In this chapter, Marx and Engels survey three types of socialist and communist literature. The first section is on “Reactionary Socialism,” which is itself made up of Feudal Socialism, Petty-Bourgeois Socialism, and “True” German Socialism.
This section is primarily concerned with differentiating Marx and Engels’ manifesto from similar texts. It’s a kind of literature review of other thinkers who have something in common with Marx and Engels.
Feudal Socialist literature comes after the French Revolution of 1830 and was written by the French and English aristocracy in an effort to resist the increasing domination of the bourgeoisie. However, according to Marx and Engels, they were only interested in stopping the bourgeoisie in order to preserve their own dominance. Their chief objection to bourgeoisie society was that it would bring about a revolutionary proletariat class, ultimately threatening their way of life.
To Marx and Engels, feudal socialism is inferior to what they’re proposing for two reasons: firstly, it’s a “socialism” of a once-dominant class, the aristocracy; communism will empower those that have never been the dominant class. Secondly, it actively seeks to prevent the emergence of a powerful proletariat—essentially, it’s just the death throes of a dying oppressor.
Petty-Bourgeois Socialists are descended from the class of medieval burgesses and peasant proprietors who are now at risk of slipping into the proletariat. These writings, according to Marx and Engels, successfully point out that the petty-bourgeois class will cease to exist, and that its members will join the proletariat.
This literature is slightly more successful in Marx and Engels’ opinion. They at least identify both the significance of class struggle as a historical force, and that the class system is being simplified into bourgeoisie and proletariat.
Petty-Bourgeois Socialists were also right to point in the “contradictions in the conditions of modern production,” say Marx and Engels. These petty-bourgeois writers proved the negative effects of machinery and the division of labor, and showed that the bourgeois capitalist system would lead to inequality, financial crises, and war. However, Marx and Engels ultimately see their solutions as flawed: they either seek to return to the old ways of society, or to limit progress.
The petty-bourgeois were good at diagnosing the problem with capitalist society but incapable of prescribing the correct solutions. The petty-bourgeois, according to Marx and Engels, are essentially not revolutionary enough.
German, or “True,” Socialism refers to the adoption of French ideas by German thinkers. Marx and Engels accuse these thinkers of failing to recognize that France and Germany had completely different social conditions. These German thinkers were naively romantic and were not thinking practically about society in their own country.
The “True” here is meant sarcastically, poking fun at the way these German thinkers felt they were uncovering essential truths about mankind. The charge against this literature is that it is entirely impractical—what works in France might not make sense in Germany. By implication, then, communism is presented as pragmatic and responsive to the actual needs of the proletariat in any given country.
Most importantly, say Marx and Engels, these German Socialists didn’t realize that the rise of the bourgeoisie is a necessary step in the evolution of an equal society. The “True” Socialists supported the petty-bourgeois and thus only served to defend the status quo—they weren’t calling for true revolution or equality.
This is an important reminder of part of the argument in the first section of the manifesto—that bourgeois capitalism is necessary in order to both bring about the existence of the proletariat and the advances needed for the proletariat to organize its revolution.
The second main section of this chapter concerns “Conservative, or Bourgeois, Socialism.” This socialism is offered by those elements of the bourgeoisie that say they want to address “social grievances.” Marx and Engels believe this type of socialism is dishonest—what bourgeois socialists want above all is bourgeois dominance over the proletariat.
Bourgeois socialists are almost like double agents, pretending to champion the proletariat while in fact serving the interests of the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels see them as part of the intellectual battle—this brand of socialism essentially tries to trick the proletariat by appearing to be caring and generous. However, their overall aims, according to the authors, are no different from the bourgeoisie itself.
This group includes all sorts of moral reformers who might appear to have good intentions: “economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members […] hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind.”
This relates to the authors’ idea that the dominant class has control of the dominant ideas. They are imploring their readers not to be naïve when it comes to seemingly good intentions on the part of the bourgeoisie.
Marx and Engels argue that this bourgeois socialism aims to maintain the status quo, allowing the bourgeoisie to enjoy their dominant status while removing the revolutionary potential from the proletariat. They do this, say Marx and Engels, by trying to address the proletariat’s social problems and minimizing any ill-will the proletariat holds towards them. Their overall aim, then, is to keep the proletariat oppressed while doing just enough to pacify any potential animosity from their inferiors.
Bourgeois socialism is fundamentally deceptive according to Marx and Engels. It is the bourgeoisie’s attempt to trick the proletariat by pretending to be on their side. The intention is to make the proletariat see its oppression not as the fault of the bourgeoisie, but as simply an unfortunate symptom of “the way things are.” This type of socialism completely and deliberately ignores the way the proletariat is denied any ownership over the means of production. Bourgeois socialism is no different from the bourgeois status quo in that it keeps the proletariat dependent on money from the bourgeoisie for survival.
A second type of bourgeois socialism attempts to show the proletariat that revolutions are dangerous and doomed to fail. It argues that reforms have to take place within the system (rather than there being a total destruction of the system). Marx and Engels sum up this type of socialism by stating that “the bourgeois is a bourgeois—for the benefit of the working class.”
This passage contains another example of intellectual suppression by the bourgeoisie. They aim not only to oppress the proletariat but also to make the proletariat grateful for the bourgeoisie’s very existence.
The third and final section of this chapter is “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism.” Marx and Engels say that these writings came about during the proletariat’s first attempts to improve its status in society. However, as the proletariat was too undeveloped, so too was the corresponding literature. It had a “reactionary character” and a “crude” form.
This type of literature had genuine intentions, but lacked the know-how to create something genuinely useful.
These writers, say Marx and Engels, did well to recognize the way in which class antagonisms change society. But they were too “utopian,” or idealistic. Their other problem was that, because the proletariat was not yet ready, the utopian writers looked for new social sciences and laws to aid the working classes. These constitute a “new social Gospel” of little practical use.
Critical-utopian literature was unrealistic and, like the German, “True,” Socialism, not practically applicable. It was also a victim of circumstance, arising too early in the development of the proletariat.
Despite their criticism, Marx and Engels do think that these utopian writers provide useful material for the “enlightenment” of the proletariat because they focus on the unfair principles that govern society. Their analysis is good and valuable, but their proposed solutions are unrealistic and premature.
For Marx and Engels, these writers have at least served the purpose in providing useful intellectual analysis for the proletariat, aiding their empowerment.
As the conditions required for a proletariat revolution materialize, these idealistic writings “lose all practical value and all theoretical justification.” Marx and Engels argue that, while the originators of these works were in some sense “revolutionary,” their followers are only reactionary. Their lack of realism means they do not prioritize genuine class struggle; instead they are fantasists dreaming of impossible, perfect societies: “castles in the air.” Over time, they become more like “conservative Socialists.”
Marx and Engels use “reactionary” as a criticism throughout the manifesto. In this context, “reactionary” doesn’t mean a “speedy response,” but a desire to return society to the way it used to be. This is the “status quo ante,” as opposed to the “status quo.”So while critical-utopian literature was once revolutionary in its analyses (if not solutions), its later followers misguidedly want to take society backwards, rather than bring about revolution. That’s why the conservative and critical-utopian socialists are said to be similar.