The Nineteenth Century was a period of great change. Over the continent of Europe, a series of revolutions took place that would forever alter the political makeup of the continent, and the world as whole. These revolutions were the center of discussion (either directly or tangentially) for many of the political theorists of the day, including those such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Jeremy Bentham, and, of course, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Perhaps the most influential among the political theorists of the era, if not in history, Marx and Engels were known best for their The Manifesto of the Communist Party. In this work, Marx and Engels laid out the history of the world through the lens of materialism; how this history was reflected in the state of the world and socioeconomic classes of the time; the goal of the Communist Party; and how they saw the eventual end of the then-current Bourgeois Capitalistic system would occur. It is the goal of this essay to examine how Marx believed that the Bourgeois Capitalistic system would fall, through a Proletarian revolution, working off of The Communist Manifesto, John Plamenatz's Man and Soceity, and David McLellan's The Thought of Karl Marx; with consultation of Gareth Stedman Jones' introduction to The Communist Manifesto and Sheldon Wolin's Politics and Vision.
According to Marx, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” This history is seen through the relations between master and slave throughout history. It is seen between those of feudal power, and the serfs that served under them. In the time of Marx, and from then onward to the present day, it can be seen between the rich and the poor—between the capitalist Bourgeoisie and the working proletariat. It is, according to Marx, through the system of production that a society has that the general character of the social life between the classes can be determined. In earlier times, this was satisfied through the labor of slaves for mass, unskilled projects; and then the work of guilds—of expert artisans and journeymen apprentices. With the Industrial Revolution, and with the rise of the Bourgeoisie, this all changed. However, while over the course of history, the balance of the classes has always shifted, there has always been one constant—and that is that inherent in all societies with class is inequality. For, whenever a class is able to rise up against the preexisting ruling class, they have always then taken the reigns of power from that class, and asserted their own minority dominance over society. Not only does this inequality exist within the economic realm—where it is a reality that cannot be glossed over—but it also exists in the social realm with differences in the amount of respect that people have for the different roles that people in society play (in this, Plamenatz, in his analysis of Marx, is referring to the amount of respect that individuals can command due to work that they do that gives them increased amounts of rights and obligations, such as the work of a doctor or a lawyer)5. The heart of all of this exploitation lies with the possession of capital. Having taken a brief look at the history of revolution in a general sense, we turn now to the Bourgeoisie.
The Bourgeoisie are one of the two (main) classes that exist during the time of Marx—that is, according to Marx. The Bourgeoisie as a class are descendants of the burghers of the Middle Ages—a class of people that were not in the servitude of the serf, yet not of the same privilege of the feudal aristocracy. It was through the colonization of the European states, through their expansion into the new markets of the East-Indies and China, that the Bourgeoisie were able to accumulate power. Eventually, with the rise in demand for goods being high enough that guilds—and the overall feudal production system—could no longer supply it, the Bourgeoisie stepped in with industrialization and the new modern industrial model. This started a revolution that would depose the old feudal way of life, bringing in a new era. The era of the Bourgeoisie. The era of Capitalism. Since then, the Bourgeoisie have done all in there power to end all forms of non-Capitalistic forms of life.
Capitalism, and the whole of the Bourgeois way of life, is only possible due to an increase in the production of the society. The Bourgeoisie accomplished this increase in production through a series of, to Marx, unnatural developments. First, there is the transformation of industry to be a cosmopolitan, taking away any sense of nationalistic or regional style. This works to create a world that is globalized, with a single, global culture. The increase in industrialization also led to an increase of urbanization across the board. The nations that these urban and industrial centers crop up in then lose out on their previous production of raw goods, leading to a scenario where the East is being used to supply the West with raw materials, and then the West supplies the world with refined goods. This is all made possible by the stripping down of the work done by labourers to its barest components (in essence, making jobs simpler), thus, in Marx's mind, taking away the honour of many occupations. This commodification of workers—of the Proletariat—seeks to take away all aspects of individual character from them. This is then coupled with a decrease of wages for workers, as they as individuals matter less and less to the machine of Capitalism, thus leading to increased production for the Bourgeoisie, increased profit, and the creation of an essentially slave class in the Proletariat.
As previously sated, the role of the Proletariat in the Bourgeois Capitalist system is to work for the Bourgeoisie as essentially slave labour for the entirety of their existence, with little to no hope of upwards social mobility. Unlike in previous eras, though, when the population of the working class—be it the slave populations of the Greco-Roman world, or the serfs of the feudal world—stayed relatively stagnant, the numbers of the Proletariat continue to grow. This is due to two reasons. First, there is the demands of Capitalistic machine to produce ever more and more. To do this, there must be an increase not only in the supply of goods, but also in the supply of labour. Second, there is the tendency of what Marx refers to as the petty-bourgeoisie to have negative social mobility, falling down into the Proletariat class, as they are unable to compete with the Bourgeoisie. In order to increase their productivity, the Bourgeoisie pit the Proletariat against each other, or against the enemies of the Bourgeoisie (either in the form of non-Bourgeois institutions, or against other Bourgeoisie to further consolidate power). However, by doing this, the Bourgeoisie must grant additional power to the Proletariat. This is, as Marx notes, the way that the Bourgeoisie have begun to dig their own grave. But more in this later. Let us now turn to the Capitalistic system, and its major flaw.
The Bourgeoisie rule through a system of industrial Capitalism. This system is one that relies, as previously stated, on the Proletariat. It is a system that cannot exist without the exploitation of the Proletariat—through the decreasing sums of their wages, the increasing amount of units created, and the increase in the number of working hours—and the exploitation of the peoples of Africa and Asia—whose exploitation the Bourgeoisie rise to power was based off of in the first place. The other crucial aspect of the Capitalistic system is its need to constantly be growing, for without growth, it will stagnate. Since it is through this constant expansion of the Capitalist machine, and the disturbance of social conditions that it causes, that the Bourgeoisie's rule is based off of, they are constantly having to seek avenues of expansion for their creation. If, at any point this expansion were to stop, and the social conditions were to solidify, as it were, then the entirety of society would be able to see the sorry state that it was in, and the Bourgeoisie would lose all power. Ergo, there ruin of the Bourgeoisie, and their Capitalistic system will come with a financial crisis. This financial crisis can come in many forms, though it is noted by Marx that the form that it is likely to come about through a type of financial crisis that was previously unknown to society—that being the overproduction of goods.
The question then becomes who will overthrow the Bourgeoisie during one of these financial crises. The answer is quite simple, really. It will be the Proletariat. In the view of Marx, it is the role of the Proletariat to rise up against the chains that bind them to the Capitalistic system of the Bourgeoisie, establishing a new society in the wake of the revolution. This will be done in several ways, in Marx's mind. First, there is the accumulation of political power by the Proletariat. This power is given to them freely by the Bourgeoisie, as discussed earlier, for the combating of the enemies of the Bourgeoisie. It is the hope of Marx that the Proletariat will be able to use this political power to establish majority control in the parliaments of Europe. His hope was that the Proletariat Revolution would be predominately peaceful, though he did recognize that there would almost certainly be resistance to the taking-over of the governance of states from the Bourgeoisie overlords, and because of this, Marx believed that physical force was permissible in the Proletariat Revolution (though the instilling of terror was not permissible)20. Another reason that the Proletariat will rise, according to Marx, is because of their being grouped together by the Bourgeoisie in order to increase the productivity of factories. This allows for the fermentation of a revolutionary spirit among the Proletariat. Thus, you have the conditions needed—those being a financial crisis and a high degree of political power—for the Proletariat revolution to occur, and also how Marx theorized it would occur—that being with violent resistance to the taking-over of government by the Proletariat from the Bourgeoisie. However, as Marx said at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto, the history of the world is a history of class struggles. In every instance of revolution, in every change of the social hierarchy that has occurred throughout history, the revolutionary minority class has always asserted its dominance, and then summarily subjugated the rest of society to its will. How then will the Proletariat Revolution be any different than every other revolution that came before it?
The answer to this question lies within the history of the Proletariat class, and the special constitution that it holds. As we know, the Proletariat came to be as a product of the Industrial Revolution set in motion by the Bourgeoisie. They live as second-class citizens compared to them, akin to slaves. However, unlike all previous points in history, the Proletariat constitutes the vast majority of the population. This is due to the need of the Bourgeois Capitalistic machine's endless demand for labour to turn its wheels. So, unlike any other revolutionary group, the Proletariat is not a minority group. Because of this, Marx believes that the Proletariat revolution will not include the aspect of oppression that all previous revolutions have had, for oppression that was used in previous revolutions works only when oppressing the majority of people. The Proletariat Revolution then, because it is not oppressing people like previous revolutions, will seek to destroy any institutions that exist within preexisting Bourgeois, Capitalistic world. This includes any aspects of laws, religion, and morality that work to perpetuate the oppression of any of the members of society. The two chief aspects of the Bourgeois world that Marx cites as needing to be disposed of though, and a source of heavy criticism for his work, are that of private property and of the institution of the family.
The institution of the family is one that has existed for as long as can be remembered in Western Civilization. However, this institution has not always been the same. As Plamenatz points out, the reason that we have families in the first place is to raise children, who, without aid of adults, would surely perish. This is part of how we as a species live, and cannot be avoided. But, this does not mean that the current familial system is the way that children should be raised, nor does it mean that it is the only natural system can come to be. Again, as Plamenatz points out, the mere act of childbirth does not establish the social bond between a mother and her child. It is only through, in his mind, an obligation to take care of this child that the social bond between the two is formed. If we think about this idea, as foreign as it may seem to many who have grown up with their biological parents, it does make sense. After all, there are millions of children who are adopted, forming a parent-child relationship with people who are biological strangers to them, relatively speaking. Oftentimes, other family members will step in to raise a child as well, when parents die or are too busy to take care of their children full-time. Wealthy families today, and throughout history have also made use of hired servants to take care of their children. Therefore, the idea of not having the “traditional” familial system is not nearly as absurd as it may first appear to be. It must be asked though why Marx wishes to abolish the “traditional” familial system. Marx seeks to do away with it because, in his mind, the “traditional” familial system acts as a way to perpetuate the inequality that exists between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat—as the familial system allows for the accumulation of wealth into the hands of a select group of individuals, with no fear of the loss of that wealth with the death of the patriarch of the house. This is why, in addition to wanting to dissolve the institution of the family, Marx also wanted to abolish inheritance. So, by taking the family out of the picture, the Proletariat removes one of the institutions of oppression that exists in the Bourgeois world.
The other source of oppression that Marx cites as needing to be removed is private property. By this, Marx is referring more to private ownership of capital. Marx makes it extremely clear that people will still be able to enjoy the fruits of society (meaning consumer goods). They just will not be able to own capital. In this, Marx says that there will be no difference in the lives of the Proletariat, as they already have not capital. The only people who will have their lives changed with be the Bourgeoisie. This is perfectly acceptable to Marx, as the only use of capital by the Bourgeoisie has been to exploit and oppress the Proletariat. Instead of private ownership of capital, the Proletariat will incorporate capital into the possession of the community as a whole, using it for the benefit of the commonwealth, and not the lives of a few of the individuals within it. They will not destroy it. This is because, as Wolin points out, it is not the goal of Communists to destroy everything that Capitalism has created, but rather, it is the goal of Communists to inherit the world that they made, and to improve upon it.
The world as the German political philosopher saw it was divided into two main classes—the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. The Bourgeoisie were, according to Marx, the ruling class of the era. They rose to power after leading a revolution against the feudal system, and upon emerging victorious, they asserted their dominance over the rest of society through a constantly-changing system of production called Capitalism. It was from this system that the Proletariat were born, a class of workers whose sole purpose was to feed the engine of Capitalism. However, Marx believed that the age of the Bourgeoisie would come to an end with a revolution of the Proletariat. This revolution will occur in opposition to their oppression by the Bourgeoisie, and will be possible due to the consolidation of Proletarians together for increased productivity, the granting of political power to the Proletariat by the Bourgeoisie to fight the Bourgeoisie's enemies, and an inevitable financial disaster that will occur due to the instability of the Capitalistic economic system (stemming from the constant need for further expansion and exploitation inherent to the system). When the Proletariat Revolution does occur, it will be a rapid one. In it, the Proletariat will remove from power the Bourgeoisie, and will, instead of following in their footsteps and asserting their own power, oppressing others, will do away with the class system by abolishing any and all institutions existing that allow for oppression, including the institution of the family, and the idea of private ownership of capital. By doing this, the Proletariat will inherit and modify the Capitalistic world to suit the interests of the majority instead of the minority. Thus is the relationship that exists between the Bourgeoisie, the Proletariat, and the Capitalistic system they share, and how, inevitably, the Proletariat, through revolution, will overthrow Capitalism.
McLellan, David. The Thought of Karl Marx. 1971. Print.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. New York: Penguin Books. 2006. Print.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Edited by Gareth Stedman Jones. New York: Penguin Books. 2002. Print.
Plamenatz, John. Man and Society. Vol. 2. A critical examination of some important social and political theories from Machiavelli to Marx. London: Longman Group Limited. 1976. Print.
Wolin, Sheldon. Politics and Vision. “Chapter 12.” Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2004. Web. 5 June 2016.