Read an Excerpt
From Martin Puchner’s Introduction to The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings
Written within less than five years of each other, The Communist Manifesto (1848) and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) are the bookends to the most revolutionary period of the nineteenth century. With the exception of Great Britain, most countries in western and central Europe experienced some kind of revolutionary upheaval around the year 1848. (Two generations earlier, the French Revolution had broken the old aristocratic order in France, but the effects of that revolution had been contained by the restoration of the monarchy in 1814.) Now, Europe’s disenfranchised classes—the peasants, the bourgeoisie, and the proletariat—once more articulated their demands through strikes, mass demonstrations, and acts of resistance. This was the context in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels composed the Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (Manifesto of the Communist Party, mostly known as The Communist Manifesto) in 1847. It was published in London in February 1848, only weeks before the outbreak of the first phase of the 1848 revolution in France, the so-called February Revolution. The primary purpose of the Manifesto was to announce and publicize that the communists had given up on the conspiratorial activities of the past and were now entering the scene of politics through an open declaration of principle. The preamble states this goal unequivocally: “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 Specter of Communism with a Manifesto of the party itself.” Instead of being confined to secret societies and intrigues, communism had acquired a public face.
Even though the publication of the Manifesto had no material impact on France’s February Revolution, its enthusiastic tone makes it clear that it was written in anticipation of a social revolution that it perceived to be imminent. The two authors knew that such a revolution would encounter opposition from those intent on preserving the status quo, but they had seen the proletariat grow stronger and more self-confident by the day and therefore hoped that once united, it would be capable of breaking its chains. The famous first sentence speaks of communism as a “specter” that is haunting Europe. But the Manifesto is certain that communism is about to cease being a mere specter and start becoming the real thing.
If the Manifesto is overly confident with regard to the incipient revolution, Der Achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) is the analysis of its failure. Following his earlier call for action, Marx issued a call for analysis. It was an analysis born out of disappointment. The text was commissioned by a German publisher in New York City asking Marx to explain what went wrong in France, why the revolution had, within the course of a few years, gradually lost ground only to be entirely undone by the coup d’état of Louis Bonaparte, a figure who had hitherto attracted only ridicule. Marx did not content himself with poking fun at Louis Bonaparte, his hapless policies and inarticulate pronouncements. Rather, he sought to explain the root causes for the initial success and the eventual failure of the revolution. The result is a brilliant example of social analysis, bringing into relation the values and interests of different groups and classes, their policies, shifting alliances, mistakes, and lies. While the Manifesto is a text for times of revolutionary upheaval, the Eighteenth Brumaire is a text for times of reaction.
The Manifesto and the Eighteenth Brumaire were thus intimately tied to one event, the Revolution of 1848. At the same time, they both radiated far beyond this original context. The Manifesto, in particular, became an international success story, one of the texts that influenced world history more directly and lastingly than most. Few texts have been translated into more languages and been printed in more editions, few have inspired more fear and hope than this one, whose significance puts it on a par with foundational texts such as the Bible and the Koran. The Manifesto was read, translated, adopted, transformed, updated, and critiqued by politicians and activists, by scholars and organizers around the world. But the Eighteenth Brumaire, too, has left its mark. When revolutionary hopes inspired by texts modeled on the Manifesto waned, disappointed activists turned to this latter work for guidance and inspiration, and then modeled their own analyses of failed revolutions on the failure of the revolution of 1848.
Despite the undeniable influence and success of both texts, the question remains how we should read them today, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and after the fall of most socialist regimes in 1989. It has been tempting to assume that with the fall of socialism in the late twentieth century, the writer who inspired socialism has fallen as well. The two texts written around 1848 thus seem to be proven wrong by the events that took place 141 years later. Even though such a historical conclusion is ultimately misguided, the two texts collected here are nevertheless intertwined with the history of socialism in the twentieth century. Indeed, the Manifesto’s influence on the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the establishment of a socialist society in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, helped this text acquire its status of world historical importance, even though it said little about the transition from a socialist society to a truly communist one, in which private property, and the state, would have withered away. And it was in the Soviet Union that the Manifesto was studied most systematically, printed and reprinted, and integrated into the official discipline called Marxism-Leninism. But while the Bolshevik Revolution helped the Manifesto gain its significance, it also limited the ways in which it was read and interpreted. Neither the Manifesto nor the Eighteenth Brumaire were written to justify the particular form of social, economic, or political organization established in the Soviet Union, nor indeed any other type of state. For this reason, the fact that history has swept away these regimes opens these texts, and all of Marx’s writings, to new readings—readings that can help in our understanding of our own moment in history.