The Communist Manifesto: Definition & Quotes

Instructor: Anna Hiller

Anna has taught world literature in several universities and has a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature.

''The Communist Manifesto'' is a short but dense critique of the economics of capitalism written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. It proposes an alternative to bourgeois capitalism, which is a revolutionary collective economy led by the working classes. This system is known today as communism. Here are some definitions and quotes from this extremely important text.

Communism: Reputation and Reality

What do you think of when you hear the word communism? Chances are, if you have grown up in the United States, there is a lot of negativity attached to that word, historically speaking. Since World War II ended in 1945, Americans have tended to think of communism as a threat to democracy. But that famous configuration is not completely accurate. Communism is not the opposite of democracy--totalitarianism is. Democracy and totalitarian dictatorships are political systems, whereas communism (by itself) is an economic theory. From this perspective, we can see that the opposition that defined the struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 20th century was not simply communism v. democracy. It was Communist Totalitarianism v. Capitalist Democracy. To understand the reason why the tension between these two political systems is so severe, it is necessary to go back to the basic economics and political dynamics described by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto. The Communist Manifesto describes two opposing economic systems, communism and capitalism, and then discusses the political implications of the tension between them. Here are a brief summary, definitions, and quotes that will help you to understand the historical importance and implications of The Communist Manifesto.

Portrait of Karl Marx, co-author of The Communist Manifesto, taken in 1875
Portrait of Karl Marx

What is bourgeois capitalism?

Bourgeois capitalism is a system that is relies on two economic classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Bourgeois capitalism maintains sharp class distinctions between the ruling class, which is the bourgeoisie, and the proletarian working class. In short, the bourgeoisie spurs economic production in pursuit of capital. Capital is, simply put, the production of wealth. The proletariat provides the physical labor required to produce the commodities that grow capital. The bourgeoisie controls the means of production, which implies the virtual enslavement of the proletariat in order to sustain this system. According to Marx, capitalism systematically creates conditions for the perpetual economic and political disenfranchisement of the working class. The bourgeoisie perpetuates these conditions because of the irony that it cannot exist without the parallel existence of the proletariat! Marx states that ''The essential condition for the existence, and for the sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labor.'' By wage-labor, Marx means the working class, or proletariat.

What does Marx mean by the word class?

In Marxist terms, the word class has its base in economic realities. The basic definition of the word class is a group of people that is defined by a common economic interest and/or identity. Whereas capitalism must preserve rigid economic classes in order to generate the capital that sustains it, the communist system creates instead a classless society. In a communist society, capital is collectivized and private property is abolished. The tension between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is called class struggle, and it is what generates political changes. According to Marx, the proletariat will eventually win the struggle between these two classes and institute non-exploitative socioeconomic policies because it is a revolutionary class.

Marx described the proletariat's revolutionary potential, saying that ''Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product. … The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.''

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