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Karl Marx And The Communist Manifesto

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Published: Thu, 04 May 2017

The Communist Manifesto is an attempt by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to explain communism, as well as its goals and the underlying motivation and theories of the movement. They argue that relationships between social classes rely on the means and methods of industry and production. Eventually, throughout history, the means of production inevitably outgrow the class system at the time, at which point a new and more relevant system is installed. Inherent to all of these class systems throughout history are the roles of oppressor and oppressed. Marx and Engels argue that the exploitation of one class of the other is the driving force behind all historical political developments. During these revolutions, a new class takes control and in so doing becomes the new ruling class.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argue for an uprising of what they term the proletariat, which is essentially the working class, against the aristocratic bourgeoisie; who constitute the factory owners, landlords and industrialists who, through the regulation of wages as well as rents and commodities continually oppress the laborers. Marx says that capitalism is no longer compatible with this social structure. He believes that the solution to this problem lies in communism. This problem, Marx posits, has been taken to a global level. In Part One, which he titles, “Bourgeois and Proletarians”, Marx explains that the bourgeois industry has exploited the world market in search of cheaper raw materials and in doing so has virtually eliminated national self-sufficiency. Instead of relying on local goods and keeping a nation’s wealth internal, it instead seeks to minimize short term costs by buying from a different (and usually poorer) country, with the idea that profit is the ultimate goal, while sacrificing through this process the means to care for the disenfranchised people of the industrial nation. This also creates industry in the foreign nation by creating a progressively stronger demand for resources, which in turn creates a bourgeoisie (and proportionately, a proletariat) in that foreign country which seeks to exploit this demand to its own advantage for its own profits. The end result is that a distinction becomes clearer and clearer between the working class and the aristocratic class as social and economic disparities expand. Marx and Engels put forward the idea that what is necessary to stop this exploitation and oppression of the working class (who constitute the large majority) is a violent revolution and overthrow of bourgeois social structures to be replaced with a system that provides no incentive to exploitation and greed, and which would eliminate class struggle by its very nature. This system is at the heart of the communist movement.

In the first part of the manifesto Marx describes the transition from a feudal system to a capitalist system. It often seems in his writing that he believes it happened almost accidentally; as if capitalism were a self-perpetuating force that could not be stopped. At other times though, it is easy to see Marx’s contempt for the bourgeoisie who did nothing to stop the spread of capitalism, even as it devoured entire communities leaving shanty towns in its wake. Above all, though, Marx comes across with respect to the bourgeoisie, as though he understands that they are human, but they are corrupted to the point where they’ve lost sight of their own best interests. This is why he repeatedly provides counterarguments for arguments against communism in Part Two: “Proletarians and Communists”, often showing that the suggested flaw would only negatively impact the wealthy, which he regarded not as a necessary evil so much as a necessary justice. He writes about the history of political revolutions, saying:

“All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation…. All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority. The proletariat …cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.”

Another difference between previous revolutions and the revolution of the proletariat, is that previous revolutions were followed by a reallocation of property, whereas the proletariat didn’t have property (for the most part) to reallocate and so the communists saw the abolition of property rights as necessary to the revolution, which they felt would in turn destroy the class system altogether. In Part Three: “Socialist and Communist Literature”, the manifesto argues that the elimination of social classes will not come about through peaceful or democratic movements, but in essence requires a revolution.

The need for an uprising is based on the miserable conditions of the working class, as enforced by the ruling elite. The bourgeoisie had created and lobbied for laws to protect themselves against any uprisings, as well as to allow themselves to further exploit the workforce, which they viewed, according to Marx, as commodities. This explained the minimum wage laws, as a resource was only worth what it cost to produce. In the case of a laborer, this meant the bare minimum necessary to survive and reproduce. It was the amount any less than which would provoke an uprising, affecting profits negatively. As competition for jobs increased with new and better machinery and technology, people were willing to settle for less compensation simply for the opportunity to work. This resulted in social devastation as more and more rural families migrated into the cities for work, only to find that the work available wasn’t enough to live on, which in turn led to a necessity for either child labor or prostitution, and in some cases both.

As Marx himself, and the Communist Manifesto specifically, are primary sources, much of the argument that he provides is based on observation, although there are numerous examples of historians who provide a backdrop to the writing of The Communist Manifesto that suggest the social setting that Marx refers to was at least as bad as he suggests it is, and in some cases considerably worse.

Marx was a philosopher, economist, sociologist and revolutionary. He met Friedrich Engels after he moved to Paris in 1843. Together they worked on several essays, including “The Deity” which was a take on his philosophy of religion. Marx was heavily influenced by G.W.F. Hegel and was active in the Young Hegelians, which was a prominent group in Berlin. Hegel’s theory stated that history was a transformative process by which the world becomes spiritually self-conscious. Marx expounded upon this theory, hypothesizing that as mankind becomes more spiritually self-conscious, the physical world causes him to feel alienated at which point a revolution becomes necessary to reinvigorate humanity.

Marx and Engels were more than theorists, however, considering theory useful only when it promoted actions resulting in social change. Therefore, in the Communist Manifesto, they decided to lay out the process by which they felt a proletarian revolution could be achieved. They were working together with the direct goal of influencing and changing history. The Manifesto is possibly the best example of their methods, as they thought the spread of knowledge about communism would draw more disenfranchised laborers into the movement, ultimately resulting in the inevitable rise against the bourgeois establishment.

Marx’s theory should be understood in the context of the hardships suffered by 19th-century workers in England, France and Germany. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries created a seemingly permanent underclass of workers, many of whom lived in poverty under terrible working conditions and with little political representation. The Communist Manifesto was written on the eve of the Revolution of 1848 in Germany. The failure of this worker and student-led revolution caused Marx to later revise some of the arguments and predictions that appear in the Communist Manifesto. However, the general structure of Marx’s original arguments, as well as its revolutionary tone, remained unchanged.”

Introduction and Section 1, Bourgeois and Proletarians (Part 1)


The Manifesto begins by announcing, “A spectre is haunting Europe–the spectre of Communism.” All of the European powers have allied themselves against Communism, frequently demonizing its ideas. Therefore, the Communists have assembled in London and written this Manifesto in order to make public their views, aims and tendencies, and to dispel the maliciously implanted misconceptions.

The Manifesto begins by addressing the issue of class antagonism. Marx writes, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Throughout history we see the oppressor and oppressed in constant opposition to each other. This fight is sometimes hidden and sometimes open. However, each time the fight ends in either a revolutionary reconstruction of society or in the classes’ common ruin.

In earlier ages, we saw society arranged into complicated class structures. For example, in medieval times there were feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices and serfs. Modern bourgeois society sprouted from the ruins of feudal society. This society has class antagonisms as well, but it is also unique: class antagonisms have become simplified, as society increasingly splits into two rival camps–Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

The Manifesto then shows how the modern bourgeoisie is the product of several revolutions in the mode of production and of exchange. The development of the bourgeoisie began in the earliest towns, and gained momentum with the Age of Exploration. Feudal guilds couldn’t provide for increasing markets, and the manufacturing middle class took its place. However, markets kept growing and demand kept increasing, and manufacture couldn’t keep up. This led to the Industrial Revolution. Manufacture was replaced by “Modern Industry,” and the industrial middle class was replaced by “industrial millionaires,” the modern bourgeois. With these developments, the bourgeoisie have become powerful, and have pushed medieval classes into the background. The development of the bourgeoisie as a class was accompanied by a series of political developments. With the development of Modern Industry and the world-market, the bourgeoisie has gained exclusive political sway. The State serves solely the bourgeoisie’s interests.

Historically, the bourgeoisie has played a quite revolutionary role. Whenever it has gained power, it has put to an end all “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.” It has eliminated the relationships that bound people to their superiors, and now all remaining relations between men are characterized by self-interest alone. Religious fervor, chivalry and sentimentalism have all been sacrificed. Personal worth is now measured by exchange value, and the only freedom is that of Free Trade. Thus, exploitation that used to be veiled by religious and political “illusions” is now direct, brutal and blatant. The bourgeoisie has changed all occupations into wage-laboring professions, even those that were previously honored, such as that of the doctor. Similarly, family relations have lost their veil of sentimentality and have been reduced to pure money relations.

In the past, industrial classes required the conservation of old modes of production in order to survive. The bourgeoisie are unique in that they cannot continue to exist without revolutionizing the instruments of production. This implies revolutionizing the relations of production, and with it, all of the relations in society. Thus, the unique uncertainties and disturbances of the modern age have forced Man to face his real condition in life, and his true relations with others.

Because the bourgeoisie needs a constantly expanding market, it settles and establishes connections all over the globe. Production and consumption have taken on a cosmopolitan character in every country. This is true both for materials and for intellectual production, as national sovereignty and isolationism becomes less and less possible to sustain. The bourgeoisie draws even the most barbaric nations into civilization and compels all nations to adopt its mode of production. It “creates a world after its own image.” All become dependent on the bourgeoisie. It has also increased political centralization.

Thus, we see that the means of production and of exchange, which serve as the basis of the bourgeoisie, originated in feudal society. At a certain stage, however, the feudal relations ceased to be compatible with the developing productive forces. Thus the “fetters” of the feudal system had to be “burst asunder,” and they were. Free competition replaced the old system, and the bourgeoisie rose to power.

Marx then says that a similar movement underway at the present moment. Modern bourgeois society is in the process of turning on itself. Modern productive forces are revolting against the modern conditions of production. Commercial crises, due, ironically, to over-production, are threatening the existence of bourgeois society. Productive forces are now fettered by bourgeois society, and these crises represent this tension. Yet in attempting to remedy these crises, the bourgeoisie simply cause new and more extensive crises to emerge, and diminish their ability to prevent future ones. Thus, the weapons by which the bourgeoisie overcame feudalism are now being turned on the bourgeoisie themselves.

Section 1, Bourgeois and Proletarians (Part 2)


After examining the nature and history of the bourgeoisie, the Manifesto now turns to the proletariat. As the bourgeoisie developed, so did the proletariat, and it is the proletariat who will eventually destroy the bourgeoisie. The proletarians live only as long as they can find work, and they can find work only as long as their labor increases capital. They are a commodity, and are vulnerable to all the fluctuations of the market. Due to the development of machines and the division of labor, the proletarian’s work has lost all “charm;” the proletarian is simply an appendage of a machine. Furthermore, as his work becomes more repulsive, his wage only decreases. Marx describes the worker as a soldier, and as a slave. Distinctions of age and sex are becoming less important as all people are simply instruments of labor. Furthermore, no sooner does the worker get his wages from his exploitative boss, then he is exploited by other bourgeoisie, such as his landlord.

The lower strata of the middle class, such as tradespeople, gradually sink into the proletariat. This is due to the fact that they lack sufficient capital, and the fact that technology has rendered their specialized skills no longer useful.

The Manifesto then describes the past history of the proletariat. As soon as this class was created it began to struggle with the bourgeoisie. This struggle originally involved the individual laborer, and later groups of workers, rebelling against the bourgeois that directly exploited them. These workers hoped to revive the medieval status of the worker. At this point, the workers were still disorganized, divided by geography and by competition with one another. Furthermore, when they did form unions, they were under the influence of the bourgeois, and actually served to further the objectives of the bourgeoisie.

However, with the modern development of industry, the proletariat increased in number, and became stronger and more concentrated. Furthermore, distinctions among laborers began to dissolve, as all shared equally low wages and equally unsure livelihoods. At this point, workers began to form trade unions and other associations, a process in which they are still engaged at the time of the Manifesto’s writing. The proletariat is further helped in its unification by the increased means of communication made possible by modern industry, allowing for the struggles to take on national character. While the organization of the proletariat into a class is continually destroyed by competition among workers, each time it rises again stronger. Furthermore, as other classes try to use the proletarians to forward political their own ends, they give them tools to fight the bourgeoisie.

Marx explains that the only class today that is really revolutionary is the proletariat. All of the other classes that fight the bourgeoisie–such as the shopkeeper–are conservative, fighting to preserve their existence. Among the proletariat, however, the Old Society is already past preservation. “Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”

Historically, the proletariat are also unique. In the past, when a class got the upper hand, it tried to subject all of society to its own mode of appropriation. However, the proletariat lack any property of their own to retain or expand. Rather, they must destroy all ways of securing private property at all. Another unique characteristic of the proletariat is that, while past movements were started by minorities, the proletariats are a vast majority, and are acting in the interest of that majority.

The proletarians’ struggle is first and foremost a national struggle. Marx writes that he has traced the proletariat’s development through a veiled civil war, up to the point of open revolution and the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Until now, every society has been based on class oppression. In order for a class to be able to be oppressed, however, its slavish existence must be sustainable, held steady: in contrast, laborers in modern industrial society are continually suffering a deterioration of their status; they become poorer and poorer. The bourgeoisie are thus unfit to rule, because they cannot guarantee “an existence to its slave within its slavery.” Thus, with the development of Modern Industry, the bourgeoisie produces “its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

Section 2, Proletarians and Communists


The Manifesto then discusses the relationship of the Communists to the proletarians. The immediate aim of the Communists is the “formation of the proletariat into a class, [the] overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, [and the] conquest of political power by the proletariat.” The Communists’ theory simply describes a historical movement underway at this very moment. This includes the abolition of private property.

Marx says that Communists have been “reproached” for desiring to abolish the “right” of acquiring private property through the fruits of one’s labor. However, he points out, laborers do not acquire any property through their labor. Rather, the “property” or capital they produce serves to exploit them. This property, controlled by the bourgeoisie, represents a social–not a personal–power. Changing it into common property does not abolish property as a right, but merely changes its social character, by eliminating its class character. In a Communist society, then, labor will exist for the sake of the laborer, not for the sake of producing bourgeois-controlled property. This goal of communism challenges bourgeois freedom, and this is why the bourgeois condemn the Communist philosophy. Marx writes, “You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population.” Despite what the bourgeois claim, Communism doesn’t keep people from appropriating the products of labor. Rather, it keeps them from subjugating others in the process of this appropriation.

The Manifesto then addresses some objections to Communism. Many dissenters maintain that no one will work if private property is abolished. However, by this logic, bourgeois society should have been overcome with laziness long ago. In reality, it is presently the case that those who work don’t acquire anything, and those who acquire things don’t work. Other opponents hold that Communism will destroy all intellectual products. However, this reflects a bourgeois misunderstanding. The disappearance of “class culture” is not the same thing as the disappearance of all culture.

Marx moves to the arguments against the “infamous” Communist proposal of abolishing the family. He says the modern family is based on capital and private gain. Thus he writes, the Communists “plead guilty” to wanting to do away with present familial relations, in that they want to stop the exploitation of children by their parents. Similarly, they do not want to altogether abolish the education of children, but simply to free it from the control of the ruling class. Marx complains that the bourgeois “clap-trap” about family and education is particularly “disgusting” as Industry increasingly destroys the family ties of the proletarians; thus it renders family and education as means for the transformation of children into articles of commerce.

Communists are also criticized for their desire to abolish country and nationality. Marx replies that workingmen have no country; and we can’t take from them what they don’t have. National differences and antagonisms lose significance as industrialization increasingly standardizes life.

Marx then says that those charges against Communism based on religion, philosophy, or ideology “are not deserving of serious examination.” Man’s consciousness changes with the conditions of his material existence. “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” In response to the claim that there are certain universal ideas, such as that of Justice, that have transcended the vicissitudes of history, Marx replies that this universality is only an apparent one, reflecting an overriding history of exploitation and class antagonism. The Communist revolution is a radical rupture in traditional property relations. It should be no surprise that it accompanied by radical changes in traditional ideas.

We see then that the first step in the working class’ revolution is to make the proletariat the ruling class. It will use its political power to seize all capital from the bourgeoisie and to centralize all instruments of production under the auspices of the State. Of course, in the beginning this will not be possible without “despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production.” Probable steps in the revolution will include: the abolition of ownership of land; the institution of a heavy progressive or graduated income tax; the abolition of all inheritance rights; the confiscation of emigrants’ and rebels’ property, making all people liable to labor; State centralization of credit; State centralization of communication and transportation; State appropriation of factories, the gradual combination of agriculture and manufacturing industries, the elimination of the distinctions between town and country, and the establishment of free education for children.

When class distinctions have disappeared, public power will lose its political character. This is because political power is nothing more than “the organized power of one class for oppressing another.” When the proletariat eliminate the old conditions for production, they will render class antagonism impossible, and thereby eliminate their own class supremacy. Bourgeois society will be replaced by an “association” in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Section 3, Socialist and Communist Literature


In this section, Marx presents and critiques three subsets of Socialist and Communist literature. The first subset is Reactionary Socialism. Reactionary Socialists include the Feudal Socialists, the Petty-Bourgeois Socialists, and the German, or “True” Socialists; all of these groups fight against the rise of the bourgeoisie and modern Industry, without realizing the historical process the bourgeoisie represent. Feudal Socialists were French and English aristocrats who wrote against modern bourgeois society. However, their chief complaint about the bourgeois was that it creates a revolutionary proletariat that will uproot the old order of society. Thus, they objected to the bourgeoisie because they were a threat to their way of life. The Petty- Bourgeois Socialists were a class that saw it would eventually lose its separate status and become part of the proletariat. Marx concedes that the Petty- Bourgeois publications successfully showed the contradictions of the conditions of modern production. However, their suggested alternatives to this contradictory system were either to restore the old means of production and exchange, or to push the modern means of production and exchange into the framework of old property relations. Thus, this socialism is “reactionary and Utopian” and can’t accept the facts of history. Third there is German, or “True” Socialism. These German thinkers adopted some French socialist and Communist ideas, without realizing that Germany did not share the same social conditions as France. As contemplated by the German thinkers, the French ideas lost all practical significance and were “emasculated.” These socialists supported the aristocracy and feudal institutions against the rising bourgeoisie, forgetting that the rise of the bourgeoisie is a necessary historical step. The “true” socialists support the interests of the petty- bourgeoisie, and thus support the status quo. They even reject class struggles. Marx claims that almost all of the so-called Communist and Socialist literature in Germany at this time are in fact of this character.

The second subset of Socialism is Conservative, or Bourgeois, Socialism. This subset reflects the desires of a segment of the bourgeois to redress social grievances, in order to guarantee the continued existence of bourgeois society. Followers of this idea include “economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, [and] hole-and-corner reformers of every kind.” They want the advantages of the social conditions generated by Modern Industry, without the struggles and dangers that necessarily accompany them. “They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” These bourgeoisie believe that the best society is the society in which they have power; they want the proletariat to keep its weak role, but to stop hating the dominant bourgeoisie. A second form of this kind of Socialism recognizes the fact that only changes in economic relations could help the proletariat. However, the upholders of this kind of socialism do not accept that such changes necessarily entail a destruction of the relations of production. Rather, they wish to make administrative reforms, which simply decrease the cost and amount of administrative work for the bourgeois government.

The third subset is Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism. This subset originated with the first attempts of the proletariat to achieve their own ends. The attempts were reactionary, and the proletariat had not yet reached the maturity and economic conditions necessary for emancipation. These socialists therefore looked for new social laws to create the material conditions necessary to free the proletariat. Their writings are important because they attacked every principle of existing society, and are thus useful for enlightening the working class. However, they are of a Utopian character: although their vision did reflect authentic proletariat “yearnings” to reconstruct society, it was ultimately a “fantastic” vision, providing no basis for practical action. Thus the Critical-Utopian Socialists become less significant as the modern class struggle takes shape; lacking practical significance, their “fantastic” attacks lose theoretical justification. Thus, while the founders were in many ways revolutionaries, their followers are mere reactionaries. They oppose political action by the proletariat.

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


The Manifesto concludes with a discussion about the role of the Communists as they work with other parties. The Communists fight for the immediate aims of workers, but always in the context of the entire Communist movement. Thus, they work with those political parties that will forward the ends of Communism, even if it involves working with the bourgeoisie. However, they never stop trying to instill in the working class a recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, and to help them gain the weapons to eventually overthrow the bourgeoisie.

Thus, “the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.” They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by forcibly overthrowing all existing social conditions. The Manifesto ends with this rallying cry: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”

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