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The Manifesto breaks down into a preface, a cool little beginning, and four sections.
In the helpful little preface, Marx's co-author Friedrich Engels lists all the translations and publications of the Manifesto that have come out in the forty years since its first publication. Conveniently enough, he says the book's spread matches the spread of the working class movement.
Engels also gives us the fundamental idea underlying the Manifesto: political and intellectual ideas—and therefore all of history—are based on the economic system of the time, and thus on class struggles. Today, Engels says, the many exploited and oppressed proletariat (workers) can only free themselves by both overthrowing the few rich bourgeoisie (capitalists) and ending economic class altogether.
Now on to the Manifesto itself. The beginning is made up of just a few short, fun paragraphs telling us that communism is haunting Europe and that leaders are accusing each other of being communists—but no one actually knows what communism is. Enter the Manifesto to set them all straight.
In Section 1, Marx says that all of history is based on class struggle, and then he details the rise of the bourgeoisie. These rich have become the most powerful class, he says, putting the aristocracy in the shadows. The bourgeoisie control the means of production (the factories, heavy machinery, and agricultural land) and exploit and oppress the working proletariat, keeping the profit for themselves.
To stay on top, the members of the bourgeoisie have to expand across the planet, finding natural resources, new customers, and new workers. They've made life impersonal and miserable for the workers, since now everything boils down to money. The bourgeoisie fights the workers and other members of the bourgeoisie, and the proletarians fight the bourgeoisie and themselves. Some people occupy other spots in the mix of classes (see the "Characters" part of this guide for more), but this show is ultimately about the capitalists versus the workers.
In Section 2, Marx explains what communism advocates by looking at various objections that have been raised against it. For example, Marx says the bourgeoisie accuses the proletariat of wishing to get rid of all private property. But the communists only want to get rid of bourgeois property, by putting the means of production in the hands of the community, while leaving property like personal belongings alone.
Marx concludes with some practical steps the proletariat should take once it gains political power. Karl says the proletarians should take capital away from the rich and abolish inheritance until class distinctions vanish and the vanguard or temporary government withers away.
In Section 3, Marx criticizes socialist and communist views of various other authors, thinkers, and activists. Mostly, he attacks these writers for wanting to merely reform the capitalist system—efforts he thinks are necessarily doomed to fail—instead of downright overthrowing it. Marx also attacks these writers for wanting to set up idealistic little colonies instead of uniting workers of all countries.
In Section 4, Marx notes which political parties the communists ally with in various countries, but he makes it clear that the communists will speak their own minds. Then he calls for a forcible overthrow of the bourgeoisie, a communist revolution. And then he finishes things up with some fabulous all-caps:
WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!