Study Guide

The Communist Manifesto Section 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians

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Section 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians

  • Another famous line: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" (Section1.1). In other words, rich people, poor or enslaved people, and those in the middle have been duking it out ever since society began.
  • These fights between oppressor and oppressed—whether during the Roman Empire, feudal Europe, or other times—result in either a revolutionary rebuilding of all society or ruin for everyone. Sounds fun.
  • So, about the bourgeoisie—wait, who are they? They're an economic class that developed, toward the end of feudalism, from the citizens of towns who were neither aristocrats (lords, knights, etc.) nor serfs (peasants who were basically enslaved). These people successfully built up businesses, becoming upper class—a.k.a. rich people—who controlled capital. That makes them capitalists who control the means of production and exchange (more on that soon). See our "Characters" section for a fuller explanation of these peeps.
  • The rise of the bourgeoisie hasn't changed anything about class struggle, Marx says. It has only established new forms of it and made it a lot more obvious.
  • On the opposite side of the bourgeoisie is the proletariat. Who are these folks? They're workers who are paid wages. See our "Characters" section for a fuller explanation.
  • Back to the bourgeoisie. As feudalism—the system of aristocracy versus serfs—was collapsing, the discovery of the Americas by Europeans and the colonial trade increased the bourgeoisie's power rapidly. Basically, colonialism gave the bourgeoisie new markets and resources for their businesses.
  • Marx is going into full history-teacher mode here. The way industry was organized in the medieval period, with closed guilds, could not keep up with the growing wants of the new marketplaces. So the manufacturing industry arose to supply the wants. Even that wasn't enough, so steam and machinery came along to further revolutionize industrial production.
  • The Industrial Revolution made new millionaires (the leaders of giant industrial workforces) out of much of the bourgeoisie.
  • Thus, Marx concludes, the bourgeoisie results from a long course of revolutions in the modes of production and exchange.
  • What the heck are modes of production and exchange? Well, comrade, production is building products like iPhones, and circulation is sort of managing their distribution—and we're not talking about the way truck drivers haul loads, but instead about the way banks manage this stuff by investing. (Marx thinks of investing as something like gambling or manipulation.)
  • As the bourgeoisie developed, it won various political gains, often helping the absolute monarchs (kings and queens) by serving as a balancing factor against the aristocratic nobility, which the monarchs had to keep in check. However, now (1848 and today) the bourgeoisie is the most powerful force in the world.
  • Indeed, Marx says, the bourgeoisie has played a revolutionary role in history. This is a startling line, comrade, because usually communists think of the workers as the revolutionaries. But Marx is talking about the past, about the bourgeoisie ending the medieval period's feudalism.
  • Whenever they gained power, the bourgeoisie was able to replace the feudal connections between people with the connection of self-interest and money.
  • In other words, instead of the belief that aristocrats were naturally superior to serfs, for example, the profit motive has now become the principle organizing relationship. Everything boils down to money.
  • The bourgeoisie took away the honor of occupations, such as physician or poet, and made them, again, all about profit—their work is nothing more than wage-labor, an important term you can read more about in the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section.
  • The bourgeoisie built wonders far surpassing the pyramids and other ancient monuments and did a bunch of other impressive stuff.
  • That business is competition requires the bourgeoisie to constantly innovate (see the "Competition" theme for more)—indeed, to revolutionize everything about production. These changes sweep away the familiar, including opinions and relationships, as business is conducted. It's all about the moolah.
  • The need for a constantly expanding market (new customers, for instance) chases the bourgeoisie around the globe and makes them exploit, or take advantage of, everyone. The bourgeoisie removes what's unique about each nation, reshapes faraway countries in its own image, and uses various nations' natural resources (like oil, for example) for their own purpose: profit.
  • The requirements of business have concentrated populations into the cities and made undeveloped countries dependent on developed ones. Laws and taxes have become more and more unified in organization. What is unique is dying away; everything is becoming capitalist—money is the bottom line everywhere.
  • So, Marx sums up, the means of production (factories, for example), which are the foundation of the bourgeoisie, began their development under feudalism and eventually grew so much that feudalism had to collapse and give way to capitalism's rule.
  • There is a similar change going on before our eyes, Karl continues. The history of industry has been about the bourgeoisie's massive forces of production breaking apart old property relations and establishing new ones. Increasingly severe economic recessions and depressions are the absurd consequence of too much production taking place. But there is another consequence of this growth of capital, or the extra wealth that allows for the creation of more wealth rather than just paying bills (see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more): the growth of the proletariat, which will overthrow the bourgeoisie, just as the bourgeoisie overthrew feudalism.
  • The proletariat is a class of laborers who must find work to live but who can only find work when it financially benefits the bourgeoisie. These workers have to sell themselves to the bourgeoisie and are treated like just another commodity, or just another thing for sale. Example: getting fired simply because a company is cutting expenses. Sad face.
  • Due to the division of labor and the increased use of machinery, workers have become mere cogs in the machine. Their jobs are not personal any longer; they don't have the opportunity to personalize their work. They're stuck in factories and ordered around like soldiers.
  • As soon as the worker is finished at the factory and paid, more members of the bourgeoisie, such as the landlord and shopkeeper, demand his or her money.
  • The members of the lower middle class, such as tradespeople, fall into the proletariat (the lower class) because their small amount of capital isn't enough to compete against the large capitalists.
  • The proletariat goes through stages of development, comrade. First individual workers, then the workpeople at an individual factory, and eventually more and more workers elsewhere retaliate against those who directly exploit them—they smash machinery, they set factories on fire.
  • But at this stage, the proletariat is still made up of various groups competing against one another. The bourgeoisie finds ways to profit from the proletariat's competition against itself.
  • But over time, the proletariat, increasing in number, grows stronger from its repeated conflicts with the bourgeoisie and from shared frustrations over fluctuations in their pay. They create labor unions to try to increase their bargaining power.
  • Sometimes the contest between proletariat and the bourgeoisie breaks out into riots. The real victory of these various battles is that the workers, despite their differences, join together more and more as a force standing against the bourgeoisie.
  • That capitalism causes competition between workers for jobs, however, is a fact that continues to divide them. Still, the proletariat keeps rising up and joining together, even to the point of creating political parties, aided by new technology improving communication and travel.
  • Competition makes the bourgeoisie struggle, too. They have to compete against the aristocracy, against each other, and against the bourgeoisie in foreign countries. They ask the proletariat—the bulk of the population—for help, but in doing so, they have to educate them… which is something that will help the proletariat overthrow the bourgeoisie down the road.
  • Some of the bourgeoisie can't successfully maintain their class status, due to competition, and they become proletarians. Other bourgeoisie (such as Marx and Engels themselves) who understand the historical movement of politics, join the proletariat intentionally to further the revolution.
  • It's the proletariat who are the revolutionary class, according to Marx. Those in the middle class either try to maintain their position, thus contributing to the capitalist system, or fall into the proletariat by the pressures of competition. The lumpenproletariat, such as beggars, criminals, and drifters, aren't particularly relevant in the class struggle, Marx says.
  • The proletariat cannot win power without eliminating exploitation altogether. They cannot raise themselves up without changing the structures that allow for exploitation. The struggles of the proletariat will thus lead to the final revolution: the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie.
  • To rule, the bourgeoisie has to keep profiting, which requires wage-labor (working for wages, which is what the proletariat does). But wage-labor can only continue as long as the workers fight one another in competition. Instead, Marx says, they're joining together to resist their dangerous workplace conditions. The very foundation of the bourgeoisie is being cut out under its feet.
  • With a famous image, Marx writes that the bourgeoisie produces its own gravediggers.

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