The Communist Manifesto | Study Guide

Karl Marx

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The Communist Manifesto | Section 1 : Bourgeois and Proletarians | Summary



Karl Marx explores the communist ideas of history and social change, arguing that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." In recorded history, from ancient to modern times, class divisions define the political content of the era, and the change in class composition defines the progress of history through various epochs. Class conflict also marks the modern era, "the epoch of the bourgeoisie"; the conflict now exists between new classes—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—and it has "simplified the class antagonisms" between just two major classes.

The feudal order gave rise to industrial capitalism and the new revolutionary class, the bourgeoisie. Two phenomena combined to foster its emergence: political rights granted to burghers (the earliest townspeople, descending from serfs or "freemen" not tied to the land or other obligations) and wealth generated from global conquest, expanding markets, and trade. Colonization of the Americas and the resulting trade of goods generated new sources of wealth and dramatically transformed feudalism. The feudal system of manufacturing could not keep up with the changes, and the guild system of master artisans gave way to a division of labor, managed by the emerging "middle class." When the new manufacturing system became mechanized by steam power, productive capacity exploded, and the new industrial middle class gained power. These changes in modes of production correspond to the creation of the new class—the bourgeoisie—and making an important mark on the political history of modern Europe.

Throughout the centuries, the middle classes that populated medieval communes, free states, or urban republics also supported the monarchy as a bulwark against the interests of the noble classes. In the modern era, however, the bourgeoisie has gained control of the state, over which it has "exclusive political sway" and which serves to manage the "common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."

The process and progress of the bourgeoisie is a history of revolutions; the bourgeoisie have "played a most revolutionary part," throwing feudal traditions into the "icy water of egotistical calculation." In particular, the bourgeoisie have reduced all forms of skilled labor to a wage relationship of "exploitation." Similarly, the family has been turned into "a mere money relation." Most important, the bourgeoisie have brought a constant revolution to the "instruments of production, and with them the whole relations of society." That is, technological change has exponentially grown with the industrial revolution, and with it, social transformation developed in lockstep. In the bourgeois era, "all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned." The change is geographic, too, as the quest for new markets pushes the bourgeoisie all over the world. This globalization undoes nationalism, as new market forces push out, or undo, national industries, commodities, and knowledge. "New wants" are created for the globalized products. Even "the most barbarian" societies cannot resist new and cheaper products that, in turn, force the adoption of bourgeois methods and values. With these changes, the bourgeois create "a world after its own image."

The feudal order, particularly the "relations of property," were adverse to this new explosive force; "they became so many fetters" and had to be undone by the new productive forces and the new social class. Into that change came the modern era, based on free competition and the economic and political rules of the bourgeoisie. But these new forces resemble a sorcerer who can no longer control his spells. In particular, market competition leads to "commercial crises": economic depressions that paralyze industries. These are crises of "overproduction" in which a market cannot absorb a glut of product; the result is a dangerous market and social disorder that threatens property. The two possible solutions to overproduction are the destruction of the oversupply or the creation of new markets.

As the bourgeoisie took advantages of the crises caused by material changes in the feudal order, in the industrial era the relations of production are now creating a crisis for the bourgeoisie. In fact, the bourgeoisie have "forged the weapons that bring death to itself." The wielder of these weapons is "the modern working-class—the proletariats," born of the same conditions that produced the bourgeoisie. The proletariat class is defined by its relationship to production; proletarians work only so long as they contribute to capital, or as long as capital needs them, for without capital they have nothing. Thus, they are forced to sell themselves like a commodity, and "like every other article of commerce," they find themselves "exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market." Therefore, workers are "reduced to an appendage of the machine," with no control of themselves or their labor. With improvements to machinery, working conditions deteriorate, and individuals become interchangeable parts. Formerly independent classes (such as shopkeepers or artisans) sink into the proletariat in a race to the bottom.

Like the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, too, undergo stages of development. The proletarian "birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie." The first resistance is individual; it attacks the implements of manufacturing rather than the structures of production. At this stage, as workers begin to take collective action, they fight not the bourgeoisie but the "enemies of their enemy": the feudal order, which restrains them all. As industrial capitalism advances, the proletariat become more numerous and their conditions more universal. As capitalists struggle with competition and are forced to cut wages, workers begin to take collective action by forming unions, revolting, and rioting to improve wages and conditions. These struggles may make small gains, but the real ones come from the growth of unions as the fighting organs of the proletariat. Unionization centralizes the struggle and heightens tensions to a national stage. "Every class struggle is a political struggle," and workers turn toward party organizing and legislative action. In all these actions, the bourgeoisie assist the proletariat but use them in their own national or international squabbles and consequently pull the working class into the terrain of politics, which will be the bourgeoisie's undoing. As the class struggle advances toward its ultimate phase, a number of far-seeing bourgeoisie abandon their class and side with the revolutionary workers, much like what happened to the nobility in the era of bourgeois revolutions.

Because of these forces, only "the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class." Other segments of the middle class (such as artisans, peasants, and shopkeepers) fight with the bourgeoisie to preserve their existence and are therefore conservative and cannot serve as the revolutionary agent. The very bottom of society, the "social scum," may be swept into a revolutionary movement, but will more likely be bribed as a reactionary tool. Yet for the individual proletarian, traditional custom and belief in family, law, religion, and morality have been stripped from him and now viewed with jaundiced vision as "bourgeois interests." It is therefore in their interest to do away with the entirety of the capitalist order. While previous revolutionary movements were led by minorities representing minority interests, for the first time in history the proletariat, in its movement to throw off the yoke of capitalism, represents the "interest of the immense majority." This struggle will likely take on a national character. While the bourgeoisie make their own "grave diggers," the ultimate victory of the proletariat is "inevitable."


In this dense and detailed section, Karl Marx lays out many of the fundamental principles of communism, including class struggle, the materialist concept of history, and the theories of alienation and exploitation of the proletariat.

First, Marx puts forward a basic two-class theory of society: workers and capitalists, or proletariat and bourgeoisie. Classes do not peaceably coexist; instead, they are engaged in conflict—the class struggle—which punctuates and defines the course of history. For the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, this struggle is defined by conflict over wages and profits. As capitalist competition brings economic downturns, employers are forced to cut wages, obviously harming the interests of workers. Marx says because of this situation, the proletariat is the only class that has the collective material interest of overturning the capitalist order, and thus can act for the benefit of all humanity, not merely their own class interests. In his words, "the proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air."

The proletariat has further reason to rise, according to Marx, because workers are "alienated" from their labor. Although the term "alienation" does not appear in The Communist Manifesto, the concept is a fundamental principle of his analysis of capitalism, developed in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 written a few years earlier. The basic idea is that workers in industrial capitalism are "alienated" from their labor because they work for wages. Working for wages means laborers have no interest in the product, don't see the benefit of its use or sale, and share no reward in profits. Instead, they are told what to do and how to do it, thus losing control of both the product of their labor and of themselves.

Marx claims alienation is a function of present class relations, but class struggle itself is the motor force of history. Elsewhere, this idea is called "the materialist conception of history," and after Marx's death it was shortened to "historical materialism." In this view, presented most succinctly in The Communist Manifesto, economic factors—the modes of production and the social relationship of class—develop in tandem and explain many features of political and social history. Marx uses the rise of the bourgeoisie as his chief example. Looking at the revolutions of the 18th century (such as those in France and the United States), Marx explains that the social upheavals of the era were driven not by Enlightenment ideals, such as the "natural rights of man" or notions of political equality, but by the emergent bourgeois class in its struggle for social supremacy as it came into conflict with the political and social "fetters" of feudalism and the aristocratic order. Thus, the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment developed to serve the class interests of the bourgeoisie and led the charge against the monarchy. This is another basic tenet of Marxism, introduced in The Manifesto but fully developed elsewhere: the "base-superstructure" model of society. In it, the material factors at the economic base shape and determine features of the "superstructure": politics, ideology, and culture.

Marx is at his best in this explanation of history and the notion of class struggle and economic interpretations of history. His class analysis of European history and the rise of the bourgeoisie have changed the fields of history, political science, and sociology, and have provided new insights into literature and art as well. But Marx is not so strong in predicting as he is in his use of robust, definitive language about the "inevitable" and "ultimate" proletarian revolution that would not simply represent the next stage in the class struggle but instead would completely undo class relationships and lead to the liberation of all humankind. In both these aspects, Marx has been challenged as being perhaps too certain and utopian.

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