Canonized by the Penguin Classics imprint, the latest edition of the Communist Manifesto is dwarfed by a 185-page introduction, described by its author as ‘an excavation of the intellectual antecedents of Marxist thought’. Serious archaeology on such a scale is to be welcomed, although the forty-odd pages of the Manifesto may seem a slender basis from which to mount such an exercise; and indeed, Stedman Jones here shows little interest in the text itself. Though praising the invocation of capitalism’s prodigious revolutionizing and universalizing powers in the first section, ‘Bourgeoisie and Proletarians’, he sees a descent into bathos in the second, ‘Proletarians and Communists’, which advocates the overthrow of capitalist property relations, the abolition of the bourgeois family, the end of the ‘exploitation of one nation by another’ and the ‘radical rupture with traditional ideas’. The third part, ‘Socialist and Communist Literature’, is ‘arbitrary and sectarian’, while the fourth, outlining the communists’ position in relation to existing opposition parties, is ‘hurriedly jotted’ and ‘unfinished’.

Instead, the importance of the Manifesto in Stedman Jones’s reading is rather that it epitomizes Marxism’s fundamental error: the break away from an explicit humanism towards a materialist and determinist analysis. The structure of the argument is an inverted skeleton of Althusser’s: the mistake of Marx and Engels was to decry all former religious and ethical influences and to deny ideas a role in history; but this departure from humanism was fundamentally an exercise in self-deception. Their hostility to Stirner’s Romantic individualism—also pivotal for Althusser—isolated them from these healthy currents, and they could only attempt to sneak in their normative humanist commitments via a set of increasingly elaborate evasions and erasures. ‘In the drafting of the Manifesto, any reference to these ideas . . . disappeared’; yet, as an inspiration to political action, it continued to draw, illicitly, on this ethical and religious background. Despite its secular façade, Marxism is to be categorized as an ‘organized post-Christian religion’.

The substance of the case for this reading of the Manifesto is argued in the form of a genealogy, with the religious element in each current of thought brought into the foreground. Over the course of the text this method results in a slightly disorientating staccato effect, as each section brings the reader up to the point of publication in 1848, before tracking back to the next tributary. The reader is presented, therefore, with the repeated discovery of a ‘new’ religious lineage: the polemical effect is to discourage any chronological construction of intellectual history; including, perhaps especially, the secularizing narrative of the Manifesto itself. The traditional view that Marxism emerged out of a tripartite meeting of French socialism, German philosophy and British political economy is reworked: the religious influences within the first two, not yet exorcized by the time of the Manifesto, are deceptively cloaked by Marx and Engels in the language of social progress and political economy. The German Historical School of Law provides a fourth strand, offering a historicized conception of property regimes and examples of different forms of common ownership. The abolition of private property under communism is grounded, interestingly, in the notion of ‘negative community’.

Stedman Jones traces the use of the term ‘communist’ to the radical French republican clubs—the Société des Droits de l’Homme, in particular—that emerged during the July Revolution, drawing explicitly on Jacobin and Babeuvist traditions. Faced with repression, some—such as Blanqui’s Société des Saisons—went underground, while others became open advocates of a reworked ‘communism’, as an ‘ostensibly peaceful and apolitical surrogate for the forbidden idea of an egalitarian republic’: notably, Cabet in his Voyage to Icaria. German communism, in contrast, was formulated in exile, as the economic depression of the 1830s and 40s drove artisans to Paris, London, Brussels, Zurich or Geneva. In 1840 Karl Schapper, Joseph Moll and five others established the London-based German Workers’ Educational Association, which would provide an important component of the Communist League that, in 1847, commissioned the Manifesto.

In the face of what he perceives as the received account, attributed to Engels—that the ‘artisan communism’ of the League had little influence on the Manifesto—Stedman Jones is keen to highlight the debates that took place there. He argues that all these groups were influenced by a revived Christian radicalism in 1830s France, and particularly by the works of Lamennais: ‘the impact of these books on the European mainland can probably only be compared with that once made by Tom Paine in the English-speaking world’. There were a series of debates on these issues within the League, partly in response to the atheist influences of Owenism and Young Hegelianism. Cabet’s proposals for communist settlements were eventually rejected, as was Weitling’s call, traced here to Lamennais, for violent revolution: both were deemed premature. By 1846, when the headquarters of the League moved to London, Schapper had argued for a separation of religious and political questions, and insisted, in a clear precursor to the prescriptions of the Manifesto, that ‘communism should above all enable the free self-development of individuals’. As the artisans’ networks splintered between Weitling, Cabet and Proudhon, the London-based leadership invited Marx and Engels to meet them in 1847 as part of an effort ‘to draw into the League other elements of the Communist movement’.

The influences of Young Hegelianism on Marxist thought, discussed at length by Marx and Engels themselves, constitute perhaps the most widely explored element of their intellectual background. Stedman Jones’s account carefully follows the evolution of the group, from the publications of David Strauss and Arnold Ruge on the ‘rationalization’ of Christianity, through Bruno Bauer’s deconstruction of the historical claims of the Gospels and his expulsion from Bonn. He documents Marx’s move from academia to the Rheinische Zeitung, and finally Marx and Engels’s collective response to Feuerbach and Stirner’s work. Stedman Jones is keen to stress the extent to which the teleological nature of Hegel’s system—its most ‘obviously vulnerable metaphysical assumption’—is retained in Marx and Engels’s thinking. The concept of alienated labour, as opposed to Feuerbach’s ‘species being’, leads to a historicization of their account of alienation and emancipation; but this historical process is argued to be ‘no less purposive than that found in Hegel’—and indeed, ‘scarcely less indebted to its ancestry in Protestant thought’. Within the history of property regimes and their effects there still lurked the ‘true natural history of man’, merely cloaked in the ‘scientific and economic-sounding relationship between the forces and relations of production’.

Stedman Jones is surely overpitching his case when he describes Marx and Engels’s reaction to Stirner’s 1844 critique, The Ego and Its Own, as ‘thermo-nuclear’, with commensurate ‘collateral damage’. Stirner had argued that Feuerbach’s attempt to reclaim the attributes of God for Man did not succeed in reattributing them to human individuals, but merely shifted them to another ideal construct: the ‘essence of Man’. Just like the Protestant God, this idealized notion—fundamentally derived from ‘the tearing apart of Man into natural impulse and conscience’—also stood above men as their ‘vocation’. Marx is explicitly identified by Stirner with the demand that ‘I become a real generic Man’. His response, according to Stedman Jones, ‘was to divest all ideas of any autonomous role whatsoever’ in The German Ideology: ‘morality, religion, metaphysics and all the rest of ideology as well as the forms of consciousness corresponding to these . . . no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development.’ (Here as elsewhere, Stedman Jones permits himself broad licence in the truncation and repunctuation of quotations; a definitive full-stop replaces Marx’s semi-colon, and the famous peroration that follows: ‘but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their actual world, also their thinking and the products of their thinking. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.’)