On February 21, 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto, one of the world’s most influential political documents, which later served as a call for communist revolutions around the world during the following centuries.
In the 18th century, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in his hugely influential The Social Contract, published in 1762, outlined the basis for a political order based on popular sovereignty rather than the rule of monarchs. His views proved influential during the French Revolution of 1789 in which various anti-monarchists, particularly the Jacobins, supported the idea of redistributing wealth equally among the people.
As the Industrial Revolution advanced into the 19th century, socialist critics started blaming capitalism for creating a class of poor, urban factory workers and for widening the gulf between rich and poor. The egalitarian concepts of “communism”, which described those who hailed the left wing of the Jacobin Club of the French Revolution as their ideological forefather, became increasingly popular and led to a widespread intellectual rejection of laissez-faire capitalism on economic, philosophical and moral grounds.
In the 1840s, German philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx, who was living in Belgium after fleeing the authorities in the German states, where he was considered a political threat, began publishing books in which he outlined his theories for a variety of communism, now known as Marxism. He was financially aided and supported by another German émigré, Friedrich Engels, with whom he founded the Communist Correspondence Committee in 1846.
In June 1847, the communist League of the Just, composed mainly of emigrant German handicraftsmen, met in London and decided to formulate a political program. They invited Marx and Engels to join their organization, which was reorganized into the Communist League, and entrusted the two German thinkers with the task of composing their political manifesto.
Marx and Engels worked to the end of January 1848, and in February, the Manifesto of the Communist Party was anonymously published by the Workers’ Educational Association in London. Written in German, the 23-page pamphlet was reprinted three times and serialised in the Deutsche Londoner Zeitung, a newspaper for German émigrés. Two weeks later, a thousand copies of the Communist Manifesto reached Paris, and from there, Germany in early April.
In their Manifesto, Marx and Engels state that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. In the last paragraph of the Manifesto, the authors call for a “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions”, which later served as a call for communist revolutions around the world. It ends by declaring an alliance with the democratic socialists, supporting other communist revolutions and calling for united international proletarian action – “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!”.
Soon after the Manifesto was published, the so-called Spring of Nations erupted across Europe. From France and Germany to the Kingdom of Hungary, democratic uprisings broke out with the aim of removing the old monarchical structures and creating independent nation-states. Arguably, however, the influence of the Manifesto in the revolutions was restricted to the German states, where the now Cologne-based Communist League and its newspaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung, edited by Marx, played an important role.
But after the defeat of the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848, criticized by Karl Marx for their bourgeois character, the Communist Manifesto fell into obscurity. The members of the Communist League’s central board were arrested by the Prussian police in Cologne and Marx had to seek lifelong refuge in London, where he began to work on a multi-volume epic that would examine and criticise the capitalist economy, Capital: Critique of Political Economy, or Das Kapital, published in 1867.
Over the next forty years, as social-democratic parties rose across Europe and parts of the world, so did the publication of the Communist Manifesto, in hundreds of editions in thirty languages. Marx and Engels wrote a new preface for the 1882 Russian edition in which they wondered if Russia could directly become a communist society, or if she would become capitalist first like other European countries.
In fact, the Manifesto’s principal area of influence was in the so-called “central belt of Europe”, which was reflected in the development of socialist movements in Central Europe as well as the popularity of Marxist variety of socialism in the region. For instance, much like the 1846 Kraków uprising, which had been praised by Karl Marx for being the first in Europe “to plant the banner of social revolution”, the 1863 January uprising in the Russian partition of Poland was strongly influenced by the ideas of Marx.
Following the October Revolution of 1917 that swept the Vladimir Lenin-led Bolsheviks to power in Russia, the world’s first socialist state was founded explicitly along Marxist lines, sixty-nine years after the publication of the Communist Manfifesto. Now backed by a sovereign state, works by Marx, Engels, and Lenin were published on a very large scale, and cheap editions of their works were available in several languages across the world. Chinese and Japanese translations of the Manifesto were published, as were Spanish editions in Latin America.
For its centenary in 1948, the publication of the Communist Manfesto became no longer the exclusive domain of Marxists and academicians as general publishers began printing the Manifesto in large numbers. “In short, it was no longer only a classic Marxist document”, British Marist historian Eric Hobsbawm noted, “it had become a political classic tout court”. By then, nearly half the world’s population was living under Marxist governments.
A number of late-20th- and 21st-century writers have commented on the Communist Manifesto’s continuing relevance. In a special issue of the Socialist Register commemorating the Manifesto’s 150th anniversary, philosopher Peter Osborne argued that it was “the single most influential text written in the nineteenth century”.
In 2013, The Communist Manifesto was registered to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.