Tariq Ali: Introduction to The Communist Manifesto


Today marks the 175th anniversary of the publication of one of the most influential documents in world history: The Communist Manifesto. In this introduction to the new edition, published alongside Lenin's April Theses, Tariq Ali contextualises the period—the eve of the 1848 revolutions—in which Marx and Engels penned their masterpiece and argues that it desperately needs a successor.

The Communist Manifesto
is the last great document of the European Enlightenment and the first to register a completely new system of thought: historical materialism. As such it marks both a continuation and a break. Infinitely more radical than its French and American predecessors, written at a time when the impact of a huge political defeat was beginning to wear off, it was the product of two young German minds, both intellectuals in their twenties and both schooled in the Hegelian philosophical tradition that dominated Berlin and other German universities during the first half of the nineteenth century. This text was a major turning point in the revolutionary theory and practice of the last two centuries, insisting, as it does, that revolution is the inevitable outcome of capitalism in modern industrialized societies.

Occasionally, philosophical debates in Germany left a mark much uglier than the duelling scars of the era. It was the evolution of philosophy that resulted in the birth of a new left radical milieu in which Marx and Engels played a significant role. All their texts, especially this one, should be studied in the social, economic and philosophical context of the period in which they were written.To treat them as devotional tracts is to debase both meaning and method and, in the case of the Manifesto in particular, to render them harmless. The prescriptions and predictions are obviously outdated today, and capitalism itself, despite the triumph of 1991, appears more like a nervous disorder rather than an organism capable of taking humanity forward. We desperately need a new manifesto to meet the challenges of today and those that lie ahead, but till that time (and even afterwards) there is much to learn from the method, the élan and the language of this one.

Politics was decisive in pushing forward the further radicalization of the young German intelligentsia of the nineteenth century. There was no option left. Either they joined him or they had to move beyond Hegel. The period opened up by the French Revolution in 1789 had come to an end with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815.The Congress of Victors convened in Vienna later that year had agreed a map of Europe and discussed mechanisms through which dissent could be controlled and crushed. The Vienna Consensus would be policed by Russia, Prussia and Austria with the British Navy as an ever-reliable backdrop, a weapon of last resort. The triumph of reaction fuelled the retreat on the intellectual front. Hegel, the theorist of permanent mobility, insisted that history was never static, itself the result of a clash of ideas, a dialectic where past and present determined the future. This history, he insisted, was inevitable, unpredictable and, most importantly, unstoppable. Shaken by the defeat at Waterloo, he now accepted the ‘end of history’. The once dynamic ‘world-spirit’ had cast aside Napoleon’s great- coat, hat and the tricolour in favour of the steel helmets and the eagle of the Prussian Junkers. Field Marshal Blücher had defeated the upstart Corsican. A triumphant Prussia could well be a model state, confining the historical process to an eternal mausoleum. It was not to be.

Apart from all else, even though 1815 imposed a silence on the French Revolution, its social and juridical achievements were essentially maintained: the feudal estates were not restored to their former lords. The liberating impact of the Revolution lived on in the memories of the common people and not just in France. Rousseau’s maxim was not forgotten: ‘You are lost if you forget that land belongs to no one and its fruits belong to everyone.’

Some of Hegel’s most gifted pupils and followers, including our two authors, followed events in France in minute detail. They were aware of the ‘Conspiracy of Equals’ that had followed the Revolution. The attempt to establish a ‘plebeian Vendee’ had been defeated and its commonist/ communist planners executed. François Babeuf (who had adopted the pseudonym Gracchus) had stabbed himself to escape execution on 26 March 1797.These vibrant histories as well as those of the Revolution itself were eagerly devoured by young radicals in Germany and elsewhere. Secret societies, underground work, resistance, acts of individual violence were commonplace. Debates on what happened to the ‘second revolution’ in France after Robespierre’s defeat by the Thermidorian Reaction never ceased. It was, after all, the language of the radicals, repudiated by the Directory and Napoleon, that anticipated the demands that would later envelop the continent: universal suffrage, separation of church and state, some redistribution of wealth.

That is why, despite the break with post-1815 Hegel, the German radicals, finding his conclusions deficient, carried on using important elements of his method to investigate the world. Intellectual fertility did not end with the master’s retreat, and its offspring increased both in volume and content. Feuerbach had turned Hegel on his head, refuting the notion that ideas determined being. He insisted on the opposite: it was being that determined consciousness. Another precocious Left-Hegelian enhanced the critique further. Marx articulated social and class differences that existed within society as a whole. Might these, he enquired, have something to do with the difference in status between the King of Prussia, a Moselle peasant and a factory worker? What was it that produced the ensemble of social relations that highlighted the difference between one class and another? It was this that needed to be further investigated and mapped in order to understand how the world functioned. It was not enough to denounce property as theft or to state that humans were a product of their environment. Who could have fantasized that the ‘world- spirit’, expelled from its homeland by rampant reaction, would, thanks to Marx and Lenin, end up in Petrograd and Moscow and later travel to other continents and mingle with native spirits?

A wave of repression soon engulfed different corners of the European continent. The rulers were panicked by the re-emergence of the tri- colour in France, and the secret police reported growing discontent in many other parts of the country. The East was largely occupied, unwillingly, by the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. Here a mood of radical nationalism, a desire for self-determination and independence was gaining popularity. The euphoria created by the Congress of Victors had faded—it had never gripped the masses in any case––and various forms of dissent were beginning to appear in the shape of class struggle, democratic demands, and radical nationalism; the mood of the European elites became sombre (not unlike the gatherings of the wealthy and the powerful in Davos and elsewhere after the Wall Street crash of 2008). Even the slightest resistance was seen as a threat to the new order and already limited political rights were further truncated, culminating in severe curbs on freedoms of press, speech and action. Marx was forced into exile, first France, then Belgium and finally England. Engels’s family already owned a firm in Manchester, so his choice of exile was predetermined. Other colleagues abandoned Europe altogether and emigrated to the United States where they remained active and maintained regular contact with their comrades in Europe. Many of them put enormous pressure on Marx to migrate to the United States. He resisted for political reasons, seeing Western Europe––the most advanced segment of capitalism––as the epicentre of the revolutions that lay ahead.

Marx would have preferred to live in France, a country that had become a pole of intellectual and political attraction when he was still growing up in Trier. He had read the works of the Count de Saint-Simon with a mixture of fascination and excitement, and it was in his writings that socialism as a word and an embryonic concept was first encountered. The socialist tradition in France would become deeply rooted only when the industrialization of the country enabled the links between radical ideas and the emergence of a new social layer. A nervous bourgeoisie was not unaware of this, which is why it had introduced the September laws of 1835 that severely cur- tailed the function of juries and the press. Those who agitated against private property or the state were subjected to harsh penalties. Bourgeois revolutions were going back on their own watch- words and the new bourgeoisie—the ‘ultras’ so despised by Stendhal—had to be confronted and defeated. This meant moving beyond the limits of German philosophy—Hegel and Feuerbach were not enough. For if meaningful progress was to be achieved the obvious limitations of the propertied elites in modern Europe (England, France, Belgium and Holland) had to be transcended as well.

In an illuminating essay published four years before the Manifesto was written, Marx argued that ‘clearly the weapon of criticism cannot replace the criticism of weapons ... material force can only be overthrown by material force. But theory also becomes a material force when it has gripped the masses.’For both him and Engels it was the ‘positive’ transcendence of religion that made human beings truly radical, for only then could they become self-reliant, only then could they understand that they and they alone were the supreme being. The major reference point was, of course, the French Revolution, but these new radicals were very conscious of the German history they lived and breathed. If, during the German Reformation, it was the monk who had seized the initiative and challenged Rome, it was the philosopher who would now challenge the new powers. Germany, in order to be fully emancipated, had to go beyond what Britain, Holland and France had already achieved.

The Manifesto was commissioned as the founding programme of the Communist League, a foco of largely German exiles and a few Belgian and English supporters who met in London in the summer of 1847. The Central Committee instructed Marx, then in Brussels, to produce a manifesto. Marx agreed but did not treat the injunction as a priority. He found it easier to complete texts when there was a strict deadline. A few months later a somewhat tetchy triumvirate—citizens Karl Schapper, Heinrich Bauer and Joseph Moll—did suggest a cut-off date and threatened reprisals if it was not met:

The Central Committee (in London) hereby directs the District Committee of Brussels to notify Citizen Marx that if the Manifesto of the Communist Party, which he consented at the last Congress, to draw up, does not reach London before Tuesday, February 1 [1848], further measures will be taken against him. In case Citizen Marx does not write the Manifesto, the Central Committee requests the immediate return of the documents that were turned over to him by the Congress.

They were right to be angry. Information reaching them from several European capitals revealed seething discontent, especially among workers, against the 1815Vienna Consensus. A democratic upsurge was predicted for Germany. The citizens were desperate for a manifesto that could both express the hopes and channel the political energies of the workers. So what on earth was Marx up to? To be fair he was working on the document, but kept being interrupted by German workers and intellectuals who were eager to discuss the situation at home. Marx was instinctively aware that this document was of some importance. For that reason, each word had to carefully weighed, each sentence revised to per- fection. This is exactly what he and Engels were engaged in, and it is this, as many have remarked, that gave the document its compelling literary power.

The final version was finished in the first week of February 1848 and it was still hot off the presses as the 1848 revolution erupted in France and spread rapidly to the rest of the continent. The Manifesto had no part in preparing or fomenting the struggles, but it was widely circulated and read by those who had played a leading role or participated in the upheavals that lit Europe that year. In the decades that followed it would become the de facto founding document of most social-democrat parties, with Britain (untouched by 1848) as the most important exception. No such party ever came into existence in the United States, where the Manifesto was first published in Chicago’s German-language press in 1872.

Both Anglo-imperialisms were on the march in February 1848.The British had defeated the Sikh armies in the previous month and were consolidating their hold on Northern India. A few decades earlier, they had crushed Tipu Sultan, the enlightened Muslim ruler of Mysore in the South who, signing himself as ‘Citizen Tipu’, had appealed to Napoleon for help against the British. None was forthcoming though friendly letters were exchanged. In the United States,a warmongering President Polk was seizing Mexican lands—the Californias and New Mexico—and contemplating taking the whole country.he naton’s less privileged citizens were also engaged in conquests and were, for the time being, immunized against the more radical message of the Manifesto. As instruments of expansionist capitalism, however, they were fulfilling its predictions of how this newest mode of production would sweep aside everything that stood in its way: native populations, entire countries, ancient traditions. The question not posed was whether those who worked and died for such a system could also become its gravediggers. It was assumed that they would, but they never did. Despite the difference in historical traditions, no imperialist state—Britain, France, Holland, Belgium or the United States—ever came close to a socialist revolution. Germany, a wannabe hegemon, did experience serious upheavals but ultimately capital ensured the triumph of the Right. The combination of capital and mass-based fascism combined to destroy all hopes in Italy and Germany. Historical inevitability turned out to be the weak link of this document.

What can one say about its language that has not been said before? Very little. In a previous introduction to this pamphlet, Eric Hobsbawm described how some of its most attractive features lay in its ‘passionate conviction, the concentrated brevity, the intellectual and stylistic force ... in lapidary sentences almost naturally transforming themselves into the memorable aphorisms which have become known far beyond the world of political debate’. He pointed out how uncommon this was in nineteenth-century German literature.The content was, as Lenin suggested, a remarkable synthesis of German philosophy,

English economics and French politics that had framed the consciousness of its two authors.The lyrical praise of the transforming capacities of capitalism that had ‘accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals’ was to emphasize what capitalism’s successor could achieve. The new wonders of the world were proudly asserted to demonstrate the forward march of history:

The bourgeoisie, during its role of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, rail- ways, electric telegraphs, clearings of whole con- tinents for cultivation, canalizing of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour.

Could a socialist revolution built on these foundations transform the ‘realm of necessity’ into the ‘realm of freedom’? History vindicated very few of the predictions contained in the Manifesto. Its strength lay in its broad sweep, a call to transform the world. But divisions within the proletariat— pay grades, reserve armies of the unemployed, religion, nationalism, etc.—in the very heart- lands of capital, as Marx later recognized in most cases, was not something that could easily be conjured out of existence. Sociology was insufficient. Politics was essential. Famously, Marx and Engels left no detailed blueprint of what a socialist or communist society should look like, some- thing that led academic Marxists to pronounce that Marx’s originality lay in his philosophy and economics. Others utilized his panegyrics celebrating the revolutionary capacities of capital to argue that the gravediggers were the capitalists themselves. Best to watch from the sidelines as they committed collective suicide. More recently, before the 2008 Wall Street crash, not an insignificant number of onetime Marxists celebrated the latest ‘globalization’ as a vindication of Marx. And so they became its mouthpieces and turned their coats with a clear conscience, regarding 2008 as a temporary blip that would soon be transcended and forgotten. The crash brought Marx to the fore again. Not the co-author of the Manifesto, but the Marx of Capital, who had meticulously analysed this mode of production in greater detail than anyone before or since.

Questions remained. What of those countries that constituted a large majority of the world and where the proletariat was dwarfed by other social layers and was too insignificant economically, socially and politically? Could it spark off a revolution by itself when the overwhelming forces in society were ranged against it? This issue would be hotly debated within international social- democracy in the period that led to the first large-scale inter-imperialist war of 1914–1918. The participants included Lenin. He understood Marx better than most. He had also grasped something that eluded his European colleagues: in times of severe crisis, the ‘weakest link in the capitalist chain’ would break first, triggering a more general collapse of the system. In April 1917, between the two revolutions that trans- formed Tsarist Russia during the first imperialist war, he wrote a set of theses, urging his own party to make the necessary preparations for a social revolution. These are included on the flip side of this book to which you may now turn. For without the Russian Revolution of November 1917, the Communist Manifesto would have been confined to specialist libraries instead of rivalling the Bible as the most translated text in modern history.