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Marx and the Manifesto

The French utopian socialists were influential in that later socialists read their works. However, the French utopians had such far-fetched ideas that utopian socialism never succeeded long-term. The socialists who followed the utopians read their ideas, weeded out the information that seemed impractical, and built upon the rest. Among the basic ideas that influenced later socialists were the idea that the capitalists were exploiting the workers, the idea of creating a classless society where the workers were no longer exploited, and the idea that the workers should control the means of production.

Two of the people influenced by these ideas were Karl Marx (1818-1883) and his important but often forgotten friend Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). These two would use the ideas of the utopians to create one of the most important economic works of the last 200 years, The Communist Manifesto. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels combined French utopian socialism, German philosophy, and English labor economics to produce a statement of beliefs that would be hugely influential in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Not One of the Marx Brothers

Karl Marx was born in Germany to a prominent Jewish family. Despite the family’s Jewish ancestry, Marx’s father converted to Christianity so he could remain a lawyer. The family became known as very liberal and progressive. Marx attended college, first in Bonn and then in Berlin, where he became fascinated with the philosophy of Georg Hegel.

Hegel’s idea was that the state developed through a series of dialectics. Although he didn’t use the terminology, his idea is best explained as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In other words, Hegel believed that history was developed through a reaction to something, the rise of something that contradicts the reaction, then the result of the tension between the two. This theory would have a profound influence on Marx and his view of the world.

As a Matter of Fact

Marx viewed the world as dynamic and not static. He viewed history that way, too. His dialectical approach to the study of history implies that capitalism, for example, grew out of the struggle between classes. One class won the struggle, ended up with the means of production, and proceeded to exploit the other class. According to the dialectical approach, though, capitalism will ultimately be replaced by something else as a result of struggle or conflict.

Engels, also a German by birth, was the son of a factory owner. His father sent him to England to manage the family textile industry, where he discovered the plight of the workers. Engels was appalled at what the Industrial Revolution and capitalism had done to the workers.

After spending some time in journalism, Marx moved to France, where he met Engels. They discovered they had similar ideas regarding capitalism, and Engels convinced Marx to become interested in economics. In 1845, Marx was expelled from France so he moved first to Belgium and then to England with Engels. Over the next several years, Marx moved to Germany, France, Belgium, and back to England again. During this time, Marx and Engels wrote extensively on a variety of topics. They wrote critiques of socialism, they wrote about poverty, and they wrote about politics. In England, in 1848, they wrote the Manifesto.

In 1864, Marx formed the International Workingmen’s Association, a political activist group later known as the First International. His organization only lasted about five years, though. During his time with the organization, he researched and then wrote his other landmark piece, Das Kapital, or Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. In this work, written in German, Marx critically examined capitalism with the economic theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo; the philosophy of Hegel; and the socialist thought of Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon, and Pierre Joseph Proudhon. His goal was to apply a scientific and philosophical examination to economic history to justify the rise of socialism. In Das Kapital he outlined many of his ideas about how the capitalists, who own the means of production, exploit the workers. Marx had plans for multiple editions of Das Kapital, but he died after the publication of the first one. His friend and partner, Engels, completed later editions by reconstructing Marx’s notes and rough drafts.

As a Matter of Fact

Marx spent nearly his entire life with little or nothing to his name. He survived mostly by living off the generosity of Engels. Engels never married but lived with a woman, Mary Burns, until her death, when he moved in with his sister. He spent much of his later life working on feminist issues. He tied communist theory to marriage by implying that throughout history man has dominated woman within the institution of marriage much the way the capitalists have dominated the workers.

Workers of the World, Unite 

In 1836, a group of German workers living in England formed the League of the Outlaws, later called the League of the Just, and finally the League of the Not HalfBad. Engels attended one of their meetings in 1847 in London. Initially the group followed utopian socialist ideas. However, after Engels and Marx influenced the group, the League reorganized and changed its name to the Communist League. They even adopted Marx’s slogan of “Workers of the world, unite.” They declared their 1847 meeting to be the first congress of the new Communist League and agreed to hold a second congress later in the year. At the second congress, the Communist League requested that Marx and Engels write for them a manifesto for communists.

Define Your Terms

manifesto is a statement of beliefs and principles.

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels outlined the beliefs of communism, a system that advocates communal ownership of all property. Marx explained in the Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” In other words, all of history can be divided into stages or epochs. Each epoch is marked by class struggle, or conflict between the different social classes. The struggle in each epoch occurs because one socioeconomic class exploits or oppresses another.

Would You Believe?

Critics of the Manifesto have always asked the question, “How did Marx expect a revolutionary state to simply give way to a communal society?" Though many nations in the twentieth century adopted communism, the states never “withered away" into the communal society Marx anticipated.

When the Manifesto was written, the world was in the capitalist epoch, which had followed the feudal epoch. According to Marx and Engels, capitalism would fall after a revolution. The proletariat, or working class, would rise up against the bourgeoisie, or the capital-owning middle class. The authors believed that the rise of the proletariat eventually would lead, after a transitional period of socialism, to a classless society similar to the one dreamt about by so many utopians. Included in the communist system the authors advocated were things like the abolition of private property and land, the abolition of inheritance laws, the nationalization of the means of production, and even the abolition of the family unit and marriage.

The Manifesto was hardly popular or even widely known after its publication in 1848. However, its influence spread in the decades following 1848. The Manifesto was printed in new editions twice in the late 1800s. In addition to the Manifesto, Marx’s ideas stayed alive through the Second International which Engels founded after Marx’s death. The idea of Marxism grew later in Marx’s life and after his death, although the popular Marxism didn’t necessarily mirror the ideas of Marx and Engels. Many “Marxists” simply use the vocabulary of proletariat, bourgeoisie, class struggle, and more.

Continental Quotes

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

—Karl Marx

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