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In 1789 the National Assembly of France attempted to outline a framework for an ideal society, and building on this, Jean Paul Marat urged the disenfranchised French people to rise up against their oppressors. In 1848 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels set themselves with the same task of designing a better social structure then urging the populous to instate their vision through revolution. Clearly, the Communist Manifesto was influenced by the earlier writings of the French Revolution, but there are also key differences in the attitudes towards individual rights and property.
The biggest point of contention between Marxist philosophy and the guiding beliefs of the French Revolution is the type of society each was trying to create. Marx urged the proletariat class, the masses, to form their own centralized government. He saw a collectivist society, where the needs of the larger group trumped those of the individual, as the ideal. The French Revolutionaries were hoping to achieve the antithesis. They called for a multi-branched government where “sacred rights” of the individual were valued over all else (80). Despite some shared concerns, ultimately the foundations for their respective visions were in direct opposition.
This core dispute is exemplified in the way Marx and the French Revolutionaries approached the concept of personal property. Enlightenment thinkers believed that dispute over, and lack of protection for, personal property was the seed of all discord in society, and therefore aimed to protect man’s right hold and protect it. Marx, on the other hand, saw property as a vehicle for classist oppression and only useful to the elites. He argued that “private property [was] already abolished for nine-tenths of the population” (Marx 137). The Marxist solution was to abolish all private property, and give all land and resources to the collective state. While French urban poor might have agreed with Marx had he been alive during the revolution, this idea would have been abhorrent to many revolutionary writers in France because most of them were not poor, and therefore would lose their property instead of gaining anything.
Another point of contention between these two revolutionary philosophies is the twin spirits of idealism and nationalism that are so prevalent during the French Revolution, and starkly absent in the Communist Manifesto. The French Revolutionaries were almost childlike in their enthusiasm since there had been no prior revolution quite like it to parallel their own. Their declarations have a pervading feeling of optimism when championing what they believed to be the essential, God-given rights of man. The Communist Manifesto has a more resigned and even jaded attitude. Marx saw many of these “sacred rights” as elitist social constructs saying, “there are …eternal truths, such as freedom, justice, etc…Communism abolishes these” (Marx 140). Informed by his view of history, Marx believed the revolution would happen as a matter of course. The French had fewer examples to follow, while Marx could base his philosophy around the failures and successes of the French and other revolutions. The revolutionary writers of France did not envision their ideal society transcending French borders, and their primary quarrel was with the French monarchy. Marx took a broader view, and actively discouraged nationalism which he saw as a hindrance to proletarian unity, declaring that “the workers have no country” (Marx 139).
Despite their key differences, it is clear that Marx respected the French Revolutionaries, if for nothing more than their effectiveness at implementing change. He certainly internalized the idea that a revolution necessitated violence. In 1790 Marat told the French people that “cutting off …five or six hundred heads would have guaranteed you peace, liberty, and happiness” (Marat 84). He was an infamous proponent of the Terror which was the first of large-scale systemic murder for political gain. Marx echoed Marat’s sentiment when arguing that “[communist] ends can only be attained by the forcible overthrow of the existing social conditions” (Marx 150). At this point in history, there was no concept of a bloodless revolution. France had set the precedent of violence as an effective method of social and political change.
In that he could see the French Revolution in hindsight, Marx had an advantage over the thinkers of that time. He was able to see the historical effects of that conflict in a way that those living during the 1700s obviously could not. He was able to cherry-pick the parts of the French Revolution that were effective, like violence, and leave the parts he didn’t like, such as personal property. This is the natural progression of socio-political theory; we continue to build upon the past to form our ideals. Marx and those former revolutionaries shared a passion for improving people’s lives. They tried to construct a system that would end inequality and in eventually bring peace to the people. Each was necessarily shaped by his historical context and had radically different pictures of utopia, but ultimately it was because of their genuine desire to build a new and better world that we remember them today.
Marat, Jean Paul. "Are We Undone?" The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings. Ed. Paul Negri. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003. 82-84. Print.
Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. "The Manifesto of the Communist Party." The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings. Ed. Paul Negri. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003. 123-50. Print.
National Assembly of France. "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen." The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings. Ed. Paul Negri. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003. 79-81. Print.