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...
(The entire section is 1,561 words.)