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The Communist Manifesto | Main Ideas


Capitalism, Workers, and Class Struggle

The most significant ideas from The Communist Manifesto are Karl Marx's class analysis of society and critique of capitalist democracy. Indeed, for a work with Communist in the title, there is little written about what a communist society would look like or do. Instead, Marx focuses on the problems of bourgeois society, on bourgeois politics, and on the influence of class on every level of politics and history.

Perhaps the most significant insight, and one of the most frequently cited concepts, is that the "history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." It is hard to overstate how radical an insight this was at the time, and continues to be. For Marx, the problems of European politics and history, the failures of the revolutions, and the disappointments of Enlightenment ideals were explained by a single frame of analysis: class. The Enlightenment revolutions, such as the one in France in 1789, were not primarily about the ideas of liberalism; slogans such as "liberty, equality, and fraternity" from French revolutionaries were more about class. The ideals of the revolutionaries were merely expressions of class interests that helped facilitate the revolutionary overthrow of monarchical power, according to Marx. This insight, placing class over and above ideas or ideals, is one of Marx's most famous and most influential principles.

Marx also explores how class operates within capitalist societies. For him, an inevitable and permanent "antagonism" exists between classes in a capitalist society and forms a basic two-class model for the division of society. The bourgeoisie own the means of production and use their wealth and ownership to accumulate more capital, while the proletariat have only their labor to sell and are thus forced to rent themselves under threat of starvation. While the bourgeoisie seek to increase profits by cutting wages and making people work harder, the proletariat want to earn higher wages and can do so only through cutting into profits. This is the source of the class conflict in a capitalist society and an irreconcilable conflict that will end only with the overthrow of capitalism. Although The Communist Manifesto hints at other classes and at complications of this basic picture, those ideas are not explored. The reader is left with the broad outlines of class theory, with details obscured and questions unanswered about the scope, veracity, and explanatory power of the theory.

Historical Materialism

Another significant insight of Marxist theory is the notion of "historical materialism." This term does not appear in The Communist Manifesto, and Marx himself used "materialist conception of history" in his other writings. Nonetheless, historical materialism is the guiding framework for the pamphlet; Marx's short account of the rise of the bourgeoisie is a clear example of its application. For Marx, to understand the course of political and social history, one needs to understand the motor force of history: class and economics. Marx argues that although ideas, ideology, and politics often appear to be major factors, they in fact reflect only the material conditions whose changes are what fundamentally drive history. For example, the "bourgeois revolutions" of the 18th century, Marx argues, were actually class revolutions that brought the new bourgeois class to power, rather than revolutions driven by the new egalitarian ideas of the Enlightenment. Marx further states that these ideas are merely a reflection of class interests. That is, ideas do not self-generate, replicate, and propagate according to some internal logic of the ideas themselves; rather, they are based on their relationship to material interests (specifically class interests) and the larger material constitution of society. In fact, Marx affirms that "the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class."

Related to this notion is Marx's concept of "base and superstructure" to explain social phenomena and social change. Marx believed material, or economic, factors at the base of society shape and determine the "superstructure" at the top, such as ideology, culture, and law. For Marx, this was a "scientific" insight. In some of his writings it resembles a deterministic relationship in which the material base defines and determines the ideological superstructure. In fact, culture and ideas also shape the base, giving a particular form or limit on how the economic structure functions. Thus, it is more accurate to say there is a codeterminative relationship between base and superstructure. Yet for Marx, the relationship looks more one-directional: the base is what matters in finding explanations for the course of history.

Proletarian Revolution, Communism, and Role of the State

Much of Marx's work takes the form of critique, challenging the assumptions and reality of capitalism; The Communist Manifesto is no exception. However, in The Manifesto, Marx does put forward some notions of a positive program of what communism would look like and how to achieve it. Central to that vision is the notion of the proletarian revolution, a climactic struggle to seize the means of production, nationalize capital, and create a working-class government. Here, Marxist notions of the state are crucial to understanding this vision.

For Marx and subsequent Marxists, the state is an implement of class power, or "class violence" in his language. Under capitalism its function is to support and defend the interests of property and capital, the bourgeoisie, and not much more. So when it comes to bringing about communism, it is hard for Marx and others to see how the bourgeois state could be used successfully to construct an egalitarian order; therefore, violent revolution against the state is necessary. However, other formulations in The Communist Manifesto contradict this idea. For example, in the final section, Marx has communist parties participating in bourgeois parliamentary elections, and it is not clear how these strategies coalesce. Furthermore, because Marx sees the state as a neutral implement of class power, workers could construct a "workers' state." This would simply implement the egalitarian interests of the proletariat and gradually lead to a communist society. However, Marx and the Marxist tradition have taken significant criticism for an underdeveloped theory of the state. These critics argue that rather than a neutral class implement, the state is its own source of power, with its own objectives that can be at odds with the "ruling class," whether bourgeois or proletarian. Thus, many have questioned the state-centered vision of revolution and a communist society, and Marx provides few answers to these critiques.

And what about communism? Marx has little to say. The Communist Manifesto does spell out some specific policies communists would take should they win state power (whether through electoral or revolutionary means is unclear). These include steps such as nationalizing capital in public banks, centralizing the control of transit and communication, and redistributing rents. But this is hardly a vision of the free and egalitarian society promised by communism. How to get there from these admittedly incremental steps? The Manifesto leaves these questions unanswered.

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