Karl Marx, who was never given to undue pessimism about his place in world history, once remarked: “No credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them.… What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

The observation occurs in a letter dated 1852. The magnum opus on Capital (1867) still lay in the future. But The Communist Manifesto (1848) and sundry other writings had already diagnosed the world’s ills, sketched out a utopia, and pointed the way to achieve it.

Perhaps the first thing that strikes the modern reader about these writings is the quaint combination of prophetic panache, cocksureness, and wordy Victorian pedantry. But running through all is a profound moral earnestness and righteous indignation. And this, together with the fact that Marxism has become a major world faith—perhaps the only one of modern origin—compels attention.

The opening words of The Communist Manifesto proclaim: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The book goes on to explain that the modern epoch is characterized by the splitting of society into “two great hostile camps”: the bourgeoisie (the class, according to Engels’s notes, of “modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labor”) and the proletariat (“the class of modern wage-laborers who, having no means of production of their own, ...

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