The Communist Manifesto | Study Guide

Karl Marx

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The Communist Manifesto | Section 2 : Proletarians and Communists | Summary



The Communist Party does not represent sectarian interests or political objectives separate from working-class politics as defined by the workers' objective position. Instead, communists work to advance the class struggle within nations and to unite the proletariat "independent of nationality." Communists, therefore, represent the "most advanced and resolute" layer of the working class and have a theoretical advantage "over the great mass of the proletariat" because they have a better understanding of the forces and the course of history guiding the workers' movement. The communists have the same aim as the working class and other working-class parties, namely the "formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, [and] conquest of political power by the proletariat." These are not ideas imposed by some independent thinker but the result of the "actual relations" of society.

Communists' advocacy of the abolition of property is not unique to the party; indeed, history is dominated by changes in the relationship of property in society. During the French Revolution, for example, feudal property was abolished "in favor of bourgeois property." And the system of capitalist property is based "on class antagonisms" and on "the exploitation of the many by the few." Therefore, the communists favor abolishing bourgeois property, an idea that makes them unique. In fact, the theory and program of the communists can be summarized in the call for the "abolition of private property."

Karl Marx answers several questions about the abolition of property; specifically, whether the call to abolish private property will mean an end to personal possessions as "the fruit of a man's own labor." Marx states that the relations of artisanal production, in which workers are rewarded by position of the products of their labor, is already being abolished by wages and bourgeois property; workers receive wages but not the full "fruit of their labor." This type of labor produces only capital, a property relation that exploits the worker and is based on the "antagonism of capital and wage labor." Capitalist property relations mean that the capital created through collective labor becomes the sole property of the bourgeoisie. In effect, production and capital are already socialized, but property is defined by class ownership—not collective ownership—under bourgeois law. On the other hand, wages pay only the "minimum" to keep the worker alive. In this case, workers take personal possession of things to keep themselves going. This "personal appropriation" is the not the focus of communist abolitionist efforts. Instead, the communists want to reverse the bourgeois order of social priority; workers, or "living labor," exist to serve capital, or what Marx calls "accumulated labor." According to Marx, the communist society will use capital in the interest of workers, "to promote the existence of the laborer."

Bourgeois theorists fret that this transformation will mean the abolition of personal freedom, and they are correct if by liberty they mean the liberty of capital. Because bourgeois rights center on property, of "free selling and buying" and other "brave words" about freedom, these theorists fear the end of private property. But, according to Marx, property does not exist for 90 percent of the population; it is the reserve of the rich, and these relations should end. Critics claim that "individuality vanishes" with the loss of individual property. Communists counter by claiming that bourgeois property blocks access to the "products of society for all," and such propertied persons must be "swept out of the way," enabling all to appropriate property.

Countering the objection under communism that people will become lazy, Marx says capitalism rewards laziness and punishes workers; workers who make wealth "acquire nothing," while the rich accumulate great sums and "do not work." So, too, with culture, which critics fear will be destroyed under communism; however, only bourgeois culture, not culture in general, will succumb. And so, too, with law, which is not the law of justice "but the will of your class made into a law for all." These critics' mistakes stem from the misconception that historical and class interests and ideals are universal and eternal; when critiquing the feudal order for inequities, they cannot see the same processes playing out in their own era.

To the charge of communism eliminating the family, Marx says only the bourgeoisie exist as a family; others find it "absent," and therefore communists do advocate the abolition of the traditional bourgeois family. Communists also advocate ending child exploitation, rescuing "education from the influence of the ruling class." In fact, protests against the communist position are "all the more disgusting" while working-class children are forced into labor in factories, and families "torn asunder." To the charge of communism, making women communal property (stemming from the bourgeois notion of women as mere instruments of production), Marx explains that the goal of communism is to liberate women from the role of production and bourgeois sexual mores that lead to prostitution and adultery. Next, Marx addresses nationality, claiming communists do indeed want to abolish "countries and nations"; in fact, "working men have no country." Marx gives several reasons. Workers do not control the mechanisms of the state and are therefore not full parts of their countries. Moreover, because national antagonism stems from class interests, nations will cease to exist when classes are abolished.

Exploring why these objections to communism exist, Marx finds the ideas produced by a society reflect its material order, which has a class character: "The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class." For example, when Rome was in the process of falling, polytheistic religions were abandoned in favor of Christianity, signifying a social turn and the end of the empire. As feudalism came toward its end, the Christian worldview gave way to "rationalist ideas" of the Enlightenment, including conceptions of liberty and freedom that have come to dominate the bourgeois era. Marx believes "the Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas."

Ending the section, Marx explains the communists' positive program. First, the proletariat must gain political ascendancy and control of the state, seizing capital from the bourgeoisie and centralizing all production. Then the proletariat must "increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible." The goal is to make the proletariat the ruling class in much the same way the bourgeoisie are today. Such radical change necessitates imposing "despotism" against private property and capital. Further, the communists will take immediate measures, including the abolition of real estate and the diversion of rents to the public, the implementation of a heavy progressive tax system, the end of inheritance, the confiscation of property from those who flee or rebel, the centralization of credit in a national bank with an exclusive monopoly over capital, the centralization of transportation and communication, an increase in factory and agricultural production, the creation of labor requirements and industrial armies (especially for agriculture), the elimination of distinctions between "urban" and "rural" in favor of a more uniform geographic population distribution, the abolition of child labor, and the implementation of free public education for children. With these structures in place, classes and class antagonism will end.


In Section 2 Karl Marx presents a picture of the theoretical program of the Communist League, whose aims include nationalizing capital in the state and ending class antagonism by eliminating classes and abolishing private property. He also tries to counter arguments against communism, particularly by showing that the objections to communism have parallels in capitalism, with communism simply exposing these hypocrisies.

Marx further clarifies his ideas about the relationship between social base and superstructure. He paints a picture of the party as the "advanced" layer of working-class struggle (perhaps revealing some elitist attitudes) and elaborates more on the state's role in a society in which the communists have come to power. Marx is unclear whether the assumption of power was through electoral or revolutionary means.

After dispelling some erroneous notions about communism, Marx explores the relationship of ideas to the class character of society by asking why so many objections are brought against communism from bourgeois society. Here, he finds that the "ruling ideas" of any given society are the ideas of the ruling class; in this case, the bourgeoisie. This is his clearest explanation of the base–superstructure relationship. Marx is arguing for a relationship between economics and ideology. In this conception, it would seem the economic base causes the formation of particular ideas at the top of society—in particular, ideas useful for the ruling order. Marx attempts to demonstrate that his opponents' positions have merely adopted these ideas, and he seems to treat them as inconsequential to the rise of the communists.

Another important notion here is Marx's conception of the role of the party. Marx seems to believe there are objective, unitary class interests, the Communist Party being the one that understands and internalizes these notions. His statements early in the section that the communists are not sectarian and represent only the true interests of the working class speak to this belief. But he clearly sees the party as separate from the workers, an advanced layer leading the working class through the stages of class struggle to the proletarian revolution. This advanced status, he claims, is based on the party's particular insights—their "theoretical advantage" over the "mass of the proletariat." What is important here is that Marx clearly attempts to side with workers and identify with the lowest level of society in the interest of collective liberation, but he also seems to harbor elitist attitudes about the nature of that struggle and leadership in relation to class.

Finally, Marx lays out a tentative notion of what a communist society would look like, and it clearly involves a large role for the state. A number of functions would be centralized in the state to undo the capitalist order; these include a monopoly on capital, centralized communication and transportation, and service in a "labor army," particularly for agriculture. This vision has long been a point of contention among communists, with many from the left and the right (including anti-state communists) criticizing Marx for using the state to create a communist order. Nonetheless, Marx was fervent on this point, leading to later antagonisms and splits within the workers' movement.

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