Marx and Engels view the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as engaged in two very different types of work. In fact, they don’t really consider what the bourgeoisie does as work at all, but as profiteering. It is members of the proletariat who do all the actual work in society, while the only “work” the bourgeoisie engages in is ensuring it maintains profit and power. Whereas previous models of work offered dignity and self-worth, the bourgeoisie has turned work into a transaction itself, in which the proletariat sells the one thing it has—labor power—to the bourgeoisie simply in order to survive. This fundamentally devalues work; under a capitalist system, work is just a commodity for sale like anything else. Under a communist system, however, Marx and Engels believe people will feel pride in their work and be rewarded fairly.
The bourgeoisie isn’t interested in the proletariat’s experience of work—it doesn’t matter to them whether individuals enjoy their job or not, as long the work gets done. To the bourgeoisie, labor power is something to be bought and sold just like any other product. According to Marx and Engels, members of the proletariat have to sell their labor power—their work—in order to get by. As that’s all they have to make enough money to survive, proletarians are turned into sellable commodities. This means the very nature of individuals’ existence is devalued; they are means for work, not human beings. Further devaluing the proletariat is the fact that any value generated by this work belongs to the bourgeoisie. The workers of the proletariat only ever get paid what the bourgeoisie decides to pay them. Marx and Engels feel that workers need to take control of their own conditions and harness their own means of production; if they can, they will restore pride and dignity to work because they will no longer have to think of themselves as sellable commodities.
Not only does the bourgeoisie disregard the self-worth of the workers—it’s in its interest to reduce the skill required for work to the minimum possible in order to maximize the potential amount of workers it can draw from society and to make individual members of the proletariat more disposable. The move towards Modern Industry as dominated by the bourgeoisie has made society less based on craft and artisanal skill. Once there were workshops with masters and apprentices in which skills were highly prized; now the capitalist class seeks to do away with these slower methods of manufacture. A lower skill level is advantageous for the capitalist class because it both widens the pool of available workers and, in doing so, devalues that work. The more people that can perform a given menial task the less the bourgeoisie needs to offer them to get the work done. Marx and Engels see a strong link between the bourgeoisie’s efforts to revolutionize technology and the exploitation of the proletariat: “As the repulsiveness of the work increases, wage decreases,” they write. “Nay more, in proportion as the use of machinery and division of labor increases, in the same proportion the burden of toil increases, whether by prolongation of working hours, by increase of the work extracted in a given time or by increased speed, etc.” Not only does the wage get suppressed when the skill level is lowered, but the working conditions deteriorate too. Again, Marx and Engels feel that the proletariat doesn’t need to put up with this—they have the real power because they are so much more numerous than the bourgeoisie.
Marx and Engels ultimately want to change the very nature of work. In a communist society, they say, everyone who can work will do so, but it will be in order to serve the communal good of society. It will also reward everyone justly, and, most importantly, make work more dignified because it will be in the service of a good greater than mere profit. While some argue that the abolition of private property will make everyone in society lazy and remove the incentive to work, Marx and Engels counter that the majority of work done by the proletariat can never give them sufficient means to acquire property under capitalism either—the bourgeoisie makes sure it is so. In fact, it’s the bourgeoisie who are genuinely lazy; they sit back and let the proletariat do the work for them. By removing the profit motivation from work, Marx and Engels further believe that people will ultimately be able to share out the products of their work in a way that they can all agree is fair.
Most accounts of the 20th century, for example, tell the story of a general improvement in people’s living conditions in capitalist countries. But, Marx and Engels would argue, this does not mean that they aren’t still oppressed—they have no choice but to settle for their lives because they do not own their own means of production. In order to set its own terms for what work actually means to individuals, the proletariat must unite and seize control from the capitalist classes: “WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”
Work Quotes in The Communist Manifesto
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.
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.
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.