Communist Manifesto, part 2 (but really Part 1): Bourgeois and Proletarians

This is part 2 of my series on The Communist Manifesto. Part 1 is here. Now we get into the meat of the book. While this is my part 2, this entry covers part 1 of the Communist Manifesto: “Bourgeois and Proletarians.”

Marx and Engels claim that society consists of class struggle/antagonism (instead of homogenized/unified/lockstepped nations or realms). The current struggle is between two classes: the bourgeoisie/owners and proletariat/workers (Marx and Engels reveal that there are more than two classes at play, but that the bourgeoisie and proletariat are the two principal players. The authors mention past antagonisms like lords/serfs and patricians/plebeians). How and why the classes exist as they are is the subject of this part of the Communist Manifesto.Their argument unfolds in what is at times history, philosophy, and activism.

The bourgeoisie emerged due to a confluence of advances: land discovery, colonization, communication, navigation, technological efficiency, division of labor, and commerce. In a phrase, the bourgeoisie owe their existence to new “modes of production.”  As they transitioned from a group oppressed by the nobles, to one used by the monarchy against the nobles, the bourgeoisie came to dominance as the monarchy and nobles fought to their mutual ruin.

Their pursuit of commercial interest above all else led the bourgeoisie to “free trade” (by “free trade,” Marx and Engels mean trade free from the encumbrance of nation or faith). As technology became more efficient and more product could be made, new markets had to be exploited to keep bourgeois profits up. These newly integrated markets gave the world a cosmopolitan character, and replaced old social relations (such as patriarchy and fealty) with urbanization.

When I first read this section, I thought Marx and Engels had overplayed their hand. For example, they state, “The bourgeoisie, whenever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” (11). Let’s grant that feudal relations had largely evaporated by their time. Surely patriarchal relations had not. However, as urbanization and industrialization took place, family ties began to break down as young people flocked to cities in search of work, free from the oversight of the village. In fact, Marx and Engels later assert that as city population increases along side urban production, power shifts from the country to be centralized in the hands of a few in the cities.

Back to their argument.

While technological advances helped the bourgeois become dominant, they also were an Achilles’ Heel. Overproduction became a problem. To keep advancing profits, the bourgeoisie needed new markets.

Technological innovations created the proletariat. As each worker became less necessary for profit, the worker’s existence became more precarious. If the owner of a factory needed less workers, while the workers necessarily needed work in order to survive, it created competition among workers to secure their existence under in a factory. They lived in cities and didn’t own land in the country, so the workers’ entire existence depended on the ability to secure jobs, if they resided in the cities.

Again, technology makes labor less necessary. For example, machines make the John Henrys of the world obsolete, or in Marx’s words, make age and sex meaningless. A change in modes of production yields change in modes of social relations.

The wages the bourgeois spend to maintain the proletariat’s subsistence is soon siphoned to smaller capitalists, though these, too, sink into the proletariat because of competition with larger capitalists. This is where Marx and Engels begin to describe other classes. There are “petty bourgeoisie,” like shopkeepers (aka small business owners), land owners, etc., which are the smaller version of large owners like factory owners or industry leaders.

Now the authors portray a trajectory of the development of the working class. Early in the proletariat’s development, they are precarious as individuals. If they move along toward union, they first unify in a factory as each worker finds they share mutual precarity in relation to the factory owner. Then, perhaps, all factory workers who machine tools begin to develop a mutual group-interest (or class consciousness). Then they can develop a unified struggle (aka union) against the bourgeoisie in one locale. Initially Marx and Engels describe a primitivist impulse among workers to destroy the machines that replace them so that they can still have jobs, though the authors soon argue against this folly.

Proletarian unity becomes possible from the conditions that conjured the bourgeoisie into being: improved navigation and communication (today, the internet is a boon to groups trying to extend their influence from one locale, but also a potential hindrance in that it likewise makes surveillance by governments and corporations easier). When proletarians unify, they can exploit breaches in bourgeois unity, e.g., in the achievement of the 10-hour bill that Marx and Engels mention.

At the time of their writing, 1848, workers were subject to working hours much longer than 10-hour workdays, even upwards of 16 hours, 6-7 days a week.

As class struggle intensifies, the bourgeois and aristocracy, in an attempt to undermine the other, equip the proletariat with education. The small/petit bourgeois sometimes side with the proletariat against the bourgeois, but not to advance the proletariat, but in an effort to retain petty bourgeois privileges. Another class, the “social scum”/lumpenproletariat, is described by the authors as dangerous because they can potentially be bought off with enough provisions.

The proletariat of every country lack any capital and share oppression beneath the exploitative bourgeois; therefore, if the proletariat revolts, they have no former privilege to defend. It would be the first revolution of the majority for the majority, unlike the revolutions of yore which were fought by the majorities but for minority interests, like the American Revolution fought so landowners and factory owners could self-govern away from monarchic oversight.

The bourgeois exploit the proletariat through wage-labor (I will cover this more when I write a series on Marx’s “Wage-Labor and Capital”; in the meantime, here is a definition), creating competition between workers rather than between the workers and owners. Therefore, the proletariat must unite against the bourgeoisie in their own countries.

The next section describes the relation of the workers to the communists. I hope this summary of part of the Communist Manifesto helps you understand a little more about it. If so, please follow the blog, and share it on Facebook or Twitter. If you have questions, comments, concerns, or lampoons, please comment, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky2 at mailgay otday omcay (look up Pig Latin if this makes no sense to you), or tweet @PessimistsHope.


Communist Manifesto, part 1: Prolegomena, Preface, and Preamble

Communist ManifestoKarl Marx and Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto [1848]. Authorized English Translation. Translated by Samuel Moore. New York: International Publishers Co., Inc., 1948.



Prolegomena, or Intro stuff

This entry is a (part of a 4-5 part series) review that covers Engels’ 1888 preface to the authorized English translation of the manifesto, as well as the “preamble.” Thus begins my foray into reviewing the major works of Marxism and socialism (way down the road I will probably do this with anarchism).

In this most (in)famous of texts, The Communist Manifesto (CM), Marx and Engels lay out the program for the overthrow of the bourgeois (those who own the means of production) by the working people (proletariat). Its pace is fast, its metaphors strident. I have read the work maybe twice before, but never in so much detail as now. For example, I went so far as to number the paragraphs and summarize each in my own words. My life situation also makes this reading more memorable.

The CM text I review divides into seven sections, but four primary parts. Engels’ preface covers the reception of the CM following the revolutions of 1848. The second section, or preamble, lists communism as a bogeyman that requires definition and subsequent defense. The main argument of the book (and how the work is structured) consists of four parts: “Bourgeois and Proletarians,” “Proletarians and Communists,” “Socialist and Communist Literature,” and “Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties.” The final section concludes with Engels’ notes.

The Preface: The Communist League and Growing Working-Class Movement

What is now available online for free, and has been read and used by many revolutionaries since its publication, was once the agenda of a secret group called the “Communist League.” They quickly translated it from German into the major languages of Europe. However, Engels remarks on the vulnerability of the group. After the 1848 Paris revolt, and its subsequent repression, many of the League were imprisoned, until they quickly dissolved the group of their own volition.

It is common now to see the left a splintered mess: egoists, anarchists, communists, social democrats, democratic socialists, Maoists, Marxist-Leninists, Marxists, Luxemburgests, situationists, and habitual circle-jerkers. Apparently this sectarianism was present in the 1850s, too, for Engels refers to Marx’s grating success of uniting followers of Proudhon, LaSalle, and English unionists into the International Workingmen’s Association (First International).

Engels claims that the emerging working-class movement followed the translation of the CM into various languages. Though he admits the words “socialism” and “communism” could be used roughly interchangeably by 1888, they definitely could not be used synonymously in 1848. Then, socialists were those who wished to improve the welfare of people without challenging capital; communists were working class people who wanted the benefits that derived from owning capital themselves (more on Marx’s definition of “capital” in upcoming posts). Or to quote Engels: “Whatever portion of the working class had become convinced of the insufficiency of mere political revolutions, and had proclaimed the necessity of a total social change, called itself Communist” (5).

Engels is rather self-effacing when it comes to the origins of the manifesto. He attributes the nucleus of the work to Marx (though he would say they came to similar conclusions independently): social organization being invariably linked to economic production, class struggle, and proletarian emancipation from the bourgeoisie.

I find Engels’s historicizing remarks in the concluding paragraphs of his preface quite striking. He (and Marx for that matter) did not take their words as sacred scripture to be taken without criticism. For example, one of the most famous passages occurs at the end of part two, a ten-point program of sorts (from which The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense would pen its own ten-point program). Engels states that some of these aims simply don’t match the historical conditions of 1888 and so remain an artifact of 1848. He also remarks that the socialist literature reviewed in part three only goes up to 1848 and that some of the parties mentioned in part four no longer existed.

That is Engels’ preface. Now to the preamble.

Preamble: “A specter is haunting Europe–the specter of Communism.”

The Communist League saw their mere existence as a threat so severe as to elicit a unified response from parties as diverse as pope, emperors, financiers, and police-spies. The writers took this to mean that they were a power, but one which deserved a hearing of its aims and demands. It was internationalist from its beginnings. In other words, there’s was not a nationalist situation, but a union of members from England, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Internationalism would play a huge part in communist revolutions globally.

Concluding Thoughts

Is the CM mere antiquities, a literary piece for hobbyists? One could use it that way, I suppose, but to do so would forfeit the document’s power. Even if one does not agree with all of Marx and Engels’ assertions, they should at least give one pause. What does it mean if people are grouped into antagonistic classes? What would it mean for working people to unite as a class, overthrow bourgeois hegemony, and obtain political power (the aims of the Communist League on p. 22)? Do the revolutions of Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and the various Bolivarian revolutions speak to the truth or falsehood of this document? Or how do those revolutions compare to the ideas Marx and Engels put forth?

My life situation makes this reading more poignant this time. I had written toward the end of last year a massive reading goal of 22 non-fiction works and 10 fiction works. Surely with school being done I would have nothing to do. It turned out that working 40+ hours a week in manual labor plus 10+ hours a week in commute time make for a tired and ragged Monte. It’s hard enough being a parent who is present and getting chores done; what little time I have is devoted to reading for this blog, and I don’t exactly feel great about my efforts.

I don’t know how the miners of yesteryear worked 12-16 hour days by candlelight and still made time to organize for better conditions. They are inspiring. They inspire while I feel the pressure of student debt, tired muscles, anxiety and desperation to use my mental skill, little time for my wife and children, and even less time to just read. So is the working class life. We work just to survive, while those who own capital make money off the labor of those who work. This is no a c’est la vie, or “it is what it is” statement; such is the outlook of those who share precarious conditions (like trying to find affordable healthcare), but through some obfuscation see this way of things as natural, unalterable, divinely-inspired, deserved. Recognize the power of your own activity. The way things are are not the way things have to be. Far from it.