Study Guide for The Communist Manifesto
Page numbers referred to in these notes are those of the International Publishers edition.
The Communist Manifesto, first published in 1848 for theCommunist League, had little influence in its own day. Only after Karl Marx andFriedrich Engels' other writings had made their views on socialism widely known did itbecome a standard text. For about a century it was one of the most widely read(and some would argue misread) documents in the world.
But why study it today? Most of the communist world has collapsed. Nominallycommunist countries like Vietnam and China are busily building market economiesin defiance of everything Marx advocated, and Korea and Cuba are barelysurviving, serving as models for no one. Has not Marxism been relegated to theash-heap of history?
There are several reasons why The Communist Manifesto is stillan important document. As a historically significant work, it has a certainintrinsic interest. It is good to know what the great ideas are which haveshaped history. Some people would argue that Marxists so thoroughly betrayedMarxism that the document can be used to show why attempts at buildingcommunist states failed: they were never truly Marxist at all. If true Marxismhas never been tried, then it might be worth reconsidering afresh. Or if, asothers argue, Marxism has intrinsic flaws that doomed it from the beginning, wemight hope to discover traces of them here which might teach us why Marxismshould be shunned. The goal here is not to convert you, but to help you exploreMarx's writing from his point of view, so that you can understand his actualmeaning while still maintaining a stance that can allow you to think criticallyabout the subject and form your own opinions.
It is important to understand that Marx played two important roles in worldhistory: as a critic of capitalism and as an advocate of socialism. Heactually wrote very little on the latter subject. Although a strong believer inthe importance of building socialism, he spent most of his time and energy on asubtle and complex critique of the capitalist system. This critique is stillvery influential on many historians, art and literature scholars, sociologistsand others. There have been many neo-Marxisms which have been based more orless loosely on the original ideas of Marx and which are widely discussedtoday. Whether you want to explore such ideas or combat them, it's good to havesome notion of the subject.
A manifesto is a document which proclaims publicly--or makes manifest-- thecentral ideas of a group or individual. Although the organization for whichthis one was written was underground (for the simple reason that it was illegal)Marx always envisioned the socialist movement as open. He rejected secretconspiracies because his ideal of building socialism was envisioned as amajority enterprise which could only accumulate the necessary momentum throughan open, broadly-based campaign of education and exhortation.
Engels was Marx's close collaborator and an important thinker and writer in hisown right. He outlived Marx by many years, and produced several volumes whichare still influential. Marx was clearly the more powerful thinker of the two,but Engels was the better stylist. Although Engels may have been responsiblefor much of the eloquent writing in the Manifesto, because it incorporates Marx's ideas and embodies some central concepts of what came to be known as Marxismthe following questions will refer to the authors simply as 'Marx.'
The terms 'socialist' and 'communist' have been defined ina bewildering variety of ways. When reading them it is always important to knowwhat the writer means by them. For Marx socialism was the more comprehensiveterm; communism was an advanced stage of socialism. Socialism would preparethe way by nationalizing the 'means of production' (factories, farms,mines, transportation, etc.) and putting them under the control of those heviewed as the sole producers of wealth: the workers. He viewed politicalequality and freedom as incomplete (or even illusory) without economic equality. Therefore this redistribution of economic power was aimed at extendingdemocracy far beyond the limits envisioned by earlier democratic revolutions. Social services like health, education, and housing would be provided free, butpeople would still be paid wages according to their work.
When all nations had developed socialist economies, they would begin to evolveinto an international communist society. The vision of communism was verysimilar to that of anarchism: a stateless society in which central governmenthad 'withered away,' local, ground-up control of all affairs bystrictly democratic processes based at the place of work, abolition of themarket system (no money, no buying and selling) and its replacement by a systemaccording to which people would voluntarily work for the common good to theextent they were able under the understanding that they could receive whateverthey needed for free ('from each according to his ability, to eachaccording to his needs'). National boundaries and governments havingbeen eliminated, war would cease.
Marx rejected the belief that such a society could be set up immediately asutopian. People would need a long period of reeducation under socialism tocondition them away from the selfish orientation produced by capitalism andtoward the wider perspective necessary to create communism. Many of hissocialist and anarchist adversaries argued that it was impossible to achievecommunism by passing through a stage which retained and even strengthened thecentralized state government. Marx replied that it was impossible to leapdirectly into communism from socialism. What's your opinion on this question?
The most common reply is that both are impossible because 'you can't changehuman nature.' What Marx set out to prove was that not only had'human nature' changed many times in the past: there is no such thingas a static human nature. We are products of our environment, particularly ofthe economic system in which we live. People living under feudalism aremotivated by feudal motives and think them natural and fixed, just as peopleliving under capitalism are motivated by capitalist motives and think thosenatural and fixed. Occasionally in history people undergo what is now called a'paradigm shift' in values, based on an economic transformation. Itis this process that he attempts to sketch in the first section of the Manifesto. If people's values have changed radically in thepast, he implies, they are certain to change again radically in the future. Ina socialist society it would be nonsense to say that people will alwaysnaturally tend to become owners of factories because such owners would be asimpossible, and such desires would be as irrational as the desire to own theMoon. Engels spent a good deal of energy studying so-called 'primitivecommunist' societies to show that sharing could be as natural andwidespread an attitude toward wealth as acquisition. What do you know aboutpre-capitalist cultures that might support or undermine this argument?
Although he does not address the question in the Manifesto, itis important to understand why Marx believed an armed revolution would benecessary to establish socialism. He was convinced that the democraticrevolutions which swept Europe in 1848 had merely substituted one tyrant foranother. The bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) had replaced theold aristocracy as the rulers in law as well as in fact. Their slogans offreedom and equality for all, he felt, concealed a determination to remain supreme over the proletariat (industrial laborers) which made up the vastmajority of society. He did not reject bourgeois democracy because it wasdemocratic, only because he felt it was limited to the bourgeoisie. Economicpower, not the vote, was the ultimate guarantee of political power. He was infavor of using elections as an organizing tool, but he was certain that in mostcountries the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) would forcibly prevent anydemocratically-elected socialist government from taking power.
He once commented that in only two industrialized nations were democraticinstitutions so firmly entrenched that a transition to socialism might bepeacefully achieved: the Netherlands and the United States. Why do you thinkthis transition did not happen? He also felt that communism could be builtonly in highly industrialized countries. Why do you think communist revolutionshappened first in nations with very little industry, like Russia and China? What effects did this fact have on the course socialism took in thesecountries?
The manifesto is meant to achieve two major goals: to convert the proletariansand their allies to Marx's version of socialism (there were many other versions,much more influential than his) and to put the ruling class on notice as to therevolutionaries' intentions. So it expresses both hopes and threats. Itscentral themes are well summed up in the long central paragraph on p. 6 ofEngels' introduction. Read it carefully. Note how he goes on to compare histheory of class struggle with Darwin's theory of evolution, just asÉtienne did in Germinal.
8: The opening words of the Manifesto are famous. Marx tauntshis adversaries, saying they are terrified of communism without understanding inthe slightest what it is. Since communism is such a threat, it must beimportant, and worth understanding. Hence the Manifesto.
I: Bourgeois and Proletarians
9: Marx felt that the revolutions of 1848 marked a major turning point, as isnow undisputed. He sets out to trace the patterns which have run through all ofpreceding history. Unsurprisingly, he considers exclusively European societies,beginning with the classical world. What does he say is the main source ofconflict throughout history? How does he say the bourgeoisie has differed inthe way it has affected this pattern of conflict? He explains how thebourgeoisie (literally dwellers in towns) originated out of the old medievalpeasant class, in opposition to the medieval titled aristocracy (kings, dukes,knights, etc.).
10: These people derived their wealth from trade rather than agriculture. Whywas the age of exploration and colonization important to them? What caused theold guild system to collapse? What have the major effects of the ensuing industrial revolution been? What are the major achievements caused by theextension (expansion) of industry? As the bourgeoisie grew in power, whathappened to the other old feudal classes like the aristocracy and the peasants? Did the bourgeoisie create capitalism or did capitalism create the bourgeoisie,according to Marx?
11: What does this famous phrase mean: 'The executive of the modern stateis but a committee for managing the common affairs of the wholebourgeoisie?' Do you agree? Why? Note that he praises the bourgeoisiefor having abolished the feudal system and prepared the way for socialism; buthe does so ironically. What does he imply have been the main harmful effects ofdestroying feudalism? How has capitalism's emergence changed ' humannature?' 'Exchange value' is a typical Marxist term which doesnot exactly mean 'price,' but in this context that is close enough. What does he say is the limit of bourgeois freedom? Do you think he is right insaying that occupations are only resp ected according to how much they are paid? Can you think of examples to illustrate his point about the reduction of'the family relation to a mere money relation' from Germinal.? Keep in mind that he is speaking here mainly of the effects ofcapitalism on workers, not on the bourgeoisie. He uses the term'reactionaries' from time to time. What does it mean? (Look it up ina dictionary.) It is commonly misused to mean merely 'those who react tosomething.'
12: To what cause does he attribute the bourgeoisie's energy in creatingrailways, factories, etc.? Why do owners need constantly to create new ways ofmanufacturing and processing goods? How does competition drive this process? Can you think of modern examples, or counter-examples? How does the very essence of bourgeois production (capitalism, used interchangeably with'bourgeois society' below) make it by definition a revolutionaryforce? Why does capitalism have to spread worldwide? What tendenciesundermine the independence of nation-states? Can you think of examples todayof this sort of international economic interdependence? What forces generateexpanded markets for capitalism? Can you think of examples of 'new wants?being created?
13: What effects does he say international trade has on 'intellectualproduction' such as literature, philosophy, music, etc.? Is literaturemore or less international now than in the Middle Ages? Has nationalism beenweakened as a force in the last hundred years, as Marx expected? Why or whynot? He argues that all societies tend to become civilized (drawn into thesocial patterns of European civilization). To what extent is this true? Whatis the process by which he says the bourgeois society creates a world after itsown image? How has capitalism altered the relationship between cities and thecountryside? Has that process continued since Marx's time? What does he meanby the 'idiocy of rural life?' Farmers a hundred years ago wereconsidered much less sophisticated than city dwellers. Is that still true? What analogy is he drawing between the city/country relationship and the'civilized'/'barbarian' relationship? According to Marx,how evenly is wealth distributed under capitalism? How has capitalism tended tocreate large countries with uniform laws?
14: What have been the main creations of capitalism during the preceding 100years? Having described how the emergence of capitalism from mercantilismdestroyed the old feudal system, Marx proclaims that a similar transformation isnow taking place. How has capitalism created forces which work against itscontinued existence? A 'commercial crisis' would more likely becalled a depression or recession today. What pattern does he feel there is inthese crises?
15: Why does capitalism tend to over-produce goods, unlike any previous form ofeconomy? How does an over-abundance of goods produce an apparent'famine' (depression)? Is it possible to produce too much? How doeconomists today relate manufacturers' inventories to the health of the economy? How could such over-production be prevented? Marx shows hisEnlightenment heritage by objecting to such a result as absurd, irrational. What are some of the irrational contradictions that he sees in capitalism? What three methods does the bourgeoisie use to solve such a crisis? Why dothese methods not really solve the ultimate problem? How have the bourgeoisiecreated the force which will destroy them? Why are laborers forced to selltheir services for the lowest possible wages? What ' law' did westudy in Germinal which states this proposition? In fact, in thecentury after the writing of the Manifesto the wages of workerstended generally to rise (though with many fluctuations and crises), until mostworkers under capitalism were much too prosperous to be enemies of the systemwhich produced their wages. What forces do you think caused this result, contradicting Marx's expectation?
16: Besides low wages, what other evils does Marx trace to modern industrialism? How could these evils be avoided? What is the relationship between the'repulsiveness' of labor and pay? To what extent is hard work notrewarded with more wealth? How is work made harder? Why has industrialismresulted in the entry into the workplace of more and more women and children? What effects does Marx thinks this has had on society? Can you illustrate thispoint from Germinal?
17: What happens to the 'lower strata of the middle class' (what Marxelsewhere calls the 'petit' [small] or 'petty' bourgeoisie)? Can you think of an example from Germinal? What are the majorstages in the class struggle as the proletariat develops? Can you illustratethese stages from Germinal? [Those who advocate destroyingmachinery to end its oppressive effects are called 'Luddites' after agroup of weavers who destroyed power looms in England inspired by a mythicalfigure named Ned Ludd in 1811-1816. ] How does Germinal illustrate the process by which workers begin to organize their opposition tothe owners? As the conflict develops, most of its victims are not the largecapitalists, but their small competitors (like Deneulin); thus Marx says 'every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie.' The struggleis becoming sharpened. What forces continually strengthen the proletariat?
18: What unstable forces inherent in capitalism cause the workers to seekorganizations which will help them stabilize their wages? Since most strikesand riots are failures, what is the 'real fruit' of these struggles? Why can modern workers organize so much more easily than their medievalpredecessors? What is the next step after the proletarians have becomeconscious of themselves as a class rather than as isolated individuals, andbecome organized? As Engels' footnote points out, one of the early successesof labor organizations was the passing of a law restricting the normal work dayto ten hours (as is the case in Germinal ), though overtimeremained common. In earlier industrialism it was common to keep a factory ormine going around the clock with two shifts of twelve hours each.
19: How does the need of the bourgeoisie to seek allies among the proletariathelp to strengthen the latter? Which of these two classes--bourgeoisie andproletariat--tends to grow the most? According to Marx' s definitions, whichclass does your family belong to: bourgeoisie (owners of the means of productionwho live off of profits) or proletariat (people who work for a salary), or wouldyou define their status in some other way? When Marx says that 'a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionaryclass' he is thinking primarily of intellectuals like himself and Engels,who allied themselves with the workers despite their bourgeois background. Therelationship of such idealistic Marxists to working class movements has been atroubled one. Can you think of any examples? What problems might these twogroups have in relating to one another? Why does he call peasantsreactionaries? Was Marx right? Can you think of an important modern Communistrevolution which was created primarily among and for peasants?
20: Professional criminals, prostitutes, beggars, etc. make up what Marx callsthe Lumpenproletariat.They too are not likely to berevolutionary, according to him. When Marx says that the proletarian is withoutproperty he doesn't mean workers don't own their clothes and toothbrushes. Towhat extent are the workers in Germinal 'withoutproperty?' It is this narrow definition of 'property' that Marxuses throughout his writings. He had no objection to people owning personalbelongings. To what extent has modern capitalism stripped workers of theirnational character? Are proletarians less nationalistic than the bourgeoisie? Why does he believe that proletarians will be motivated to destroy the wholesystem of individual private property? What fact makes the proletarian movementdifferent from all previous movements? Does Marx believe that the struggle ofthe proletariat with the bourgeoisie can be carried out int ernationally, all atonce? What might be the weaknesses of carrying it out country by country?
21: Why does Marx say the bourgeoisie is unfit to rule? The final paragraph ofthis chapter summarizes the argument of the whole. Read it carefully. Hebelieves that capitalism inevitably creates its own destruction. What do youthink of this thesis?
II: Proletarians and Communists
22: What does Marx say the relationship of the Communists to the proletarians asa whole is? In what ways are they different from other working-class parties? What are their immediate aims?
23: Marx argues that his theories are not mere intellectual inventions butscientifically provable facts. What effect might it have on political debate ifone believes that one's arguments are irrefutable fact? Marx now sets himselfto answer many of the most common accusations against the Communists. What doeshe say is the usual argument in favor of the right of personally acquiringproperty (land, factories, mines, etc.)? What do you think of these arguments? What are his answers? Do you find them convincing?
24: What does he mean when he says that capital (the money and goods which makecapitalism possible) is a social creation? Again he discusses the 'ironlaw of wages.' He says that under capitalism living labor (the work ofthe workers) is but a means to increase accumulated labor (the wealth of theowners). What does he say is the aim of labor under communism? Does Marx wantto abolish all individuality and freedom? Read the last paragraph carefully. What is he saying?
25: Some Communists have denounced all individuality and most individualliberty. Do you think Marx would have agreed with them? What does he mean bysaying that the bourgeoisie has done away with private property for nine-tenthsof the population? The fact that most Americans own no part of the means ofproduction doesn't seem to make them opposed to private property as such. Whynot? Can you identify factors that Marx overlooked? When he says that themiddle-class owner must be made impossible, he simply means that society must bereorganized so that no one is allowed to own large masses of productiveproperty. Do you think he would have agreed with attempts to kill capitalists? What is his answer to the argument that the ambition to acquire property(become a business owner) is necessary to prevent 'universallaziness?' (His answer continues on the next page.)
26: In the second paragraph, Marx says that the bourgeoisie fears that aproletarian revolution will destroy all culture because bourgeois culture will no longer be produced. What does he imply about the continuedexistence of culture? Why does he argue it is pointless to use arguments basedon freedom, culture, and law against communism? The earliest Westerntheoretician of communism, Plato, had argued for a lottery rotating the matingsof men and women to create a sense of solidarity in which all citizens wouldview themselves as part of one big family. Some other communists had argued forsimilar arrangements, like group marriage or ' free love,' but Marxdid not. He did feel that people should be free to form their own unionswithout any role being played by the state. He was also opposed to the idea of'illegitimacy.' Here he sarcastically attacks his critics withoutmaking his own position explicit. Remembering Germinal, why doyou think he says the family is 'practically absent' among theproletarians?
27: He foretells the vanishing of the bourgeois family (though not necessarily the family in general). What evils does he say the bourgeois family causes? Heanswers those who argue that education will be destroyed and replaced bypropaganda by saying that supposedly neutral bourgeois education is in factfilled with more or less hidden propaganda for capitalist values: there is noneutrality possible. The workers have to change the values taught to ones thatsupport rather than undermine them. What do you think of this argument? Is itpossible to have a truly unbiased form of education? Is it desirable? Do wehave one now? What evidence does he offer that the bourgeoisie does not reallyvalue the family for its own sake? He then returns to the most sensationalcharge: the community (sharing) of women. Marx rejects this. A ccording toMarx, why do the bourgeoisie suppose that this is an essential part ofcommunism? How does he argue that it is the bourgeoisie which has reallypromoted the 'community of women?'
28: How does he say the abolition of the present system of production wouldchange this situation? He agrees that the Communists do want to abolishcountries and nationality. What are his arguments in saying that working peopleare not attached to their countries? Clearly this is not generally true. EvenStalin had to resort to patriotism to muster the support of Russians behind himduring World War II. Why has nationalism proven so persistent and powerful? Does this fact undermine Marxism? What does the passage which begins in thelast paragraphs on this page and continues on the next mean? (Hint: the pointis discussed above, in the introduction to these questions.) This argument isone of the most widespread and powerful still being debated in academic andintellectual circles today, and it is important to understand it.
30-31: As Engels points out, the ten-point program outlined here is veryconservative and preliminary, and would have been much more developed had the Manifesto been written later. Which of the points seem radical,which conservative? Which have been in fact commonly adopted in countries likethe U.S.? Which do you agree with? Disagree with? Explain this ideal:' the free development of each is the condition for the free development ofall.' Does this sound like communism as you understand it? As itdeveloped in the Soviet Union?
III: Socialist and Communist Literature
In this chapter, which you are not required to read, Marx presents a now verydated summary of other socialist theories and tries to show how his is uniquelyeffective, scientific and rational.
IV: Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing OppositionParties
43: Much of this section can be summarized by simply saying that the Communistsallied themselves with whatever groups they thought were moving in the rightdirection ('progressive').
44: As Marx predicted, Germany developed one of the largest and most powerfulsocialist movements in the world; but the international socialist movementalmost collapsed when Germany launched World War I and the socialist partysupported the government. However, socialism remained popular enough so thatAdolph Hitler thought he had to call his movement 'National Socialism' to gain widespread acceptance, even though once in power he vigorouslyexterminated socialists. What does Marx say are the special aims worked for bythe communists within the various reform movements? Most people misquote theending of the Manifesto with the slightly more catchy'Workingmen of all countries, unite! You have nothing to lose but yourchains!' What weaknesses can you find in this call to revolution?
Do you think communism as Marx describes it is a desirable ideal, a foolishdream, a undesirable ideal, or something else? Why? Some people argue thattrue Marxism has never been attempted, and that if his original ideas werefollowed it might be more successful. Marxism, they say, has been discreditedby people who betrayed Marx. What do you think of this argument?