Marx 2: The Communist Manifesto

Social Conflict as the Engine of History

The first words of the Communist Manifesto set out the basic insight of Marxist theory of history. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” [1] According to Marx, the rise and fall of the empires of the ancient world, the kingdom of Alexander the great, the rise of Rome, Charlemagne and the rise of medieval Europe, the rise and fall of the dynasties of Russia and ancient China, according to Marx all of these can be reduced to a single formula: Class struggle.

It’s important, therefore, to stop right at the beginning, to identify the importance of this single statement for our politics today. Since Marx, on the left and on the right, but particularly on the left, there’s been a tendency to seek power through class struggle. When I was in college, I read an influential history of the American Revolution written by the historian, Charles A. Beard, who was influenced by Marxist historical analysis. Beard reduced the American Revolution to a struggle of the bourgeoisie against the Crown and Colonial Powers of 18th Century England. [2] For Marx, Baird, and their modern followers, including many prominent political figures, social progress results from class conflict. Beard has been much criticized for his view that, for example, the American Civil War and the elimination of Slavery was not fought on moral grounds but as a result of the inevitable conflict between Northern bourgeoise and Southern agrarian culture. This despite the abundant evidence that vast numbers of northern soldiers and Lincoln were highly motivated by a moral objection to slavery.

For Marx, writing in the midst of the Industrial Revolution in 19th Century Europe, the struggle was between the working class and the bourgeoisie. I find his description of that struggle illuminating and important. I do not find quite so convincing his historical analysis from the ancient medieval world. It seems to me that economic forces cannot explain, for example, the emergence of the empire of Alexander the Great and the death of the Persian and Egyptian empires by conquest, which seems to be based upon the human will to conquest and not upon economic factors at all. The emergence of the Kingdom of Charles the Great similarly seems to me to result from the human desire for order in the midst of the chaos resulting from teh fall of Rome, not solely from economic factors.

When the communist revolution emerged in China, that Marx’s industrial analysis was inapplicable. In the period after World War II, China was largely a preindustrial society, a fact which Mao recognized. Therefore, Mao and his followers based their struggle on the struggle between rural peasantry and those in power in the cities. In the third world generally, the Chinese version of class conflict has been more important that Marx’s original formulation. Before this series is over, we will look at so-called, “Liberation Theology,” which is much influenced by Mars and been powerful in Latin America and other Third World areas which remain primarily rural. [3]

I hope by the time this blog is finished readers will understand that the insight of Marx into the importance of economics and class struggle in history is significant. However, it can be overstated. While there is no question but what economic and class considerations motivate people, and that motivation creates social conflict, social conflict is not at the basis of all social progress. In fact, a close look at world history indicates that excessive conflict caused societies to deteriorate into brutality not reach a higher level. It doesn’t take a lot to see in Stalin and others not progress but deterioration. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pot Pol and their followers have been the source of endless brutality and genocide. None of this is progress. After seventy years of Communism, Russia did not look like a classless utopia, but like one huge, poverty-stricken third world country which happened to have a large army and nuclear capacity.

From a Christian point of view, because we are all fallen in selfish people, conflict is an inevitable part of human history and human society. Because we are all innately self-centered and potentially greedy, economic conflict is also inevitable. However, beneath our propensity for self-seeking economic behavior also lies the human capacity for goodness, the search for truth, order, meaning, purpose, and love both personal and social. A truly post-modern theory of history and politics will not involve a “reductionistic materialism,” but rather recognize the importance of human values and wisdom in social order. It will not embrace seeking a secular end to history, but rather emphasize the never-ending role of human beings in creating life-affirming social orders within a history that has no certain or sure movement towards a “better world.” History teaches that if human beings make unwise decisions within history, the future is not better, but worse.

Spread of Capitalism

Having set out some limitations to Marx’s analysis, it’s important to give credit where credit is due. If one looks at the emergence of capitalism and the emergence of free markets in Britain in Europe and growth of an industrial civilization out of the primarily agrarian civilization, one is struck by the rapid change of society and the advance of Western culture and Western economic organization throughout the world. As Marx observed in the Communist Manifesto, modern industry has established a world market, and traditional modes of social and economic organization have been pushed aside in every society in which private capital and free markets, have gained a foothold. The discovery of America and the founding of the United States as the first truly “Post Enlightenment Nation” fueled the spread of capitalism as American trade began to reach the ends of the earth and American power began to grow. [4]

The rapid growth of the post-Enlightenment industrial economy, was not without social cost. The feudal societies of Europe degenerated, and with that degeneration came an end to the highly structured, patriarchal socio-economic organization common in the Middle Ages. In addition, traditional crafts, represented by the guilds of medieval Europe were dissolved as the bourgeoisie and private capital gained began to dominate Western culture. Large numbers of people fell into urban poverty, which is harsher and different than rural poverty. [5] Finally, the professions, such as law, the ministry, medicine, government service, and the like began to change as the economic power of a new class of economic power began to emerge and hold sway over society. [6] By the time of the First World War, the class system of the Middle Ages, which only a century and a half earlier looked unassailable, was at the end of its life.

In our day, we have seen a form of capitalism extend itself into previously socialist economies, and Latin America, into Africa, the Middle East, and the most important way in the Far East, which have been a center of the growth of capitalist society since the end of World War II. Almost no one could have foreseen the growth of Japan, China, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, and other burgeoning neo-capitalist economies in the east on the last day of the Second World War. And yet a change favoring private capital and some form of “freer markets” has prevailed and enhanced human life where it has taken root.

The changes in society caused by the emergence of capitalist society are vast. Entire populations left rural areas for cities where more opportunity was to be found. In addition, capitalism went beyond rationalizing existing means of production and economic activity. As Marx observed, the bourgeoisie not only rationalized existing economic order but created a situation where there was (and is) constantly revolutionizing “the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of producers and with them the whole relations of society.” [7] This is the source of the phrase “creative destruction” so often used (and misused) among free market aficionados.

It does not take a lot of imagination to see the continuing impact of capitalism in the recent development of computers and the emerging information age. The rationalization and extension of economic activity under the control of private capital continues, and bourgeoisie market capitalism continues to change and upset existing forms of life with which people are accustomed. As it does this, capitalism continues to create new centers of economic power, as we see in the great fortunes that have been made in the information technology industries and the media in our own day. During such periods (and we are currently in one) it is easy for some people to lose confidence in the underlying value of free markets. It is also in times like these that problems with unregulated markets begin to be seen more clearly than at times with the average person feels life is getting better and they and their families are benefiting from free markets.

Socialism as an Alternative

Marx spends a good bit of the Communist Manifesto critiquing liberal forms of social democracy. [8] It should surprise no one that the revolutionary proposals made by Communists during the 19th and early 20th century did not appeal to everyone and many well-meeting people attempted to develop alternatives. The most common alternative was a form of social democracy in which private capital is supplemented by public ownership of certain industries and large charitable contributions by wealthy individuals, families, corporations and others. Marx believes that this is a half waist step. In our own day, there are many American thinkers who believe that this approach is the one America should take.

There are a couple of observations to be made that impact both communist and social democratic thinking. By the end of the 20th century, communism had failed in Russia and China, the two largest export social experiments in this form of economic organization. In addition, and perhaps less well-known, social democracy had largely failed in Western Europe. Publicly owned companies, whether in communist or social democratic countries, rapidly became non-competitive. Their capital structures became outdated. In the end, steel mills, railroads, automobile plants, airlines, and a variety of industries had to be at least partially privatized in order to be updated to meet the demands of a contemporary market. There is little or no reason to believe that any future form of this kind of capital organization will work any better.

As to Communism, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Regime in Russia, I had the opportunity to travel there for a few weeks. The amount of poverty, the distortion of economic activity, the poor quality of housing and almost any manufactured good, all visibly testified to the failure communist social organization. What had transpired in Russia was the emergence of a huge, ineffective and corrupt bureaucracy which was woefully incompetent in almost every area of life. All of Russian society had suffered from a corruption from which it has yet to emerge.

In Great Britain, the Labor Party eventually began to sell publicly owned businesses into private hands in order to solve persistent capital shortages and management problems. This turned out to be a less than adequate alternative, as what we in the United States called “crony capitalism” developed. The development of a kind of crony capitalism even more apparent in formally communist regimes, where the military and intelligence bureaucracties have ended up controlling large amounts of the economy.

A Faulty Materialistic Eschatology

When I was growing up, it was common to see communism as a kind of secular religion. Scholars on the left and on the right have observed that the Marxist notion that the end of history will come with the creation of a classless society in which everything is owned in common involves a kind of materialistic eschatology. For the Marxist, the end of history will not come by the rule of an all knowing, all kind, all loving, and all wise God, but in the rule of them seemingly all knowing, all kind all loving and all wise proletariat and the operation of blind economic forces.

We now have enough experience in the actual operation of “all- knowing, all-kind, all-loving and all-wise bureaucracies to know that this is not possible. In the two great experiments in communism, the end result was a kind of oligarchy in which the military, intelligence services, and insiders transferred to private ownership the common goods of the society and our rule as an oligarchy. There was no idyllic worker state. There’s no reason to believe that there would be any other result if humans were to experiment further along this line. Marx’s faith in a cataclysm followed by the emergence of a worker’s paradise was an impossible vision.

In a materialistic age, it is to be expected that people might look forward to any materialistic end of history in which all of their hopes and dreams for prosperity, equality and justice might be met. One basic intention of these blogs is to disabuse people from engaging in such fantasy. History will not end within human history. Inside human history, we can make the world a better place though small, wise, loving decision-making as we attempt to solve problems we can solve and ameliorate suffering we can ameliorate. We cannot perfect the world by any action, however dramatic. In fact, we will almost certainly cause immense and terrible suffering if we try.


As insightful as Marxist critique of capitalism is, it’s possible that the fault in capitalism and the fault in communism both flow from their inherent reduction of all human behavior to material, self-centered economic decision-making. In fact, it is my guess that this is precisely true. This does not mean that we are stuck with only two alternatives, laissez faire capitalism or some form of public ownership. There are other alternatives, such as increasing consumer and worker ownership in business enterprises. This kind of approach could involve more or less dramatic changes in the ownership of capital, from encouraging employee ownership programs to giving incentives for businesses to be converted to worker and consumer owned COOP’s. In due course, we will examine the potential for a new, personalist and communal approach to the problems Marx identified.

As I reread this blog, I am aware that it is not as neutral as I hoped it would be. I want to end with a note of appreciation. Marx’s analysis of the problems of the industrial economy of his day is important. At least some degree, he pushed human knowledge forward in an important way. That is all we can expect from any human being. Perhaps it would have been better if he had avoided some of his more radical conclusions, but in his day and time it might not have been possible to do so. It is a sad fact of human history that not all of the mistakes and suffering we inflict on ourselves or others are avoidable, which is one good reason why humans should work so hard to avoid every mistake possible and mitigate the suffering of every decision we make.

[1] Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party  in Britania Great Books, Vol. 50 Ed, Mortimer J. Adler (New York, NY: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), 419. Citations to the Communist Manifesto will be from the same source, and hereafter each will be referred to as Communist Manifesto.

[2] Charles A. Baird, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of The United States (New York, McMillan and Company, 1913, 1922).

[3] See, Gustavo Guitierrez Mereno, OP, A Theology of Liberation History, Politics, and Salvation (New York, NY: Orbis Books, 1971).

[4] Communist Manifesto at 420.

[5] My mother often observed that growing up on a farm in rural Illinois during the great depression they were very poor. However they didn’t know they were poor because they had plenty of food to eat from the fields, clothes to wear, and a school to attend. It didn’t seem to the children that anything was terribly wrong despite the worries of her parents!

[6] Communist Manifesto, at 420.

[7] Id, at 421.

[8] Id, at 432 ff under the caption, “Conservative or Bourgeoisie Captialism”.