European studies blog

01 May 2017

‘Workers of all lands, unite!’: The Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto, a political pamphlet by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, was first published in London in 1848. Here for the first time, the founders of the political theory later called Marxism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels predicted violent anti-capitalist revolution as the final stage of the class wars between proletariat and bourgeoisie. They could not imagine that what they called ‘the spectre of communism’ would first triumph in Russia – geographically and economically the furthest eastern European periphery. Marxism, however, was adopted by the Russian Social Democrats as the cornerstone of their ideology and adapted by Lenin and other Bolsheviks to the real conditions of the Russian Revolution.

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The extremely rare first edition of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published in London in 1848. British Library C.194.b.289.

Originally written in German the 23-page brochure was produced in three print runs just in February 1848, and then serialised in the Deutsche Londoner Zeitung, a newspaper for German émigrés (London, 1845-1851; NEWS14530). In March, the brochure reached Paris and in April it was available in Germany, as the 1848 Revolution was unfolding in Europe. As initially planned, the Manifesto was soon translated into Polish, Danish, Swedish and English. However, it failed to make any great impact, and after the defeat of the Revolution only a few editions appeared until the next rise of the social-democratic movement that culminated in the Paris Commune (1871). Among the editions that did appear was the first Russian one, published in Geneva in 1869. The translation was traditionally attributed to Mikhail Bakunin, although his name was not on the title page. Several years earlier, in 1861, Bakunin had escaped from his Siberian exile and reached London via Japan and America.

Even before revolution turned victorious in Russia, translations and editions of this work had become ubiquitous. Before 1917, around 60 editions of the Manifesto were published in Russia alone. It was published at least 85 times in English and around 50 times in French. In 1964, Soviet historians and bibliographers claimed that they had recorded around 700 editions in 49 languages outside the USSR only. By 1973, the Soviet Union was leading in this race by publishing 447 editions in 74 languages and 44,341,000 copies.

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An edition of the Manifesto in Russian, published in Geneva in 1900. C.106.b.7.(13.)

The 1869 Russian translation, although it made its way to Russia, did not get popularity, and it was not until 1882, when with the second translation by the ‘first Russian Marxist’ Georgii Plekhanov . Marx and Engels wrote a special preface for this Russian edition where they discussed the peculiarities of the Russian economic and social system. In Soviet historiography it was believed that Lenin also translated the Manifesto and his translation was in clandestine circulation in Marxist learning groups in Samara, where he used to live in 1889-1890. The translation apparently did not survive.

Among other translators who endeavoured this work were revolutionaries Vladimir Posse (1903), Vatslav Vorovsky (1906), the founder of the Marx-Engels Institute David Riazanov, and the deputy manager of the Central Archives Board Vladimir Adoratskii.


In this photograph of Lenin and Stalin with the delegates of 8th Bolshevik party Congress of 1919 Riazanov is the fourth from the right in the top row. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The special reverence for the Manifesto that was common among Russian Marxists is described in the diary of an astronomer and scientist Daniil Sviatskii, who was arrested for his role the 1905 unrest. In January 1906 he wrote:

I came [to the office]. There was a whole bunch [of books] on the table. I started examining them with admiration. ‘You are allowed to take only three’ – said the officer, and I was hesitating for a long time which ones to take. Among my three books, I took the Communist Manifesto and will be reading this New Testament of Socialism for the tenth time. While I was choosing other books, the office examined the copy of the Manifesto is case of any notes. I was looking at him and thinking: ‘Only three years ago, when I still was in the seminary, I first read this work by the great Marx and Engels. I was reading a clandestine copy of the Manifesto and was afraid that the authorities in the seminary would notice and expel me from the college, or when I was at home, I was afraid of gendarmes who could arrest me. Three years ago! In March 1905, just 10 months ago, I was reading the Geneva edition at night and every night I used to take it out of the room and hide in snow. And now the same book with the forward by the veteran of our Social-Democratic movement Plekhanov just passed censorship and the Public Prosecutor’s Office. And the prison officer in front of me, having examined it, handed it to me! I took it, brought to my solitary confinement cell and put it on the desk. I tore out Marx’s portrait and for a long time was gazing at our great Teacher of life.

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths opens on 28 April 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the fall of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state.