The Communist Manifesto

by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx

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What is the central conflict in Marx's interpretation of history in The Communist Manifesto?

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The conflict at the center of Marx's interpretation of history is that one between the upper and lower classes, or between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Marx asserted that all history was characterized by class struggles. History was formed by clashes between classes and the inequalities that sprung from this lack of parity.

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In Marx, the central and ironclad struggle of history is between the two classes, upper and lower. The great mass of the population is the lower class and a tiny percentage of the people are upper class. As of the nineteenth century, the time Marx was writing, the two classes locked in combat were the proletariat (or working class) and the bourgeoisie or owners of large industries. The industrial bourgeoisie ripped away the veneer of gentility and mutual obligation that characterized class relationships in the feudal period. The bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century were out to ruthlessly grind every bit of profit possible from the proletariat. They had no sense of obligation towards them. The bourgeoisie also weaponized ideology, mystifying reality so that it seemed that the way classes were structured was inevitable.

Communism is now tearing that veil away, Marx says. Through the manifesto, he is informing the proletariat that they need to rise up. Once the working class realizes how much power it has and uses it, it can overthrow the tiny bourgeois class and take ownership of industry. When it does so, it will begin benefitting from the profits that until now have flowed into the hands of the upper classes. These profits rightly belong to the working classes, but the bourgeoisie robs them of the benefits they deserve.

Marx, in this manifesto, calls out to working people of all countries to unite and throw off their chains.

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Marx understood history through the lens of class struggle, but at the same time, it should be noted, that for Marx, history unfolds in stages, and that each stage is shaped by the conflict between the dominant class and the underclass opposing it. Through these confrontations, the economic, political and social structures of society are transformed and rearranged, and thus history evolves from one stage into the next.

Marx argues that, in ancient and feudal societies, the structure was diverse, divided as it was into many different parts. We see this with the feudal structure, and the distinction between town and manor, between the different gradations within the nobility or in the guilds, etc. But with the impact of things like colonization, and the Industrial Revolution, the class system has been reshaped, with the bourgeoisie rising into political and economic prominence, and the basic structure of society coalescing more and more into one defined by the distinction between capitalists (bourgeoisie) and workers (proletariat). The struggle between these two is, for Marx, the defining characteristic of the Industrial Age, and it is only when the workers overthrow the capitalists that this cycle of class conflict can be ended.

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Marx (and Engels) declare, in the opening statement in the section "Bourgeois and Proletarians," that the history of all past societies "is the history of class struggles." Development, evolutions, progress, and even revolutions have all been caused by class conflicts. Marx describes how societies have all been divided into classes, more generally a division between "oppressor and oppressed." The class struggles in history are also economic struggles, conflicts between those who have money and those who do not ("the haves and the have nots"). Since politics always plays a role in the distribution of money and capital (from aristocracies to state governments to global capitalism), the class conflict is inherently linked to political power as well as economic systems and any inequality therein. 

In earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various new orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations. 

Marx then discusses how, in his era, class conflict is essentially becoming a struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, that is to say the oppressors and the oppressed. The bourgeoisie or owning class owns the means of production (the money, capital, machinery, factories) and the proletariat (working class) own nothing other than their own bodies, which means that the only way they can make money is to literally sell themselves: sell their labor value. The bourgeoisie (capitalists) keep the profits they make and keep the proletariat at wages low enough that they (proletariat) can never rise from their position. Marx and Engels predicted that this inequality would worsen and would eventually lead to a proletariat revolution. Just as the bourgeoisie staged their own economic revolution, Marx and Engels predicted that the proletariat, having nothing to lose, would stage a more overt revolution. This is noted famously at the end of the text: 

Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. 

                                             WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE! 

For Marx, history has been made by one class dominating the others. His prediction was that the working class, proletarians, would continue this trend of evolutions and revolutions amongst classes. However, he foresaw or hoped that the proletarians would take control of the means of production in efforts of establishing equality for all and for all to share the wealth of any profits of labor. 

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