human history and
influenced the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Its impact
is a testimony to the power of the scientific ideology that guides
the proletariat’s struggle to emancipate humanity. As we approach
the end of the 20th century, the closing words of the Communist
Manifesto still stand out as a credo for all those who hate
“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and
aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by
the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the
ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians
have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
Workers of All Countries, Unite!