By Comrade Sloth
In an America still shadowed by the aftermath of the Cold War, the word "communism" carries a number of ominous connotations, drawing emotions ranging from apprehension to outright contempt- but the Manifesto of the Communist Party, authored by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, reads more like an explanation of the current national income inequality crisis in the United States. Written in 1848, and the subject of much ideological debate, the pamphlet outlined the foundational beliefs of the Communist League in Brussels, Belgium, and offers a harsh critique of capitalism. The prevailing idea behind the work is that society is divided into various classes, with the most economically dominant class, or bourgeoisie, exploiting those below it for capital gain. In the words of Marx, all of history is driven by class struggle: oppressors versus the oppressed, clashes that inevitably end either in social revolution or the further oppression of the working classes.
According to Marx and Engels, the gradated economic structure can be traced back to ancient Rome, where different classes within society were assigned certain roles: master and laborer. This separation of classes has flourished in modern times, producing more efficient structures to further polarize the two. The colonization of North America and the Industrial Revolution set the perfect stage for rise of the bourgeois class. The globalization of trade markets coupled with the pressure to find more efficient means of production meant that the general labor force underwent a massive transformation. Workers who would have previously been farmers or skilled tradespeople went to work in factories to perform manufacturing labor. Marx called this new urban working class the proletariat. Because the bourgeoisie owned the means of production (factories, shipyards, mines, etc.), the proletariat became a class of wage earners that did not control the products of their labor. This had a twofold effect: the bourgeoisie became richer, and the proletariat became poorer, further cementing their separation.
The effect of this separation is an ongoing opposition between the two classes. The bourgeois class, seeking to maintain status quo power relations, continually works to keep power out of the hands of the proletariat. The working class, underpaid and exploited, wants a higher standard of living, but its attempts to overthrow the bourgeoisie have seen minimal success. Marx attributes this to a lack of cohesion within the proletariat, an incoherent mass divided by competition with one another. He notes that when workers revolt, it is against the instruments of production rather than the working conditions- they will fight among themselves, set factories on fire, or smash machinery, but usually these acts are of small consequence. However, he is quick to point out that their revolts are growing in strength and effectiveness; he views the true fruits of their labor as being the unification of their class. It seems the proletariat is a phoenix of sorts- enduring multiple cycles of attempts at revolution, met with failure, only to be followed up by even greater strength the next time around.
Because of this growing strength and unionization, Marx claims that the fall of the bourgeoisie and the rise of the proletariat are inevitable. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels write, "Here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society... because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its own slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him." These words seem to be an eerily accurate description of what we see so much of in modern capitalist America: bourgeois policymakers positing welfare and entitlement programs as a wasteful drain on our economy, while also fighting to keep the minimum wage and educational standards sufficiently low to preserve the existing order. In a Marxist sense, it is becoming increasingly clear that the inverse relationship between capital gain for the bourgeoisie and the quality of life for the working class cannot continue indefinitely. In Marx’s view, the divergence between the two classes was unsustainable, remarking that “not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the [people] who are to wield those weapons — the modern working class — the proletarians.”