What You Need to Know About 'The Communist Manifesto'

An Overview of the Famous Text by Marx and Engels

The rally cry of the communist party, and the closing words of The Communist Manifesto, as styled by Banksy.
"Workers of the World Unite," by Banksy, Bristol Museum, 2009. Flickr

"The Communist Manifesto," originally known as "The Manifesto of the Communist Party," was published by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848, and is one of the most widely taught texts within sociology. The text was commissioned by the Communist League in London, and was originally published there, in German. While at the time it served as a political rally cry for the communist movement throughout Europe, it is so widely taught today because it offers a shrewd and early critique of capitalism and its social and cultural implications.

For students of sociology, the text is a useful primer on Marx's critique of capitalism, which is presented in much more depth and detail in Capital, Volumes 1-3.

History

"The Communist Manifesto" is the product of the joint development of ideas between Marx and Engels, and rooted in debates held by Communist League leaders in London, however the final draft was written solely by Marx. The text became a significant political influence in Germany, and led to Marx being expelled from the country, and his permanent move to London. It was first published in English in 1850. 

Despite its controversial reception in Germany and its pivotal role in Marx's life, the text was paid rather little attention until the 1870s, when Marx took a prominent role in the International Workingmen's Association, and publicly supported the 1871 Paris commune and socialist movement. The text also captured wider attention thanks to its role in a treason trial held against German Social Democratic Party leaders.

Marx and Engels revised and republished the text after it became more widely known, which resulted in the text that we know today. It has been popular and widely read around the world since the late 19th century, and continues to serve as a basis for critiques of capitalism, and as a call for social, economic, and political systems that are organized by equality and democracy, rather than exploitation.

Introduction to the Manifesto

"A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism."

Marx and Engels begin the manifesto by pointing out that those in power across Europe have identified communism as a threat, which they believe means that as a movement, it has the political potential to change the power structure and economic system that was currently in place (capitalism). They then state that the movement requires a manifesto, and that this is what the text is meant to be.

Part 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."

In Part 1 of the manifesto Marx and Engels explain the evolution and functioning of the unequal and exploitative class structure that resulted from the rise of capitalism as an economic system. They explain that while political revolutions overturned the unequal hierarchies of feudalism, in their place sprung a new class system composed primarily of a bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and proletariat (wage workers). They wrote, "The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones."

Marx and Engels explain that the bourgeoisie have done this not just by control of industry, or the economic engine of society, but also because those within this class seized state power by creating and controlling the post-feudal political system. Consequently, they explain, the state (or, government) reflects the world views and interests of the bourgeoisie class--the wealthy and powerful minority--and not those of the proletariat, who are actually the majority of society.

Next Marx and Engels explains the cruel, exploitative reality of what happens when workers are forced to compete with each other and sell their labor to the owners of capital. An important consequence, the offer, is the stripping away of other kinds of social ties that used to bind people together in society. Within what has come to be known as a "cash nexus," workers are mere commodities--expendable, and easily replaceable.

They go on to explain that because capitalism is premised on growth, the system is gobbling up all people and societies around the world. As the system grows, expands, and evolves its methods and relations of production, ownership, and thus wealth and power are increasingly centralized within it. (The global scale of today's capitalist economy, and the extreme concentration of ownership and wealth among the global elite show us that the 19th century observations of Marx and Engels were on point.)

However, Marx and Engels wrote, the system itself is designed for failure. Because as it grows and ownership and wealth concentrate, the exploitative conditions of wage laborers only worsen over time, and these sew the seeds of revolt. They observe that in fact that revolt is already fomenting; the rise of the Communist party is a sign of this. Marx and Engels conclude this section with this proclamation: "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

It is this section of the text that is considered the main body of the Manifesto, and is most often quoted, and taught as an abridged version to students. The following sections are less well-known.

Part 2: Proletarians and Communists

"In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

In this section Marx and Engels explain what it is exactly that the Communist Party wants for society.

They begin by pointing out that the Communist Party is not a political workers party like any other because it does not represent a particular faction of workers. Rather, it represents the interests of workers (the proletariat) as a whole. These interests are shaped by the class antagonisms created by capitalism and the rule of the bourgeoisie, and transcend national borders.

They explain, quite plainly, that the Communist Party seeks to turn the proletariat into a cohesive class with clear and unified class interests, to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie, and to seize and redistribute political power. The crux of doing this, Marx and Engels explain, is the abolition of private property, which is the manifest of capital, and the essence of wealth hoarding.

Marx and Engels acknowledge that this proposition is met with scorn and derision on the part of the bourgeoisie. To this, they reply:

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; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

In other words, clinging to the importance and necessity of private property only benefits the bourgeoisie in a capitalist society.

Everyone else has little to no access to it, and suffers under its reign. (If you question the validity of this claim in today's context, just consider the vastly unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S., and the mountain of consumer, housing, and educational debt that buries most of the population.)

Then, Marx and Engels state the ten goals of the Communist Party.

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc.

While some of these might seem controversial and troubling, consider that some of them have and do exist in a variety of nations around the world.

Part 3: Socialist and Communist Literature

In Part 3 Marx and Engels present an overview of three different types of socialist literature, or critiques of the bourgeoisie, that existed at their time, in order to provide context for the Manifesto. These include reactionary socialism, conservative or bourgeois socialism, and critical-utopian socialism or communism. They explain that the first type is either backward looking and seeking to return to some kind of feudal structure, or that seeks to really preserve conditions as they are and is actually opposed to the goals of the Communist Party. The second, conservative or bourgeois socialism, is the product of members of the bourgeoisie savvy enough to know that one must address some grievances of the proletariat in order to maintain the system as it is. Marx and Engels note that economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, those that run charities, and many other "do-gooders" espouse and produce this particular ideology, which seeks to make minor adjustments to the system rather than change it. (For a contemporary take on this, see the differing implications of a Sanders versus a Clinton presidency.) The third type is concerned with offering real critiques of the class structure and social structure, and a vision of what could be, but suggests that the goal should be to create new and separate societies rather than fight to reform the existing one, so it too is opposed to a collective struggle by the proletariat.

Part 4: Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties

In the final section Marx and Engels point out that the Communist Party supports all revolutionary movements that challenge the existing social and political order, and close the Manifesto with a call for unity among the proletariat with their famous rally cry, "Working men of all countries, unite!"

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What You Need to Know About 'The Communist Manifesto'." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/communist-manifesto-4038797. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2017, March 2). What You Need to Know About 'The Communist Manifesto'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/communist-manifesto-4038797 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What You Need to Know About 'The Communist Manifesto'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/communist-manifesto-4038797 (accessed December 14, 2017).