Class Struggle and Autonomy in the Communist Manifesto

Class Struggle and Autonomy in the Communist Manifesto

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Class Struggle and Autonomy in the Communist Manifesto


The University of Dayton emphasizes four humanities based themes to describe the essence of the human experience. Autonomy and responsibility, one of these four themes, is defined within the program as, “The individual person has the ability to make choices; with those choices comes a responsibility for the consequences of those choices.”[1] Although this definition fits well in modern American society since widespread autonomy has been granted by the Constitution to all citizens, Frederick Engels and Karl Marx observed quite a different human situation in the 19th century.

The drastic increase in productive development characterized by the industrial revolution of the 19th century brought two major sociopolitical changes to Europe by the middle of the century. First, the industrial revolution gave rise to a middle class that would eventually become the driving political and economic force throughout Europe. Secondly, the industrial revolution demanded productive entities exploit the extensive influx of people into major urban areas in order to maintain competitive advantages and meet rising demand for European goods in domestic and foreign markets; such exploitation created an extensive urban social class that had no political power and little or none economic freedom.

As these developments became more and more noticeable, Marx and Engels were prompted to write their now infamous Communist Manifesto in order to inspire what they believed as the inevitable downfall of capitalism and the bourgeoisie thus giving the proletariat something that both had stolen: their autonomy.

To truly understand this concept an examination of the two major social classes in Europe at the time is critical. However, properly characterizing the bourgeoisie has been rather problematic for scholars. Pierre Proudhon defined the bourgeoisie as a “capitalistic aristocracy” who gained their wealth through little or no work.2 Nevertheless, many scholars like Michel Lhomme assert that the bourgeoisie is simply the social class that exists consisting of numerous facets between the landed aristocracy and the lower, working class. Ultimately, what seems to be true of the bourgeoisie is that it consisted of businessmen, professionals, and state officials that were united in ushering in the emergence of a middleclass 19th century society.3 These groups were connected because they shared a set of values that consisted of ideologies that embraced basic capitalistic ideals of economic expansion, increasing the standard of living, and augmenting the complexity of society as a whole; therefore, they were united in their defiance against the traditional, static society where production was limited to habitual consumption and business organizations remained monotonous.

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4

How they eventually would come to dominate the political and social realm can best be understood by looking at the bourgeoisie in France where it was the most powerful in the mid 19th century. For it was in France where for the first time in the history of Europe where the leaders of the bourgeoisie uprooted the rule of the previous aristocracy and controlled a great and powerful nation likes France. Ironically, it seems that the bourgeoisie in France gained control more by default then by brute force or cunning diplomacy.5 After the fall of the Bourbons the old aristocracy refused to acknowledge the new July Monarchy and thus withheld support for the government. The peasants and the working class had little or no interest in politics at the time and thus the middle class was simply there to fill the vacuum that was created by the downfall of the Bourbon dynasty.6 And this was how it was throughout much of Europe when the bourgeoisie took over political and economic control. The old nobilities renounced the new forms of government that were slowly taking over Europe and the lower classes had little or no interest, or at times no power, to intervene in the political realm.

The Proletariat, the other social class that plays a significant role in the 19th century and in particular the Communist Manifesto, ironically became a significant class because of the economic system supported and advanced by the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels recognized this phenomenon, “But with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number, it becomes concentrated in great masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.”7 Unlike the bourgeoisie who experiences great benefit from the rise of industry, Marx and Engels are quick to accentuate that the typical worker gains nothing and in fact is forced to endure greater destitution and hardship with the advancement of industry. This single individual is therefore subject to the whim of market forces and becomes separated from his autonomy because he is incapable of exercising authority over productive capacity in his current state.8

However, Marx and Engels recognized that such confrontation cannot endure endlessly, or so they thought. They argue that inevitably the struggle between the proletariat, those that undergo devastation because of the spread of industry, and the bourgeoisie, those that receive the benefit with the spread of industry, cannot and will not last forever. They hypothesized that a coming revolution is at hand because the proletariat has become empowered by their growing numbers and growing despair to combat their counterparts. They have recognized that in order to regain their autonomy they must first unite, and then overthrow the productive forces that have imprisoned their social and economic lives.9

For Marx and Engel’s history was characterized by a systematic struggle between the current oppressed and oppressor. They argued that the oppressed in fact had little or no independence apart from the economic desires of the oppressing class because they live only as long as they remain a productive asset to the bourgeoisie.10 For them the proletariat represented the oppressed and Marx and Engels argued that they had no independence apart from capitalism. Therefore, relating these ideas as presented above back to the Humanities theme it seems safe to conclude that Marx and Engels would not have agreed that the human experience could be described by an “autonomy and responsibility” theme because the oppressed class in historical class struggles had no autonomy.

Marx and Engels did, however, assert that society was on the brink of freeing the oppressed class from this subjugation to the economic desires of the ruling class.11 They believed that communism would enable society to evolve into a quasi-utopian state where individuals would no longer be judged on the amount of capital they could produce. Concurrently, the proletariat would no longer have to be dependent on a ruling class and in fact would be able to be independent from economic entities giving society as a whole the freedom to do whatever they pleased apart from economic duties. In other words, society as a whole would eventually gain autonomy because the coming revolution would end the perpetual class struggle by ridding with world of capital production for personal gain and substitute a community based economic system and establishing universal freedom for all.

1 "What are the Major Themes of the Humanities Base?" The College of Arts and Sciences
Humanities Base Resource Website, 16 May 2001,
<http://www.as.udayton.edu/hbase/themes.htm> (11 April 2002)

2 Robert Lougee, Midcentury revolution, 1848; society and revolution in France and
Germany (Lexington, Massachusetts: Heath Press, 1972) 10-12.

3 Jerome Blum, In the Beginning: The Advent of the Modern Age in Europe in the 1840s
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994), 203.

4 Lougee, 10-12

5 Lougee, 10-12

6 Lougee, 10-12

7 Lougee, 10-12

8 Karl Marx and Fredrick Engles, Communist Manifesto (reprint University of Dayton
Sources for the Humanities reader), 46.

9 Marx and Engels, 41

10 Marx and Engels, 42

11 Marx and Engels, 37s
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