I’ve been foolish more times than I care to mention of jumping too far down a hole without looking. It’s for this reason that for the second issue of The Socialist Library I’ll be discussing The Communist Manifesto and not, say, Lenin’s collected works or why Kerensky was kind of a moron. What good is understanding a system without knowing the basics?
This’ll be in two parts so I can focus on both halves of the text with earnest attention. School and life means I can’t spend hours cutting into the text with a fine-tooth comb and writing twenty pages about it.
First up is, quite naturally, the first chapter of the text where Marx and Engels speak about the relations between the proletarian and the then-new class of bourgeoisie that sprung up during the time of the industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century.
The text begins with the classic intonation that all of history is comprised of the oppressed and the oppressor. Marx and Engels are quite correct in this knowledge. Think back as far as your memory can go: The ancient Greeks were a smattering of governments, but all had the wealthy and the poor, ancient Egypt had pharaohs as far back as three-thousand B.C.E., Mesopotamia had temples that acted as centers of authority and distribution of resources.
The difference with the rise of the bourgeoisie is that these new elites are not coming from the old bloodlines. They are the owners and exploiters of capital. They wield a new authority that has strength enough to tear apart old power structures, “(The rise of the capitalist class) has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors'” (Marx/Engels).
This was drastically important during Marx’s time. It is easy for us to comprehend this now. The realization has become part of our everyday. There are no powers of monarchy in France, Germany, Poland, etc. and the countries with monarchies have their kings limited to the wishes of a parliament. Monarchy has become a relic of a long-dead past.
The rise of a market economy and the beginning of industrialization meant that those with the factories and those with control over the resources for the factories were in real power. A noble may have some money and a gaudy estate, but it meant nothing when the factory owner could churn out a thousand guns in a week. The old power of the nobility was finally crushed under the mighty foot of capitalism.
This is truer today than it was during Marx’s time. Do we think kings and queens hold any practical power? They are symbol heads and nothing more; the people they ‘rule’ over may listen to them and obey within limits, but it is whom that pays the wages the proletariat really listens to. The owners of capital today even actively disobey the wishes of their national leaders: How many American capitalists hire Chinese workers for pennies when they could be paying American laborers a living wage despite what the president may want?
This transformation of power-holders isn’t solely in the realm of the bourgeois. Marx and Engels elaborate on the radical change the laborers undergo as well: They go from artisans to nothing more than wage-earners—”The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers” (Marx/Engels). No longer is education just for those seeking a more structured learning environment—it has become a necessity for anyone seeking a decent job. El Che would later touch on this by stating that it is only those that play within the game that receive anything in the way of rewards from the capitalist system. The artist must submit or else they become nothing in the capitalist society.
The laborer became (as Marx puts it) an appendage of the machine. Marx and Engels used the term ‘machine’ quite literally. Remember, they were in the middle of an industrial revolution and mass-producing machines were far out-pacing the rural knitter of cloth or the small-town blacksmith. The machines were made so easy to use that the laborers were paid next to nothing because of the simplicity of the task. The workers were only paid what they needed to survive, not thrive. The literal thinking of this analogy may not hold as much as water today, but it is still true in a metaphorical sense. Man must become part of the system or else he cannot succeed in anyway except in a moralistic sense.
Marx and Engels also elaborate on the trouble of knowing just who these owners of production really are. The proletariat, through misinformation fed them by the capitalist system and old antagonisms, still fight amongst themselves because of differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, whom they call God, etc. Know this: The only thing that truly matters for communists and, therefore, workers the world over is social class. We must stand together as humans against our class enemies—the capitalist class that exploits us, ruins us and strips affection for work from our minds. As Marx and Engels state: “Law, morality, religion, are to (the worker) so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests” (Marx/Engels).
This is becoming more and more true today as the capitalist forces around us seek to outsource jobs to those with no choice but to work on pennies. We are told time and time again to worry about the nefarious Chinese or the desperate Indians, but we are never warned about the capitalist who are the ones that decide to move these factories overseas where their profits will rise. America is rife with false propaganda about the so-called job creators and how they are supposed to provide for the common man. This myth has become a cure-all for arguments against capitalism. Some mythical figure is supposed to step down from his closed meeting-room and set up a company that pays living wages we are told.
These same people who propagate this myth call socialists dreamers for believing in a system that is bound to fail. These owners of the means of production do not care for their country-men—to them, the term has become meaningless. They have eyes only for profit.
This is all not meant to say that the workers are being consistently crushed with every passing day. There are legions more of us than there are of the capitalists and we are their appendages that operate their machines. There are small victories here and there, general uprisings that shift the balance into the hands of the workers, but these are temporary. Marx and Engels point out that the real benefit to these uprisings lie in the forming of solidarity amongst the workers. Revolution can only come when all the workers are united as one. How the communists factor into this equation is discussed in the next chapter where Marx and Engels discuss the relation between the two actors.
The second chapter begins with the declaration of communists being merely the more advanced members of the proletariat. We seek the same liberation and make sure to remind the workers of every nation that there are workers everywhere in need of revolution. The rest of the chapter is really just a good-old fashioned rant correcting all the false assumptions about communism. I really recommend you check it out. The summary is this: communists do not seek the obliteration of individuality or an end to private property (only property used to enhance capital of the wealthy). Communists also seek an end to exploitation of the many by the few and the creation of a universal brotherhood of laborers. Read this chapter carefully, comrades. Our class enemies still use these arguments against communism today. Let Marx’s words help you, let Engel’s wisdom become your own. You may be asking why I didn’t delve into the second chapter as much as the first and I’ll answer by saying that the text is all right there in easy to understand phrasing.
Text to take away: “(Communists) have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.”
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