Three words do a darn good job of describing Marx's attitude in the Manifesto. Provocative, angry, and optimistic. Works well for a manifesto, if you ask us.
Karl isn't here to be your sweetheart. He's out to shock you into thinking differently, and that means he takes a deliberately provocative tone. Check out this example: "[Y]ou reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend" (Section2.28). He is addressing you—well, if you are an upper-class bourgeois owner of capital or something like that—and saying that he and his crew are gonna come take—er, liberate your stuff from you. Watch out.
You can feel the author's blood boiling in many passages. For instance: The bourgeoisie "has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors,' and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment.' It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation [...] naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation" (Section1.14).
Or how about this?: "But don't wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, &tc." (Section2.36).
Marx sees all this injustice and just feels flat-out mad about it. And guess what? It's kind of catching. Seeing the old guy get so worked out kind of makes you, the reader, start feeling those things, too. It's one of Marx's strategies for getting you on his side.
Even with all the anger and provocation, Marx still stays briskly optimistic, convinced history is on his and the workers' side. We mean, seriously, just take a look at the final lines of the manifesto: "The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. 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!" (Section4.11-12).
Hey, we guess if you're trying to change the course of world history, it probably helps if you're pretty sure it's actually going to happen.
This is no fairy tale or science fiction story. Marx means business—well, okay, maybe not business. What we're saying is that he's dead serious in this political manifesto, telling workers to revolt and install a new economic system. He doesn't want you to just sit on the beach and just through the pages; he wants you to agree with his philosophical theories and overthrow the rich.
Elsewhere, Marx wrote, "Hitherto, philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it." So he forcefully lays out his ideas in hopes of persuading a mass readership to adopt them. Many did and still do, sometimes altering his ideas along the way. In fact, the Manifesto remains one of the most influential philosophical documents of all history.
Communist Manifesto—that's a pretty straightforward—and now infamous—title. Check: it's a manifesto, a document publicly announcing the author's goals and the reasons behind those goals. Check: it's written by a communist.
More specifically, the secretive Communist League asked Karl Marx to write this baby in order to make their goals public to European (and any other) workers, since uprisings seemed about to happen on the continent. At one point, the League even sent Karl a message telling him to hurry up with it, which may be why it ends kind of abruptly.
So, yeah, the Communist Manifesto is pretty much a communist manifesto.
The ending of the Manifesto is what marketers would term a call-to-action: the part of an advertisement that asks the audience to take specific steps. Except this is no advertisement. This manifesto is an intentionally dangerous document calling for worldwide revolution.
"The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims" (Section4.68), Karl starts off, like a baseball pitcher winding up. "They openly declare that their ends [goals] can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions" (Section4.68). If you watered down that forceful overthrow phrase by replacing it with a phrase like "effective change," this might still sound a little edgy, but it would still be just ivory-tower talk.
So then Marx turns his amp all the way up, drowning out any doubt. "Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win" (Section4.68). The rhetoric is in full force.
And then we get the all-caps: "WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!" (Section4.69). Well, that's hard to miss. It's Marx's specific call to action: he wants working men everywhere to join forces and overthrow the rich. If asked about the dictatorships that have arisen from communism, he might argue that the revolutions to date have failed because they were not large enough: they did not include working men from all countries, and did not bring down all of capitalism, or all of the bourgeoisie.
The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848. Marx claims his analysis of class struggle explained "all hitherto existing society" (Section1.1)—in other words, all history up to and including 1848.
However, Engels writes in a footnote to the authorized English translation of 1888 that he and Karl mean all written history, since the pre-history of society was almost entirely unknown to them at the time of the original composition. That means the Manifesto was not meant to cover indigenous societies such as Native American tribes. Dudes Marx and Engels left a lot of stuff out—like the way our species governed itself for many tens of thousands of years.
Now, 1848 was a huge year for Europe. During this year, a whole slew of revolutions took place all over the continent, with the aim of establishing more democratic societies. These were not communist revolutions, and they mostly failed, but they showed how much political instability there really was under the surface all over Europe. It seemed as if the world was ready for change.
Similarly, the Manifesto is written as if Marx is talking about the whole globe. He says at one point that the bourgeoisie "must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere" (Section1.19). However, most of the manifesto actually focuses on Europe, especially Section 3, with its focus on rival socialist and communist authors, and Section 4, with its passages about other the communist relationship with political parties of the day.
As he wrote, Karl was especially aware that France was about to undergo a revolution. In fact, the Communist League, which commissioned the writing of the Manifesto, urged him to hurry up, because they wanted the document published in time to influence the political uprising. Some people think the rush is why the final section is so brief.
We're not gonna lie: the Manifesto ain't easy. For one thing, Marx comes up with some fairly abstract concepts, such as wage-labor and capital. Understanding all the concepts and how they relate takes some work, and that's before Section 3 gets you bogged down in all the nitpicky differences between socialists and communists who aren't named Karl Marx.
Still, the basic point of the Manifesto is pretty clear: the rich (bourgeoisie) are exploiting the workforce (proletariat), who should join together to overthrow their oppressors and establish a temporary government to transition capitalist society to communism. Just keep that in mind throughout, and check out our helpful wisdom, and you'll be able to make it through.
Ol' Karl is full of rhetorical devices. After all, the whole point of this manifesto is to incite millions of workers to overthrow the rich, and it's a lot easier to do that if you can woo them with some fabulous turns of phrase. Here are just a few of the tricks up his communist sleeve.
"Hyperbolic" is a fancy adjective that just means exaggerating. Yeah, Marx talks pretty big. He often exaggerates his side of the argument, especially to make it sound like he's winning or knows exactly what he's talking about.
For example, he says, "Communism is already acknowledged by all European Powers to be itself a Power" (Beginning.3). Um, yeah—historically, that's totally a lie. But if you're reading a manifesto someone has just handed you in 1848 while you're sweating after leaving your miserable factory job, and you don't have an Internet to fact-check with, then you might just read that sentence and be like, "Hey, I'm gonna be on this team!"
To take another example of hyperbole, consider Marx's famous line "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" (Section1.1). Yo, Karl—all existing society up to then? It's not like the dude says, "Well, the history of most existing society is more or less the history of class struggles, to some extent, except there was that time in northern Russia where this isolated tribe of hunter-gatherers…."
Yeah, that kind of attention to detail might have strengthened Karl's argument, but with an uprising about to start in France and elsewhere, he didn't have time for that or an interest in it. If every sentence is qualified with a million maybes, then readers are going to get bored instead of reaching for their pitchforks.
To declaim something is to state it loudly, usually with an appeal to the emotions. Take this sentence: "The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part" (Section1.13). Setting aside the brain-flip Karl's performing by calling the bourgeoisie revolutionary (his point is that they once replaced the feudal aristocracy), notice how he's just straight-up stating some fact about the bourgeoisie and giving it an emotional touch by saying most revolutionary.
Pretty much everything in the Communist Manifesto is declaimed rather than stated. It's not like Karl footnotes every sentence to a bibliography in the back of the book; he says it, gives his own reasons for it, and he wants to be the final authority on the subject. After all, who exactly would he cite as an expert on communism? He's the expert, right?
To exhort is to emphatically urge someone to do something. We can think of no better example than the last sentence, which shouts at you in all caps: "WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!" (Section4.12).
And before you get all, "Karl, that is rude. Don't you know that typing in all caps is the Internet equivalent of yelling?" Karl would just like to say, "DUH!!! I AM YELLING AT THE WHOLE WORLD!!!" Yeah, Marx wants to reach all workers, everywhere, and tell them all to join forces with each other. After all, the whole point of communism is world revolution, and we guess you've got to speak up if you want all those people to hear you.
Say a business owner wins a contract from an apartment complex to remodel one of its buildings. He then hires day laborers to retile the floors, paint the walls, and put in new plumbing.
In Marx's view, the day laborers are the only ones who add value to the apartments, because they're providing the actual work that brings about the changes. But the contractor is the one who, dealing directly with the apartment company, arranges the work and keeps a large chunk of the money gained from the work of the day laborers. According to Marx, that chunk—or surplus value—the contractor picks up should rightfully belong to the day laborers.
That surplus value is the source of capital.
Let's zoom in on Marx's definition of capital in the Manifesto. Capital, Marx says, is "that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation" (Section2.17).
Let's say that a wage-laborer manages to somehow save up some capital, maybe by negotiating higher pay and then pinching lots of pennies. What will the former wage-laborer do with this capital? Usually, start a business, which will allow him or her to hire others so that he or she can appropriate the surplus value of their labor. But this can only be done if there are poorer workers around, and markets that require the products of this new business owner's new business. All this requires a new supply of wage-labor to exploit. There always has to be someone at the bottom.
One last thing: Marx says that property under capitalism "is based on the antagonism of capital and wage-labour" (Section2.17). Well, Karl, how does that happen?
Let's go back to that example of the contractor with the contract at an apartment complex. Once the contractor takes the capital (appropriated surplus value) and uses it to buy himself a new house, the day laborers may be angry or jealous. That's because it's their labor the contractor's using to purchase the house—in fact, he may even use the capital gained from the day laborers to hire them to build his house, instead of the day laborers getting to build houses for themselves.
Under capitalism, the contractor is treated as a hero—the "job provider"—but Marx argues that he is the villain of the story, stealing the value added by the day laborers under the pretense of providing them with work.
The overwhelming majority of people in the world have to sell their labor for wages in order to survive. Marx uses the term wages broadly, so his term includes salary pay, not just hourly pay. Think about that one for a minute.
But can laborers possibly work themselves out of poverty? Only in very rare cases, says Marx, and only by figuring out how to exploit the wage-labor of other workers more unfortunate than they are.
Most of the time, a wage-laborer will manage to keep just enough value from his or her labor to survive—but not enough to amass capital. In Marx's words, "[D]oes wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation."
If that laborer somehow manages to acquire property (as in capital, not as in personal belongings), it'll be by appropriating the wage-labor of others. "Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage-labour" (Section2.17).
The capitalist view, as explained by Ayn Rand, for instance, is that the wage-laborers should not be antagonistic but should instead feel grateful to the capitalists for being job creators. Marx would answer that in an economy where everyone's basic needs—food, clothing, shelter—were being met, the workers would be able to produce and keep the fruits of their labor as they see fit, rather than being forced to go to work under conditions where they are exploited and alienated.
The means of production for Marx are the tools, equipment, and land used by humans to produce stuff in a given economic epoch. We use the means of production to make products and change our environment. How we do this has changed over time.
Here's how Marx describes the change in production from feudalism to the bourgeois era:
The feudal system of industry, under which industrial production was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The manufacturing system took its place. The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class; division of labour between the different corporate guilds vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop.
Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacture no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry, the place of the industrial middle class, by industrial millionaires, the leaders of whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois. (Section1.8-9)
Let's take the example of a painter. If he's born in prehistoric times, he's probably crushing up berries to paint the animals his tribe hunts on cave walls. That same painter, born today, might use a computer and graphic design techniques to make an advertising billboard. He's still an artist, but the means of production of his economic epoch have changed, which in turn changes what he does, how does he does it, and by extension, some aspects of who he is.
The worker takes on the characteristics of the means of production of his or her society. For example, a factory worker will come to value standardization and efficiency, while a feudal artisan valued the charm of a one-of-a-kind creation and may not have thought as much about how long it took to make the product.
Marx writes as if he knows everything, and he pretty much thinks he does. That pretty much qualifies him as an omniscient or all-knowing narrator in our book. And although there are no fictional characters, we can safely say this is written in the third person. There's no I, and there's no you; Karl just tells us that the bourgeoisie has been doing this, the proletariat will do that, the aristocracy is going down the drain, etc.
The bourgeoisie is oppressing the proletariat, subjecting them to horrible working conditions in cramped factories. Individual laborers get the idea to rebel, one by one.
The rebellion spreads from individual laborers to entire workplaces, and from there to groups of workplaces and eventually labor unions. The proletariat even begins to form political parties.
The bourgeoisie manages to keep the workers in check, even though the proletariat has some political power. The workers decide that a worldwide violent revolution is the only way to win.
The proletariat kills or otherwise gets rid of the oligarchical authorities, seizes all political power, and sets up a temporary vanguard government to transition society from capitalism to communism. The workers run economic, educational, and other programs aimed at changing society, until the means of production and capital are owned by the community in common.
A new society without economic classes has been established. Personal belongings remain privately owned, but the former bourgeois property—the means of production, the excess capital (profit)—is shared in common. The organizing principle (not stated in the Manifesto, but popularized by Marx elsewhere) is: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
The Manifesto picks up the story of the workers as European serfdom comes to its dying gasp around the 18th century or so. It's a time period (in a galaxy far, far away...) when the bourgeoisie is rising in power against the aristocracy. And pretty quick—like, you know, just a few paragraphs into the manifesto—the bourgeoisie becomes the most powerful class, and it's busy oppressing the proletariat—the workers—as the aristocracy fades away.
So we have a big conflict between rich and the workforce: "two great hostile camps [...] two great classes directly facing each others: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat" (Section1.5). Pretty soon, individual laborers, and then the workers at individual workplaces, rebel at times. For example, they might fire to a factory to protest their working conditions (Section1.36).
Now, the rich keep winning (Section1.37), but then groups of workers start unionizing and growing in number and feeling their strength more and more (Section1.37-38). The real victory of the battles is that proletarians learn to cooperate with each other instead of competing with each other (Section1.39). They even form political parties (Section1.40).
Eventually, the proletariat seizes power, by violent revolution if necessary (Section1.51). With the workers in power, everything should go smoothly.
The proletariat sets up a temporary government—a.k.a. a vanguard state—in order to transition the society from capitalism to communism (Section2.68-71). It's a centralized government that takes capital away from the bourgeoisie, by degrees, and puts the means of production into the hands of the community. This is supposed to bring about an end to class distinctions, allowing a new world where, as Marx put it elsewhere, the organizing principle would be: From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.
In past communist practice, some vanguard states have led to governments that don't disappear but instead function dictatorially, like the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. The historical origin of the word revolution calls to mind the image of the wheel of fortune, turning the bottom to the top and the top to the bottom, over and over again, endlessly. Will the workforce simply become the new bosses if they take over? The saying exists for a reason: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Feudalism collapses; the bourgeoisie becomes the most powerful class, and the aristocracy fades away. But the bourgeoisie is oppressing the proletariat (the workers). The workers begin rebelling.
The workers band together in groups that are larger and larger and more and more powerful. Eventually, the time comes for violent revolution.
The proletariat overthrows the bourgeoisie and establishes a temporary or "vanguard" government to transition society from capitalism to communism. This is brought about by seizing the means of production and all capital from the rich and putting all of this into the hands of the community, the workers. According to Marx, this will end economic classes forever.