By Yaara Caliph
There are few political texts that feel relevant to ordinary people’s lives for almost two centuries. The Communist Manifesto is undoubtedly one of them. The text, published in 1848 on the eve of a year of revolution in Europe, is a short pamphlet — in fact, it would take the average reader only 45-60 minutes to consume it in its entirety.
Written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as a radicalising tool, it was purposefully made easy-to-read and has been released in many different languages. It features an analysis of the political system, clarification of what true opposition to it means, and a plea for people to join the struggle. This first public declaration of scientific socialism is a key text for any revolutionary.
What is the working class?
According to Marx and Engels, the working class, or the proletarians, are those who have nothing but their own labour to sell. Unlike the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, distribution and exchange — for example, the owner of a factory, warehouse, or supermarket — they are forced to work to live. They create the value of the items or services that the bourgeoisie sell, without owning the fruits of their labour. Even the petit-bourgeois, the ‘middle class’, become proletarianised as their insufficient capital means they are still required to sell their labour.
The history of class struggle
It’s important to understand what the proletariat is because the Manifesto puts a heavy weight on their shoulders. They, and only they, are agents of revolutionary change in society. For Marx and Engels, history is not only explained through class struggle — it is also how history moves forward. The famous quote that kicks off the first chapter, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, is key.
In the 19th century, when The Communist Manifesto was written, a modern working class was emerging in Europe. They worked under terrible and dangerous conditions, and they didn’t have any political representation. This led to anger, frustration, and revolutionary ideas bubbling under the surface as they saw their bosses getting obscenely rich on the backs of their work.
Marx and Engels, together with the Communist League, could sense the oscillations of the period and wanted to explain what was necessary for these revolutions, and future ones, to succeed. The wave of revolutions throughout Europe that erupted around the time of the Manifesto being published, but which proved largely unsuccessful, demonstrated the importance of such an explanation.
To do so, they had to first explain the historic role that the bourgeoisie played in fighting the feudal ruling class. The ‘Age of Exploration’ brought forward an increasing demand for production, which led to the Industrial Revolution. The mode of production changed from simple manufacture to ‘Modern Industry’, giving the bourgeoisie immense power. As this strength developed, they pushed medieval powers aside and took over the mechanics of the state. This, in many ways, marked progress for humanity.
The new mode of production required constant expansion and hoarding of capital. From this need, the international proletariat was created. The bourgeoisie had to advance industry and globalise it to reduce costs and fight competition. By doing that, they bring workers together while simultaneously attacking their conditions to continue expanding. When workers are pushed further into poverty, they have no other choice but to organise together and fight back. As explained in the Manifesto, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” In other words, the bourgeoisie were forced to create the battalions that will win the war against them.
Unlike previous oppressed classes, however, the proletariat cannot simply subject the rest of society to its own interests, as they do not own any property of their own — hence, they cannot fight to retain or expand it. What’s more, the proletariat is not a minority, but rather the vast majority of society. That’s why the working class is able to end private ownership of the means of production altogether, acting in the interests of the majority of the population.
The contradictory nature of capitalism
The Communist Manifesto both praises the historic role of capitalism, and attacks its unsustainable barbarism. Capitalism opened up world markets, connected people from all corners of the globe, and brought on abundance in comparison with previous societies — however, this was built on the backs of slaves and exploited workers, using violence, genocide and expropriation. The same bourgeoisie that fought tooth and nail against the feudal, landowning class now had to revolutionise the way production is run from the local to the global, which created the international proletariat and its innate rage against them.
The fact that the bourgeoisie creates its own grave-diggers is a huge contradiction. This system must develop the proletariat to survive, the same proletariat that is the force that can destroy the system. But this is not the only contradiction the Manifesto outlines beautifully. The bourgeoisie created the conditions upon which a global classless society of abundance is possible, and they have now come to be an obstacle to this.
Take production, for example. Capitalism is built on producing so much — too much, if anything — yet it never makes what society actually needs. Globally, the bourgeoisie spends $2 trillion on military research, while the world is on the verge of climate catastrophe. There’s so much wealth and progress, yet the working class is living in poverty. Each year, 1.6 billion tonnes of food are wasted, while hundreds of millions starve. The abundance capitalism brings along is not for the majority of people, but rather for the sake of economic expansion in and of itself.
The ‘C word’: Communism
The Communist Manifesto was written when the movement was already in its infancy. The text opens with the sarcastic sentence: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” In other words, all the European powers were geared up for their ‘war on communism’, spreading misinformation about what it means due to the threat of these radical ideas (sound familiar?).
That’s why it was necessary for the Communist League to put forward a manifesto laying out the real objectives of the communist movement. It explained their demands, where they sat in relation to the other streams of working-class parties and gave a forthright response to malicious accusations from the bourgeoisie in relation to private property, the family and religion.
Marx and Engels ridicule the bourgeoisie’s cynical appeal to ‘patriotism’. They explained that “the working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got,” meaning the working class is international because it is exploited by the capitalists globally and has nothing to gain from supporting business-owners of one nationality over another. No proletarian truly “belongs” to their nation but rather to an international movement — the bourgeoisie did that by creating the world market and modern world trade, not the communists.
The Manifesto points out that capitalism inevitably creates antagonisms between nations (which we can see clearly with recent ‘vaccine nationalism’, for example). That’s why a communist world will end these artificial divisions that serve the ruling class:
“In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another will also be put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.”
Reform or revolution
The Manifesto doesn’t just deal with bourgeois accusations. Marx and Engels go to great lengths to explain how communism differs from other socialist ideas. They discuss the various types of socialism that existed at the time, some of which aren’t around today, such as the grouping they label as ‘reactionary socialism’. They also speak out against ‘utopian socialism’, which philosophised about abolishing the current social order, however, only in theory in isolated projects and never in general, because it doesn’t base itself on the power of the working class.
More importantly to our time, though, is the discussion regarding “bourgeois socialism”. This segment of socialist thought comes from “economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind.” Notably, they are not the working class themselves, but ‘appreciators’ of the class who call for change from a moralistic position.
These bourgeois thinkers want to ameliorate the conditions the working class lives under without getting rid of the system through revolutionary change. In other words, “they wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” This is either by working to pacify the proletariat and make it more complacent, or by implementing a series of administrative reforms. This type of pseudo-socialism is incredibly prevalent today — we see it in the form of NGOs working to lobby governments for ‘social justice’, bourgeois parties proposing welfare plans, or social-democratic academics advocating for ideas like Universal Basic Income (UBI). While Marxists, including Socialist Alternative, actively fight for all reforms in the interests of working people, we know that only working class struggle to end capitalism can secure a real future.
Marx and Engels pointed out the potential revolutionary power in the hands of the proletariat, which these bourgeois ideas are attempting to placate:
“In requiring the proletariat to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightway into the social New Jerusalem, it but requires in reality, that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.”
The fight continues, 175 years on
Despite managing to describe its own era incredibly well, the Communist Manifesto is a succinct and accurate document even 175 years on. It predicts what capitalism is going to become unless halted by a socialist revolution, and its prognosis has been vindicated time and time again in the last couple of centuries. In many ways, these ideas are even more appropriate now than they were in 1848!
When the Manifesto was written, the working-class was relatively small. The pamphlet outlines how this is not going to remain so, pointing to its predicted exponential growth. Today, we’re seeing the working class larger than ever. Ironically the notion that the working class doesn’t exist anymore is widespread. But if you apply Marx’s definition — people who have nothing to sell but their labour and produce things they don’t own themselves, and their dependents — you won’t find many around you who don’t fall within this category. The nature of the class has transformed enormously, and now it is broader, even more diverse and consists of 80-90% of the population.
It’s not just the working-class that Marx and Engels got right. The forces of production nowadays are vast beyond any 19th century socialist’s wildest fantasies. But this abundant wealth, advanced technology and productive capabilities are used against the working class instead of for them, just as the Manifesto forecasts. The pandemic is perhaps the most glaring example, where the vaccine rollout has been slowed down due to patents, international trade wars and political rivalries, let alone the underdevelopment and poverty of certain regions.
We are told again and again that the working class is weaker than it has ever been, yet the untapped power our class holds is clear — what we need is the correct method to use it. The Manifesto is an analysis of history and society, but it’s primarily a call to arms. This is a rallying cry that is more relevant than ever.
Marx and Engels tell us that an individual worker starts by being angry at their personal situation, but it is our job to point out where the blame lies: with the system. Our role is to show a way to collectivise the struggle, organise together against it. The Manifesto was correct when it stated that this is the only way to save us, both as individuals and as a society, and it is truer now than in the 19th century when we take the climate crisis into consideration, for example. We have even less to lose, but we still have a world — and a planet — to win.