The Communist Manifesto

by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx

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What is The Communist Manifesto?

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The Communist Manifesto is a political document written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. The pamphlet summarizes the theories and goals of Communism. In it, Marx and Engels explain how historical development is rooted in class struggle. They argue that the current unequal social structure will eventually lead to working-class revolts and be replaced by Communism.

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The 1800s was a time of rapid industrial and economic development. People like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels reflected on this and sought to explain how there was such a large class of poor working people in the middle of all of this economic growth. Their theories and writings led to the creation of a group of workers called the Communist League. The league chose Marx and Engels to write a document in 1848 that encapsulated their beliefs about society. This document was The Communist Manifesto.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explain how the basis of their industrialized society (a distinctly capitalist society, although the Manifesto does not specifically state that) is class struggle. In other words, the social structure could not exist without social inequality. In the Manifesto, they refer to people who belong to the ruling class as the “bourgeoisie” and people who are wage laborers as the “proletariat.” Marx and Engels explain that the strained relationship between classes and between people and the means of production will eventually lead to revolution. Marx thought that this was because materialism made workers become alienated from themselves.

Ultimately, the main point of the document was to encourage workers to unite against the socioeconomic structure that works against them. The thinking was that under Communism, a system in which the people own the means of production, this cycle of social struggle will end.

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The Communist Manifesto was a relatively short document that was meant to be a statement of the beliefs of the Communist League, which was a multinational political movement (albeit a small one) in Europe in the 1840s.  In this document, Marx and Engels lay out their vision of what the communist party was attempting to do.  This was, in essence, a catechism of what the communists believed.

In the manifesto, the authors lay out their understanding of history and society.  They show how history is (again, this is in their minds) a history of the struggle between classes.  They show how the capitalist system that is just rising to its full strength in Europe is based on the exploitation of the workers.  They then argue that capitalism will inevitably be replaced by socialism and then by communism.

Thus, The Communist Manifesto is the statement of the political beliefs of a group of European communists in the 1840s.  It became one of the most influential statements of political and social beliefs in the history of the world.

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What is the thesis of The Communist Manifesto?

The main thesis of Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto is that for too long, common workers of the world (the proletariat) have been exploited by manufacturers (the bourgeoisie), and the time has come to change the situation. Because the manufacturers control the means of production, laborers and craftsmen will continue to suffer privations for the benefit of their oppressors. Also central to the Manifesto is the concept of private property, about which Marx writes, “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”

In addition, though it is not directly related to the main thesis, Marx believes that “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” What makes Marx think victory is inevitable? For one thing, there are more proletariat than bourgeoisie, and the justification for their grievances rises in tandem.

But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more. The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labor, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level.

There is much bellicose language in the Manifesto. Consider the passage below, in which Marx discusses the goals of the movement.

The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.

The Manifesto ends with a sonorous call to action, but for all its eloquence and empowerment, it is similarly laced with menace.

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Marx famously ends the Manifesto saying “Workers of the world, unite!” but it’s what he does not exhort the workers to do that speaks volumes—namely, to grab their weapons while they are uniting.

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