Marx and Engels see society dominated by the capitalist class—the bourgeoisie—as fundamentally unequal. To them, it is patently unfair that those at the top of society have so much more power and wealth than those at the bottom—especially given that the proletariat greatly outnumbers the bourgeoisie. That power and money give the bourgeoisie disproportionate control over society’s laws, social authorities, and media, allowing it to accumulate ever greater wealth and resources—in other words, the unequal distribution of wealth goes hand in hand with societal inequality. What’s more, because capitalists seek to maximize their profits, it would be contradictory for them to increase the proletariat’s share. In fact, say Marx and Engels, it is in the capitalist class’ interest to maximize inequality; by giving members of the proletariat only the bare minimum required for their survival and continuing labor, the bourgeoisie prevents the working class from accumulating any wealth of its own, making it impossible in turn for workers to acquire any genuine power or proper say in society. Addressing inequality fueled by wealth distribution, then, is one of the main motivations behind the manifesto.
Capitalism, in the authors’ view, amounts to exploitation. The bourgeoisie own what Marx and Engels call the “means of production.” In essence, this can be thought of everything—apart from the people—required to create things to sell. The means of production includes materials, facilities, and machinery needed to make sellable products. However, the means of production only become productive because of the work put in by the proletariat. The manifesto, then, argues that it’s the proletariat’s work and this work alone that generates wealth in society; the bourgeoisie effectively steal this profit from its rightful recipients, the proletariat. An example from Marx and Engel’s time would be workers using the machines in a factory to produce goods for the bourgeoisie to sell; a more contemporary example might be computers in an office used for services work. Because the bourgeoisie wants to increase its wealth and power, it would never pay the proletariat enough to own the means of production for itself. Furthermore, because the members of the bourgeoisie are in direct competition with one another, workers’ wages are kept at the optimum level to maximize profit.
Of course, inequality is not just about how much money people have relative to one another. It also hugely affects education, living standards, and general quality of life. The reason Marx and Engels are so preoccupied with economic inequality is that it skews the power structure of society, placing control in the hands of a wealthy few and disenfranchising the masses. They see the modern government as fundamentally controlled by the bourgeoisie, giving them power over law, politics, and enforcement of order. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the bourgeoisie’s influence and control over society increase too. The bourgeoisie, then, moves to create a more centralized society that further favors profit-making: “Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation,” the authors write, “with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier and one customs-tariff.” It’s not the centralization of power that Marx and Engels object to—in fact, they see centralization as necessary to the proletariat’s revolution—but the way in this particular form of centralization fundamentally entrenches the unequal power dynamic by ensuring all the wealth filters up to the bourgeoisie ruling class.
Inequality, then, breeds inequality, becoming only further entrenched as the structure of society is increasingly made to favor the conditions that allow the bourgeoisie to increase their share of wealth. While others have argued that the bourgeoisie-proletariat relationship is a kind of mutually agreed upon contract, Marx and Engels maintain that members of the proletariat have no choice in accepting these conditions—they either accept the bourgeoisie’s demands or face impoverishment. That’s why the manifesto argues that the proletariat has to summon its collective power and overthrow the bourgeoisie; the capitalist class will never willingly make concessions to the proletariat in order to address inequality, and it therefore falls to the proletariat itself to take action through revolution.
Inequality and Distribution of Wealth ThemeTracker
Inequality and Distribution of Wealth Quotes in The Communist Manifesto
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.
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.
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 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!