In the spring of 1847 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels agreed to join the so-called League of the Just [Bund der Gerechten], an offshoot of the earlier League of the Outlaws [Bund der Geächteten], a revolutionary secret society formed in Paris in the 1830s under French Revolutionary influence by German journeymen – mostly tailors and woodworkers – and still mainly composed of such expatriate artisan radicals. The League, convinced by their ‘critical communism’, offered to publish a Manifesto drafted by Marx and Engels as its policy document, and also to modernize its organization along their lines. Indeed, it was so reorganized in the summer of 1847, renamed League of the Communists [Bund der Kommunisten], and committed to the object of ‘the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the ending of the old society which rests on class contradiction [Klassengegensätzen] and the establishment of a new society without classes or private property’. A second congress of the League, also held in London in November–December 1847, formally accepted the objects and new statutes, and invited Marx and Engels to draft the new Manifesto expounding the League’s aims and policies.
Although both Marx and Engels prepared drafts, and the document clearly represents the joint views of both, the final text was almost certainly written by Marx – after a stiff reminder by the Executive, for Marx, then as later, found it hard to complete his texts except under the pressure of a firm deadline. The virtual absence of early drafts might suggest that it was written rapidly.[i] The resulting document of twenty-three pages, entitled Manifesto of the Communist Party (more generally known since 1872 as The Communist Manifesto), was ‘published in February 1848’, printed in the office of the Workers’ Educational Association (better known as the Communistischer Arbeiterbildungsverein, which survived until 1914), at 46 Liverpool Street in the City of London.
This small pamphlet is by far the most influential single piece of political writing since the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. By good luck it hit the streets only a week or two before the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848, which spread like a forest fire from Paris across the continent of Europe. Although its horizon was firmly international – the first edition hopefully, but wrongly, announced the impending publication of the Manifesto in English, French, Italian, Flemish and Danish – its initial impact was exclusively German. Small though the Communist League was, it played a not insignificant part in the German Revolution, not least through the newspaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848–49), which Karl Marx edited. The first edition of the Manifesto was reprinted three times in a few months, serialized in the Deutsche Londoner Zeitung, corrected and reset in thirty pages in April or May 1848, but dropped out of sight with the failure of the 1848 revolutions. By the time Marx settled down to his lifelong exile in England in 1849, the Manifesto had become sufficiently scarce for him to think it worth reprinting Section III (‘Socialistische und kommunis- tische Literatur’) in the last issue of his London magazine Neue Rheinische Zeitung, politisch-ökonomische Revue (November 1850), which had hardly any readers.
Nobody would have predicted a remarkable future for the Manifesto in the 1850s and early 1860s. A small new edition was privately issued in London by a German émigré printer, probably in 1864, and another small edition in Berlin in 1866 – the first ever actually published in Germany. Between 1848 and 1868 there seem to have been no translations apart from a Swedish version, probably published at the end of 1848, and an English one in 1850, significant in the bibliographical history of the Manifesto only because the translator seems to have consulted Marx – or (since she lived in Lancashire) more probably Engels. Both versions sank without trace. By the mid-1860s virtually nothing that Marx had written in the past was any longer in print.
Marx’s prominence in the International Working Men’s Association (the so-called ‘First International’, 1864–72) and the emergence, in Germany, of two important working-class parties, both founded by former members of the Communist League who held him in high esteem, led to a revival of interest in the Manifesto, as in his other writings. In particular, his eloquent defence of the Paris Commune of 1871 (commonly known as The Civil War in France) gave him considerable notoriety in the press as a dangerous leader of international subversion, feared by governments. More specifically, the treason trial of the German Social-Democratic leaders, Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel and Adolf Hepner in March 1872 gave the document unexpected publicity. The prosecution read the text of the Manifesto into the court record, and thus gave the Social-Democrats their first chance of publish- ing it legally, and in a large print run, as part of the court proceedings. As it was clear that a document published before the 1848 Revolution might need some updating and explanatory commentary, Marx and Engels produced the first of the series of prefaces which have since usually accompanied new editions of the Manifesto.[ii] For legal reasons the preface could not be widely distributed at the time, but in fact the 1872 edition (based on the 1866 edition) became the foundation of all subsequent editions. Meanwhile, between 1871 and 1873, at least nine editions of the Manifesto appeared in six languages.
Over the next forty years the Manifesto conquered the world, carried forward by the rise of the new (socialist) labour parties, in which the Marxist influence rapidly increased in the 1880s. None of these chose to be known as a Communist Party until the Russian Bolsheviks returned to the original title after the October Revolution, but the title Manifesto of the Communist Party remained unchanged. Even before the Russian Revolution of 1917 it had been issued in several hundred editions in some thirty languages, including three editions in Japanese and one in Chinese. Nevertheless, its main region of influence was the central belt of Europe, stretching from France in the West to Russia in the East. Not surprisingly, the largest number of editions were in the Russian language (70) plus 35 more in the languages of the Tsarist empire – 11 in Polish, 7 in Yiddish, 6 in Finnish, 5 in Ukrainian, 4 in Georgian, 2 in Armenian. There were 55 editions in German plus, for the Habsburg Empire, another 9 in Hungarian and 8 in Czech (but only 3 in Croat and one each in Slovak and Slovene), 34 in English (covering the USA also, where the first translation appeared in 1871), 26 in French and 11 in Italian – the first not until 1889.[iii] Its impact in southwestern Europe was small – 6 editions in Spanish (including the Latin American ones); one in Portuguese. So was its impact in southeastern Europe (7 editions in Bulgarian, 4 in Serb, 4 in Romanian, and a single edition in Ladino, presumably published in Salonica). Northern Europe was moderately well represented, with 6 editions in Danish, 5 in Swedish and 2 in Norwegian.[iv]
This uneven geographical distribution did not only reflect the uneven development of the socialist movement, and of Marx’s own influence, as distinct from other revolutionary ideologies such as anarchism. It should also remind us that there was no strong correlation between the size and power of social-democratic and labour parties and the circulation of the Manifesto. Thus until 1905 the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), with its hundreds of thousands of members and millions of voters, published new editions of the Manifesto in print runs of not more than 2,000–3,000 copies. The party’s Erfurt Programme of 1891 was published in 120,000 copies, while it appears to have published not many more than 16,000 copies of the Manifesto in the eleven years 1895 to 1905, the year in which the circulation of its theoretical journal, Die Neue Zeit, was 6,400.[v] The average member of a mass Marxist social-democratic party was not expected to pass examinations in theory. Conversely, the 70 pre-Revolutionary Russian editions represented a combination of organizations, illegal for most of the time, whose total membership cannot have exceeded a few thousand. Similarly, the 34 English editions were published by and for the scattering of Marxist sects in the Anglo-Saxon world, operating on the left flank of such labour and socialist parties as existed. This was the milieu in which ‘the clearness of a comrade could be gauged invariably from the number of earmarks on his Manifesto’.[vi] In short, the readers of the Manifesto, though they were part of the new and rising socialist labour parties and movements, were almost certainly not a representative sample of their membership. They were men and women with a special interest in the theory that underlay such movements. This is probably still the case.
This situation changed after the October Revolution – at all events, in the Communist Parties. Unlike the mass parties of the Second International (1889–1914), those of the Third (1919–43) expected all their members to understand – or at least to show some knowledge of – Marxist theory. The dichotomy between effective political leaders, uninterested in writing books, and the ‘theorists’ like Karl Kautsky – known and respected as such, but not as practical political decision-makers – faded away. Following Lenin, all leaders were now supposed to be important theorists, since all political decisions were justified on grounds of Marxist analysis – or, more probably, by reference to the textual authority of ‘the classics’: Marx, Engels, Lenin and, in due course, Stalin. The publication and popular distribution of Marx’s and Engels’s texts therefore became far more central to the movement than they had been in the days of the Second International. They ranged from series of the shorter writings, probably pioneered by the German Elementarbücher des Kommunismus during the Weimar Republic, and suitably selected compendia of read- ings, such as the invaluable Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels, to Selected Works of Marx and Engels in two – later three – volumes, and the preparation of their Collected Works [Gesamtausgabe]; all backed by the – for these purposes – unlimited resources of the Soviet Communist Party, and often printed in the Soviet Union in a variety of foreign languages.
The Communist Manifesto benefited from this new situation in three ways. Its circulation undoubtedly grew. The cheap edition published in 1932 by the official publishing houses of the American and British Communist Parties in ‘hundreds of thousands’ of copies has been described as ‘probably the largest mass edition ever issued in English’.[vii] Its title was no longer a historical survival, but now linked it directly to current politics. Since a major state now claimed to represent Marxist ideology, the Manifesto’s standing as a text in political science was reinforced, and it accordingly entered the teaching programme of universities, destined to expand rapidly after the Second World War, where the Marxism of intellectual readers was to find its most enthusiastic public in the 1960s and 1970s.
The USSR emerged from the Second World War as one of the two superpowers, heading a vast region of Communist states and dependencies. Western Communist Parties (with the notable exception of the German Party) emerged from it stronger than they had ever been or were likely to be. Although the Cold War had begun, in the year of its centenary the Manifesto was no longer published simply by communist or other Marxist editors, but in large editions by non-political publishers with introductions by prominent academics. In short, it was no longer only a classic Marxist document – it had become a political classic tout court.
It remains one, even after the end of Soviet communism and the decline of Marxist parties and movements in many parts of the world. In states without censorship, almost certainly anyone within reach of a good bookshop, and certainly within reach of a good library, can have access to it. The object of a new edition is therefore not so much to make the text of this astonishing masterpiece available, and still less to revisit a century of doctrinal debates about the ‘correct’ interpretation of this fundamental document of Marxism. It is to remind ourselves that the Manifesto still has plenty to say to the world in the first decades of the twenty-first century.
[i] Only two items of such material have been discovered – a plan for Section III and one draft page. Karl Marx–Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6 (London 1976), pp. 576–7.
[ii] In the lifetime of the founders they were: (1) Preface to the (second) German edition, 1872; (2) Preface to the (second) Russian edition, 1882 – the first Russian translation, by Bakunin, had appeared in 1869, understandably without Marx’s and Engels’s blessing; (3) Preface to the (third) German edition, 1883; (4) Preface to the English edition, 1888; (5) Preface to the (fourth) German edition, 1890; (6) Preface to the Polish edition, 1892; and (7) Preface ‘To Italian Readers’, 1893.
[iii] Paolo Favilli, Storia del marxismo italiano. Dalle origini alla grande guerra (Milan 1996), pp. 252–4.
[iv] I rely on the figures in the invaluable Bert Andréas, Le Manifeste Communiste de Marx et Engels. Histoire et Bibliographie 1848–1918 (Milan 1963).
[v] Data from the annual reports of the SPD Parteitage. However, no numerical data about theoretical publications are given for 1899 and 1900.
[vi] Robert R. LaMonte, ‘The New Intellectuals’, New Review II, 1914; cited in Paul Buhle, Marxism in the USA: From 1870 to the Present Day (London 1987), p. 56.
[vii] Hal Draper, The Annotated Communist Manifesto (Center for Socialist History, Berkeley, CA 1984), p. 64.