The Communist Manifesto begins with Marx’s famous generalization that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (79). Marx describes these classes in terms of binary oppositions, with one party as oppressor, the other as oppressed. While human societies have traditionally been organized according to complex, multi-member class hierarchies, the demise of feudalism affected by the French Revolution has brought about a simplification of class antagonism.
Rather than many classes fighting amongst themselves (e. g. cient Rome with its patricians, knights, plebeians, and slaves), society is increasingly splitting into only two classes: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. This state of affairs is the result of a long historical process. The discovery and colonization of the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries required new methods of production and exchange. Because of the demand for more efficient, larger scale production, the medieval guild system gave way to new methods of manufacturing, defined by the widespread use of division of labor and, with the advent of industrialization, by steam and machinery.
It was the bourgeoisie”modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and the employers of wage labor” (79)who were the agents of these economic revolutions. The new economic powers of the bourgeoisie led to their political empowerment. While the bourgeoisie had originally served the nobility or the monarchy, they had come in the middle of the 19th century to control the representative states of Europe. In fact, as Marx famously notes, “the executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (82).
With this political empowerment came the destruction of the social fictions on which previous societies were based. Instead of focusing on the relationship of men to ‘natural’ superiors and inferiors, both in this life and the next, or even the indistinct Rights of Man championed in the first half of the 19th century, the bourgeoisie introduced an ethic based on the absolute right to free trade and the rational, egoistic pursuit of profit. It was not enough, though, for the bourgeoisie to radically change all that has preceded it; it must constantly change in the present in order to expand and exploit its markets.
As Marx says, “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” (83). This economic and social dynamism unsettles the boundaries of nations and creates pressure toward globalization, amounting to an economic imperialism that demands that other nations assimilate to bourgeois practice or be cosigned to the economic backwater. In this way, the bourgeoisie “create the world after their own image” (84).
Marx uses the above story of the bourgeoisie’s evolution to substantiate his central contention that the forces of production develop faster than the sociopolitical order in which those forces of production arise. The result of this disparity is a radical alteration of the sociopolitical order that allows it to catch up with the forces of production. Marx claims that this is what occurred in the shift from feudalism to bourgeois capitalism. This process, though, has not stopped.
The conditions for the existence of the bourgeois order are being undermined by the new forces of production which the bourgeoisie themselves have ushered in. This is evidenced by the many economic crisesresults of an epidemic of overproduction, which Marx sees as a consequence of bourgeois economic developmentthat rocked Europe in the 1830’s and 40’s. In response to these crises, the bourgeoisie scale back their production, find new markets, or more thoroughly exploit old ones. According to Marx, though, all this is for naught as it does not treat the underlying problems that will create more acute crises in the future.
Indeed, the underlying problems cannot be suitably treated as capitalism contains within it the seeds of its own demise, seeds which it itself nurtures through the necessary creation and ultimate exploitation of a new class, the proletariat. The proletariat is the workforce of bourgeois enterprise, “a class of laborers who live only so long as they can find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital” (87). The proletarians are themselves commodities and are likewise subject to the vicissitudes of the market.
And as with any other commodity, businesses want to minimize their cost of production, in this case, the wage that must be paid in order to make use of the worker’s labor power. According to Marx, this wage is the cost of bare subsistence for the proletariat and his family. Because of the division of labor, the work of the proletariat is assimilated to the great industrial machinery, of which they are no more than cogs. As the division of labor and the mechanization of industry increasesnecessary conditions of efficient productionso does the drudgery of the proletariat’s work.
As slaves to their bourgeois masters, the proletariat is in a constant state of antagonism with the bourgeoisie. This antagonism, though, leads to the mass mobilizationhelped by ever improving communication technologiesof the proletariat, increasingly aware of their collective power to effect changes in wages and working conditions. Indeed, the bourgeoisie, who educate the proletariat in order to mobilize the masses of workers in favor of their own political goals, helps the proletariat in this.
As the proletariat become more numerous and organized, though, members of the bourgeoisie begin to realize that their class will fall and the proletariat will triumph. These foresighted bourgeoisies, of which Marx is a member, increase class-consciousness among the proletariat and hurry their historically ordained victory. Eventually, the proletariat erupts into rebellion, casting off the shackles that bound them to the bourgeoisie. They condemn all the bourgeois laws, morality, and religions as facades for bourgeois economic interests.
They rend society apart, destroying the most fundamental condition of their own bondage, the institution of private property. All this is the necessary result of the rapacious bourgeois appetite for profit that brought the proletariat into existence and continually diminished his welfare. Thus, the bourgeoisie undermine the conditions of their own existence. As Marx concludes, “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (94).
Chapter 1 Analysis: Bourgeois and ProletariansThe Communist Manifesto was first published on the eve of the revolutions that rocked Europe in 1848. It was meant as a statement of purpose for Marx’s newly formed Communist League and its straightforward, even prophetic, tone is that of a man confidently explaining to a confused world the reasons for a tumult that had not yet begun. Why this confidence? The answer to this depends on Marx’s deterministic view of history. Marx inherited from Hegel, his philosophical father, the idea of historical progress.
Like Hegel, Marx believed that human history unfolds according to a distinct series of historical stages, each necessarily following the other. These stages ultimately lead to a prescribed Utopian endpoint, after which there will be no more change, an end to history. Unlike Hegel, though, Marx thought that these stages could be foretold. This is because there are scientific laws, discoverable by empirical methods, which govern the progress of history. In such a universe, people are but midwifes, facilitating or frustrating the birth of a new historical period, unable to alter the nature of the eventual result.
Marx believed that he had discovered these laws and with the certainty of a physicist predicting the trajectory of a projectile, Marx predicted the demise of capitalism and the triumph of communism. According to Marx, the course of human history takes a very specific form, class struggle. The engine of change in history is class antagonism. Historical epochs are defined by the relationship between different classes at different points in time. It is this model that Marx fleshes out in his account of feudalism’s passing in favor of bourgeois capitalism and his prognostication of bourgeois capitalism’s passing in favor of proletarian rule.
These changes are not the contingent results of random social, economic, and political events; each follows the other in predictable succession. When he wrote The Manifesto, Marx thought he was sounding the death knell for capitalism months before its demise. It is crucial to note, though, that this antagonism also takes a very specific form, that of the dialectic. According to Marx’s dialectical account of history, which he adapts from Hegel, every class is unstable, fated for ultimate destruction due to its internal contradictions.
Out of its ashes rises a new class, which has resolved the contradictions of its predecessor but retains it own, which will cause its eventual passing. In more specific terms, the bourgeoisie must create the proletariat as a condition of their own development, i. e. , in order to labor in their burgeoning industries. In doing this, they must treat the proletariat ever worse (by minimizing their production costs) while providing them the means to associate through politics. The necessary consequence of this is that the proletariat gains power and overthrow their oppressors.
The inner contradiction is the bourgeois need for proletariat labor; a need which when met creates the conditions of the bourgeoisie’s eradication. The proletariat’s moment in history is unique, though, as the proletariat’s vanquishing of capitalism leads to a classless society. If there are no more classes, there cannot be any class antagonism; and if there is no class antagonism, then on account of Marx’s view of history, there will be no more history. The triumph of the proletariat and the creation of a classless society is, then, the Utopian end of history toward which all previous historical events are directed.
More specifically, it is crucial to note the central role that economics plays in Marx’s view. While we might be inclined to view the progress of history-if we believe in progress at all-in terms of revolutionary ideas, i. e. Renaissance humanism, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, etc. , Marx viewed the progress of history in decidedly materialistic terms. The grand ideas by which we characterize societies are always the reflection of underlying economic realities.
In Marxist language, the superstructure (laws, morality, religion, politics, aesthetics: in short, culture) is always determined by the infrastructure (the methods of economic production and exchange); their social environments always determine peoples thoughts and behaviors. What we think of as cultural revolutions, even great political ones such as the French Revolution, are really the product of deeper economic issues expressed through class antagonism. This may not be immediately apparent as infrastructure always develops faster than superstructure.