The Communist Manifesto Summary

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels

The Communist Manifesto

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The Communist Manifesto Summary

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Originally titled “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” “The Communist Manifesto” is a political pamphlet published in 1848 by the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles. The Communist League requested its creation and, though written in German, it was published first in London as the 1848 revolutions began. It has taken its place in world history as one of the most influential pieces of political literature ever. It focuses on social class structure, capitalism, and capitalist ways of production rather than expounding on the future of communism. The “Manifesto” is structured in the form of a preamble followed by four sections, although the final of the four is a brief conclusion.

The authors’ objectives are to present their theories about society and politics and to express their concept of how socialism will ultimately replace capitalism. The preamble tells that the goal of the document is to clarify what communism really is and to encourage communists to express their views publically. It states that throughout Europe, leaders are accusing one another of being communists without a clear understanding of what they are accusing. The goal of  “The Communist Manifesto” is to clarify the situation.

The first section of the document, titled “Bourgeois and Proletarians,” talks of how historically the development of societies has been about class struggles. The template for societies has been the oppressive hand of a few controlling the majority. In capitalism, the proletariat, or working class, is pitted against the bourgeoisie, which owns the means of production. This will ultimately end in revolution, as the bourgeois will continually take advantage of the proletariat for labor while amassing profits and capital for itself. Ultimately, this will become a self-defeating effort for the ruling class as the workers will realize their position and revolt. The word “bourgeois” in the section title is frequently used interchangeably with “bourgeoisie” although historians generally use the former as a noun in reference to the entire class and the latter as an adjective and occasionally as a noun to refer to the middle class as exploiters of the working class.

In part two, “Proletarians and Communists,” Marx uses the common objections to communism to show what it is really looking for. He says the bourgeoisie accuses the proletariat of wanting to eliminate private property. Communism, he explains, wants only to get rid of the property of the bourgeois thus placing the means of production in the hands of the community at large without considering personal belongings in the equation. This section also states that the communist party will represent the common interests of the world’s proletariat in total, regardless of nationalities. Marx then offers steps the working class should take once gaining traction in its quest to acquire political power. Capital should be taken from the rich, inheritances eliminated, there should be free public education, and national communication and transportation systems all of which would ultimately eliminate class distinctions.

Section three of the “Manifesto,” “Socialist and Communist Literature,” separates communism from the other socialist systems that existed at the time: Reactionary Socialism, Conservative Socialism, and Critical-Utopian Socialism. All of these classifications are ultimately rejected because they fail to recognize the potential reactionary disposition of the working class. In this portion of the tract, Marx levels criticism at those who advocate simply reforming the capitalist system rather than calling for the overthrow of the system. He believes attempts to reform capitalism are destined to fail. He further stresses that it is preferable to unite workers of all countries rather than developing small disjointed units.

The concluding section of the “Manifesto,” “Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties,” talks of the communist position on conflicts in various countries at the time such as Switzerland, Poland, France, and Germany, which is described as nearing a bourgeois revolution. Marx tells of the political alliances that exist in numerous countries and calls for an overthrow by force of the bourgeoisie, in other words, a communist revolution, and ends proclaiming, “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!”

Throughout its history, “The Communist Manifesto” has endured ups and downs in popularity. The Workers’ Educational Association in London initially published it without identifying the authors. It was written in German and was reprinted several times, as well as appearing in serialized form in a London newspaper for German immigrants. Just after its appearance in the newspaper, copies of the pamphlet reached Paris and then Germany. Editing took place throughout its early history, mainly for grammatical and printing errors, eventually providing the final form that would be used for future editions. When the revolts failed in 1848, the “Manifesto,” for all intents and purposes, disappeared for two decades.

By the 1870s, Marx had assumed a leadership position in the International Workingmen’s Association and garnered widespread attention for his support of the Paris Commune. In addition, the pamphlet was used as evidence in a treason trial of leaders of the German Social Democratic Party, which made it legal to publish it. Marx and Engels subsequently published an updated version with a preface clarifying things that had become outdated. By the early twentieth century, with Vladimir Lenin leading the first socialist state, “The Communist Manifesto” was front and center as representing the political and philosophical doctrines that were to be valued.