Publication Date

Fall 1998


[Excerpt] The Manifesto of the Communist Party, published 150 years ago in London in February 1848, is one of the most influential and widely-read documents of the past two centuries. The historian A. J. P. Taylor (1967, p. 7) has called it a "holy book," and contends that because of it, "everyone thinks differently about politics and society." And yet, despite its enormous influence in the 20th century, the Manifesto is very much a period piece, a document of what was called the "hungry" 1840s. It is hard to imagine it being written in any other decade of the 19th century. The critique of capitalism offered by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto is understandable in the context of economic conditions in Britain from 1837 to 1848, and it is not that different, in places, from the conclusions reached by other social critics during the 1840s.

This paper attempts to place the Manifestos analysis of capitalist economic development in historical perspective. I begin by summarizing the economic arguments of Marx and Engels. While the Manifesto-was written by Marx, its economic analysis was strongly influenced by Engels's "practical experience of capitalism" in his family's cotton firm in Manchester, England, in 1842-44. Upon his return to Germany, Engels published in 1845 a scathing indictment of early industrial capitalism, The Condition of the Working Class in England. Much of Engels's critique of British capitalism reappears in greatly condensed form in Section I of the Manifesto. The second part of the paper examines the economic, social, and political conditions in Manchester and the surrounding south Lancashire cotton towns in the 1830s and 1840s, drawing largely on the views of contemporary observers. I then look at recent research on the standard of living of the working class from 1820 to 1851, focusing on conditions in the Lancashire cotton industry during the "hungry '40s." Finally, I examine economic conditions in England in the two or three decades after the Manifesto was published, and briefly discuss why Marx and Engels's predictions for the imminent collapse of capitalism were so wide of the mark.


Suggested Citation

Boyer, G. R. (1998). The historical background of the Communist Manifesto [Electronic version]. Journal of Economic Perspectives 12(4), 151-174.

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