Before we examine the key elements of a manifesto, it might be helpful to learn more about the form and where it originated. Etymology.com explains that common usage of the English word “manifesto” dates back to the 1640’s, when it was borrowed from the Italian language. At that time, a manifesto referred to a “public declaration explaining past actions and announcing the motive for forthcoming ones.”
With the invention of the printing press in 1440 and the rise of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Europe experienced a fertile period for religious papers, books, and essays. Dating from the 1610’s, the term “manifesto” began to spread outside Italy. For instance, the three Rosicrucian Manifestos espoused a religious and political ideology encouraging hermeticism, and it was first published in Germany. In 1619, with the English translation of Paolo Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent, English-speaking audiences most likely encountered the word “manifesto” for the first time.
Over time, manifestos have evolved in style, but they’ve maintained their function as a formal mission statement, announcing the motivations of a group. The Encyclopædia Brittanica describes the manifesto, explaining, “While it can address any topic, it most often concerns art, literature, or politics. Manifestos are generally written in the name of a group sharing a common perspective, ideology, or purpose rather than in the name of a single individual.” No matter the topic, the objective of a manifesto remains the same. Manifesto writers must explain their core values and point of view, while attempting to persuade others to join their cause.
Let’s look at some examples of manifestos to see how this form evolved over the course of five centuries. At the same time, we’ll give you advice to help you create a manifesto of your own.
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The enlightenment philosophers, including Thomas Paine, John Locke, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, and David Hume, wrote philosophical theory throughout the 1700’s. The works they created, ranging from essays to books, did not explicitly use the word “manifesto”; however, they all advocated a new way of thinking that promoted individual liberty, freedom of expression, and the separation of church and state. Like other manifestos that would follow, enlightenment texts introduced radical new ideas, using forceful, clear language. The philosophy and economic theory of the enlightenment ushered in a period of social unrest and political disruption. Most notably, these philosophers inspired the creation of liberal democracies and provided the foundational ideas for the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen.
Notice how, compared to other writing from the time period, Immanuel Kant omitted complicated words and ideas in his essay. Instead, he favored language that would inspire action:
“This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom—and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: “Do not argue!” The officer says: “Do not argue—drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue—pay!” The pastor: “Do not argue—believe!”…I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.” —Immanuel Kant, What Is Enlightenment?, 1784
In what is probably the most famous manifesto of all time, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels presented their theory of society. In it, they followed in the footsteps of older religious and political philosophies by using persuasive and straightforward language. Unlike previous manifestos, they set out to reframe the reader’s understanding of world history. From a starting point in ancient Rome, the authors told the familiar story of European history, presenting it as a battle between the rich and the poor. Other philosophers, such as Rousseau, had written about the evolution of humankind. Yet, no one before Marx and Engels had reexamined time-bound events from the perspective of class warfare.
In part, their manifesto probably gained followers because each reader could bring his or her own relevant experience to mind when imagining the struggles between the rich and the poor. Whether you agree or disagree with the political and economic recommendations in The Communist Manifesto, you can probably acknowledge that the authors managed to state their case with urgency. They claimed that, without violent opposition to the status quo, the condition of the poor would never change. Marx and Engels argued that the inequality between social classes was long-standing, intractable, and doomed to continue—unless the reader took action.
“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” —Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848
Make It Passionate (And Use the Word Manifesto)
Starting in 1909, fervent writers penned anti-establishment manifestos on new topics. Visual art, architecture, poetry, and theater all seemed ripe fields for dismantling. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti led the charge, giving the avant-garde a voice in The Futurist Manifesto. Julian Hanna, writing for The Atlantic, explains, “The manifesto appeared as a paid advertisement on the front page of Le Figaro; the next morning it was birdcage liner for most of its readers.” Like the Dada Manifestoand the Vorticist manifestos that came shortly after, The Futurist Manifesto was time-bound and gave instructions for how to be thoroughly modern.
In the Dada Manifesto, Tristan Tzara wrote, “To put out a manifesto you must want: ABC / to fulminate against 1, 2, 3 / to fly into a rage and sharpen your wings…” Mostly, the artistic manifestos of this period have a playful, lyrical quality, even as the authors flirted with fascism and nihilism. As an artist, you could write your personal manifesto, so long as you had something outrageous to say. Moreover, nothing cemented the friendship of a few literature majors at the students’ union or a group of painters at a favorite cafe quite like the act of laying down a manifesto on paper.
“The oldest among us are not yet thirty, and yet we have already wasted treasures, treasures of strength, love, courage and keen will, hastily, deliriously, without thinking, with all our might, till we are out of breath.” —Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909
Recent Trends in Manifesto Writing
After a rash of artistic manifestos in the early 20th century, the 1960’s and 70’s proved fertile ground for a return to radical politics. For example, feminists and civil rights activists published texts reexamining history through the lens of their own experiences. These adhered to the model of traditional political manifestos, and sometimes employed structural elements like numbered tenets and repetition to facilitate easier reading and make the writing style accessible to a larger audience.
The 21st century has seen the emergence of manifestos that seem explicitly self-serving. From election manifestos to corporate manifestos, these function more as “mission statements” or “position statements,” rather than radical doctrines. If you’re writing a manifesto for a corporation or a candidate, you’ll want to spell-check and ensure proper proofreading. The freeform language and deconstructed form of a surrealist manifesto won’t work nearly as well when your cause du jour is a mid-size luxury sedan.
We’ll leave you with this top tip—make sure that the form of your manifesto follows its function. Writing a manifesto for distribution in an email newsletter? Try making it a top-ten list. Penning an angry manifesto about the decline of modern theater? Lay it down in the form of dialogue. Perhaps that’s the most wonderful (and freeing) part of composing a manifesto. As long as you have something important to say, there are no strict rules you must follow. In fact, the one rule of manifesto writing is this: you probably should be willing to break a few rules in order to write one.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.