Friedrich Engels: Principles of Communism

Engels Communism Pamphlet

Looking through one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham last wee, I found a copy of Friedrich Engels’ Principles of Communism, published by Pluto Press. It was written in 1847, and is a very short introduction to Marx and Engels’ ideas of what constituted Communism. It’s 20 pages in length, and is written in the form of a catechism, Engels presenting their ideas as answers to the following questions: What is Communism? What is the proletariat? Proletarians, then, have not always existed? How did the proletariat originate? Under what conditions does this sale of the labour of the proletarians to the bourgeoisie take place? What working classes were there before the industrial revolution? In what way do proletarians differ from slaves? In what way do proletarians differ from serfs? In what way do proletarians differ from handicraftsmen? In what way do proletarians differ from manufacturing workers? What were the immediate consequences of the industrial revolution and the division of society into bourgeoisie and proletariat? What we the further consequences of the industrial revolution? What follows from these periodic commercial crises? What will this new social order have to be like? Was not the abolition of private property possible at an earlier time? Will the peaceful abolition of private property be possible? Will it be possible to abolish private property at one stroke? What will be the course of this revolution? Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone? What will be the consequences of the ultimate disappearance of private property? What will be the influence of Communist society on the family? What will be the attitude of Communism to existing nationalities? What will be its attitude to existing religions? How do Communists differ from Socialists? What is the attitude of the Communists to the other political parties of our time?

It’s basically the first draft of The Communist Manifesto, and Engels himself wrote to Marx saying the catechetical form should be dropped, and it should just be called the above.

What I found particularly interesting flicking through it was Engels’ discussion of modern industrial capitalism, which he saw as producing periodic economic crises. It was the task of the proletarian – the working class – not just to liberate themselves from capitalism by taking control of the means of production, but also to prevent further commercial crises occurring through the establishment of Communism, which would also be a more efficient economic system.

In answer to question 12: What were the further consequence of the industrial revolution? Engels writes

Big industry created in the steam engine and other machines the means of endlessly expanding industrial production, speeding it up, and cutting its costs. With production thus facilitated, the free competition which is necessarily bound up with big industry assumed the most extreme forms; a multitude of capitalists invaded industry, and in a short while more was produced than was needed. As a consequence, finished commodities could not be sold, and so-called commercial crisis broke out. Factories had to be closed, their owners went bankrupt, and the workers were without bread. Deepest misery reigned everywhere. After a time, the superfluous products were sold, the factories began to operate again, wages rose, and gradually business got better than ever. But it was not long before tooo many commodities were again produced and a new crisis broke out, only to follow the same course as its predecessor. Ever since the beginning of this (nineteenth) century, the condition of industry has constantly fluctuated between periods of prosperity and periods of crisis; nearly every five to seven years a fresh crisis has intervened, always with the greatest hardship for workers, and always accompanied by general revolutionary stirring and the direst peril to the existing order of things.

13: What follows from these periodic commercial crises?
First:
That though big industry in its earliest stage created free competition, it has now outgrown free competition; that for big industry competition and general the individualistic organisation of production have become a fetter which it must and will shatter; that so long as big industry remains on its present footing it can be maintained only at the cost of general chaos every seven years, each time threatening the whole of civilisation and not only plunging the proletarians into misery but also ruining large numbers of the bourgeoisie; hence either that big industry must itself be given up, which is an absolute impossibility, or that it makes unavoidably necessary an entirely new organisation of society in which production is no longer directed by mutually competing individual industrialists but rather by the whole society operating according to a definite plan and taking account of the needs of all.

Second: That big industry and the limitless expansion of production which it makes possible bring within the range of feasibility a social order in which so much is produced that every member of society will be in a position to exercise and develop all his powers and faculties in complete freedom. It thus appears that the very qualities of big industry which in our present-day society produce misery and crises are those which in a different form of society will abolish this misery and these catastrophic depressions. We see with the greatest clarity:
(I) That these evils are from now on to be ascribed solely to a social order which no longer corresponds to the requirements of the real situation; and
(II) That it is possible, through a new social order, to do away with these evils altogether.

14: What will this new social order have to be like?
Above all, it will have to take the control of industry and of all branches of production out of the hands of mutually competing individuals, and instead institute a system in which all these branches of production are operated by society as a whole, that is, for the common account, according to a common plan, and with the participation of all members of society. It will, in other words, abolish competition and replace it with association. Moreover, since the management of industry by individuals necessarily implies private property, and since competition is in reality merely the manner and form in which the control of industry by private property owners expresses itself, it follows that private property cannot be separated from competition and the individual management of industry. Private property must therefore be abolished and in its place must come the common utilisation of all instruments of production and the distribution of all products according to common agreement – an a word, what is called the communal ownership of goods. In fact, the abolition of private property is doubtless the shortest and most significant way to characterise the revolution in the whole social order which has been made necessary by the development of industry, and for this reason it is rightly advanced by Communists as their main demand. (pp.10-12).

In practice, central planning of a large, complex industrial society is far too difficult, and the results are massive economic inefficiencies and an acute shortage of goods. It’s one of the reasons Communism fell. However, since the adoption of neo-liberalism as the economic creed of the main political parties in the West, we’ve seen the same kind of economic crises that afflicted 19th century capitalism return with the banking crisis in 2008, along with the ‘iron law of wages’ which Marx and Engels observed in the Communist Manifesto was forcing down more and more of the lower middle class into the ranks of the workers, and impoverishing the workers as employers tried to cut wages.

But if it’s impossible to plan a nation’s economy absolutely completely, nevertheless Ha-Joon Chang in his book, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism makes the point that governments still carry out some forms of economic planning, not least in supporting research and development, in which private industry is reluctant to invest on its own. Thus some form of state planning is nevertheless effective in avoiding and ameliorating the economic crises which neoliberal economics create.

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3 Responses to “Friedrich Engels: Principles of Communism”

  1. Florence Says:

    Not having a copy of the Engels text to hand, I think many would be interested in his thoughts on how socialism and communism differ. It is at the heart of many misunderstandings at the moment!

  2. vondreassen Says:

    What about Cuba ? though people seem to be (seen as) ‘poor’ nobody starves or sleeps rough and they appear to have an excellent health service….in spite of US sanctions,,

  3. 61chrissterry Says:

    Reblogged this on 61chrissterry.

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