Attacking Marx- Again!

One of the favourite sports of so-called scholars and historians is the occasional attack on Marx and Engels. And the easiest - and most profitable - target to take aim at is the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. Unlike Marx's 3-volume opus, CAPITAL, it is short, written in plain English, and very well known. This means that so-called experts can pen an attack without having to spend more than a day or so, at most, skimming the text and writing a response. And publishers know that, as attacks on Marx are good box-office, attractive to a wide readership, any such 'work' will certainly sell and result in profits. The more so if the so-called 'expert' has a reputation for other, more serious, work.

Ten years ago in 2009, the American publisher based in Washington DC of a paperback title, The Skeptical Reader Series, commissioned Robert Conquest to write an Introduction to The Communist Manifesto. This re-publication of the great Marxist classic is of some use and value, not because of Conquest's tedious and superficial Introduction but because, unusually, it includes at the back every Preface written by Marx and/or Engels, as follows:

* Preface to the 1872 German Edition
* Preface to the 1882 Russian Edition
* Preface to the 1883 German Edition
* Preface to the 1888 English Edition
* Preface to the 1890 German Edition
* Preface to the 1892 Polish Edition
* Preface to the 1893 Italian Edition

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always done its level best to draw attention to the important warning given in two of these Prefaces. The same passage, from the 1872 Preface by Marx and Engels, was later copied by Engels into his Preface to the 1888 English edition.

While it is unusual for any writers to warn their readers about errors in their earlier work, it is even more unusual for the same warning to be repeated, decades later. So just what was this so important warning? It concerned the wish-list of 10 possible reforms set out in Section II of the MANIFESTO. These included nationalization, a progressive income tax, free education etc. - almost all of them later adopted by reformist, so-called Socialist and Social Democratic parties, and slavishly persisted with, down the generations since. For instance, many of them were still echoed in the Labour Party's conference speeches and promises (Brighton, September 2019).

Marx and Engels in 1872 warned about these: although the general principles of THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO remained as correct as in 1848, it was important to recognize that historical conditions would have changed since then:

The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today.

Although this clearly significant warning was repeated for the 1888 English edition, unfortunately all too often Left-wing editions of the MANIFESTO have omitted any reference to this. But in our view, to publish the MANIFESTO without including or referring to the 1888 Preface, is dishonest and sharp practice.

To mark the centenary of the Manifesto in 1948, our party published as a pamphlet the Manifesto, plus the 1888 Preface - together with our assessment of the 100 years since the 1848 publication. We have now made that centenary edition, including the 1888 Preface, available to a new generation of readers and Socialists in a cheap facsimile edition. So what can we say of this American 'Skeptikal Reader' edition? The parts written by Marx and Engels, or by Engels himself, we cannot object to. But the contribution by Robert Conquest we do object to.

Why was Conquest picked by this Washington publisher - why him? On the cover we are recommended to him as "Author of The Great Terror and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom". He was also honoured by the British state (CMG, OBE, etc). Clearly not the right sort to introduce this great, historic and revolutionary work by Marx and Engels. As a Cold War campaigner against Stalinist atrocities, he was unlikely to be appreciative of anything remotely connected with Marx or Engels - his prejudice would surely prevent him providing an honest and clear-sighted appreciation of their work.

And that is precisely why this Washington publisher chose him for this publication. His job was to diss Marx and Engels - to advise naive readers that they would do well to sneer at their work and then forget it.

Well, we are not so naive as to let this go by without scrutiny.

Why the Communist Manifesto Matters

For such a short booklet, the MANIFESTO certainly packs a punch and is still, even today, relevant and influential. It would be folly to attempt to summarise its contents. But we should still take a moment to consider some of its key themes.

Marx and Engels wrote of the way societies change, and of how new forms of exploitation and new classes had come into being. They emphasized the central role of class struggle: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." That emphasis on the historical dynamics of social development is a constant theme of the MANIFESTO.

With this came their perception that the capitalist system was progressive, with its constant innovation and globalizing expansion, with huge new technological forces of production rapidly brought into being.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization... It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural... It has agglomerated population, centralized means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands... The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.

Even today, this still rings true as the Internet and the e-connectedness of our modern world has brought innovation and international communications even to the remotest African villages and South Pacific islands. The pace of change has never slowed, just as in computing speed has increased down the decades.

But the MANIFESTO cannot be read as simply a hymn of praise to the powers of capitalism. It also drew attention to the growth and centrality of two opposing classes, that of Capital and that of Wage Labour, and showed how the working class produces the capital used to exploit them.

Its internationalism was clear, and should have been more influential, e.g. in 1914, 1939 etc.: "The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got." Those who left their villages desperately seeking work in the monstrous factories of the new Industrial Revolution did so as landless 'free' labourers. As a class, these were among the most insecure in a very precarious, ruthless, dog-eat-dog economic system:

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e. capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working-class, developed, a class of labourers who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

That being the case, Marx and Engels argued that it was the working class, not the backward-looking, conservative/reactionary small shopkeepers, smallholders and peasants, which was the only revolutionary class.

They argued too that "every class struggle is a political struggle" so that the working class must "win the battle for democracy".

Conquest's Critique

So now we turn to Robert Conquest's introduction. We expect it to be critical, probably hostile in his approach. Apart from the hostility of the ruling class ideologists of the 19th century, there is the post-1917 extremely damaging association of Marxism with the totalitarian state capitalism and purges of Lenin and Stalin.

Conquest had made his name with his 1968 work THE GREAT TERROR, examining the numbers killed - by force or famine - in Stalin's 1930s purges. So he was inevitably going to look at Marxism as the key to the Soviet 'official ideology' with hostility, not appreciation.

So how did he set about refuting the arguments in the MANIFESTO? We have to say he wasted a fair bit of time with snide comments, patronising and superior know-it-all put-downs, an ad hominem personal attack re Marx's private life, and revealed his contempt for the workers - whom he described as "picturesquely horny-handed toilers" (p xiv).

He wrote that he was baffled: "One thought in the Manifesto, so unreal as not to merit discussing here, is that 'the proletariat has no country' (p xi). "So unreal?" This man had clearly not understood the central points of the MANIFESTO, or the reality of the world we live in. Nor does he understand the unreality of those who expect workers to risk their lives for oil-fields and supermarket chains and land, for the means of production and distribution owned by a minority class. That is a historical absurdity indeed - to expect the exploited slave-class to volunteer to get themselves slaughtered in the interests of the slave-owners. But then Conquest felt the whole idea just not worth even discussing, so if he had an argument against Marx on this point we are never going to be able know it.

Most of the arguments he put into this piece are well-known and pretty stale. The idea of the inevitable "collapse of capitalism" - trotted out but not discussed by Conquest. There was the inevitable accusation that proletarian revolution must lead to tyranny and terror. Also the claim that the working class must be led as no class or party can do without a leader (p xiv): - on this, he and Lenin were clearly soul-mates but it was never part of the thinking of Marx and Engels. For them, even back in 1848, "the emancipation of the workers must be the work of the working class itself" - repeated in Engels's Preface to the 1890 German edition.

He took issue with the MANIFESTO'S comments about workers being on the brink of pauperism. That he thought did not tally with the obvious consumerism in capitalism. Yet today, even in affluent areas, in every town, on pavements near Parliament and near the Queen's castle at Windsor, there are always the homeless sleeping rough. Pay-day lenders charge the earth but still find plenty of clients. And all over Britain there are food banks run by volunteers to feed families whose low pay or lack of state benefits mean they have not enough to feed themselves. That is pauperism today, and most workers with a job know they would barely be able to survive if they missed out on a single pay-day.

That Conquest had not taken his interest in Marx's theories too far is obvious. For him capitalism was defined as "the market system" (p xviii). To justify his claim to be an intellectual of sorts, he concluded with a brief outline of Hegel's 3 'laws'. But clearly he was unable to explain Hegelian 'dialectics' - let alone see why Marx admired Hegel and also turned him upside down. Apart from a brief footnote on 'Dialectical Materialism', Conquest failed to address the historical materialism which is central to Marx and Engels's thinking.

But his main error lay in perpetuating the monstrous, dishonest claim that the purges and totalitarian tyranny of the Soviet Union, of Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin-Mao etc., can all be laid at the door of Marx and Engels. It takes really lazy thinking - or mere prejudice - to see Marx and Engels as supporters of the vanguard theory attributed to Lenin (WHAT IS TO BE DONE?, 1902), an argument about revolutionary organization in backward Tsarist Russia, set out by Tkatchev but passed off by Lenin, a political plagiarist, as his own. For Lenin it was self-evident that the workers had to be led - as it was for Robert Conquest.

But for Marx and Engels, the working class is a truly revolutionary class, the only class capable of confronting and overthrowing the capitalists and this system of class exploitation. And they asserted that "the emancipation of the workers must be the work of the working class itself."

Such a revolution, a bottom-up revolution, would be most unlikely to support a totalitarian nightmare of a dictatorship with its prisons and purges. As yet, a Socialist / Communist revolution has never happened. But there have been a great many capitalist revolutions, where one dictatorship is overthrown only to be replaced by another, in countries where the police and their spies keep the prisons full to overflowing.

Such is life under capitalism, which Robert Conquest clearly supported. His arguments against Marx and Engels were neither honest nor well thought out, nor even original.

We should however let Marx and Engels in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO have the last word on such hireling hacks as Robert Conquest:

The charges against Communism made from a religious, a philosophical, and, generally, from an ideological standpoint, are not deserving of serious examination'.

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that men's ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man's consciousness, changes with every change in the condition of his material existence, in his social relations, and in his social life?

What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes in character in proportion as material production changes? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of the ruling class.

Back to top

Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.