As an Oxford World’s Classic, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto looks quite respectable. It has none of the radical-chic thrill of Mao’s Little Red Book or the bright red Marx-Engels Reader. It can be ordered on Amazon and delivered via bots to your door in less than twenty-four hours. The contrast between consumer-friendly book product and radical text is striking.
What is a ‘World’s Classic’ and how did The Communist Manifesto come to be thus canonised? The first of these questions is relatively easy to answer. Under the direction of Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press (OUP) acquired the World’s Classics series in 1905, following the bankruptcy of Grant Richards, the publisher that had established it five years earlier. The books in the initial series were mostly canonical works of literature aimed at the general reader. They included novels such as Jane Eyre and the collected poems of Tennyson and were sold with bookcases made from mahogany or fumed oak. A Victorian consumer of limited means could thereby line his parlour with a commitment to self-improvement.
Its focus changed in the 1990s, when the series was rebranded as Oxford World’s Classics. New titles were selected, not for the general reader but rather for A-level and university students. The books now carry introductions by prominent academics and compete in the lucrative educational market. To be included in the series, a text must be out of copyright and, according to Dr Martin Maw, current OUP archivist, ‘of some reputation, standing, or interest for a wider scholarly or student community’. The series is still, as it was a century ago, an insurance policy against the commercial risks involved in publishing new works.
The Communist Manifesto’s path to fame was less smooth than you might assume. Its authors certainly weren’t aware that they were writing something timeless in the winter of 1847–8. Marx scribbled the text in a great hurry in Brussels, possibly in one sitting. It was based on a draft drawn up by Engels at the request of the Communist League, a small and soon to be very inconsequential group of German labourers and intellectuals living in exile in London. Marx ran up hard against the League’s deadline: the argument in The Communist Manifesto’s fourth and final section is barely developed.
The anonymous piece of propaganda ‘sank without a trace’ upon publication, according to Professor David McLellan, who edited and introduced the Oxford World’s Classics edition. It had big ambitions, for sure, but little practical effect, at least initially. It’s not clear whether the translations of the manifesto from German that Marx and Engels promised were at the time even produced. There are no surviving copies of the original 23-page pamphlet. I went to the British Library in search of the 1848 serialised version, printed in the German émigré newspaper the Deutsche Londoner Zeitung. The manifesto, again published without the names of its authors, is nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the paper’s text, which by and large consists of reports of revolutionary developments on the continent during the spring and summer of that turbulent year. It looks like a minor intervention in a political tumult, part of the fever of 1848.
This fever quickly cooled. Much of the revolutionary optimism reflected in the pages of The Communist Manifesto swiftly dissipated. No matter! Marx and Engels had other fish to fry. They were soon occupied in producing a left-wing newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which sought to bolster the activities of the radical bourgeoisie. Marx adopted England (he called it ‘the demiurge of the bourgeois cosmos’) as his country of permanent residence in 1849. He spent his days at the British Museum, partly to avoid his creditors, but primarily to research his mammoth critique of political economy, Capital. This work did not, however, relieve his family’s financial stresses. Marx once quipped that the book wouldn’t cover the cost of the cigars he smoked writing it.
Out of two decades of obscurity The Communist Manifesto was resurrected in 1872. Socialism was gaining ground in Germany, but the movement was threatened by infighting. Several members, hoping to smooth over party fissures, encouraged the reissuing of the manifesto. Its republication coincided with an effort, orchestrated in part by Engels, Marx’s PR man, to fashion Marx into ‘an iconic father of socialism’, in the words of the scholar Terrell Carver. There’s a bemused tone to the 1872 edition’s preface, which Engels and Marx co-authored, and it most likely comes from Marx. The reprinting is described as ‘unexpected’.
Any attempt to explain the work’s significance to 20th-century communism must begin with this 19th-century editorial decision. However, it’s not just this that makes The Communist Manifesto a classic. There is also the wit and sparkle of Marx’s writing and its usefulness as a brief introduction to his theory of history. As a world-historical drama, full of spectres and spells, Enlightenment dreams and retrospective tragedy, it’s a great read.
It’s also a great example of how framing matters. What people say of a text and how it’s presented influence how it’s consumed. On the gritty Marxists Internet Archive, a volunteer-run database of Marxist writings, you can read a free version of The Communist Manifesto in over fifty languages, from Tamil to Esperanto. The World’s Classic edition, by contrast, is a highly curated document, softened by an introduction, a note on the text, a select bibliography, a chronology and an index. In 2003 it was advertised, along with Dante’s The Divine Comedy, in a collection called Believe – for ‘books about passionately-held ideas’. When it comes to The Communist Manifesto, there’s always a position to adopt.