Seek the Original: Communism
[Second reading of the Communist Manifesto, 2022. Part of my series investigating what Communism actually was.
Having read Capital, and The Conquest of Bread, armed with new knowledge of what was going on at the time, I thought I should return to the Manifesto. I realize now Marx wrote the Manifesto first and published Das Kapital some 20 years later. I assumed the manifesto was meant to be the executive summary of Capital, and I didn’t bother to check on that until much later. Oops. My mistake.
Anyway, reading the Manifesto now after reading Capital and the Conquest of Bread actually leaves me more confused than it did the first time I read it. Marx made his point so much better in Capital compared to this. There are nuggets of insight into what he’s saying and why he’s saying it, but it’s couched in language so obscure and dense I have a hard time grasping how anyone understood this in the 1840s. You can’t read this casually. You need lots of historical context to understand it today. Capital, by contrast, stands so much better alone and I recommend checking out my book report on it, as it contains everything Communism is and everything it is not.
I offer commentary on some relevant excerpts as a new, revised book report on the Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.
Marx doesn’t directly define the “bourgeoisie.” Perhaps audiences back then knew what he was talking about: their bosses. The factoryowners. The person who got rich by taking away their skilled professions. This is the part where Marx touches on how the Industrial Revolution has stripped people of the skilled professions that allowed them to live independently, working for their own benefit, and converted those professions into wage labor, now dependent on a factoryowner for their survival.
In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed; a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.
Under Capitalism, a person’s labor is only valuable if it makes someone else a profit. This stands in contrast to how people lived before Capitalism. Prior to factories, people had skilled crafts and professions and sold their skilled labor at personal value, meaning everyone generally worked for themselves as carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, and so forth. The definition of Capitalism is the organized conversion of self-sufficient skills into factory labor, taking away the professions of the masses so they have to work for the factory now. This is what Capitalism is, but unless you are aware of what “increases capital” means in this context, this statement makes no sense.
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
Marx is talking about how the factory’s inherent ability to produce mass quantities of cheap goods acts as a weapon to destroy the lifestyles of other nations. Societies around the world had thriving cultures of their own until factory goods flooded the market. Skilled craftspeople can’t compete with those prices, so they either must work in the factory to survive, or find a new occupation that hasn’t been devalued by a factory. Marx writes that this is the real definition of Capitalism. Once upon a time, people were not so dependent on an owner for a wage. They had their own professions. They had their own crafts. The factory cheapens those skills and destroys the way society functions. Marx touches on all that, but the statements are scattered about the document and don’t really connect.
The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.
The factoryowners drive entire nations into poverty so that population has no choice but to work in the factories producing goods for the rich nations. The whole purpose of factories expanding overseas is to keep other nations in poverty, not to “raise all boats.”
The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralized means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralization. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class interest, one frontier, and one customs tariff.
By “property” Marx is talking about factory machines, the tools people once used to earn their own living as carpenters, bakers, cobblers, and so forth. Marx often speaks of property in this manner, but a casual read can make it seem like Marx thinks nobody should own a bed, or clothes, or anything. Here he touches on how consolidation is the engine of Capitalism: consolidation of professions under one roof, consolidation of societies under the control of one individual, consolidations of government under the control of the wealthy. Capitalism is the stripping of individuality and the centralization of everything under the control of a handful of wealthy owners.
The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.
In this sense the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.
We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man's own labor, which property is alleged to be the ground work of all personal freedom, activity and independence.
Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property! Do you mean the property of the petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily.
Or do you mean modern bourgeois private property?
But does wage labor create any property for the laborer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labor, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labor for fresh exploitation. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labor. Let us examine both sides of this antagonism.
To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production. Capital is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion.
Capital is therefore not a personal, it is a social power.
Again a casual glance makes it sound like Marx doesn’t think anyone should own a TV and that all things must belong to everyone (including people who doesn’t deserve it!), but that’s not what “capital” is. Capital means profit. Profit as a means to purchase machines that throw people out of their self-sufficient crafts. Profit as a means of gaining control of someone else’s livelihood and forcing that person to work for the benefit of the business-owner instead of their own. Marx argues this kind of accumulation of wealth has the power to change society itself, not just at home but worldwide, and the people whose livelihoods stand to be destroyed by it should have a say in how it’s used. Without that, it only enriches a handful of rich people by means of keeping the masses in poverty.
And the abolition of this state of things is called by the bourgeois: abolition of individuality and freedom! And rightly so. The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at.
Marx is not advocating some dictatorship to keep people poor. He’s talking about ending the practice of the rich using the poor to enrich themselves while keeping the masses in poverty. He’s saying the Rich accumulated their wealth by taking away the skilled professions of the population, therefore the Rich do not deserve their wealth.
Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society: all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labor of others by means of such appropriation.
Marx was very much in favor of people working for themselves—that a person should benefit from their work instead of the fruits of their labor going to enrich a class of business-owners. This is what Communists stood for: that no person should have the power to take away someone else’s occupation. No person should have the ability to drive others into poverty in order to enrich himself. This is what Marx observed factoryowners doing in the 1800s, and that’s who he is talking about when he writes “bourgeois.”
So with this kind of context, we should be able to understand probably the hardest part of the Manifesto: THE LIST! My commentary in (underlined.)
The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie; to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible. (Whenever Marx writes of something to be transferred to “The State” he means an elected government made up of the working class people that makes decisions on behalf of the voters. He is not advocating some Big Government Dictatorship. He’s actually very clear this is supposed to be a direct democracy made up of the working people.)
Nevertheless in the most advanced countries the following will be pretty generally applicable:
1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes. (Not property in the sense of a TV or a house, but the ownership of factories and anything else that can be used to strip entire populations of their professions.)
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax. (To deter the creation of enormous fortunes, because fortunes corrupt governments and allow the purchase of machines that can be used to drive a population into poverty, as Piketty observed.)
3. Abolition of all right of inheritance. (See point 2.)
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. (Marx does not mean personal property here (your clothes, your house, your lawnmower...), but private property as mentioned before: wealth derived from exploitation of the masses. To put it in modern terms: if billionaires try to flee the country, taking the money they earned from owning a textile factory that kept an entire community in poverty so this owner could get rich, then that money was earned by exploitation and this person has no claim to it. As far as I can tell from my readings, it’s not a call to take away the people’s clothes and jewelry so the State can use it for some nefarious purpose.)
5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly. (Again, State meaning a government that represents the interests of the people, not bankers, and certainly not billionaires. Marx is arguing that control of the money system should not rest solely in a handful of rich individuals, as they will always use their power to screw over the masses for their own gain. In theory, a government made up of the people will run these things for the benefit of the people.)
6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State. (A government that represents the interests of the people should allow its population to move about freely and easily. Marx writes in Capital that factoryowners kept people in poor communities in order to exploit them. If the working people were free to move about the country easily, this takes away one of the chief means of exploiting them.)
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. (Land should be used to enrich the entire population instead of for the sole benefit of the Rich.)
8. Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture. (Labor, not ownership, should be the focus of society. As for industrial armies, see 9)
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries: gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country. (Without landlords charging rent, and without factoryowners holding people hostage in slums, people will be free to move about at will, thus there will be no need for overcrowded cities. Communists believed this would happen as a matter of course, not as something people would be forced to do. Farming as an extension of manufacturing would happen on its own because it would be more efficient and it would liberate people of work. It is not a call to force the people to collectivize in order to produce a cash crop for sale on international markets. That’s what Capitalists do. Communism’s goal was to liberate the people from such practices, and Communists believed that as the people were driven into poverty, they would come to share an identity as a class, and soon they would take over the factories and use them to liberate the people from labor itself.)
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., etc. (This seemed out of place until I read Capital. Because factories destroyed the family as the primary means of production, and the practice of parents passing their skilled crafts down to their children, Marx wants to create free education for the children to compensate. Education of skilled crafts so the people can be liberated to work wherever they please and aren’t locked in to a single task.)
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. (Marx directly states Communist society will allow every individual to work for themselves, for their own benefit and development, and this will mean the elevation of society itself.)
The Communist Manifesto is hard to read. I actually had an easier time understanding Capital, and I suggest reading Capital v1 instead, as it explains itself much clearer. I’m glad I read Capital. Had I stopped at the Manifesto, I don’t think I would have had a solid understanding of what exactly Communism was.
Always Seek the Original.
(original book report from 2013) Never settle for someone else's interpretation! Seek the original!
There's been a lot of anti-communist talk since Obama was elected. But how many people have actually read what Karl Marx proposed? How many actually know what Communism is? I decided to find out.
The Communist Manifesto
by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Does he say people should be stripped of all freedom and live in a police state to keep the peace? No. Does he say everyone should work as hard as he can but only be paid according to what he needs? No. Does he want religion to be abolished? No.
Does he advocate abolition of private property? Yes. Does he advocate government takeover of private industry? Yes. Does he preach equality among labor? Yes. Does he want free education for all children by the state? Yes.
So many people react to these ideas and communism in general out of hand, but they don't take the time to listen to where he's coming from. Part one of this manifesto is the reason he advocates these things.
Karl Marx lived during the rise of industrialization. He saw the early titans of capitalism, and what they were doing to entire nations, and he observed it was the same thing the nobles of old did to the serfs they owned. Exploitation of human beings for person gain.
That's what Karl Marx was against. He didn't want to take away the wealthy man's money and give it to people who didn't deserve it. He wanted to end the centuries-old practice of one human being using another human being for personal gain. He saw capitalism as just the newest incarnation of the cycle of human civilization. One group of people rises to the top to become the nobility, keeps the commoners in slavery and exploits their labor to make themselves rich. Marx observes that's the only reason anyone gets rich, by taking what someone else has and keeping them poor.
Part one outlines his grievances with industrialization and capitalism: how it moves in by force, selling its goods to people and forcing them to become part of their production. In doing so, capitalism strips people of identity, heritage and culture, remolding these civilizations into its own image, all for the purpose of using the people to produce cheap goods for resale. The competition among the upper classes drives them to push the workers further and further into poverty, and the longer this goes on, the more inevitable revolution becomes.
He mentions the economic cycle capitalism has created: it is dependent on perpetual growth. Always growing, always finding new markets, always expanding, always increasing capital. This is done because of competition between businesses, putting one another under pressure to reduce prices. The best way to reduce prices is to increase production, and this forces industry to do things like increase worker hours, decrease benefits, reduce pay, etc. But overproduction always leads to a surplus of goods, which leads to a recession. Poverty hits because production must scale back. People are kept in bondage to this, and he argues it has raised nobody's standard of living, only lined the pockets of the factory-owners.
He even outlines exactly how the (then) current elite class rose to power, and has used its influence to get the government to look out for them, and not for the people its supposed to represent.
In Marx's view, the pursuit for personal property is the very heart of all class struggles in every civilization throughout history. In a utopian society, one man does not enslave another. Remove the need to acquire personal property, and society will be free of class strife. Communism is not an attempt to force everybody to be equally poor. It's an attempt to end this exploitation of human beings.
He then addresses various criticisms of communism in part two. Here's one:
The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois [the nobility's] property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.
We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man's own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence. Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property! Do you mean the property of the petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily. Or do you mean modern bourgeois private property?
The average price of wage-labour is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence, which is absolutely requisite in bare existence as a labourer. What, therefore, the wage-labourer appropriates by means of his labour, merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence. We by no means intend to abolish this personal appropriation of the products of labour, an appropriation that is made for the maintenance and reproduction of human life, and that leaves no surplus wherewith to command the labour of others. All that we want to do away with, is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it.
In bourgeois society, living labour is but a means to increase accumulated labour. In Communist society, accumulated labour is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer.
The irony is that Marx himself is all for the working man working for himself! He says so right here! He wants to end the practice of men using other men's labor for their personal gain, and return to working for himself. That was the original goal of communism, and that surprises me! The idea arose as a direct reaction to the industrial revolution and unrestricted capitalism.
You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society. In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.
Marx is speaking to the ruling class. The well-off decry the end of personal property, but the only reason they have property is because the rich man has taken everything from the poor, so to be against anyone calling for the end of personal property is hypocrisy.
He's calling the rich parasites on the poor, which is what makes them poor to begin with. It's the counterargument that was so blatantly missing from Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand called the poor parasites who feed on the rich man's hard work. Marx describes the true nature of a parasite: it drains the host of all nutrition, leaving the host emaciated, weak and defeated; while the parasite itself grows fat and happy. He makes the exact same point as Rand, but directing the blame on the rich.
Considering the time period in which he lived, this observation makes sense. Capitalism was unregulated back then, and business-owners really did work people to death just to make more money. Workers suffered while the factory-owners thrived, and there was no hope of getting a job somewhere else where things were better because there was no better place to work. People with jobs made so little money they went hungry. They couldn't afford housing in the cities, and there was no transportation back then, so they were crammed into tenements, living in filth, and these were people who had jobs!
This was what capitalism looked like until laws were passed that limited what employers could do to people. Marx was appalled by the systematic destruction of entire nations in this way.
I'm still not sure how he expected people to work for themselves and enjoy the fruits of their labor without having personal property. I don't know how that would work... Marx is very vague on the details here. I would read Das Kapital to see if there is more information but HOLY SHIT that is not a book one should read just for the hell of it! It doesn't look like he addresses that topic at all, merely devoting his time to analyzing and deconstructing capitalism.
Part three mentions various misinterpretations of his idea and explains how they got it wrong, such as limited socialism that tries to make working conditions a little better for the workers but still allow the ruling class to remain in power; activists trying to please both sides; and deceitful variations that put on a front of being out for the people but are in fact little more than a public relations arm for the ruling class. Socialism, according to Marx, is a watered-down form of his idea and doesn't go far enough to kill the root of the recurring problem in human society: a class of Haves rises up and keeps the Have-nots down.
Alas he did not live to see the greatest misinterpretation of them all: Russia. From what Marx describes here, Russia was not communism. The point of communism is to get rid of the ruling class that oppresses the people and keeps them poor. The paradox is that Marx himself says various things must be turned over to State control to prevent those things from becoming oppressive (such as factories), which entails there being an administrative body above the people, which is--dun dun DUNNNNN!--an elite class.
Marx certainly had a noble cause, but his outline for how to implement it is open to interpretation, and that left room for various dictators to seize and use it to justify horrors such as forced state labor and the abolition of religion. Nope, Marx never says religion should be abolished. His intent was to get rid of the exploitation.
Marx first wrote this in the 1840's! Coming up on 200 years later, much of it still rings true today, and that's eerie! The recession of '08 brought a lot of things to light, such as the double standard of law. Businesses get bailed out for their actions, but the people are foreclosed. Businesses cut jobs, and then business-owners and the politicians they buy blame the people for being out of work. Laws are biased for the benefit of the businesses, not the workers. It happened in the 1800's, and it's still happening today, although in a much nicer form thanks to the laws that keep employers from outright enslaving us.
All Marx wanted to do was end the cycle of human civilization. I don't think even he knew exactly how to implement his idea, although he seems to favor man returning to work for himself, instead of being forced into a system where he must work for someone else. A system that rewarded the abuse of human beings. To people of the late 1800's who were victims of the nobility and the industrialist getting rich off their hard work, this must have seemed a perfect answer to all their problems.
As Orwell so eloquently showed in Animal Farm, the implementation of these ideals has not been so successful. It doesn't seem possible to create a classless society without creating an upper class to keep people from rising up too high.
It's plain to see where a lot of his ideas came from though, and where these ideas went wrong in the execution. Marx's concept that everyone should be allowed to have a job comes from capitalism's tendency to hire and fire people at will, thus controlling their means of survival. Marx wanted everyone to have a good job instead of being at the mercy of profit-hungry factory-owners and economic cycles, but when people tried to make communism happen, the State ended up forcing people to work against their will.
The concept that no man should be allowed to rise up and command the labor of others implies that everyone should be paid equally no matter what job they do. And since it's impossible to pay everybody high wages for even menial work, everyone gets paid a low wage, which has the effect of no incentive to do more work. This isn't in Marx's proposal, but it seems to be what happened when it was put into action.
Marx says there should be no private property, but he doesn't explicitly outline who property belongs to. It seems obvious it belongs to the State, but what exactly does that mean? If one can't have personal property, why have money? Why have factories? Why have work at all? It does seem to have the effect of forcing people to stay down, be meager subsistence farmers.
After all, if personal property is not allowed, how do you divide up the State-owned property equally among everyone? That would be too difficult, so it's easier for everyone to have nothing. This idea that no man should be allowed to become a rich nobleman implies everyone should be kept poor so nobody will ever be able to rise up and enslave the people.
None of this is what Marx really intended. Soviet communism was not Marxism. Chinese communism was not Marxism. Marx apparently counted on the people willingly going along with this, without a need to be forced into it. It's not supposed to be oppressive, but a mutual desire among the working people to end the practice of men using other men to make themselves rich. The idea behind it was to get rid of the nobility that keeps people down, and willfully live in a way that won't form such a ruling class again. But the pigs always end up becoming human.
My view of Marx is the same as my view on Bob Black's The Abolition of Work. Noble and dead on accurate in its analysis for what capitalism does to people, but impractical, idealistic bullshit without a solid proposal for an alternative system.