The Communist Manifesto | Study Guide

Karl Marx

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The Communist Manifesto | 10 Things You Didn't Know


No intellectual figure is as inseparable from the worldwide socialist and communist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries as German philosopher Karl Marx. Along with German philosopher Friedrich Engels, Marx authored The Communist Manifesto to provide a framework for communist thought and to detail a blueprint for proletariat revolutions throughout Europe. First published in 1848, The Communist Manifesto presented Europe's tumultuous and violent history through the lens of class struggles, insinuating that aristocracy and the persistent oppression of the lower classes was to blame for many of the continent's greatest problems.

Upon the Manifesto's publication and circulation, Marx and Engels found themselves declared enemies of Europe's most powerful regimes. The document was considered both treasonous and enlightened, both a rallying cry and a subversive discourse. Scholars continue to be fascinated by some of Marx's accurate predictions regarding the evolving global economy, as well as the number of revolutions and rebellions that owed their start to the ideas outlined in The Communist Manifesto.

1. Marx was criticized for his lengthy procrastination while writing The Communist Manifesto.

The composition of The Communist Manifesto wasn't exactly a speedy process. In fact Marx procrastinated so heavily on the project that he drew the ire of many of his allies. When Marx and Engels were first commissioned to write a draft of The Communist Manifesto by the Communist League—an international organization of communist intellectuals and radicals—Marx traveled around Europe for the next year, delivering lectures, writing articles for periodicals, and seeking further distractions. The Communist Manifesto wasn't the only work that Marx procrastinated so heavily on, either—he took two decades to compose his book-long treatise, Capital, which he worked on from 1846 until its publication in 1867.

2. The Communist Manifesto got Marx kicked out of several countries in Europe.

Marx's promotion of communist principles was not well received by many of the established aristocratic governments of Europe during the 19th century. Before the publication of The Communist Manifesto, Marx had been expelled from Prussia (part of modern-day Germany) and France, and he had renounced his Prussian citizenship. After the work's publication in 1848, he was promptly expelled from Belgium, where he'd been temporarily residing. Marx finally fled to England where he found sanctuary for the rest of his life, but he was never granted British citizenship. Since he'd already given up his original citizenship, Marx technically died stateless.

3. Marx was inspired by the works of English playwright William Shakespeare—particularly Hamlet.

One of Marx's greatest inspirations wasn't a work of political theory or philosophy—but rather one of Renaissance drama. Marx loved the works of William Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, as he respected the characters' questioning of those in power. In Hamlet, although the titular protagonist is noble by birth, he stands up to his nation's regime to uncover a complex conspiracy. Marx also appreciated Shakespeare's use of psychologically complex characters as he felt the playwright presented lower-class figures as witty and intellectually engaged as opposed to mere tools to be used by the nobility.

4. The Communist Manifesto fell into obscurity for years after its publication.

Despite all the work that Marx and Engels put into crafting The Communist Manifesto, the work's impact on Europe wasn't visible for decades after its publication. Although it created a stir when first published, The Communist Manifesto was largely ignored and forgotten. When various revolutions sprang up in Europe in 1848—and failed miserably—communist ideology quickly lost its appeal as order was reestablished. There were only two translations of The Communist Manifesto produced between 1848 and 1868, and by the mid-1860s Marx's works were nearly all out of print. The Communist Manifesto had a revival in the form of a new 1872 edition, however, which became the staple for the communist movements of the late 19th century.

5. The Communist Manifesto was originally published anonymously—until a translator spilled the beans.

The Communist Manifesto was written to be a subversive and controversial work, so Marx and Engels wanted to keep their role in crafting it secret. When an English translation was serialized in 1850, the editor and translator George Julian Harney included an introductory note that the original was written by the two communist intellectuals. This was the first time Marx and Engels had been acknowledged for the work publicly. The authors would eventually reveal themselves in 1872 in their prefaces to the new edition, but only because they had been outed beforehand.

6. Engels confessed that The Communist Manifesto was really Marx's work, not his own.

Although The Communist Manifesto is attributed to both Marx and Engels as coauthors, Engels admitted that Marx was the true force behind the publication. Engels was involved with the document's composition, and he was frequently consulted by Marx. However, Engels wrote in his preface to the 1883 edition, "The basic thought running through the Manifesto ... belongs solely and exclusively to Marx." He elaborated on this claim in the subsequent 1888 translation, stating:

The Manifesto being our joint production, I consider myself bound to state that the fundamental proposition, which forms its nucleus, belongs to Marx.

7. The Communist Manifesto helped spark riots and revolutions in Germany in 1848.

The Communist Manifesto is often falsely credited for encouraging revolutions throughout Western Europe, including France, in 1848—however, many of these revolts predated the Manifesto's publication by several months. Scholars often attribute the 1848 uprising in Germany to the Manifesto's influence, however, and Marx and Engels closely monitored the revolution's brief successes. When riots broke out in Vienna and Berlin in March, Engels hoped that power would reside:

Not [with] the cowardly German burghers but the German workers; they will rise up, put an end to the whole filthy, muddled official German rule and with a radical revolution restore the honor of Germany ... Germany will liberate herself to the extent to which she sets free neighboring nations.

Although this revolution led to some democratic rights, control ultimately returned to the bourgeois, just as Marx and Engels had feared.

8. Marx is often credited for predicting 21st-century economic inequality.

One of the key reasons Marxism is still relevant is Marx's prediction regarding contemporary global economic inequality. Marx viewed the rapid industrialization of Europe as a preface to a globalized economy. He also saw the negative effect that this development was having: instead of improving the lives of everyone, industrialization was creating a larger divide between wealthy and poor. The process was causing the rich to get richer and the poor to slave away for stagnating factory wages. Marx predicted this economic trend would spark revolutions—which it certainly did throughout the 20th century—but that without revolutionary success, the wealth gap would continue to persist and grow.

9. A treason trial allowed The Communist Manifesto to be republished in Germany.

The Communist Manifesto saw a rise in popularity in 1872, more than two decades after its initial publication. The work was inadvertently "legalized" again, as it was read during the treason trial of German Social-Democratic leaders who had voiced opposition to war with France. The prosecution needed to secure copies to read at the trial, giving the Social-Democrats a chance to print the document. Against the intentions of the prosecution, the trial also provided a great deal of publicity for The Communist Manifesto, and demand for the work exploded in 1872. Over the next few years the document was translated and circulated in Europe far more widely than at the time of its original publication.

10. Engels left Marx's daughters—both of whom committed suicide—a large inheritance.

Engels's close friendship with Marx was apparent in his will, in which he left a sizable chunk of his life savings to Marx's daughters. Despite his alignment with the proletariat, Engels was extremely wealthy at the time of his death, with an estate worth $4.8 million. Tragically, both of Marx's daughters later committed suicide. His daughter, Tussy, killed herself in 1897, while his daughter, Laura, committed suicide in a death pact with her husband in 1911.

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