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Communist Manifesto, part 2 (but really Part 1): Bourgeois and Proletarians

Capitalists wringing money from workers

This is part 2 of my series on The Communist Manifesto. Part 1 is here. Now we get into the meat of the book. While this is my part 2, this entry covers part 1 of the Communist Manifesto: “Bourgeois and Proletarians” (aka capitalists and workers). This is also one of the major socialist works mentioned here.

The Meat: Capitalists and Workers

Marx and Engels claim that society consists of class struggle/antagonism (instead of homogenized/unified/lockstepped nations or realms). The current struggle is between two classes: capitalists (this is how most socialists refer to the bourgeoisie) and workers (this, or “working class,” is a more straightforward translation of “proletariat”).

Marx and Engels reveal that there are more than two classes at play. However, capitalists and workers are the two principal players. The authors mention past antagonisms like lords/serfs and patricians/plebeians.

How and why the classes exist as they do occupy this section of the Communist Manifesto. Their argument unfolds in what is at times history, philosophy, and activism.

How Did the Capitalists Come About?

Capitalists emerged due to a confluence of advances: land discovery, colonization, communication, navigation, technological efficiency, division of labor, and commerce. In a phrase, capitalists owe their existence to new “modes of production.”  They transitioned from a group oppressed by the nobles. Then to one used by the monarchy against the nobles. Then  capitalists came to dominance as the monarchy and nobles fought to their mutual ruin.

Their pursuit of commercial interest above all else led capitalists to embrace “free trade” (by “free trade,” Marx and Engels mean trade free from the encumbrance of nation or faith). As technology became more efficient at yielding product, capitalists had to exploit new markets to keep profits up. These newly integrated markets gave the world a cosmopolitan character,  replacing old social relations (such as patriarchy and fealty) with urbanization.

When I first read this section, I thought Marx and Engels had overplayed their hand. For example, they state, “The bourgeoisie, whenever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” (11). Let’s grant that feudal relations had largely evaporated by their time. Surely patriarchal relations had not. However, as young people flocked to cities and factories took the place of small-time workers, family ties began to break down. Their new life free from the oversight of the village created a new sense of social relations. In fact, Marx and Engels later assert that as city population increases along side urban production, power shifts from from the village to consolidation in the hands of a few in the cities.

Back to their argument.

How Did the Working Class Come About?

While technological advances helped capitalists become dominant, they also were an Achilles’ Heel. Overproduction became a problem. Oversupply means lower prices. To keep advancing profits, capitalists needed new markets.

Technological innovations created the working class. As each worker became less necessary for profit, the worker’s existence became more precarious. If the owner of a factory needed less workers, working existence becomes more perilous as the workers who are left compete with each other in order to survive. They lived in cities and didn’t own land in the country, so the workers’ entire existence depended on the ability to secure jobs, if they resided in the cities.

Again, technology makes labor less necessary to capitalists. For example, machines make the John Henrys of the world obsolete. Or in Marx’s words, they make age and sex meaningless. A change in modes of production yields change in modes of social relations.

The wages the capitalists spend to maintain the workers’ subsistence soon siphons to smaller capitalists. One should note, too, that this group sinks into the proletariat because of competition with larger capitalists. This is where Marx and Engels begin to describe other classes. There are “petty bourgeoisie,” like shopkeepers (aka small business owners), land owners, etc. These are the smaller version of large capitalists like factory owners or industry leaders.

Development of the Working Class

Now the authors portray a trajectory of the development of the working class. Early in the workers’ development, they are precarious as individuals. If they move along toward union, they first unify in a factory as each worker begins to recognize their factory owners as possessing interests different from theirs. Then, perhaps, all factory workers who machine tools begin to develop a mutual group-interest (or class consciousness). Then they can develop a unified struggle (aka union) against the bourgeoisie in one locale. Initially Marx and Engels describe a reactionary impulse among workers to destroy the machines that replace them. If the machines are absent, they can have their jobs back. The authors soon argue against this folly.

Worker unity becomes possible from the conditions that conjured capitalists into being. Recall improved navigation and communication. Today, the internet is a boon to groups trying to extend their influence. One should note, though, that the internet also allows greater surveillance. When workers unify, they can exploit breaches in capitalist unity, e.g., in the achievement of the 10-hour bill that Marx and Engels mention.

At the time of their writing, 1848, workers were subject to working hours much longer than 10-hour workdays. Imagine working upwards of 16 hours, 6-7 days a week.

As class struggle intensifies, the capitalists and aristocracy, in an attempt to undermine the other, equip workers with education. The petit bourgeois/small capitalists sometimes side with the workers against the capitalists. They do this not to advance worker struggle, but in an effort to retain their former privileges. Another class, the “social scum” (German: lumpenproletariat), the authors portray as dangerous because any group can potentially by them off with enough provisions.

What Happens When the Workers Unify?

The workers of every country share a lack of capital (that is, means of production; see upcoming entry) and oppression beneath the exploitative capitalists. Therefore, if the workers revolt, they have no former privilege to defend. It would be the first revolution of the majority for the majority. Marx and Engels contrast this with revolutions fought by the many poor for the few rich (like the American Revolution fought so owners could self-govern away from monarchic oversight).

Capitalists exploit workers through wage-labor (I will cover this more when I write a series on Marx’s “Wage-Labor and Capital”; in the meantime, here is a definition), creating competition between workers rather than between the workers and capitalists. Therefore, workers must begin uniting against the capitalists in their own countries.

Upcoming Posts

The next section describes the relation of the workers to the communists. I hope this summary of part of the Communist Manifesto helps you understand a little more about it. If so, please follow the blog, and share it on Facebook or Twitter. If you have questions, comments, concerns, or lampoons, please comment, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky2 at mailgay otday omcay (look up Pig Latin if this makes no sense to you), or tweet @PessimistsHope.

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