By Nadia Urbinati
The Communist Manifesto, first published on this day in 1848, doesn’t suggest that we should imagine the future. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels tell us that the future is harboured within things themselves, and that is why it is rational to desire it. So it makes no sense to establish a dualism between the present and the future; if we reasoned according to this dichotomy, then we would be condemned either to desire the impossible or else to suffer the curse of Adam and accept suffering and poverty as divine punishments. The Manifesto instead tells us to take up the tasks we are capable of resolving — and by “us,” Marx and Engels mean not individuals or an aggregate of individuals but a class determined by economic processes.
The Manifesto is an extraordinary document of political activism, both urgent and enthusiastic — and it was received as such by both admirers and critics: “The memorable date of publication of The Communist Manifesto (February 1848) reminds us of our first and definitive entry into history,” wrote the materialist philosopher Antonio Labriola in 1895. “It is against this date that the course of the new era can be measured, rising and blossoming. This is how this new era escaped from and developed out of the present, through intimate and immanent development, is a necessary and ineluctable fashion.”
For Labriola, the scansion of the temporality of communism was clear: it was blossoming in a present determined by the past and pregnant with the future. History did not make jumps; it was determined, and thus capable of providing certainty to political action — that is, the confidence that the sacrifices, struggles, and repressions will not be in vain, as Carlo Rosselli put it in his 1930 work Liberal Socialism.
Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto in December 1847, when the former was twenty-nine years old and the latter twenty-seven. Europe (and through it, the world) was their horizon, a theatre of multiple revolutions against empires, monarchical domination, and timidly liberal governments unabashedly in service of a specific social class — the bourgeoisie. Between 1847 and 1849, revolutionary hope was animated by republicans, socialists, democrats, anarchists, and communists, all mobilized with the objective of sparking a popular uprising against social, political, and economic oppression. Giuseppe Mazzini and Louis Blanc, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin were central protagonists in these two years of democratic struggle, which finished in bloody repression, in the Roman Republic (1849) and eventually with the dictatorship of Napoleon III (1851). This epilogue changed Marx’s attitude toward the role of political action.
How had Marx and Engels come to communism? Engels already called himself “communist” at the end of 1842, and Marx followed suit a few months later. They were not the first to do so, even in the Germany where they lived at the time. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment had seeded the idea of progress across countries and cultural worlds. The utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (which was certainly not socialist) had provided a bridge between French materialism (from Holbach and Helvetius to Morelly and Mably) and English utopianism — and indeed, the ideas of William Godwin, Robert Owen, and William Thompson were extremely well-known among radicals and socialists when Marx emigrated to London in 1849.
Notable influences of this age included the theories of eighteenth-century materialist anthropologists (Bernard de Mandeville) and economists (Adam Smith). Especially crucial was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, while not socialist, had contributed heavily to awareness of the symbiotic link between the social and political orders. Among those who took inspiration from Rousseau were Francois-Noël Babeuf and Filippo Buonarroti, protagonists of the failed Conspiracy of Equals in 1796 that inspired the revolutionary conspiring of Louis-Auguste Blanqui against the reign of Louis Philippe (1830–1848) and the League of the Just, founded in the 1830s, of which the German exiles in Paris (including Marx) were a part. It was from the latter that the Communist League was born in London in 1847, the fruit of several years of coordination between English and continental revolutionary movements (including the Democratic Association of Brussels that Marx had been a part of).
The Communist League commissioned a manifesto from Marx and Engels, who at the time considered themselves radical democrats and supported all movements for political emancipation (including movements like the Chartists). Democratic radicalism had in fact been the chief accusation levelled against Marx by the Prussian government in 1843 for his work with the Rheinische Zeitung; his “ultrademocratic opinions [we]re in complete contradiction with the principles of the Prussian state,” the indictment against him claimed. However, in the Manifesto, the ideas of the eighteenth-century revolutionaries belong to a chapter of the past, including their preferred method of conspiracy. The “party” of which they write points to the political activity carried out in the open, founded on themes capable of agitating and arousing the passions of public opinion. The Hegelian dialectic that Marx adds to the materialistic interpretation of history turns communism into an unavoidable destination. The “spectre” is indicative of a reality that can neither be denied nor escaped — a future that will torment capitalism to the end of its days.
The Manifesto connects the scientific interpretation of the history of society with politically revolutionary objectives, and includes suggestions on the measures to adopt should the revolutionary movement succeed — many of them essentially liberal and democratic. This is all undergirded by faith in a collective direction of political action towards a medium-term goal (the dictatorship of the proletariat) and a long-term goal (the withering away of the state and communist self-government). The party has a class of reference, the proletariat, but also an emancipatory end goal that transcends any class: the realization of the individual. Marx and Engels describe the unique and revolutionary conditions of this class with engaging style and cadence.
The arguments are proven through the materialistic conception of history, which demonstrates why this proletariat is the only fundamentally revolutionary class. The antagonistic class, the bourgeoisie (which created the economic model of capitalism), is also revolutionary and has created a new culture, technology, and the civil and political relations to accompany them — thereby revolutionizing society and uprooting atavistic traditions, religious beliefs, and caste hierarchies, changing the mode of the state and immersing humanity in a globalized and unified world. But the bourgeoisie is only revolutionary in order to satisfy its own interests, which are to subjugate in economic and social practice those whom it declares free and equal by law. The proletariat is generated by the bourgeois revolution, unified through its condition of absolute subordination, which comes about not due to the will of any particular capitalist or industry but through the capitalist system of production that imposes its logic on all without distinction, bosses and proletarians alike.
Capitalism cannot be judged from a moral perspective, or according to the principles of impartiality and justice. It is a coherent system according to its own logic of accumulation and exploitation, and thus cannot be made just. The salaried condition — the necessity of working without directing one’s own work — makes the proletariat the only class with a universal function of emancipation and justice, upon which the entire capitalist system rests. It is a class with nothing to lose and nothing to protect, and will ultimately liberate everyone, including the bourgeoisie, from the yoke of the iron law of capitalist accumulation.
The Manifesto gives us two futures: The first chapter, on the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, denotes the capitalist period. In the second chapter, we see the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat for communism. Of these two futures, the first corresponds to our present, a present long enough to have undermined the very idea of the second future and of transformation. We are living in an eternal present that repeats itself with increasing velocity. And this is what is implicitly referred to when we speak today of a “pensée unique,” “presentism,” and “the end of history.” What we have from the Manifesto today is this dilation of the capitalist present: a chapter in the global transformation of the system that seems to have devoured the future.
Triumphant global capitalism gives the world a single language, a single aesthetic and moral culture, that destroys the significance of borders, traditions, and political sovereignty with the movement of people, leaving us at a crossroads between Mandeville and Marx. For both authors, civil society is waylaid from progress and enrichment by inequality; according to both, the culture of rights in essence only has the function of opening up enormous pastures free from civic life, where private vices can flourish. In Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1723), wealth is inevitably born from poverty, prosperity from salaried labour and a nation’s health is thus measured by the mass of the impoverished who exhaust themselves without thought of engaging in beauty and culture — luxury goods that cannot be had at their price. Civilization through exploitation (much like religion) does nothing except reinforce the sense that there is nothing beyond one’s own misery. This is a cynical civilization, which takes away all respite for the soul, tears away the veil of divinity and leaves millions of Sisyphuses in perennial and fatal submission to an immutable Prometheus — science and technology — that is, the destructive forces that preclude the possibilities of civic life through the oppression of the many.
In fact, without the certainty of a future contained within the belly of the present, the present becomes our damnation, because capitalism gives us one sole hope: to end up on the right side through luck, lottery, or fortune. The Manifesto disdainfully casts away this reliance on fortune, proposing an alternative to Mandeville in the form of a granite certainty: that we will have a human future. But through which path, in what manner, and with what instruments?
The defeat of the revolutions for which the Manifesto was written left Marx with doubts as to the efficacy of political struggle and mobilization, but not as to the direction of history. After this defeat (and the subsequent defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871), the certainty of the future followed a different path and carried a high price: the future, in Marx’s subsequent writings, would not be dispensed by a class organized into a revolutionary political party. This is the perspective that our seemingly eternal present gives us; no political virtue is able to open the gates of the future, and yet we must convince ourselves not to lose hope, for history is full of “turns and reversals,” as Giambattista Vico pointed out. And it is history that will decide: this present already pregnant, despite everything, with the future.
In our time, in this eternal present of the first chapter of the Manifesto, we have two options: Mandeville or Marx. That is, either a story of exploitation and wealth that repeats itself without end because human nature does not change or else a story of exploitation and accumulation that will not simply keep repeating itself. As Rousseau wrote, humans cannot help perfecting themselves, and in so doing, they disrupt their own nature and the course of things — thereby creating chinks in the system, without premeditation. So, even without an abstract political design to determine the course of this second future, it is true that the devil is in the details. Scattered sparks can produce many great fires, we read in De rerum natura — a text well-known and beloved by Marx.
This article is a translation of Nadia Urbinati’s chapter in the book Il futuro. Storia di un’idea (Laterza, Rome-Bari, 2021).
Nadia Urbinati is a professor of political theory at Columbia University. Her most recent book is Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2019).
Xavier Flory is a PhD candidate in political theory at Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris, with a dissertation on democratic control over technology.