The Communist Manifesto | Study Guide

Karl Marx

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The Communist Manifesto | Section 4 : Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties | Summary

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Summary

In this section Karl Marx gives an account of communist activity in several European countries, claiming that the communists attempt to push forward the movements for "immediate aims" but are also mindful of the "future of the movement." In France, the communists therefore ally with the Social Democrats, while maintaining the ability to criticize the traditions "handed down from the great Revolution." In Switzerland, they support the Radical Party, while recognizing that the party is divided to some extent by class antagonisms. In Poland, the communists insist first on the primacy of the agrarian revolution as a step toward national emancipation. Germany, however, is the most important site of communist activity because Germany has the most "advanced conditions," a "developed proletariat," and is on the brink of a bourgeois revolution, soon to be followed by the proletarian revolution. In Germany, the communists ally with the bourgeoisie when such an alliance may further the revolution, but they also "instill into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the ... antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat."

The communists support revolutionary struggle of all kinds as attacks on the established order, and simultaneously they heighten the "property question" in those struggles, trying to bring about "the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries." In short, the communists advocate the "overthrow of all existing social conditions" because they believe "the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains." They call for working people of every nation to unite.

Analysis

Section 4 focuses on the practical activity of communist revolutionaries in advance of a revolution. For this, Karl Marx sees communists taking a variety of tactical and strategic positions in each country, depending on conditions and party formations. Perhaps most interestingly, he sees communists allying with any other revolutionary party—even bourgeois revolutionary parties—if it will help advance the "stage" of the class struggle. Germany is a particularly interesting example, where he argues that a bourgeois revolution will have to occur first against the Prussian autarchy, and he advocates that communists assist in hastening this revolution before launching a proletarian revolution.

This formulation is curious, for it seems to imply that egalitarian, class-based revolutions are not possible until nations have undergone the proper "stages" of the Hegelian dialectic. Therefore, if "bourgeois society" has not yet been established, then revolutionaries of the proletariat must first work to bring about the bourgeois rise to power, and from there embark upon their own agenda to overthrow the existing bourgeois state. The intermediate step should not be ignored. This concept, and Marx's position on it, would be of great importance in subsequent revolutions, particularly that of the Paris Commune in 1871 and the Russian Revolution in 1917. In the 1840s, however, Marx seemed to consider staged revolutions as the only way forward.

As a corollary, Marx's notions of social struggle are oriented toward party-system democracy and parliamentary politics. For all the discussion of revolution, the immediate activity of Communist Party members, as indicated by his discussion of various countries, is to involve themselves in the bourgeois party process and elections. Many have questioned this stance and Marx's vision of the practical activity of a revolutionary party. This section is far too short to provide clarity, and Marx has few writings elsewhere on the topic. Following the Paris Commune revolution in 1871, Marx did modify these views somewhat, but on practical questions, he continued to provide few answers.

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