Study Guide

The Communist Manifesto

By Karl Marx

The Communist Manifesto Introduction

Comrade, it's time overthrow your boss! Let's take over the place ourselves and end these miserable working conditions!

Maybe subversive thoughts like those have crossed your mind while you've toiled away at work, right? Or maybe you've heard politicians accusing other politicians of being communists. Maybe you've even heard someone called a commie or a pinko or a red, but you don't know what any of it really means.

The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, is the single document most responsible for launching the often-feared political philosophy of communism. It straight up tells you to revolt against the rich, and it tells you why you should.

Here's the gist of the Manifesto, fast enough for you to read before you have to wake up and slave away at your job tomorrow: Marx describes how the bourgeoisie (the rich capitalists) rose to power over the aristocracy (kings and feudal lords), how the capitalists maintain power, and how they're now confronted by the proletariat (the working poor who are paid wages), who as communists will overthrow them. Once the proletarians take charge, they're supposed to set up a vanguard state—a temporary government to transition society from capitalism to communism. This will be a system where the most important private property—the means of production (factories, agricultural land, machinery)—will be shared in common, and no one will profit to exploit others.

Yeah, it's an incredibly controversial work. A lot of people blame the Communist Manifesto for the fact that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin put tens of millions of people into Gulags, or forced labor camps, and committed all kinds of other horrors. On the other hand, some say communism has never been implemented properly—perhaps because the continued existence of rival capitalism doesn't allow it.

Authors Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels didn't win any awards for this document, but they got a bigger prize: the manifesto, which is primarily Marx's work, is famous because it changed the world—and still does. It inspired the leaders of the Russian Revolution to overthrow the tsarist aristocracy and set up the communist Bolshevik government that led to the communist Soviet Union, one of the most powerful countries of the 20th century. China, Cuba, and other countries consider themselves communist to this day.

All that wouldn't have happened if Marx, inspired by the bad working conditions for the workforce, hadn't written this little book.

What is The Communist Manifesto About and Why Should I Care?

Do you jump out of bed every weekday morning and cheer, overcome with joy that you're about to go to work or school? Maybe, but there's a good chance you hate your job or hate having to get the degree pretty much required for you to someday bring home a decent paycheck.

On the other hand, maybe on weekend mornings (okay, afternoons) you do jump out of bed and cheer, because the day off work or school means you have a chance to practice your guitar or improve your garden.

What's the difference between these two? Karl Marx would say that Monday through Friday, you're alienated from your work. The commercial product you're slaving away at for your boss, or the math busywork you're filling out to impress your future boss, isn't something you get to use in your own life according to your own values.

Instead of living on an Earth where your work-product is tied to the rest of your life, you feel like a space alien trapped on a planet where you're obeying someone else's rules so that the authorities—teachers, bosses—can profit off you. The joy of making for the sake of making is overtaken by the conditions you're stuck in if you want to make stuff at all.

Marx thinks that as a result, we slowly begin to treat each other as commodities: the person who works at the cash register becomes a cashier, and the cashier becomes an extension of the cash register. We rarely see deeply into one another, and we disappear into unfulfilling lives that boil down pretty much to money.

Marx looked at the alienation and straight-up suffering endured by factory workers of his day—they were crammed into unsafe factories, and they made products they themselves couldn't afford to buy—and decided there had to be a better way to organize society.

The vision he came up with in the Communist Manifesto predicted a world where instead of a few rich capitalists owning the equipment we rely on to make the products we need, everyone could share that property in common. He was a little vague on the particulars of this future communist world, but he was super specific about the problems of the current capitalist one—and he was so convincing that millions have rejected capitalism and launched communist revolutions.

It might seem farfetched to imagine that the political and economic system we live under could undergo massive upheavals in our own lifetime, but it's happened again and again in history. Today in the United States, the richest 1% control more than 50% of the wealth. Marx says this divide between the rich and the poor will only intensify and make conditions for the poor worse until the workers of the world unite and break off their chains.

Maybe someday people at your workplace will organize a strike, refusing to work until conditions change. Will you join them, or will you go in for yet another day on the job? This book will give you ideas, good or bad, about what you might do when that moment comes.

The Communist Manifesto Resources

WEBSITES

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
What? You didn't have any questions you were dying to ask about Karl Marx? Too bad: this encyclopedia's here for you, anyway.

Marxists Internet Archive
Here's a massive volunteer-run library of Marxist material in the public domain.

My Disillusionment in Russia, by Emma Goldman
An anarchist condemns the Soviet Union, even though she initially supported the Bolsheviks.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Where It All Went Down
Nice place to write a document that changes the world.

The Penguin Marx
Rise up—get it?

Five Surprising Ways Karl Marx Predicted 2014
Rolling Stone magazine jams out on communism.

How Friedrich Engels' Radical Lover Helped Him Father Communism
Meet the little-known Mary Burns, and learn about her influence on communism.

So the United States Is an Oligarchy
Oligarchy is rule by the few, usually the rich, as today, according to a major study. This matches Marx's assessment of capitalism.

One Million Children Labor in Africa's Goldmines
Under capitalism, Marx argued, children are seen as sources of labor to be exploited.

Mexico's Maquiladora Labor System Keeps Workers in Poverty
Marx was inspired by the dangerous working conditions in the factories of the 19th century. Maquiladoras are factories in Mexico today.

Emergency Kittens
Some of the material in this guide is pretty depressing, so here are some cute cats!

VIDEO

Terry Eagleton on the Communist Manifesto
A smarty-pants literary theorist takes on Marx's most popular work.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Fictional scene of peasants debating Marx-inspired political theory with a king.

AUDIO

Communist Manifest as an Audiobook
Free audiobook version linked by Open Culture, alongside many other famous nonfiction works.

IMAGES

Portrait of Karl Marx
Perhaps what people are convinced by is his epic beard.

Hammer and Sickle
It's the communist symbol often used on flags.