Marx and Engels open with the claim that all history of society is the “history of class struggles.” They sketch out struggles between “oppressor and oppressed” that have taken place through the ages. Sometimes the fight is hidden, and sometimes it’s out in the open. These conflicts always ended either in the restructuring of society or the “common ruin” of the fighting classes.
This passage shows two crucial elements of Marx and Engel’s thinking. Firstly, that people in society can be neatly divided into class according to their economic circumstances. Secondly, that this has always been the case, and all history reflects the antagonism between the oppressor class and the oppressed class.
The modern bourgeois society has grown from the old feudal system, simplifying class in the process. Whereas before there were several gradations of class (for instance, in Ancient Rome with “patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves”), society is becoming increasingly split into two classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
Each society has its own specific economic structure, but the overall battle is always between the oppressor and the oppressed. Whereas before these battles might have been more complex and less overt, the particular success of the bourgeoisie has brought about a simplification of class. Because the bourgeois are so dominant, they have extinguished every class in their path—all except for the proletariat, which grows larger the more people the bourgeoisie oppresses.
Marx and Engels trace the historical development of the bourgeoisie. It begins with the Middle Ages with the burgesses, a group of people with local political power, before picking up speed during the Age of Discovery. The discovery of America and the ventures into Africa, East India and China brought increased trade and hastened rapid development in commerce, navigation, and industry.
The bourgeoisie’s expansion is directly linked to the widening of trade networks and an increased global market. When business was a more local activity, the class systems were more nuanced, varying from area to area. Increased trade, too, developed financial, communication, and transport infrastructure in order to facilitate easier and bigger profits.
Following this increased trade, the manufacturing system replaced the old feudal system of industry governed by guilds. The division of work into different guilds turned into the division of different tasks within a single workshop.
The point Marx and Engels are making is that new systems come about whenever the productive forces become too strong for the status quo. In this instance, greater and wider demand for products led from a more artisanal, local type of work to the manufacturing system, in which production is divided into smaller and more menial tasks.
As markets grew with increasing demand, “Modern Industry” replaced the manufacturing system. Marx and Engels liken modern industry to a giant, and argue that it brought into existence the modern bourgeois—replacing the “industrial middle class” with “industrial millionaires,” who are like “leaders of whole industrial armies.” This modern industry established the global market.
Marx and Engels are referring to the Industrial Revolution, which saw the rise of machination and factories take production to unprecedented levels. The bourgeoisie developed alongside industrialization—as industry became more like a “giant,” the group of people keeping most of the profit grew smaller. This shift also created the modern working class—the majority of the population that has no choice but to work for the bourgeois.
With each step in the development of the working class came a political development to match. Over time, the bourgeoisie has attained political dominance through the modern government, which, Marx and Engels say, is set up to serve the bourgeoisie’s interests.
Government is not a separate entity from the bourgeoisie—it’s one of the ways they exert power over society. This gives them the power to ensure all aspects of society further their aims, through the use of law, education, and authority (for example, the police).
Marx and Engels argue that the bourgeoisie has reduced all relations between “man and man” to “naked self-interest” and money. Free trade has come to dominate society and has made exploitation more open and “shameless,” whereas before it might have been veiled by religion and political “illusions.”
Marx and Engels are generally dismissive of religion, deeming it nothing more than a “veil” that hides the exploitation between oppressor and oppressed. Now that the bourgeoisie is the dominant class in society, this “veil” has been lifted, and nothing is important except for money. This applies both to the bourgeoisie, who seek to accumulate ever-increasing wealth, and the proletariat, whose oppressed position means they have sell their labor in order to make enough money to survive.
The bourgeoisie, Marx and Engels claim, has removed the dignity from work. Even physicians, lawyers, priests and poets are just “paid wage-labourers” now. Family, too, has lost its sentimental value and become another money-based relationship.
Work is no longer meaningful except in terms of its profitability. Even science, for example, is only useful insofar as its innovations can further the bourgeoisie’s profiteering. By reducing all relations to “self-interest and money,” the bourgeoisie has removed the meaning from work—and, by extension, people’s lives.
The bourgeoisie has to constantly revolutionize the “instruments of production” in order to maintain its dominance. But in doing so, it changes everything about society too. Marx and Engels suggest that this keeps society in a constant state of “uncertainty and agitation.” And the need for a constantly expanding market means the bourgeoisie spreads over the whole surface of the globe.
In order to keep making profit, the bourgeoisie has to look for ways to do things bigger, better and faster. The instruments of production—things like tools, factories and infrastructure—are in a constant process of renewal. The bourgeoisie capitalist system is based on competition, and even the slightest improvement can give one business the edge over another. Competition also drives the bourgeoisie to conquer markets far and wide, both to maximize profit and to prevent any competitive advantage for someone else.
This global expansion destroys “national industries,” and has meant that nations no longer use their own materials but instead draw them from the “remotest zones.” The bourgeoisie’s products have spread all over the world and created “new wants” that can no longer be satisfied by what is contained within a given nation. Instead, there is a move towards “universal inter-dependence of nation,” both with materials and intellectual creations.
Instead of individual nations with individual cultures and systems, the bourgeoisie makes this individuality increasingly meaningless and impossible. This creates a precarious connection between nations, with one depending on another for a given material. Here, capitalism is also explicitly linked with desire—it’s changed the way people see themselves, and made them long for bourgeois products.
Furthermore, this expansion means all nations get drawn into “civilization”—on the bourgeoisie’s terms. The cheapness of bourgeois goods makes them irresistible; Marx and Engels liken these “commodities” to “heavy artillery,” forcing nations to comply or face extinction—become bourgeois, or cease to exist.
Marx and Engels use the word “civilization” lightly. They don’t necessarily think capitalism is more civilized, but that it presents itself in that way in order to make its dominance seem logical and inevitable. Because the bourgeoisie is so good at bringing down the costs of its desirable goods, nations face the choice of joining the system or being excluded. Part of the bourgeoisie’s skill is to make exclusion seem like a terrible fate.
Marx and Engels argue that the bourgeoisie has brought about greater urbanization and an increase in population. This has meant a shift in society towards cities rather than the countryside. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, it’s almost made less “civilized” nations dependent on the bourgeois nations.
The industrialization brought about by the bourgeoisie concentrates jobs in urban environments, where the factories are built. This leads to a move away from agricultural society to an industrial one dependent on larger and larger cities. The inequality doesn’t just play out on a city/country level—it plays out across different countries too. The more “successfully” bourgeois nations dominate those that are yet to catch up, entrenching inequality around the world.
Marx and Engels point towards the bourgeoisie’s revolutionary “productive forces.” These range from the “application of chemistry to industry and agriculture” to technological advancements in transport and communications.
The bourgeoisie doesn’t do away with agriculture—in fact, it doesn’t do with anything that can help turn a profit. Instead, it takes something like agriculture, which used to be a way of life, and makes profit its sole purpose. Agriculture will continue to grow as long as there is more profit to generate—whether or not that’s at the expense of land, animal, or human welfare. Capitalism is undoubtedly productive, but Marx and Engels fundamentally disagree with its motives.
Bourgeois society had its foundations in feudal society, in terms of the means of production and exchange. At some stage, say Marx and Engels, the feudal way of doing things—especially in relation to property—became restrictive. The feudal system’s fetters had to be “burst asunder.”
This passage restates that Marx and Engels see history as a series of class struggles. The bourgeoisie grew out of feudal society—or outgrew feudal society, to be more accurate.
In place of the restrictions of the feudal system came free market competition, bringing its own social political changes to match. Marx and Engels believe that a similar process of change is starting to bear down on the bourgeoisie itself—its gigantic means of production and of money-based exchange have grown beyond its control, like a “sorcerer no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”
The bourgeoisie has become too successful for its own good, and it has laid the foundations for its own destruction. Capitalist bourgeois society is likened to a magician because, seemingly out of nowhere, it has completely changed the world in a way that has never been seen before.
Marx and Engels argue that the capitalist system periodically brings about a state of crisis, threatening the very existence of the bourgeoisie itself. To them, these crises often have the absurd effect of “overproduction,” and push society back into a state of “barbarism” and “devastation.” In capitalist society, there is too much so-called “civilization,” “industry” and “commerce.”
Capitalism is inherently unstable because of its size and the interconnectedness of its different elements; it’s so complex that, when things go wrong, things go very wrong. Furthermore, it’s the first system that’s ever had the problem of “overproducing,” or making too much. When goods are overproduced, they become devalued, catastrophically affecting the whole system involved in their creation and distribution. Those most affected by these crises are those at the bottom of the economic class system—the bourgeoisie are better protected because of their wealth.
According to Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie copes with these crises by destroying society’s “productive forces,” seeking new markets, and by further exploiting existing markets. This approach only leads to more and worse crises in the long run.
Bourgeoisie solutions to crises only make these catastrophes more likely in the long run. Marx and Engels feel that the capitalist model is fatally flawed.
However, according to Marx and Engels, change is coming. Those same “weapons” that the bourgeoisie used to defeat feudalism are now being turned against the bourgeoisie itself. The bourgeoisie has unwittingly brought into existence the class that will wield those weapons: the proletariat.
Another crucial element of Marx and Engels’ argument emerges: the success of the bourgeoisie has brought about the existence of the proletariat. The proletariat can loosely defined as “working-class,” but more broadly it includes anyone who is oppressed by the bourgeoisie (and so might include people more traditionally thought of as middle class). According to Marx and Engels, this new proletariat class will bring about the destruction of the bourgeoisie.
The size of the proletariat increases in proportion to the expansion of capitalism. The modern working class needs work to survive, and it can only find said work if it increases the bourgeoisie’s profits. Laborers, then, become like a commodity themselves, exposed to all the risks of competition and changes in the market.
In a capitalist system, the proletariat only has one asset: its labor. Members of the proletariat have to sell their labor to the bourgeoisie in exchange for a wage—this is their only means of survival in a capitalist system. These workers, then, become like products themselves—they are sellable commodities first, human beings second.
The use of machinery and the division of labor into smaller task have spoiled the “individual character” of work—there’s no “charm” left for the workmen, as the worker is just a part of the machine. As the work becomes less skilled and less enjoyable, the bourgeoisie drives wages down, paying the proletariat just enough for them to survive. That work becomes more arduous, repetitive, and time-pressured.
The bourgeoisie has systematically devalued work, making a wage packet its sole aim. Marx and Engels think work should be about more than money—it should enrich individuals in a spiritual rather than financial way and foster a sense of community. The bourgeoisie has streamlined work, breaking it into a series of smaller, low-skilled tasks. This makes the work boring, but serves the bourgeoisie by widening the pool of laborers to choose from (if a task is easy, then more people can perform it).
To Marx and Engels, the nature of work for the proletariat in the capitalist system means more and more people are crammed into factories, “organized like soldiers.” They are “slaves” to the machines, to the factory overseers and, ultimately, to the bourgeoisie. The driving down of skill level has meant differences of age and sex no longer mean anything—women and children are put to work in the factories too.
Marx and Engels’ military metaphor here suggests their belief that the proletariat can become a revolutionary force if properly organized. This, ultimately, will be the fault of the bourgeoisie—by cramming people into factories, they unwittingly give the people the opportunity to form a powerful mass. The other point here is that the industrialization, lack of empathy and driving down of skills built into the capitalist system bring about a rise in child labor.
The capitalist system draws more and more people into the proletariat. People more generally thought of as middle- rather than working-class get pulled down, partly because they can’t compete with the bourgeoisie and also because their specialized skills are rendered worthless by the bourgeoisie’s innovation of methods of production. The proletariat, then, doesn’t come exclusively from the working class.
Capitalism flattens the class system, reducing it to the ultimate conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Anyone not in the bourgeoisie is at risk of falling into the proletariat if bourgeois innovations can render their skills meaningless. The proletariat, then, encompasses anyone who depends upon selling their labor to the bourgeoisie in exchange for a wage.
Marx and Engels state that the proletariat has occasionally fought back against the bourgeoisie, but such instances are generally confined to local disputes. These rebels might attack their own “instruments of production”—by angrily destroying factory machinery, for example—but haven’t yet sought to overthrow the entire system that enslaves them.
The proletariat exacts revenge by targeting the most immediately available representation of their suppression—the machinery. By destroying machinery, they destroy the bourgeois-owned “instruments of production” that facilitate the proletariat’s oppression. However, because these are local incidents, the bourgeoisie can handle them easily (by replacing anything that’s broken and firing rebellious workers). In order to truly fight back, the proletariat needs to become more aware of the actual system that enslaves them, and attack that, rather than attacking its symptoms.
Where the proletariat has been grouped together into greater number, it is usually on the orders of the bourgeoisie to help the latter achieve its own political aims. The bourgeoisie maintains control, even when it comes to acts of rebellion.
Ironically, the bourgeoisie is aware of the proletariat’s strength in numbers but has managed to use it to their advantage to further their own power. It’s this power over the workers that allows the bourgeoisie to coerce them into supporting bourgeois aims. Marx and Engels want that people power to be detached from the bourgeoisie’s exploitation.
Crucially, say Marx and Engels, the proletariat is growing larger and larger and will gradually begin to feel its collective strength. The localized struggles between individual members of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are looking more like direct representations of a wider class struggle. As conditions for the workers get worse in terms of pay, job security, and self-worth, they are getting better organized and grouping into trade unions.
Unions help to empower the proletariat by giving them a collective voice. Ultimately, Marx and Engels are arguing for a union across all trades and nations in the form of communism. Because the bourgeoisie cannot produce anything without the collective efforts of the proletariat, the threat to withhold this collective labor allows the proletariat to redress the imbalance of power.
Marx and Engels point out that advances in the means of communications and transport, brought about by bourgeois innovation, help the proletariat to be better organized, allowing workers from different places to galvanize together.
Here, Marx and Engels present further evidence that the increasing network of the bourgeoisie has the unintended consequence of simplifying proletariat organization.
Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie is still fighting battles with other elements of society. These are the aristocracy, portions of the bourgeoisie that go against the idea of “progress,” and the bourgeoisie of rival countries. In fighting these battles, the bourgeoisie try to enlist the support of the proletariat; however, by empowering the proletariat with political and general education, they are actually providing the weapons that the proletariat will eventually use to overthrow them.
Members of the bourgeoisie try to use politics and education to make the proletariat loyal to them. They play a dangerous game, because in improving the intellectual understanding of the proletariat, the bourgeoisie also make an uprising more likely. Marx and Engels believe that the proletariat will become wise to its oppression and refuse to maintain the status quo.
The proletariat pulls small numbers of the bourgeoisie’s members into its orbit—those who feel they have a great comprehension of historical movements and want to be part of the “class that holds the future in its hand.” The proletariat attracts conservative elements of the middle class who want to protect their old ways of existence. It also attracts what Marx and Engels call the “dangerous class”—those already rejected by society.
Marx and Engels expand on their idea of the proletariat. Though it is still mainly comprised of the working class, others fall into it too. According to Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie that want to join the proletariat are disingenuous—true members of the proletariat have no say over their class position. Marx and Engels also distrust the “conservative” middle class that fears change brought about by both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—these people just want society to stay the same, and so they are not revolutionary.
The proletariat’s conditions mean its members have skewed family relations, no property, and no “trace of national character.” In the proletariat’s eyes, “Law, morality, [and] religion” are infected with bourgeois prejudices and are beholden to bourgeois interests.
For Marx and Engels, nothing about the way society is run favors the proletariat. That’s why they are so dismissive of conventional standards of law, morality, and religion—they see these three as being both distractions and tools of oppression used by the bourgeoisie. For example, if a member of the proletariat wanted to sue his or her boss for poor working conditions, the law would always be on the bourgeois’ side, because it’s written, adjudged and enforced by them.
Since the proletariat has nothing of its own, it must destroy all “previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.” Marx and Engels see the potential uprising of the proletariat as the first movement of a majority, and believe that each nation’s proletariat must individual “settle matters” with its own bourgeoisie.
Another key element of Marx and Engels’ argument emerges: because the proletariat is denied any private property, the system that allows for private property has to be destroyed. Private property—meaning anything that one person can claim as their own, be it money, land, or anything else—produces inequality that is fundamentally unfair to the majority of society. Another important point to acknowledge here is that Marx and Engels believe that the rise of the proletariat represents the final and ultimate class struggle. Because it is the uprising of the majority—not a privileged few—it will result in a fairer, equal society, removing the need for class antagonism.
Marx and Engels argue that if the proletariat doesn’t resist its conditions, its members will continue to grow poorer as the bourgeoisie get richer. Because the bourgeoisie can’t be relied upon to provide the proletariat with a decent existence, society has to change completely. The bourgeoisie’s existence is no longer “compatible” with society.
Unless the proletariat rises up, inequality will only become more entrenched over time. To Marx and Engels, there is no compromise—the only solution is the destruction of the bourgeoisie. Crucially, they never really spell out what should happen with those people already members of the bourgeoisie—presumably they become part of the proletariat too.
Because the bourgeoisie has exploited so many workers, it has laid the foundations of its own destruction. It has become, in Marx and Engel’s phrase, “its own grave-digger.” Marx and Engels see the downfall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat as inevitable.
This passage sums up what Marx and Engels have been arguing in this chapter: the bourgeoisie, by creating the proletariat class, has mistakenly put in place the forces that will bring about its own destruction. Once the proletariat takes charge of its collective power, the overthrow of the bourgeoisie is inevitable.