The Communist Manifesto

By Spalding, Roger | History Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

The Communist Manifesto

Spalding, Roger, History Review

Roger Spalding introduces one of the most important publications in modern world history.

The Communist Manifesto was a product of the social, economic and political turmoil that characterised Europe before 1850. Both of its authors, Marx and Engels, were touched by elements of this turmoil. Karl Marx, born in 1818, came from the Rhineland, an area occupied by the French during the Napoleonic Wars. During this period the French abolished feudal restrictions, introduced religious toleration and secularised the state. Many, like Marx's father, benefited from this liberal regime. When, after Napoleon's defeat, the Rhineland passed under Prussian control, Hirschel Marx, Karl's father, abandoned Judaism for Christianity to retain the right to practise as a lawyer. Friedrich Engels, born in 1820, came from a family of German industrialists: he had, therefore, first-hand knowledge of the effects of rapid industrialisation. In 1842 Engels moved to Manchester to work at the family cotton mill. This took him to the heart of the world's first industrial nation.

Origins of the Manifesto

Like many young Germans, Marx and Engels were profoundly influenced by the German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831). Confronted by the upheavals of the French Revolution, he developed a theory of history that explained change. This was Hegel's dialectic. Throughout history, he argued, there was an interaction of ideas (the dialectic) that led to change. This was expressed as a thesis (original idea) conflicting with an antithesis (new idea) to produce a third idea, a synthesis, different from either thesis or antithesis. A concrete example of this process was his belief that the conflict between the absolute freedom of post-revolutionary France and the absolute monarchy of Prussia had led to the synthesis that was the 19th-century Prussian state. This was a state where citizens enjoyed greater freedoms than in the past, but where, unlike in France, freedom consisted of accepting one's duty to obey the state.

Hegelianism could, however, be interpreted in two ways. The Prussian state saw it as confirming its legitimacy, believing that Hegel had argued that Prussia represented an ideal state at the end of history. Against this, German radicals, the `Young Hegelians', stressed the dynamic element of Hegel's philosophy and argued that the Prussian state was simply one stage of an on-going historical process, or dialectic. This perspective provided a philosophical justification for demands for greater political freedom and social reforms. Independently, both Marx and Engels gravitated towards the Young Hegelians.

When Marx left University in 1841, his radical opinions prevented him from taking up an academic career, and so he turned to journalism. By 1842 he was editor of the Rheinische Zeitung. This experience led Marx to question the validity of Hegel's stress on the importance of ideas (Idealism). The practical problems that he confronted opened up the possibility that it was the physical conditions of life that brought about historical change. At the same time Engels' British experience was moving him towards materialism. In his 1845 work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, he argued that `The condition of the working class is the real basis and point of departure of all social movements ...'(1)

Collaboration between Marx and Engels began in Paris in 1844. Marx had gone there, following the suppression of the Rheinische Zeitung, to edit the Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher. Paris also attracted him because it was the centre of Europe's revolutionary tradition, and it gave him the opportunity to meet French socialists. While there he embarked on an intensive course of study which resulted in his final rejection of Idealism. States were not shaped by ideas, he decided, but by the material interests of the dominant groups in society. Hence in a capitalist society the state will embody the values of the capitalist. …

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