Communist Manifesto


Chapter 1 Summary: Bourgeois and Proletarians


The Communist Manifesto begins with Marx\'s famous generalization that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" (79). Marx describes these classes in terms of binary oppositions, with one party as oppressor, the other as oppressed. While human societies have traditionally been organized according to complex, multi-membered class hierarchies, the demise of feudalism effected by the French Revolution has brought about a simplification of class antagonism. Rather than many classes fighting amongst themselves (e.g. ancient Rome with its patricians, knights, plebeians, and slaves), society is increasingly splitting into only two classes: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.


This state of affairs is the result of a long historical process. The discovery and colonization of the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries required new methods of production and exchange. Because of the demand for more efficient, larger scale production, the medieval guild system gave way to new methods of manufacturing, defined by the widespread use of division of labor and, with the advent of industrialization, by steam and machinery. It was the bourgeoisie"modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and the employers of wage labor" (79)who were the agents of these economic revolutions.


The new economic powers of the bourgeoisie led to their political empowerment. While the bourgeoisie had originally served the nobility or the monarchy, they had come in the middle of the 19th century to control the representative states of Europe. In fact, as Marx famously notes, "the executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" (82). With this political empowerment came the destruction of the social fictions on which previous societies were based. Instead of focusing on the relationship of men to \'natural\' superiors and inferiors, both in this life and the next, or even the indistinct Rights of Man championed in the first half of the 19th century, the bourgeoisie introduced an ethic based on the absolute right to free trade and the rational, egoistic pursuit of profit.


It was not enough, though, for the bourgeoisie to radically change all that has preceded it; it must constantly change in the present in order to expand and exploit its markets. As Marx says, "Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones" (83). This economic and social dynamism unsettles the boundaries of nations and creates pressure toward globalization, amounting to an economic imperialism which demands that other nations assimilate to bourgeois practice or be cosigned to the economic backwater. In this way, the bourgeoisie "create the world after their own image" (84).


Marx uses the above story of the bourgeoisie\'s evolution to substantiate his central contention that the forces of production develop faster than the sociopolitical order in which those forces of production arise. The result of this disparity is a radical alteration of the sociopolitical order that allows it to catch up with the forces of production. Marx claims that this is what occurred in the shift from feudalism to bourgeois capitalism. This process, though, has not stopped. The conditions for the existence of the bourgeois order are being undermined by the new forces of production which the bourgeoisie themselves have ushered in. This is evidenced by the many economic crisesresults of an epidemic of overproduction, which Marx sees as a consequence of bourgeois economic developmentthat rocked Europe in the 1830\'s and 40\'s. In response to these crises, the bourgeoisie either scale back their production, find new markets, or more thoroughly exploit old ones. According to Marx, though, all this is for naught as it does not treat the underlying problems which will create more acute crises in the future. Indeed, the underlying problems cannot be suitably treated as capitalism contains within it the seeds of its own demise, seeds which it itself nurtures through the necessary creation and ultimate exploitation of a new class, the proletariat.


The proletariat are the workforce of bourgeois enterprise, "a class of laborers who live only so long as they can find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital" (87). The proletarians are themselves commodities and are likewise subject to the vicissitudes of