Revisiting the Communist Manifesto

Over the last few columns, I have been exploring our disordered relationship with our material possessions. One of the reasons that so many of us, even those of us who have limited incomes, can still accumulate too much stuff results from the fact that we live in a capitalist economy that depends on the constant manufacture and purchasing of goods, some of which are necessary and useful, but many of which are neither.

As I was thinking about this month’s column, I was sitting in the staff room at work with one of the secretaries, who was reading a woman’s magazine and exclaiming about the cost of the purses being advertised: “Look at that! $4,000 for an ugly little purse covered with rhinestones!” I looked, and it was, indeed, an ugly little purse – but it had a well-known brand name attached to it, and no doubt there are people out there who will buy it. So it’s worth thinking about how we have reached the point at which so many of us have too much stuff, and at least some of us have enough disposable income that we can afford to spend $4,000 on a purse – and why some people desire to do so.

Karl Marx installation, Trier, Germany, 2013

Some of the 500, one-meter tall Karl Marx statues on display in his hometown of Trier, Germany, 5 May 2013. The installation, by German artist Ottmar Hoer, marked the 130th anniversary of Marx’s death. (Photo by Pierre Wolfer, CC BY-ND 2.0, via Flickr)

In this month’s column, I want to argue that to better understand our present moment, we need to go back in time and revisit one of the great critiques of capitalism, The Communist Manifesto. While the global communist revolution that Marx and Engels predicted has never come to pass and probably never will, and while it is clearly the case that countries that have undertaken to implement some form of communist organization have had, to put it mildly, very mixed results, it is arguably the case that Marx offers the best critique of capitalism that is currently available to us, a critique that is as hard-hitting today as it was more than 100 years ago. Indeed, it is such a powerful critique that all committed capitalists ought to take it seriously, and consider how capitalist economies might be reformed (as they have been in many places in the last century) to prevent the worst of Marx’s predictions from coming true. In other words, one does not have to be a Marxist to recognize the power and importance of the critique of capitalism Marx offers.

At their request, I taught The Communist Manifesto to my introductory philosophy students this past year. I was surprised to be asked to consider this text with them, because the last time anyone showed any interest in it was in the late 1980s, and I have not met any self-declared Marxists since then. However, it turned out that at least two students in that class were proud Marxists, and many of the students in the class were more receptive to Marxist ideas than I had expected them to be. Consequently, I re-read The Communist Manifesto for the first time in more than 20 years, and was surprised by how applicable at least some of its ideas are to our current situation.


For those readers unfamiliar with this text, it is, indeed, a manifesto: it sets out, in forceful and stirring terms, why a communist revolution is both necessary and inevitable. It asserts that the whole of human history is the history of class struggle, and that we are now reduced to two large classes, the bourgeoisie – those who own the means of production – and the proletariat – those who have nothing to sell but their labor. Lest we be confused about where we fall in terms of these two classes, Marx and Engels make it clear that membership in the proletariat does not depend on how much (or how little) we get paid, but whether we work for other people. Consequently, those that we would think of as middle class professionals can still be considered to be members of the proletariat:

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers.

Marx and Engels argue that the rise of the bourgeoisie has converted (or, better, perverted) human relationships into various kinds of exploitation and produced various kinds of alienation: those who have nothing to sell but their labor must compete with one another for the few jobs that exist, and both their labor and their bodies are treated as commodities, as things which can be bought and sold. As a result, workers are alienated both from the products of their labor which belong to someone else (whether those products be hamburgers, websites, medical services, or cars), and from their fellow workers, who are seen as competitors rather than colleagues.

A necessary consequence of capitalism, Marx and Engels believe, is the need to constantly open up new markets, the need to constantly find new workers to exploit – and the need to constantly produce more and more consumer goods, whether they are needed or not. As Marx and Engels put it:

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.


As I was reading the text, I found myself thinking about the activities of three of the largest corporations in the world today – Amazon, Apple and Walmart – and how they conduct their business. Strangely enough, although The Communist Manifesto was written long before such large and globally influential corporations existed, Amazon, Apple and Walmart (and other corporations like them) fit neatly in to the picture painted in the book.

Amazon is a very efficient company, as we know when we order goods from it, and this is wonderful when we are acting as consumers. However, I have read numerous reports that workers in Amazon warehouses are poorly paid, suffer many on-the-job injuries because of the speed with which they are expected to fill orders and have few benefits. Moreover, in a number of jurisdictions, Amazon apparently pays very little in the way of taxes, because the company has managed to get special deals from politicians who want the jobs that Amazon brings.

One of the one-meter tall Karl Marx statues on display in his hometown of Trier, Germany, 5 May 2013. The installation, by German artist Ottmar Hoer, marked the 130th anniversary of Marx’s death. (Photo by Ruben Gustav, CC BY-ND 2.0, via Flickr)

Apple, which presents itself as a cool company (“Think different!”) that deserves the support of cool people, likewise bases its corporate operations in low-tax jurisdictions and manufactures its products in low-paying ones – all the while charging a premium price for its products because they are, as the boxes say, “Designed in California.” (It’s hard to think of a phrase that more neatly and cynically captures the manipulative capitalistic ethos of Apple, as it suggests not what is actually the case, that Apple products are made by exploited workers in low-wage countries, but that these goods are produced by cool Californians who live well and go surfing in their spare time). I read an article a few years ago that described the high rates of suicide that workers in Asia, who were making components for iPhones, were experiencing. Instead of improving pay and working conditions, their employer placed nets around the dormitories in which the workers were living so that anyone who tried to commit suicide by jumping out of the window would be caught.

As for Walmart, not only are its stores stocked with goods manufactured by exploited workers overseas (there’s a reason why their prices are so low), it is also apparently the case that workers in the United States are given applications for food stamps when they are hired, because the company knows that it has no intention of paying its workers a living wage.

In all three cases, moreover, those at the top – the bourgeoisie, to use Marxist terms – make massive, almost incomprehensible amounts of money, while the workers, whose labor makes these profits possible – the proletariat – are clearly exploited. Indeed, in a twist that would probably surprise Marx and Engels, big corporations like these have managed, as some people have observed, to socialize the risks of the business (by getting tax breaks, food stamps, corporate loans and so-on) while acting as capitalists when it comes to who gets the profits.


In a very real way, then, the picture of the world of business and of human relationships under capitalism that is presented in The Communist Manifesto is still valid today. Indeed, it is hard to think of any other analysis of our current state of affairs that captures these dynamics of exploitation and profit with anything like the same explanatory power. While those of us who can afford to buy iPhones and other consumer goods might not recognize it as clearly as those who work for minimum wage, unless we are among the ranks of those who run large corporations, we, too, are caught up in the same web of exploitative relationships – we are just lucky enough to receive a higher rate of pay than those who work at Walmart. We buy goods and services made and sold by exploited workers, and are, in turn, exploited by our own employers – and by the people who buy goods and services from us. What makes work exploitative, for the Marxist, is not primarily the amount of money workers are paid for their labor (although this is part of it), it is the relationships that exist between those who own the means of production and those who have nothing to sell but their labor.

Marxists, of course, famously called for a revolution, because they believed that only a revolution could disentangle this web of exploitation. Only a revolution, that is to say, can change our standard ways of doing things (which is why a revolution is necessary), and, because they thought that capitalism contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, they believed a revolution was inevitable.

While the term “revolution” sounds threatening and violent, a contemporary Marxist, Bertell Ollman, describes it in this way: a revolution, as Marxists understand it:

…isn’t simply a change in government; nor is it every violent and unconstitutional means used to bring about such a change; nor is it something that occurs in a day or even a year.


[A] revolution is a full turn of the wheel. It is a total transformation in the economic, social, and political life of a society, and it brings this about by replacing the class currently in power with another class that has different interests and other ways of putting them into practice.

What causes revolutions, Ollman makes clear, is not revolutionaries, but the material conditions in which people live. When these conditions become intolerable to enough people, a revolution will take place. In particular, Ollman asserts that a revolution needs to occur in the area of employment, and that a revolutionary political party would embrace such goals as “a chance to produce things that people actually need (i.e., want without having been talked in to them) [no more $4000 brand-name purses!]”; “a living wage (which is easily double or triple the legal ‘minimum wage’)”; and “an opportunity to combine work and higher education or specialized training.”

None of these changes in the way in which work is done and paid for are possible without a revolution in our thinking and practices, and no mainstream political party can (or will) bring them about, because all mainstream political parties, whether on the “left” or on the “right” exist to preserve the status quo, not to transform it. While their platforms might differ in some of their details (for instance, parties on the “left” might raise the minimum wage a dollar or two, and parties on the “right” might give more tax breaks to businesses in order to “protect jobs”), mainstream parties exist to make sure that business interests, not the genuine interests of workers, are protected.


Marxists also believe that a revolution against capitalism is inevitable because capitalism, as noted above, contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. One of the characteristics of capitalism is that it generates contradictions, and it is these contradictions that Marxists believe make it ultimately an unsustainable system, even on its own terms.

One of the contradictions of capitalism is that the very same forces that encourage companies to manufacture iPhones in China to sell in Canada and the United States (namely, that workers in China make lower wages than those in Canada and the U.S.), also encourage companies that build cars in Canada and the U.S. to move their factories to Mexico. This means that workers in Canada and the U.S. will increasingly be unable to afford to buy iPhones and GM vehicles – and the workers in China and Mexico, who produce them, are not paid enough to afford them.

Karl Marx statues, Trier, Germany, 2013

Some of the 500, one-meter tall Karl Marx statues on display in Trier, Germany, 5 May 2013.Photo by es-de-we, CC BY ND 2.0, via Flickr)

So capitalism both depends on, and will be destroyed by, the necessity to pay workers as little money as possible for the work that they do. Another contradiction of capitalism is that companies like Apple, Amazon, and Walmart want to be subsidized with public money while doing whatever they can to lower their own contributions to public funds.

But perhaps the biggest contradiction of all is the one that Marx and Engels thought little about, namely, that the raw materials used to make manufactured goods demand enormous amounts of non-renewable and even non-recyclable resources, and both the production and disposal of these goods generates enormous waste. I don’t think they could ever have imagined the kind of packaging we now take for granted, or that large numbers of people would pay good money to drink from plastic bottles. We are, in short, rapidly destroying the planet on which we depend so that some people can make huge amounts of money, and, at some point, if this trajectory is not halted, we will destroy our planet and ourselves. Capitalism, then, and the way in which it shapes and satisfies not just our needs but also our desires, can quite literally be said to be killing us.

If there is intelligent life out there elsewhere in the universe, and if, many millennia from now, any of those alien species make it to our planet and discover an uninhabited polluted wasteland of garbage heaps and decaying factories, they will surely wonder what on earth (figuratively and literally) we were thinking.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.