The Communist Manifesto is too long to be a concise declaration of principles and too short to be a book. It is composed of about 17,000 words including various introductions by Friedrich Engels.
It is arranged, basically, in four sections. The first section introduces the Marxian idea of history as a class struggle. It juxtaposes the conditions and development of various strata of society, “freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf…in a word, oppressor and oppressed.” It hypothesizes how the development of each of these in history gave rise to the next step in an inevitable historical process culminating ultimately in the rise of one working class.
Marx and Engels put forward the notion that the working class is exploited by the bourgeoisie. Positing a labor theory of value where the value of goods and services is based strictly on the amount of labor that is put into them, The Manifesto, says that all the surplus that goes to the capitalist as profits is in reality the “property” of the working class who created that wealth.
The second section of the Communist Manifesto addresses the nature of the new working class which he calls the proletariate. He reviews its implications for the advancement of society, including the abolition of property and family. This section also stresses a kind of Utopia that can only be brought about by violence and conflict with the working class wresting power from the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production). This conflict is projected also to bring about the end of nation-states and, ultimately, all forms of government, resulting in a worker’s paradise.
Parts 3 and 4 of the Communist Manifesto are more arcane and relate more with the politics of the age and geographic region in which the document was written (1848). Section 3 discusses the various forms of socialism, feudal socialism, petty-bourgeios socialism, and “true” socialism. Part 4 goes on to show how these various groups inter-relate.
The document ends with a stirring cry, “Working men of all countries, unite!”
As one would expect, the Communist Manifesto is a declaration of the intentions of a communist organization. Yet it has proved to be much more than this. It has also served as a brief and concise explanation of the ideas that form the foundation of communist and socialist ideology.
It begins with the Marxian view of history as a class struggle. Marx thought that every age pitted two classes of society against each other beginning with masters and slaves, down to the bourgeoisie (or entrepreneurs) and the working class of his own day. One class always exploited the other because their interests were always diametrically opposed. As the lower class gained power a new class would arise that would eventually subsume the old upper class. Thus a kind of dialectical (two opposites producing a unified whole) process would create a merchant class and a working class from the struggle between the peasant and the nobility.
But Marx felt that there was an end to this process. At some point the working class would eliminate all the remaining classes. If there was only one class, there would no longer be a class struggle. There would no longer be a need for all the trappings of class warfare such as money, nation-states and governments.
This quasi-Hegelian view of history would color all of Marx’s philosophy and would influence the entire Communist Manifesto (which would in turn influence generations of radicals). It was an idea that gave history the air of inevitability. Marx and Engels actually believed that they had discovered a scientific truth that could be applied in a scientific manner to the affairs of humanity.
It has been over 150 years since the publication of the Communist Manifesto and the declaration has proved to be hollow in that many of its predictions have not been born out by actual history. There are many arguments as to why this is the case. It may be that some of the assumptions girding communist thought, including the labor theory of value were mistaken.
Yet the real problem with the Marxian ideas imbued in the manifesto might be that Marx misunderstood which class would ultimately subsume all the others. He was under the impression that laborers must ultimately take over the means of production and so destroy the capitalist system. What he could not understand was that the means of production would become less and less expensive all the time due to efficiencies in production. Workers would themselves become entrepreneurs in free and republican societies. The advent of computers, and inexpensive access to the tools of a service industry would make small business a dominant and driving force.
The brewing industry is a perfect example of this. Where there used to be only one or two large brewers, now micro-breweries have become the rage. Where only a few networks dominated the airwaves now hundred of channels proliferate. The internet has opened publishing up to any person who has a few dollars to rent a server. The cost for entry into many, though not all, markets has become comparatively cheap. In essence Marx was wrong not because there was no class struggle. There was indeed class struggle throughout most of history. He was wrong because he could not see that the dialectic process would work to elevate the working class to the entrepreneur class and not pull all of society down to the lowest common denominator.
We are still in the throes of this process. Eventually the efficiencies brought about by the capitalist system, if allowed to operate in a free environment, will provide a high standard of living for most of the world.
The Communist Manifesto still finds favor among many political groups and its tenets and ideas are worthy of study because there are economic and historical truths embedded within it. It has also proved to be the foundation of one of the most prominent economic and political movements of the 20th Century.