By Ascherson, Neal
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 127, No. 4374
After 150 years The Communist Manifesto is still a great read, says Neal Ascherson, even if it failed as a manual for revolution
It's just 150 years since The Communist Manifesto was published, in February 1848. Over that century and a half, different phrases have appealed to different plights and hopes. Today, it's the most poetic line in the whole tract that strikes home: "All that is solid melts into air."
Between the late 1840s and the late 1990s there is a flash of mutual recognition. Then as now, the ideology of a global free-market society had conquered the world, above all Britain, and shattered all security, all traditional bonds, all expectations that tomorrow would be much like today. "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away; all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify."
Then much more than now, the rebellion against the ravages of uncontrolled free-market societies was beginning to gather its wats and rally its forces.
Like most of the innumerable editions of the Manifesto, this anniversary Lawrence & Wishart version reproduces the original title page. German and Gothic, anonymous and dramatic in its flowery decorative border of Victorian palmettos, it states that it has been "Printed in the Office of the Workers' Educational Association by J C Burghard, 46 Liverpool Street, Bishopsgate". Then the unforgettable words and phrases begin: "A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism ... The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."
It's hard to realise how flat The Communist Manifesto fell at the time. Within a few days, on 21 February, fighting broke out in Paris and the flames of revolution began to burst through the surface all over Europe. Nobody had time to read the Manifesto properly, even though it was translated into six languages. Marx, who was in Brussels, rushed to Paris and then to Germany, where his "Demands of the Communist Party in Germany" with its 17-point programme, appeared in early April. The same month, he became editor of the Near Rheinische Zeitung, the most brilliant and effective left-wing newspaper ever published in Germany, which he ran until the revolution collapsed and the paper was closed down in the summer of 1849. Events simply buried the Manifesto. A few thousand copies eventually reached Paris, but their impact was negligible. It was not until a generation later, long after the publication of the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867 and after Marx's own death in 1883, that The Communist Manifesto was rediscovered. It was in the 20th century that it was read by millions and changed the lives of millions, the most powerful revolutionary tract in all history.
The outbreak of the 1848 revolutions took Marx and Engels by surprise. But it was only the timing that they got wrong. The Manifesto is all about the coming eruption, above all in Germany, and about the tactics which the party of the proletariat should adopt in the social and political battles ahead. And there was nothing amazing about this prophecy. In the 1840s most intelligent people in Europe assumed that the combination of reactionary governments and spreading public destitution would end in an explosion.
Neither was there anything astounding about the Manifesto's announcement that all history was the history of class struggles. Today those words could only be spoken by a "Marxist". But in 1848 many well-read liberals and reformers saw society in much the same way. They were perfectly well aware that a class struggle was going on. They knew that the middle class was pursuing its own economic interests, as well as the cause of "liberty", by challenging the political-power aristocracy and monarchy all over the continent. And they were equally well aware that industrialisation had created an enormous and expanding new class of wage-labourers with no property, and that there was some kind of causal relationship between the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. …