Notes on the “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League”

The "Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League" was specifically written for German workers in March 1850 in-between the revolutions of 1848 and Marx's realization that a second wave of revolutions was indefinitely delayed (summer 1850). In the "Address" Marx and Engels still feel the revolution may be imminent. Until later -- possibly the Commune -- Marx and Engels insisted that the bourgeois revolution must precede a proletarian revolution. Accordingly, the "Address" talks about the way workers should participate in this revolution, and what they must do afterwards. The advice contained in the "Address" has been historically superseded, and was indeed in its day already meaningless in countries like England. The scenario Marx and Engels describe -- the revolutionary bourgeoisie overthrowing feudalism with the help of a strong working class -- was a feature of the French Revolution, one never really to come again, except possibly in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918. Certainly today there is only the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. For these two classes there is no longer a "common enemy" for which "a special alliance is unnecessary. As soon as such an enemy has to be fought directly, the interests of both parties will coincide for the moment and an association of momentary expedience will arise spontaneously." There is no reason for the bourgeoisie to allow the workers to formed independent armed bodies. There is not much of a chance for parity in armed forces. In this way most of the specifics of the "Address" have to be written off as hopelessly antiquated.

Yet there is much here that is of living, vital importance.

First, the "Address" demolishes the idea that Marx and Engels were milquetoast democrats who fought for trade unions, the eight hour day, and suffrage. In one document of a few pages' length, they openly advocate terror, oppose all kinds of fronts, emphasize the need and ability for the class to operate independently, and completely disregard the principle of legality. All this not "to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one."

The second interesting thing about the "Address" is its authors rejection of reformism. Of course, as revolutionaries ourselves, we should expect this. Our Marx and Engels -- the real Marx and Engels -- never made peace with wage slavery. And yet the "Address" still provided me with fresh insights.

To begin with, look at the reforms the democratic small capitalists supposedly sought:

"The democratic petty bourgeois, far from wanting to transform the whole society in the interests of the revolutionary proletarians, only aspire to a change in social conditions which will make the existing society as tolerable and comfortable for themselves as possible. They therefore demand above all else a reduction in government spending through a restriction of the bureaucracy and the transference of the major tax burden into the large landowners and bourgeoisie. They further demand the removal of the pressure exerted by big capital on small capital through the establishment of public credit institutions and the passing of laws against usury, whereby it would be possible for themselves and the peasants to receive advances on favourable terms from the state instead of from capitalists; also, the introduction of bourgeois property relationships on land through the complete abolition of feudalism. In order to achieve all this they require a democratic form of government, either constitutional or republican, which would give them and their peasant allies the majority; they also require a democratic system of local government to give them direct control over municipal property and over a series of political offices at present in the hands of the bureaucrats.

"The rule of capital and its rapid accumulation is to be further counteracted, partly by a curtailment of the right of inheritance, and partly by the transference of as much employment as possible to the state. ..."

Just so we're clear, let me recap. According to the "Address," the democratic bourgeoisie will seek:

Sound familiar? They should. Each one of these measures can be found in the infamous 10 demands or planks of the 1848 Communist Manifesto:

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

Here, the measures are presented as "means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production."

In the "Address," most of these measures are written off:

"The rule of capital and its rapid accumulation is to be further counteracted, partly by a curtailment of the right of inheritance, and partly by the transference of as much employment as possible to the state. As far as the workers are concerned one thing, above all, is definite: they are to remain wage labourers as before1. However, the democratic petty bourgeois want better wages and security for the workers, and hope to achieve this by an extension of state employment and by welfare measures; in short, they hope to bribe the workers with a more or less disguised form of alms and to break their revolutionary strength by temporarily rendering their situation tolerable. ... But these demands can in no way satisfy the party of the proletariat. While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far -- not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world -- that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one. ..."

So, a conundrum. On one hand we have the 10 demands of the Communist Manifesto (the ones conservatives rant about even today). On the other hand, just two years later, the men who conceived of these demands describe them as part and parcel of the democratic bourgeoisie's programme. How is this to be resolved?

As I hope to explain more fully soon, I think the so-called "10 Planks" have to be understood not as the blueprint of a transition to communism, and certainly not as characteristics of a communist society (for the paragraphs after talk about a very different kind of world in which the "planks" can have no meaning: a world without classes, money, or the state), but as the very tentative political program for the working class in a revolutionary situation. These measures are not inherently revolutionary, but provide a basis for further activity, "degree by degree," until the concentration of capital and the development of a class consciousness make communism a possibility. (To be clear: this is not a valid program for today. Engels described it as antiquated in 1872. Personally, I doubt its validity even for 1848.)

That this was the perspective of Marx and Engels seems to be confirmed by the "Address":

"We have seen how the next upsurge will bring the democrats to power and how they will be forced to propose more or less socialistic measures. It will be asked what measures the workers are to propose in reply. At the beginning, of course, the workers cannot propose any directly communist measures2. But the following courses of action are possible:

"1. They can force the democrats to make inroads into as many areas of the existing social order as possible, so as to disturb its regular functioning and so that the petty-bourgeois democrats compromise themselves; furthermore, the workers can force the concentration of as many productive forces as possible -- means of transport, factories, railways, etc. -- in the hands of the state.

"2.They must drive the proposals of the democrats to their logical extreme (the democrats will in any case act in a reformist and not a revolutionary manner) and transform these proposals into direct attacks on private property. If, for instance, the petty bourgeoisie propose the purchase of the railways and factories, the workers must demand that these railways and factories simply be confiscated by the state without compensation as the property of reactionaries. If the democrats propose a proportional tax, then the workers must demand a progressive tax; if the democrats themselves propose a moderate progressive tax, then the workers must insist on a tax whose rates rise so steeply that big capital is ruined by it; if the democrats demand the regulation of the state debt, then the workers must demand national bankruptcy. The demands of the workers will thus have to be adjusted according to the measures and concessions of the democrats."

It's ironic that generations of American conservatives have pointed to the 10 Planks as proof positive of communism's triumph, when for the communists themselves these planks were largely compatible with capitalism, and even seen as the demands of the rising capitalist class itself?

Edited to add, 8-14: Yep. In Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, David McLellan writes that "This programme is remarkable for its comparatively tentative and moderate nature. With an eye to an alliance with sections of the bourgeoisie, reform proposals were limited to circulating capital while production, for the time being, was to remain largely in private hands."

  1. Interestingly, this denunciation of state capitalism sounds familiar to one written 30 years later in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific: "The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine -- the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers -- proletarians." 

  2. Here the use of "socialistic" and "communistic" in distinct senses does not imply that Marx and Engels somehow advocated or foresaw two distinct levels of post-capitalist society, socialism and communism, as was often asserted by those who sought some means of justifying state capitalism. Here Marx and Engels use "socialist" in the same pejorative sense as it is used throughout the entirety of the third section of Communist Manifesto, e.g., "The Socialist bourgeois ... desire the existing state of society minutes its revolutionary and disintegrating elements"). Later, they were to use the term -- purified of any negative connotation -- to describe positively both themselves, and even men like Owen, Fourier, and Saint-Simon, as in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. In just the same way, Social-Democratic is used pejoratively in the "Address," but was later to be the name of the Marxist party in Germany, which both Engels and Marx supported.