The General and the Specific in the Working Class Movement

Notes on Various Prefaces of the Communist Manifesto

Pratyush Chandra

In prefaces that Marx and Engels wrote for various German and other language editions of The Manifesto of the Communist Party, they reread the text in specific geographical and historical contexts. This gave them the opportunity to (re)historicise the text itself and (re)articulate the general principles in multiple contexts and in sharper ways. In fact, this exercise is never complete with regard to a text like the Manifesto, and only this way it “would be possible to revitalise [its] propaganda effect,” as Brecht once put it.

In almost all the prefaces, the central idea is that in accordance to time and space, “the state of things may have altered”, however, without affecting the general principles. It is recognised that “the practical applications of the principles” are dependent on historical conditions. Hence, Marx and Engels without any remorse declared in the 1872 German edition that revolutionary measures enumerated in section II must be altered according to time and place. Similar was the case of section IV about the communists’ relations with other parties which were in principle correct but most of the parties had already been eliminated by the progress of history itself.

However, one of the most important ideas in the prefaces with significant implications for political theory and practice comes from the duo’s endeavour to integrate the lessons of the Paris Commune in their critique of the text. These lessons and the critique of political economy that Marx pursued made them stress the organicity of the capitalist nature of state which makes it unviable or even self-defeating for working class takeover in the transition beyond capitalism. (In an incipient form, this understanding was already there in Marx’s initial attempts to theorise the foundation and development of state while critiquing Hegel). Incorporating this idea in the prefaces must have been necessitated by Lassalleanism, Proudhonism, other trade unionist and statist tendencies dominating the working class politics.

Next to this are the significant ideas that come in the preface to the Russian edition (1882). This text is crucial as here Marx and Engels consider the Russian and American specificities, which were earlier mere “pillars of the existing European order.” The American capitalist development based on its tremendous resources had subsequently destroyed the European industrial monopoly, and transformed the class composition of the American society and polity.

On the other hand, Russia which used to be the “last great reserve of all European reaction” had subsequently come to form “the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe”. But since in Russia the old existed with the new – “the rapidly developing capitalist swindle and bourgeois landed property” coexisted with “more than half the land owned in common”, the issue was to understand the role of the latter. Also, how did a backward nation become “the vanguard of revolutionary action”? It is regarding this aspect that late Marx, à la Teodor Shanin, has been given a great prominence by romantic Marxists, apologists and (post)Marxists. For them, late Marx had made some significant revisions in his understanding of history while dealing with Russia and in his ethnographic studies. It is undeniable that Marx’s interactions with Russian revolutionaries made him aware of the intricacies of Russian and oriental contexts, especially with regard to rural societies and traditional communal vestiges. But as with any relative and specific aspects of diverse dynamic realities, Marx and Engels were never caught up in the grammar of specificities, rather they saw in the Russian specificity an interesting dimension opening up for the world revolution against capitalism.

This could be seen even from the way Marx and Engels raised the Russian question in the 1882 preface. The way they responded to it makes it conclusive.

“Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

“The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.”

What is crucial here in all the prefaces is the consistent plea to delineate within the presentation of the Manifesto the general principles, on the one hand, and geographically and historically limited programmatic proposals, on the other. However, by thus delineating we must not reduce the general into dogma and the specific into fetish, rather we must see their mutual regrounding in the constitution of reality. This is what is done with regard to the question of obshchinas and mir, too. While capitalism was already undermining these social forms, could they become a foundation for post-capitalist communism? For them, acquiring this role would have required their moving beyond self-preservation and becoming the signal for a proletarian revolution.

The prefaces that Engels authored after Marx’s death are definitely stylistically different from the co-authored prefaces and were informed by the political developments and concerns leading to the establishment of working class institutions, especially the Second International. While it is fashionable today to stress on Engels’ dilution of Marx’s ideas, our focus should be instead the context in which Engels was rereading the Manifesto written four decades earlier. Moreover, now it was not just a joint product of Marx and Engels, but a legacy of the whole proletarian movement, “a historical document” which nobody had “any right to alter,” what they had already pronounced in 1872.

In his prefaces, besides time and again honouring Marx with the chief authorship of the Manifesto, Engels makes many crucial remarks on its history and ideas. Obviously, an implicit canonisation of Marx and the Communist Manifesto can be witnessed especially in these prefaces. Canonisation happens when the movement is seeking to consolidate its gains and achievements, and officialize itself. This tendency which is merely implicit in Engels’s post-Marx writings, has been the hallmark of official Marxism till today. Of course, canonisation becomes a problem in those phases when the movement has to refound itself along with the task to reread the Manifesto for new times, when you cannot take anything for granted.

In his preface to the English edition of 1888 (which was repeated verbatim in the 1890 Preface of the German edition), Engels sublates this tendency in a remarkable manner by historicising not so much the contents of the Manifesto themselves as in previous prefaces co-authored with Marx, but by historicising its publication and circulation. Engels shows how “the history of the Manifesto reflects the history of the modern working-class movement.” He notes that the Manifesto in the 1850s “seemed… deemed to oblivion.” The First International in the 1860s signified a recovery of the working class strength, but the bringing together of the militant proletariat of Europe and America needed a broad programme that “could not at once proclaim the principles laid down in the Manifesto.” However, “the very events and vicissitudes in the struggle against capital, the defeats even more than the victories, could not help bringing home to men’s minds the insufficiency of their various favorite nostrums, and preparing the way for a more complete insight into the true conditions for working-class emancipation…. The Manifesto itself came thus to the front again.” This mode of thinking precarises the destiny of the Manifesto and makes it an object of the history of the working class movement not a canonised subject. The circulation of the Manifesto becomes a thermometer to measure the heat of the movement.

In fact, in the preface to the Polish edition of 1892, besides championing the cause of the independence of Poland “which can be gained only by the young Polish proletariat, and in [whose] hands it is secure,” Engels finds the Manifesto to have

“become an index as it were, of the development of large-scale industry on the European continent. In proportion as large-scale industry expands in a given country, the demand grows among the workers of that country for enlightenment regarding their position as the working class in relation to the possessing classes, the socialist movement spreads among them and the demand for the Manifesto increases. Thus, not only the state of the labour movement but also the degree of development of large-scale industry can be measured with fair accuracy in every country by the number of copies of the Manifesto circulated in the language of that country.”

Using the Manifesto as an index of class dynamics, proletarianization and capitalist development, Engels opens up a new angle of reading the dialectic of the general and the specific as historical patterns, not as proliferating relativities and their eclectic bundling. This makes possible a continuous enrichment of this dialectic in the Manifesto, by its rereading in various contexts. Similar to what Engels along with Marx did with the Russian question, the prefaces of the Polish and Italian editions that he authored brought in the question of national autonomy and independence within the folds of this dialectic.

In the end, it is important not to miss one of the most obvious yet significant facts about the Communist Manifesto that Engels has noted and which is generally ignored in the process of canonisation of this text. It was regarding the very identity of the Manifesto. Why was it called a communist manifesto, not a socialist manifesto? Engels’ explanation is important even for our times. It was to distinguish the tendency represented in the Manifesto from the various utopian sects, and from “the manifold types of social quacks who wanted to eliminate social abuses through their various universal panaceas and all kinds of patch-work, without hurting capital and profit in the least.” Both these tendencies were outsiders to the labour movement and looked up to the “educated” classes for enlightenment and social change. On the other hand, the communists were “the section of the working class…which demanded a radical reconstruction of society, convinced that mere political revolutions were not enough….Socialism in 1847 signified a bourgeois movement, communism a working-class movement.” Because, they were “very decidedly of the opinion as early as then that ‘the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the working class itself,’” Marx, Engels and his comrades did not hesitate to choose the tendency that was closest to this opinion. “Nor has it ever occurred to us to repudiate it.” It is in this light that the general principles of the Manifesto must be again and again derived and rearticulated in diverse moments in the struggle for self-emancipation of the working class, and not at all as justifications for voluntary actions of the sects of the “educated”, nor as the procrustean language to size the novelty of the specific, but, more simply, to reveal the general in the specific, to read the patterns of our times.

Note: All quotes and quotations unless otherwise mentioned are from the Prefaces to the Communist Manifesto.     

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