A paper which attempts to look at the world depicted in Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto and compare it to other writings of the time to determine if he is presenting an accurate picture of his world.
When Karl Marx looked around at his world, he was not happy with what he saw. He observed the industrialization process, and while seeing all the obvious good it was doing, he also peered deeper and saw the terrible consequences. Hidden, beneath the gloss of cheap manufacturing costs and high output of goods, were child labor, dissatisfied employees, and dangerous working conditions. Marx saw this, and more, and decided that there could be a better system: a system in which everyone worked towards a common good, and where all classes were equal. To Marx, the “proletarian mass [would grow] ever poorer in the midst of plenty until a socialist revolution solved the problem” (McNeill, 424). To this end, Marx presented the world with his Communist Manifesto, where he presents some of his observations of the new system. These observations, for the most part are dishearteningly true for his generation.
One of the most obvious effects of the industrial revolution was the need for more: “More power, more raw materials…more transport, more clerks to keep track of the industrial and commercial processes, more consumers to buy and more salesmen to sell” (McNeill, 423). Marx too recognized the “need of a constantly expanding market” (Marx, 12). However, above all else, the “more” that Karl Marx seemed most interested in was the more workers. More workers meant more paychecks to give out. More paychecks means it costs more to produce goods. A higher cost of production means reduced profits, and the major driving force behind the industrial revolution was to increase profits as well as production. Therefore, having more workers is counterproductive. Business owners found a way around this: they began to hire women and children, who would work the same job as a man, but for much lower wages. To sum up, in the words of Marx, “But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labor, is equal to its cost of production” (16).
The hiring of women and children ushered in the opportunity to take advantage of these innocents. Marx was able to present the vision of humans through the eyes of the bourgeois: “All are instruments of labor, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex” (16). One way in which the business owners made employees “less expensive to use” was to deprive the workers of proper and safe working and living conditions. According to a miner that Sir Edwin Chadwick questioned, “Our lodging-rooms were such as not to be fit for a swine to live in....In one house there was 16 bedsteads in the room up stairs, and 50 occupied these beds at the same time” (Sources, 152). This is a clear example of an employer taking advantage of his employees. One can be sure that the living quarters weren’t that way by accident. It apparently cost more to keep the current workers healthy and strong than it did to simply replace them after being worked to uselessness. One of the best examples of this is the children such as Elizabeth Bentley. When Elizabeth was a small child, she worked in a textile mill. While there, she pulled her shoulders out of place and was permanently deformed, and at the age of 23, she was not longer able to do any work, and lived in a poorhouse (Bentley). There is something clearly wrong with a system if people are no longer to work before the time they are thirty. Marx realized this and knew that there had to be a better way.
In addition to tearing down the individual, Marx pointed out the fact that industry tore down the family as well: “The bourgeoisie...has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation” (Marx, 11). In this, the bourgeoisie had managed to tear apart one of the things that had remained constant throughout history: the love and trust and comfort of a family. When women and children began working twelve plus hour days, the basic structure of the family fell apart. The bourgeois were suppressing the proletarian to such an extent that the family needed all its members to work, just to support itself. Here again, the tale of Elizabeth Bentley makes this fact horrifically clear. During her questioning, she was asked if the children were beaten and she replied, “Yes…and their parents dare not come to him [the employer] about it, they were afraid of losing their work” (Bentley). Here families are reduced to allowing their children to be beaten because they are afraid that if they complain, the job will be forfeited, and the money gone. In addition, Chadwick notes that when a worker died “no provision [was] made for the families; nothing is heard of them, they must go upon the parish” (Chadwick, 151). These two tales paint an even more horrific picture of uncaring industry then Marx portrays.
Even though child labor, and all it implies, is terrible, Marx does not stop there. He goes on to cite problems for those working even under the best of conditions: “He [the proletariat] becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him” (Marx, 16). Not only does this open the door for child labor, it corrodes the spirit of the person who is now working as a part of the machine. Man has the ability to think and to learn. When he is denied this basic right, he gets bored. Humans do not naturally desire to repeat the same simple task for twelve hours a day. His mind craves to be active, and he will become difficult, as Andrew Ure states:
By the infirmity of human nature it happens, that the more skilful the workman the more self-willed and intractable he is apt to become, and, of course, the less fit a component of a mechanical system, in which, by occasional irregularities, he may do great damage to the whole.
Here Ure affirms what Marx claims to be true: that man has been forced to become a part of a machine and that human nature itself prevents this from being a positive experience.
Because of all these factors involved with obtaining, keeping, and living through a job, Marx claims that, “These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity” (Marx, 15). This is true. During the time period of Marx’s writing, laborers could be looked upon just as a bolt of fabric would have been looked at. Ure mentions that “the proprietor of a factory...would save 50 l. a week in wages, in consequence of dispensing with nearly forty male spinners” (Ure). This bourgeois views these male spinners as outdated equipment, to be tossed away as soon as they can be “upgraded”. He has found some cheaper source of work in the new machines and considering only the lining of his own pockets. In this, too, Marx is correct: “[The bourgeoisie] has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade” (Marx, 11). Here Marx comes directly out to say that the bourgeoisie is exploiting people, and only taking into account how much money that person will be able to make for the bourgeois.
Despite all the troubles with the system that Marx points out, there are some positive points. By no means does a worker have to stay a member of the proletariat class. It is possible, although not easy, to rise through the ranks and make a better life for oneself. A prime example of this success can be found in the story of Josiah Wedgwood, who, at the tender age of eleven, began working “at the lowest round of the ladder” (Smiles, 115). He worked his entire life, through the good times as well as the bad, and eventually became one of the world leaders in pottery. Such were his accomplishments that Smiles considers him, and men like him “fairly entitled to take rank as the Industrial Heroes of the civilized world” (Smiles, 147). Marx simply refused to accept the fact that successes such as this could happen within the system. He is so focused on the negative aspects of the system that he doesn’t consider the positive. In spite of this, Marx still manages to provide a very accurate picture of the nature of industrialism in the world during his time.
In an effort to support his personal views regarding communism, Marx finds a great many faults in the system that was produced by the industrial revolution. In all fairness, the negative aspects he points out are very real problems that need to be fixed. However, along with the bad does come some good, and the problems are problems that had the ability to be fixed. Marx’s criticisms of society were quite correct, but society was not completely bad, just as it can never be completely good.
Chadwick, Sir Edwin. "Inquiry into the Condition of the Poor." Sources of World History: Volume 2. Mark A. Kishlansky (Ed.) Wadsworth Publishing, 1999.
*Committee on Factory Children’s Labour, P.P. 1831-32; vol. XV, pp. 195-199.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto. International Publishers: 1990.
McNeill, William H. A World History. New York: Oxford University Press: 1999.
Smiles, Samuel. "Self Help." Sources of World History: Volume 2. Mark A. Kishlansky (Ed.) Wadsworth Publishing, 1999.
*Ure, Andrew. The Philosophy of Manufacturers. London: Chas. Knight, 1835.
*I cannot be one-hundred percent sure what book these documents came from, because they were simply photocopies handed out in class. The references I have given are the original documents, but I am fairly certain that reproductions can be found in the book Thing of the Past?: Child Labour in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
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