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Red Reviews: “The Communist Manifesto”

By J. Sykes

In 1848 a great revolutionary upsurge spread through Europe. These revolutions swept through Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Ireland and other parts of Europe. By and large, these were democratic revolutions against feudalism, waged by the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie and the working class. In the midst of this wave of revolution, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels joined the underground German Communist League. Marx and Engels were tasked with writing the program of the Communist League, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, a document that would explain the organization's analysis of the situation and its plan for how to move from that situation to revolution and socialism. 

Lenin writes of this period: 

“The revolution of 1848, which broke out first in France and then spread to other West-European countries, brought Marx and Engels back to their native country. Here, in Rhenish Prussia, they took charge of the democratic Neue Rheinische Zeitung published in Cologne. The two friends were the heart and soul of all revolutionary-democratic aspirations in Rhenish Prussia. They fought to the last ditch in defense of freedom and of the interests of the people against the forces of reaction. The latter, as we know, gained the upper hand. The Neue Rheinische Zeitung was suppressed. Marx, who during his exile had lost his Prussian citizenship, was deported; Engels took part in the armed popular uprising, fought for liberty in three battles, and after the defeat of the rebels fled, via Switzerland, to London.”

Marx and Engels were not simply theorists, as they are so often portrayed by bourgeois academics. They were revolutionary organizers and fighters, whose theoretical work was driven by the practical needs of the revolutionary movement. Marx’s “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League” of March 1850 outlines the practical work that accompanied the program put forward in the Manifesto and is important to look at together with it.

The Manifesto of the Communist Party

The Communist Manifesto is one of the clearest and most straightforward expressions of Marxism. As Lenin put it, “This little booklet is worth whole volumes: to this day its spirit inspires and guides the entire organized and fighting proletariat of the civilized world.” It explains the basic ideas of historical materialism and scientific socialism in a way that is accessible and inspiring. It is no wonder that this text has been a guide for revolutionaries the world over ever since, taking root first in Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution. 

In 1872, Marx and Engels wrote a preface to the Manifesto, in which they stressed that “however much that state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever.” They also emphasize that “the practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing.” At the same time, they note that history isn’t static, and that theory must develop along with practice. For this reason, they draw particular attention to the Revolution of 1848 in France and the Paris Commune in 1871, saying, “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’” Instead, as Marx explains in his books summing up those struggles, namely The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and The Civil War in France, it must be smashed and replaced by new organs of working class state power. 

The history of class struggle

The first chapter of the Manifesto begins with a declaration of the central principle of historical materialism: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” It explains that this struggle inevitably results in “the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” In the current period, it says, these contending classes are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – the capitalist class that owns the means of production, and the working class that lives by selling its labor power to the capitalists. It outlines the historical development of these two classes, and their trajectory moving forward. 

Marx and Engels explain the contemporary, bourgeois epoch like this: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. 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.” And they emphasize, capitalism’s predatory internal logic reshapes the world in its image. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” 

Here, also, Marx and Engels put forward the basic principle of historical materialism, that social progress is driven by the contradiction in any given historical mode of production between the forces of production and the relations of production. As the Manifesto states, “At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organization of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.” 

Marx and Engels explain how, in capitalist society, the relations of production – that is, the class relations of ownership and power – likewise hold back the development of the productive forces, resulting in crises of overproduction:

“The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labor. Wage-labor rests exclusively on competition between the laborers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

Following the sweeping analysis of the first chapter, which gives a picture of the terrain of struggle and the laws of motion driving things, the second chapter explains the aims of the communists: “formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.” 

The Manifesto explains the goal of socialism is to abolish all “class antagonisms and … classes generally.” This is an explanation, in a very concise and sweeping form, of the transition period from capitalism to communism, which Marx elsewhere calls the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

“Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.”

This is the first phase of socialism, the transition from capitalism to communism, where the working class wields state power in order to systematically uproot “the conditions for the existence” of classes. By doing this it abolishes the need for a state as such, as “the organized power of one class for oppressing another,” thus making possible a new stateless and classless world. Marx elaborates on this in his Critique of Gotha Program and Lenin further develops this in The State and Revolution

In the third chapter, Marx and Engels distinguish scientific socialism from various forms or reactionary, conservative, and utopian socialist movements. Here, Marx and Engels are dealing with their predecessors and their contemporaries: Moses Hess, Proudhon, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen. 

Finally, in the last section, they distinguish the Communist League from other parties and revolutionary forces. They explain that “the Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” They explain that in different places, they forge alliances with different class forces based on the concrete conditions in which those struggles find themselves. “In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.” 

The Manifesto boldly and courageously declares that “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.” Many opportunists today, who insist on equivocating on their positions, would do well to remember this important principled stand. “Let the ruling classes tremble,” the Manifesto says. No attempt at liberal respectability will protect them whenever the ruling class inevitably decides to show its teeth. The capitalists know who their enemy is, and so must we. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” 

The Manifesto in practice 

In March of 1850, Marx gave his famous “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League,” where he explains the practical implications of his theory, from the perspective of the concrete conditions of the revolutionary movement at the time. In this speech, Marx ends with the call for “permanent revolution.” This is a term that has been twisted away from Marx’s intent by the Trotskyites, who only confuse things by using the slogan to name Trotsky’s theory of world-wide-revolution-or-nothing, which Lenin called “absurdly Left.” For the Trotskyites, it is a matter of the workers fighting alone against capitalism, everywhere at once. By “permanent revolution,” Marx and Lenin mean advancing the revolution from the bourgeois democratic to the proletarian socialist stage, while Trotsky, on the other hand, means revolution can only succeed by spreading immediately from one country to all countries, with the working class alone fighting against all non-proletarian classes. 

Marx and Lenin advocated revolution in two stages, uniting with other classes, and establishing and consolidating socialism one country at a time. When Marx talked about permanent revolution in this address, he clearly intended this to mean that the revolutionary upsurge must not halt at the democratic stage, but that the working class must lead it forward into its second, proletarian socialist stage. As Marx puts it, 

“While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible … it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers.”

Indeed, Marx gives us sound and practical advice that resonates today as we work to build a united front against monopoly capitalism. He says, “The relationship of the revolutionary workers’ party to the petty-bourgeois democrats is this: it cooperates with them against the party which they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own position.” 

But Marx insists on what Mao Zedong would later refer to as “independence and initiative in the united front.” The working class must be independently organized and prepared to resist the reactionary turn of the bourgeois class forces following the bourgeois democratic stage, where they will attempt to consolidate their power at the expense of the working class. Thus, in order to be prepared to carry the revolution forward to its second, proletarian socialist stage, “To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory,” Marx says, “the workers must be armed and organized.” Marx also insists that “alongside the new official governments they must simultaneously establish their own revolutionary workers’ governments.” Marx and Engels organized to see this come to fruition, but this was first put into practice with lasting success in the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. 

The Manifesto today

Today we live in the era of imperialism. Since the 1970s imperialism has been in a state of prolonged decline. Its defeat is inevitable, but in the meanwhile, like a cornered and wounded animal, it is fighting fiercely. U.S. imperialism is waging war at home and abroad, and we are seeing powerful mass movements mobilizing against it. Militant resistance is coming from the student encampments and building occupations protesting the U.S.-backed Zionist genocide in Gaza against the Palestinian people. These heroic students are facing tremendous repression with courage, knowing they are on the right side of history. Likewise, people are also organizing to resist border militarization, to oppose police brutality, to protect the environment, to stop attacks on women and LGBTQ people, and workers are unionizing and going on strike. People everywhere are fighting back. But in order to advance in a strategic way, and turn resistance into revolution, we need to build a new, Marxist-Leninist communist party. The lessons of the Manifesto and the “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League” can help us find our way forward, just as they did for so many workers and oppressed people who came before us.

The importance of the Communist Manifesto, and the “Address,” which explained the practical, revolutionary work that the Manifesto outlined in theory, cannot be overstated. We see in these works, for the first time, a truly revolutionary, working-class program, together with the struggle to carry out that program in practice. These works clearly demonstrate that Marx and Engels were revolutionaries, and studying these works ought to expose every opportunist and revisionist who argues for a reformist, social-democratic, or merely academic reading of Marx. They expose all of those who would say that Marx wasn’t a revolutionary, and that Marxists shouldn’t be either. Marxism lays bare the laws at work in history and shows the way forward, and that way forward is a revolutionary road.

J. Sykes is the author of the book “The Revolutionary Science of Marxism-Leninism”. The book can be purchased by visiting

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