The Communist Manifesto | Study Guide

Karl Marx

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The Communist Manifesto | Context


The 19th century was a tumultuous time, and the publication of The Communist Manifesto in the middle of the century speaks to this general upheaval. In particular, three social contexts are important to understand The Manifesto: the growth of industrial capitalism and the limitations of 18th-century Enlightenment-era revolutions that took place during a period of intellectual upheaval, the birth of workers' movements for socialism and reform, and the intellectual history of European philosophy.

Industrialization and Inequality in the Modern Era

By the time The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, the impact of the industrial revolution on workers and wage earners was clear. The development of a German railroad system had created new demand for steel and coal, which in turn increased production of these commodities. Numerous works of literature, philosophy, and social science addressed the harmful effects of factory production on workers and the negative health and social effects of poverty and social disempowerment. For example, the account of workers' living standards published by Friedrich Engels (Karl Marx's collaborator) in 1844, titled The Condition of the Working Class in England, shows how the industrial revolution worsened rather than improved the social conditions of England's working poor. Engels focused on increased disease and mortality rates, lower incomes, and poor living conditions. These circumstances found a literary outlet in the works of authors such as British novelist Charles Dickens, who wrote about poverty and the effects of industrialization. Known as the "social question," these problems left many wondering why workers were still so poor when industrial capitalism was producing great wealth and material richness.

Another complication arose from the nature of modern political democracies. These poor economic conditions came on the heels of the era of European revolutions, especially in France, which were founded on notions of universal emancipation and universal political rights. Yet by the mid-19th century, the promises of the revolutions had not improved the conditions of the populace, and further revolutions spread throughout Europe. As many social philosophers and thinkers sought to understand what was happening and why, The Communist Manifesto and other writings offered a bold and, in some ways, compelling interpretation.

Marx's answer to these conundrums was that both the process of industrialism and the failures of the revolutions stemmed from class divisions within society. According to Marx, the revolutions in Europe were "bourgeois revolutions." They benefited the rich who fought to gain political power over the remains of feudalism, the system in which aristocrats profited from the labor of peasants in exchange for military protection.

This political power did not trickle down to the poor, who now were facing deteriorating conditions and worsening exploitation under industrial capitalism. Therefore, Marx argued that industrialization, too, was a class phenomenon. Wealth went to the top, while the workers, not the owners, actually produced the wealth. In this analysis, Marx was trying to give a new revolutionary interpretation to the major political and economic issues of the day.

Mid-century Socialism in the Age of Revolutions

Marx was not alone in the quest to find answers to the biggest social questions. Indeed, workers also were asking these questions and seeking answers. For many the answers lay in reform movements, such as limiting the workday to 10 hours, or extending voting rights beyond property qualifications to enable workers to vote or run for office in bourgeois governments. However, others saw these essentially political solutions as unsatisfactory because they ignored the fundamental source of workers' problems: capitalism. A critique of capitalist relations of production, of property, of market exchange, and of worker exploitation came from many quarters, and vibrant anticapitalist workers' movements began. At the core of these movements was socialism, the idea that workers should democratically control the processes of industrial manufacture and capitalist wealth-creation rather than be controlled by it. Some key insights of the growing movement were the following:

  • All wealth was generated by workers; therefore, profits for owners were a form of exploitation.
  • Private property, especially ownership of factories and means of production, was a kind of unjustified rent that should be abolished.
  • Wages were exploitative and should likely be abolished.

Marx took these ideas, among others, and brought them together to help solidify the core of socialist philosophy. He also added some notions of his own, which have since become core socialist tenets.

More than asking questions and developing ideas, workers also began to take action. Through organizing unions, reform movements, street protests, riots, and rebellions, workers demonstrated their opposition to the emerging order of capitalist society. Some sought immediate redress, whereas others advocated transformational or revolutionary change. Occasionally, these outbursts would take on revolutionary dimensions as they did in 1848, when a wave of revolutionary movements swept Europe, toppled monarchies, and sought greater democratic reforms. In France, the revolution deposed reigning monarch Louis Philippe I, leading the way to the establishment of the Second Republic. Revolutionary movements swept through other countries as well, including Italy, the German states and Berlin, and Denmark. In this climate, it is not hard to see how Marx and others would have believed that the success of a revolutionary workers' movement was inevitable.

During this time, democratic, liberal, workers', and revolutionary movements all faced severe state repression, forcing many to go underground. Marx and others faced exile, trials, and jail time for their activities and associations with revolutionary groups. One such underground group was the League of the Just, a socialist revolutionary organization that held clandestine meetings and issued publications and whose members were Marx's comrades and allies. This group, along with others, decided to become a public political party so it could organize on a mass scale. The result was the new Communist League, the group that tasked Marx with drafting its manifesto: the open, widely distributed statement explaining the League's politics and ideas. Chief among these, in addition to opposition to bourgeois society as laid out in the document, was the call for a worldwide workers' revolution to end private property and nationalize capital. The political, economic, and social goals of the Communist League were among the most radical and systematic of the socialists'.

Enlightenment Philosophy and Hegelianism

In addition to his revolutionary proclivities and activism in workers' movements, Marx was above all a philosopher and a product of the Enlightenment, the intellectual and cultural movement that championed reason and scientific inquiry over religious faith. The traditions of Enlightenment political philosophy and that of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel weigh heavily on his ideas. But Marx was also a sharp critic of both the Enlightenment and Hegelianism, rejecting central tenets of both traditions while striving to develop a philosophy more suited for the modern world.

For Marx, the Enlightenment principles that gave rise to the revolutions of the 18th century were little more than class interests masked as universal principles. Therefore, when revolutionaries in France or the United States called for free speech or universal rights, Marx argued these rights merely served their class interests in the struggle against monarchy and autocratic governments. Revolutionaries wanted these rights because they allowed greater maneuverability in their efforts to establish trade, develop manufacturing, and ultimately seize political power for themselves. To gain such power, they needed to seize the state and transform it to serve their interests; to enable them to do so meant limiting the power of the state to interfere in their private affairs, particularly with business and property. Marx was thus ready to condemn all rights as "bourgeois rights," reflecting values of bourgeois society—values including the exploitation and dehumanization of the working class. Indeed, for Marx much of society was shaped and defined by class, and although Enlightenment principles might seem like noble ideals, they in fact hid an uglier reality.

The leading philosophical figure in the formative period of Marx's youth was Hegel, an eclectic philosopher who developed his ideas in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the ascendency of Enlightenment principles. In many ways he sought to explain the revolutions, both in ideals and in politics, through what he called a dialectic synthesis of the countervailing "spirit" of the age. In short, Hegel argued that each moment and every thing contains both itself and its opposite (its thesis and antithesis) and that times of revolutionary transformation results from the synthesis of these two contrasting features, which makes something new.

This was Hegel's dialectic, a term describing a method of philosophical argument that includes a dialogue presenting opposing viewpoints. Marx saw potential insight to be gleaned from the dialectic method of argument. In particular, Marx took the dialectic and applied it to the history of revolutions in Europe. According to Marx, the feudal order (the thesis) produced its own antithesis (revolutionary bourgeois class) that then produced a synthesis of old and new in capitalism and "bourgeois society." Where Marx differed with Hegel was in understanding the motor force of these changes. For Hegel, the history of change was ultimately a reflection of the "spirit," or idealized form, of any particular moment or thing. Marx found this idea too abstract; wanting a more concrete answer, he saw class, or economic and material forces, as the ultimate driver of history.

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