The Communist Manifesto | Study Guide

Karl Marx

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The Communist Manifesto | Summary



The Communist Manifesto was written to promote the Communist League, a revolutionary communist party based mostly in Germany and England in the mid-19th century. The Manifesto, however, is much more than a political party platform; Karl Marx uses it as an opportunity to develop his theories about the nature of capitalist society and as a startling call for a revolutionary movement to overthrow the bourgeois order.


With the specter of communism "haunting Europe," and entrenched powers of "old Europe" trying to downplay or eliminate the communistic threat, it is time for members of the Communist League to unite and make their views known. The manifesto, sketched out by an international group of communists at a meeting in London, is to be published in major European languages.

Section 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians

The Communist Manifesto begins with an account of history and the rise of the bourgeois class, the owners of capital and the means of production. The bourgeoisie arose from a unique combination of declining feudal society and growing trade and exchange that resulted from the European conquests around the globe. Although members of the bourgeois class were born of feudalism, their wealth derived from exchange and production; they were a new class that bucked the "fetters" of the feudal order, the social and political restraints of monarchy and aristocracy. Hence the "democratic" revolutions of the 18th century were really "bourgeois revolutions" to construct the modern "bourgeois society." This is an order based on the exploitation and alienation of another new class, the proletariat: the people who work for wages and occupy the bottom rung of society. Much as the feudal order produced the seeds of its destruction in the revolutionary class of the bourgeoisie, so the capitalist order is creating its destruction in the revolutionary proletariat. This class struggle has to advance through stages, but ultimately and "inevitably," it will result in the proletarian revolution, communism, and an end to class-driven society.

Section 2: Proletarians and Communists

The Communist Party offers to the working class a universal, multinational movement that can heighten the class struggle and help bring about the revolution. Karl Marx dispels some myths about communism, claiming bourgeois critiques are rooted in class interests and social positions and, as such, reflect ruling class, not universal, values. The communists' primary goal is to abolish all private property. To do this, they advocate revolutionary seizure of the state, which can act to repress the interests of the bourgeoisie and construct specific programs, such as the democratic control of capital through the state, to undo class social relations.

Section 3: Socialist and Communist Literature

Marx takes to task the "false" socialists—those who do not posit revolutionary struggle and believe instead in the ultimate harmony of class interests, and in achieving goals through peaceful political means or the establishment of communes. He identifies three strands of faulty socialism: reactionary socialism (fighting against the rise of the bourgeoisie and industrialism); conservative or bourgeois socialism (seeking to address social grievances to perpetuate the bourgeoisie); and "critical-utopian" socialism (successfully criticizing society but not offering practical reforms). Pitted against them is the Marxist version, which he calls real or "scientific" socialism, based on perpetual class struggle.

Section 4: Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties

Marx claims that communists attempt to advance the movements for "immediate aims," but they also keep in mind the "future of the movement." Thus, Communist Party members ally with other parties for these reasons. In France, they ally with the Social Democrats; in Switzerland, they support the Radicals; and in Poland, they push for agrarian revolution. In Germany, communists ally with the bourgeoisie when such an alliance may further the imminent bourgeois revolution, to be followed by a "proletarian revolution." Communists support revolutionary struggle of all kinds as attacks on the established order, advocating the "overthrow of all existing social conditions" because they believe "the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains." The revolutionary workers' movements must unite across national lines to overthrow the bourgeois system and free themselves of its exploitation.

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