Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto aims to do nothing less than direct humanity in how to be better. It takes a sweeping look at historical development, arguing that some societal shifts were better than others; essentially, there is a “good” type of development and a “bad.” The manifesto specifically looks at changes in society linked to capitalism in order to determine which of these represent genuine progress—that is, which are good for humanity—and which push humanity in the wrong direction. Overall, the argument they make is a call to arms for progress that empowers the working classes (the proletariat) to have control over the way society is run.
In the first chapter, Marx and Engels set the context for communism by looking at the way society has developed thus far. They argue that capitalism, based on free market ideas, has been necessary to bring about certain elements of progress that, in turn, are needed to make communism possible. The authors believe that capitalism has swept away old ways of living, such as feudalism (in which, put simply, people worked for land rather than money). This is in part because there are really just two classes under a capitalist system: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, which has all the money and owns all the property.
Capitalism has further changed society because the bourgeoisie is driven by the desire for ever-increasing profit, meaning it’s constantly concerned with innovation—whether that be developing new machinery to create products, or tinkering with the system used for distributing those products. And because members of the bourgeoisie are in competition with each other, they must innovate—“progress”—or be left behind. Though it promises profit, however, the progress of capitalism carries two threats to the bourgeoisie: firstly, the increased efficiency of production (symbolized by the modern industrial factory) creates the conditions for the proletariat to exist as a formidable class of its own; whereas before the working class was fragmented, under capitalism its members are so numerous that their collective power increases. (While Marx and Engels were observing these processes in 1848, much of their analysis of capitalism can still be applied over 150 years later.) Secondly, the “constant revolutionising of production” puts both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie under the strain of “everlasting uncertainty and agitation”—in other words, it creates a society in which things are always changing. However, because the proletariat doesn’t have the means to survive any sudden crises as a result of these changes—it lacks the financial cushion of accumulated wealth that insulates the bourgeoisie from “uncertainty and agitation”—it’s at risk of impoverishment when things go wrong and workers lose their wages. The authors believe this means the proletariat is therefore likely to want to galvanize together and rise up against the bourgeoisie. So, while capitalism can be thanked for the creation of the proletariat and its collective power in the first place, capitalism’s insatiable thirst for progress in the name of profit is what will bring about its downfall and the destruction of the bourgeoisie.
Marx and Engels use examples from the past to highlight shortcomings of mid-19th century “progressive” industrialization—with remarkable accuracy for 21st-century life too. The manifesto argues that the capitalist system has made everything about profit, reducing everything to “a mere money relation.” It’s stripped certain professions of their previous dignity, turning “the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science” into “paid wage-labourers.” Marx and Engels believe these professions are just some of the examples of work that wasn’t previously governed by having to turn a profit for the ruling classes—they were respected in their own right as worthy pursuits for the general benefit of society at large. Even family life has been torn of its “sentimental veil.” Marx and Engels argue that necessity of survival has meant that families in the proletariat have had their ties “torn asunder,” and that children are often forced to work. The communist project, then, is largely concerned with restoring dignity to people.
Capitalism has encroached on life to such an extent that only its overthrow can bring about a better, more progressive society. Marx and Engels’ view of history is not easy to simplify, but essentially they believe that “change” and “progress” are not one and the same. It takes the empowerment of the proletariat to turn the former into the latter; otherwise, “change” is just the way that the bourgeoisie innovates in order to maintain the status quo.
Capitalism and Progress ThemeTracker
Capitalism and Progress Quotes in The Communist Manifesto
A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.
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, that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
Modern Industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America has paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society […] Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones […] All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.
The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hated of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into its midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.
In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity—the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilization, too much commerce.
The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.
But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called in to existence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working class—the proletarians.
Modern industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrialist capitalist. Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the individual army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.
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.
You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths.
The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.
Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.
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!