Published in 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the Communist Manifesto was one of the most influential propaganda pieces ever written. This short pamphlet summarises the history of Communist thought and outlays their theories for the movement’s revolutionary next steps. It became the foundation on which future Communist revolutionaries such as Lenin based their leadership and policies.
Communism, at its heart, is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat. Marx and Engels describe that the proletariat was a newly emerging class due to the industrial revolution. This new class “lives entirely from the sale of its labor and does not draw profit from any kind of capital; whose weal and woe, whose life and death, whose sole existence depends on the demand for labor – hence, on the changing state of business, on the vagaries of unbridled competition. The proletariat, or the class of proletarians, is, in a word, the working class of the 19th century.”
Who should read this book: Anyone who wants to understand Socialism and Communism, and how these social, political, and economic ideas have shaped our past and continue to influence the world today.
I. Bourgeois and Proletarians
Quote from the chapter: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the struggling classes.”
Contents: Marx and Engels paint a picture of a world of power struggles and exploitation of the working class by those who control businesses, and enterprises and, in turn, become an oppressive oligarchy.
Capitalism: Destroys families: “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”. Creates an insatiable materialism in the population: “In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climates.“. And destroys the natural environment: “Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground”.
Amongst a slew of other critiques the chapter concludes with an inspiring image of the inevitable next chapter in human development. “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.”
Personal thoughts and notes: This book is as it was intended to be inherently propagandistic and achieves its task here. Capitalism, as with all human creations, is imperfect, but it equally has dramatically benefited the lives of billions, with millions more immigrating to partake in this invention. This ideology was intended to be shared far and wide to rally people to its cause. It is not an intelligent critique of capitalism but a radical promotion piece. I can see how people reading this, especially during the horrible working conditions of the industrial revolution could have felt their spirits lift to join such a cause.
II. Proletarians and Communists
Quote from the chapter: “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”
Contents: Here, Marx and Engels summarise the alternative economic and political system, Communism. Outlaying its tenants as well as answers to common objections. I will provide three of the examples explored below:
Abolition of private property (specifically that which generates further capital for its owners): The common objection is that the ability to earn and grow capital motivates individuals. Marx and Engels’ response to this is that if it were money that motivates us, we would have given up on capitalism long ago. “It has been objected that upon the abolition of private property all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us. According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work.”.
Abolition of countries and nationality: One claim is that in the unification of the working class nationality and countries will cease to exist. Again Marx and Engels claim that under capitalism this was happening anyway. “National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto. The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster. United action, of the leading civilized countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
Abolition of religion: Viewed through the power struggle lens described in the first chapter, Marx and Engels explain how religion was a useful way for people to describe their circumstances in their continued struggle against their oppressors. “When the ancient world was in its last throes, the ancient religions were overcome by Christianity. When Christian ideas succumbed in the eighteenth century to rationalist ideas, feudal society fought its death battle with the then revolutionary bourgeoisie. The ideas of religious liberty and freedom of conscience merely gave expression to the sway of free competition within the domain of knowledge.” Communism has no need for such expressions and “acts in contradiction to all past experience”. With no more class antagonisms, we will no longer rely on a unifying myth to make sense of the world around us. Marx famously wrote in a later publication, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”.
10 Steps to Implement Communism:
The chapter ends with a description of the general steps that a nation would take to implement this new system.
The measures will of course be different in different countries. Nevertheless in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.
- Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
- A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
- Abolition of all right of inheritance.
- Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
- Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.
- Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.
- 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.
- Equal obligation of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
- Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.
- Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc.
Once these 10 steps are implemented, it will mark the end of politics itself. With no longer the need for a political ruling class.
“When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”
Any organisation of the proletariat into a ‘class’ would be a temporary measure to overthrow the current systems; once this is complete “then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class. 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.” As you will read in my personal notes below, this idea was a fatal flaw in Marx and Engels’ thinking which meant this utopic state was never realised.
Personal thoughts and notes: Marx and Engels articulate this new world to be extremely egalitarian and free of a system of political leaders. An intermediate “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” was supposed to be a temporary necessity for the transition between a capitalist economy and a Communist economy. However, as history shows, no Communist revolution ever made it out of this phase.
Soon after the Russian Revolution Lenin (and later Stalin), began to implement these 10 steps. However, in reality, implementation turned out to be an impossibility. When they tried to implement Step 1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes. The farmers who owned their land (Kulaks) protested and refused to give it up. Fixated on this egalitarian vision they turned to Step 4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. Many Kulaks were sent to forced labour camps (Gulags) or relocated to distant provinces while their property was repossessed by the state.
This shows a fatal flaw in Marxist thinking, that the people in power got there through oppression alone. The actual fact is that they got there through competent farming. So when the competent farmers were killed, made to overwork the land, and grow unsuitable crops decided upon by the state, millions starved.
It cannot be understated how insidious of an idea this proved to be when Stalin held to it with radical religious fervour. This man-made famine was so severe that cannibalism became commonplace enough to warrant posters being made saying, “To eat your children is a barbarian act”.
When every one of the ideas described in this book failed to work in practice, leaders doubled down. They hid the millions of deaths and imprisoned further millions in Gulags to try to bolster the failing Soviet economy.
III. Socialist and Communist Literature
Contents: In this chapter, Marx and Engles introduce and critique the various doctrines of Communist and Socialist thinking found in the literature of the time.
1. Reactionary Socialism
Costing of three subtypes (A, B, and C, below) These early forms of Communist thinking were often ineffective reactions to the oppression around them.
A. Feudal Socialism
Emerging out of the aristocracies of France and England, Feudal Socialism was a critique of the bourgeois society because of its tendency to create a radical working class that would uproot the aristocracy. Their approach was “half lamentation, half lampoon, half echo of the past, half menance of the future… but always ludicrous in its effect.” Marx and Engles wrote: “The aristocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms-bag in front for a banner. But the people, so often as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coats of arms, and deserted with loud and irreverent laughter.”
B. Petty-Bourgeois Socialism
These Petty-Bourgeous writers were in class between the bourgeois and the proletariat. This school of Socialism effectively dissected capitalist machinery, how the division of labour turns man into machine; how the concentration of capital and land creates crying inequalities in the distribution of wealth, and with all this, the dissolution of moral and family bonds. However, rather than seeking a new system in the rebirth of society, they sort a return to the old means of production. A self-deceiving approach that was, as Marx and Engels put it, “reactionary and utopian.”
C. German or “True” Socialism
When France’s Socialist and Communist Literature made its way to Germany, philosophers eagerly consumed it. However, the broader social conditions were not ripe for the uprising of the proletariat. Hence this type of Socialism was absorbed into broader German thought, where it “assumed a purely literary aspect” and was “completely emasculated”. German “True” Socialism went as far as directly opposing “the “brutally destructive” nature of Communism, and of proclaiming its supreme and impartial contempt of all class struggles.” In this, they share a trait with the Bourgeoise Socialism described below.
2. Conservative, or Bourgeois, Socialism
This section of Communists consists of humanitarians, philanthropists, charity organisers, advocates for better working conditions, advocates against animal cruelty, etc. The type of temperate Communism that has been subsumed into the capitalistic systems. Marx writes, “The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois Socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the proletariat to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightway into the social New Jerusalem, it but requires in reality, that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.“
3. Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism
The final group of Communists mentioned by Marx and Engels arose alongside the previously mentioned reactionary forms of Socialism. At this time the industrial economic system from which the oppressive bourgeois emerged was yet to reach full maturity. Since the development of class antagonisms is a key prerequisite to motivate the proletariat to unify and form an independent political movement, these reactionaries failed to achieve their goals However, rather than being lulled by the writings of the aristocracy as with Feudal Socialists, or desiring a return to old means of production as with the Petty-Bourgeois Socialists, these individuals sort to work within the current system of laws to bring about their vision. Whilst their writings are important for “They attack every principle of existing society… all these proposals point solely to the disappearance of class antagonisms which were , at the time, only just cropping up”. They failed to see the inevitable rise of the bourgeoisie, the resulting increase of oppression, and subsequently increased class antagonism as necessary prerequisites for the Communist Party to take power. They are instead lost in the fantasy of their utopian ideas with no practical ways to see them to fruition.
IV. Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties
Contents: In this final short chapter Marx and Engles note which political movements the Communists are allied with in various of nations, so that readers can understand how to show their support locally. “In France the Communists ally themselves with the Social-Democrats… In Switzerland they support the Radicals… In Poland they support the party that insists on an agrarian revolution… and in Germany they fight with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarch, the feudal squirarchy, and the petty-bourgeoisie.“
This short whirlwind through the world of Communist thought ends with a call to arms for the unified proletariat across all nations.
“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!“
Concluding Comments and thoughts
This book at its core is a set of ideas. Firstly about how problems should be defined and understood (class struggle and oppression), and secondly, based on this understanding of the problem and how it should be solved (implementation of a revolutionary new economic system). Discussion of such ideas can certainly help us understand some of the causes of hardship we see around us, however, it is in the demonisation of those with opposing views that the Communists became the oppressors themselves. Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind describes two applicable concepts which can help explain how idea’s like Communism took hold in Russia. The Liberal Blind Spot, & Moral Capital:
The Liberal Blind Spot came out of research by Haidt which showed those with more singular moral sentiments (for example, care for the oppressed), had difficulty describing the viewpoints of individuals with a more multifaceted view (for example, caring for the oppressed, whilst maintaining an economy that can care for the oppressed into the far future, fairness, and an understanding that oppression alone is not the reason for someone’s struggles). Whilst this blindspot in a free democracy helps keeps some of the exploitative tendencies of capitalism in check, it could also have contributed to the demonisation of the Kulaks and other ‘Enemies of the State’. As they were unable to see that the noncooperation of these groups did not come from malice, but from taking into account other additional valuable moral concepts. In the article linked below, I summarise Haidt’s book including his study on the Liberal Blind Spot.
Secondly, Moral Capital is the idea that moral institutions, laws, and economic systems take centuries to be built up and should not be thrown away lightly. Marx and Engels, seeing everything through the lens of power sought the overturning and deconstruction of these existing oppressive systems. In this, they failed to take into account all the other positive things these systems brought to a nation.
A simplistic idea to explain hardship and pain in the world can be appealing, especially when it also offers a promising simple solution to these problems. However, Alexander Solzhenitsyn Russian novelist who spent eight years in the resulting Gulags put it correctly when he wrote:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”