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.

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