The Principles of Communism was written the year before the much more widely disseminated Manifesto of the Communist Party in conditions that would be hard to recognise today, lacking much of the terminology that Marxist theory now takes for granted. So why is it still of any usefulness or interest?
Engels answers 25 questions, starting with “What is communism?” and ending with a description of communists’ perspectives on other political parties.
After defining communism as simply, “the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat”, Engels explains what it means to be a proletarian and how the proletariat originated. He argues that this class is the child of the industrial revolution of the last half of the eighteenth century. The orthodoxy now is that this revolution was hugely beneficial for all involved. Engels instead says that the development of capitalist technology, with all its liberating potential, renders the workers’ means of production useless (the example of the loom is given). This gave rise to a much more unequal and polarised society, in which the class of “big capitalists” owns the vast majority of the means for subsistence and production, for example factories.
Another strange but now widely accepted idea is the championing of business owners as job creators: even the term “labour providers” was used by some early critics of Marx and Engels. The fifth question deals with this by bringing up a fundamental “pillar” of Marxist theory: that labour is a commodity like any other, and in the “regime of free competition”, it is subject to the same laws of demand any other commodity. Since it is in the interest of the bourgeoisie to have employees working for the lowest possible wages for the longest possible hours, the worker is typically only provided with enough subsistence to continue living and working. Thus, workers are trapped in servitude to the capitalist class.
Does this mean, therefore, that proletarians are like slaves? In questions 7-10 Engels explains how the proletariat differs from four working classes that existed before the industrial revolution: slaves, serfs, handicraftsmen, and manufacturing workers. All the differences are worth learning, but the main problem is that the proletariat is hit hardest by competition and crises, while the other working classes are outside it. Their conditions may be miserable, but their existence is assured. The modern working class in not in a condition of slavery as: “The slave frees himself when… he abolishes the relation of slavery and thereby becomes a proletarian; the proletarian can free himself only by abolishing private property in general.”
Many things have been blamed for economic depressions, from “government interference” to a degenerating work ethic. Engels argues in question 12 that capitalism itself necessarily fluctuates between periods of prosperity and crisis every five to seven years. Frequently in big industry, more is produced than is needed and so finished commodities go unsold, with a commercial crisis breaking out, usually resulting in unemployment and misery for many. Since 1847, no attempt to reform capitalism has prevented this. With these unstoppable collapses, capitalism will lead to its own eventual destruction, says Engels in question 13: “The very qualities of big industry which… produce misery and crises are those which, in a different form of society, will abolish this misery and catastrophic depressions.”
Though an end to the capitalist mode of production may be inevitable, communism is not: a strategy is needed to get there and to achieve the abolition of private property. In this new social order, “all branches of production are operated by society as a whole – that is, for the common account, according to a common plan, and with the participation of all members of society.” In question 18, Engels gives twelve steps to be taken after a communist revolution. Among these are heavy inheritance taxes and nationalisation of banks, and he also shows an uncommon social progressiveness for his time, demanding “Equal inheritance rights for children born in and out of wedlock.”
Today capitalism is considered the norm, here to stay, consistent with human nature. The free market is even equated with liberty. Engels says that actually, capitalism began when old property relations could not accommodate new forces of production, and that property relations must soon change again.
Writing 88 years before Stalin’s rise to power, Engels warns against “socialism in one country” in question 19, saying the world market needs to be brought down: “big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth… into such close relation with one another that none is independent from what happens to the others.”
Engels returns in question 20 to the crisis of overproduction, where more commodities are produced than needed. This will still occur in the new social order of no private property, but instead of generating misery, “overproduction will reach beyond the elementary requirements of society to assure the satisfaction of the needs of all; it will create new needs and, at the same time, the means of satisfying them.” So communism needn’t be austere or agrarian.
Moving on to some social values, Engels claims that family life becomes a purely private matter in communist society, with the abolition of private property reducing the dependency seen in traditional marriage – of women to men, and of children to parents. Brief attitudes to nationality and religion are also given.
The text ends by looking at other political movements, contrasting communists with three kinds of anti-communist socialist, then identifying other political parties with whom communists might cooperate. Several points are made about other kinds of socialists, but the main issue Engels takes with them is that they are in some way trying to preserve existing unjust property relations: “reactionary socialists” by opposing the evils of big industry but endorsing a return to feudal society and aristocratic rule; “bourgeois socialists” (the most common type today) by proposing mere welfare measures that do not overthrow capitalism; “democratic socialists” by agreeing in general with communist measures but see them as a final goal, rather than part of a transition to communism. These differences do not exclude the possibility of finding some unity and of course, debate.
If you already “know your theory” and do not gain anything in particular from reading The Principles of Communism, it should still be appreciated and be of historical interest for Marxists. The ideas in this text, laid out so plainly, are echoed closely and expanded upon in works like Wage, Labour and Capital, Grundrisse, and Origins of the Family and give Marxists a foothold to help understand more complicated ideas. Anti-communists would also do well to read it before entering into debate, seeing as it does so much to answer myths about communist aims and beliefs.
- The Principles of Communism on Marxists Internet Archive
- Letters from Engels to Marx, November 1847
- Manifesto of the Communist Party