The Communist Manifesto and Leninism
By Gwydion M. Williams
The Communist Manifesto is a famous document, the best known of all that Marx and Engels wrote. A very odd document, with a strange and seldom-told history. It is also remarkable for essentially ignoring the struggle. for political democracy and constitutional rights, the main issue of the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848. I examined this in Democracy and the Communist Manifesto (L&TUR No. 18). This article will show the results of Marx and Engels’ failure to see the advantages of democratic structures and multi-party systems.
In the revolutions of 1848, the struggle for democracy was the issue. People wanted parliaments, wanted constitutions, wanted elections on a really democratic basis. But what does the Manifesto say about the matter? Astonishingly enough, it avoids it almost completely. There are only a few remarks that hint at a rather dismissive attitude to such things. It says:
“The executive of the modern State is but a committee for the managing of the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (Communist Manifesto, introduction.)
“In the French revolution of July, 1830, and in the English reform agitation, these aristocracies again succumbed to this hateful upstart” (Ibid, chapter III.)
And that is all it has to say about the matter! The struggle for Bourgeois Democracy is seen as only a form of struggle by the bourgeoisie against the older ruling classes. Democratic constitutions as such are seen as unimportant According to Sorel:
“The Manifesto of 1847 assumes that the power · of the bourgeoisie will be overturned by a coalition of Jacobins and proletarians. The victors, in order to take full advantage of their successful campaign, will organise a democracy which begins by adopting measures of social liquidation, the nomenclature of which was borrowed by Marx and Engels from the literature of their time. Finally, with the working class each day exercising more dominance over the state, the ideals of the League of Communists will enter into the history of institutions. This schematic tableau seems to have been intentionally presented in an enigmatic form. Marx, still only a young philosopher without reputation, could not express his ideas with complete freedom. Many of the members of the association for which he spoke thought that the transitory regime of democracy could be avoided, thanks to a revolution which would be conducted energetically enough to throw the workers into full communism.”
The point becomes clearer if you look at the earlier drafts for a ‘Communist Catechism’ from which the Manifesto itself grew. Thus in the Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith, written by Engels in June 1847, you have:
“Question 16: How do you think the transition from the present situation to the community of property is to be effected?
“Answer: The first, fundamental condition for the introduction of community of property is the political liberation of the proletariat through a democratic constitution.
“Question 17: What will be your first measure once you have established democracy?
“Answer: Guaranteeing the subsistence of the proletariat”.
This clear commitment to a democratic constitution, normal enough for radicals in the 1840s, was both expanded and slightly qualified in Principles of Communism. This was produced by Engels in October 1847.
“Question 18: What will be the course of this revolution?
“Answer: In the first place it will inaugurate a democratic constitution and thereby, directly or indirectly, the political rule of the proletariat. Directly in England, where the proletariat already constitutes the majority of the people. Indirectly in France and in Germany, where the majority of the people consists not only of proletarians but also of small peasants and urban petty bourgeois, who are only now being proletarianised and in all their political interests are becoming more and more dependent on the proletariat and therefore soon will have to conform to the demands of the proletariat. This will perhaps involve a second fight, but one that can end only in the victory of the proletariat.
“Democracy would be quite useless to the proletariat if it were not immediately used as a means of carrying though further measures directly attacking private ownership and securing the means of subsistence of the proletariat. Chief among these measures …. “ (.)
Principles of Communism was used as raw material for the Communist Manifesto, the joint work of Marx and Engels. The measures detailed at the end of Section II of the manifesto are clearly a modified version of those in Principles of Communism, which immediately follow the section I have quoted. But in the Manifesto, references to a democratic constitution have been transformed:
“We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of the productive forces as rapidly as possible.”
It is this notion of democracy, democracy as the power of a state representing the proletariat, that was to be followed some seventy years later when Lenin carried out a takeover remarkably like what Marx and Engels had planned for in 1848. The Soviet state was not a distortion of Marxism; the model was there in the Communist Manifesto.
The whole notion of political democracy was evaded. It may, as Sorel implies, have been because of disagreements over tactics. But also it would have been unwise for the Communist League to have been directly against parliamentary democracy – a popular and highly radical demand at the time. Yet nor did they wish to let a parliamentary system inhibit them, if there seemed a chance of taking the revolution any further. The Communist League could hardly have won majority support even if the whole of the working class supported it, because the other social classes (which Marx regarded as reactionary) outnumbered the proletarians.
The logic of this was a Leninist-type seizure of power, in which a small but determined working class would dominate the rest of society. As a statement of principles, the Communist Manifesto had to lay the groundwork for such a development But not too obviously, since the established governments had not been overthrown, and it was the bourgeois democrats who were likely to dominate the first stages of any revolution. Thus the matter was left obscure.
Marx did not actually tell lies. But he was very good at not drawing attention to embarrassing facts.
In Marx’s later writings there is a continuing ambiguity about democracy. He was prepared to accept that a peaceful transition to socialism might occur in Britain, America and perhaps other countries. He would talk about the “withering away of the state” – but also about the “dictatorship of the proletariat“. I suspect that one method was as good as another to him. He did not expect the question of political democracy to be relevant after a proletarian revolution.
Marx avoided the question of democracy and constitutions by merging all states in which the middle class was dominant into a single category, the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’. This category ignored specific forms of government and the normal level of civil rights. It ignored also the very different political traditions that existed in Europe. It lumped together the liberal oligarchy of Britain after 1688 with the self-governing farmers and townsmen of Switzerland and the absolutist monarchical states that existed elsewhere. It failed to separate the Latin and Roman Catholic tradition of a separate Church and State from the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian tradition of a Church dependent on the State.
(Please don’t refer me to Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. The book is full of flaws. Much of the evidence that Engels himself cites points to a very different conclusion from the one he draws. But I’ll deal with this in another article.)
[Thirty years on, I have still not got round to it. In brief, though Engels describes the state as an agent of the ruling class, even the cases he cite show it acting to keep the society in being, and putting some limits on Ruling Class greed.)
The simple fact is that Marx and Engels never tidied up their position on democracy. They treated it as an unimportant matter. Thus when Kautsky argued against Lenin and Trotsky on the matter, each side could match quote against quote, opinion against opinion, without any serious distortion of what ‘the founders’ had said.
Part of the complication lay in the big gap between what Marx and Engels had wanted, and what a state built on the lines of the Communist Manifesto was likely to produce. I do not suggest that the Socialist movement should simply have relied upon the expansion of democracy. It was very far from being well established in the 19th century. France swung wildly between democracy and dictatorship. Germany was to acquire democratic forms, elections and parliaments, but the government was not dependent upon them. The difficulty was that Marx had left the matter in a hopeless muddle. He assumed that the differences were irrelevant: one bourgeois state was much like another.
Socialists like Bernstein and Kautsky assumed that democracy would develop as a matter of course. They assumed that workers would acquire power peacefully, by sheer force of numbers. Marx’s theory of historical development could be seen as saying that Bernstein argued in Evolutionary Socialism that the whole idea of revolution should be dropped, and that society had not developed as Marx had predicted. Kautsky would not go so far – he hung on to some of the revolutionary language, while in practice expecting an evolutionary development
A more consistent position was held by socialists like Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg. (In those days they were all socialists or social-democrats. It was only after the Russian Revolution that Lenin revived the term Communist and used it for his new Third International.) They assumed that revolution was inevitable, and drew particularly on Marx’s writings on France for this view. Both views could claim some support from Marx. Neither could deal properly with the critical question of forms of government. Marxism, supposedly a complete view of the world, in fact had an enormous gap in it!
Socialists like Kautsky and Bernstein became almost irrelevant in the world that emerged after World War One. They had had arguments over the interpretation of Marxism. But at the level of political practice, they were on the same side. They were Independent Social Democrats, who supported Germany’s war effort in a half-hearted way. The majority Social Democrats were 100% for the war, expecting that a victory for Germany would be the victory of a semi-socialist state over its capitalist rivals.
In Germany, the Independent Social Democrats were squeezed out by the mainstream social-democrats and by the new Communist Party. Similar things happened in other countries. It was not just that they could not compete; they hardly knew what to do. Bernstein’s autobiography, which is available in English, is a well-written but strangely non-political document
Many of those who dreamt of a new world in the years before World War One found themselves completely lost in the new world that actually emerged. Rosa Luxemburg was killed by right-wingers. Some people have wondered just what she would have done had she lived; I suspect that she herself was wondering that. She took no steps to get to safety, after a failed revolution in which she had played no part, even though she was blamed for it. Perhaps she preferred to die a martyr than live on in a world she could no longer cope with.
Lenin, when he created the Bolshevik State, assumed that workers would have no need to be protected against a workers’ state. (And the fate of other classes did not concern him). Indeed, in The State and Revolution he assumed that the actual state apparatus could be abolished soon after the revolution. Since this proved impossible, he took steps to see that the apparatus of the workers’ state could operate as efficiently as possible. Opposition – even from left-wing socialists and anarchists, even from minorities within the Bolshevik party – would clearly hinder the efficient functioning of the workers’ state. Therefore he took steps to eliminate this opposition; either jailing them or shooting them.
Stalin’s only innovation was to apply similar methods to other leaders of the Bolshevik party. And I suspect that Lenin would have done just the same, had he lived longer. And when we look at what other leaders of Leninist systems have done, it is hard to believe the Khrushchevite or Trotskyite notion that it was perfect apart from the sad fact that it was run by Stalin rather than somebody else.
The remarkable thing is not that the Bolshevik state failed to live up to Lenin’s hopes for it, but that it worked at all. The man had no experience of anything except faction fights among professional revolutionaries, who were generally to be numbered in hundreds. Yet somehow he was able to transform his party into a mass organisation that could rule over millions, and be far more powerful and efficient than the Tsarist state had ever been. The critical error was to leave out the notion of a lawful and loyal opposition.
In Western-style democracies, opposition parties may be treated unfairly. They may even be suppressed during times of emergency. But everyone recognises that the ideal is to allow them to operate freely. It follows logically from the ideal of free elections, which in practice will always lead to a multi-party system and the possibility of the government being thrown out peacefully. Thus when the crisis has passed, the restrictions tend to get relaxed. Even the Latin American countries have mostly gone back to some form of elected government Right-wing dictatorship in both Spain and Greece has been transformed step-by-step into parliamentary government with left-wing parties in power.
The Leninist model includes no such provision. The ideal is no opposition: the supreme authorities in the workers’ state will be acting in the best interests of everyone, and no one at all should oppose them. Everyone supported Stalin, until he was actually dead and Khrushchev had decided that he was wrong after all. Everyone supported Khrushchev, until he was ousted in a constitutional coup. (It was constitutional, in the sense that the Politburo did have the theoretical right to oust a General Secretary. But it was also a coup, because that constitutional machinery had not been used for decades, and was not expected to actually operate to settle a power struggle.)
The Soviet Union in its Leninist days had no place for any legitimate or legal opposition to the leader of the day. Brezhnev was the best leader since Lenin, for as long as he was alive. Likewise for Andropov, and Chernenko. And up until last year everyone said that they were backing Gorbachev, even though it was known that many top party people were out to slow him down and frustrate the changes he was arguing for.
Gorbachev could have chosen to create a system in which he could· be replaced constitutionally. But he failed to do so while his position was still strong, probably because the whole weight of Soviet tradition was against going so far. He would have had to have been an outstandingly generous and far-sighted leader to have given his enemies the means to oppose him effectively. There was nothing in conventional Marxism-Leninism, from the Manifesto right down to Lenin’s last writings, that would tell him that he ought to do so. With the election of Boris Yeltsin as leader of the Russian Federal Republic, an effective alternative now exists. But this happened against Gorbachev’s wishes, in a situation he is now clearly losing control of.
The critical flaw in Marxism is that it failed to learn from the 1688 revolution in Britain. It failed to realise the usefulness of political pluralism and liberty of opinion. It tended to sneer at such things, because their operation was not 100% perfect And for this very reason, it failed to attract large numbers of workers whose day-to-day experience told them the usefulness of such imperfect liberties. This is an error that must not be repeated.
On the other hand, even an imperfect theory is better than no theory at all. The Kinnockite ‘Socialism with a nice smile and no ideas’ model looks likely to replace Thatcherism. But if Labour under Kinnock cannot then go on and do something coherent, there could easily be a new Thatcherism within the next ten years or so. Yet coherence on the Left tends to be built on bits and pieces of Marxism, and most people acquired Marx’s misunderstanding of democracy, along with the useful and valid things he said. And this fatal misunderstanding has done a lot of damage to left-wing causes over the years.
The possibility of combining Marxist class politics and economic analysis with a recognition of the usefulness of political democracy remains open. Marxists, especially in Britain, have used up vast amounts of intelligence and ingenuity to avoid reaching such a conclusion. It was this that messed up the New Left – however much the dictatorial methods of Stalin or Mao were condemned, the New Left could not hide the fact that exactly the same principles lay at the heart of its own ideology. Attempts to reconcile such contradictions led to incoherence.
It turns out that ‘bourgeois democracy’, the political system worked out in the 17th and 18th centuries by the English gentry, and only later . extended to the bourgeoisie, is exactly what is needed to make socialist systems viable and effective. Because Marxists held out against this notion, and because the rest of the left was very unclear on the matter, great opportunities were lost. But the basic drift of events is favourable – the Manifesto was quite right on this point. Lost chances will come again, and this time should not be missed.
This article appeared in November 1990, in Issue 20 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.
[Remarkably, none of the New Right seem to have noticed my clear demonstration of authoritarian attitudes present from the start of Marxism. Nor any critic of Lenin or Stalin, that I have noticed.
[Had I felt so inclined, I would have had a good chance of brokering this into a nice niche within the New Right or New Labour order. They would probably have appreciated having the son of Raymond Williams speaking with their voices. And then might have noticed I also had something meaningful to say. (Or then again, perhaps not, since most of them are empty.)
[But if you’ve read the other things I was saying at the time, you should see why I did not. I saw what a mess they were making of the wider world, at a time when few others outside of the Bevin Society saw it. And I had noticed that ‘trickle-down’ was a fraud – most of the economic gains were going to the very rich.]
 From George Sorel. Oxford University Press 1976. Page 241. The quote comes from Materials for a Theory of the Proletariat
 Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works Volume 6. Lawrence & Wishart London 1976. Page 102.
 Ibid, p350. Emphasis original
 Communist Manifesto, Chapter II. Emphasis added.
 I have since then examined both in detail: https://gwydionwilliams.com/history-and-philosophy/why-trotksys-politics-achieved-nothing-solid/ and https://gwydionwilliams.com/history-and-philosophy/khrushchev-influenced-by-trotskyism/.