Manifesto Essay Topics

Who is the Communist Manifesto's target audience? What are its aims as a document?

Political reforms cannot eliminate class antagonisms because these antagonisms are due to the basic structure of society. Class is an outgrowth of the means of production. It is this economic structure that gives certain people the power to exploit others. As long as this structure exists, there will be a ruling class and an exploited class. Reforms might improve the standard of living of the exploited class, but it cannot alter the fact that they are powerless socially. Marx refers to the advocates of such reforms as Conservative Socialists. These socialists are misguided because they don't realize that class struggle is integral to history, and is unavoidable in the capitalist system. They represent bourgeois interests, because they are trying to preserve bourgeois hegemony by dampening the revolutionary energy of the proletariat. These conservative socialists will ultimately fail, however, because the revolution is an unavoidable stage of history, and the proletariat will always be a revolutionary class.

Why isn't it possible to eliminate class antagonisms through political reforms that improve the workers' quality of life? How does the Manifesto reply to such reformers?

The proletariat is a unique class in several ways. First, the exploitation it faces is more transparent than that of any previous class. In the past, class relationships were clouded by religious beliefs and sentimentality. People did not realize that their relationships were fundamentally economic and exploitative in nature. Capitalism exposes this exploitation, because it is based solely on ideals of self-interest and money. Thus, the proletariat are uniquely aware of their status as exploited peoples. Secondly, the proletariat are more interconnected than any previous revolutionary class. This is due to improved communication brought about by capitalism's technological advances, and because the proletariat all share an equally miserable existence. They are also the majority in society, whereas previous revolutionary classes were traditionally in the minority. Finally, their historical role is unique. In order to further their ends as a class, they must destroy the entire system of class exploitation. Thus, with their revolution all private property is eliminated and classes disappear.

Perhaps the most serious question about the proletariat, then, is why they will revolt. Marx believes that revolutions are spontaneous uprisings of exploited peoples. He does a plausible job of showing why the proletariat have reason to overthrow the current system, and even why they would eliminate private property if they succeeded. What is less clear is what would motivate the original revolution. There is a jump between historical forces and individual agency that it may be hard to accept. The proletariat are unique in large degree because their conditions are so dire. It is worth considering whether Marx underestimates the power of such conditions to defeat, rather than motivate, oppressed peoples.

How is the proletariat different from past revolutionary classes?

Marx argues that the property rights that the bourgeoisie wish to protect are actually bourgeois property rights. They protect bourgeois interests, as can be seen by the fact that only the bourgeoisie actually own property. Marx further argues that property itself is a social commodity. It belongs to people because of the social structure of society. Thus, changing private property into communal property is really only changing the social character of property. It is not violating a personal claim. This argument about property is similar to Marx's arguments about other rights, as well as about law, philosophy and religion. None of these notions reflects universal truths, valid across all social contexts; rather, they are all ways of protecting the interests of the ruling class. For example, the bourgeoisie make property into a right because they are the ones with the property. We may think that some of these ideas are truly universal, because they have survived across time. However, it is more likely that they have lasted throughout history only because exploitation has lasted throughout history. With an end to exploitation, many of the ideals embraced by modern society would be radically altered.

How does the Manifesto reply to people who complain that the elimination of private property violates property rights? What does this suggest about the validity of rights in general?

Why is it necessary for Communists to call for a worker's revolution, if they believe that such a revolution is inevitable?

How is modern Industrial society self-destructive? Why does Marx believe that the end of modern society will represent the end of all class antagonisms?

What is Marx's theory of history? Use this theory to explain the decline and fall of the feudal era. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this theory?

Despite Marx's predictions, Communism has not emerged out of Industrial society to become the dominant societal system. Is this fact enough to disprove Marxist theory? Speculate on how Marx would explain this fact, in keeping with the general structure of his theory.

It can be very difficult to figure out what Marx believed a Communist society would look like. What hints does he give in the Manifesto about his vision of this future society? How does this vision compare with "Communist" societies that arose in later years (e.g., in the Soviet Union)?

The Communist Manifesto Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx

The following entry presents criticism of Engels and Marx's political pamphlet, Manifest der kommunistischen Partei (1848; The Communist Manifesto). See also, Friedrich Engels Criticism.

Early in 1848, two young German intellectuals set forth their plan for proletarian revolution against the prevailing socio-economic forces in Europe, which in their eyes were corrupt. Manifest der kommunistischen Partei (The Communist Manifesto), the slim volume outlining their plan, has been described as the most influential secular document in world history, ranked behind only such religious works as the Bible and the Koran for the impact it has had on world events. Indeed, it has been characterized as the Socialist movement's “holy” book. Calling for workers of the world to unite, The Communist Manifesto examines the oppression felt by the working class in Europe, analyzes the unequal distribution of wealth under the capitalist system, and provides a vision for a new way of life, wherein the proletariat fights for and wins economic and social equality with the ruling bourgeois class. With the Russian Revolution in the early part of the twentieth century, The Communist Manifesto was catapulted from being an important philosophical text to being the framework for a new nation. Communism and the Soviet Union, both of which have their birth in this text, went on to become globally polarizing forces. The Cold War can be considered a result, in large part, of the diametrically opposed socio-economic philosophies held by the communist East and the capitalist West. While the late twentieth century saw the Soviet Union crumble, leaving capitalism seemingly the victor, the socialist plan sparked by The Communist Manifesto nevertheless remains a strong influence on the world's political and philosophical thought, and The Communist Manifesto itself is assured an eminent place in the history of human experience, both for the revolutionary philosophy it presents and for the way it changed the face of nation-building.

Textual History

The first step to understanding the The Communist Manifesto is to understand its authors. Karl Marx, who is generally considered the primary author of both the text and the philosophy that has come to bear his name, was born in Germany in 1818. He received a university education, studying law and then philosophy. Shortly after he received his degree, his anti-bourgeois sentiment growing, he realized he could not participate in the German education system. He turned to journalism—a pursuit that would help support him for the rest of his life. In this capacity he began developing his revolutionary ideas, until he was forced out of Germany in 1843. For the next several years his involvement with revolutionary, anti-capitalist organizations increased and he continued to develop his theories by studying economic science and pursuing literary study. In 1844 he met Friedrich Engels. Engels grew up in the same area of Germany as Marx, and came from a similar class and educational experience. Sent by his father to England to represent the family in its textile business, Engels observed first-hand the exploitation of textile workers, and the injustice of the industrial capitalist system. Independently, both men published critical works that questioned the existing European socio-economic system, but upon their meeting in 1844, they found in each other not only a lifelong friendship, but an intellectual partnership that would take them both to new philosophical heights. Their friendship and intellectual partnership led them to discuss all of their intellectual projects together; their mutual influence was so great that it is difficult for critics to determine where in their joint works Engels' thought ends and Marx's begins. In The Communist Manifesto the authors put forth a theory of history, an analysis of capitalism, and an outline for socialism. Their call for proletarian revolution was met with interest from other disaffected bourgeois intellectuals, hope from the increasingly mobilized working class, and fear from the supporters of the existing system. The manifesto was quickly translated and published in most European languages. It gave birth to modern Socialism, and helped change the world order; it was espoused by revolutionaries across Europe, and saw its greatest victory in 1918 with the Russian Revolution. Marx and Engels continued to hone and develop their socialist theories, and both went on to publish prolifically on the subject. Numerous essays, lectures, and articles picked up where The Communist Manifesto left off. The authors revised its preface liberally as it went through multiple editions, and they saw world changes resulting from the manifesto's influence. While the specifics of their proletarian revolution were to change as the social, economic and political climates changed, Marx and Engels always maintained the accuracy of the ideas put forth in The Communist Manifesto. Upon its fortieth anniversary, Engels decided that the preface could no longer be revised, as the text was then an historical document and needed to be preserved as such. Theories of socialism and communism continued to evolve, but the The Communist Manifesto was a finalized text. It went through no further revisions at the hands of its authors, but its influence did not lessen, as the Socialist and Communist movements of the twentieth century held to its ideals and built new societies from its revolutionary plan.

Major Themes

Divided into four parts, The Communist Manifesto begins with a theory of world history based on class struggles, and provides an explanation of the abuse of the working class by the bourgeoisie. The evils perpetrated upon the working class—the proletariat—are enumerated, and the injustice of the capitalist economic system, whereby a few get rich off the labor of many, is outlined. In the second section of The Communist Manifesto the virtues of communism are portrayed. Marx and Engels anticipate and refute the objections of the bourgeoisie and demonstrate the benefits to be gained by all through communism. The third and fourth chapters deal largely with contemporary social movements, whose inadequacies are outlined. While support for these groups is given, the ultimate virtue of the plan put forth in the previous sections is maintained. Throughout the entire manifesto, the workers of the world are called to unite and throw off the oppression of bourgeois capitalist society, so that after the proletarian revolution, a new society based on equality—economic, social, and political—could be built.

Critical Reception

Since the time of its initial publication, The Communist Manifesto has sparked a wide range of reactions, from early intellectual and revolutionary enthusiasm, to vicious condemnation, to fervent adherence to its philosophy. For millions of people The Communist Manifesto has served as an essential text, greatly affecting their ways of life. It has influenced nation-building, affected social and economic policies, and played a very important role in world politics as nations drew alliances during the Cold War. Vast amounts of commentary have been produced by both pro-communist and anti-communist scholars and critics. Marx and Engels themselves contributed to the debates through their numerous revisions of the preface to The Communist Manifesto. Upon the text's seventy-fifth anniversary, Algernon Lee explored the European influences on Marx and Engels as they were formulating their ideas. With The Communist Manifesto's one hundredth birthday, Paul M. Sweezy and Leo Huberman reexamined the text's history and its international significance. Some critics have explored the authors' own lives and education in an effort to elucidate The Communist Manifesto. Others have detected a wide and diverse range of influences on the work, including Romanticism, French materialist philosophy, millenarianism, Darwinism, and gothic melodrama. Rhetorical analyses of the text have been conducted, as have economic, political, cultural, and philosophical readings. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union The Communist Manifesto has increasingly been examined as an historical document, as the product of a particular historical moment. As one of the most important secular documents in human history, however, The Communist Manifesto remains assured of its place in the literary canon, and the philosophy it espouses retains a certain force in contemporary social, economic, and political thought.

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