Chapter 2 Summary: Proletarians and Communists
Marx begins this chapter by declaring that communists have no interests apart from the interests of the working class as a whole. Communists are distinguished from other socialist parties by focusing solely on the common interests of all workers and not the interests of any single national movement. They appreciate the historical forces that compel the progress of their class and help lead the proletariat to fulfill their destiny. As Marx says, "The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat" (95).
Marx then responds to a number of criticisms from an imagined bourgeois interlocutor. He considers the charge that by wishing to abolish private property, the communist is destroying the "ground work of all personal freedom, activity, and independence"(96). Marx responds by saying that wage labor does not properly create any property for the laborer. It only creates capital, a property which works only to augment the exploitation of the worker. This property, this capital, is based on class antagonism. Having linked private property to class antagonism, Marx proceeds to investigate both antagonists with respect to their independence.
Marx first notes that capital is a social product, that is, capital only exists within some social system. The result of this is that capital is not a personal but a social power. Making property public then, as the communist wants to do, is not changing the private to the social; it is only modifying its already inherent social character.
Returning to the condition of the wage laborer, Marx argues that "the average price of wage labor is the minimum wage, i.e. the quantum of the means of subsistence which is the absolutely requisite to keep the laborer in bare existence as a laborer" (97). The proletariat, then, is absolutely dependent on the capitalist for his very survival. He does not acquire any property because his wage must be given immediately to his own subsistence. Communists want to ensure that the laborer exists for more than merely the increase of bourgeois capital. Labor should not be directed towards the accumulation of wealth on the part of the capitalist. Rather, capital, or property in general, should be directed toward the enrichment of the laborer's life.
Abolition of private property means, then, only the abolition of bourgeoisie property. The freedom which the bourgeois believe is underwritten by private property is a very narrow freedom, one available only to a very small subset of the population. Moreover, this form of property depends on its radically unequal distribution. The ultimate point, as Marx says, is that "communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that is does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labor of others by means of such appropriation" (99).
Marx also considers the criticism that a communist society would promote general idleness. This strikes Marx as laughable considering that in bourgeois society those who work do not acquire anything while those who acquire things do not work. In the end, the force of this charge, as with the force of all these other charges, presupposes the bourgeois system of property. As Marx says, "Don't wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, etc. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property..." (100). He accuses the bourgeoisie of elevating to the status of immutable truths values which are only local and contingent. It is selfish conceit that blinds the bourgeoisie to the reality of the historical progress which Marx here seeks to elucidate.
Communists are also accused of desiring to destroy the family. To this Marx pleads guilty, reiterating his oft mentioned contention that the object of destruction is specifically the bourgeois exemplar. To the capitalist, a spouse and children are mere instruments of production, like the machines in his factory. Furthermore, the education he wishes for them simply perpetuates their subordination. A communist society would alter these relations, utilizing the educational system to end the exploitation that women, children, and the vast working classes suffer under capitalism. This is a self-conscious destruction of society, but only as a cleansing of the old in preparation for the new.
As for the suggestion that communists wish to abolish countries, Marx responds that this process is already occurring due to bourgeois efforts to expand free trade. Such globalization will continue as class consciousness develops across the proletariat of all nations. Marx even goes so far as to predict that antagonism between nations will vanish as class antagonisms fade away. Class defines one far more than nationality.
While Marx acknowledges that the revolution will be different in different countries, he includes an outline of its likely course in advanced capitalistic nations: (in Marx's words, 104)
1. Abolition of private property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of the rights of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of emigrants and rebels.
5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
8. Equal liability of all labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of the population over the country.
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc.
Marx concludes the chapter by repeating his claim that once the proletariat achieve political power, the eventual result will be a classless society. Abolishing bourgeois modes of production undermines the continued existence of class antagonisms, and without class antagonism, the proletariat will lose their own class character. As Marx famously closes the chapter, "In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (105).
Chapter 2 Analysis: Proletarians and Communists
The most important theses advanced in this section relate to Marx's response to bourgeois criticisms of communism. The first and most important charge Marx entertains is that the abolition of private property destroys the "ground work of all personal freedom, activity, and independence"(96). Marx's curious first move is to respond that the bourgeois system of property does not provide any property for the worker. It is hard to see how this directly bears on the criticism since its leaves open the obvious suggestion that workers should be compensated more for their work. Inequality in distribution does not, as such, imply that private property need be abolished.
The real force of Marx's charge relies on his assumption that the necessary condition of the existence of bourgeois property is the "non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society" (98). No where in the Manifesto does Marx substantiate this claim. The question then becomes one of how he would even be able to substantiate such a claim. In brief, there are two ways: a priori and a posteriori, that is, judgment independent of experience or judgment from experience. Marx seems genuinely conflicted as to what sort of judgment he wants to make. He claims that his theory of history is based on empirical evidence, but the body of evidence to which he refers is very limited and of a type which, because of the multitude of variables in any social system, makes clear study of causal relations very difficult. Marx's willingness to proclaim with full faith a certain historical outcome indicates that there is an a priori judgment being made which belies Marx's scientific pretensions.
Necessity in Marx's political program seems to be secured by the dialectical method he uses, i.e., his belief that the seeds for one class's ruin lies in its inner contradictions, contradictions necessary to its identity as a class. The bourgeois will fail because they must create an exploited class, the proletariat, who must rebel and destroy them. Recall the problematic nature of agency in Marx. People are defined by their class and so their actions are simply the realization of their class destiny. While Marx may use historical evidence to justify his economic analyses, the real force of his program, its supposed necessity, is ultimately justified by his philosophical (methodological) assumptions.
While evidence may not justify the full predictive force of Marx's theory, it can certainly repudiate it. Marx could argue for the necessity of any outcome he wished, but if that outcome does not occur as he says, then his theory will be invalidated no matter what he predicted. Let's see, then, if his claim that capitalism can exist only as long as workers do not accumulate property matches the economic evidence. If we take our contemporary condition as an example, we see at least three relevant departures from a Marxist vision: 1) The first relates to the role of government in the economy. Marx believed that government must either be laissez-faire or in complete control of the economy. We have seen, however, that government can and has intervened in the economy to the benefit of workers and business. Government has implemented a minimum wage to keep workers above the poverty line, created welfare and unemployment aid to struggling workers, and instituted labor regulations to safeguard worker well-being on the job. And while there is still some debate as to the ideal nature of these interventions, there is little doubt that they have actually advanced economic development in the long run by creating and sustaining a secure and healthy workforce, a workforce without which business could not develop. This is especially true as the physical demands of labor have decreased greatly since Marx's time. The above changes have occurred without a full scale socialization of the economy. Improving the lot of workers, then, by allowing them to acquire property has not destroyed capitalism. 2) In times of economic success, the labor market tightens, and workers often are able to chose among many employers. If they do not like the terms of employment offered by one employer, they are free to seek employment elsewhere. While this does not eliminate the possibility of conditions existing across all industries which are objectionable, it does mean the worker has more power than Marx allowed him or her. As a matter of fact, contrary to Marx, those industries which are doing the best economically are usually those with the highest paid employees. 3) Marx assumed that the only way for the capitalists to increase their markets was through imperialism. While this is the way many capitalists proceeded in the late 19th century, it ignores another alternative. An economy with well-paid workers creates a potential market for its goods amongst its workers. While this may reduce profit margins in the immediate, it provides a reliable and sustainable market for the future with a workforce eager to work for the ability to consume again. Indeed, as of late, many of these workers possess stock in their employer's company or in some other investment fund, making them part owners of the company. This kind separation between ownership and control defies Marx's analysis.
Marx's contention that capital is social is interesting, though does not secure his conclusion. Capital is indeed social in that it relies on a complex nexus of social conventions. If this is all that Marx is saying, though, it does not seem as if the capitalist need in any way object. In reality, Marx seems to be taking issue with the idea that private property is antecedent to society and that society in protecting the right to contract is protecting a presocial right. While Marx may be correct in criticizing this Lockean view, this does not mean that the social character of capital brings it any closer to full socialization than in the Lockean view. The right to possess property may be an expressly social right, an extension of each individual's right to determine his own destiny within his social world. Now the Marxist will have much to say to this, but for the present, it suffices to show that the social character of wealth does not make the abolition of private property seem a less radical shift from the status quo.
The proposition that labor should be directed to the improvement of the laborer rather than towards the accumulation of capital is more important than Marx indicates here. Indeed, I believe it expresses the heart of Marx's concern with economics, a concern which transcends the problems of his dialectical methodology. There are two levels at which to understand this improvement. First of all, it can mean that laborer should accumulate his own capital, that is, his wage should be more than what allows for mere survival. As we have seen, the further development of capitalism seems have to addressed this. Marx could, though, mean the criticism on a deeper level, one which would remain relevant even to societies in which laborers accumulate their own capital. While Marx does not make this so explicit in the Manifesto- he doesn't need to if he is right about the necessity of laborers not being able to accumulate capital-I believe he actually means to indict any capitalistic or, indeed, any money-based economy.
Marx's fundamental problem with capitalism is moral. He believes that a system of exchange based on money causes us to view our fellow humans as things of value and not as moral beings. As human beings, we are defined by what we do in our lives, by how we labor. When the object of labor is taken from us and we instead receive money for our efforts, we have lost a piece of ourselves; we become, in Marx's word, alienated from our labor. This undermines our unity as human beings and makes us slaves to the external world. This is not the place for a complete discussion of Marx's theory of alienation. (see Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1884 for the most interesting treatment of these issues). It is important to realize, though, that this theory underlies all of what is said in the Manifesto and must be evaluated independently to due justice to the complexity of Marx's view.
Marx's treatment of the charge of idleness is more interesting than his glib answer would indicate. One obvious concern is free-riders. If what you receive does not directly depend on your labor, then there is an apparent incentive to do nothing. This is a common criticism of modern welfare systems, for instance. All of this assumes, of course, that there is something objectionable about work. Marx would likely respond that this view of labor is itself the product of capitalism and so the free-rider problem will fade as the vestiges of capitalism fade. Consistent with Marx's theory of alienation discussed above, labor will become ennobling and people will not avoid it. Ultimately, it is hard to assess this claim since no such society has such existed. One would have to take Marx's conjecture on faith.
Relatedly, the idleness charge might be better interpreted as a claim that state monopolization of the economy will reduce the incentive to innovate. This could unfortunately minimize the development of goods and technologies that augment the well-being of humankind. In addition, lack of innovation could keep the costs of production unnecessarily high by slowing the creation of more cost-effective production technologies. While we have seen these trends in contemporary capitalist economies, Marx might respond that our idea that people are decisively motivated by competition is itself a product of bourgeois society, and we cannot assume that it would hold once that society is destroyed. Again, this is true, but if we apply evolutionary logic to our psychology, it seems that competitiveness is biological and while society may try to stem its application, it will persist until our biology is altered.
Marx's view that any form of social education prepares one for inclusion in one's community is quite correct. Education is about separating the chaff from the wheat, the right from the wrong. And while bourgeois education may not have the explicit political character that the communist proposes, it is nevertheless political. It has to be, or else on what ground does it resist the communist alternative? This needn't imperil the bourgeois opposition, but it will force him to defend his values against Marx. Unfortunately, liberal education has not met this challenge very successfully.
As for globalization, it is notable that the most obstinate opponents of globalization during recent history have been trade unions. Trade unionists do not seek to overthrow their employers; they want, first and foremost, job security, and then they want to improve the conditions of their labor, e.g., wages, benefits, etc. Marx would respond that this is only because workers have not developed an appropriate class consciousness. While this may be true, Marx's claim that he is speaking on the worker's behalf becomes suspicious when the worker's actual desires differ from what Marx says they should desire. Also, Marx's allying the proletariat cause with globalization is enlightening given the fact that nationalism was a much more powerful ideological force in the revolutions of 1848 than socialism. Indeed, those who did revolt for economic reasons did so for the right to work and not overhaul the entire economic system.
Near the end of this chapter, Marx notes somewhat paradoxically that a proletariat victory will lead to a classless society. This is because in destroying the bourgeois methods of productions, the proletariat will have destroyed the conditions for class formation. But why should this be? Why is the bourgeois form of production necessarily the terminus? I have addressed this in the chapter 1 analysis, but it is worth noting again. Also, the proletariat's ascent to power seems different from the bourgeois ascent centuries before, a difference which is important because Marx claims that the patterns of class ascendancy repeat themselves. While the bourgeois were nearly in full economic power by the time they gained political power, the proletariat will gain political power before they gain economic power by abolishing private property. It is not clear how Marx would deal with this disanalogy, considering that the only concrete evidence Marx cites of a class revolution is the bourgeois revolution. Challenging Marx's interpretation of that instance could completely undermine his claims to empiricism.
Also, why should it be that economics should be the sole determinate of class? While economics may seem central to our self-conception, it does not seem at all obvious that an economic leveling will eliminate our propensity for dividing into antagonistic 'us'/'them' binarisms. Religion, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality: these are the heart of much conflict in our contemporary world. Arguing that all of these can be reduced to a conflict between economic classes does not seem to do justice to the importance of these characteristics in our lives.
Marx's closes this chapter by famously remarking that "In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (105). Now for many egalitarian-minded bourgeoisie, such an association sounds like a noble goal even if one doesn't agree with the communist means to its attainment. There are those, however, for whom this is not such a worthwhile goal. Friedrich Nietzsche is perhaps this most famous opponent of such social leveling. For Nietzsche humanity is measured by its greatest exemplars rather than by its average well-being or the condition of its lowest members. If greatness can only be cultivated at the expense of the exploitation of the masses, so be it. A level society reduces us to the lowest common denominator and precludes the achievement of greatness, which, it would seem, relies on distinction. While Marx would likely dismiss this as a bourgeois value he means to eradicate, it is worth considering the costs of true equality to our form of civilization.