What follows is an excerpt from Maurice Cornforth’s 1952 Readers’ Guide to the Marxist Classics.
II. THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF MARXISM-LENINISM
(A) GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO MARXIST THEORY
(3) Karl Marx & Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6, International Publishers, 1976, pp.477-519.
The Manifesto of the Communist Party (or, as it is most often called, The Communist Manifesto) contains the first and most complete summarised statement of the theoretical principles of Marxism and of the strategy and tactics of Communism.
It was commissioned by the Second Congress of the Communist League in November 1847, and it was first published in February 1848.
This was a stormy period: the period of the February 1848 Revolution in France and of the climax of the Chartist Movement in Britain, when the working class appeared for the first time on the stage of history as an independent force.
Readers who want to know something of the background of the Manifesto should read the various prefaces—written by Marx and Engels to different editions (published with the Manifesto), and should also turn to Engels’ History of the Communist League and Marx’s Class Struggles in France, 1848-50.
The Manifesto was an epoch-making document. Up to that time, socialists had been putting forward utopian schemes (imaginary projects for an ideal society) or were engaging in secret conspiracies, while the rising working class movement lacked a revolutionary theory. The Manifesto signified the union of scientific socialism with the mass working-class movement.¹
The fundamental ideas of the Manifesto may be summed up under five main headings:
1. The Theory of the Class Struggle
The history of all societies since the break-up of the primitive communes has been the history of class struggles.
In capitalist society a stage has been reached when the victory of the exploited class, the proletariat, over the ruling exploiting class, the bourgeoisie, will once and for all emancipate society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.
The conception of the working class struggle set forth in the Manifesto follows from Marx’s materialist conception of history, the essentials of which are summarised in Engels’ prefaces to the English edition of 1888 and to the German edition of 1883.
2. The Development of Capitalist Society
Capitalism itself developed out of feudalism, and the capitalist class is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the mode of production and exchange.
The capitalist class has conquered exclusive political sway in the modern parliamentary state. In its development, it has played a most revolutionary role. It has brought into being the great new productive forces of modern industry. But in creating modern industry it has created its own gravediggers, the proletariat.
3. The Development of the Proletariat
The growth of the proletariat as a class is accompanied by the growth of its organisation, both economic and political.
At first the proletariat is incoherent and scattered. It is originally dragged into the political arena by the bourgeoisie, which must appeal to the proletariat to help fight the remnants of feudalism. The Manifesto deals with the stages of political development through which the proletariat becomes organised into a class, and consequently into a political party, combined against the bourgeoisie.
While the proletariat fights against all relics of feudalism and for the fullest extension of democracy, it leads the struggle for socialism against the capitalists, a struggle which must culminate in the proletariat conquering power and becoming itself the ruling class.
4. From Socialism to Classless Society
With power in its hands, the proletariat makes drastic inroads into the power of the capitalists and into capitalist property relations.
From the rule of the proletariat will come classless society, in which will arise new people, new human relations—“an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
5. The Aims of the Communist Party
The Manifesto contains a trenchant defence of the aims of Communism, and it exposes various fashionable brands of “socialism” as expressions, not of the working-class standpoint, but of the reactionary standpoints of other classes—of the decaying aristocracy, the petty-bourgeoisie² or the bourgeoisie itself. The ideas of Communism, on the other hand, are not inventions of any would-be reformers, but spring from the existing class struggle.
Communists have no interests apart from those of the working class as a whole. Their policy is to fight for the immediate aims of the class, to form an alliance with every movement opposed to the existing social order, and in the movement of the present always to take care of the future, striving to unite the class for the overthrow of capitalist class rule and for the conquest of power.
¹ See also Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy.
² The petty bourgeoisie consists of the small proprietors in capitalist society, engaged in private profit-making enterprise through the production and sale of commodities, but not exploiting labour, or not exploiting it on a large scale—small businessmen, shopkeepers, farmers, independent professional people, and so on.