Study Guide

The Communist Manifesto Philosophical Viewpoints: Communism

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Philosophical Viewpoints: Communism

[The fundamental] proposition is: that in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which it is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, now-a-days, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class—the proletariat—cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class—the bourgeoisie—without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles. (Preface.6)

According to Marx, the economic system of a historical period shapes the kind of social organization that economic system needs in order to function. Because humans are primarily beings that make stuff, and because an economic system dictates how they make that stuff, that economic system also dictates how those people arrange themselves socially and politically. What is constant throughout all historical ages is the existence of the proletariat as an exploited class. The only way for the proletariat to be free of this exploitation, Marx says, is for it to completely transform society and erase all class distinctions.

[The proletariat is] a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market. (Section1.30)

Proletarians aren't able to thrive as people, because they have to sell off parts of themselves—their labor—in order to survive. This leaves them vulnerable to the instabilities of the market: what happens to workers if no one buys what their labor has made?

The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all times, with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries. In all these battles it sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for its help, and thus, to drag it into the political arena. The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education, in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie. (Section1.41)

Marx is careful not to think of the bourgeoisie as one solid group. He understands that members of the bourgeoisie are constantly in competition with each other, both at home and abroad. For example, a shiny new gizmo for sale will naturally pit its inventor against whoever is selling the previous technology. When this happens, the bourgeoisie will turn to its workers for help in fighting competitors—but this also teaches the workers how to fight the bourgeoisie directly, on their own.

The communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole. (Section2.5)

Working-class political parties usually tend to represent the interests of some workers against other workers. For example, a party representing poor workers might come to power by taking advantage of hatred against immigrant workers. Communists reject this because they believe all workers must unite against the bourgeoisie in order to bring about an end to capitalism. The bourgeoisie that operates around the globe (Section1.19) has global impact; so, Marx believes, should the workers.

The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. (Section2.12)

Many fear communism because they believe they will no longer get to have possessions—"Do I still get to have my own toothbrush under communism, or do I have to share it with three other people?"—but Marx's point here is that the bourgeoisie's property is what needs to be abolished, because it depends on previous exploitation of workers. So it's sort of like this: you can keep your handmade toothbrush, but you can't keep your Ferrari.

But does 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. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage-labour. (Section2.17)

Marx is saying that the proletarian will never be able to earn enough from his or her wage labor to amass property—he or she can barely earn enough to make ends meet. The only way to gain property is to be able to hire other workers and exploit the value they add by their labor in order to create capital.

What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class. (Section2.58)

Marx argues that the worker takes on the ideas of the economic system under which he or she works. For example, a factory worker will come to value efficiency because that's what the factory values. It might actually be in the worker's best interest to be inefficient, thereby decreasing the bourgeoisie's exploitation of workers' labor, but the worker won't think of that, because he or she has taken on the values of the exploiting class.

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible. (Section2.68)

Marx argues that in order for the workers to exercise political power effectively, they must take all the means of production (like factories and agricultural land) away from the bourgeoisie and instead arrange these means under the vanguard state, a temporary transitional government. The State will now represent the proletariat as a whole, intent on abolishing class distinctions instead of serving the profit interests of the bourgeoisie.

When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class. (Section2.72)

Marx believes that when the proletariat comes to power, instead of subjugating the bourgeoisie and becoming its own ruling class intent on exploiting other workers, it'll completely change the fabric of society so that class strife and indeed the whole idea of classes will no longer exist. Therefore, the proletariat will no longer need to maintain political power, and the temporary government will come to an end on its own.

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