The Communist Manifesto and the Revolutions of 1848

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The Communist Manifesto, a document that, according to some, shaped the world history up to our times, was actually ignored at first. How could that be? Didn’t it cause the revolutions across Europe in 1848? If not, what did cause the revolutions—which excited Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels so much, as men who had been hoping for something like this all along—and how did the revolutions play out?

A map of Europe from 1848-49, showing the various monarchies that existed back then
The revolutions of 1848, which rapidly spread across most of Europe, were primarily led by liberals and nationalists, who wanted to overthrow old monarchies and establish democratic national systems. (Image: Alexander Altenhof/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

The Communist Manifesto was Completed in 1848

It is February 1848, and we are in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. This historic region has been the battlefield of Europe over past centuries, then the first country on the continent to really plunge into the Industrial Revolution, and now it is a hotbed of revolutionary thought.

In a shabby apartment in the city suburbs, in a working‐class neighborhood, two young and fiery men are arguing over every single word in a document. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels work so intently because, to them, it seems that everything is at stake. They see themselves as charting the very future of human civilization.

Over a week, they complete the final draft of the Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (The Communist Manifesto), which is to be a program for a small league of political radicals calling themselves communists. But anticipating the future, the manifesto declares them to already be a world power.

The manifesto contains phrases that will ring down throughout the following century and a half: from the opening line, “A specter is haunting Europe” to “All history is a history of class struggle”. It closes with the declaration: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!”

Always, Marx urgently insisted on the ‘unity of theory and practice’. His own scientific socialism was to unleash revolutionary experiments with the goal of breaking through to a new stage in human history, creating a new human being.

Given such a vast goal, there would be no split between the theorist and practitioner, rather these roles would be fused: as Marx wrote in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ in 1845, “Philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world in various ways; the thing is, however, to change it.”

When Marx and Engels finished polishing The Communist Manifesto, which they had initially drafted in rough form in 1847, the timing of its publication seemed very fortunate, maybe even perfect.

It came out a few months before the outbreak of great revolutions of 1848 throughout most of Europe. Later, this fact of timing gave an aura of historical importance to the pamphlet that it did not have when it first was published. In other words, at the time, this pamphlet had almost no impact and certainly did not cause the revolutions of 1848.

Learn more about the intellectual partnership between Marx and Engels.

How did the Revolutions of 1848 Begin?

The Europe‐wide revolutions of 1848 have just been labeled the ‘great dividing line of the century’ by the brilliant British historian A.J.P. Taylor. And they proved to be so because they failed. The 1848 revolutionaries were not Marxists or communists, but mainly liberals and nationalists, seeking to overthrow old monarchies to establish new republics, constitutions, and national unification, in what they called the ‘springtime of nations‘.

Bad harvests in the 1840s and economic problems laid the ground for revolts that were not limited to any one country.

First, revolt flared in France, and that spread to the German lands, Austria and Hungary, and Italy. There was no revolt in Britain or in Russia. Britain was in many ways too liberal already, while Russia was the opposite: so conservative under the Tsar that revolt was crushed immediately.

Painting of French revolutionaries battling French government troops at the Soufflot barricades.
The genesis of the revolutions of 1848 can be traced back to February 1848, when banquets held by reformers as a way of indirect protest were banned by the French government, which led them to storm the barricades. (Image: Horace Vernet/Public domain)

It all began in February 1848 when the French government banned banquets held by reformers as a form of indirect protest. At this, Parisians went to the barricades, and the monarchy crumbled—King Louis Philippe I fled to Britain, that famed liberal refuge for political exiles. The French Second Republic was declared, mirroring the declaration of the first republic in 1792, following the French Revolution.

News of this spread and March 1848 saw waves of revolution hit Vienna, where the ultraconservative chancellor Prince von Metternich had to abdicate and flee (also to Britain), while the emperor promised a constitution.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Hungarians revolted in Budapest, and the Czechs rose up in Bohemia. The Italian states erupted, with rebels demanding the national unification of Italy. In the German lands, Berlin saw rioting, and the kings of German lands promised constitutions. A national convention, the Frankfurt Assembly, was called, to forge a new national state of Germany.

Learn more about the rise of communism.

The Revolutions didn’t Last Long

In France, the new republic went into action. Among the reform initiatives undertaken by socialists in the provisional central government in Paris, the government established national workshops to guarantee universal employment. When the more conservative National Assembly, dominated by professional middle‐class men, voted to shut down these controversial workshops, protests again broke out in Paris, which led to clashes in June of 1848.

Four days of fighting killed about 1,500 workers and 1,000 troops. Thousands were arrested and exiled to the overseas colonies. And then things really went wrong. Napoleon came back. Not the great general, but rather his nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte.

In December 1848, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president, because of his great name recognition. Then, when his term was about to end and he could not be reelected, he seized power on December 1, 1851, and the following year declared himself to be Emperor Napoleon III, ruler of the Second Empire of France.

In other lands, the revolutionaries proved poorly organized and the authorities regrouped. By October, Vienna was retaken by imperial troops. The German National Assembly in Frankfurt had dithered and talked instead of cementing a new political order, and after March 1849 it was simply dissolved, a humiliating defeat. Austrian armies crushed the Italian rebels in March 1849, and now only Hungary remained, alone.

The Hungarians pushed back the Austrian army, and only Russia sending an army of 100,000 troops to help the Habsburgs take power again finally quelled the proud Hungarians.

So, where had the Manifesto been in all of this? If you had asked people on the barricades in 1848 about this, they would have said, “What? Who? Communist what?” The pamphlet was mostly unknown at the time. Only in retrospect did it acquire immense significance.

The pamphlet had been written for a small group of radical tailors and shoemakers in London. There were 20 of them, so this was not a mass movement. Several hundred copies were printed before the revolutions broke out. One historian estimates that at the time, only one in 100,000 revolutionaries read this obscure work.

Common Questions about the Revolutions of 1848

Q: What were the causes of the revolutions of 1848?

Bad harvests in the 1840s and economic problems laid the ground for the revolutions of 1848 that were not limited to any one country. It’s worth noting that revolutionaries in 1848 were not Marxists or communists. They were primarily liberals and nationalists, seeking to overthrow old monarchies to establish new republics, constitutions, and national unification.

Q: Why did the revolutions of 1848 Fail?

In France, there was a disagreement between the socialists, who wanted to establish national workshops to guarantee universal employment, and the conservatives who wanted to shut down these workshops. This paved the way for Louis Napoleon Bonaparte to get elected as president in December 1848, and the failure of the revolutions of 1848. In other parts of Europe, the revolutionaries proved poorly organized and the authorities regrouped.

Q: What does the Communist Manifesto say?

The Communist Manifesto explains what the then small league of political radicals calling themselves communists stand for and their goals. It also elaborates on the underlying theory. At a more fundamental level, the Communist Manifesto says: “All history is a history of class struggle”. It closes with the declaration: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!”

Q: What did Karl Marx believe?

Karl Marx believed in the ‘unity of theory and practice’. His own scientific socialism was to unleash revolutionary experiments with the goal of breaking through to a new stage in human history, creating a new human being. Given such a vast goal, there would be no split between the theorist and practitioner, rather these roles would be fused.

Keep Reading
A Historian’s Eye on Eastern Europe: Past and Present
Napoleon and the French Revolution
The Ideology of Revolution: Revolutionary Legacies of the 20th Century