Side profiles of Communist leaders

Anthropology: History and Philosophy of the Communist Manifesto

Origins of the Manifesto and Communist Ideology

Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95) wrote The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) to trace the history of human progress.  They believed that the transition from capitalism to communism would mark the final stage of human development, with the proletariat working class trumping the capitalist bourgeoisie (H.B. Mayo, Introduction to Marxist Theory, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 65).  Their theory of human development is known as historical materialism and studies the history of revolutions, such as that of the bourgeoisie against their feudal lords, with a focus on how society can reach a penultimate state of progress (John Somerville, The Philosophy of Marxism: An Exposition, (New York: Random House, 1967), 84).  With an emphasis on historical materialism, The Manifesto of the Communist Party’s philosophy of history demonstrates that the inevitable demise of capitalism and rise of class consciousness will necessarily lead to a communist revolution that gives way to a new society built on ideals of equality and collectivism.

The Communist Manifesto - Wikipedia
The original cover of the Manifesto of the Communist Party.
Marx’s and Engel’s theory of human progress was inspired by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). His theory of dialectical materialism argued that life, humanity, and society was constantly in flux. His model of the ‘thesis, antithesis, and synthesis’ is a way of describing the changes that occur in life, people, and society.

Main Themes Advocated in the Manifesto

The Manifesto of the Communist Party argues that the emergence of a post-revolutionary communist society championing collectivism and equality will mark the apex of human development because the “modes of production and exchange” will not be transferred to a newly dominant class, but to society as a whole (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848, in The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels with Related Documents, 2nd edition, ed. John E. Toews, 61-95, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018), 66).  In other words, communism embodies the epitome of human progress since it “deprives no man” of the “products” available to him in society, but does “deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others” for his personal benefit (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 79).

A simplified schema of Marx’s and Engels’ theory of social productive forces. They believed that only ones the forces of production were owned by the people, otherwise known as the working class or the Proletariat.

The Philosophy Behind Communism

Key to the philosophy of history presented in The Manifesto of the Communist Party is that the establishment of communist society will prevent future revolutions because the material forces that led to past conflicts—such as the bourgeoisie strive for private property and ownership of means of production against the feudal desire to retain medieval privileges—will be supplanted with ideals of collectivism and equality (Somerville, The Philosophy of Marxism, 84).  In fact, the “accumulated labour” of a communist society is not meant to bolster the wealth of a particular class at the expense of another (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 78).  Instead, it provides “a means” for “enrich[ing] [and] promot[ing]” the very “existence of” labourers through values of equality and collectivism, thereby marking the apex of human progress (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 78).

Feudalism – subratachak
The hierarchy of the feudal structure, which preceded modern, capitalist society. Feudalism was a medieval European practice in which land was owned by nobles, knights, and figures with high titles. Eventually, as peasants became increasingly aware of their state of oppression under this system, many began to expand into the merchant and professional class, rising in the social ranks by becoming travelling sale-people, doctors, and lawyers. These people eventually formed the middle class, who overcome their feudal landlords and created industrial society. With industrial society, emerged a new, oppressed class: the working class. the working class worked in factories under poor conditions and were subject to the whims of their middle class, or bourgeoisie, bosses.

The Theory of Historical Materialism: The Core of the Communist Philosophy

The text’s philosophy of history uses historical materialism to trace human progress based on evidence from past revolutions.  For example, it notes that the bourgeoisie “played a most revolutionary” role by “put[ting] an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations,” and replacing them with the “egoistical calculation[s]” of proletariat exploitation and economic liberalism (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 66-7).  Just as the bourgeoise came into contention with feudal lords, the text predicts that the tension between the bourgeoisie’s capital interests and the proletariat’s increasing poverty were bound to come into conflict, disrupting the “economic […] superstructure” of society and necessitating a revolution (Mayo, Introduction to Marxist Theory, 73).  Yet, this predicated communist revolution is distinguished from previous revolutions since only the communist values of collectivism and equality were believed to guarantee and maintain “the welfare of all” (Li Chongfu, “The Marxist Theory of the State and National Identity,” Social Sciences in China no. 2 (2014): 128; Marx and Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, 66).

Base and superstructure - Wikipedia
Another schema detailing historical materialism and the relationship between the economy and society.

Historical Materialism: Foreseeing the Fall of Capitalism

The Manifesto of the Communist Party frames its philosophy of history and theory of historical materialism with regard to economics, asserting that capitalism has to fall for a communist society to emerge (Mayo, Introduction to Marxist Theory, 66).  The text contends that capitalism creates a “polarization” between the wealthy bourgeoisie and the impoverished proletariat, with the latter becoming “dependen[t] on wage labour” for their subsistence (Mayo, Introduction to Marxist Theory, 98; Manifesto of the Communist Party, 69).  A communist revolution therefore becomes necessary because the expansion of the forces of production—like improvements in manufacturing—outstrip the capacities of the relations of production—like the division of labour—just as the developments in modern industries outstripped feudal land practices and led to the bourgeoise revolution of the nineteenth century (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 70, 66).

After the lockdown: what will capitalism look like?
Marx and Engels ultimately asserted that capitalism would fall based on their knowledge of past system collapses. For example, when Feudalism fell, it was because the rising middle class became more productive and capable compared to their feudal. lords. Similarly, they asserted that as modern industrial technologies continued to expand, while the working class continued to be oppressed, the capitalist system would implode under this imbalance. Only once capitalism fell and the working class took ownership of politics, society, and the economy, would future revolutions be prevented since inequities in society would be replaced with equality for all.

The idea that capitalism would necessarily “decline” because of tensions between the forces and relations of production is supported by Marx’s concept of surplus value, which states that capitalists’ pursuit of personal profit led them to “exploit […] workers,” which decreased their “standard of living” such that they could no longer afford to consume the goods they produced (Mayo, Introduction to Marxist Theory, 104, 102).  Economic surpluses were especially problematic because they gave capitalists incentives to lower wages, due to lack of demand, which caused the proletariat to sink more deeply into poverty (John Roemer, Free to Lose: An Introduction to Marxist Economic Philosophy, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988), 32).  For this reason, The Manifesto of The Communist Party predicts a “commercial crisis,” with workers’ wages increasingly declining, despite the “unceasing improvement of machinery” (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 71; This is an example of the tension between the forces and relations of production).

The text concludes that capitalism cannot be the apex of human history, with its inherent economic inequalities creating a system of overexploitation that cannot be sustained (Mayo, Introduction to Marxist Theory, 89).  The Manifesto of the Communist Party’s philosophy of history ultimately argues that “a higher” and final “stage of organized society,” replacing the economic tensions of the capitalist system with an equal distribution of wealth and labour, and a sense of collectivism, can only be achieved through a communist revolution (Bert de Munck, “Artisans, Products and Gifts: Rethinking the History of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe,” Past and Present 224, no.2224(2014): 42; Mayo, 65).

Collectivist and Individualist Societies - sa4confucius
A table showing the major differences between individualistic societies, like those of modern capitalist Europe and collectivist societies, like those envisioned by Marx and Engels.

Historical Materialism: The Rise of Class Consciousness

The decline of capitalism occurs in parallel to the rise of class consciousness, in which the proletariat’s “stages of development,” from “individual […] workmen” to bourgeoise commodities, make them increasingly cognizant of their state of exploitation (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 72, 70).  Similar to how the aristocratic feudal class was overthrown as the bourgeoisie pooled their resources against them, The Manifesto of the Communist Party’s philosophy of history predicts that the proletariat will eventually recognize the power they wield as a majority and use it to overthrow their oppressors.  Class consciousness is therefore essential because it shows that “class antagonisms” must be eliminated for a communist society championing equality and collectivism to emerge (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 77).

Explain the transition from class-in-itself to class-for-itself, according to Karl Marx. | TriumphIAS
A breakdown of the idea of class consciousness and its role in the overthrow of capitalism.

According to the theory of historical realism, as capitalism “ripens,” the proletariat become “more numerous” and more conscious of their disadvantages relative to the bourgeoisie (Mayo, Introduction to Marxist Theory, 65).  A bourgeoisie overthrow then becomes the only way for the history of class conflict to be permanently abolished and substituted with a communist state championing an equitable division of labour and wealth throughout society (Mayo, Introduction to Marxist Theory, 65, Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 78).

Class conflict - Wikipedia
A tongue-and-cheek type of schema of the hierarchy of the capitalist system.

Class consciousness is ultimately historically “[inevitable],” with the working class emancipating themselves from the bourgeoisie through revolution, thereby ending the “exploitation of the many by the few” (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 77, 75).  Yet, to do so, they must “[abolish] their own previous mode of appropriation” and convert “private property” into “common property” (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 74).  As a result, they not only free themselves from the confines of the capitalist system, but they also prevent future “collisions” between classes by dismantling the class system entirely (Chongfu, “The Marxist Theory of the State”: 133).  Class consciousness is essential to the text’s philosophy of history because it is what guides the proletariat toward revolution, paving the way for a society built on principles of collectivism and equality, and marking the apex of human development.

IWW Cartoons — Cartooning Capitalism
Marx and Engels believed that class consciousness was so powerful because as a majority of the population in all modern societies, the working class yielded influence in their numbers. According to the manifesto, once they came together toward a common cause, they could overcome oppression and poor working conditions, they would produce a free and equal society that promoted collective work and equity for all.

Significance in Anthropology and Sociology

The Manifesto of the Communist Party’s philosophy of history uses the theory of historical materialism to argue that the highest point of human progress can only be achieved through a communist uprising.  Such an uprising will be prompted by the inevitable decline of capitalism and the rise of class consciousness, thus producing a collectivist state that transfers private property into common property and supplants individual wealth with prosperity for the whole of society.

173 years of 'The Communist Manifesto': 10 quotes from the Marx-Engels masterpiece- The New Indian Express
A quote by Marx, expressing his disdain for capitalism and the failures of this system to promote equality and unity.

The philosophy of the communist party has evolved in different ways throughout history.  Unfortunately many examples of communist regimes have either failed or become dictatorial, which has marred the image of leftist politics for many.  Politicians and regular people alike often express fears of far-left politics.  Like any political and philosophical ideology, extremism is dangerous and problematic, but it is worth noting that communism emerged as a solution to social and economic disparities that promoted egalitarianism and equality for all.  Overall, the theory behind communism is one of collectivism and unity; even if one’s political views lean more towards the centre or right, promoting these ideals should not necessarily be confined to leftists ideals.

Left vs Right: US Political Spectrum | A concept-map explori… | Flickr
A detailed schema of the political spectrum, from left to right.

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