Marx and his coauthor, Friedrich Engels, begin The Communist Manifesto with the famous and provocative statement that the “history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.” They argue that all changes in the shape of society, in political institutions, in history itself, are driven by a process of collective struggle on the part of groups of people with similar economic situations in order to realize their material or economic interests. These struggles, occurring throughout history from ancient Rome through the Middle Ages to the present day, have been struggles of economically subordinate classes against economically dominant classes who opposed their economic interests—slaves against masters, serfs against landlords, and so on. The modern industrialized world has been shaped by one such subordinate class—the bourgeoisie, or merchant class—in its struggle against the aristocratic elite of feudal society. Through world exploration, the discovery of raw materials and metals, and the opening of commercial markets across the globe, the bourgeoisie, whose livelihood is accumulation, grew wealthier and politically emboldened against the feudal order, which it eventually managed to sweep away through struggle and revolution. The bourgeoisie have risen to the status of dominant class in the modern industrial world, shaping political institutions and society according to its own interests. Far from doing away with class struggle, this once subordinate class, now dominant, has replaced one class struggle with another.
The bourgeoisie is the most spectacular force in history to date. The merchants’ zeal for accumulation has led them to conquer the globe, forcing everyone everywhere to adopt the capitalist mode of production. The bourgeois view, which sees the world as one big market for exchange, has fundamentally altered all aspects of society, even the family, destroying traditional ways of life and rural civilizations and creating enormous cities in their place. Under industrialization, the means of production and exchange that drive this process of expansion and change have created a new subordinate urban class whose fate is vitally tied to that of the bourgeoisie. This class is the industrial proletariat, or modern working class. These workers have been uprooted by the expansion of capitalism and forced to sell their labor to the bourgeoisie, a fact that offends them to the core of their existence as they recall those workers of earlier ages who owned and sold what they created. Modern industrial workers are exploited by the bourgeoisie and forced to compete with one another for ever-shrinking wages as the means of production grow more sophisticated.
The factory is the arena for the formation of a class struggle that will spill over into society at large. Modern industrial workers will come to recognize their exploitation at the hands of the bourgeoisie. Although the economic system forces them to compete with one another for ever shrinking wages, through common association on the factory floor they will overcome the divisions between themselves, realize their common fate, and begin to engage in a collective effort to protect their economic interests against the bourgeoisie. The workers will form collectivities and gradually take their demands to the political sphere as a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, the workers will be joined by an ever-increasing number of the lower middle class whose entrepreneurial livelihoods are being destroyed by the growth of huge factories owned by a shrinking number of superrich industrial elites. Gradually, all of society will be drawn to one or the other side of the struggle. Like the bourgeoisie before them, the proletariat and their allies will act together in the interests of realizing their economic aims. They will move to sweep aside the bourgeoisie and its institutions, which stand in the way of this realization. The bourgeoisie, through its established mode of production, produces the seeds of its own destruction: the working class.
The Communist Manifesto was intended as a definitive programmatic statement of the Communist League, a German revolutionary group of which Marx and Engels were the leaders. The two men published their tract in February 1848, just months before much of Europe was to erupt in social and political turmoil, and the Manifesto reflects the political climate of the period. In the summer of that year, youthful revolutionary groups, along with the urban dispossessed, set up barricades in many of Europe’s capitals, fighting for an end to political and economic oppression. While dissenters had been waging war against absolutism and aristocratic privilege since the French Revolution, many of the new radicals of 1848 set their sights on a new enemy that they believed to be responsible for social instability and the growth of an impoverished urban underclass. That enemy was capitalism, the system of private ownership of the means of production. The Manifesto describes how capitalism divides society into two classes: the bourgeoisie, or capitalists who own these means of production (factories, mills, mines, etc.), and the workers, who sell their labor power to the capitalists, who pay the workers as little as they can get away with.
Although the Communist League was itself apparently too disorganized to contribute much to the 1848 uprisings, the Communist Manifesto is a call to political action, containing the famous command, “Workers of the world unite!” But Marx and Engels also used the book to spell out some of the basic truths, as they saw it, about how the world works. In the Communist Manifesto we see early versions of essential Marxist concepts that Marx would elaborate with more scientific rigor in mature writings such as Das Kapital. Perhaps most important of these concepts is the theory of historical materialism, which states that historical change is driven by collective actors attempting to realize their economic aims, resulting in class struggles in which one economic and political order is replaced by another. One of the central tenets of this theory is that social relationships and political alliances form around relations of production. Relations of production depend on a given society’s mode of production, or the specific economic organization of ownership and division of labor. A person’s actions, attitudes, and outlook on society and his politics, loyalties, and sense of collective belonging all derive from his location in the relations of production. History engages people as political actors whose identities are constituted as exploiter or exploited, who form alliances with others likewise identified, and who act based on these identities.