Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1561
The Communist Manifesto is a masterpiece of political pamphleteering—a work intended to inspire people to action, even revolutionary action. It builds upon descriptions of true social evils and offers a simple diagnosis and simple, if violent, remedies. In conjunction with Karl Marx’s subsequent writings, notably Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894; Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1886, 1907, 1909; better known as Das Kapital), it has inspired millions of people. Its rhetorical language is magnificent—if overblown and often misleading.
“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.” With this striking opening sentence, the manifesto connects with the incipient radical movement that inspired it. Marx and Friedrich Engels had participated in 1847 in the first international Congress of the League of the Just, which then changed its name to the Communist League. Marx and Engels were commissioned to prepare a statement of the aims and purposes of the movement, which became the manifesto. Within weeks, a series of revolutions had broken out in several European countries, but the Communist League was only a minor element in these developments.
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” This sentence, which begins the substantive part of the manifesto, is at the heart of Marxist doctrine. According to the authors, society is becoming polarized into the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat.” From its linguistic origins, the bourgeoisie are simply people who live in towns and cities. Marx and Engels co-opted this term and redefined it to mean “the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage-labor.” The bourgeoisie at the time was itself a revolutionary class, having staged successful revolutions against the aristocracy at the end of the last century in the United States and France.
In 1848, there were very few large manufacturing enterprises using mass production, such as cotton textile production and iron making. The owners of businesses were typically the managers as well. The other class, the proletariat, was “the class of modern wage-laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor-power in order to live.”
The audacity of Marx and Engels is clear from the fact that, in 1848, most people—even in Great Britain—did not fall into either of these two categories. The largest number were farmers, and there were large numbers in trade and service industries, including domestic servants. The manifesto brilliantly anticipated the advance of mechanized mass production, but that advance never went as far as Marx and Engels imagined. In many parts of Europe, wealthy landowners were still the politically dominant class. Nevertheless, antagonism between employers and workers was widespread.
Marx and Engels paid tribute to the economic and political impact of the bourgeoisie, which has played a revolutionary role, disrupting the business world with innovations such as steamships, railroads, and spinning and weaving machinery. The bourgeoisie has weakened the power of national boundaries, creating a world market and popularizing the notion of international free trade. The manifesto pays tribute to the fact that “the bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” However, the process has been grossly unfair, characterized by brutal exploitation.
According to the manifesto, bourgeois society has reached the point where it is threatened by internal contradictions. Notable among these are the tendency toward periodic commercial crises—“an epidemic of over-production.” Furthermore, mass production creates large masses of workers assembled in one place, readily able to communicate with one another and thus to organize. Work becomes simple and monotonous. Wages cannot rise above the level of bare subsistence. Working hours and work intensity are steadily increased. Large numbers of the middle class, including peasants, shopkeepers, and handicrafts makers, are forced into the proletariat because they cannot compete with modern technology and organization.
Marx and Engels predicted that economic evolution would intensify conflicts until “war breaks out into open revolution, and . . . the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.” Strictly speaking, the manifesto is merely predicting revolution, but to many readers it was urging that it come about. According to the manifesto, the principal goals of the Communists are helping the proletariat achieve power and abolishing private property.
Once in power, the proletariat will use “despotic” means to take control of all capital under the central control of the state. Their goal will be to achieve rapid economic growth. More specifically, Marx and Engels predict or advocate abolishing private property in land and establishing central control of credit, as well as the means of communication and transportation. Public education will be free and universal. There will be “equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.”
The distinction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat lies in the ownership of the means of production by the former. When the proletariat has successfully abolished private property, the basis for class division will disappear. Since the state is an organization devoted to promoting the interests of the ruling class, it too will disappear.
The final sections of the manifesto indulge the authors’ propensity to denounce rival intellectuals, especially “utopian socialists.” The essay closes by affirming that communists’ “ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. . . . The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”
In his subsequent writings, Marx attempted to build an analytical foundation for the ideas in the manifesto. This included his labor theory of value, according to which labor is the source of all commodity value. Capitalists extract surplus value from commodities, keeping it for themselves, and pay the laborers who generate the value only a subsistence wage (this process of surplus value extraction is known as exploitation). Marx’s concept of “surplus value” implied that property incomes served no useful function and were unjust—thus they could and should be abolished. The Communist Manifesto does not use the term “capitalism,” nor does it refer explicitly to a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” These terms appear in later writings.
It is not easy to determine how much responsibility Marx and Engels bear for the mass murders and other disasters associated with such self-proclaimed followers as Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, and Pol Pot. In later years, Marx and Engels conceded that the working class could achieve its goals by peaceful means. Moreover, many of those supposed followers were attempting to establish communism in nations that had never experienced capitalism. This, according to Marx, would be impossible: Marx believed that capitalism is a necessary stage in world history, because it is the only economic system capable of producing the sheer abundance of goods necessary for communism to succeed.
Nonetheless, would-be revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin and Mao found the early ideas of Marx and Engels useful. Nominally communist regimes followed many of the specific programmatic suggestions in the manifesto. They sought a high rate of investment and economic growth. They used “despotic means” to seize control of productive property. They imposed central control of the media of communication, monopolizing newspapers, radio, television, and publishing in order to promote thought control and suppress political or intellectual opposition. Communist regimes relied extensively on forced labor to punish dissidents. Emphasis on revolution rationalized the Soviet seizure of Eastern Europe and the attempts to spread murderous dictatorship into South Korea. Most destructive was the emphasis by Marx and Engels on the evils of the bourgeoisie, inspiring campaigns of mass murder against “kulaks,” “capitalist roaders,” and the like.
Almost every substantive economic prediction advanced by Marx and Engels has failed to come about. The process of capitalist economic development brought about steady improvement in the incomes and working conditions of the working class, who have generally not revolted in capitalist societies. Meanwhile, the communist states instituted in precapitalist, feudal, or agrarian societies, such as Soviet Russia and China, have predictably failed, as communism without capitalist-produced surplus generated inefficiency and injustice. Marx and Engels were never able to understand agrarian societies; they spoke of “the idiocy of rural life.” Their theory would hardly have predicted that discontented peasants would provide most of the muscle for the revolutions in Russia and China.
For many intellectuals, the most appealing feature of The Communist Manifesto has been its emphasis on social class and class conflict. However, polarization into two opposing classes did not occur—quite the contrary. Most people in developed economies identify as middle class, neither capitalists nor proletarians. Marx believed that the bourgeois ideology driving this sort of identification was doomed to self-destruct in the near future. The fact that it has only strengthened demonstrates either his incorrectness about class consciousness or his underestimation of the power of ideology. Social classes arise from many sources, moreover, including ethnic identity, religious affiliation, education, and occupation. Few people identify as a worker first and a member of a nation or religion or ethnic group second.
Many editions of The Communist Manifesto contain useful commentaries. The Centennial edition (1959) contains contemporary and subsequent prefaces by Marx and Engels, as well as fascinating prefaces by American communist Arnold Petersen. The Modern Library edition (“Capital,” “The Communist Manifesto,” and other writings by Karl Marx, 1932) has a valuable introduction by editor Max Eastman and an essay on Marxism by Lenin.
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