Book Summary: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

A book summary of the key ideas from The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, along with informal book notes and quotations.

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The Book in a Nutshell

While at Hustle Escape we believe that significant government intervention and distortion of incentives inevitably lead to economic, moral and humanitarian destruction, it is important to understand the opposing perspectives. Perhaps the most extreme opposing view on this spectrum is communism, a position set out in The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Published in 1848, Marx and Engels argued that the capitalist system ultimately divides society into two classes: the bourgeois (those who control the means of production) and the proletarians (wage workers). As the exploitation of the proletarians increases, they argue this system is doomed to failure. In its place, they recommend the introduction of communism, a system that does away with private property rights and centralises the allocation of resources with the State.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

#1: The Bourgeois and Proletariat Divide. Marx and Engels argue that capitalism has driven the creation of two classes: the bourgeois (controllers of the means of production) and the proletariat (wage workers). This widening divide has led to the exploitation of the proletariat, dehumanisation and commodisation of labour, and capital concentration and political control in the hands of a small minority.

#2: The Goals & Objectives of Communism. Communism aims to represent the interests of the proletariat as a whole by centralising the control of the allocation of resources with the State and abolishing private property rights.

#3: The Contrasting Types of Socialism. There are numerous forms of socialism, some of which advocate a return to the feudalist class system, some of which seek the continuation of the bourgeois society, and some of which aspire to the utopia of lifting all members of society. Marx and Engels argue that none of these forms of socialism fully address the issues of capitalism.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas in Detail

The below are more detailed book notes on the key ideas from The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. At risk of repeating ourselves, these notes are not an endorsement. They also do not by any means cover the full breadth of the book and are instead intended as an introduction to the key themes, from which to decide whether to read the full book.

Brief Background

The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848. At the time of its writing, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels observed that the powers of Europe saw communism as a growing threat and these powers had “entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter”.

“A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of Communism.”

Given these attempts to dismiss communism, Marx and Engels therefore believed that a clear manifesto of Communism’s aims, views and tendencies was required to counter the opposition from the powers that be.

The manifesto sets out the communist view of what has gone wrong with the economic system, how communism seeks to address these issues, and the contrasting types of socialism that have emerged across the West.

Key Idea #1: The Bourgeois and Proletariat Divide

In the first section of the manifesto, Marx and Engels describe their perspective on the class divide that has emerged as a result of the capitalist system.

After the feudalist class system, Marx and Engels argue that a new class systems emerged across the West, driven by capitalist conditions. This class system is made up of the bourgeois (those who control the means of production) and the proletarians (wage workers).

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

As the Industrial Revolution advanced, Marx and Engels observed that with the growth of the world market and extension of industry and commerce, the bourgeoisie further increased their capital accumulation and consolidation.

Each step in this long course of capital accumulation comes with greater political power and, eventually, they contend that it leads to almost exclusive political sway and control of decision making.

“The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

In turn, the bourgeoisie have slowly depersonalised the relationship with the proletariat, leaving a kind of cash nexus, where all is reduced to the exchange of cash value. This has allowed them to use “Free Trade” as the veil for exploitation, with labourers becoming commodities exposed to the fluctuations of the market and competition.

As the bourgeoisie further centralise and concentrate wealth and production, the conditions and nature of work for the proletariat deteriorate. But as the exploitation and conditions get worse, the concentration of wealth in bourgeois society inevitably leads to its own failure.

“The bourgeoise itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoise.”

In response, the bourgeoisie first appeal to the proletariat as the consequences and risk of revolt becomes clear. But Marx and Engels prophesise that this capitalist system is doomed to failure, as the revolt cannot be stopped.

Key Idea #2: The Goals & Objectives of Communism

In the next section of the manifesto, Marx and Engels outline the principal objectives of Communism. They begin by explaining that Communists represent the interest of the proletariat as a whole, and not a particular group of workers or subclass, nor a particular nationality.

Their immediate aims, they write, are to overthrow the supremacy of the bourgeoisie and gain political power for the proletariat. The abolition of private property rights is a central pillar in the execution of this objective.

In response to the criticisms of this policy, Marx and Engels argue that the abolition of property rights is not a distinctive and historically unique feature of Communism. Abolition of property is evident in all previous class struggles. Communism simply advocates the abolition of “bourgeois property”. They suggest that the capitalist system already abolishes private property for the majority of citizens, and Communism simply advocates the abolition of rights of the monopolised remainder.

Central to their view is the position that that private property rights now only benefit the bourgeoisie in society, while the rest cannot access property due to the exploitation of labour and concentration of capital.

Beyond abolition of property, Marx and Engels set out the 10 core policies of communism, while recognising their application may vary from country to country. The below is the verbatim list per the manifesto:

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all 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 waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace 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.

Key Idea #3: The Contrasting Types of Socialism

In the final sections of the manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that communism must be contrasted with other forms of “pushback” against the capitalist system. They briefly review several types of socialism in turn.

#1. Reactionary Socialism:

Marx and Engels point to three subtypes of reactionary socialism.

  1. Feudal Socialism: This perspective believes that the bourgeois class is uprooting the old order. They want to restore the feudal class system, but Marx and Engels argue that this is simply another version of coercive measures against the working class.
  2. Petty Bourgeois Socialism: This perspective recognises that the middle class are being dragged into the proletariat class and therefore advocates a return to the old property relations of the feudalist era to protect their rights.
  • German or “True” Socialism: This perspective simultaneously aims to address both the concentration of capital with the bourgeoisie and the rise of the revolutionary prolertariat. In a sense, it becomes the representative of the “petty bourgeois” / middle-class owners of means of production.

#2. Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism

This type of socialism is built to secure the continuation of bourgeois society. Marx and Engels suggest that figures like economists, philanthropists and other reformers belong to this group. These individuals want all the advantages of the bourgeois society without the revolt of the proletariat. They wish for society to be exclusively bourgeois, or to at least convince the working class the bourgeois systems works for the benefit of the working class.

#3. Critical-Utopian Socialism & Communism

Such socialists “want to improve the condition of every member of society, even of the most favored”. They reject revolutionary measures to achieve their utopian aims, and believe that their goals can be achieved by peaceful means. They believe class antagonisms can be resolved peacefully.

#4. Communisms vs. the Existing Parties

Marx and Engels argue that Communists support all movements that challenge the political order and work for the interest of the working class.

“The Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the social and political order of things.”

They openly declare that their aims can only be achieved by forcibly overthrowing the current structure and conditions.

They close the book with a final famous call to action:

“The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”

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