Society is flawed. There are critical imbalances in it that are causing much of humanity to suffer. In The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx is reacting to this fact by describing his vision of a perfectly balanced society, a communist society.
Simply put, a communist society is one where all property is held in common. No one person has more than the other, but rather everyone shares in the fruits of their labors. Marx is writing of this society because, he believes it to be the best form of society possible. He believes that communism creates the correct balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of society. He also believes that sometimes violence is necessary to reach the state of communism. This paper will reflect upon these two topics: the relationship of the individual and society, and the issue of violence, as each is portrayed in the manifesto.
But, before we embark upon these topics, I think it is necessary to cite a brief biography of Marx to establish a baseline from which to view his ideas. Also, it is important to realize that in everything, humans view things from their own cultural perspective, thereby possibly distorting or misinterpreting a work or idea. Marx speaks of this saying, “Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will, whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class”(27). With this in mind, some perspective on the society of Marx’s time is vital.
Karl Heinrich Marx, a German economist, philosopher, and revolutionist, was born May 5, 1818 in Trier Germany, to Jewish parents. Faced with anti-Semitism, they converted to Christianity, partly to preserve Heinrich’s, Karl’s father, a Jewish lawyer, job in the Prussian state. Karl, himself, was baptized in the evangelical church
Georg Hegel (1770-1831) was the dominant intellectual influence throughout Germany and the university when young Marx entered the University of Berlin in 1835. His Hegel idea was that reality is not fixed and static, but changing and dynamic. Life is constantly passing from one stage of being to another; the world is a place of constant change. But Hegel did not believe the change itself is arbitrary. On the contrary, he thought it proceeds according to a well pattern or method, termed a dialectic, where reality unfolds, the contradictions are resolved and something new emerges; i.e.
Marx became strongly influenced by the philosophy of Hegel and by a radical group called the Young Hegelian, who, at that time was attempting to apply Hegelian ideas tot he movement against organized religion and the Prussian autocracy.
In 1841, Marx received his Ph.D. in philosophy and in 1842 became editor of the Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne, a liberal democratic newspaper, for which he wrote increasingly radical editorials on social and economic issues, and for which the paper was eventually banned in 1843. So, Marx, with his new bride, Jenny von Westphalan, moved to Paris.
Marx continued his criticism of society, at which time he was also being influenced by the philosophies of Ludwig Feuerbach, who argued that God had been invented by humans as a projection of their own ideals. Marx met Friedrich Engels, another Young Hegelian in 1844.
In 1845, Marx moved to Brussels and then to London in 1847, which during this time the industrial revolution is taking place, a massive movement away from small farms, businesses operated out of homes, small shops on the corner, and the like. Instead, machines are mass-producing products in giant factories, with underpaid workers. No longer do people need to have individual skills. Rather, it is only necessary that they can keep the machines going, and do small, repetitive work. The lower working class can no longer eke out a tolerable existence in their own pursuits, but are lowered to working inhumane hours in these factories. This widens the rift between the upper and lower class-called bourgeois and proletariat, until they are essentially two different worlds. The bourgeois, a tiny portion of the population, has the majority of the wealth while the proletariat, the huge majority, has nothing. It is with this background that Marx, with the collaboration of Engels, prepares a party platform at the request of The Communist League, an organization of workers, now called the Communist Manifesto.
First, the topic of the individual and society will discussed. This topic in itself can broken down even further. First, the flaws with the “current” system in respect to the bourgeois and proletariat will be shown, thereby revealing the problems in the relationship between individual and society. Secondly, the way that communism addresses these issues, and the rights of the individual, as seen through the manifesto.
Quite clearly, Marx is concerned with the organization of society. He sees that the majority of society, that is the proletariat, are existing in sub-human conditions. Marx also sees that the bourgeoisie has a disproportionate abundance of property and power, and that because of what they are, they abuse it. He writes of how the current situation with the bourgeoisie and proletariat developed. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (9). There have always been struggles between two classes, an upper and lower class. However, Marx speaks of the current order saying, “It bourgeois has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. sociality as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat (10). The very nature of the bourgeoisie causes it to grow in size and power while the proletariat shrinks, therefore increasing the rift between the two. Marx goes on to describe how this situation came about, with the industrial revolution and other factors.
Modern industry has established the world-market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages. We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange (11).
With these thoughts in mind, a more defined view of the individual classes can be attained. First, the proletariat: in several places Marx speaks of how the proletariat is oppressed. He speaks of past societies and the current society when he says, “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed…” (9). Bourgeoisie and proletariat could quite comfortably be added to this list of oppressor and oppressed. In every way the proletariat is oppressed, with no hope of improving the lot they have been given, or of raising themselves up. Rather, they are forced to march on hopelessly, knowing that they will not be released from their labors till death. Marx also writes of the relationship between the proletariat and the machines, which is a result of the split between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. “He proletariat becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simply, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him…Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overseer, and above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself (17). Marx draws a picture of how the majority of the population is in an oppressed situation of slavery. The lot of the proletariat is not to be envied.
From here, Marx moves on to describe the oppressor, the bourgeois. He is quite eloquent in his portrayal of this class.
The bourgeois, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom-Free Trade. (12)
Here Marx is speaking of how the bourgeoisie controlled society takes every aspect of society and puts them in terms of an exchange value. They reduce all that is noble and admirable about humanity to monetary matters, all in the name of capitalism. Again, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind (13). Marx uses very strong language in these passages, saying that the bourgeois ‘profanes the holy’, and ‘drowns the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor.’ The bourgeois removes the humanity from society, creating a system in which anything and everything is measured by its strict cash worth.
Now that the roles of the bourgeoisie and proletariat have been established, it is possible to reconsider the communist ideal. Clearly, Marx believes that it is wrong for the majority of society, the proletariat, to suffer so. He believes that individuals should be equal, not divided into two distinct worlds. Marx describes the current individual in society saying that “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality (25). He also makes the distinguishing point that it is important for the reader to realize that objections they have more than likely rise up from their own bourgeoisie background. You must, therefore, confess that by ‘individual’ you mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property. This person must, indeed be swept out of the way, and made impossible” (26). Marx, and also communism, wants to correct society so that all individuals benefit without a particular ruling and enslaved class. Marx speaks for communism saying, “all that we want to do away with, is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the laborer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only inn so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it” (25). Marx declares if communism is implemented that “In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to” (29).
With all of this established it is apparent that Marx thinks it wrong that a small group of people should profit so much to the detriment of so many. Any society that encourages this, or allows this to develop is wrong, and should be changed. He believes that society is incorrect and corrupt to allow so many people to suffer. As a result he writes this manifesto that lays out the problems, and explains why he believes that communism will correct the balance of society and crated an existence where every person is valued, and no one can raise themselves up by oppressing another. The next obvious question is how society is going to make the transition from the current capitalism to Marx’s communism. Of course, the ruling bourgeois are not going to wake up one day and realize that the whole basis of their society is cruel and corrupt and decide to redistribute their wealth. However, Marx believes that is inevitable that the proletariat will realize their situation and their power, and overturn the current society. “Its bourgeois fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (22). This notwithstanding, it will still be necessary for the proletariat to take things into their own hands and correct the current problems.
This brings up the topic of violence. As declared before, the bourgeois will not be readily willing to forfeit their position, so stronger measures will be necessary to create the change that is necessary. Marx has two things to say on this subject. First, violence in and of itself is not a good thing. Second, however, it may at times be necessary to achieve a greater good. First, let’s establish Marx’s position that violence in general should be avoided. Marx speaks of constant upheaval and violence in several places. “…oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (9). constant opposition, or violence results in the destruction of both forces according to Marx. Again, he says, “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier one” (13). Quite clearly, constant upheaval and violence is not a good thing, but is detrimental to both the individual and society.
However, in order to institute communism, which is the greatest good according to Marx, a revolution is necessary. Revolution does not necessarily mean violence. However, in this case violence will be difficult to avoid , and Marx state that violence may be necessary. Marx wrote several passage regarding this. He declares that, “The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air” (21). What is being described here is the mandatory reconditioning of the mind; a complete reversal in thought and society. Marx then describes the first step in this revolution. “We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy” (31). So it is clear that the first step is to raise the proletariat to the ruling class, but how is this done? Marx writes that “…we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat (21-22). He speaks directly of violence when he says that “If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and as such, sweeps a way by force the old condition of production…” (32). If the proletariat is forced to violence, then violence should be taken, because it is for the greater good. Marx puts it all together in one final statement. “In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” (46).
Putting things back into perspective again, it is vital to realize that this violence should be short lived, and only continue until the proletariat is in position to make some changes to society. “Of course, in the beginning, this the establishment of communism cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measure, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mod of production (31). Marx uses terms like despotic inroads,’ ‘necessitate,’ and ‘unavoidable’ to describe the necessary violence. Violent acts are terrible things in and of themselves, but must be used at times for a greater good. However, in his ideal society, once communism has been reached there will be no more violence.
After all this, however, it is clear that Marx makes some rather remarkable assumptions regarding human nature. First, he believes that it is inevitable that the proletariat will realize that things are not as they should be, and that something needs to be done about it. Secondly, he believes that people will know the correct amount of violence necessary to achieve their goals, and will not exceed that. Finally, he assumes that once the state of communism is reached, that there will be no dissenters that will try to take advantage of the situation and raise themselves up.
The idea of communism would appear to be just that, an idea. It may not necessarily be bad to try to approach it, but because human nature is necessarily flawed in all likelihood communism will never be reached in full.
However, even with all of this, the idea of communism has done some good. Clearly it caused some reform in the area of capitalism toning it down from what it was during the time of Marx. It has helped by acting as a mirror in which it is possible to see where society is making mistakes, and where a new balance must be struck between the needs of society. Even an idea such as communism which may not be fully applicable can still have, and has had a profound effect on future society and humankind.
Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. (Croft Classics) 1996-97. Reprint. originally published: New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1995.
Marx Background. http://swift.eng.ox.ac.uk/jdr/marx.html