An Unpopular Reading of the Communist Manifesto (1848)

Justin Aukema
April 2022


The Communist Manifesto (1848; hereafter CM) is probably Marx’s most famous, yet misunderstood, work. It has consistently been both a basis for leftwing strategy and an object of rightwing critique. But common invocations of the text often extend no further than a repetition of some platitudes contained in the first and last paragraphs. For many others, it is often the only one of Marx’s works that they will ever read. This is unfortunate, because the CM is far from Marx’s most developed work nor does it contain his most important insights on the inner workings of capitalism. Still, on a close read, and with some knowledge of Marx’s broader thought, it is possible to glean some kernels of Marx’s key ideas in their embryonic stages. Thus, in this essay, I indicate some of these kernels, elaborate on their meaning, and use them to clarify some of the most common misunderstandings vis-a-vis the CM and communism in general.

In particular, I highlight notions of private property, freedom, the family, and communism as being at the heart of common misinterpretations. My argument vis-a-vis these points can be summarized as follows. The CM does not call for the abolition of private property, or freedom, or the family as many on both the right and the left today think it does. Instead, it advocates the abolition of the bourgeois notion of these ideas and institutions. This is because, for Marx and Engels (M&E), these things are a reflection of dominant modes and relations of production, in this case the bourgeois (i.e., the capitalist) one. According to base-superstructure theory, once the ruling modes and relations of production are transformed, the institutions and ideas that they engender will also inevitably be altered. Thus, in other words, once the working class becomes the ruling class, they will have totally different notions of the family and freedom etc. But this is a very important distinction because, again, it does not mean abolition in toto. Instead, it simply means that their shape, form, and very existence is conditional on the working class taking power. This also relates to the idea of communism advocated in the CM, which I will discuss in more detail later. Moreover, at the core of the entire critique of the CM is the notion of private property. Since this is such a critical, yet often misunderstood, concept, I will begin my analysis there. But before this, briefly, an overview of the text.

Overview of the Communist Manifesto

The CM is divided into three sections. In the first, “Bourgeois and Proletarians,” M&E discuss how modern capitalist society has divided men into two main classes, the ruling bourgeoisie or capitalist class, and the subjugated and subordinate working class. This section can be basically viewed as a microcosm of Marx’s later, more developed theories, on the nature of capitalist exploitation and the origin of capital. The origin of capital, the total wealth of society, is workers’ exploited labor. The whole capitalist system is predicated on this continued exploitation. Moreover, this is expressed as a relationship between the capitalist class and the working class. The former owns everything (money, capital, means of production) and the latter owns nothing apart from their own labor power. Since workers no longer have direct access to the means of their own reproduction (fields, property, shops, tools, etc.) they instead have to sell their only possession, their labor power, in return for money so that they can buy on the market the things they now lack. Namely, this is food, clothing, and shelter. Since the capitalist class, on the other hand, already owns everything, the process looks a little different for them. They are also subject to the rules of the capitalist game: buying and selling. But the most important commodity they buy is the workers’ own labor power. This is the source of profits for them, because it creates more value than they pay for it with wages. This entire exploitative relationship can be summed up as “the wage relationship.” It should also be noted, at this point, that the most important commodity that capitalists own, i.e., their most important piece of private property, is the workers’ labor power. But more on this later.

In section two, “Proletarians and Communists,” M&E explain what communism is and what communists do. I will explain more about this shortly. But the important connection to the first section is that, although the spread of capitalism is inevitable, so too is its eventual collapse. This is because capitalism’s success is predicated on the increasing exploitation of its one-and-only source, the workers and their labor power. Thus, as capitalism advances, it does so in exactly inverse proportion to the suffering of workers and the degradation of the natural environment. And as global-social wealth becomes more concentrated in the hands of a few, the number of the proletariat grows more and more. So, the entire capitalist system becomes highly unstable and eventually it paves the way for its own demise. At the center of this is the working class which, at a certain point, will turn the means of production against the bourgeoisie and reclaim the total social wealth that was once robbed from them. Thus M&E in the CM: “what the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (233). Moreover, the role of communists in this process is simply that of a facilitator. Communists fight for the immediate goals and aims of the working class and to help the working class achieve political power.

In section three, “Socialist and Communist Literature,” M&E critique prior scholarship on Socialism and Communism. This relates to the first two sections because M&E advocate a stage-theory of historical development, a part of historical materialism, in which societies move through definite stages from feudalism, to capitalism, and then to socialism. And, importantly, within this process, it is the working class that is the revolutionary agent that will carry the transition from capitalism to socialism. Based on this, there are four main targets of M&E’s critique in the third section. First, they criticize the idea of “reactionary socialism” where the aristocracy tried to appeal directly to the working class against the emergent bourgeoisie. This was a backwards and reactionary movement, say M&E, because the working class and bourgeoisie must develop together against the aristocracy. Second, they critique the idea of “True Socialism” in Germany which was when some German elites and academics tried to apply the ideas of the French Revolution to their newly-emerging state. The problem? Germany still wasn’t a bourgeois democracy! Thus the German critics were actually hindering the movement by attacking liberalism before it had been achieved. Third, M&E critique the idea of “bourgeois socialism” or, essentially, socialism for the rich. Here, they argue that the working class must be front and center of the revolutionary movement, and that this is also a concrete political rather than just an abstract elite struggle. Fourth, they attack notions of “utopian socialism.” The basis for this critique is basically that utopian socialist movements put the cart before the horse. That is to say, their vision of a harmonious future society of abundance is predicated on a level of advancement of the means of production which has not yet been achieved. Thus, they presuppose the very thing that they are proposing to change! As such, theirs is an impossibility and should not be the basis for revolutionary strategy. However, M&E do positively appraise utopian socialism as an example of proletarian yearning for an alternative society outside of capitalism.

The CM closes with a fourth section on communists position vis-a-vis various existing national political struggles. But more on this later.

Common misconceptions

The most common misconception relating to the CM regards the notion of private property. It is basically a truism that communists seek to abolish private property. But what Marx meant by private property has been routinely misunderstood by all sides of the political spectrum. So-called communists and leftists have strove to take especially the means of production or land out of the hands of private individuals and to put them under the control of the state. Or they have worked to increase the so-called “commons” which often harkens back to primitive ideas of community (e.g., the kyōdōtai). Meanwhile the idea that communists are against private property has so horrified and panicked liberals that governments around the world have made any attempts to alter the state of affairs the most punishable offense, akin to lese majeste. In 1920s Japan, for instance, the government passed the Peace Preservation Law which strictly prohibited attempts to alter notions of private property. But nearly all of these have been based on a complete misunderstanding of what Marx actually meant by “private property.”

To begin, let’s review the basics. Marx’s biggest problem with capitalist society was that the only thing that workers own, their labor power, is stripped of them – bought, sold, and commodified, by the capitalist. Their only, and most important piece of private property is thus deprived of them, not to mention all of the fruits of this labor. On top of this, the mass of this entire social labor is crystalized into the total wealth of society, i.e., capital, and becomes the private wealth of the capitalist. Capital is thus the expression of total social wealth and commodified labor power. And it was this form of private property that Marx wanted to abolish. Moreover, since capital, usually represented with money, actually masks and conceals a relationship – a highly unequal relationship – between worker and capitalist, i.e., the wage relationship, it was not just the fetishized form (money) that Marx sought to eliminate, but the relationship itself. This is what Marx means by the modes of production, as opposed to the means of production, which are simply the outer forms of productive activity (machines, etc.). So, put simply, when Marx talks about doing away with private property, he’s not talking about land or houses or cars; he’s talking about the only commodity that can actually create new value, labor power, and the possession of this by one class in society, the capitalist class. In a word, he is talking about bourgeois private property.

M&E make this clear many times in the CM. For example: “The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property” (235). And they continue,
Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property! Do you mean the property of the petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily (235).

And again:

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society (237).

Thus, M&E not only distinguish between property and bourgeois property, but they also note that workers already don’t own anything anyway. Thus, how can communists be in favor of abolishing something that doesn’t exist! No, communists do not seek to take from the working class what they don’t have, but rather simply to return to them what is rightfully theirs. Again, M&E:

We by no means intend to abolish this personal appropriation of the products of labour [...]. All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it (236).
There is another truism that in fact thus captures the spirit of communism much better, the idea of “wage slavery” and the abolishment of this. Many misunderstandings could be easily cleared up, therefore, if more people understood private property simply as wage slavery.

The second common misconception, connecting to private property, regards the idea of freedom. Freedom has a negative image among leftists today since they regard it simply as a rallying call of the libertarian right. However, this is unfortunate, since all these leftists see is the same caricature of freedom that has underpinned liberalism throughout its history, and which was a main target of Marx’s critique. Consequently, many on the authoritarian left have been led to completely abandon notions of individual freedom altogether in place of abstract notions of “society.” Yet this is a complete chimera, and a mistake of the worst order. The entire thrust of Marx’s whole project was oriented toward the liberation of the individual as a prerequisite for their rejoining with society, i.e., the completion of social man or species being (Gattungswesen). The CM is very clear about the precise notion of freedom that they are critiquing: “by freedom is meant, under the present bourgeois conditions of production, free trade, free selling and buying” (237). So, in other words, they oppose what can simply be termed bourgeois freedom, but certainly not freedom in general. In particular, they attack the narrow bourgeois interpretation of “freedom” as simply the “freedom” to buy and sell labor power. In their view, this is the precise opposite of true freedom; it is a form of slavery.

The third misconception regards the notion of “family.” This is where the importance of the base-superstructure relationship especially comes into play. Many on the left and even proclaimed Marxists since Marx’s time have called for the abolition of the family or of so-called patriarchal relationships etc. But what they often fail to realize is that M&E were not criticizing the family per se, but rather only the bourgeois notion of family. Starting to see a pattern here? Just like private property, freedom, etc., all of these are qualified in M&E’s lexicon with the phrase “bourgeois” (read capitalist). This is because a basic tenet of historical materialism holds that the underlying social and economic relations influences the form of everything else, politics, culture, institutions, you name it. Put differently, how people think and act, what they believe, etc. totally changes based on their relationship to the means of their own reproduction, i.e. their class. In the CM, M&E explicitly do not call for the abolition of the family; they only call for the end to bourgeois notions of the family. In fact, quite the opposite, they even lament how capitalism has already destroyed familial bonds for most of the working class.

On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians [...] (239).
In other words, bourgeois society reduces all relationships, even familial ones, to merely a monetary relationship of convenience. The mediating agent between man and man, in other words, is money. Moreover, capitalism strips the working class of their very families altogether! By subjecting them to waged labor, it forces man, woman, and child to act as independent, isolated individuals, and scatters them from the home and onto the factory, cash register, or cubicle.

So, what M&E really want to abolish is this exploitative, wage relationship which underlies the entire bourgeois (capitalist) mode of production. “Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents?,” they ask, “To this crime we plead guilty” (239). Here, M&E are specifically referring to working class families in their day and age who were so poor that they had to send even their children to work in factories. But this is a reflection not of so-called “patriarchal relations.” Instead, it is a totally new phenomenon and reflection of the dominant bourgeois mode of production, the exploitative wage relationship. As M&E explain,

The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor (240).

It is not communists therefore that want to abolish the family, but capitalism itself which already does this.

The fourth common misunderstanding relates to the nation-state. People often think that communists either variously want to eliminate the nation-state and/or to strengthen it by giving it the means of production, i.e., promoting a kind of “statism.” The contradictory nature of these two images is seldom or never explained. This is because, again, many people fail to understand the basic nature of the base-superstructure relationship. Change the relationship to the means of production, and everything else follows from there. In other words, vis-a-vis this point, once the working class becomes the dominant and ruling class globally, national differences will become obsolete, and the need for nation states will disappear. But, all of this is conditional on the working class gaining political power first. Handing things over to the state before this has been achieved does nothing but strengthen the ruling bourgeoisie-capitalist class. Yet this point is forgotten over and over again, even by proclaimed leftists. In this situation, many on the left find themselves in the paradoxical and embarrassing (although they usually do so shamelessly) position of supporting corporate bailouts or subsidies! M&E on this point:

The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word (241).

See how this works? It’s exactly like all the other notions examined thus far. It’s not the notion itself that M&E criticize but only its bourgeois form. And underlying this, again, is the unequal wage relationship, the key thing that M&E want to transform.

The fifth and last point that is frequently misunderstood relates to communism itself. Most people probably think that communism means dressing like Che Guevara, living in hippy communes, and making complicated academic arguments. But communism is actually none of these things. Communism isn’t even about fighting the patriarchy or achieving equal liberal rights for everyone. Neither is it about going on strikes and getting wage raises. Rather, the CM spells out very clearly that communism is simply the reflection of the immediate demands of the working class. That’s it. Communists, say M&E, “have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement” (234). Now, this is quite astounding. It makes one wonder whether many professed leftists have ever actually even read this key work that they claim forms the basis for their strategy. Instead, one is more likely today to find “leftists,” usually in bourgeois positions of power such as academia, berating the working class for their so-called “backwards” social customs and “ignorance.”

But there is one difference, note M&E. Communists support the working class everywhere at all times in all their various struggles. But they do so with the long game in mind. They know that the end goal itself, after they have helped the working class achieve political power, is none other than the abolition of wage labor itself, the prohibition of the buying and selling of labor power. That will spell not only the end of nation-states, the entire unequal global division of labor, and other exploitative reflections of bourgeois culture, but also of capitalism itself. Now, this should already be apparent from the CM’s previous critique of bourgeois property and cultural institutions thus far. But just so there is no confusion, it should also be noted that this is one of the only precise policy recommendations that Marx makes in his magnum opus, Capital. There, at the end of Chapter Ten, Volume One, he proposes that workers pass a law prohibiting the buying and selling of labor power, and explicitly states that this would spell the end of capitalism.


In this essay, I examined one of the most famous works of communist literature, the 1848 Communist Manifesto. Through a close textual reading, and drawing from Marx’s broader program and oeuvre, I indicated how the CM is a frequently misunderstood work, and that it actually doesn’t say what many people think it does. To summarize simply, I indicated two important points that emerge both from the CM and the rest of Marx’s work. These relate to the nature of capitalism and the communist strategic program more generally. First, capitalism is defined as a social relationship wherein one class in society, the working class, is compelled to sell their labor to another class, the capitalist class, in order to access the means of their own reproduction, i.e., to buy bare necessities e.g. food, clothing, etc. This can be termed the wage relationship. Moreover, everything else in society – politics, religion, culture, ideas, etc. – is dependent on and conditioned by the relationship of man to the means of production. Since the wage relationship under capitalism is unequal and exploitative, these other superstructure forms also acquire a similar character. Second, the goal of communism is thus to support the working class and to abolish the unequal wage relationship that is the heart and operating mechanism of capitalism. There are no other goals beyond this.

Each of these points regarding the nature of capitalism and communism, as I showed, are frequently misunderstood. Although it helps to read the rest of Marx’s works to understand why this is the case, as I explained, it is still possible to grasp Marx’s basic ideas re these points even just with the CM. I would suggest therefore that people do read the CM and study it carefully, since it contains these important, condensed kernels of Marx’s thought. However, aside from the fact that even its main ideas are often misunderstood, I also don’t think the CM forms the best basis for revolutionary strategy. For this, one would have to turn to the rest of Marx’s later works, especially Capital as well as subsequent Marxist theory. And, lastly, I would encourage the contemporary left not to abandon or to berate the working class and their demands, even if they sometimes seem offensive, since in doing so, they in fact are acting as the reactionary counterforce against our time’s sole revolutionary agent.

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