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.

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