In following the historical analysis of socialism offered by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the modern socialist movement dates from the publication of their Communist Manifesto in 1848. The term communism, which came into common usage in this same period, was often used in connection with the idea of socialism, though the former tended to have a more militant connotation. This is most likely why it was used by the Communist League, the group that commissioned Marx and Engels to write the Communist Manifesto. As Engels later explained, the word communism carried with it the idea of common ownership, and, above all, it helped to distinguish the ideas of Marx and Engels from those of the so-called utopian socialists in that it lent itself better to association with the idea of the class struggle and with the materialistic conception of history.
The publication of the Communist Manifesto coincided with the revolutionary tide that swept through Europe between 1848 and 1849. Marx and Engels were still correcting the proofs of their soon-to-be famous pamphlet when the first barricades of 1848 were being erected in Paris. But while it is true that the Manifesto was published during a period of political tumult, it did not have a profound impact on the revolutionaries of the period. Nevertheless, it was an important document in the history of socialism, above all because it presented in outline form the theoretical basis for modern socialism.
Perhaps the boldest and most probing argument advanced by Marx and Engels was their critique of present and past societies. According to this, society's political and cultural arrangements (superstructure) are shaped primarily by the forces of material production (base). When the productive modes and relations have developed as far as they can within the existing framework of political and economic structures of society, then the conditions arise for a thoroughgoing social revolution, a process that inevitably brings about a transmutation of these older forms into more progressive ones. In this way, societies are able to advance progressively from more primitive states (e.g., feudalism) to more sophisticated ones (e.g., capitalism).
In their discussion of the relationship between state and class, Marx and Engels identify further dimensions of their "stages" view of history that were to become cornerstones of "scientific" socialism. According to them, the state is essentially a class-based institution, expressing the will and exclusive interests of the dominant political and economic groups in society. The state and its apparatuses are thus seen as essential features of the superstructure that overlays the economic base (which itself corresponds to the stage reached in the development of the powers of production). Under capitalism, the authors go on to say, the bourgeoisie seek both to expand their base—which is too narrow to accommodate the wealth created by them—and to overcome the economic crises caused by the development of productive forces beyond the point compatible with capitalism. By so doing, they begin to dig their own graves, for the scramble for new markets inevitably creates new problems that cannot possibly be resolved within the framework of the one created by the bourgeoisie. At this point, the Manifesto explains that it is the ongoing and ceaseless dialectical struggle between the dominant and dominated classes that provides the impetus for breaking down the barriers for further social and economic development. With the advent of revolution, the control of the state and its forms passes into the hands of the new dominant class (the working classes), thus paving the way for the development of new forces of production.
Another distinguishing aspect of the doctrine outlined in the Manifesto has to do with the special historical mission that Marx and Engels assigns to the proletariat. Unlike previous insurgent classes, which developed their importance and strength within the preceding social order, Marx and Engels contend that the laboring class under capitalism is driven to revolt through its own increasing misery. Once they have wrested political power from the middle classes, the authors believe that the proletariat will be able to establish their own hegemony (construed more concretely in later writings as a dictatorship). Over time, during which the material conditions are created for the construction of socialism, their class rule would give way to a classless and stateless society, communism.
As regards the relationship between communists and the working classes, Marx and Engels assert that communists were the most advanced and politically resolute segment of the proletariat in every nation, not least because they had the advantage of seeing more clearly than others the direction in which society is moving. As revolutionaries, their role was to assist the exploited workers in three ways: (1) to raise their class consciousness so that they can realize their role in history; (2) to overthrow the bourgeoisie; and (3) to establish working-class control of the state and its ruling apparatuses (i.e., a dictatorship).
Having said all of this it is important to keep in mind that the Manifesto cannot be regarded as a full exposition of Marxist doctrine. And while Marx sketches out many of the basic tenets of his communist viewpoint, at this point in his career he had not worked out his complete system of thought, which was carefully developed over many years, culminating with the publication of his magnum opus, Das Kapital, in 1867. Nonetheless, it is significant to note that both Marx and Engels continued to endorse the views of the Manifesto even after most of them were rendered irrelevant by the course of events. The continuing relevance of this important document, then, had less to do with its predictive powers than with its potency as a clarion call for revolution. The Manifesto is full of memorable and moving phrases such as, "Workers of the World unite. You have nothing to lose but your Chains." The teleological understanding of history presented in the Manifesto was also compelling to successive generations of socialists. In their "scientific" critique of the bourgeois society with which they were acquainted, Marx and Engels managed to invest history with both a dramatic purpose and a desirable destination. History was, according to them, moving toward a higher goal that could only be obtained through class struggle and social revolution. It was thus the moral message embedded in their theory of historical materialism that made the Communist Manifesto a landmark publication in the history of modern socialism.
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