Communist League

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Communist League


(1847–52), the first international communist organization, founded and led by K. Marx and F. Engels.

Established in 1847, the Communist League grew out of a fundamental reorganization of the League of the Just. Marx and En-gels struggled to bring about the transition of this secret organization of German political émigres to scientific socialism, by freeing it from the influence of “true socialism,” Weitlingism, Blan-quism, and other varieties of Utopian socialism. The turning point came at the First Congress of the League of the Just in London in June 1847, when a draft charter was ratified, reorganizing the league by introducing the principles of democratism, centralism, and elections. However, the draft contained certain points that needed to be refined. On the initiative of Engels, who attended the congress as a delegate from the Paris communities, the League of the Just was renamed the Communist League. (Marx was unable to attend the congress.) The slogan of the League of the Just, “All men are brothers,” was replaced by an appeal proposed by Marx and Engels: “Workers of the world, unite!” The congress expelled Weitling’s followers from the league. The headquarters of the Central Committee was established in London.

The Second Congress of the Communist League (London, Nov. 29-Dec. 8,1847) was attended by delegates from Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain, Switzerland, and Poland. Marx was the delegate from the Brussels communities and Engels the delegate from the Paris communities. The congress adopted a revised charter, with the first article rewritten. In the original version, Article 1 stated: “The league aims at the emancipation of humanity by spreading the theory of the community of property and its speediest possible practical introduction.” A new formulation was chosen by the Second Congress of the Communist League: “The goals of the league are the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the annihilation of bourgeois society based on class antagonism, and the establishment of a new society without classes and without private property” (in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 524). Asked by the Second Congress to work out a program for the Communist League, Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto.

The overwhelming majority of the members of the Communist League were German apprentices, but the league also included members of the intelligentsia who were participating in the working-class movement, as well as a few industrial workers. The main strongholds of the Communist League were London, Paris, Brussels, and Switzerland. Approximately 30 communities, or sections (basic organizational units), operated illegally in Germany.

During the Revolution of 1848–49, Germany became the center of activity for the Communist League. The communists’ program for the German revolution was presented in “The Demands of the Communist Party in Germany,” a document written by Marx and Engels in 1848 and the first concrete application of the general principles of the Communist Manifesto to the specific characteristics of a particular country (the conditions of the German Revolution of 1848–49). Copies of this key party document, as well as the Communist Manifesto, were distributed to members of the Communist League when they departed for Germany. Because the league’s few members were scattered throughout Germany and had little contact with each other, the league was too weak to influence the masses during the German revolution, and it ceased to exist as a unified organization. However, its members were very active in the revolution, showing themselves to be the most consistent fighters for the unity and democratization of the country. The focal point for the activities of the communists, including Marx and Engels, was the newspaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which began publication in Cologne in June 1848. Headed by Marx, the editorial board virtually replaced the Central Committee of the Communist League. The communists used the newspaper to address appeals to the people to carry the revolution through to the end. In defining the tactical line of the Communist League, Marx and Engels sharply criticized A. Gottschalk’s “left” sectarian tactics and S. Born’s reformist position for distracting the workers from the basic issues of the revolution.

After the defeat of the revolution, almost all of the members of the Central Committee of the Communist League gathered in London and, under the leadership of Marx and Engels, took steps to reactivate the league. In early 1850 the Central Committee began publishing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Politisch-Ökonomische Revue, which became the theoretical organ of the Communist League. The league established contact with representatives of left-wing Chartism and with revolutionary French émigrés and participated in democratic organizations in Great Britain. The Central Committee elaborated the tactics of a proletarian party in the “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League,” which was written by Marx and Engels in March 1850. The future orientation of the league’s activity depended on the fulfillment of hopes for a revolutionary upswing. Marx and Engels concluded that another revolution was unlikely in the near future. Their sober understanding of the situation displeased many members of the Central Committee, including A. Willich and K. Schapper, who called for risky, unprincipled putsch tactics. A split took place at the Sept. 15, 1850, meeting. The majority of the Central Committee approved a decision to move from London to Cologne, but the Cologne Central Committee failed in its attempts to reactivate the Communist League in Germany. As a result of legal proceedings instigated by the Prussian government, the Communist League was dissolved. The announcement of its disbanding came on Nov. 17,1852, at Marx’ suggestion.

The Communist League was important in the history of the German and international working-class movement as a school for proletarian revolutionaries and as the first proletarian organization to base its activity on the principles of scientific communism. Thus, the league laid the foundation for linking scientific communism with the working-class movement. As the first form of the international unification of the proletariat, the Communist League was a forerunner of the First International.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoipartii. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. Obrashchenie Tsentral’nogo komiteta k Soiuzu kommunistov. Ibid., vol. 7.
Marx, K. Razoblacheniia o kel’nskom protsesse kommunistov. Ibid., vol. 8.
Engels, F. Kistorii Soiuza kommunistov. Ibid., vol. 21.
Kandel’, E. P. Marks i Engel’s—organizatory Soiuza kommunistov. Moscow, 1953.
Marks i Engel’s ipervyeproletarskie revoliutsionery. Moscow, 1961.
Soiuz kommunistov—predshestvennik I Internatsionala. Moscow, 1964.
Mikhailov, M. I. Istoriia Soiuza kommunistov. Moscow, 1968.
Leviova, S. Z. Marks v germanskoi revoliutsii 1848–1849 godov. Moscow, 1970.
Obermann, K. Zur Geschichte des Bundes der Kommunisten 1849–1852. Berlin, 1955.
Herrnstadt, R. Die erste Verschwörung gegen das internationale Proletariat. Berlin, 1958.
Förder, H. Marx und Engels am Vorabend der Revolution. Berlin, 1960.
Der Bund der Kommunisten: Dokumente und Materialen, vol. 1: 1836–49. Berlin, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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