LIKE most professional writers, Karl Marx worked best up against a deadline. The “Manifesto of the Communist Party” was written in a few days of round-the-clock creative inspiration in Brussels in January 1848. This intensive, adrenalin-fuelled, intellectual focus produced what was to become the world’s best-selling political pamphlet.
The comrades of the Communist League back in London had imposed the deadline the previous December, after a ten-day brainstorming session in a room above a pub, the Red Lion in Soho. Marx was charged with getting their new-year resolutions down on paper. He missed January 1st, but, with input—though none of the actual writing—from his friend Friedrich Engels, the German text was in print by February.
And then? This pamphlet that was to have an impact on politics worldwide raised barely a quiver of immediate interest. The French revolutionaries of 1848 never saw it. It did not appear in Russian until 1869. It took the Russian revolution of 1917, 34 years after Marx’s death, to make the world take note.
It has been Marx’s misfortune that what he wrote as a tract for the times has been taken (by his supporters) as eternal truth or (by his critics) as an attempt thereat. But the Communist manifesto was in fact rushed out to try to rally the forces of the proletariat in the “year of revolutions”, 1848. The year saw major revolts against the reigning imperial monarchies in France, Germany and Austria. Even in England, the Chartists, feted by Engels as the world’s first organised working-class movement, threatened the bourgeois order with a monster demonstration, which promised to bring insurrection to the heart of London. Alas for Marx and Engels, the Chartists got no farther than Kennington Common, in south London, where they were halted by the forces of law and order under the aged Duke of Wellington.
The status quo survived the year of revolutions in mainland Europe too, if not without the odd casualty. Marx enjoyed a boisterous year in Germany, the land of his birth, trying to turn the nascent democratic movement in a more revolutionary direction. He failed, and made his home in London for the rest of a studious life, spent mainly in the reading-room of the British Museum, though punctuated with occasional rumbustious pub-crawls. The first volume of “Das Kapital” appeared in 1867; its author died in 1883; and 1894 brought the land of his refuge its first stab at a Labour party which, like today’s version, owed little to either.
Communism did better elsewhere, but not as Marx had predicted in its manifesto. It did not prove “inevitable”. The Russian revolution was imposed ruthlessly from above, the Chinese one by guerrilla war. As a guide to the sworn enemy, capitalism, however, Marx was more prescient. His account of the reasons for the survival and prosperity of capitalism has never been bettered. In a famous passage, he wrote that
Constant revolutionising 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. All that is solid melts into air.
And not just in capitalism’s homelands:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian nations, into civilisation.
And so capitalism evolved into globalisation. All other systems, communism included, found themselves chasing shadows. For once, Marx was proven right.
Copyright © 2002 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.
The Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels Internet archive offers online biographies, letters, images, and the text of their writings, including the “Manifesto of the Communist Party”. Take a virtual tour of the Karl Marx House Museum in Trier, Germany to learn more about him.