Study Guide

The Communist Manifesto Tradition and Customs

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Tradition and Customs

[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)

Here's a summary of the argument known as historical (and dialectical) materialism. It basically says that everything, including tradition and customs, can be boiled down to economic class struggles, or contests between the oppressors and the oppressed. Then it says that these struggles have evolved to the point where the proletarian workforce can only free itself from the bourgeoisie or rich by forever ending all class distinctions, which allow some people to control others. Marx wanted no more rich, no more poor, no more exploitation and oppression, and he believed new traditions and customs would arise from that new communist society.

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. (Section1.1)

People debate what the ultimate source of traditions and customs is. Some say it's religion, some say it's the need for cooperation, and others have different answers. This quotation quickly expresses Karl Marx's view: it's class struggle.

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation. (Section 1.16)

Marx is saying that instead of families being tied by the bonds of love and affection, under capitalism what you get are relationships of ownership. The traditional concept of the family in 1848 was basically the same as today's: a small group of blood relations dominated by fathers who are married to wives, with the pair of them producing children. Children are seen as being there to take care of their own parents in their old age—sort of like an insurance policy.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. [...] All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his own kind. (Section1.18)

What would the world be like if our traditions and customs encouraged us to relate to each other directly instead of organizing our interactions around money and laws?

[The] work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. (Section1.31)

Even today, people still value things that are made by hand according to traditional custom. Why might a traditionally handmade good be better than the mass-produced equivalent?

The selfish misconception that induces you to transform eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property—historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production—this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you. What you see clearly in the case of ancient property, what you admit in the case of feudal property you are of course forbidden to admit in the case of your own bourgeois form of property. (Section2.37)

Marx seems to be arguing that it's easier to see inequality and oppression in past historical contexts than it is to see it in present society, since in present society things are too familiar.

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 assumes that what remains constant about humanity is that we're beings who make (homo faber), but how we make things changes throughout history. This is in contrast to the view that we're primarily beings who know (homo sapiens). As the ways we make things change, other things change as a result, like our traditions and customs of making, and even the rest of our lives, since we're defined by the stuff we make.

But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms. (Section2.64)

Karl the Kommunist is arguing that all human traditions and customs are colored by exploitation. What might traditions and customs that free us from exploitation look like?

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