Karl Marx struggled. In the nineteenth century, he looked at the world around him and saw disarray. “The history of all hitherto existing society,” he believed, “is the history of class struggles.” And there were many who agreed with him, including Friedrich Engels and laborers from across the globe. Yet they were not united. So in 1848, Marx, Engels, and some of their associates came together in London to pen a Manifesto that would join the workers of the world in revolution.
You might be familiar with Communism, the one-party system exemplified by the Cold War-era Soviet Union. As an economic system, it turned out to be less than desirable for those workers it sought to raise up. With the advantage of hindsight, it’s easy to see the defects in the central control of a national economy and its dependence on a small group of bureaucrats making millions of pricing and labor decisions every single day. But in the mid 1800s, this was unknown to Marx and Engels.
In the first of the Communist Manifesto‘s four chapters, the authors lay out the core problem: the world was unfair, with so many industrialists taking advantage of so many workers. It wasn’t just that the powerful bourgeoisie controlled the money and factories. In Marx’s and Engels’ view, the ruling and business classes conspired to destroy all core societal institutions. For example, marriage and family life existed, but it had been transformed into an economic equation, a reserve from which factories could draw out male and female workers, both young and old. Private property existed, but not for proletariat, the class level of the common man.
The solution? Violent revolution. As stated in the second chapter, “The immediate aim of the Communists is the…formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, [and] conquest of political power by the proletariat.” In this transformation, the Communists would not restore the broken societal institutions. Instead, they would demolish them completely through “the abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom.” Here are just some of the changes admitted to by the Manifesto.
- The abolition of private property, or at least of property that can be used to “subjugate the labor of others.”
- The elimination of the “bourgeois” nuclear family; “we replace home education by social.”
- No more marriage or monogamy. Instead, there would be a “community of women” not tied to any man, a sort of “mob with benefits.”
- The erasure of countries and nationalities so that one nation can no longer exploit another.
- The removal of religious, philosophical, and ideological ideas that conflict with Communism.
- The centralization of the means of production, transport, communication, and finance into the hands of the state.
This simple lists makes the changes look almost harmless. But what the group called for was the complete and utter upheaval of every aspect of society and individual life.
The final two chapters identify other groups and movements in history that sought the same ends as the Communists. The difference between those groups and the Communists are twofold: (1) the Communists focus on how local struggles of such groups can be merged at the international level, and (2) other groups were wimps because they didn’t attempt violent revolution.
I found it hard to read the Communist Manifesto without bringing my American worldview into the mix. I witnessed the collapse of the Supreme Soviet, and I still see how those living in the modern “utopias” of Communist Cuba and North Korea experience a level of oppression and subjugation many times baser than anything Marx and Engels mentioned. Industrialization did include abuses of the working class, and the authors were right to link those abuses to the unjust feudal systems of the past. But I wish that Engels and especially Marx (who was married with children) could have looked past the struggles and complexities of European socioeconomic history, with all of its wars and church-state imbroglios, and seen what a truly free republic could accomplish for the workers of the world. If they had foreseen such a system, perhaps those who were dragged through the various implementations of the Communist Manifesto would not only “have a world to win”; they would have won it.
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