The Humble Origins of Marxism’s Founding Document: Mary Gabriel

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The League of the Just had been based in Paris, but by the fall of 1846 police harassment had intensified and most of its strongest members fled France. The organization moved its central committee to London, coalescing around the German communists and English Chartists with whom Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had met the year before.

Marx had approached these men early in 1846, but the league rebuffed him. By the fall, however, Marx’s letters had convinced them that the times demanded the abandonment of the vague, utopian goal of a future ideal society in favor of “scientific” communism, which sought to understand and materially support the modern oppressed class, the proletariat, who were already engaged in a revolutionary struggle even if they did not recognize it as such.

Evidence to support Marx’s argument could be found in the economic and agricultural crisis then raging across the continent, which had triggered widespread unrest. The bad harvests that began in 1845 had continued, and this, coupled with new trade policies that had forced small growers out of business while allowing large producers to ship food to lucrative foreign markets, caused the price of many staple items to double from 1845 to 1847. The number of bankruptcies during this period was unprecedented. Businesses closed; starvation began appearing in the cities.

Food Riots

Across Europe, food riots erupted, followed by workers’ strikes. Some provincial governments tried to tame restless cities by directing grain away from villages and towns, but that only exacerbated dire conditions in the countryside.

During the week of June 2, 1847, dozens of league members gathered at a London pub and agreed to major changes that sharpened the group’s focus, beginning with its name: the League of the Just became the Communist League, and its slogan changed from “All Men Are Brothers” to the more muscular “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!” It became the first international communist organization in history.

But its numbers were tiny. A former Berlin police official sent to London to check on the group estimated its membership that summer at a mere 84 agitated souls. When Marx formed his branch of the league in Brussels, it had 18 members, including his wife, Jenny, her brother Edgar von Westphalen and Engels.

Family Affair

The Brussels league was very much a close-knit, almost family affair, which was probably the source of its strength. There was little if any dissent, and everyone took directions from Marx, who was not surprisingly elected branch president.

The German typesetter Stephan Born recalled Karl and Jenny’s home in Ixelles as extremely modest and poorly furnished, but it nevertheless served as the “spiritual center of communism.”

In November 1847, league members, including Marx and Engels, met for 10 days in a London pub. Marx, Engels and their followers tried to steer the group away from utopian ideas and hoped to erase such flights of fancy from the league’s program. The league had to be made relevant to workers if it was to grow, and that meant it had to aggressively address the workingman’s needs and desires.

By the end of the meeting the group agreed to a revised aim that was pure Marx: “The overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society which rests on the antagonism of classes, and the foundation of a new society without classes and without private property.”

Founding Document

The league needed a document that explained its program, and asked Marx and Engels to write it. Engels proposed the title, “The Communist Manifesto.”

In January 1848, using a draft by Engels, Marx began work on the document. Jenny worked as his secretary to help speed the project. Their handwriting intertwined on the page as he scribbled his thoughts and she followed in an elegant, feminine hand, patiently copying out and making legible her husband’s blistering indictment of the bourgeoisie and his belief that revolution was right, inevitable and imminent.

At the end of January he mailed the 23-page document to London. It was printed with a dark green cover on the pamphlet, and titled “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” even though no such party existed. No author’s name appeared on the 800 copies that came off the press at the end of February 1848. The English Chartist George Julian Harney called the pamphlet, written by Marx at his small suburban home and copied out by his wife at their dining table, the most revolutionary document the world had ever seen.

Melodramatic Opening

The manifesto read like an opening statement in a legal case. Marx began with the melodramatic “A specter is haunting Europe -- the specter of Communism,” then set out to describe communism and the corrupt system it hoped to replace.

Synthesizing ideas from other intellectuals and economists until they became his own, Marx described crimes committed by the bourgeoisie, who, he said, “left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’” He said the system had reduced traditional occupations of respect -- doctors, lawyers, priests, poets, scientists -- into paid wage laborers, and turned “the family relation to a mere money relation.”

Marx described a state of turmoil unlike anything in history in a world dominated by capital, because of its need to constantly revolutionize production and raise profits, which in turn required new markets around the globe: “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”

‘Creates a World’

Its system of trade brought raw materials from far-flung places to producers across oceans so products could be sold to consumers a steamship or rail line away. Old national industries were destroyed; old civilizations were, too. Of this system Marx said, “In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

But, he explained, this society also created the seeds of its own destruction, and “is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the netherworld who he has called up by his spells.”

Commercial crises would accelerate with overproduction, and the army of workers required to run industrial society’s machines would turn into a force for its demise. “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

Private Property

Marx declared that at the core of communism was the abolition of private property. He answered possibly alarmed critics by noting that nine-tenths of the population at that time did not possess property, so the only people standing to lose would be the minority who had made their gains through exploitation: “Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labor of others by means of such appropriation.”

Why should an industry whose operation depends upon the work of 100 people, perhaps even 1,000, enrich only a handful? Why should the earth’s bounty -- its minerals, land and seas -- come under the exclusive control of any man for his own gain?

Marx answered critics who charged that communism threatened the fabric of the family by accusing them of hypocrisy. “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonism, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

‘Forcible Overthrow’

But he said that could only be achieved by the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

“Working men of all countries, Unite!”

“The Communist Manifesto” would eventually be translated into as many 200 languages, but when it was published it went virtually unnoticed. Europe was already on fire. In the third week of February 1848, rumors circulated in Brussels of a political earthquake in Paris, rumors too fantastic to believe: Louis-Philippe abdicated the throne and fled into exile. A republic had been declared in France.

Within weeks, in capitals across Europe, leaders who had once seemed invincible fell. More remarkable still, they did not fall before armies; they fell before common men whose only real weapon was their plentiful number.

Springtime of Peoples

The grievances that exploded that year could be traced directly to the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which redrew the borders of European states after the defeat of Napoleon. Those boundaries, however, had never quite fit the populations they were meant to contain. And the monarchs who emerged from the meetings believing themselves cloaked in new strength were actually weakened. Their people had made blood sacrifices in battle, but in peace received nothing in return. Taxes did not fund improvements; they filled treasuries that financed a lavish court life. Rights that had been dangled as a reward for driving out the French did not materialize. Crops failed, but governments provided no relief; unemployment soared, but there was no attempt to create jobs.

In 1848, the discontented had finally risen up. That year’s revolt became known as the Springtime of the Peoples. It was the first -- and is still the only -- Europe-wide rebellion of the people against their rulers.

(Mary Gabriel is the author of the biographies “Notorious Victoria” and “The Art of Acquiring.” This is the last in a five-part series excerpted from her new book, “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution,” published in September by Little, Brown & Co. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.)

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