What Marx and Engels wanted to say about the ruling class?
To understand what Marx and Engels meant by the title quote, we must elaborate more on the Marxist theory of ‘historical materialism.’ Marx rejected the idealism of earlier philosopher G. W. F. Hegel and posited that material conditions are fundamental to historical and societal development. Human beings require material needs such as sustenance and shelter in order to survive. The means of which these are produced conditions all other aspects of life. Within producing these means of subsistence human beings enter into involuntary relations of production, these relations appropriate to societies that correspond to the state of development of their material forces of production. The sum of these relations constitutes to the economic ‘base’ of society, this being the foundation for the legal and political superstructure. Thus social existence determines, or at least conditions, social conscience. The economic base refers to the mode of producing material needs whether it be feudalism, capitalism or socialism. While the legal and political superstructure which also consists of culture, religion, art, and other aspects life can be explained by economic circumstance.
Marx has been a critical of Hegel’s idealistic ‘world spirit’ otherwise maintained the Hegelian dialectic, the force of which historical change is brought to fruition. The dialectic is the process of two opposing antagonisms reaching a higher dialectical stage in history. Marx in the communist manifesto gives examples following the title quote which further explains the replacement of the ideas of each age as the ruling class is usurped. How “the ancient world religions were overcome by Christianity” and then Christian ideas in the 18th century were dwindling in prominence. Feudal society thus ended with the replacement of ‘the then revolutionary bourgeoisie”. Revolutionary change in each epoch is understood as the consequence of an economic structure that fetters and is unable to develop the forces of production. Ideas of religious liberty and freedom of conscience arose from the gradual sway of free competition and enterprise transformed the superstructure. Aspects of life such as religion, philosophy, morality, political science, and law are thus modified with the coming of each epoch in history. Previous epochs are thence replaced by an economic structure that is better suited to develop productive forces. The productive forces are understood as the means of production and other applicable knowledge which is defined better as technological advances.