Étienne Balibar | The Manifesto Beyond Its Time (Afterword to a new edition) (ENGLISH)

By Étienne Balibar, translated by Xavier Flory

Afterword to a new edition[1]

Although not the most widely disseminated “communist” book of all time—that honor belongs to The Little Red Book,” or Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, which is almost in competition with the Bible and the Koran—the Manifesto of 1848 remains the most emblematic text of the revolutionary Marxist tradition: it declares and explains the intentions, and lays down the theoretical foundations in the form of a historical narrative and social analysis that concludes with a political program. The mass movement that, more than any other, set the terms of politics between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries (although without “transforming the world” in the way imagined), organized and developed itself—and as with any great “belief” in history,  split and reformed itself—using the vocabulary and essential historical narrative of the Manifesto.

This made its authors Marx and Engels[2] incarnations of the intellectual figure pursued by the entire philosophical tradition—or at least the Western tradition, which was thereby universalized: the “philosopher king,” whose learned discourse, guided and simultaneously enlightened by its political intention, has a decisive effect on the life of men. This made them figures of a certain absolute, which had nothing to do with transcendence, but rather with history and politics, where the social objectivity and the revolutionary subjectivity envelop and determine one another.  It is therefore unsurprising that, more than any other “literary” document, the title and content of the Manifesto incarnate the insistence and uncertainty of the idea of revolution, an idea that the men and women of the 21st century have not stopped dreaming and fretting about.

However, this is where the difficulties start. Now that the soil of experience and assumptions upon which this incarnation rested has more or less completely been eroded—not only by time, but by the often dramatic vicissitudes of history—or to borrow Foucault’s metaphor, now that the text and ideas of the Manifesto are no longer a fish in the water of history, outside of which they cannot breathe,[3] what can the status of this text be, not only for those who will continue to read it, but for all those who will hear of it as the concentrated expression of “Marxism”? The risk is that its status will oscillate between the antithetical poles of a historical document, even a museum piece, which one must submit to careful philological, ideological, and sociological analyses, but which by definition only sketches out a “past future” (Koselleck), and the opposite pole: a timeless prophecy, which can be invoked as a sign of hope in the face of any “fact”—facts that one must, as Rousseau said, “put to the side,” in order to imagine the possibility of emancipation—and that can be called an Idea, “The Communist Idea.” Thus, on one hand, theory reduced to the dated conditions of its composition, and on the other hand, practice as a pure “interruption,” albeit in the form of an invocation rather than a contemporary event.

It is to escape that choice that, without trying to reconstitute the absolute, I would like once again to attempt a critical reading of the Manifesto. By this I mean a reading that examines the text’s propositions and arguments by taking them literally, but that simultaneously exposes the aporias, not only in the form of internal difficulties that were originally elided, as the development of the “theory” revealed them, but also the blind spots, whose reality and importance were revealed by “practical” application. I hope thereby to at least create the possibility of a new usage of the formulations of the Manifesto, which continues to articulate the “interpretation of the world” and its “transformation” (following the antithesis enigmatically proposed in the “Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach”), where the tipping point from one to the other resides. But I have no advance certitude about the proportion in which (somewhere between “nothing” and “everything”) these formulations can be “validated.” Nothing is established. Everything can potentially be rethought and recovered, in conditions to be determined.

I will proceed by consecutively identifying a few of the large kernels of meaning and problems that approximately correspond to each of the three principal chapters of the Manifesto: the analogous nature of revolutions (bourgeois and proletarian) and the idea of class struggles as a “civil war” (Chapter One); the negative conception of politics as the end of the State (Chapter Two); and the position of the “partisan theory ” (and of its discourse) outside of ideological conflicts and its articulation to the revolutionary subject (Chapter Three). But we have to begin at the end, by postponing a discussion of the “premises” with which Marx and Engels arrange their conclusions in the form of rallying cries.


The “fourth chapter” of the Manifesto lays out the communists’ position (Stellung) towards the “different opposition parties” (oppositionellen Parteien). In the course of the argument, this is enlarged to include “every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order” as they develop (differently and unequally) all over (Überall). As was already made clear in the second chapter, this formulation makes it clear that the “communists” themselves are not a distinct party in an organizational sense. They are rather the link, the “subjective” capacity  that creates the synthesis between the revolutionary “parties”: in a sense, a “party of parties,” or a “movement of movements,” that must totalize them in order to propel them towards action at the level of the totality itself, which is to say, the world that capitalism is in the process of unifying. This means that the movements that aim to overturn the existing order can be considered from a single point of view, or as the effect of a single logic.

It becomes apparent, however, through an examination of the ideas that flow from and undergird the famous concluding cry, “Workers of the world, unite!”, that it encompasses several aspects. The first and most obvious of these is the “violent” antagonism (feindlichen Gegensatz in German, a hostility that recalls a relationship of civil war, as mentioned in the first chapter) between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, which gave birth to and organizes the capitalist order. This antagonism is rooted in the very mechanism of the exploitation of labor—the work of a laboring class to which the designation “proletariat” underscores its status as a radically exploited class, without any reserve of autonomy—by means of the privately owned instruments of production and the wage structure.[4] This antagonism can only lead to an overturning or an abolition of capitalist property itself. But since this form had itself absorbed and made absolute all prior historical forms of property, the reversal of capitalist property would of necessity signify the abolition of private property in general.

In doing so, it would end the history of class struggle (or as the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1959 put it, an end to the history of “antagonistic forms” of social production). It is evidently to this final state of affairs that the epithet communist most perfectly applies.[5] The communists are those who “in all movements prioritize the question of property” and thereby prepare the transformation of private property into “societal property” (Chapter Two, gesellschaftliches Eigentum, sometimes mistranslated as “common property”).

But there are also two other facets of the project, included in the rallying cry, which every articulation of the text, insofar as it describes a “movement” and not just a “regime,” leads us to consider as corollaries of the first, and thus as integral parts of the communist conception of the Manifesto: internationalism and political radicalism, which “undergirds” all democratic parties and (by eventually proceeding to a critique of their “revolutionary illusions”), orients them towards the objective form of their “future,” namely the communist revolution.

These two aspects are intimately related, because the forms of internationalism that are concretely evoked involve an identification with the “disposition” of radical (egalitarian, revolutionary) democracy in order to take it beyond itself into a social revolution—or in other words, to take radical democracy beyond its “bourgeois limits.” It’s clear, however, that these two aspects are not on equal footing, and this is even more apparent if one traces their genealogy throughout the work. Internationalism is immediately linked to the very idea of the proletariat[6]: the correlation is founded on an analysis of the transnational development of capital, and thus of labor. Capital as such is global, and “the proletarians have no homeland” (Chapter Two). One can therefore say that in the Manifesto there is an “analytical” unity of communism and internationalism. The one is unthinkable without the other.

In contrast, the unity between communism and democracy is “synthetic”; it joins two distinct terms, which is not to say that this unity is contingent: without the fight for democracy, communism doesn’t exist (for democracy provides the political education of the workers), and without the “conquest of democracy” (Chapter Two), we can’t arrive at the classless society, where the values of liberty and equality inherent in the democratic ideal are not only preserved, but intensified. Nonetheless, the term “democracy” can seem to designate nothing more than a political “means,” a dialectical mediator that the communist movement has to put into motion in order to achieve its ends. The mediator vanishes in the result.

We will have the opportunity to discuss the significance and consequences of this triple dimension of communism laid out in the Manifesto in some detail, and of the inequality between the terms. And I will already announce the resulting question I wish to pose, without providing a preconceived response: if today, while the “party” announced performatively in the Manifesto (or which the Manifesto brought into being by describing its necessity and defining its historical function), not only has entered reality (as the new preface of Marx and Engels already announced in 1872, with the advent of the Paris Commune), but has also exited it (at least in the organizational form that it had assumed in the 19th and 20th centuries), and we wish to persist in calling ourselves “communist,” and to give a practical content to the word in our political action, then what becomes of Marx and Engels’ three components of  communism (socialization of the means of production, class internationalism, and revolutionary democracy)? And what other elements, potentially contradictory with the initial ones, should we add?


We now arrive at the first of three conceptual analyses that will introduce us to the core of the problems latent in the theory of the Manifesto: the conception of the revolution as a “negativity” of the historical process, as expressed in Chapter One. Naturally, it’s out of the question to examine the entire chapter, which through an extraordinary tour de force, manages to summarize (or synthetically concentrate) the essentials of a “science of history” that did not yet exist—and thus, which invents the science in the form of its conclusions.[7] We must therefore skim far too quickly over what today still (and perhaps more than ever) appear as a mark of “genious” in the theses of Marx and Engels, in the sense that they foresee  societal transformations of which in their time there were but the slightest symptoms. This “verification” of the Marxist predictions started even during the lifetimes of Marx and Engels (even as other projections were refuted, including that of an imminent revolution to be precipitated by a general crisis of capitalism).

It is thus that in 1867, in the conclusion of Book I of Capital, after detailing the “historical tendency of capitalist accumulation,” by underlining the socializing effects of production and the inevitable concentration of property, Marx comes to the “negation of the negation,” the content of which is the “expropriation of the expropriators.” He even cites the Manifesto to prove that  the revolutionary form of societal transformation, operated through the class struggle, is more relevant than ever.[8] This “collage” method will be repeated several times, and it played a big role in crediting the idea that the theory of the Manifesto constituted a fundamental and invariable “bloc,” to be “rectified” only at the margins.

The Manifesto does not, of course, ignore the link between accumulation and concentration, and it seems almost to sense, if in more philosophical than economic terms, the problem of socialization. But of primary interest for its authors—since these traits make capitalism not only an economic system or a “mode of production,” but the essential condition and activity of a class (the market and industrial “bourgeoisie”)—are the processes of globalization and permanent revolution. Capitalism is by nature a “global” system, or better yet, it is the economic system that “globalizes the globe,” by transgressing cultural and territorial limits and by subjecting every population to a single form of domination, of which the theater is the “global market.” Capitalism and its carrier, the bourgeoisie, are “revolutionary” in the sense that they never stop transforming the productive forces and dissolving social forms that stand in their way, including those that they themselves created (with the exception of the most important social form: bourgeois property). These two theses undergird what, as I will show, constitutes the guiding thread of the Manifesto’s theory, namely the idea of a historical analogy between the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions, which organizes all the developments of Chapter One and its dialectical unfolding.

But before explaining this decisive point, I would like to provide a corrective to the preceding remarks. It is true that Marx had an extraordinary perception of the link between capitalism and globalization, which he sees in capitalism’s need to constantly expand the scale of production, to intensify the division of labor, and to generalize the competition between workers and between providers of raw materials. This conception leads to a class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat across the entire social formation, thereby revealing a single and unified “universal history” (Weltgeschichte in German).  Marx is, of course, attentive to the “inequalities of development” between countries and regions of the world, as well as to the lags produced by the fact that capitalism took over systems of production that preceded it from heterogeneous social forms. But in the Manifesto at least, he tends to consider colonialism simply a “violent” means by which capital and the bourgeoisie destruct the obstacles that “traditional” societies put up against the penetration of exchange value. And he also thinks that ultimately, the form of labor that capital exploits is always wage labor, accomplished by a proletarian.[9] The result is that all the complexity of the social relations and relations of exploitations in the world where capitalist domination extends has no other significance, in the final analysis, than that of a delay or a detour that does not affect the essential uni-linearity  of the historical process that will eventually lead to worldwide revolution through the expansion of capitalism.

This is one of the points on which subsequent rectifications are the most interesting, in particular the one we find in the preface of 1882 (right before Marx’s death, but still signed by both Marx and Engels), which evokes the “geopolitical” effects of the development of capitalism in America and Russia, a discussion that reflects, in particular, Marx’s exchange with the Russian “populists” on the possible communist futures that might arise from the remaining pre-capitalist relations in certain countries. As when he reflected on the effects of the acceleration of history, which could produce a “time discordance” between Germany and the rest of Europe, it seems that Marx was on the cusp of admitting that a “complex” totality does not develop in a homogeneous form or in a linear timeframe. We will come back to this question. But, as we see, as long as these analyses don’t undermine the idea of the “simplification” or “polarization” of the class struggle around a unique form of labor exploitation (wage labor), these details only reinforce the determinism of the overall development.

We have arrived at the essential point, and the thesis of the analogous nature of revolutions is explicit in the text: “At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange … the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder. … A similar movement is going on before our own eyes. Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, exchange and property—a society that has conjured such gigantic means of production and of exchange—is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells…”

And a bit further, on the political side: “when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class … assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat…”

This thesis goes well beyond a sentence. Underlying it is an analytical framework that applies to all of history, and particularly to “modern” history, which is its true object. We should note that this idea does not suggest a static schema, of the type: observe (or imagine, in the case of the proletarian revolution to come) revolutions, and we shall see that they can all be categorized under the same concept, which is an important task in order to justify our use of the word or to choose one of its meanings from those that have built up in the word throughout history.[10] What’s at stake, instead, is the ability to extrapolate determinations from the bourgeois revolution  that can be applied to the proletarian revolution: a dialectical process of “surpassing” the limits of the bourgeois revolution through the proletarian revolution, on the basis of the contradictions inherent in the first one and the effects it provokes. However, this does presuppose that a typical historical configuration (the “revolutionary” configuration) reproduces and intensifies itself, and thus repeats at least twice. Which is to say, on the level of historical “actors:” the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are both revolutionary classes, not by accident, at a particular moment in their history, but in essence. It is simply that at a given moment, the proletariat that had become revolutionary in the image of the bourgeoisie, becomes revolutionary in its stead; it becomes the revolutionary class against the bourgeoisie, which ceases to be revolutionary. And since this revolutionary process cannot but be the final one, since the bourgeoisie—with its ceaseless “revolutions” in social institutions and productive forces—instituted a system of radical exploitation, one could also say that the proletarian revolution is to the bourgeois revolution as an absolute to a relative revolution.[11]

One might think that this is but a simple postulate of the philosophy of history. However, what I think is remarkable is that in the Manifesto, Marx and Engels truly constructed a concept around this thesis. And the distinguishing feature of a concept is that one can analyze it in its components (and from there, try to vary them). To isolate two components that Marx and Engel’s narrative continually interlaces: first, the bourgeoisie is constantly presented as an intrinsically revolutionary class (until it reaches its limits), and second, it can be collectively considered an agent (or, more philosophically, a “subject”). Taken together, these two traits give the bourgeoisie, as described and even personified in the Manifesto, an almost demiurgic character, which has always struck readers.[12]

The bourgeoisie creates its world, which is to say, it recreates the world in its image. But what is this representation made of? Essentially the idea that the bourgeoisie brought both an “industrial revolution” and a “political revolution” into history. The “organic” combination of these two ideas or processes, which continue to be studied today by historians and philosophers in isolation (except, naturally, by those who take the lead from Marx and Engels, such as Hobsbawn or Wallerstein in their characterization of an “age of revolutions”), is a spectacular dramaturgical effect that takes place in the first chapter of the Manifesto, and in which technological change and the development of productive forces at a worldwide scale are described as correlated to the “conquest of power” (or the sovereignty of class that gives birth to “modern state power”). One could even say, when reading the developments dedicated to the social mores and values determined by bourgeois domination, which “profane” the institutions of the established social order and “drown” religious, “emotional,” and aesthetic values and ideals in the “frigid waters of egotistical calculus,” that it adds up to a sketch of a theory of (bourgeois) “cultural revolution.” But it can more accurately be described as a critique of the nihilism of bourgeois culture, which penetrates both the industrial and political revolutions. The fundamental consequence of all this, to come back to the framework of analogous revolutions, is that the proletarian revolution will also have to combine a (new) industrial revolution with a (different) political revolution, which will be directed precisely against the edifice of “modern state power.” The first aspect engendered the productivism of the Marxist tradition and of the socialist revolutions it inspired (unless one conceived of an “alternative development” of productive forces, a theoretical bifurcation that remains possible, but that has not been exploited until very recently). The second leads us straight to the problem of defining politics and the concept of politics in Marx and Engels, to which we will return.[13]

The second component, intrinsically political, or rather meta-political, is the equivalence established in the famous opening lines of Chapter One and reiterated throughout the text, between class struggle and “civil war.” This brings us to the polarizing element in Marxist theory as it applies itself to politics (some of whose consequences have been authentically emancipatory and others that have led to catastrophe). How should it be understood? My own reading of the text is that, first of all, it should not be understood as a decision: nobody “decides” to wage class struggle as a civil war; it is rather a structural characteristic, a consequence of the antagonistic relations of exploitation. But I also don’t think one should consider the comparison simply “metaphorical,” since it really serves as a key link between history and politics in the Manifesto. Not only is the class struggle properly speaking a civil war (although importantly, “sometimes open, sometimes covert”), but in some ways it is the fundamental civil war, the civil war that is not accidental and undergirds all others. This is important to understand what will lead Marx to significant rectifications in terminology, particularly after the “traumatic” experience of the insurrection that ends in the massacre of workers in 1848.[14]

Thus, this thesis appears particularly risky, which is why it’s important not to distort it. To do so, we must understand that the equivalence works in both directions:  Marx and Engels interpret the class struggle as a “civil war,” but they also reduce civil war to a “class struggle.” The result is an enlargement of the concept, which had previously served to measure the intensity of the social antagonism in history. In the sense that leads towards the idea of “civil war,” the content is provided by the common thesis of the Manifesto and (in a more directly economical direction) of Wage Labor and Capital (which makes use on this point of the arguments of Ricardo and, in particular, of Ricardo’s English socialist adherents, on the inverse movement of wages and profits): there is no community between the classes; the relation of exploitation excludes talk of a common interest between the owners of the means of production and the workers. Capitalists must wage a “war” against the subsistence of their own workers; the  workers, whose “struggle begins with their very existence,” discover that their existence will be saved only with the abolition of capitalist property, and thus, of the bourgeoisie. One can add the idea that in the course of history we move from a partial and dispersed struggle (between multiple socio-economic “actors”) to a simplified antagonism that polarizes the entirety of society. There is therefore no “mediation,” no “third party,” or “intermediary force,” except as residues, which the development of the antagonism will end up absorbing.

However, and reciprocally, the Manifesto tends to reduce civil war, once it has been extended to the totality of history, to the social struggle between the classes (in opposition to a struggle between purely political “parties,” or to religious wars). We know that Michel Foucault, in order to speak of the “war of races” as it was described in Europe between the 18th and 19th centuries (including in texts cited by Marx), floated a reversed reading of Clausewitz’s formula that war was a continuation of politics by other means: an interpretation of politics as a continuation or metamorphosis of war. This idea is not foreign  to Marx; it is in fact at the heart of his argument in the Manifesto, on the condition that one identify political conflict (struggle) with social conflict (struggle). This interpretation resides not only on a polarization, but on a scission of the “social body,” which periodically leads to a rising to extremes in which the class confrontation becomes a question of life and death for both sides. This vocabulary is present in the Manifesto: “But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield the weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians.”

To recap these remarks (and keeping in mind a possible comparison with other texts by Marx): in 1847 he thinks he has the solution to the dialectical problem, which will be the obsession of his analyses in Capital—the reciprocal transformation of contradiction and conflict, the postulate of a struggle without the possibility of compromise that can only lead to an abolition of relations of domination, in the immanence of economic contradictions, themselves aggravated to crisis by the development of the conflict. Which is why he had previously written (in The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847), that “history always advances by the bad side,” and concludes the same text quoting George Sand: “Combat or  Death:  bloody  struggle  or  extinction.  It  is  thus  that  the  question  is  inexorably  put.”[15]

Before coming to the concept of political struggle that is articulated in the metapolitics of “civil war,”[16] two observations on the implications of the combination of the theses of the class struggle as a civil war and of two revolutionary classes, which justifies the analogous nature of the (two) revolutions. The first, and most immediately problematic issue (not only from an “ethical, but from a historical point of view), is that this framework is destined to exclude the “political capacity” (in the strong sense that includes the ability to “make history”) of all the forces, classes, and movements that do not overturn the existing social order and the dominant classes. Two of them are explicitly mentioned in the text, and their importance has not stopped growing.

First, women, of whom (in Chapter Two) Marx and Engels—in response to the accusation that communists want to introduce the “community of women”—incisively take up the argument of the romantic feminists who identified bourgeois marriage as a form of legal prostitution and as a “distribution of women between men,” who consider women collectively as instruments of pleasure and (re)production. Nonetheless, there does not seem to be a “woman struggle,” let alone a coming revolution in relations between the sexes. I don’t think this is (primarily) due to sexism: it is first due to the fact that, in the framework of the succession of forms of social domination laid out in Chapter One, the “patriarchy” that survives through several historical epochs is not inscribable as the enabling condition of a “revolution.” It’s true that one could simply object: if Marx and Engels had taken the necessity of such a revolution into consideration (a “revolt of the reproductive forces” and not only of the “productive forces”), they would have been able to rectify the progressive linearity of universal history… But in that case, the foundation of the idea of a necessary succession of one revolutionary process by another (“the bourgeoisie produces above all its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”) no longer holds, and there is no more Manifesto. Or at least not this one.

There is also the problem of the peasantry.[17] We know that the historical role of the peasantry is the crux of Marxist analyses and political practice, from Marx himself in his analysis of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s “18th Brumaire,” which brutally cuts short the revolutionary experience of 1848, up to the Russian Revolution of the 20th century that ends in the forced collectivization and decimation of peasants—until other, dissident “Marxists,” in colonial or semi-colonial contexts dominated by imperialism, decide to substitute the peasantry for the proletariat in the role of the “revolutionary class”… However, in the theory of the Manifesto, the peasantry is not an active class, let alone a class of the future: it is destined to extinction via capitalist industrialization and the concentration of property that includes the land. Thus, the peasantry can either function as a reactionary force that attempts (or dreams) of returning to a society prior to the bourgeois social transformation, or else it can merge with the proletariat that “recruits from all classes of society,” in rhythm with their dispossession and pauperization. It is thus divided by the principal antagonism, of which it is but an object. Only at the end of his life, through his exchanges with the Russian “populists,” did Marx begin to imagine another framework, in which pre-capitalist forms (and therefore also their carriers) can make an original contribution to the communist revolution (albeit, under the conditions of a proletariat revolution underway elsewhere in the world). As with the alienation of women in the bourgeois order, if only in an inverse sense, one sees the possibility of a limit, or of a “point of heresy” of the theory, where there are possibilities of a revision of the revolutionary scenario. But the revision might end up becoming “total.”

This hypothesis also leads to another, more disturbing hypothesis for the “dogmatic” reading of Marx and Engel’s text, but which the contemporary transformations of capitalism force us to consider. What’s striking is that we can make these hypotheses starting from the very framework of the analogous nature of revolutions. In the Manifesto, it is destined to demonstrate that of the two “revolutionary classes,” it is the bourgeoisie that must finally make way for the proletariat. But this is based on the idea that the “revolution of productive forces” constantly caused by capitalism will come up against internal contradictions and conflicts that the bourgeoisie is incapable of resolving, and from which the proletariat, on the contrary, will emerge reinforced with a project to transform societal relations. It’s possible, unfortunately, that history has created the opposite scaffolding, in which the revolutionary capacities of capitalism triumph over those of the proletariat (in the sense of working class), and even “use” the class struggle and socialist revolutions to “invent” new methods of the organization of labor and to open new fields of exploitation.

In this sense, a “specter” begins to haunt not Europe or the bourgeois world, but the world of intellectual and militant communists: the specter of a revolution or of a proletariat class that doesn’t represent the future of bourgeois revolutions, but that, like Marx’s “peasantry,” is destined to become reactionary, because the possibilities of emancipation and improvement of its condition of which it dreams point only towards the past. This hypothesis is disastrous, if not outright nihilist. But it’s important to point out that it is also inescapable from the moment the renewal capacities of capitalism are recognized, only if the analogous nature of revolutions  must be inscribed in a “historicist” framework of history (as Benjamin puts it), which in reality reveals itself as a bourgeois philosophy of history. If this framework is challenged, then there is no given “solution”  to “save the possibility of revolution,” but there is also no absolute obstacle that would prevent us from imagining the solution.[18]


This brings us to the concept of politics implied by the analyses and propositions of the Manifesto, and in particular in Chapter Two—a question loaded with difficulties, but also pregnant with all the breaking power of this text in the history of philosophy, and which for that reason has continued to inspire the most contradictory commentaries: from those who think that Marx and Engels have formulated a conception of politics without precedent in history, comparable only to a few radical innovations (Machiavelli, Hobbes, and perhaps Weber or Schmitt), and those who think that Marx has no theory of politics, since he dissolves its autonomy into a sociological and eschatological “metapolitics” (the “death of the state”). In the text, we find two contradictory affirmations:  on the one hand, the class struggle of the proletariat, in unifying itself (first at the national level) and in elevating immediate struggles and resistances to exploitation all the way to the level of an abolition of capitalism, becomes a “political struggle,” which above all invents a new form of politics (with new methods, carriers, and stakes). On the other hand, by abolishing the division of society into classes and the accompanying antagonism, the proletarian revolution brings about “the end of the political state.” But this “end” can only react to what lays the groundwork for it: the proletarian class struggle opposes the existing forms of politics, and therefore does not fall under the concept of the political.

What leads to the juxtaposition of these two contradictory theses? In the Manifesto and in texts from the same period (in particular, The Poverty of Philosophy, of which the final pages contain in this regard the decisive formulations), we see the outline of a “dialectic” that follows the classic form of the negation of the negation: politics affirms itself first as the “revolutionary” politics of a class (and a revolution in politics), only to be subsequently negated by the “total revolution” that abolishes its institutions and agents (class, the state). However in the details of the argument (and precisely because Marx and Engels want to specify the moments of this negation of the negation), we observe instead a suspension of the effects of the dialectic, accompanied by an unresolved—and perhaps unresolvable—complexity of these moments. I will try to show that these complications are part of the problematization of politics and its concept that the Manifesto produces, and thus might be—up into the present—more instructive than if the text had formulated a simple definition, or infused politics with a new essence, whether of the state or against it.

Indeed, the essential does not concern so much the “origin” (the workers’ struggle becomes political) and the “end” (the state, without a function to fulfil, disappears), but rather the mediation, or the transition itself, in which the second chapter situates itself—and this brings us to the instability and ambivalence of four principal theoretical “objects”: the state, the nation, democracy, and class (the proletariat), whose relations will be transformed as we go along. “Democracy” and “nation” are the two questions that the proletariat has to solve in order to undermine the (bourgeois) state, which it uses for its revolutionary project (the abolition of wages and capital) in order to prepare its own disappearance. These two questions are intimately related, not only in the institutions and discourses that nascent liberalism inherited from the French revolution, but in the propositions of the bourgeois revolutionaries (such as Mazzini) who flowered in 1848 during the “spring of peoples,” and which provided a rival interpretation of events to the social interpretation of the socialists.[19] It is above all on these two questions (and their articulation) that the Manifesto confronts the “statist point of view” (which is the bourgeois point of view) with the (proletarian) “class point of view.” But given that the state has been described as a “class state,” the revolutionary state (the proletariat) must use the term in a paradoxical sense in order to exercise its “political power,” which is the key of societal transformation. Hence the dual path that Marx and Engels take in response to the contradictions presented by a communist solution: internationalism must be tactically subordinated in the confines of national struggles, but the national struggle must be strategically subordinated to internationalism (thereby inventing a new form of “cosmopolitanism,” which for the first time is, in a certain sense, real). Democracy must be conquered; it is a way to institute and make the state function, but only on the condition that it eventually be surpassed in favor of another form, its political practice abandoned in favor of another practice: “free association,” which is not a power of domination (unlike any state, including democratic ones). It is through this dual path that (in 1848) Marx and Engels present the transformation of the class into a “party” (a party immanent in the struggle, and particularly immanent in the struggle’s expansion), but also, reciprocally, the passage from a “class in itself” to a “class for itself,” which is the active class in history (against another class).[20]

The difficulties are in no way resolved by these general remarks. It is these political “mediations” of the class struggle that—both for Marx and Engels, and for us readers—immediately pose a problem. Let’s examine the problem for each of the two sides of the state institution.

Where are the difficulties concerning the idea of an “internationalist struggle within a national framework”? From a theoretical point of view (for, as we know, practice is another story), the problem might not reside so much in the crossed lines between tactics and strategy (for a tactic is always, in a certain sense, the reversal of the priorities of the strategy), but more in the postulate that “the workers have no homeland.” This is what assures the primacy of strategy over tactics. It is evident in the text that this affirmation goes far beyond a simple “response” to an ideological objection: one can’t take away from the workers what they don’t have, or rather, one can’t expulse them from a “community” in which they do not participate and from which they are already excluded. If the workers, as wage labor, are already property-less (Eigentumlos), they are also “stripped of all illusion” (Illusionlos), as The German Ideology puts it. This applies particularly to the illusion of belonging to the “imaginary” community that is the nation. They can therefore live and think through their condition at the very level that capitalism—and the concomitant internationalization of the division of labor and production—has created. This is fundamentally what transforms them into proletarians, and this thesis is the corollary of an extremely strong point in Marx and Engels’ doctrine: if the bourgeoisie remains nationalist (and, for example, protectionist), there is nonetheless internal overflow of its own power system by the objective internationalizing process of capital.

In this sense, one can say that the proletariat fights against the bourgeoisie, not only by directly confronting it, but by searching, “behind its back,” the capitalist tendency that produces and reproduces the bourgeoisie—and by turning this tendency against its leaders.[21] But this strongpoint contains an internal weakness: it rests on the a priori certainty that class determination automatically leads to national determination, such that the history of nations can be deduced from the history of class: “National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily and increasingly vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie … The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. … In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put to an end, so the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put to an end.” Not only is this empirically wrong (and this “illusion” directed against the “bourgeois illusions,” has exacted a terrible price in the history of workers’ movement), but it is also not theoretically justified. It is possible that the nation, as a structure of the global market, is a social “form” or “formation” as essential to historical capitalism as class itself…[22]

Where, in all this, is the problem of the “conquest of democracy”?[23] To my understanding, it resides in the uncertainty of whether “conquest” is part of a transitory usage, or a transformation, even auto-transformation (an internal surpassing) of this “political form.” And it can be read at two levels: either the proletariat is simply using  democratic legitimacy to modify the right of property and therefore to modify the “bourgeois relations of production,” or it is also aiming to introduce democracy where the bourgeoisie carefully excludes it (in production and labour relations). But one can also posit that the proletariat is doing both (as, in their own ways, both the doctrines of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “worker’s autonomy,” assert). This ambiguity is no doubt one of the reasons why Marx and Engels did not continue here in the path traced in their “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State” of 1843, which saluted the “radical” moment of the French Revolution as the historical irruption  of the “legislative power that makes the great revolutions.” For here we are dealing more with executive power…[24] And moreover, if we clearly see in the “transition” from democracy (as a statist form) to the “free association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” the withering away of an institution, we also clearly see the vitality and development of a principle that comes from democracy (that I call “equa-liberty” elsewhere), and thus not so much an abolition as an intensification, something like a “democratization of democracy.”

The notion of democracy is therefore inherently ambiguous, but that ambiguity reveals the meaning of the process, which contains in itself the secret of the “revolution” (and even more hidden, the passage from one revolution to another, “bourgeois” to “proletarian”, which allows us to understand and organize the second as we bring the first to completion). This difficulty is all the more crucial because the Manifesto continually demands a politics of support (both strategic and tactical) to all democratic movements, which thereby become one of the conditions of communism, and whose meaning, modality, and objectives, we must therefore elucidate.[25]

In these conditions, haven’t we relaunched the problem of what the “end of the political state” means? It is not at all clear that the end of the state also means the “end of politics” itself. But what is a politics that is not of and inside the state, and whose object is not to control its “power” in order to transform society?[26] In the case of Marx and Engels, we have every reason to pose the problem not in terms of regimes and institutions, but in terms of becoming: what matters is the transition itself, and what happens starting below (and against) the state, with class resistance movements (and resistance to one’s own class’s decomposition), all the way above and beyond use of the state, with its negation. Thus, even if the Manifesto doesn’t yet use this terminology, we observe a withering of the state in its very usage, by injecting the seed (and practice) of “free association,” which we can rephrase in a circular manner as communism as a modality of politics that itself aims towards communism. More than ever, therefore, even if we fail to ask ourselves which practices can illustrate this modality (Marx, as we know, thought he observed it in the Commune), what reigns is the irresolvable unity of opposites.

We have come full circle, for this elucidates the question of what, in the Manifesto, the idea of a “party” (the “communist party,” or better, no doubt, “the party of communism”) that is neither “distinct” nor “opposed to other working parties” might represent. Faced with what he called the separated State (from civil society) in his critique of the Hegelian philosophy of the state, I propose we call it the “indistinct party,” or to use an expression of Muriel Combes, “the unseparated party.”[27] This party represents more the collective conscience of a movement than its formal organization.[28] However, let us beware of false “recurrences” that would lead us to judge the relationships between these two variants (party-as-conscience and party-as-organization) according to a teleology, which would be nothing more than the transformation of a historical fact (albeit one that has dominated the destiny of Marxism) into a historical necessity.

One must not turn organization into the future or perfection of conscience, and thereby implicitly turn it into the “material basis” of its efficacy, and yet this is what Marx and Engels seem to indicate in the preface to their 1872 edition of the Manifesto: the “party” that was announced in a “manifesto” that would bring it about, now exists (as a workers party). But in reality, the “party” of 1847—related to the suspension of the dialectic between classes and the state—did not exploit its inherent possibilities, which were instead closed off by the very organizations that went on to speak in its name. For “indistinct” or “unseparated” means, first of all, that this party is not a political institution as opposed to an economic (or “corporate”) institution, or a labor union. But above all it means that this is not a party amongst parties (whereas 1847 is the moment when the party “system” crystallizes in Europe in the parliamentary context): no doubt it repudiates the anarchist position that denies the necessity of the “party form” itself (and does oppose the idea of associations or unions), but it also simultaneously affirms what Althusser will later call a “party outside the state” (without thereby resolving the practical question).[29]

There is thus a strong correlation between the idea that “the communists do not form a distinct party,” and the thesis that holds communism as the end or exit from “state politics” (elsewhere called “the modern representative state,” a creation of the bourgeoisie as part of its ascension to power). By definition, a “distinct party” would inscribe itself (and its members) within the confines of the bourgeois (liberal) state and its “political struggles,” with and against other parties. In fact, the “indistinct party” might be the strongest indicator in the Manifesto that the “conquest of democracy” must already engage the future that leads to a politics beyond the state (what I call a democratization of democracy), even as the revolution makes “concentrated” or even despotic use of the power of the state. Nonetheless, nothing in all this spells out how one might go about practicing this unity of opposites—unless Marx and Engels thought that there was here a subjective disposition that proceeds from the very condition of the workers. Since they are not looking to institute a new regime of “private” property, they also cannot be trying to construct a state, whose raison d’être is always to defend or organize a regime of property.[30]


Although no less essential, I must now quickly deal with the third problem this essay started with: the critique of ideology and of revolutionary subjectivity, connected above all with the contents of Chapter Three. Today, it is the most neglected chapter, which in later prefaces, Marx and Engels already declared obsolete, since the individuals and groups it mentions were already no longer active in 1872. These restrictive indications coincide with the canonical opposition between “utopian socialism” and “scientific socialism,” which allows Marxism to appear as a surpassing of the limits of utopian socialism, which remains attached to an embryonic stage of the working class movement. However, in reality, for the authors of the Manifesto in 1847 and 48, as they were writing, the “science” (defended most notable by Proudhon) is on the same side as “utopia,” both of which are contrary to the politics of class.[31] And moreover, the goal is not so much to take over where utopia left off, even dialectically, but to jump outside the existing “socialist and communist literature”, which is to say, jump outside the field of ideology.

In fact, this chapter, which appears exclusively critical, holds the key to two (and even three) crucial problems in defining communism as a “party” in which a movement can be “manifested,” which is to say, put into words that allow it to “speak” on the stage of history: first, the problem of the place that theory occupies in the movement, or in relationship to the movement (or in other words, the place of Marx and Engels’ Manifesto in the historical and political process that their work describes and seeks to bring about); second, the problem of subjectivation, the constitution of a collective of subjects described as “the most resolute fraction” of revolutionaries, which represents the “interested of the totality of the movement.” And hence the third problem: where and how (in which places, by means of which dialogue or dialectic) do the theory and the collective (of which the theorists can of course be a part) articulate themselves? How does the “detour of theory” provide the “most resolute faction” with the means to “represent” the totality?

The problem is clearly stated at the beginning of Chapter Two, in close relation with the idea of an “indistinct party,” but it is not thereby resolved. This resolution is confronted in Chapter Three, but it is essentially a negative resolution, both oppositional and destructive. Chapter Three excludes (thus, one can say “auto-excludes”) the theory of the Manifesto outside of the ideological field it describes. Moreover, it considers theory (of which it is a product) as exceeding this ideological field, and thus existing outside of it before being integrated within. Note the revealing diction: Chapter Two uses “us” to designate communists, but it is to correspond to the accusatory “you” that it attributes to the bourgeois and their ideologues. In Chapter Three (and Four), there is no more “we,” and the “you” now designates the proletarians who are “called upon” by the theoretical discourse, which thereby attains a universality, and even a fictive impersonal nature. This means that the proletarians only speak to themselves through the intermediary of theory, which announces their political project and simultaneously critiques both their adversaries and their false representatives and spokesmen. The critique is therefore the key to articulating two problems: the place of theory and the constitution of the collective it addresses. But the critique, isolated in its “literary” chapter, seems to not be a part of the world that it is criticizing.

I propose two schematic interpretations of this situation that are not mutually exclusive.  The first concerns the “subject” of the theoretical pronouncement, who is characterized historically and sociologically in Chapter One: “that portion of the bourgeois ideologists who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.” At this stage (which we might callthe stage of class betrayal), the pronouncement is always within the confines of ideology, even if it subverts ideology’s function. It is only in Chapter Three that we exit ideology, by means of a critique of all discourses, including (and perhaps particularly) those that “take the side” of the proletariat: to effectively represent the totality of interests and the future of the movement of the exploited, one must cut ties with all inherited modes of thought.[32] This is why Marx and Engels signal (anonymously and impersonally) that as authors of the Manifesto written for their comrades, they are neither “reactionary” socialists of a different type (essentially romantic socialists, trying to resuscitate or save the past “profaned” and ruined by capitalism), nor “conservative” socialists (which, given the text’s association of the term with Proudhon, means reformists), and finally, nor are they “critico-utopian” socialists, despite the importance of the search for a concrete alternative to private property (Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen) for the birth of a workers movement.

This means that once all the critiques have been made, the theorists can speak the language of “reality” that was obscured or foreclosed by past traditions—they can speak the language of class struggle, and even speak from within that reality itself, or from a hitherto invisible place within it.[33] The critique of ideology therefore opens the access to reality.[34] We see that the “negative” attitude of critique is addressed as much to the dominant as to the dominated discourses, which “evacuates” the revolutionary discourse from the place of ideology where all other discourses reside, in order to put us face to face with reality, (and this is indissociable from the theme of the class struggle as a civil war that we previously evoked). This negative critique rests on an ontology, which assumes that reality is itself “structured as a discourse,” and on an epistemology that is not only polemical but “symptomal,” showing that the irreconcilable character of the class struggle rooted in the regime of capitalist property is the non-mentioned, the unsaid in all other “literatures,” which either obscure its economic causes, or its political development, or else its historical consequences. Conversely, it is the “manifestation” of this unsaid in an additional theoretical discourse that produces the irruption of the real, and consequently an effect of truth in the heart of the proletarian movement. This effect does not so much occur within their conscience as it creates that conscience, by taking the disillusionment (or disenchantment) that is ubiquitous in capitalism to its summit, thereby “tearing apart” the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois illusions. This moment is also the movement from melancholy and hopelessness to a capacity for action and transformation, for the conscience is situated at the same level as the perpetual change—permanent revolution—of capitalism, of which it abolishes all limitations.

However seductive this interpretation might be, one can’t pretend it doesn’t have problematic consequences, on both the historical and political levels. First, there is the fact that any discourse always remains a form of discourse, which has ceased to remain “latent” and has become “manifest.” Its reintegration into the ideological field is thus inevitable, and we have seen this happen historically with Marxism itself, which then became one of the various ideologies of the working class and certain intellectuals (“organic” or not). However, from the point of view of the “topic” of discourses sketched in Chapter Three of the Manifesto, this reintegration should be impossible, or else it would be self-destructive from the point of view of the truth value and political function. It must therefore be continuously denied.[35] However, there is something even more worrisome: the anti-ideological negativity thereby attributed to the revolutionary theory (at the moment when it constitutes and announces itself for the first time) undeniably possesses a critical virtue without equal, a power of demarcation. But it is so radical that it generates on its targets (the proletarians on their way to becoming “communists”) a sort of ontological a-subjectivity. Or to put it more simply, it makes the constitution of the revolutionary “we” inexplicable, by reducing it to the present pregnant with the future, and thereby cutting it off from the past. This can seem not only paradoxical, but politically contradictory, taking place as Marx and Engels are elaborating a conception of the party as the collective conscience of the revolutionary class, going from existence in itself to existence for itself: a consciousness that is admittedly immanent in action and struggle, and is purely “practical,” but which, in order to give it the power to cross the line between resistance and revolution, the authors endow with a narrative of genesis and progressive universalization. One should, in a certain sense, evoke the future without imagining it: not Città futura… Everything happens as if the proletarians (and the communists) found themselves subjectively quartered between the consciousness of their history (which is essentially the history of the world, the history of the great “civil war” that will end with the liberation of humanity) and the imaginary of the future, as provided in particular by the “utopian” systems, an imaginary that feeds their transformative passion, and thus their “desire for communism.”[36]

Having formulated this judgement, itself very critical compared to the critique of Marx and Engels (or simply shown that one cannot elide it as a question and obstacle), I notice that there is nonetheless also in the text a central element that can perhaps provide a response: it is once again internationalism, which is presented as the corollary of the antagonism between wage labour and capital, and that ends up fusing with it. “Workers of the world, unite!” Internationalism is not just a moral imperative, or an effect of the internationalization of exchange and the division of labour, which virtually brings about the internationalization of the proletariat condition (obviously overestimated by Marx and Engels). It is also antinationalism, and thus a political “passion.” We can go further: the internationalism of the Manifesto is the epistemological monster of a belief opposed to all beliefs, of an ideology opposed to all ideologies. We should note that the synthesis proposed in the Manifesto has, from this point of view, the value of a true mutation, for none of the “socialisms” or “communisms” that Marx marks as “ideological” is particularly internationalist. This is in part because the “commons” or “communities” that they are trying to create (and sometimes recreate) against individualism or “egotism” necessarily entail proximity, national or local (such as the model units of the city and factories of Fourier and Owen, or the communist “colonies”). Internationalism or the new “cosmopolitanism” put forward in the Manifesto is thus not only a theoretical thesis (derived from the “cosmopolitanism of capital”), but also a “subjective” political passion.[37]

It is thus another community link that transverses existing communities and those yet to come, by undoing their intrinsic cloture. In this respect, the “you” of the final rallying cry can be extended as proceeding from a “we”: “workers of the world, let us unite!”, by which we readers of the Manifesto become communists. Is this not the secret of Marx and Engels’ addition of internationalism in their renewal of communism, even as they try to found it in the real basis of the objective movement of capitalism? For them, these two aspects were perhaps only one, but for us—who have lost the conviction that the globalization of capitalism automatically leads to the unity of its “gravediggers”—it is truly an addition and a synthesis.


Synthesis is the word I want to use to outline not a conclusion, but a contemporary counterpoint to the preceding commentary, in which I sought to combine an elucidation of the text with a search for its aporias and points of heresy. Such a counterpoint will not consist in answering yes or no to the Manifesto’s relevance in the present, in the sense of the current validity of its theses and analyses, whether at the level of its most general abstractions or its most specific claims (such as, “workers have no homeland”), which continue to be up for discussion regarding both application and the modality (between observation and prescription).[38]

Everything that precedes amply shows, it seems, the surprising unity of opposites that constitutes the Manifesto in its relation to the future, which has partly become our past. “Past future” (vergangene Zukunft, Koselleck). No doubt, time has jumped beyond the Manifesto, and yet simultaneously, paradoxically, the Manifesto has leaped (and continues to leap) beyond its own time. This is why it is destined to be periodically rewritten: the rewriting started immediately, with its own authors[39]; and, what is more surprising, it continues today. The most recent of these rewritings, Undici Tesi sul comunismo posibile, from 2017, is a collaborative effort born out of the Rome Conference on communism (January, 2017)—an attempt to affirm  communism in the sense of a current objectivity, a power of contestation of the established order (once again employing the “specter”), and a subjective productivity.[40] The Tesi pluralize, update, and thereby complicate in every way the virtual movement that, closely following the text of 1847, makes communism appear (with partially new content, attached to new fights) as the expression of an internal contradiction of capitalism (also often in new configurations, summarized by the notion of neoliberalism). Hence the strong tension between a dispersion of the forms of concrete domination and exploitation (in contrast to the sole figure of the wage laborer), and a more obstinate insistence on the idea that all struggles and “forms of life” that they sketch have a unique guiding thread, for which, even in the absence of a clearly identifiable “proletariat,” the authors wish to keep the notion of “class struggle.” This might seem to point to a recurrence of the determinist framework, but the Tesi insist on considering communism as a form of “constructivism”—the construction, I would say, of its own possibility. This is the suggestion I would like to grab onto to formulate, in my turn, and in continuity with my preceding observations, a few hypotheses on the manner in which one might rewrite the Communist Manifesto today, not in the form of a single text narrating the constitution of a subject and the interpellation of its carriers, but in the form of a series of problems to be resolved in order that the construction might make sense to the “global citizens” of our century.

First, we must take from our reading of the Manifesto the primacy of the question of politics, inseparable from the questions of its displacement and extension. The class struggle as imagined by Marx is both a metapolitical principle (as Jacques Rancière puts it)[41] (and in this sense there are other comparable principles, including theological principles) and an effective agent of political transformation. It is as such that during the 19th and particularly the 20th century it played the role of an alternative to the bourgeois conception of politics, which was centered on the state and the verticality of the relationship between the governed and the government, largely congruent with the verticality of the relationship between exploiters and exploited, if not identical. In principle at least, (and the principle, despite all the recycling and even betrayals, did not lose all its efficacy), class struggle has remained one of the most insistent forms of the idea of a “politics from below,” or a “politics of the governed,”[42] all the more effective when attached to the attempt to democratize democracy—which, we know, was far from always being the case in the history of “real existing communism”: there is thus a strong element of contingency, and a synthesis of heterogeneous elements.

But we can go further. In part due to its initial identification with the civil war model (from which Marx himself slowly retreated, without ever fully abandoning, and that resurfaces with force during the Russian Revolution), the metapolitics and the politics of the class struggle taken together force us to never reflect on the processes and forms of social conflict without including an “impolitical” element—which is to say, a dimension of potential extreme violence. This forces us to push beyond Marx and Engels’ thinking on the violent conjunction of productivity and destructiveness in the economy and in history—in capitalism itself, and conversely, in the movements that oppose capitalism.  In a passage too often forgotten in Chapter One of the Manifesto, Marx and Engels note that the social struggle can “end” either with the victory of one of the warring classes, or with their “mutual destruction” (gemeinsamer Untergang), which can take multiple forms. But on the other hand, while the state itself is one of the most uncontrollable actors of the oscillation between productivity and destruction, the updating of the Manifesto forces us to pose more clearly than in the original the questions of the gap between the “concept of politics” and the analysis of the “social function of the state.”

What was in a sense an anticipation by the authors of the Manifesto, oscillating between a projection into the future and a strategy for the present, has become a glaringly obvious phenomenon, for everyone agrees on the distinction between political economy or “governance,” particularly when it operates at a global and transnational level, and the political action of states. But the question remains whether there is an alternative “from below” or “from elsewhere,” to the dominant form (neoliberal, linked to the financialization of social life) in this gap, which has itself in a sense become the primary object of institutional politics and the principal worry of the governing class.[43]

Second, we have to get to the bottom of the observation that the complexity or internal multiplicity of the communist idea (a “project” rather than a “program”) is irreducible to its consequences or the particular applications of a single principle to which a single actor could correspond (on the subjective side). This is true even if we describe it as an actor in the process of unification rather than already unified. This does not mean that the components of the idea of communism are unrelated to each other, or that some are necessary while others are contingent, but rather that their connection is completely synthetic. In other words, we must analyze the components, and to do so, isolate them in the abstract to then examine how they intersect, interpenetrate, and can complete one another within a single historical “becoming,” but without falling into a pre-established form that guarantees their convergence. Not even in the form of a name (such as “multitude”) that repeats the idea of the proletariat or takes up the same metapolitical functions.[44]

This of course makes communism, more than previously, an endeavor in the making,  an unfulfilled inclination more than an ineluctable movement. Moreover, if some of the components still correspond to those of Marx and Engels, or are clearly of that lineage, it is possible that other components that were obscured or ignored by them could enter the fray and create a new set of problems for communism, in some sense from the exterior, by refraction, and might be destined to substitute communism under different names: communism in some sense needs this exteriority and heterogeneity so that the reality it tries to express and transform does not remain artificially circumscribed in the limits of a single essence or “direction of history.”

Such is the case of feminism, or rather of feminisms in the plural, that unmoor communism from a single relation of domination, but to which communism in return can provide the means to understand why the patriarchy that feminism fights in every society tends to diversify according to the mode of reproduction of the workforce and the extent to which everyday life has been commodified. The same is no doubt true of the “communal” practices of postcolonial or decolonial antiracism and antifascism, which—taking into account the new “laws of population” of the capitalist economy and the prolongations of capitalism (or slavery) in the world today—have become (and must continue to increasingly become) major forms of internationalism without which there can be no construction of communism. And just as class relations and their relationship to the institution of the nation and national belonging are not “without history,” so antiracism and antifascism are also not detachable from their history and discourse, from which class is never absent, but where it occupies a less decisive place. They organize and refer to themselves, not without internal contradictions, sometimes in the name of the “race,” and sometimes in the name of “humanity.” Therefore we need a “non-separation,” but also a “non-fusion” between communism and feminism or antiracism.

And this necessity of a “synthesis” also clearly extends to the need for a cultural revolution[45] directed against the ultra-competitive ways of life and consumption imposed by neoliberal capitalism itself, searching for the intermediate “utopia” between individualism and communitarianism.[46]  It must establish a distance with the Marxian conceptions of socialization and socialism that, with the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production, formed the core of its definition as an alternative to capitalism. This distancing is necessary as long  as the alternative refers exclusively to structures of production and reproduction, and not yet, as the Tesi rightly put it, to “lifeforms” that one could also call, following Agamben, “forms of usage.” One would no doubt have to say the same of the conjunction between the idea of protecting workers’ lives and of protecting the milieu of their lives, which is to say, the planet. This example is all the more interesting in that it obliges us to use our imagination towards what is in common against the idea of “putting in common”— the appropriation of the “means of production” that inhabits the entire collectivist tradition, including in Marx’s own formulation in Capital regarding the “expropriation of the expropriators.” There remains a fetishism of property in some of Marxism’s most typical mottoes.

But I will stop here. Such enumerations are dangerous, as they give the impression of an eclectic list of demands and aspirations, and risk losing sight of the perspective of a great emancipatory movement of humanity at the level of history and the world, which is the most precious accomplishment of Marxist communism. In reality, what these seemingly eclectic elements point to is 1) that the components of communism can be momentarily contradictory amongst themselves (which is why communism  can never cease becoming a form of politics—beyond state politics—but also never cease doing politics (and thereby resolving, as Mao said, the “contradictions within a people”); 2) to enter a synthesis or political construction with the others, each component of the communist idea (socialism, democracy, internationalism) must be augmented and decentered using supplemental historical determinations, which are also carried by heterogeneous collective subjects, irreducible to a single model and rarely concentrated in a single place. In order for their encounter to be creative, the need to “democratize democracy” is more than ever a necessary, if not sufficient condition. It is necessary for the defense of ancient forms that capitalism continually disaggregates, and for the invention of new post-bourgeois forms, with their own procedures of participation, representation, and conflict. Which means that radical democracy (whose underestimation or instrumentalization was one of the key factors in the catastrophe of the “real communisms” of the 20th century) is not a mediation, and even less a “vanishing mediation”[47]: if it can be thought of as a form of transition, it is because communism itself is nothing more than an infinite transition, in which unification (party) and diversification (movement) never cease to alternate.


[1] This essay is included (in Italian translation) in the volume: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto comunista, con saggi di E. Balibar, P. Chatterjee, P. Dardot & C. Laval, A. Del Re, S. Federici; V. Gago, M. Hardt & S. Mezzadra, A. Negri, S. Zizek, Ponte alle Grazie editore, 2018.

[2] The first indubitably having the leading role, but with no need to occult the contributions of the second: a rereading of the Principles of Communism, written by Engels in 1847, at the moment when the  “League of the Just” changed its name to become the “Communist League,” shows—despite the different rhetorical models, the former a catechism through questions and answers and not a theoretical and political essay—the importance of his contributions to the formulations of the Manifesto.

[3] It is striking that Foucault is in this instance in complete agreement with Hegel, for whom, as we know, “none can jump beyond his time.”

[4] The Manifesto was written practically concurrently with the lectures of 1847 (given by Marx to the Association of German Workers of Brussels, and published post facto in 1849), as  Wage Labor and Capital, which one has to read in the original version, before it was corrected by Engels in an attempt to synchronize it with the critique of the political economy developed in Capital.

[5] It’s important to note that the Manifesto never uses the word “communism,” let alone “the communist mode of production” to designate a social structure or a historical stage of society, but instead always to designate a movement with its ideal or principle, a party with its program, and by extension, the system that would result from its application.

[6] Which explains—without prefiguring the contradictions—the terminology of proletarian internationalism, which would later be formulated by Marxist-Leninists.

[7] Analogous, perhaps, to the mathematician Bourbaki’s publication of his “theory of sets” in the form of a “leaflet of results.”

[8] Which is also a way of limiting the uncertainty related to the historical consequences that can be deduced from the establishment of an economic trend. (Marx, Capital, Book I, chapter 20. See my commentary, “Die Drei Endspiele des Kapitalismus,” in Mathias Greffrath (ed.), Re. Das Kapital. Politische Ökonomie im 21. Jahrhundert, Verlag Antje Kunstmann, Mûnchen, 2017.) English translation in M. Musto (Ed.), Marx’s Capital after 150 Years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, London-New York: Routledge, 2019.

[9] Competition between wage labor always drives down their living standard down to the level of subsistence, if not lower. This is one of the key differences between (ancient) personal slavery and the class slavery engendered by wage labor and capital: the wage slaves can subsist only by constantly seeking out new masters, a difference that also contains an analogy, which Capital will retain by inscribing it in a more complete system of comparison between the two modes of exploitation.

[10] In short, the old image of the “world turned upside down” (which came from the radical currents of the English revolution of the 17th century) has become: “the revolt of the productive forces against obsolete forms of production.”

[11] This thesis was already indirectly present in The German Ideology in the form of a comparison between the successive functions of carriers of the universal inhabited by the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the face of the “particular” interests of society. It leads to all sorts of political applications, more or less successful in the history of revolutionary movements in the 19th and 20th centuries: from the framework of the “permanent revolution,” which leads us from a bourgeois phase to a proletarian (or socialist) phase in the course of a political revolution, all the way to the question of whether in “under-developed” countries in the capitalist world, the proletariat can and must replace the bourgeoisie in order to accomplish its “historical tasks” of which the latter shows itself locally incapable. The later oppositions between “top-down revolutions” and “bottom-up” revolutions (Engels), “active revolution” and “passive revolution” (Gramsci) do not follow the same framework, because instead of a movement of surpassing they institute a competition between the revolutionary classes and their representatives, but they only make sense if we have already accepted the framework of analogous revolutions.

[12] The thesis of the Manifesto is not that, having been revolutionary, the bourgeoisie becomes “conservative” or “reactionary,” but that in its ceaseless revolution of society, it creates insurmountable contradictions that impose absolute limits on the pursuit of its historical role, and create and “arm” its own “gravediggers.”

[13] Engels is the inventor (or in any case, one of the first users) of the concept of “industrial revolution” in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844). The examples are taken from English history, a “classic country,” where technological inventions were put at the service of the capitalist organization of labor, but the terminology is also partly inspired by Saint-Simon.

[14] I don’t pursue that point here, as I have discussed it elsewhere: in the article, “Krieg,” in Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus (hsg. Von Wolfgang F. Haug), vol. VII-2, Berlin 2010 (English translation: « Marxism and War », Radical  Philosophy  160, March / April  2010); and in 2012: “On the Aporias of Marxian Politics. From Civil War to Class Struggle », Diacritics, Volume 39, no. 2 Negative Politics (edited by Laurent Dubreuil).

[15] I refer the reader to Michel Foucault, “We must defend society,” from the Lectures at the Collège de France of 1976. The terminology of “social war” is a paradigm of the period. It is particularly prevalent in Balzac’s The Peasants, written in 1844 and published posthumously in 1852, and also in Blanqui and his followers, who associate it with the notion of a “revolutionary dictatorship.” It leads to several famous descriptions in Disraeli’s novel, Sybil or the Two Nations (1845), which describes the England of the industrial revolution as a nation cut into two hostile nations, separated both by their material conditions and by their values. The overlap with Engels is striking (The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844). A common source might be found in the Chartist movement and in Carlyle.

[16] Very different from the Machiavellian conception of “conflicting humors,” in which the struggle between the rich and poor, although setting radically different interests against one another, can nonetheless be mediated by a “tribune power,” which is to say, an institution that represents the dominated inside the dominant order. On the contrary, in Capital, and in particular in the analysis of the battle for a normal working day in England, this is presented as a “long civil war.”

[17]  To which the question of colonialism is ambiguously linked, thanks to the analogy that is established between the “subjection of the country to the domination of the towns” and the subjection of “barbaric or semi-barbaric nations” to civilized nations, the subjection of “nations of peasants to nations of bourgeois, from the East to the West.”

[18] I cite Benjamin deliberately, thinking of his “Theses on the Concept of History,” from 1940. It is rightfully one of the most frequent arguments of contemporary “critical Marxism,” where the epistemological proposition of a non-progressive temporality (in which the revolution is not the “resolution of the problem” posed by history, as in the Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) is combined with the “messianic” hope of the redemption (or revenge) of the defeated. Taken literally, the “Marxism” of the Manifesto is the opposite of such a conception, although it also contains Messianic dimensions: its “proletariat” is not vanquished; it “begins to resist with its very existence,” and its victory is ineluctable. This is why if history contradicts the narrative, there is no other choice than to deny it in the imagination.

[19] I return to the now established need to respond to Mazzini on the question of internationalism, as a motivation for writing the Manifesto.

[20] The philosophical distinction between the “class in itself” and “the class for itself” is implicit in the Manifesto. It is presented as such in the immediately preceding texts (The Poverty of Philosophy) and those that follow (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). I think it’s indispensable to introduce it here, as it entails the problem of conscience (social or collective) that we will later confront, and brings us to yet another “point of heresy,” because—due to its very practical function—the dialectic can be reversed: there is no “class in itself” (but rather only structures of exploitation and economic conditions) if there is no “party” (in a general historical sense, which is the sense of the Manifesto) to constitute that class. In the history of Marxism, this point of view becomes explicit in Gramsci, and it leads to the thesis of the primacy of the class struggle over the existence of class, and even to the “class struggle without [preexisting] classes,” paradoxically upheld by two Marxists who agree on nothing else: Althusser and E.P. Thompson.

[21] This idea is explicit in the two contemporaneous texts of 1847: Wage labor and Capital, already cited, and On the Question of Free Trade (see the beautiful critical edition with commentary: Karl Marx, Discorso sul libero scambio, a cura di Alberto Burgio e Luigi Cavallaro, DeriveApprodi, Roma 2002).

[22] One can’t fully understand the Manifesto’s propositions on the nation, nationalism, and internationalism if one neglects the fact, now well established, that appears among the “demands” addressed to Marx and Engels by their comrades of the Communist League for the writing of the Manifesto: the need to respond to the “manifesto” that had just been published (also in London) by another figure of the European democratic exile, Giuseppe Mazzini. His pamphlet, Thoughts upon Democracy in Europe, which first appeared in English in the Chartist journal The People’s Journal in 1846-1847, contained both a detailed refutation of socialist and communist doctrine (which Marx and Engels would call “utopian” in their manifesto), and a project for a United States of Europe (which would surface later), to which the class internationalism of Marx and Engels is a direct response. See, S. Mastellone: Mazzini and Marx: thoughts upon democracy in Europe, Praeger, Westport and London, 2005.

[23] In German, die Erkämpfung der Demokratie, which encompasses both the idea of a power grab within the democratic structure, and the idea that through this struggle, the democratic form is won to the side of the proletarian struggle, and thus detached from the bourgeois cause. One has to reread §18 of Engels’ Principles of Communism very attentively, which names a “democratic constitution” (eine demokratische Staatsverfassung) as one of the communist objectives. The entire discussion of the “conquest” and use of democracy is part of a battle on numerous fronts: against Mazzini, Proudhon and the “socialists,” and also against several strands of Chartism, which we will examine further.

[24] See, M. Abensour, La démocratie contre l’Etat, Marx et le moment machiavélien, PUF, Paris 1997 (English translation Democracy Against the State, Polity Press 2010). Abensour traces a line of continuity between the radical democratic strain of the Manuscript of 1843 and the anti-statism of The Civil War in France, jumping over the Manifesto. It is more or less the opposite of what I did in my essay from 1972: “The Rectification of the Communist Manifesto,” (taken up again in Cinq Etudes du matérialisme historique, Maspero, 1974), where I imported the Althusserian notion of a “new practice of politics,” and which Foucault gently mocks in an interview of the same year (Dits et Ecrits, n° 119).

[25] Lest we forget, all this was written in a historical context of conservative reaction and repression, and of the “Holy Alliance” between aristocrats and property owners. The problem would resurface on a grander scale at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, with the internal debates within social democracy about the nation’s right to self-determination.

[26] It’s not even clear that this dilemma belongs primarily to Marx, or to socialism and communism: it also exists for liberalism. In a brilliant text, I. Wallerstein argued that all fundamental “ideologies” of the modern era (after the French Revolution) live inside the same “performative contradiction”: they use the state as a means to assure the development or autonomy of a society, which, theoretically at least, neutralizes or minimizes that state (cf. I. Wallerstein, The modern World-System, vol. IV, centrist Liberalism Triumphant 1789-1914, University of California Press, 2011, chap. 1 : « Centrist Liberalism as ideology”.)

[27] Muriel Combes : La vie inséparée. Vie et sujet au temps de la biopolitique, Editions Dittmar, Paris 2011.

[28] I developed this idea in 1979 in my contribution to the collective volume Marx et sa critique de la politique, written with André Tosel and Cesare Luporini (Maspero, collection “Theory”).

[29] See, L. Althusser, « Le marxisme comme théorie « finie » » (1978), rééd. Dans Solitude de Machiavel, Edition préparée et commentée par Yves Sintomer, PuF, Paris 1998 (engl. translation : « Marxism as a Finite Theory », Introduction by Rossana Rossanda, Viewpoint Magazine, December 14, 2017).

[30] I do, however, think that Marx and Engels have a particular practical reference in mind, namely the history of English Chartism, which illustrates the idea of an “unseparated party,” for which the social (or socialist, or even anti-capitalist) demands go hand in hand with democratic demands (universal suffrage). But by the time they write the Manifesto, Chartism has been defeated and is dissolving, even though it leaves a profound trace. The “radicals” have become liberals or “utopian” socialists (which is to say, apolitical). The constitution of the social-democratic parties at the end of the century will make the problem urgent. Let us note that in the case of Chartism, and a fortiori in the case of the social-democratic parties, the national framework is affirmed so vigorously as to render the internationalist dimensions (even strategically) evanescent.

[31] See in particular the entire conclusion of the Poverty of Philosophy. On the subsequent vicissitudes of the opposition between “science” and “utopia,” as well as of the conversion of science into utopia to the second degree in the Russian Revolution, see the book of Nestor Capdevila, Equivoques et tourments de l’utopie. Un concept en jeu, Publications de la Sorbonne, Paris 2015.

[32] But at the same time—and here the performative paradox reaches it apotheosis—one must also recuperate and incorporate these previous modes of thought: this is why, as the great commentators have remarked (Charles Andler, Jacques Grandjonc, Bert Andreas), the Manifesto is a palimpsest, in which innumerable words and phrases from “criticoputopian socialists and communists” are silently incorporated into the text and amalgamated with Marx and Engels’ own formulations.

[33] Sprache des wirklichen Lebens, “language,” or better yet, “speech of real life,” as The German Ideology put it. In Spectres of Marx, Derrida will call this a sort of “ventriloquism.”

[34] Obviously, this is rhetorical, if not poetic (as Jacques Rancière in particular never stopped demonstrating). This doesn’t mean that it’s hollow. On the contrary, the Manifesto is perhaps more effective on this point than capital, where the constitution of the “voice of reality” in theoretical discourse emerges through a different procedure: the “Critique of the political economy” is combined with the quotation of the “worker’s speech,” at least as it is reported by the factory inspectors.

[35] What seemed to many Marxists a “guarantee” against this reintegration, is the political organization (of the party itself), which, as Lenin would later say, “in purging itself, reinforces itself” (Materialism and Empiriocriticism). But this guarantee only precipitates the conclusion…

[36] Gramsci, in 1917: “I live, and I am a partisan. It is why I hate those who don’t take part, I hate the indifferent.” (La cité future, Présentation d’André Tosel, Editions Critiques, Paris 2017).

[37] Which one can try to link to the fact that Marx, Engels and their comrades of the “League of the Just,” which at that moment was becoming the Communist League, came, as the text notes, “from several countries,” and therefore shared a solidarity of exiles.

[38] Today, we often see an inversed application of the formula: “whoever does not have a homeland (migrants) is the proletariat.”


[39] Even though, as they indicate in the preface of 1872, they forbade themselves to change the text itself, due to its appropriation by history, and contrary to what they did to other works (and in particular, Wage labor and Capital).

[40] See the English translation : “11 Theses on Possible Communism”, Viewpoint, 01-31-2018.

[41] It is one of his principal themes in La mésentente : politique et philosophie, Paris : Galilée, 1995.

[42] Partha Chatterjee: The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, Columbia University Press, 2004.

[43] States are overwhelmed simultaneously by global economic governance and the indefinite war (of “low intensity”) that they organize, use, or let happen (as in Libya).

[44] This is my point of divergence with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, which calls for further discussion.

[45] I dare not say “religious”:  I am really thinking of what Nietzsche called the “transmutation of values.”

[46] We must simultaneously maximize both the autonomy and interdependence of subjects, which is, of course—from The German Ideology to the formulations of Capital concerning the “reestablishment of individual property on the basis of the acquisitions of capitalist socialization”—one of the constants in Marx’s conception of communism.

[47] Following the profound formulation that Fredric Jameson created from the comparison between Marx’s analysis of the “bourgeois revolution” and Max Weber’s on the articulation of the Calvinist Reformation and of capitalism:  Fredric Jameson, “The Vanishing Mediator, or Max Weber as Storyteller” [1973], in idem, The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986, vol. 2: Syntax of History (Lon­don: Routledge, 1988), pp. 3-34.

Fonda Shen