I am against capitalism and I name capitalism as a system of oppression; however, I don’t actually know whether I’m a Communist or an Anarchist, having never read either theory. It was time that I at least read the Communist Manifesto so that I know what it says, so this weekend I read the first section. I found it rather difficult in some areas and I had to read it twice, slowly both times. Here are my thoughts.
The CM starts off by explaining that in all of history there has been class struggle and names several class systems from different eras. These I’m not familiar with—I’ve never had an interest in history and when I hear words like “feudal lords” and “serfs” I don’t know what these are without looking them up. But I can see that studying ancient societies is a necessary way to understand the society we have now. One of my favorite leftists, Chris Hedges, writes about previous societies and compares them to this one, predicting what will happen next for us based on what happened before. (Of course, Hedges is drawing upon Marx’s work.)
Apparently, our class system contains two major groups. To quote:
“Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”
This is an interesting paragraph to ponder because I do wonder sometimes how many distinct classes there are today, and whether it is useful to divide us into only two classes or to divide us further into sub-classifications. If you consider only a bourgeoisie (capitalists) and a proletariat (workers) in today’s society, then the proletariat consists of everyone from the poorest workers who earn pennies a day to the well-paid professionals who enjoy a comfortable quality of life. In rich countries, the middle class benefit from good wages and a high standard of living, although they are still members of the proletariat because they must work for wages—despite getting paid good money they don’t actually have a means of production of their own, nor do they have control over their country’s economy. Is it useful to lump all workers into one category, regardless of the large discrepancies in their income levels? I think in some cases it is useful, and in other cases it is not. For example, if the middle class would become conscious of the fact that they, too, are members of the proletariat and subject to the whims of the capitalists, and if they chose to act out of solidarity with the proletariat as a whole, then we’d have a stronger labor movement and would advance toward communist revolution. But at the same time, we have to recognize that members of the middle class can also be oppressors of the most poorly paid workers. The material things purchased and then thrown away by the middle classes of rich countries are manufactured by those less advantaged.
There is some description of the developments that led to the bourgeoisie gaining more power, until:
“The bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”
This is very familiar to me. It is so clear that government has been taken over by capitalists. Not only do the capitalists buy politicians with their political donations, but the ideology of the capitalists is the only one we learn, and so everyone in government, as well as most of the voters, act in a way that furthers the interests of the ruling class. We are ruled, not by government, but by capitalism and those who control it. It almost doesn’t matter whether a Democrat or a Republican is in charge—they both further the interests of big business.
The manifesto then states that capitalism reduces every human relation into monetary transactions and turns respected professions into wage labor. It’s true—capitalism turns legitimate human experiences into mere financial transactions, which removes the joy from the activity and cheapens its real significance. Whereas the worth of an activity should be measured by its life-giving qualities, it is instead measured in dollars by the capitalist system, turning meaningful things meaningless and making fake “worth” out of things that are not truly meaningful. And the professions—yes! Whereas doctors should be people who heal, they are instead nothing but drug peddlers who work in the interests of the pharmaceutical industry. Capitalism leaves nothing untouched, and it ruins all it touches.
“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”
Capitalism spreads over the globe and brings every country into its grasp. It forces poor countries to work for rich countries as it forces the peasants to work for the bourgeoisie. Much of the world’s property becomes centralized into a few hands.
Capitalists will continue exploiting and producing until there is too much production and too much civilization, and then it will seek new markets to exploit and will exploit more thoroughly its current markets. There is no mention of the environment here, but we know what will happen when capitalism has exploited everything there is to exploit—it will have to end. There are finite resources on this planet. The Communist Manifesto doesn’t name environmental collapse as the end of capitalism, it names the revolt of the proletariat as the end. I don’t know if I believe in that—there is so little class consciousness right now among the proletariat that I can’t see us actually making it happen. I believe that capitalism will continue until it burns through everything we have and then it will die off, taking us with it. I think the end of capitalism will be brutal and terrible.
“In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.”
This was my favourite quote from the piece. The working class are made dependent upon capitalism to provide us with wage work, since we cannot usually own our own land to produce our own resources. Once we are dependent on wage work, we must take whatever the capitalists give us. We are subject to their needs and we will only be useful to them as long as we are benefiting them in their acquisition of capital. We are commodities, things and objects, ruled by those who have true agency because they have material power. The radical feminists who are against dominance and submission between men and women but don’t do an anti-capitalist analysis miss out on realizing that one of the dominance/submission relationships we are in is with the capitalist system. You can’t overthrow oppression without overthrowing capitalism.
The manifesto talks about the boredom and despair in the life of a worker who is a slave to uninteresting work and is controlled by the hour by bosses. Then the money he earns is taken by other capitalists.
“No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.”
And doesn’t that sound familiar! I earn what should be a decent amount of money at work but everything is so expensive, after rent, food, transportation, and payments to my student loans, there’s not much left. I am a university graduate but still living paycheque to paycheque. (Honestly, my student loans might be the main source of oppression in my life! Forcing workers to take out loans and then pay interest to banks in order to pursue higher education is a method of the ruling class to extract resources from us.)
The proletariat resists our conditions first by forming trade unions and asserting our rights against our employers, and then by joining all the trade unions together to create a Communist party for all workers. There is a reason why the ruling class has been taking power away from unions for years now, and selling anti-union ideology to the workers. They know the power of unions. We are taught to believe that when a company decides to move to another country to exploit workers in places with even more lax labor laws, this is the fault of unions. It is not the fault of unions, it is the fault of capitalist greed. The answer to this is to unionize everybody, so that there are no workers anywhere else to exploit for lower wages.
“This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier. It compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself.”
I have mentioned that radical feminists need to do an anti-capitalist analysis; it is also true that Communists need to do a feminist analysis. The following sentence stands out to me because it assumes that the members of the proletariat are all male:
“The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family relations…”
The final sentence of the Manifesto, “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!” displays the same bias. What about the working women? Half the members of the proletariat are women, and we need to assert our rights as a class against the rule of men just as we need to assert our rights as a class against the capitalists.
“In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.”
I don’t know what Communist Revolution would look like exactly, but it does sound like it would be a war. I do have an idea about how the proletariat could go about taking resources from the capitalists and it would turn into war eventually even if it started out as non-violent direct action. I hate the cultural construction of private property where someone from a foreign country can “own” our own resources just because a piece of paper says so. I don’t think that public resources can be morally “owned” by a particular person, but if we are to think of them as “owned” by someone they should be owned collectively by the local people who use them. Therefore, part of the revolt of the proletariat is to cease to recognize ownership of resources by private companies and simply take them for ourselves. For example, we could decide as a city or town to remove the corporate logos from buildings and repurpose them for our own collectives. We would simply not recognize them as “owned” by the company anymore and use them in a cooperative way that benefits us locally. This would require an enormous amount of solidarity among workers and also courage. The corporations would then use the state to try to evict and arrest the local workers from the property and reclaim it as their own. (Because, of course, the state and law enforcement are controlled by the capitalists and serve their interests.) At that point, the workers would have to fight back, probably with deadly violence. I’m not sure if this sort of thing makes me a Communist or an Anarchist.
“The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”
I agree with most of this analysis. But the proletariat needs class consciousness in order to revolt, and class consciousness has been taken away from us. We have been sold the values of neo-liberalism and we are all seeing ourselves as individual agents working for our own self-interest and not seeing ourselves as members of a class with class interests. This is what has happened to feminism, too. Although I think the proletariat can certainly overpower the capitalists if we work together, sadly, I don’t see this happening any time soon.