In articulating this powerful vision of a future society, the authors of the Manifesto appropriated the concept of communism to themselves, so much so that communism and Marxism have often been taken as inseparable, if not synonymous, establishing a line of political thinkers and activists from Marx onward who contributed to the development of both. This link was strengthened further after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet regime (U.S.S.R.) in Russia, which claimed to be creating an authentic communist society in direct connection with Marx’s ideas, and, by political movements that sought to spread that revolution worldwide.
Communism seemed to become an established feature of European political culture and conflict. Its significant impact on European societies was deepened yet further by the spread of Soviet style regimes to most of Eastern Europe after 1945, which suggested that the most significant political choice of modern times was between accepting and rejecting communism. However, the reality of life under these dictatorships was increasingly at odds with the ideals that they supposedly stood for. Any sense of permanence was then shattered in the period from 1989 to 1991 by the complete collapse of these states and of most of the communist movements elsewhere in Europe. From the perspective of the early twenty-first century the whole conception of Marxist communism in its European context appears redundant as a form of political theory and practice.
The above description serves as a useful starting point, reflecting an image of communism that has dominated current understanding of it. But not all communists have been Marxists, and not all Marxists have been communists. In reality communism has been a more complex and contested doctrine, as was evident even when ‘The Communist Manifesto’was written.
In fact, hardly any single element of the Manifesto’s conceptualization of communism was truly novel, including the use of the term itself. It was already used by a variety of minority groups across Europe, religious as well as political, to indicate an egalitarian, communally organized society.
Marx and Engels took it from socialism, which developed from Enlightenment thinking as a rejection of liberalism and in reaction to the failure of the French Revolution of 1789 to produce a more complete social transformation. Communismbecame a term indicating the most extreme end of the spectrum of French socialist thought. It indicated those groups most committed to the complete rejection of existing society and a belief that violent means were needed to achieve this goal. As such Marx and Engels’s use of ‘communist’derived from their attempt to identify their own particular brand of thinking within the socialist market. More particularly, the Manifesto was published as the badge of a tiny organization they had founded, the German Communist League.
Other ideas in the Manifesto also predated Marx and Engels in socialist thinking: that industrialization was transforming human relations; the identification of the working class as agents of change; the idea of a class struggle and that a “dictatorship of the proletariat” would be required before communism could be achieved. Nor was their very brief and generalized description of the nature of a future communist society particularly novel. They also included a series of immediate demands made by the league, including universal male suffrage, that were even less unusual. As it turned out, Marx and Engels had misread the immediate prospects for revolutions of the type they predicted. The year 1848 did not mark the start of the final crisis of capitalism as they conceived of it; in fact capitalism was only just developing, and that crisis was to be endlessly postponed.
What made Marx’s version of communism distinctive was his bold claim that it embraced a ‘scientific’ worldview and the fact that he placed his analysis of communism in a much broader context. The latter reflected his major preoccupation in life, which was the analysis of contemporary society and of trends in its development. He engaged with the most significant intellectual movements of his age. In addition to French socialism, he brought German philosophy, British political economy, and above all the new methods and language of the natural sciences into a brilliant synthesis.
Marx described the result as “scientific socialism,” which he distinguished from the “utopianism” of his many forebears and rivals. His aim was to unify theory and practice, to marry the analysis of society to political action. This was what made Marx and Engels’s analysis of the coming communist society so powerful: their brand of socialism would succeed not because of mere striving and wishful thinking but because it was based in scientific study and represented the culmination of an inevitable trend in the modern world. Accordingly the Manifesto contained little discussion of political organization or revolutionary activity. Instead it presented communism as the direct product of a process of historical change involving a class struggle that was rooted in the effects of industrialization.
The working class was destined to become a majority in society, and it would be bound, in the face of obvious economic oppression, to demand change, which could only be achieved by seizing economic and political power. In this view societies passed through great epochs: as feudalism had given way to capitalism, so capitalism would give way to communism. It was this faith in the inevitability of communism, as predicted by scientific socialism that was Marx’s great contribution. From it the possibility of communism as a political ideology in its own right and as a secular religion could be fashioned, but this did not happen immediately.
(Excerpt from: Edward Lee ‘Karl Marx and the Origins of Modern Communism’)