Marx and Engels’ mission is to revolutionize class and hierarchy. They see people as stratified into distinct categories fundamentally based on economics. Yet they see class not just as a way of categorizing people, but also as a force that itself shapes history. It is this force, they argue, rather than actions by individual “great men,” that defines the world. History, in turn, is inseparable from class struggle—and any chance of a more equal society depends on acknowledging this. According to the manifesto, every about an individual’s life is governed by economic class.
Marx and Engels argue that all history is the “history of class struggles.” These struggles used to be smaller as populations were lower and people were dispersed more widely. The authors provide numerous examples of these early conflicts, including those in Ancient Rome between patricians, knights, plebeians, and slaves. But all of these conflicts, including that between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, are essentially battles of an “oppressor” versus the “oppressed.” Class struggle, then, propels humanity. Even the bourgeoisie itself struggled against other dominant classes, such as the aristocracy, to win its sweeping dominance over society. Now, however, this dominance cements and deepens divisions between the capitalist class and the workers who maintain it—that is, the industrial “army” of workers that constitutes the proletariat. They are oppressed by the bourgeoisie, which pays them just enough for them to survive and continue to generate products (and therefore profit) for their oppressors.
Marx and Engels go into great detail about how they see the bourgeoisie oppressing the proletariat. Because the bourgeoisie depends upon the competition of the market, it requires never-ending growth and innovation: “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe,” the authors write, “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” The bourgeoisie’s dominance of the social hierarchy, then, depends upon its ability to consistently revolutionize the “instruments of production”—that is, to make manufacturing and distribution processes as cheap and efficient as possible. That means driving down the cost of labor—in other words, the wages of the working class.
Furthermore, the bourgeoisie is the first class capable of bringing about overproduction (when more product is made than the market demands). This relentless expansion means that the capitalist system is exposed to risks—if it overproduces, the subsequent readjustment can lead to economic crises. (The 2008 credit crash is exactly the kind of crisis Marx and Engels had in mind.) Those most exposed to the fallout of crises are the members of the proletariat; without the wealth needed to ride out moments of crisis, they are exposed to unemployment, recession, and impoverishment. Capitalist society, Marx and Engels thus argue, both drives down quality of life and brings about economic crises, with graver consequences for the proletariat than the bourgeoisie—underscoring the authors’ point that people’s lives are inherently linked to their place within the social hierarchy.
Marx and Engels believe that only by abolishing the class hierarchy altogether will the proletariat be empowered and the collective lot of society be vastly improved. The sweeping dominance of the bourgeoisie class over the proletariat means that nothing less than a revolution can bring about progress. Crucially, by creating an “army” of industrial workers, the bourgeoisie unwittingly sows the seeds of its own destruction. When the proletariat realizes the power it holds by being so numerous, it will realize the unfairness of the capitalist system and mobilize to destroy the oppressive bourgeoisie. If the proletariat can successfully rise up, they will take control of society and no longer be oppressed—they “have nothing to lose but their chains.” Class and hierarchy, then, are inseparable from Marx and Engel’s argument for communism. In order to create a more just and equal society, the class system itself has to be destroyed by the collective uprising of the proletariat. With a communist system, the authors argue, resources will be more fairly distributed, and everyone will feel the benefits—otherwise the market will continue to lurch from one crisis to another, disproportionately exposing those at the bottom of the hierarchy to the worst of these crises’ effects.
Class and Hierarchy ThemeTracker
Class and Hierarchy Quotes in The Communist Manifesto
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.
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.
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.
All objections urged against the Communistic mode of producing and appropriating material products, have, in the same way, been urged against the Communistic modes of producing and appropriating intellectual products. Just as, to the bourgeois, the disappearance of class property is the disappearance of production itself, so the disappearance of class culture is to him identical with the disappearance of all culture. That culture, the loss of which he laments, is, for, the enormous majority, a mere training act as a machine.
The charges against Communism made from a religious, a philosophical, and, generally, from an ideological standpoint, are not deserving of serious examination.
Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?
What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is change? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.
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.
A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.
To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organizers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind.
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!