Marxists love this kind heroic imaginary. You can pretty much define the sect by who gets added to these founders in a Mt. Rushmore-like row.
The pamphlet as a literary form and polemical tool owes its existence to the invention of moveable type, resultant relative mass literacy, and the need to cheaply reach and sway wide audiences. They first came to the forefront during the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther, who had much sharper elbows than his plump monk’s body might suggest, was the first master of the form. The slow-moving behemoth of the Catholic Church at first floundered trying to respond with turgid Latin tomes. But it got better, or at least some of its wittier apologists did and for the next two hundred years ago a pamphlet war stoked bloody atrocities on all sides across Europe.
The Enlightenment and the dawn of modernity gave rise to the secular political and social pamphlets. In England Jonathan Swift and others raised the form to dazzling rhetorical heights. But in the New World Thomas Paine’s Common Sense helped bring one Empire to its knees and give birth to another. Not long after a series of pamphlets collectively known as the Federalist Papers penned by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay rallied support for what became the most enduring Constitution in the world.
In the 19th Century writers and philosophers of all stripes turned their attention the industrial revolution, the social injustice and inequality it fostered, and the growing rage of the displaced and oppressed. Many notable figures—nationalists, democrats, socialists, anarchists, and utopians—entered the fray. But one pamphlet overshadows all the rest in the sweep and enduring nature of its influence.
Meet the single most important pamphlet of all time. Love it or loath it, it cannot be denied.
It couldn’t have been more timely. The uprisings that would sweep from France across the German states and into much of the rest of Europe were gathering steam on February 21, 1848 when a tiny faction of radical socialists from across the continent met in London and published Manifest der kommunistischen Partei, literally the Manifesto of the Communist Party.
Now known more simply as the Communist Manifesto the 18,000 word paper bound pamphlet was authored by German Jewish journalist and intellectual Karl Marx and his close collaborator Friedrich Engels, a pioneering German-born sociologist who had made his mark with the publication three years earlier of The Condition of the Working Class in England, one of the first systematic studies of working class life.
The publication was almost instantly notorious. Editions appeared in French and English by 1850 and were followed by translations in most European languages. By 1857 an American edition was published by the utopian and individualist anarchist Stephen Pearl Andrews.
The original German edition of the pamphlet that shook the world.
Exactly how much each of the two credited authors contributed to the final product is hotly debated with those who want to raise Marx to the level of an infallible prophet and messianic figure pumping their hero up while reducing Engels to almost a mere clerk. What is indisputable is that in the final draft it is Marx’s vigorous and muscular rhetoric that characterized the document beginning with its famous preamble:
A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.
Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?
Two things result from this fact:
I. Communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power.
II. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself.
But we know that it was Engels who was commissioned by the Communist League, the first international party to adopt that name, in July of 1847 to draw up a catechism for the new movement. His first effort became the Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith containing almost two dozen questions that helped express his own ideas and those of his comrade Marx at the time. That was followed in October with a second draft renamed the less religious Principles of Communism. Still, it was in the question and answer format of a catechism. Engels was dissatisfied with that and suggested a new approach.
He brought Marx into the project as the primary writer of the final draft, traveling to Brussels, Belgium where the exiled writer was publishing a radical newspaper. Marx incorporated much of Engels’s work but heavily rephrased it and added his own insights.
The controversy over who contributed what swirled over the life times of both men. After Marx’s death Engels wrote of what had become known as Marxism:
I cannot deny that both before and during my forty years’ collaboration with Marx I had a certain independent share in laying the foundations of the theory, but the greater part of its leading basic principles belongs to Marx....Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. It therefore rightly bears his name.
Whoever was the primary author, the effects of the pamphlet were not long in being felt. It began to “hit the streets” in Germany by spring. It surely did not cause the wave of 1848 uprisings, those had been festering and boiling under the surface since the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the spread of the Industrial Revolution into previously agrarian societies with urban centers organized along traditional craft production. The leaders of the rebellions, as far as they could be identified, came from various ideological shades, including different varieties of socialists, along with democratic rebels casting themselves in the anti-royalist traditions of the French Revolution. Many were young idealists, including students and sympathetic intellectuals. Others emerged from the ranks of the evolving working class itself. Communists represented only a tiny sliver of active leadership—their organization was too new, too weak to do much more than be swept up in an irresistible tide of history.
A Berlin street battle in the Revolution of 1848. Guess how many insurrectionists read the Manifesto.
Did the appearance of the Manifesto inspire the rebels? To some extent. But most were too engaged in making a revolution to spend much time reading about one.
But Marx’s somewhat bombastic claims in the introduction to the pamphlet led authorities to believe that there was indeed a “Spectre of Communism haunting Europe.” The rebellions peaked and then faltered for lack of clear programs and ability to build sustained organizations while the forces of reaction rallied and counter attacked with overwhelming military power. By mid-1849 most of the uprisings were crushed and a continent-wide repression was under way. The Manifesto was generally suppressed, although surreptitious copies continued to be circulated, often at great risk. Identifiable Communists were arrested and sometimes executed—but so were leaders and activists of all ideological stripes. Thousands were forced into exile.
Marx and his wife Anna were among them. They had to flee Brussels to join Engels in London, where he resumed work as a journalist, dedicated himself to study of the revolutionary movements and why they failed, and to assuming more formal leadership in the Communist movement.
Karl and Anna Marx had to flee from exile in Brussels for exile in London with comrade Engels. Note Anna is wearing a cross. Curious.
In 1850 the Prussian master spy Wilhelm Stieber broke into Marx’s London home and made off with the Communist League’s membership records setting off a wave of arrests across Germany and France. After the Cologne Communist Trial of 1852 the League was forced to dissolve. There after Communism existed as a current in socialism and Marx worked to get national socialist and labor parties, as well as trade unions, to adopt his analysis.
The Manifesto was now a document for an organization that had evaporated. The very stuff of ephemera, at best of interest to historians, antiquarians, and haunters of dusty archives. But instead, it not only remained in print, it spread and continued to be issued in new languages. It was passed hand-to-hand, often clandestinely, among the scattered survivors of the ’48 upheaval.
Marx and Engels issued editions with new introductions every few years in which they both explained themselves and sometimes modified views expressed in the original text. Some local Communist grouping were established, but a generation of radicals influenced by it became militants in the trade union movement, emerging Social Democratic Parties, and labor parties. They were among the Communards who rose up in Paris after the Franco-Prussian War and were eventually crushed by the French National Guard.
The document shaped the thinking of many socialists and some anarchists who were not explicitly Communist.
Members of all these organizations—except for avowed anarchists and anarcho-syndicalist unions—met in Paris in 1889 to form the Socialist International, better known as the Second International at which Marx and Marxism were dominant. Of course, by this time Marx had moderated some of the insurrectionist views of the Manifesto and advocated parliamentary and electoral activity through the Social Democratic parties modeled on that of Germany. Still, despite the modified doctrine, the Manifesto remained a revered document.
In the 20th Century Lenin would resurrect the Manifesto as a primary document to differentiate his Bolsheviks from reformist Russian Social Democrats and as a rallying point for his insurrectionist 1917 October Revolution.
Today Lenin’s once monolithic international Communist movement has shattered into scores if not hundreds of often warring sects, all claiming to be the legitimate heirs to Marx and Engel’s vision. Where Communists are entrenched in state power, in practice a kind of tightly controlled state capitalism as in China and Vietnam belie the original egalitarian and mass democratic vision.
Pamphlets on lit tables. Still trying to be the next Marx...
Ideologues of all stripes still issue manifestos and publish pamphlets hoping to catch lighting in a bottle and spark the next world-shaking movement. But for the most part the pamphlets lay unread on literature tables and are rejected by those on the street to whom they are eagerly offered.
Today the new generation of prophets and propagandists peddle their wares on the Internet increasingly in social media. Which makes their work even more ephemeral than Marx’s flimsy paper pamphlet.