What is the core idea that runs through the Communist Manifesto? How do we understand and grasp this core idea in a scientific way? Standing at today’s new starting point of history, in what way should the new implications that are in line with the new times be discovered from the manifesto? These are the theoretical and practical issues that we should ponder as we commemorate the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto.

        In the 1883 German edition and the 1888 English edition of the manifesto, Engels explicitly pointed out twice the fundamental proposition that forms the nucleus of the manifesto: In every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which it is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; That the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class—the proletariat—cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class—the bourgeoisie—without, at the same time, and once for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.

        This paragraph of Engels’ statement contains two levels of connotation in terms of its logic. First, it summarizes the basic principles of the materialist conception of history. Second, it proposes the fundamental path and the ultimate goal of the complete emancipation of humanity.

        Now, we need to ask: What is the core and essence of the materialist conception of history that runs through the manifesto? Figuring out this question could help to precisely define the quintessence and soul of the manifesto.

        From the perspectives of the past 170 years of the practice of socialist revolution and construction both in the East and the West, and by drawing the lessons from the international communist movements, the following two points are crucial for understanding the chief ideas of the manifesto.

        The first is the liberation and development of the productive forces, based on which idea, Marx and Engels concretely analyzed the basic contradiction of capitalism and came to the conclusion that “the fall of the bourgeois and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” Since the publication of the manifesto, the working class and the masses of laborers, in pursuit of their own emancipation, have undergone arduous struggles. The international communist movements have experienced several ups and downs. The socialist revolution and construction made headways through twists and turns. The 170 years of historical experience have repeatedly taught us that when we insisted on the principle of liberating and developing the productive forces, and when we judged the success or failure, gain and loss of the socialist cause by adopting productive forces as the fundamental criterion, the cause has thrived. But when we deviated from liberating and developing productive forces, the nature of scientific socialism, and when we talked about socialism in the abstract sense by rejecting productive forces, our cause consequently collapsed into failures.

        The second is the free and comprehensive development of humans. In outlining the pictures of future society, the manifesto clearly put it: “In place of the old bourgeoisie society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

        The “association for the free development of each” conforms to the principle of the materialist conception of history: The latter intrinsically comprises the idea of emancipation of humans; and the former is the specific manifestation of the latter’s connotation.

        The emancipation of humans equals their free and comprehensive development, which, in its diverse forms, is reflected in physical strength, intelligence, ability, and personality, as well as each man’s relations and interactions with other members of society.

        However, such freedom is not absolute and unconditional in any stage of human development. The “association for the free development of each” is not so much a far-reaching goal and blueprint than a realistic path and clue toward the future, always guiding us to blaze out more open, broad and free spaces through unremittingly striving ahead.

        This article was edited and translated from the Guangming Daily. Zuo Yawen is a professor from the School of Marxism at Wuhan University.

        (Author: Zuo Yawen  Source: Chinese Social Sciences Today)

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