Whatever you think of communism, The Communist Manifesto remains one of the most important documents ever written.
It inspired numerous revolutions across the globe and despite being written in 1848 is still relevant today. Indeed, there are many people around the globe who live in Communist states to this day.
Marx and Engels were prophetic about their manifesto, claiming it would be as important for history as Darwin On The Origin of Species, was for biology in the preface to the English edition of the Manifesto in 1888.
While it was not as important as Engels envisioned it to be, it has had a lasting effect on the political discourse.
The ideas in the manifesto by today’s standards are extreme and unattainable. The abolition of private property is not going to happen and nor should it.
It’s important to remember the context the manifesto was written in, before deriding it. In 1848, a large proportion of the population was destitute and forced to work long hours in horrible conditions.
Placed in that context, it becomes easier to see how the ideas in the book would be attractive to those at the bottom of the ladder.
History has shown us that while the ideas of the manifesto may have sounded good in principle, in practice they led to a dystopia and did not bring about the equality envisioned.
If you’re a keen student of history, it’s worth reading the manifesto. It will give you a deeper understanding of the politics of Communism and should be read by those on the left and right of the political spectrum.
The Communist Manifesto summary
Takeaway 1 Theories don’t always work in reality
The manifesto looks at the relationship between the proletariat (the working class) and the bouregoisie (middle classes). The manifesto suggets that the only way for the proletariat to prosper is for them to overthro the bourgeoisie.
The principles of equality sound good in practice. Everyone having a similar house, similar wage and a similar standard of living, these ideas sound fair and reasonable.
The problem is they don’t work in reality.
At the time, Marx and Engels were living, democracy was not common. Monarchies were still prevalent and even in countries such as England, only a certain number of the electorate had the vote.
Their ideas would have made sense to them at the time, as the system they saw around them was neither fair nor reasonable.
However, history has proven that their ideas are not feasible in practice. Humans have evolved to live in a society that is envisioned in the manifesto.
You will always find people who want, who are not content with what they have. Competition is a part of life, it’s an evolutionary trait that has been handed down by our ancestors.
Countries which adopted Communism such as the Soviet Union, Cuba and North Korea did not bring about fair societies and did not solve the problems of the proletariat.
Theories are great, but their true test comes when they are put into practice. Only the staunchest advocate of Marx will state that Communism has been a success.
Takeaway 2 Class struggles define history
One of the main premises of The Communist Manifesto is the following:
“the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
The manifesto argues that societies have always taken the form of an oppressed majority under the yoke of an oppressive minority.
While this may have been the case at the time the manifesto was written, it’s hard to say that is the case today in most countries.
Yes, there are people that earn a lot more than the ordinary person, but we have more rights and freedoms than ever before.
Everyone has the ability to ascend to the top if they work hard enough. Under an absolute monarchy, which there were plenty of in 1848, that was an impossibility.
If you were born a peasant, you were likely to remain a peasant. Social mobility was non-existent. It’s hard to argue that is the case today.
The irony is that Communism did not resolve this class struggle. The bourgeoisie may have been overthrown, but a new ruling elite replaced them.
In the Soviet Union, this led to a political clique controlling the country, while everyone else had no power. One ruling class was been overthrown to be replaced by another, smaller one.
While inequality is still a major issue and has been getting worse in recent times, you still have much more opportunity than ever before.
Class struggle may become a theme again though, despite this. Brexit and the election of Trump show voters are willing to upend the established view if they so desire.
Maybe the era of class struggle is not over.
Takeaway 3 Some of the ideas made the cut
While Communism failed as an ideology, some of the suggestions in the manifesto did make the cut.
It’s easy to dismiss the manifesto, due to its relation to the ideology of Communism, but in some areas it has validity.
The second section entitled, “Proletarians and Communists”, has some demands which became law and are accepted by all sides of the political spectrum today.
The main one is the abolition of child labour. When the manifesto was written, it was rampant, yet today in the western world, it has been eradicated.
Children are now sent to school to learn and no one is advocating for a return to children joining the workforce and nor, should they!
Likewise, most countries have a progressive income tax, even if there are people on the right who want to lower taxes substantially. Again, this is accepted as a staple of democratic countries.
While free education is commonplace in most countries, it is not the case everywhere. However, most people would agree that it is not an outrageous demand.
Nationalisation of transport and the means of communication is a contentious issue, but by no mean an outrageous one. It works in a lot of countries.
However, the abolition of inheritance and private property is not a feasible demand for the 21st century.
What this shows is that despite the association of poverty and debunked ideas that goes along with the manifesto, a deeper reading shows that there are some aspects which are relevant.
It’s easy to criticise the manifesto, because of the connotations of Communism, but unless you’ve read it and actually look at some of the things that were advocated, that criticism is not valid.
You can find aspects of any ideology that make sense and have merit. It’s easy to deride things as black and white, but the world is a lot greyer than we like to admit.
In a world that is becoming increasingly polarised, it’s important to take a step back and have a balanced view of matters. Nor one that is clouded by preconceptions and bias.
- “The whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes…”
- “The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got.”
- “It has been objected that upon the abolition of private property all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us.”
- “The average price of wage labour is the minimum wage i.e. that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer.”
- “…the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”
- “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
- “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”
The Communist Manifesto review
This The Communist Manifesto summary has looked at one of the most influential political texts in . history. This text shaped world events for decades.
While the ideology has shown to be completely debunked by events over the past century, it’s still an important text that should be read.
The label of Marxist and far left gets thrown around a lot today. but the people doing this have likely never read the manifesto from which these insults are derived.
Even if you don’t agree with the ideology, it’s important to learn more about it as you can offer a more informed opinion. Dismissing the manifesto is easy, reading it when you disagree with something is much harder.
As I said above, some of the points in the manifesto have become standard practice today. It was the wider concept of society that Marx and Engels got wrong.
But it’s important to remember the manifesto was originally written in 1848. Nearly two hundred years ago! The world is a different place now.
Who should read The Communist Manifesto?
Anyone interested in politics or history should read The Communist Manifesto. It’s such an important document that you have to read it.
I still can’t believe I’d never read it during all my time studying history at university and school!
Those who want to get a better understanding of Marxism, should its foundational document and then supplement with Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.