Democracy and the Communist Manifesto

Democracy and the Communist Manifesto

In this article, Gwydion M, Williams looks at the beginning of Marxism, and finds that a sad misunderstanding and neglect of political democracy was already there.

[With hindsight, parliamentary democracy has been much less of a benefit than I had expected at the time.  It has split Ukraine and kept it poor.  Many of the countries best at giving people what they want are one-party states or systems where one party dominates and others are marginal.]

The Communist Manifesto is a famous document. the best known of all that Marx and Engels wrote. A very odd document, with a strange and seldom-told history. It is also remarkable for essentially ignoring the struggle for political democracy and constitutional rights, the main issue of the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848.

Back in 1984, I began working on a study, intended to be called The Communist Manifesto – 1848 to 1984. For various reasons. the work was delayed. My original discovery – that the Manifesto had glossed over crucial political matters – had no obvious direct implication for the world as it was then. Since then, the whole Leninist structure that existed in Eastern Europe has come unstuck. The same forces that were operating as far back as 1848 seem to have achieved a final triumph. Political democracy, mostly won after World War One and lost again in the run-up to World War Two, has been re-established and this time seems likely to last.

Tragically, socialism in those countries had become associated with a denial of that sort of freedom, and with a subservience to Russia. Thus they are, for the time being. rejecting any sort of socialism and my of the possible non-capitalist alternatives to the discredited Brezhnevite system. The fault lies not with Stalin, nor even with Lenin, but with Marx and Engels.

The Communist Manifesto was drafted as a working document. not an abstract statement of principles. It was intended to be used precisely as a political manifesto for a seizure of power by the Communist League. It was commissioned in 1847, . in the expectation of a radical and republican revolution in Europe. It was actually printed early in February 1848, just ahead of the actual outbreak of revolution in France.

The Manifesto described itself as the work of “Communists of various nationalities“. The names of Marx and Engels did not appear in the early editions. The intention was to publish it in English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish. Polish is not mentioned, although it includes comments on political groupings in Poland Other parts of the world – Russia, for instance – were hardly looked at at all.

In the event. in 1848 it came out first in German, and then in Danish, Polish and Swedish. French, Italian and Spanish translations were made, but remained unpublished. It came out in English in 1850, and it was this English edition that was the first to give the name of the authors.[A] Incidentally, it anglicised them as Charles Marx and Frederic Engels.5 Engels

The Manifesto was published in the name of the Communist League. It seems that the League was seriously thinking about taking power in 1847 and 1848. Marx and Engels, as its chief theorists, were delegated to improve and expand its statement of principles, as a preliminary to making a bid for power. They could not write just as they pleased, as they did in their other works. But most commentators say surprisingly little about the Manifesto’s context.

The only serious discussion of the matter I have been able to find comes from George Sorel. Mainly on the strength of the title of his most famous work, Reflections on Violence, people have written him off as a nutty old terrorist. In fact he was a highly interesting character. He was part of the mental world of the Second International, which disintegrated during World War One. Remarkably enough, he has connections to all three of the successful political movements that came out of the Second International – moderate Social Democracy, Leninist Communism, and those Socialists like Benito Mussolini who went over to the Right and created Fascism.

Sorel says of the Communist Manifesto:

“It has been asked if it reflected Marx’s ideas well. Above all, this document seemed to have had the purpose of summing up the notions which had currency in socialist circles. Sometimes the author gets out of trouble with a play on words. Everyone is struck by Marx’s embarrassment in speaking of the family and country and it is obvious that he could not express his whole thoughts.”[B]

The Manifesto is ambiguous about the position of women, implying that ‘free love’ has already been effectively established by the bourgeoisie. But I’ll leave the matter aside, to be dealt with in a later article.

The Manifesto was one component of a scheme that failed to come off. The idea seems to have been that the existing governments of Europe would be overthrown by bourgeois revolutionaries; by democratic revolutions for parliaments and constitutions, under the leadership of the middle class. But the Communist League hoped to raise up the working class against these bourgeois revolutionaries just as soon as they had overthrown the established governments. They considered that the revolution could then be pushed well beyond anything its original leaders had bargained for.

Such a scheme was by no means impossible. The French Revolution had changed far more than its original leaders had ever intended to change. So indeed had the English Revolution against Charles I. Some seventy years later, Lenin would actually succeed in carrying through a two-stage revolution on much the same lines.

The trouble was, the bourgeoisie was also able to anticipate such an outcome. They too had read the history of the French Revolution, and of the Terror, and they intended to avoid another such breakdown of the established order. Marx hoped that they would blindly overthrow the old order, and be overthrown in turn. But in fact, large sections of the bourgeoisie foresaw the danger and held back. In Germany the established order was not overthrown. In France it was in due course replaced by the conservative Napoleon III. And so forth.

In the short run, the Communist League’s plans failed completely. The Manifesto itself was largely forgotten. It seems only to have been revived after a quarter of a century, with the German edition of 1872. According to Sorel,

“This document remained unknown for a long time, and when it was unearthed, an originality was attributed to it that it did not have at the time of its publication.”[C]

What Marx, Engels and their associates were trying to do in 1848 was very speculative. The Manifesto says that “Communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power“;[D] but in fact it was not, and Marx must have known quite well that it was not The Communist League was a small organisation, with little political power and even less military power.

It suited the various established governments to use Communism as a bogey to frighten reformers and moderate revolutionaries. It was in their interests to exaggerate its strength. The ‘spectre’ that was haunting Europe was not in fact very solid or material. But the Communist League, as influenced by Marx and Engels, decided to go along with the pretence, and try to turn it into a reality. In the particular circumstances of 1848, the ‘spectre’ could have become very powerful indeed.

Marx began as an Hegelian. He next became a Left Hegelian, and then a follower of Feuerbach before deciding that in fact he was a communist Communism as a movement had been around for a good many years before Marx. And it was basically something that workers had created for themselves.c2 Meanwhile Engels, another Left Hegelian, had made the same progression from abstract philosophy to revolutionary politics. The two of them joined forces on the way. They sorted out their philosophy in two books; The Holy Family and The German Ideology.

Marx’s work took a more popular turn with The Poverty of Philosophy, in which he condemned Proudhon.  Proudhon chose to make use of the term ‘anarchist’, which up to then had only been used as a term of abuse. Marx and Proudhon had been friends, but their ideas developed in different ways. And Marx was not a man to let friendship get in the way of clarity of thought. Marx had one set of ideas, and Proudhon had another. Jn the long run, one or other of them had to go. And while there was a strong Proudhonist movement for a good many decades, in the end it was Marx’s ideas that won out Modem-day anarchism, even, has much more a Marxist flavour than a Proudhonist flavour.

Marx and Engels immersed themselves in the Communist League when it seemed as if real power could be won. The Communist Manifesto defined what the Communist League was, what it was not, and what it planned to do. And when the period of revolutions was over, and the Communist League began to fall apart, they calmly accepted this. They waited for the next crisis, and in the meantime developed and clarified their ideas.

The Manifesto was only a first draft for Marxism. Yet it has a clearness and precision that is admirable. As far as they could, they made it very very obvious what they were talking about

Marx took a highly Hegelian view of history. Anyone doubting this should read Hegel’s Philosophy of History. Though the values are different, the patterns of thought and even turns of phrase are very similar. History has a single possible course of development, a course both logical and necessary. Nations and cultures move along it at various rates – they can even stop altogether, or slip backwards. But they cannot deviate from the line of development, because nothing else is possible.

For Marx and Engels, feudalism had replaced the slave-based systems of Greece and Rome, and Capitalism had replaced Feudalism. Now Capitalism was due to be replaced by modem Communism. History had gone that way because it could not have gone any other way. Hegelianism has a number of built-in assumptions, that Marx and Engels took over without taking a hard look at them and asking if they were true. The most significant is that there is essentially only one possible line of historical development Stages of history might occasionally be skipped –

Marx did think that this might happen in Russia. But the very language he used was significant; if you skipped over one stage, you would of necessity find yourself in the next.

From this viewpoint, Marx could hardly reject the process of capitalist industrialisation that had tom the existing order to shreds. Capitalism had created misery and disruption for the precapitalistic lower classes. Other radicals might see it as a massive error and distortion of life; Marx insisted that the whole process was necessary, and therefore progressive. From time to time he would express his sympathy for those who had been crushed by this process, but he never ceased to insist that it was necessary. It had created the working class, the ‘proletariat’, and must continue to create and enlarge this class.

“The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product”.[E]

And the working class, unlike all previous lower classes, would be fit and able to run society for itself and in its own interests. He liked this formula so much that he quoted it, along with a preceding sentence about the proletariat alone being really revolutionary, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme in 1875. Despite this, most people who call themselves Marxists fail to take it into account. They confuse reactions against modern industry with Marx’s schema of the proletariat as the essential product of modem industry.

Marx insisted that the future lay with the proletariat. But the bourgeoisie was not entirely despised. On the one hand they were condemned as fit only to be overthrown. But on the other hand their positive role was also made clear.

‘The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that that brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which Reactionists so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activities can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades’.[F]

‘The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature. “[G]

‘The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, applications of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”[H]

‘To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations.”[I]

The Manifesto expresses little sympathy for most of the classes that were suffering under capitalism. It had no pity for those classes which were being destroyed by it Thus:

‘The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shop-keeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history ….

‘The ‘dangerous class’, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by the proletarian revolution; its condition of life, however, prepares it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue. “[J]

I have quoted at length just because this is the side of the manifesto that most people ignore. Stirring calls for revolution, fierce condemnation of the bourgeoisie, are the bits that everyone knows about The full range of Marx’s ideas has become obscured, the theory only partially grasped. And socialists and communists have paid the price for taking such short cuts.

Ideas that are never properly expressed cannot be applied properly. Nor can they be rejected as inadequate, if history does not match their predictions. Marxists since the 1950s have covered over the less fashionable of Marx’s notions. They are not accepted, and they are not rejected. To do either would lead to purposeful political action. Having done neither, the various Marxist movements throughout the world have wasted the accumulated political power and prestige which earlier generations of Marxists had built up, and which are now thoroughly in decline.

This article appeared in July 1990, in Issue 18 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at

[A] Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works Volume 6. Lawrence & Wishart London 1976. Pages 697-699

[B] From George Sorel Oxford University Press 1976. Page 171. The quote comes from Section VIII of Polemics on the Interpretation of Marxism: Bernstein and Kautsky, published in 1960

[C] Ibid, page 171.

[D] Communist Manifesto, introduction. Page 481 in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works Volume 6.

[E] Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works Volume 6, page 494.

[F] Ibid, p487

[G] Ibid, p488

[H] Ibid, p489

[I] Ibid, p488

[J] Ibid, p494