The 'Communist Manifesto' after 150 Years

By Wood, Ellen Meiksins | Monthly Review, May 1998 | Go to article overview

The 'Communist Manifesto' after 150 Years


Wood, Ellen Meiksins, Monthly Review


The Communist Manifesto is just that: a manifesto. It is not a long and comprehensive scholarly study but a public declaration of a political program, a short and dramatic statement of purpose and a call to arms, written at a time of political ferment, on the eve of what turned out to be the nearest thing the world had ever seen to international revolution.

Yet posterity has judged this political manifesto not just as a manifesto but as many other things. In the century and a half since its publication, it has been judged not only as a uniquely influential document in the theory and practice of revolutionary movements throughout the world, but also as a work of history, as economic, political, and cultural analysis, and as prophecy. The Manifesto has been judged as an account of past, present, and future - not only the present and future of its authors but those of every generation since, up to and including our own.

At first glance, it seems very unreasonable to judge a small pamphlet - the product of collaboration by two young men very early in their careers, written for a very specific and immediate purpose - by such demanding measures. It is hard to think of any other classic of Western social thought that has been judged by such sweeping and rigorous standards. The Manifesto stands alone in this respect no doubt because of its tremendous role in the history of a vast political movement which has had an immeasurable influence on the shape of the modern world. More particularly, the Manifesto has been subject to uniquely critical scrutiny because people in power, and their intellectual supporters, have felt that much was at stake in debunking it.

But only a very great work - which still has much to say to us 150 years later - could invite this kind of critical scrutiny. Nothing could give more convincing testimony to the genius of the Manifesto than the energy that has been expended in attacking it. So while we have to remember the particular purposes for which it was written and the very specific historical context in which it emerged, it seems not so unreasonable after all to judge it in much larger terms.

The Historical Context of the Manifesto

Let us first consider the context in which the Communist Manifesto was written and how the specific historical conditions of its composition affected its content.

The broad historical context of the Manifesto is, of course, the emergence of industrial capitalism and the modern industrial working class in Western Europe, together with the socialist movements that grew out of these historical developments. There had been earlier classics in what would become the socialist tradition - such as the work of Winstanley in seventeenth century England or Babeuf in eighteenth century France - but the social movements with which they were associated, while influential in various ways, remained on the margins of history. It was only in the nineteenth century that substantial working class movements emerged that could form a powerful political force and even socialist parties. With the appearance of this new political force came a body of socialist literature. First, there was a diverse collection of writings often treated together (largely thanks to the Manifesto itself) under the category "utopian socialism," by thinkers such as Owen, St. Simon, and Fourier. These writings would be overtaken by the far more penetrating and systematic works of Marx and Engels, whose socialism was deeply rooted in a critical analysis of capitalism of a kind never attempted before. The Manifesto is certainly not the most substantial of these works, but it is without doubt the most well known, with a historical resonance probably unsurpassed by any other single piece of secular writing, from any part of the political spectrum.

Yet though the Manifesto was composed against the background of those larger, long-term historical developments, it had a more immediate context which helps to explain its particular shape. …

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