This essay discusses the seminal political philosophical work by Marx and Engels.
The Communist Manifesto is a fascinating document. It is the foundation of one of the most important political and social movements on earth, and yet that movement has largely failed. Does this mean that Marx and Engels’ vision was flawed, or that men simply cannot live up to what are extremely difficult precepts? The Manifesto introduced startling new ideas, ideas that required a complete rethinking and readjustment of society. In the end, it seems that men’s nature is less altruistic and humanitarian than is necessary to make Communism a reality.
This paper will discuss this issue: to what extent does the Manifesto succeed in describing the capitalist system as we know it today? We’ll consider the question in terms of politics, economics, philosophy and history; and consider what might be done to improve Marx’s ideas. Finally, we’ll also look at what Marx means by the word “capitalism” and his analysis of it.
In general, it’s amazing to realize that much of what Marx wrote is still valid in describing the way business, particularly large corporations, operates. He described a greedy, vicious and ruthless class of people—the bourgeoisie—who got rich by exploiting the workers—the proletariat. If we care to take a look at some of the more egregious practices by large multinational corporations (Nike leaps to mind) we see that these methods are still widely used, and still enrich those at the top at the expense of those who actually produce the goods. It’s somewhat disheartening to realize that over a hundred years after Marx wrote, things are getting worse.
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On the other hand, he got a good many things wrong, too. There has been no general coming together of workers around the world, nor has there been a universal revolution against the oppressive practices of the multinational companies. (Too bad; they could use a good swift kick.) He made other predictions that have failed to materialize, and we’ll return to that in a moment.
In short, we see a world in which money rules absolutely; it’s also a world that poses immense difficulties for anyone who is not wealthy. Unfortunately, because of what now appear to be indissoluble ties between money and politics, with the rich buying the support of the governing class for any and all of their schemes, no matter how ruinous, it seems as though this situation will never change.
Marx describes capitalism in terms of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The former are those we think of as the upper class; the owners and operators of the businesses, corporations and other enterprises that employ the lower classes, the proletariat. For Marx, it is the bourgeoisie that is the driving engine of capitalism. “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising [sic] the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. … The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe.” (Marx, PG).
That is a very concise and workable definition of “globalization,” a concept that we think of as new but which has been around for a very long time.
Because the bourgeoisie controls the means of production, Marx says, it forces other nations, even the least developed, to become civilized to try to keep up with it. (This is one way in which the bourgeoisie influences politics and development.) “It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production … to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.” (Marx, PG).
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Other political impacts of the rise of the bourgeoisie can be seen when Marx writes that as part of development, the semi-developed (Third World) countries become dependent on the industrialized nations. This is something we can see for ourselves simply by looking around. Poor nations desperately try to keep up with wealthier countries, hoping that by doing so they can provide jobs and advancement for their people. But all too often the opportunities provided to the laborers in these countries are no better than sweatshops. Economically speaking, if we want to be absolutely ruthless about it, it makes sense to produce goods where the costs are lowest, thus insuring the highest rate of return to the stockholders, and the greatest profits to the corporation. We’ve had many vivid examples recently to illustrate the fact that this is exactly how many corporate executives think: profits are the driving force behind the company’s methods of operation, and if workers at home lose their jobs, their benefits, their raises, or their savings; and if workers abroad are exploited, so be it. As long as the company makes money, these considerations can be ignored.
And here we run into Marx’s basic belief: that people should not be allowed to exploit others for their own gain. He finds this intrinsically wrong, morally unjustifiable; a reprehensible practice that must be stopped.
Few people who have watched unfolding developments in the business community in the last few years can be unaware of the misery that such practices inflict. And yet the corporations continue their rampage, aided by the current Administration, which is dominated by corporate executives and beholden to “Corporate America” for its support. In the political climate today, the proletariat—the workers, small shopkeepers, independent contractors, etc.,–have no voice in government, because they are not wealthy enough to buy influence. Thus the bourgeoisie wields power politically, economically and socially.
History tells us that Marx was wrong about many things. The 1917 Russian Revolution ushered in a Communist government that lasted 72 years, but it still ultimately fell. China, though nominally Communist, allows a good deal of Western trade, trade for profit, to enter the country. It is probably only a question of time before the Chinese Communist Party is a thing of the past. The question seems to be why the workers, who were—and are—badly exploited, do not rise up once again and demand that they receive the wages, profits and benefits to which they are entitled. Without the people on the production line, or in the office, or out in the field, companies would not exist, let alone profit. And yet it is the employees themselves who are losing out, who fail to share in the tremendous successes of today’s corporations.
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We might find out why this is so if we consider Marx’s views on the laboring class. Although he is talking about factory workers, we can extrapolate to include almost everyone who is not at the very highest echelons of management, for it is only there (and sometimes not even there) that people are free to act as they wish, make decisions, and have a real impact on the company’s structure and operation:
“Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance … But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases. …
“No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, and he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.” (Marx, PG).
What Marx is describing is the way most people live: paycheck to paycheck, taking a salary that is almost always too low and trying to stretch it to cover bills that are too high. When life becomes this kind of struggle, it is impossible to ignite the spark of revolution, at least until such time as conditions become so untenable that the people in general see that they must take action.
For years, “Communism” has been used as a term to scare people. But reading The Communist Manifesto reveals instead a simple blueprint for dignified living—for all men.
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Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. [On-line]. 1995. Accessed: 17 Apr 2003. http://www.yclusa.org/readup/manread.html