The Communist Manifesto | Study Guide

Karl Marx

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The Communist Manifesto | Section 3 : Socialist and Communist Literature | Summary



Karl Marx evaluates the positions of other socialist traditions, taking them to task for failing to live up to the ideas presented in The Communist Manifesto. He identifies three strands of faulty socialism: reactionary socialism, "conservative or bourgeois" socialism, and "critical-utopian" socialism. Against these, Marx posits the ideas of the Communist League as the real socialism, what he calls "scientific socialism."

Reactionary socialism comprises three types: feudal socialism, petty-bourgeois socialism, and "true" German socialism. Feudal socialism arose from the attempts of the aristocracy to save their class interests by aligning with the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in the era of revolution and immediately after. This tradition has never convincingly supported anything like socialism, and is often argued against even modest reforms to benefit workers. Closely allied is Christian socialism, which also cannot be real socialism, despite some of its teachings and communal leanings.

The second reactionary type, "petty-bourgeois socialism," resembles feudal socialism in that it is an attempt for one class, the petty bourgeoisie, to protect its interests. Marx argues the petty bourgeoisie are a type of "intermediate class": in some instances the burgesses held over from feudal society, or peasants or other classes not yet forced into either bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Ruined by industrial capitalism (particularly competition), they typically look to restore old methods of production to protect their interests. In places such as France with a large peasantry, socialists of this type use peasant struggles to buttress their status.

The third reactionary type, the German or "true" socialism, was developed mostly by philosophers seeking to reconcile their ideas with French Enlightenment radicalism. They failed for the most part, "emasculating" French radicalism and missing their chance when revolutionary opportunity came to Germany.

The second strand of socialism Marx takes to task is "conservative or bourgeois" socialism, which has two varieties. The first is a kind of philanthropic humanitarianism that seeks to improve the conditions of the working class and lessen the potential for revolutionary struggle. The second is a challenge to working class revolutionary activity by arguing that socialism, together with reform, is possible only by changing the structural, material basis of society.

The third strand of Marx's faulty socialism is "critical-utopian" socialism. Emerging too early to see the full development of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, this type of socialism makes crucial mistakes, calling for an end to capitalism through peaceful rather than revolutionary means. This tradition does have valuable critiques of capitalism, wages, the family, the urban–rural divide, and other important topics, but because its proponents envision a harmony of class interests, they distance themselves from the class struggle and construct experimental settlements. While critical of capitalism, they are nonetheless "of a purely Utopian character."


Section 3, as well as Section 4, is short, and it is likely Karl Marx was rushed for time to complete them as he raced to finish The Communist Manifesto on the crest of the revolutions of 1848. The main topic of Section 3 is the critique of other varieties of socialism, all of which Marx finds deficient. These sections may be of less theoretical interest, for they essentially offer polemics against Marx's contemporary political opponents. But they do have practical value, and many Marxists use this section and the information provided in Section 4 to debate Marx's notions of the proper forms of class struggle and the relation of communist movements to the state and to other forms of social resistance.

Most significant is Marx's critique of "critical-utopian" socialism, often referred to as "utopian socialism." Unlike utopian socialism, based on ideals, Marx's socialism is "scientific," meaning it is based on the study of capitalist society and what Marx considers the immutable forces of society—class and economics—that set definitive laws of history and social organization in class-based societies. The utopian socialists, Marx argues, have no such understanding of society; the laws of class struggle, pitting one class against another in permanent antagonism, are nowhere reflected in the utopians' ideas. For them, the unpleasant aspects of capitalism could be undone through mutual agreement, through the recognition of shared interest in the productive value of labor. Thus, many took to building voluntary rural communes organized around collective labor, thinking to bring about the socialist order in this way. Marx has nothing but ridicule and invective for these notions. Even though their critical stance against capitalism is similar to his own, Marx finds their path to socialism hopelessly naive.

Marx's "scientific" notion of socialism is important in other ways. In Section 2 Marx says the communists represent only the clearest expression of the interests of the working class; consequently, no separation of communist interests and working-class interests exists. At the same time, Marx argues that the communists represent an "advanced" layer that can instruct workers in the path toward revolution and socialism. Many of these ideas are based on Marx's understanding of these insights as being "scientific" discoveries. If class struggle were the law of history and the proletarian revolution as predictable as the path of planets across the sky, then there is but one working-class interest to be discovered and hastened. But factors such as race, gender, or even variations in one's relationship to the means of production can produce varied or multiple working-class interests, which a single party might have trouble representing or acting on.

Another important idea is Marx's notion of class society as far more complicated than a basic two-class structure. Most of the "reactionary" versions of socialism Marx condemns are, for him, based on the class positions of "intermediate" classes, neither bourgeois nor proletariat, which continue to operate in a capitalist society. Notable examples here include elements of the feudal aristocracy who seek to quash bourgeois revolutionaries by allying with other classes or the "petty-bourgeois" class. The latter serves as a catchall for various groups of people displaced by capitalism who don't quite fit into either of the two major classes. These groups include master artisans; shopkeepers; free-propertied peasants; and others who don't work in, manage, or own factories. The members of the petty-bourgeois have no rooted class position themselves but move between the major classes as they maneuver for political and economic advantage; sometimes employing the language of socialism, sometimes not. Left unsaid, however, is what will happen to them in the proletarian revolution.

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