To understand the full meaning of the given passage, one must comprehend the historical and intellectual context in which it appears.
Basically, Marx’s and Engels’s Communist Manifesto has depicted human history as a continuous manifestation of class struggles between an oppressor minority and the oppressed majority.
Before the advent of the industrial age, all oppressive power was vested in the hands of a feudal class – the aristocracy. The chain of events starting with the overthrow of the monarchy in the French revolution eroded the traditional power base of Europe, leading to the rise of a new class of oppressors among the serfs – the bourgeoisie.
This class of men only spoke the language of money and had little use for traditional values such as workmanship, chivalry, religion, family relationships and other forms of sentimentality. The proletariat – the labor class, then crowded to fill the ranks of the new oppressed majority, allowing their hard work to be exploited by the bourgeois capitalists for a bare minimum existence.
Marx and Engels believed that through this exploitative association with the proletariat, the bourgeoisie was able to rise to the top of the social class pyramid, fostering the development of present day property relations which sit at the heart of a wealth-driven society. According to this theory, the onset of the 19th century saw the dawn of a new civilization in which all productive forces of society were being systematically channelized to secure the existence of bourgeois property.
Consequently, the proletarians had little choice but to understand their place in the new hierarchy which thrived on their usefulness as workmen, but cared little for their welfare as human beings. Marx and Engels argued that such an exploitative arrangement could not last forever and in due course, discontent would rise to the surface, which would ultimately, force the labor class to rise in armed rebellion against an uncaring, bourgeois ruling class.
The study passage serves to illustrate such an outcome.
The first section states that:
The productive forces of society no longer tend to further the development of bourgeois civilization and the condition of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. (Marxists Internet Archive, 2011).
Since, discontent was growing heavily, Marx and Engles have tried to predict it would be only a matter of time before the bourgeoisie realized that their financial stranglehold on the proletariat was not strong enough to permanently secure their wealth due to the uneven nature of exploitation. Sooner or later, the ambitions of the proletariat would break the glass ceiling that until now, kept them down.
To further assess the proletariat’s vulnerabilities, the passage looks into how the bourgeoisie desires to tackle this problem:
And how does the bourgeoisie get over this crises? On the one hand, by the enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other hand, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented. (Marxists Internet Archive, 2011).
In association with other sections of the passage, we may gather that the authors, here, are referring to immoral tactics that have been employed by capitalists to demoralize the labor class; these include keeping the wages low i.e. enforcing destruction of a means to production, and looking for ingenious ways to exploit old markets while discovering new ones. Marx and Engles theorize that Capitalism thrives on the back of labor exploitation, which will set the events that would eventually lead to the downfall of such a system.
The last section of the passage suggests that Capitalism’s seeds of destruction lie in its own methods of oppression:
The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern workers – the proletarians. (Marxists Internet Archive, 2011).
Marx and Engels are here trying to imply that not unlike Frankenstein, the bourgeoisie has created a monster among the proletariats, who would one day untie the restraints that are keeping them tethered in submission. When such a thing happens in future, it would undermine the very foundations of the bourgeois power structure.
The significance of the passage, can be seen in the context of the overall Communist Manifesto theory.
The underlying theme of Communism tries to project the proletariat as the owner of all means of production in a distant, utopian future – a future where men are stripped of their right to exploit the labor of other men for their individual, selfish benefits. From the point of view of early 19th century history, this was a radical statement to make. To be first among his peers, Marx came with a theory where it was possible for the oppressed majority people to wrest the reins of power from an oppressive minority.
The passage, here, serves as a clarion call to the proletariat to fight against the fetters of injustice, in order to rise against a global, tyrannical system that has been exploiting it for its own good. If one reads between the lines, the passage serves to incite readers of that period to raise their voice against the injustices of the prevailing system
It is significant to note that within years and decades of the publishing of Communist Manifesto, the world saw major Communist rebellions in South America. The impact of this passage is indeed profound, considering its indirect role in shaping human history.
Marxists Internet Archive. (2011, Oct 10). Manifesto of the Communist Party [Online document]. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist- manifesto/index.htm