The Communist Manifesto is a political text by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, aimed at both developing the theory of communism and engaging readers to take up its cause. First published in 1848, the book offers a detailed critique of capitalism, a spirited defense of communism, and practical suggestions for bringing about a communist society.
Marx and Engels suggest there is “a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.” Of course, it’s not Marx and Engels who think of communism as a fearsome “spectre,” but those who misunderstand its motives or wish to halt its progress. This sets the manifesto up as a response to those who misrepresent communism.
One of Marx and Engels’ most important ideas is that class struggle is the driving force behind all historical development. The authors argue that all societies in history have been divided between the oppressors and the oppressed. Whereas in previous societies this might play out in a more complex form, capitalism simplifies class division, splitting society into the bourgeoisie—those with all the wealth and private property—and the proletariat, the majority of the population that has no choice but to work for the bourgeoisie.
In a capitalist society, the bourgeoisie owns the “means of production,” which encompasses everything that is needed to make sellable products apart from the labor itself: materials, machinery, and infrastructure are all included. The proletariat are paid a wage to work with the means of production in order to create things the bourgeoisie can sell—which then generates profit, kept by the bourgeoisie. This allows the bourgeoisie to accumulate wealth, private property, and dominance over society.
Because capitalism is a competition-based economy, technological innovation can give one enterprise a competitive advantage over another. This has brought about rapid developments in technology across transport, communications, and distribution, hand in hand with the bourgeoisie’s emergence as the dominant class. The thirst for profit also spread capitalism further and further around the world, eroding national identities and forcing nations to choose between capitalism and economic exclusion. Capitalism also results in greater “division of labor,” driving down the skill level of work and splitting it up into more menial, repetitive tasks. Marx and Engels argue that, ironically, the improvements in technology and better worldwide connections create the opportunity for the proletariat to realize its potential collective strength—and, ultimately, overcome its oppression by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie, then, is “its own grave-digger.”
Marx and Engels outline the relationship of communism to the empowerment of the working classes (which, in their definition, includes anyone who exchanges their labor for wages from the bourgeoisie). Communism, they say, will support all working class parties who seek to improve the position of the proletariat. Furthermore, it will aim to unify the proletariat in different countries and aid them in harnessing their potential collective power.
Marx and Engels also defend communism against its critics. For example, they say communism has been charged with wanting to “abolish private property.” The authors counter that private property (which includes money and land) has already been abolished for the majority of the population—the proletariat—and only really exists for the bourgeoisie. Accordingly, communism only seeks to abolish the specifically bourgeois form of private property. They make similar defenses against other criticisms, including that communism wishes to do away with family life. Finally, they end the section with practical steps for the implementation of communism, including a high and progressive income tax, free education, the abolition of child labor, and the centralization of the means of transport, education, and financial institutions. They intend this centralization to be both in the hands and for the benefit of the proletariat.
Marx and Engels contextualize their ideas about communism with similar writing that has come before. Overall, Marx and Engels have few positives to say about these other works; they identify various types of socialist and communist literature, finding fatal flaws in each. “Reactionary Socialism,” they say, seeks only to preserve old ways of society and fails to acknowledge the way in which class struggle propels history. “Bourgeois Socialism” is insincere and wishes to trick the proletariat into being grateful for the bourgeoisie’s existence (through charity and education, for example). “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism” is literature that, though useful in identifying the way class antagonism changes society, is too crude, idealistic, and ultimately lacking in practicality. Marx and Engels are interested in ideas only insofar as they can bring about action and empower the proletariat.
Marx and Engels declare an alliance with those parties in Europe most closely aligned with the communist project. The manifesto ends with a rallying call, imploring the proletariat to fight against its bourgeoisie oppressors and start a revolution: “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”