The Communist Manifesto was written by Karl Marx and, to a lesser extent, Frederick Engels in 1848 and since then has become one of the most influential works of the modern age. Written at a time when revolutions were springing up all over the world, it was a document that argued for the overthrow of the existing social order (called capitalism), in which the ruling bourgeoisie controlled economic production, to be replaced by a new social order in which the proletarians (workers) had control of what Marx called “the means of production” – that is the physical means by which things are produced, such as machinery, factories and raw materials.
In spite of what you might have heard about Marx, in The Communist Manifesto he expresses huge admiration for the advancements which the bourgeois class had brought about. In the first chapter of the manifesto he writes with a sense of awe:
“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. 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”
Marx realised that to get where the bourgeoisie were at his time, they had to overthrow their rulers – the aristocracy, who were able to force the peasants to work their land since they owned no land of their own. This economic system was known as the feudal system. For this reason they were revolutionaries, and Marx could not help but respect their historical role.
But ultimately, he believed that their rule was over and that the proletariat were destined to be the revolutionary class of the modern era: “Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.”
Marx argues that over time the proletarians will start to feel increasing solidarity with one another – for four reasons. First, because with the development of industry their numbers will grow and they will become more concentrated – meaning that they will start to feel their united strength more. Second, because the “conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat” will become more “equalised” as machinery takes over every part of the workplace, obliterating “all distinctions of labour” (for example, both making a pin and making a wheel will be reduced to pulling leavers and pressing buttons and letting the machine do the work) and leading to the reduction of wages “to the same low level”. Third, because increasing bourgeois competition, “and the resulting commercial crises”, will make the “wages of the workers ever more fluctuating”. And lastly, because the “unceasing improvement of machinery” will make their livelihoods “more and more precarious”.
Marx then points to trade unions as evidence of the increasing comradery felt between the workers and the beginnings of what will become a massive political movement which will overthrow the existing “mode of production” (capitalism) and replace it with a classless society in which there is complete equality. He ends the manifesto declaring:
“The Proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”
Image: Berthold Werner [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons