The Communist Manifesto | Study Guide

Karl Marx

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Karl Marx | Biography


Karl Marx

University Years and Early Radicalism

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, writer, revolutionary, and active participant in early communist and working-class movements. Marx was born on May 5, 1818, to middle-class parents in Trier (in what is now Germany), and received a private education before going to public high school. From there he attended the University of Bonn, where he studied humanities. He developed a personal interest in the works of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He left after a year and began studying law and philosophy at the University of Berlin. In 1836 he became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen, whom he had known since childhood, a baroness who abandoned her aristocratic background to be with Marx.

The two married after a seven-year engagement and remained together until Jenny's death in 1881. While at university Marx was attracted to various radical circles, including the Poets' Club in Bonn and the Young Hegelians in Berlin, a group that embraced the radical and revolutionary aspects of Hegelian philosophy. Because of its radicalism, Marx's dissertation likely would not have been accepted at the University of Berlin, so Marx submitted it to the more permissive University of Jena, which granted him a PhD in 1841. With the generally conservative atmosphere in Prussian Germany, Marx could not find an academic position and so took up journalism after graduating, writing for the radical press and cultivating his ideas on economics and socialism, the theory that advocates government ownership of goods production and distribution.

Journalism and Exile

Marx's writings got him into trouble, leading to a period of exile that lasted until his death. After publishing an article critical of Russian Tsarism (autocracy) in 1890, Marx was banned by the Prussian state (Germany was not yet unified). As Marx was adopting and developing the ideas he would put into The Communist Manifesto, his writing got him exiled from Paris. He moved to Brussels, where he wrote The Communist Manifesto for the Communist League. The document contains many ideas from the broader socialist movements—socialism, another left-wing school of thought that has commonalities with communism, also includes social reforms such as universal health care for the welfare of the people. The Communist Manifesto also included Marx's own insights, written for popular consumption, in their most condensed and approachable form.

After living in Paris and Brussels for brief periods, Marx settled eventually in London, which became his lifelong home. In these capital cities, Marx associated with a growing movement of revolutionary activists and thinkers, including people connected with the "League of the Just." This group later became the Communist League, which commissioned Marx to draw up a set principles, the Communist Manifesto. In this milieu, he met German philosopher Friedrich Engels. A lifelong friend and collaborator, Engels helped support Marx and his family.

Following the 1848 publication by The Communist Manifesto's original name, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx was buffeted by the tides then overtaking revolutionary Europe. In 1848 a series of revolutions in France, some German states, Austria, Italy, Denmark, and elsewhere convulsed continental Europe, in several instances leading to the construction of constitutional democracies. Influenced by these forces, Marx attempted to establish revolutionary newspapers. For his efforts he faced police harassment and prosecution, forcing him, to flee from Brussels by 1849. At the time Marx arrived in London in 1850, there was an international hub of exiled revolutionaries from across Europe, and Marx involved himself in greater political activism and more serious study.

Marx and Revolution

Marx's participation in the Communist League led to internal strife regarding tactics and strategy. Some group members wanted to precipitate a workers' revolution through an action that would inspire people to revolt. Opposed to this action, Marx called it "adventurism" and forced a split in the group. Years later in the 1870s, this pattern would repeat itself in the International Workingmen's Association, a London-based federation of European worker organizations advancing socialism and communism. Also known as the First International, the organization had many internal differences of opinion, the biggest being the disagreement over the role of the state. Anti-state socialists converged around the figure of Russian revolutionary and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, arguing that Marx's vision of a state-run workers' society was foolish. More than a theoretical difference, this was a matter of practical import about whether to participate in bourgeois elections and worker political parties as a pathway toward revolution. Marx forced a split in the organization, ousting the anti-statist members and moving its headquarters to New York, thereby contributing to the downfall of the group.

From 1850 to 1870 Marx wrote some of his most noteworthy works other than The Communist Manifesto, including his history of the 1848 revolution in France, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and his 1867 masterwork, Capital, which offers a far-ranging critique of capitalism and solidified Marx's position as a major philosopher of the 19th century. In 1871 revolutions again broke out in Europe, and in France where the Paris Commune (radical revolutionary government that ruled Paris from March to May of 1871, following French military leader Napoleon's defeat) and the struggle of the Communards excited the hopes of revolutionaries worldwide. For Marx, as developed in his long pamphlet on the revolution, The Civil War in France (1871), the Paris Commune seemed to point a new way forward toward a potentially stateless version of worker democracy and class power. In the final decade of his life, Marx worked on two subsequent volumes to Capital: Capital, Volume II (1885) and Capital, Volume III (1894), which developed the insights framed in the first volume and sought to give his philosophical ideas greater rigor.

Death and Legacy

In 1881 Marx's wife, Jenny, died of liver cancer. Soon after her death, Marx took ill, suffering from inflammation of the lungs and chest before succumbing to bronchitis on March 14, 1883. He and Jenny are buried in London's Highgate Cemetery. The legacy of Marx's views and writings cannot be overstated, for they radically moved the course of 19th- and 20th-century history.

Friedrich Engels

Early Education and Influences

Friedrich Engels was born on November 28, 1820, in Barmen, Prussia (now part of Germany) where his father owned a textile factory. The product of a devout Protestant family, he attended secondary school before becoming a business apprentice under his father's guidance. He was interested in revolutionary writings from an early age and was particularly influenced by the writings of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Hegel attempted to unite theories of philosophy, science, politics, and religion into a single discipline he called the "absolute idea." In 1842, after a year of military service, Engels joined a group of fellow Hegel followers called the Young Hegelians, who convinced him to become an atheist.

Conversion to Communism

Engels was converted to communism by Moses Hess (1812–75), whom he met in 1842. Hess was a German journalist for the liberal publication Rheinische Zeitung (Rhinelander Gazette). It is after this meeting that socialist and communist ideas first appear in Engels's writing. According to political theory professor Terrell Carver, an expert on Marx and Engels, there was no distinction between the two ideologies at that time.

Engels arrived in London in November 1842 on his way to Manchester, where his father owned a cotton plant. While working at the plant from 1842 to 1844 he contributed articles about communism and political conditions in England to a Paris-based journal edited by Karl Marx. The two became friends and writing collaborators on various essays. After returning to Barmen in 1845, Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England.

The Communist Manifesto

In 1847 Engels was commissioned by the Communist League along with Karl Marx to write The Communist Manifesto. While Marx drew on Engels's ideas, the latter writer's role was more limited.

Engels wrote of his contributions:

I had a certain independent share in laying the foundations of the theory, and more particularly in its elaboration. But the greater part of its leading basic principles, especially in the realm of economics and history, and, above all, their final trenchant formulation, belong to Marx. ... Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. It therefore rightly bears his name.

Engels continued writing, and he also took part in the German revolutions of 1848–49, which were protests against the government of the independent states that made up the German Confederation. He returned to work at his father's firm in Manchester in 1850 and provided financial support to Karl Marx for the writing of Capital before retiring from business in 1869. He told Marx in a letter, "I have finished with sweet commerce today and I am a free man."

Later Work

As The Communist Manifesto (Manifesto of the Communist Party) became more widely known, Engels and Marx revised it, publishing a new edition in 1872. This edition was the first to bear the shortened title, The Communist Manifesto. After the death of Marx in 1883, Engels used his friend's notes to publish the second and third volumes of Capital. He died of cancer on August 5, 1895, having contributed to one of the most influential political texts ever written.

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