‘The Communist Manifesto’ and the Penultimate Contradiction.
From his wide cornucopia of writings, The Communist Manifesto outlines Marx’s vision for an alternative world.
I first read the Communist Manifesto years ago when I was first introduced to Marxism in college. At first, I found the book strange and somewhat vague in its literary direction. Perhaps I was viewing it as a piece of historical text or evidence, and not as what Marx actually intended it to be: a provocative, enticing piece of literature designed to evoke emotion and attract potential readers to Marx’s other writings.
The Communist Manifesto is the world’s most renowned piece of political literature. No other manifesto has ever had the same impact on the world as that of Marx’s. Manifestos are published by political parties and leaders every year. Each offers their country the same things: protection, some sort of democracy, and a commitment to something that they will only come to break when or if they are elected to power.
What separates Marx’s manifesto from others, is two things: the literary superiority of his work (Marx leads you on a short journey through Capitalism, giving the manifesto a narrative quality to it) and the political ingenuity and originality of his thinking, hence why his works are still being contested over today.
Co-written by his life-long friend and colleague Friedrich Engels, Marx’s Communist Manifesto presents an alternative, even to this day, to the economic crises we see before ourselves. Regardless of the viability of the alternative, Marx had the intellectual superiority to imagine a world outside of Capitalism. Today, that world is promoted by many intellectuals and activists across the world. However, without Marx’s writings and this manifesto, I doubt that any alternative to Capitalism would exist at all. His critiques of Capitalism in his wide plethora of works, provide an intricately detailed analysis of the functions of Capitalist society and are subsequently world-famous.
Marx presents his idea of Historical Materialism (a spin-off of Hegel’s Dialectical Materialism) which outlines how history advances through space-time by the consequences of class conflict, between the ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis’, the protagonist and the antagonist of that historical period. Marx argues in the Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. He argued that every time this struggle occurred the “oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another” would come into conflict with one another. The result would either be “a revolutionary reconstitution of society” or “the common ruin of the contending classes”.
However, when he comes to write about Capitalism, Marx argues that his and our “epoch” (i.e. Capitalism) has “simplified the class antagonisms”, creating only two political classes, the “Bourgeoisie and Proletariat”. From here, we see Marx unleash his critique of Capitalism:
1. “Modern industry has established the world market… [which has] given immense development to commerce”. This is the notion that would later mature into Globalisation. Marx argued that Capitalism is fundamentally in “need of a constantly expanding market” due to its inherent “pandemic of over-production”.
2. “Constant revolutionising of production” which “[t]he bourgeoisie cannot exist without”. This is the idea that Capitalism can only survive if it is constantly creating wealth, adapting to competition, updating its own system and moving its crises around geographically. To constantly create wealth, it needs to constantly exploit.
3. “It creates a world after its own image” which Marx argued is one of “cheap prices” and “extinction”, where “it compels [every nation] to adopt the bourgeois mode of production”. This critique argues that Capitalism has a similar effect to that of a vacuum or a void, of which no nation can resist its attractiveness (due to the ‘natural’ corruptness and greed of man).
4. “Political centralisation” of the “means of production”. Capitalism concentrates economic and political power into the hands of the few, instead of power being decentralised and economic wealth being equally distributed among the mass population.
5. An acknowledgement that Capitalism “created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together”. Marx makes it clear that he is almost in awe at how effective Capitalism is at creating ridiculous amounts of wealth, and again alludes to Historical Materialism by comparing it to past epochs.
In relation to Capitalism, Marx next discusses the three parts of the antagonism who are oppressed by and opposes Capitalism: The Proletariat, the Communist (Inc. Communism) and Women.
1. “Are a commodity” who “becomes an appendage of the machine”. This is the notion that the Proletariat is merely the operator of the means of production and serves no other meaningful purpose but that. This further proposes Marx’s idea of ‘Alienation’, where under Capitalism, a worker becomes increasingly disconnected from the commodities they produce. Due to mass production and consumerism, workers cannot connect with their commodities like they once could, and so they become alienated from their work.
2. “They direct their attacks [first] not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production”. This is the notion of the evolutionary process of the class struggle and eventually conflict between the two classes. The proletariat first attack the factories and machinery, and then slowly mobilise and move on towards the Bourgeois themselves.
3. The subsequent mobilisation is “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”. The proletariat vastly outnumber the Bourgeoisie, and so have the physical power to overthrow them.
The Communists (Inc. Communism):
1. “They point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat” and “represent the interests of the movement as a whole”. The Communists effectively hold up a mirror to the Proletariat to let them see their own exploitation.
2. They are “the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class” and have “the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march”. They are in essence one and the same with the Proletariat; the only difference being that they understand the system that exploits them and how to overthrow it.
3. Their aim is “formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat”. They aim to unite the workforces, overthrow Capitalism and establish Communism.
4. “Abolition of private property”. This is said to be the penultimate notion of Communism, in which they argue that “property… is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labour”.
5. “In Communist society, accumulated labour is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer”. This notion suggests that under Communism, the issue of ‘Alienation’ will be eradicated, as the worker will be able to make a reconnection with their work.
6. “Rescue education from the influence of the ruling class” because “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class”. This is the notion of Cultural Hegemony, an idea that was later written about extensively by Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci argued that the ruling class dominate what is otherwise a diverse society by manipulating the overarching culture of that society (beliefs, perceptions, morals etc.). This creates a society whose cultural norm is one and the same with the worldview of the ruling class of that age. (I will be writing more about Cultural Hegemony in the near future so if that interests you, watch this space).
7. “Communism abolishes eternal truths… all religion, and all morality”, centralises “all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat” and when Communism has been fully achieved, the proletariat will abolish “its own supremacy as a class”.
8. “Communism is already acknowledged by all European Powers to be itself a Power”. This is the assertion that Communism is not just a theoretical ideology, but a physical political power. ‘Power’ refers to a movement aiming to enhance the status of a specified group. In this sense, Marx is arguing that Communism is a ‘Power’ aiming to enhance the status of the underclass. Moreover, ‘Power’ represents and is based upon ideological fundamentals. It sustains itself as a power by winning ideological consent from the masses.
1. “Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity [under Capitalism] for the working class. All are instruments of labour”. This notion implies that Capitalism, in its eternal pursuit for profit, doesn’t distinguish between men and women. Both, under Capitalism, are of equal economic value. Indeed, “the Bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production”. Capitalism therefore is so exploitative that it disregards all physical, sexual, gender-related differences that distinguish who we are as an individual. We are merely an “appendage”.
2. Communism, on the other hand “have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial”. Communism in itself a feminist movement, which calls for “an openly-legalised community of women” and sees to do away with the Capitalist community of women, “i.e., of prostitution both public and private”. Prostitution is seen by Marx as an appendage of Capitalism, as even something as delicate as the human body has been manipulated by Capitalism to accumulate wealth.
The penultimate contradiction.
The resulting paradoxical contradiction that is inherent to Capitalism is this. Marx explains that “In Bourgeois society, therefore, the past dominates the present”. Under Capitalism, the past has overriding authority over the present, and the Bourgeois must always be trying to escape the dominance of the past. The only way to escape the past epoch is, as I have explained, to constantly revolutionise and upgrade “Modern Industry”. Here lies the crucial contradiction.
As Marx argues, “Wage labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers.” The workers compete for work, which therefore keeps wages to a minimum, because if a worker is not willing to work for that wage, then someone will take their place immediately. However, through the revolutionising of industry “whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie” Marx adds, means that more workers are left without work. This, instead of sustaining their constant competition with one another, results in them sharing common ground “by their revolutionary combination”. This marks the origin of the Proletarian movement, caused by the very people they aim to overthrow. This, Marx argues, is the essential contradiction. Capitalism cannot carry out its “formation and augmentation of capital” and resist the domination of the past unless they upgrade industry. However, by doing this, it creates the movement that will eventually destroy it.
As Marx puts it:
“What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable”.
Whether people agree or disagree on the writings and provocations of Marx, they cannot deny his originality and literary infamy. He was and still is a politico-intellectual behemoth. His manifesto all but scratches at the surface of his extended writings, ranging from ‘Das Capital’ to the ‘Grundrisse’. If someone forms an opinion about Marx just from ‘The Communist Manifesto’, they are either ignorant to the search for knowledge or idle in searching for true political understanding.
The Communist Manifesto is just that: a manifesto. It was never meant to explicitly detail the entirety of Marx’s beliefs and critiques; indeed, if it were, Marx would have ended up writings two ‘Das Capitals’! The Manifesto was designed as a gateway into Marx, as even Marx himself realised the complexity and confusion of his works. He knew that a short, pamphlet-like piece was essential to entice intellectuals. That is at least what happened to me.
After being drawn into Marx’s thinking by the Manifesto, I began (and still continue to read) Das Capital and become somewhat of a Marxist thinker. However, that is not to say that I agree with Marx on everyone. It is also not to say that I have formulated a complete understanding of Marx from the Manifesto and one half of Das Capital. But I am far closer than many people will ever be.
The reason why Marxism was attractive to me was because it was something different. It presented something original and new (ironic really because it was published first in 1888). It was something which I did not quite understand but after reading I knew I had to. And in this age where politicians are more likely to fight amongst their own ranks than against the stark and obvious evils of the world, what Marx presented and continues to present is simply an alternative to all this. It does not matter whether he was correct on everything, few people rarely are. What matter is he shone a light on an exit route out of Capitalism and into another dimension of existence.
It seems almost rude and disrespectful to confine the man to a small box titled ‘Political Intellectual’. Because he was so much more than that.