Communist Manifesto Summary and Analysis
by Karl Marx
Chapter 3 Summary: Socialist and Communist Literature
In this section Marx explores the evolution of European socialism up to his own day. Not surprisingly, he charges all previous movements with theoretical and practical inadequacy while hailing his own communist alternative as the best expression of a shared concern with the working-class.
I. Reactionary Socialism
A. Feudal Socialism
This was the earliest form of socialism. It was developed by aristocrats who were opposed to the social changes brought about by the expanding bourgeoisie. Rather than focusing on their own plight, though, they trumpeted the concerns of working classes. Marx repudiates these feudal socialists for ignoring the fact that they were exploiters too when they were in power. Most importantly, though, they had no appreciation of historical progress. They did not understand that the bourgeoisie were their own offspring as the proletariat are the offspring of the bourgeoisie. Their primary concern was in reinstating the old feudal order, and they thus objected to both the bourgeoisie and proletariat insofar as each threatened to destroy previous social systems. Marx also identifies feudal socialism with Christian socialism, remarking that "Christian socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat" (108).
B. Petty-Bourgeois Socialism
As Marx has noted in earlier chapters, bourgeois dominance increasingly divides society into two classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat. There still exists a third class, though, which constantly fluctuates between bourgeoisie and proletariat, the petty-bourgeoisie. Increasingly, though, this class in being assimilated into the proletariat as society becomes more urbanized and reliant on industrial production. Petty-bourgeois socialism arises from this class, but holds up the standard of the proletariat, with whom the bourgeoisie are a shared enemy. Marx credits this school of socialism with "dissect[ing] with great acuteness the contradictions in the conditions of modern production," but ultimately upbraids them for wanting to reinstate old social formations. They do not see that the answer to bourgeois exploitation is to develop the proletariat into a revolutionary class rather than to return the worker to the country and renew a failed feudalism.
C. German or 'True' Socialism:
German Socialism began as a response to French socialist literature. These early socialists, though, did not appreciate that the French ideas grew out of a social environment which did not exist yet in Germany. Unlike the French bourgeoisie, the German bourgeoisie had barely begun their struggle against feudalism and there was no proletariat to speak of. As socialism lacked practical significance for Germany, German thinkers universalized the French ideas, raising them to the status of immutable laws of human Reason, transcending the narrow concerns of any particular class. Those who championed these ideas in the political area forgot that they were developed for a society different from their own; the result of this premature valorization of socialistic values was a hardening of aristocratic resistance to the bourgeoisie. This has slowed the progress of industrialization and kept Germany less developed economically than France. While the political rhetoric of this movement has earned it many admirers, its lack of class character and its decrying of violent revolution make it weak and ineffectual.
II. Conservative, or Bourgeois, Socialism
This is the form of socialism practiced by those sections of the bourgeoisie who wish to reform their class rather than destroy it. They want to enjoy the social developments which their economic and political supremacy has effected, but they do not want to accept the necessary consequences of that development, a suffering and revolutionary proletariat. They beg for social harmony yet refuse to realize that the exploitation of the masses will not end until their form of society has been vanquished. To this end, they simply prolong the misery of the proletariat and stand in the way of historical progress.
III. Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism
The first great expositors of Socialism and Communism (Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, etc.) appeared very early in the bourgeois epoch. Accordingly, they did not fully appreciate the character of the proletariat as the revolutionary class, the vehicle of historical action. For them the proletariat was merely the locus of social misery, the class most in need of assistance. Their primary concern was with the well-being of society as a whole and they directed their entreaties to those who they thought could effect change, those already in power. Change was to occur peacefully from above rather than violently from below. Their critical faculties, though, extended to all portions of society and have helped the working classes focus their own struggle. The visions of society that they propose, though, are Utopian to the point of being fantastical. Notably, as class antagonism develops, their suggestions become more far-fetched and less inspiring. They want to abolish class conflict without abolishing the conditions for the existence of classes. At the moment of revolution, then, they become reactionary, resisting the inevitable emancipation of the exploited masses for which they originally toiled.
Chapter 3 Analysis: Socialist and Communist Literature
There are three major criticisms that Marx offers against rival brands of socialism. First, they use the present misery of the working class as a reason to restore older methods of social organization; that is, it is backward-looking rather than forward-looking. It is notable that Marx not only thinks that moving backwards is not only unwise, he thinks it impossible. History moves only in one direction and once the material and economic conditions of one historical epoch are present, one cannot return to past modes of production or, significantly, modes of social existence. According to Marx, economic conditions determine all other aspects of society, and so it is impossible to keep these levels apart for long.
It is important to recognize, though, that this criticism does not, on its own, undermine its object. While we may often be seduced by the idea that forward is always better, one must provide a theoretical basis for this; change for change's sake is not always good. Marx does, of course, provide a justification for this which we have assessed independently. Without such a justification it is certainly an open question as whether the problems of the present can be solved by looking to the wisdom of one's predecessors or only by forging a new and unique future. Also, paradoxically enough, Marx's analysis of the relationship between economics and culture may give fodder to certain reactionary movements, giving them a reason to prevent the inclusion of new technologies because it will inevitably end up changing their social ideologies. One might view the Islamic revolutions of recent history as an example of movements putting this judgment to use in ways opposed to Marx's own.
Marx's second criticism is that many of his contemporaries look forward to a new society but do not appreciate the extent to which change is needed. The common fault of these people is their reluctance to endorse violence as a method of social change. They might believe that slow and steady reforms are the best way to ameliorate proletariat anxiety, or they might believe that quicker, more radical departures from the past are needed. In either case, though, they still want to suppress the revolutionary element of the proletariat. Again, Marx believes that such a stance challenges the inevitable. Only through blood will the world be cleansed.
The problem here is that Marx nowhere justifies his contention that the proletariat revolution need be violent. While the social conditions existing during Marx's time might have led him to the conclusion that the working-class will not be satisfied until they have tasted the blood of their oppressors, he needs a stronger basis if he wants to substantiate a claim to inevitability. Perhaps he is extrapolating from the transition from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie which was epitomized in the French Revolution. First, whether this is best explanation of the French Revolution is in doubt. And second, it seems very poor science indeed, what Marx claims to practice, to make a prediction based upon a single past occurrence. In fact it seems as if the transition to bourgeois power in England and Germany happened without similar bloodshed. It seems that in this instance, as in others, Marx is letting his philosophical methodology, the dialectical method, influence his assessment of the empirical facts. The dialectic requires conflict in order to resolve its opposing elements. That Marx interpreted this as outright revolution is not surprising given the time in which he lived.
Marx's third criticism is that other forms of socialism do not appreciate the truly classist character of the conflict. This is the problem with the philosophized socialism which elevates the principles of freedom to the point of practical irrelevance and with bourgeois socialism who beseech the powers that be on behalf of the lower classes. The former deny the significance of class altogether while the latter do not realize that the only significant action must come from the oppressed class itself and not from the benevolent intervention of the bourgeoisie. This is because the proletariat must develop a class consciousness in order to unite and overthrow their oppressors. Those who deny this class character stand in the way of the development of this consciousness and so perpetuate the enslavement of the masses.
Again, Marx does not provide any justification for his belief that reform must come from below beyond his theory of historical progress. Indeed, such reforms seem to have been fairly successful in improving the condition of workers. While there is still considerable suffering in the world, one would be hard-pressed to attribute this entirely to economic development. Indeed, most of the third world's problems stem from economic underdevelopment. Even in the developed world, the proletariat, insofar as one can claim its exists, is very limited. The middle-class has continued to grow while the lower class has remained relatively small. It is certainly not the social juggernaut which Marx thought it would be. In any case, it is difficult to maintain that proletariat revolution is inevitable 150 years after an immediate revolution was predicted.
There is a notable absence in Marx's list of contemporary rivals, the anarchists. These followers of the Russian social thinker Mikhail Bakunin were very active in the revolutionary movements of the mid 19th century. Marx does not include them because they are neither socialist nor communist. I bring them up to draw attention to a potentially problematic aspect of Marx's view, the role of government in effecting social change. As the name might suggest, anarchists desire the destruction of government altogether; a dictatorship of the proletariat is no better than the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. All government shackles humans unnaturally and creates the conditions for all kinds of inequities. If people were left to their own devices, the natural goodness of the human nature would reign and government would become irrelevant.
The important question this challenge raises for Marx is why government is the best agent to improve society. One doesn't need to be an anarchist to ask this question; libertarians raise it as well. A Marxist might respond thusly: First of all, the state will wither away after the proletariat succeeds in fully revolutionizing society. It is here to facilitate the transformation to self-control and not to perpetuate itself indefinitely. This step is necessary in order to acclimatize people to a new type of society, to purge them of their previous bourgeois illusions and create a new type of socialist citizen. Remove the tethers now, as the anarchist would have it, and the result would be an egoistic chaos, a Hobbessian war of all against all. How else could one expect people to act having been raised in a selfish, competitive bourgeois culture? Government controls society until it is ready to control itself.
This seems a powerful response to the anarchist whose rosy picture of human nature seems implausible--the same has been said about Marxism, but we have discussed that previously. It does not, though, answer the libertarian who would decry Marx as offensively paternalistic, violating people's rights to determine their own destiny absent government coercion. Marx would respond that it is naive to think that people control their own destiny. Bourgeois freedom is not freedom; economics is destiny. Eliminating explicit government intervention in one's life does not eliminate the influence of society altogether. Influence is pervasive; communists are just putting it to good use in extricating the conditions of oppression? The libertarian might respond that while social power is pervasive, this does not mean that we should allow government intervention; we should rather work to minimize the more subtle social coercion. People possess rights not to be used for broad social ends without their consent. Even if we agree with Marx's ideal society, there is value in people's coming to such a society on their own accord. While forcibly creating this society might benefit future generations, it does not benefit those who have to suffer a loss of autonomy to achieve that end, especially if they are not given the opportunity to dissent. One must provide another argument for such a strong obligation on the present on the behalf of the future. As is clear, this outcome of this debate is far from certain and underlies much of the criticism against contemporary Leftist political parties, descendants of Marx.
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