Who is the Communist Manifesto's target audience? What are its aims as a document?
Political reforms cannot eliminate class antagonisms because these antagonisms are due to the basic structure of society. Class is an outgrowth of the means of production. It is this economic structure that gives certain people the power to exploit others. As long as this structure exists, there will be a ruling class and an exploited class. Reforms might improve the standard of living of the exploited class, but it cannot alter the fact that they are powerless socially. Marx refers to the advocates of such reforms as Conservative Socialists. These socialists are misguided because they don't realize that class struggle is integral to history, and is unavoidable in the capitalist system. They represent bourgeois interests, because they are trying to preserve bourgeois hegemony by dampening the revolutionary energy of the proletariat. These conservative socialists will ultimately fail, however, because the revolution is an unavoidable stage of history, and the proletariat will always be a revolutionary class.
Why isn't it possible to eliminate class antagonisms through political reforms that improve the workers' quality of life? How does the Manifesto reply to such reformers?
The proletariat is a unique class in several ways. First, the exploitation it faces is more transparent than that of any previous class. In the past, class relationships were clouded by religious beliefs and sentimentality. People did not realize that their relationships were fundamentally economic and exploitative in nature. Capitalism exposes this exploitation, because it is based solely on ideals of self-interest and money. Thus, the proletariat are uniquely aware of their status as exploited peoples. Secondly, the proletariat are more interconnected than any previous revolutionary class. This is due to improved communication brought about by capitalism's technological advances, and because the proletariat all share an equally miserable existence. They are also the majority in society, whereas previous revolutionary classes were traditionally in the minority. Finally, their historical role is unique. In order to further their ends as a class, they must destroy the entire system of class exploitation. Thus, with their revolution all private property is eliminated and classes disappear.
Perhaps the most serious question about the proletariat, then, is why they will revolt. Marx believes that revolutions are spontaneous uprisings of exploited peoples. He does a plausible job of showing why the proletariat have reason to overthrow the current system, and even why they would eliminate private property if they succeeded. What is less clear is what would motivate the original revolution. There is a jump between historical forces and individual agency that it may be hard to accept. The proletariat are unique in large degree because their conditions are so dire. It is worth considering whether Marx underestimates the power of such conditions to defeat, rather than motivate, oppressed peoples.
How is the proletariat different from past revolutionary classes?
Marx argues that the property rights that the bourgeoisie wish to protect are actually bourgeois property rights. They protect bourgeois interests, as can be seen by the fact that only the bourgeoisie actually own property. Marx further argues that property itself is a social commodity. It belongs to people because of the social structure of society. Thus, changing private property into communal property is really only changing the social character of property. It is not violating a personal claim. This argument about property is similar to Marx's arguments about other rights, as well as about law, philosophy and religion. None of these notions reflects universal truths, valid across all social contexts; rather, they are all ways of protecting the interests of the ruling class. For example, the bourgeoisie make property into a right because they are the ones with the property. We may think that some of these ideas are truly universal, because they have survived across time. However, it is more likely that they have lasted throughout history only because exploitation has lasted throughout history. With an end to exploitation, many of the ideals embraced by modern society would be radically altered.