The Communist Manifesto isn’t just a work of theory and history—it’s very reason for existence is a call to arms, intended to empower the proletariat with the intellectual motivation and means to overthrow the oppression of the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels believe that the ruling classes of society are always the ones that set the agenda in terms of dominant ideas. Accordingly, their project is to make people see that society doesn’t have to be governed by bourgeois ideology. The manifesto challenges the status quo on intellectual grounds by both showing that “the way things are” is not inevitable, but the result of bourgeois dominance, and by setting out the intellectual alternative.
The authors want their text to be of practical use. That’s why, although it can be difficult to read in places, it is generally set out in simple and immediate terms. They see the manifesto as a tool to be used in the fight to overthrow capitalism. In order to empower the proletariat intellectually, they shine a light on the way the bourgeoisie seeks to suppress the proletariat through ideology.
In controlling society, the bourgeoisie also has great influence over the specific ideas encountered by the proletariat, through government, education, and the media. Meanwhile the division of labor—in which the proletariat is given ever more menial and repetitive tasks as “work”—further aids the bourgeoisie by reducing the level of education required to fulfill the requirements of their jobs. Through education and the media, the bourgeoisie can disseminate its own ideology and make it seem as if society’s status quo is simply how things are meant to be. For example, Marx and Engels outline how the idea of “freedom” in bourgeois society has no greater meaning other than the freedom to trade. Communism can be critiqued as less “free” than capitalism because it does—or would—limit certain freedoms. But, say Marx and Engels, it’s only bourgeois ideas of freedom (that is, the freedom to accumulate immense wealth at the expense of others) that communism would seek to limit. In fact, say Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie only has one main governing intellectual idea: “capital.” All relations have been reduced to money and property, in all contexts. By spelling out what they see as bourgeois ideology, Marx and Engels hope that the injustices of bourgeois society will become obvious to the proletariat, and therefore more likely to be revolted against. For Marx and Engels, then, one of the great tricks of the bourgeoisie is to suppress the class consciousness of the proletariat in order to prevent it from rising up against them. That’s why they see it as the proletariat’s own responsibility to “cast off the chains” of exploitation and inequality. This is at the very heart of the manifesto’s project: to intellectually awaken the proletariat so that its members can see their own oppression by the bourgeoisie.
Marx and Engels’ attempt to awaken the proletariat consists of more than just a critique of capitalism. As the opening of the manifesto acknowledges, communism in 1848 is becoming a stronger force across Europe, and accordingly its ideas are under greater intellectual attack and misrepresentation. As such, the other way that the manifesto seeks to empower the proletariat is by answering external criticisms of communism and offering coherent ideas of what communism actually stands for. In their introduction, Marx and Engels specifically frame the manifesto as in part a response to unfair suspicions of communism. These, they say, represent an active attempt on behalf the bourgeoisie to prevent the rise of a challenge to capitalism. They then devote much of the “Proletarians and Communists” section to answering these attacks. For example, Marx and Engels say that they have been charged with wanting to abolish all property; they counter that the bourgeoisie system already abolishes property by preventing most of the population from having any. Marx and Engels only wish to abolish the bourgeois ability to accumulate more and more property at others’ expense. Another important defense Marx and Engels make is against the idea that communism is anti-national and anti-culture. They say that industrialization is already making nations more and more similar, and that, again, the only culture they wish to do away with is specifically bourgeois.
Finally, Marx and Engels point out that the ruling ideas throughout history have been those belonging to the ruling class. These ruling classes portray their self-serving ideas as being logical, eternal truths; Marx and Engels argue that they are merely ways of manipulating society to maintain the dominance of the ruling class. Accordingly, for Marx and Engels, one of the most exciting prospects of the proletariat seizing power is that they will no longer be dominated by a ruling class’ intellectual ideas. Everyone will be free from oppression and able to engage in the “free development of all.” The Communist Manifesto, then, is both intended as an intellectual and a practical document. By presenting intellectual ideas to the proletariat—championing those of communism and criticizing those of capitalism—the authors can empower the most oppressed in society both to see the conditions of their oppression and the ways in which they can fight back. That’s why, at the manifesto’s close, Marx and Engels end in capital letters and with an exclamation mark: “WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!” They intend their ideas to have tangible and practical use in inspiring and empowering the proletariat to take control of their lives.
Intellectual Suppression vs. Empowerment ThemeTracker
Intellectual Suppression vs. Empowerment 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!