A world to win

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176 years ago, the “spectre” of Communist Party Manifesto “haunts the world”, inspiring the conscience and guiding the political action of millions of people

“This work exposes, with the clarity and brilliance of a genius, a new worldview, consistent with materialism, also applied to the field of social life; dialectics as the most complete and profound doctrine of development; the theory of class struggle and the world revolutionary historical role of the proletariat as creator of a new communist society”
(VI Lenin).

In the last week of February 1848, JE Burghard's little lithograph at 46 Liverpool Street in central London completed the printing of three thousand copies of a pamphlet, written in German, with the title Communist Party Manifesto. No one imagined the tremendous historical impact that this pamphlet, originally 23 pages long, would cause. 176 years ago, the “spectre” of The Manifest “haunts the world”, inspiring the conscience and guiding the political action of millions of people.

Whatever one's attitude towards Marxism, it is a fact that The Manifest became a classic work, not only of socialist thought, but also of universal political literature. It is an essential text for understanding our historical era. This does not mean, to be clear, that reality has confirmed every line written by Marx and Engels. This reading would be dogmatic, that is, anti-Marxist.[I] If there is a before and an after The Manifest, is because, in methodological and programmatic terms, he sealed the definitive transition from utopian to scientific socialism.

Neither Karl Marx nor Friedrich Engels invented socialism or communism, as some think. Before 1848, these concepts not only existed, but were considerably disseminated by penetrating authors such as the Comte de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, etc. They subjected the injustices and poverty caused by capitalism to severe criticism. The problem is that they opposed the atrocities of the bourgeoisie to unreal systems, idealized based on philanthropy and effort, in order to convince the ruling classes of the immorality of exploitation. In other words, they did not understand the essence or identify the social force capable of overcoming the system they challenged.

Consequently, for utopians, the proletariat was nothing more than a demoralized and inert class, subject only to punishment. However, utopian socialism was a product of its time. “His incipient theories,” explained Friedrich Engels, “do nothing more than reflect the incipient state of capitalist production, the embryonic class situation. They intended to take from the brain the solution to social problems still latent in the embryonic economic conditions of the time.”[ii] The new society would, therefore, be “the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and would only need to be discovered to conquer the world by virtue of its own power”.[iii]

O The Manifest it buries this infant stage of socialism by presenting, above all, a new theory, the materialist conception of history. According to her, “the history of every existing society to date is the history of class struggles”,[iv] in other words, the engine of human development is neither in the will of a superior being nor in the role of individuals in history, but in the struggle between oppressors and oppressed. There is no destiny: humanity makes its own history, although not in freely chosen circumstances.

The concept of social classes and the notion of the struggle between them were also not original. Before the The Manifest, other thinkers had considered these elements. What was innovative about the 1848 brochure was that, for the first time, it was proposed that the confrontation between classes was the central fact in the processes of social transformation throughout history. To better understand what was really new in scientific socialism, it is worth paying attention to this passage from a letter by Marx: “What I brought back was to show: (i) that the existence of classes is only linked to certain historical phases production development; (ii) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; (iii) that this same dictatorship is, in itself, just the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society…”[v].

About this, I make two comments. David Riazanov, a rigorous Marxist scholar, observed that The Manifest There is no expression “dictatorship of the proletariat”, although it is possible to note the basic elements of this idea. In 1848, however, this was still abstract. Its authors argued that the first step to be taken after the workers' revolution would be the “elevation of the proletariat to the status of ruling class” [herrschenby Klasse]. The category “dictatorship of the proletariat”, however, would appear explicitly in 1850: “This socialism is the declaration of the permanent revolution, of the class dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary transitional step towards the suppression of class differences in general, towards the suppression of all the relations of production on which they are based, for the suppression of all social relations corresponding to these relations of production, for the subversion of all ideas that flow from these social relations.”[vi].

Then, in 1875, in the famous Critique of the Gotha Program: “Between capitalist society and communist society there is a period of revolutionary transformation of the first into the second. This period also corresponds to a political period of transition, whose State cannot be other than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”.[vii]

The second thing is to note how far certain Marxologists are from the essence of Marxism, that is, from the concept and program of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The so-called “academic Marxism” is much more concerned with breaking down Marx’s thought to study him, in a static way, as a “philosopher”, “sociologist”, or “economist”, in short, as an armchair thinker.

Marx and Engels, at the same time as they proved the historicity and transience of capitalism – presented by liberalism as a “natural” system –, identified the proletariat as the main revolutionary social force, pointing to it as the inevitable product and gravedigger of bourgeois society: “With the development of large industry, the very basis on which it produces and appropriates products is removed from under the feet of the bourgeoisie. It produces, first of all, its own gravediggers.”

But the historical mission of the proletariat, in the view of the authors of the The Manifest, had a particularity in relation to previous oppressed classes. Due to the degree of development of the productive forces that society had reached, “…the proletariat cannot achieve its emancipation without, at the same time, emancipating the entire society from its division into classes and, therefore, from the class struggle”.[viii]

In other words, according to Marxist theory, the supreme aspiration of the proletariat is not to crystallize itself as a “ruling class”, even if it assumes this role for a necessary period, but rather the abolition of social classes and, therefore, the extinction of Modern bourgeois state.

At this point, it is necessary to reaffirm that the outcome of the struggle between classes is not predestined, as those who accuse Marxism of being “determinist” like to repeat. Himself The Manifest –not to mention other works by its authors– warns that this process “leads, at each stage, to the revolutionary transformation of the entire social regime or to the extermination of both classes in conflict”. In other words, communism is not something “inevitable”, fatal, but the result of this historic onslaught. Its counterpart is the triumph of barbarism.

This brings us to another fundamental concept exposed in the The Manifest, that of the modern State. The State, according to Marxist theory, is not a “neutral” apparatus, outside the class struggle. Its emergence is not only the inevitable product of the division of society into classes, but, under the control of the dominant classes, it is the main instrument of subjection of the dominated classes. “Modern government,” assert Marx and Engels, “is nothing more than an administrative committee for the affairs of the bourgeois class.”

O The Manifest he goes on to explain that “public power, properly speaking, is the organized power of one class for the oppression of others. If the proletariat, in its struggle against the bourgeoisie, necessarily constitutes itself as a class; establishes itself through revolution as the ruling class and, as the ruling class, violently destroys the old relations of production, it suppresses, together with these relations of production, the conditions for the existence of class antagonism, the classes themselves and therefore its own domination as a class.” In this way, the text presents the theory of the extinction of the State: “Once class antagonism disappears in the course of its development and all production is concentrated in the hands of associated individuals, public power loses its political character”.

The strategy proposed in The Manifest to overcome bourgeois society is related to the above. The proletariat, endowed with political organization, will have to take power, held by the bourgeoisie through control of the state machine, not through peaceful means, but through revolutionary violence: “the proletariat will establish its domination through the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie”. The task of the communists, therefore, consists in “the constitution of the proletarians into a class, the destruction of bourgeois supremacy, the conquest of political power by the proletariat”.

The lessons of the Paris Commune, which occurred 23 years after the publication of the The Manifest, improved the theory of the founders of scientific socialism on the relationship between the State and the proletarian revolution, which, according to them, was “outdated”: “the working class cannot limit itself to simply taking possession of the State machine as it is , in order to use it for their own purposes”, argued Marx in 1871. It was necessary to “destroy” this apparatus. In turn, Engels wrote in 1891: “[…] the working class, upon coming to power, can no longer govern with the old state machine […] in order not to lose again its newly conquered dominance, the working class must, on the one hand, sweep away all the old repressive machinery hitherto used against it, but, on the other, guard against its own representatives and employees, declaring them all revocable at any time.”[ix].

When running this program, one of the most quoted phrases in the The Manifest states that “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have, on the other hand, a world to win.”

It is astonishing to see how today's left has abandoned, covertly or explicitly, the lessons of The Manifest. The revolutionary method was replaced, without further ado, by the harmless parliamentary strategy, completely adapted to bourgeois legality. Likewise, an idea that permeates the entire content of the famous brochure, the class independence of the proletariat in relation to the bourgeoisie and its political representatives, was left aside. The doctrine of “popular fronts” and all types of “broad fronts” with sectors of a supposedly “democratic” or “progressive” bourgeoisie, sanctioned by Stalinism, is the opposite of the Marxist maxim that “the emancipation of workers can only be the work of the working class itself” and, consequently, is the opposite of the famous appeal with which the Manifesto concludes: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”.

In this brief mention of the fundamental ideas of the The Manifest, the principle of proletarian internationalism, based on the premise that capitalism, then expanding, knew no borders, cannot be omitted. The union of the working class, therefore, could not be restricted to national borders either: “The workers have no homeland. You can’t take from them what they don’t have”, says another iconic phrase from the Manifesto. Further on, he reinforces: “common action [of the different proletariats], at least in civilized countries, is one of the first conditions for their emancipation”. The organizational correlate of this principle was applied, still in an incipient way, from 1846 through the formation of the Communist Committees of Correspondence and, later, the League of Communists, which had members in London, Paris and Brussels, in addition to some influence in parts of present-day Germany. This was the basis of the later organization of the International Workers' Association (AIT), founded in 1864, later known as the First International.

The principle of class independence, in turn, shaped the entire Marxist theory of the revolutionary party. O The Manifest, the first scientific program of a communist party, declared that the time had come “for communists to express in the light of day and before the whole world their ideas, their tendencies, their objectives, thus breaking with this legend of the specter of communism with a party manifesto”. In chapter two, he defines the role of the communist party as “the most resolute sector of the workers' parties of all countries, which pushes all others; theoretically, he has over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the conditions, the course and the general objectives of the proletarian movement.”.

O The Manifest, in its final form, presents, with a penetrating vision, a panorama of the past, present and future of society. Although almost all of the document's ideas had been previously developed by its authors, for example in the then unpublished The German Ideology (1846), the depth and style with which they synthesized the new worldview, creating a unity between theory and practice, made this work a true historical heritage of the proletariat.

The historical context of The Manifest

O The Manifest It wasn't lightning in a blue sky. It emerged in the context of a politically effervescent Europe. A terrible economic crisis, combined with repeated bad harvests, accelerated the erosion of the old monarchical regimes. Pauperism triggered a series of bread riots in many countries. The most lucid minds had no doubt that a revolution was about to break out, a revolution that would be the most European of all revolutions.

Thus, the historical moment in which the The Manifest emerged must be understood as a unique process, conditioned by the degree of development that capitalism had achieved in Western Europe and, consequently, by the stage of organization of the working class in that space, as well as by the evolution of the ideas of Marx and Friedrich Engels, that is, is, their transformation from radical democrats to communists.

During his first stay in Manchester, between 1842 and 1844, Engels says that he came to the idea “that economic phenomena, to which historians had hitherto attributed no importance, or only a very secondary importance, are, at least in the world modern, a decisive historical force; I saw that these phenomena are the basis on which current class antagonisms are born, and that these class antagonisms, in countries where they are fully developed thanks to large industry […] constitute, in turn, the basis for the formation of parties politicians, for party struggles and, consequently, for all of political history”[X]. Engels anticipated Marx in attempting to synthesize classical German philosophy with English political economy. He incorporated these ideas into his Outline for a critique of political economy, an article published in Franco-German Annals, which would exert an enormous influence on the young Marx.

Marx, in turn, presented a similar idea in the same periodical, which Engels summarized as follows: “…it is not the State that conditions and regulates civil society, but civil society that conditions and regulates the State, and that politics and its history must therefore be explained by economic relations and their development, and not the other way around.”[xi]. Thus, when they met in Paris in August 1844, the two men realized that they had arrived at the same fundamental theoretical conclusions through different paths. This meeting gave rise to their intellectual collaboration and, above all, their intense militant activity, as we will see.

In February 1846, Marx and Engels founded the Committee of Communist Correspondence in Brussels – the city where Marx had settled after being expelled from Paris a year earlier – to strengthen relations with political émigrés and other revolutionary elements dispersed in Germany, France and England; The friends' objective was to organize fights based on the new materialist conception of history.

The Correspondence Committees were very important, as they were the embryo of an international workers' association. Marx and Engels also organized the German Workers' Association. They wrote in Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung, which they practically transformed into an organ of their ideas. Engels contributed to the Northern Star, the newspaper of the radical wing of the English Chartists. Marx served as vice-president of the Democratic Association, a kind of coalition between radical Brussels democrats and French petty-bourgeois socialists grouped in the newspaper Reform. In the midst of this intense practical activity, the two found time to write a fundamental work of Marxism, The German Ideology, whose manuscript was never printed due to lack of a publisher. Its content ended up being subjected to “rodent rat criticism”.

The League of the Just, a secret society with conspiratorial methods typical of the tradition of French revolutionaries at the time,[xii] he redoubled his efforts to get closer to Marx and Engels. The League had recruited modern workers, but it was mainly composed of emigrated German craftsmen: tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, watchmakers, etc. The section with the most proletarian and radical profile was London. Its main leaders were the Germans Karl Schapper, Heinrich Bauer and Joseph Moll.

The latter was given the task of meeting Marx in Brussels and Engels in Paris to officially invite them to participate in the society. If they accepted, they would be free to intervene in the process of theoretical reformulation and political reorganization to be defined at an international congress. Moll explained to both of them that the majority of the League was convinced of the correctness of their theory and were ready to abandon conspiratorial methods, a form of action to which they were opposed.

The League had a utopian program based on French egalitarian communism, emanating from Babeuf's ideas, mixed with elements of a confused interpretation of early Christianity preached by a talented German tailor named Weitling. This man, who saw himself as a prophet and even developed a universal language project, was greatly influenced by Proudhon's ideas. The motto of the League of the Righteous was “All men are brothers.”

For a part of the London section of the League, this “philosophical sentimental” communism was not up to the social changes and the tasks of the proletariat imposed by the rapid development of capitalist industry. The internal crisis was growing, accelerated, to some extent, by the tireless propaganda carried out by Marx and Engels: “At the same time,” comments Marx, “we published a series of pamphlets, printed or lithographed, in which the mixture of Anglo socialism -French with German philosophy, which then constituted the secret doctrine of the League, was subjected to merciless criticism, we established the scientific study of the economic structure of bourgeois society as the only relevant theoretical basis, and we explained in purely popular language that what was in The issue was not the imposition of any utopian system, but active and conscious participation in the revolutionary social process taking place before us.”[xiii].

To this we must add the work of Engels, who in August 1846 left for Paris in an attempt to attract and organize German emigrants under the banner of scientific communism. To do this, he had to fight a fierce battle against the ideas of Proudhon and the “true socialism” of Karl Grün, a dispute that had a strong impact on the League of the Just.

The fact is that this League offered Marx and Engels an opportunity for action that they could not miss. Thus, they agreed to incorporate in January 1847. They intervened with full force in the internal debate, with the support of Londoners.

The first congress began in June 1847. Marx had no money for the trip, so all responsibility fell to Engels. After violent debates, the League was reorganized. Both the statutes and the drafts of the program should be submitted for consideration of the bases to be resumed in a new congress. The authoritarian tradition of “decisions coming from above”, typical of sects, has been overcome. The organization changed its name to the League of Communists. The first article of the statutes indicated the penetration of the ideas of scientific socialism: “The objective of the League is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the domination of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society based on class antagonisms and the creation of a new society, without classes and without private property”. In September, the League published the Communist Review, in which the organization's new slogan appeared: “Proletarians of all countries, unite”.

At the end of October, Friedrich Engels drew up a draft program, at the request of Parisian members of the League of Communists, which became known as Principles of Communism, the main predecessor of The Manifest. The outline was in the form of a “creed”, with questions and answers. However, Engels himself, who was meticulous, soon opposed this format. The future program should be something perennial, with a solid basis in the “history of the issue”. For Engels, a “catechism” did not “serve this purpose at all.” Thus, on November 24, he proposed to Marx that he give the “thing” the name “Communist Manifesto”, a style familiar in French political literature since the Manifesto of Equals of 1796.

The second congress, which was supposed to complete the work of the first, was held in November and December 1847. It ended in accordance with the aspirations of Marx and Engels. The congress charged them with drawing up a theoretical and practical program, for publication purposes, for the League.

Marx was tasked with writing the The Manifest. He completed the task in January 1848, sending it to the press just weeks before the outbreak of the February revolution in Paris, which overthrew King Louis Philippe I and established the Second French Republic. The revolutionary process spread like wildfire in Italy, then in the Rhineland, in Prussia, and then in Austria and Hungary.

O The Manifest predicted that Europe, especially the future Germany, was on the eve of a revolution. This process would have the advantage of occurring in objective and subjective conditions more advanced than the classical bourgeois revolutions of the 1848th and 49th centuries, to the point that they predicted that “the German bourgeois revolution” would be the “immediate prelude to a proletarian revolution”. However, this prediction was not confirmed. The German Revolution of XNUMX-XNUMX (Märzrevolution) did not triumph as a proletarian revolution and, for that reason, neither as a bourgeois democratic revolution. The defeated “spring of the peoples” inaugurated another class dynamic at the time of the bourgeois revolution; its lessons would be analyzed by Marx and Engels from 1850 onwards.

Trotsky would explain, in 1905, why 1848 was not 1789. The European revolution in which Marx and Engels participated broke out in the context of the worst situation, a kind of “middle term”. The bourgeoisie of 1848 did not behave like the bourgeoisie of 1789. The liberals no longer “wanted” to develop their own revolution and the proletariat was not yet “able” to carry it to the end: “The proletariat was too weak, it found itself without organization, without experience and without knowledge. Capitalist development had progressed enough to make the abolition of the old feudal conditions necessary, but not enough to allow the working class – the product of the new conditions of production – to emerge as a decisive political force.”[xiv].

In any case, it cannot be said that the The Manifest had exerted a practical influence on the revolutionary movements of 1848-1849. Apart from the members of the League, very few knew of its existence. It wasn't even for sale. After the defeat, the The Manifest he left the political scene completely anathematized and, according to Engels, “he was soon relegated to the background due to the reaction that followed the defeat of the Parisian workers in June 1848”. The Communist League was dissolved in 1852.

The meaning of the The Manifest had to wait for a different moment in the class struggle and new advances in workers' organization, which reached its peak at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, when European social democracy experienced a dizzying strengthening. However, there is an event that marks the turning point in the European reality and in the dissemination of Marx's works: the Paris Commune. It was after the experience of the “first workers’ government in history” that editions and translations of the works of the fathers of scientific socialism multiplied, mainly from The Manifest.

According to Bert Andréas, between 1872 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, the 1848 text was printed in thirty languages, including three editions in Japanese and one in Chinese. There were 70 editions in Russian, 55 in German, 34 in English, 26 in French, 11 in Italian, and so on. The first translation into Spanish, made by typographer José Mesa, was published in 1872.

How valid are the ideas of the The Manifest in the 21st century?

It would be very difficult, without becoming ridiculous, to deny the influence that the theoretical and political legacy of Marxism continues to exert in the world; and the The Manifest It is a fundamental part of the vast work of the founders of scientific socialism.

Translated into almost every language and published in almost every country, the power of the ideas contained in this “pamphlet” is still capable of shaking the ruling classes out of their tranquility. Regardless of the passage of time, it can be said that, in every struggle, in every revolution, the specter of communism lurks...

This is because the general principles stated in the The Manifest remain accurate and valid. Obviously there are details that are out of date. There are also hypotheses and prognoses that have not been proven. Trotsky is right, among other observations, when he states that its authors “underestimated the future possibilities latent in capitalism and, on the other hand, overestimated the revolutionary maturity of the proletariat”. However, it would be inaccurate not to highlight that the Manifesto warned that “the practical application of these principles will always and everywhere depend on existing historical circumstances”. Its own authors, 25 years later, reaffirmed the principles established in the text, but admitted that there were parts that justified an adjustment or different wording. They were not seers. As the class struggle is a living and dynamic process, and as the very object of Marxist analysis, the capitalist mode of production, is in constant movement, it is impossible to demand that a text published 176 years ago respond in detail to the problems of the XNUMXst century .

O The Manifest It is neither an oracle nor a sacred text. Therefore, there is nothing less Marxist than approaching it with a Talmudic method. O The Manifest It may not be enough to respond in detail to the current problems of the world working class, but it remains an indispensable starting point. It remains a guide to action for anyone seeking not just to interpret the world, but to transform it.

*Ronald Leon Nunez he holds a doctorate in history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (sundermann).

Translation: Marcos Margarido.


[I] For an overview of the Manifesto's ideas, we recommend Trotsky's text entitled 90 years of the Communist Manifesto:https://www.marxists.org/portugues/trotsky/1937/10/30.htm>.

[ii] ENGELS, F. From Utopian Socialism to Scientific Socialism. Buenos Aires: Editorial Ágora, 2001, p. 33.

[iii] Ditto, p. 39.

[iv] MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich. Communist Party Manifesto:https://www.marxists.org/portugues/marx/1848/ManifestoDoPartidoComunista/index.htm>. Unless otherwise indicated, all references to The Manifest will now refer to this digital edition.

[v] MARX, K. Letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, 5/03/1852:https://www.marxists.org/portugues/marx/1852/03/05.htm>.

[vi] MARX, K. Class Struggles in France from 1848 to 1850:https://www.marxists.org/portugues/marx/1850/11/lutas_class/index.htm >.

[vii] MARX, K. Critique of the Gotha Program:https://www.marxists.org/portugues/marx/1875/gotha/index.htm>.

[viii] ENGELS, F. For the History of the League of Communists:https://www.marxists.org/portugues/marx/1885/10/08.htm>.

[ix] MARX, Carl. The Civil War in France. Introduction by Friedrich Engels:https://www.marxists.org/portugues/marx/1871/guerra_civil/index.htm>.

[X] ENGELS, F. For the History of the League of Communists:https://www.marxists.org/portugues/marx/1885/10/08.htm>.

[xi] Idem.

[xii] The League of the Just emerged in Paris in 1836, the result of a split from the League of Outlaws, a society of German émigrés that, according to Engels, was nothing more than “a German branch of the French secret societies and, mainly, of the 'Société des saisons', led by Blanqui and Barbès, with whom he maintained intimate relations".

[xiii] MARX, Carl. Herr Vogt. Buenos Aires: Lautaro, 1947, p. 102.

[xiv] TROTSKY, Leon. Balance and perspectives. The theory of permanent revolution. São Paulo: Editora Sundermann, 2011, p. 65.

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