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Karl Marx: ten things to read if you want to understand him

As the world reflects on 200 years since the birth of Karl Marx, his writings are being sampled by more and more people. If you’re new to the work of one of the greatest social scientists of all time, here’s where to start.

Marx’s own writing

James Muldoon, University of Exeter

The long history of brutal, totalitarian “Marxist” regimes around the world has left many people with the impression that Marx was an authoritarian thinker. But readers who dive into his work for the first time are often surprised to discover an Enlightenment humanist and a philosopher of emancipation, one who envisaged well-rounded human beings living rich, varied and fulfilling lives in a post-capitalist society. Marx’s writings don’t just propose a revolutionary political project; they offer a moral critique of the alienation of individuals living in capitalist societies.

1. An Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Available here)

Originally published in 1844 in a radical Parisian newspaper, this fascinating short essay captures many of Marx’s early criticisms of modern society and his radical vision of emancipation. It also introduces several of the key themes that would shape his later writings.

Marx claims that the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century may have benefited a wealthy and educated class, but did not challenge private forms of domination in the factory, home and field. Marx theorises the revolutionary subject of the working class, and proposes its historic task: to abolish private property and achieve self-emancipation.

2. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Available here)

Not published within his lifetime, and only released in 1932 by officials in the Soviet Union, these notes written by Marx are an important source for his theory of capitalist alienation. They reveal the essential outline of what “Marxism” is, and provide the philosophical basis for humanist readings of Marx.

In these manuscripts, Marx analyses the harmful effects of the organisation of labour in modern industrial societies. Modern workers, he argues, have become estranged from the goods they produced, from their own labour activity, and from their fellow workers. Rather than achieving a sense of satisfaction and self-actualisation in their labour, workers are left exhausted and spiritually depleted. For Marx, the antidote to modern alienation is a humanist conception of communism based on free and cooperative production.

3. The Communist Manifesto (Available here)

The Communist Manifesto in its original edition. Wikimedia Commons

Opening with the famous line, “a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”, the Communist Manifesto has become one of the most influential political documents ever written. Co-authored with Friedrich Engels, this pamphlet was commissioned by London’s Communist League and published on the cusp of the various revolutions that rocked Europe in 1848.

The manifesto presents Marx’s materialist conception of history and his theory of class struggle. It outlines the growing tensions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat under capitalist relations of production, and predicts the triumph of the workers.

4. The German Ideology (Available here)

For anyone seeking to understand Marxism’s deeper philosophical and historical underpinnings, this is one of his most important texts. Written in around 1846, again with Engels, The German Ideology provides the full development of the two men’s methodology, historical materialism, which seeks to understand the history of humankind based on the development of its modes of production.

Marx and Engels argue that individuals’ social consciousness depends on the material conditions in which they live. He traces the development of different historical modes of production and argues that the present capitalist one will be replaced by communism. Some interpreters view this text as the point where Marx’s thought began to emerge in its mature form.

5. Capital (Volume 1) (Available here)

Published in 1867, Capital is Marx’s critical diagnosis of the capitalist mode of production. In it, he details the ultimate source of wealth under capitalism: the exploited labour of workers. Workers are free to sell their labour to any capitalist, but since they must sell their labour in order to survive, they are dominated by the class of capitalists as a whole. And through their labour, workers reproduce and reinforce both the economic conditions of their existence and also the social and ideological structure of their society.

Capital, volume 1. Dive in. Wikimedia Commons

In Capital, Marx outlines a number of capitalism’s internal contradictions, such as a declining rate of profit and the tendency for the formation of capitalist monopolies. While certain aspects of the text have been questioned, Marx’s analysis informs economic debate to this day. For anyone trying to understand why capitalism keeps falling into crisis, it’s still hugely relevant.

On Marx and Marxism

Robert Jackson, Manchester Metropolitan University

1. A Companion to Marx’s Capital – David Harvey

From social movements to student reading groups, from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to articles in the Financial Times, Marx’s economic writings are at the centre of debate once again. And one of the figures most associated with these discussions is the geographer David Harvey.

Based on his popular online lecture series, Reading Capital with David Harvey, this book makes Marx’s Capital accessible to a broader audience. Guiding readers through Marx’s challenging (but rewarding) study of the “laws of motion” of capitalism, Harvey provides an open and critical reading. He draws out the connections between this world-changing text and today’s society – a society which, after all, is still shaped by the economic crisis of 2008.

2. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life – Jonathan Sperber

For Jonathan Sperber, a historian of modern Germany, Marx is “more a figure from the past than a prophet of the present”. And, as its title suggests, this biography places Marx’s life in the context of the 19th century. It’s an accessible introduction to the history of his political thought, particularly as a critic of his contemporaries. Sperber discusses Marx in his many roles – a son, a student, a journalist and political activist – and introduces the multitude of characters connected with him. While Francis Wheen’s well-known Karl Marx: A Life is a more freewheeling account, Sperber’s writing is both highly readable and more deeply rooted in historical scholarship.

3. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation – Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Writing about the US just over 150 years ago, Marx noted that: “Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.” And the influence of his ideas about the relationship between race and class is visible in debates right up to the present day.

Penned by academic and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who came to popular prominence in the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement, this is a timely read for those interested in the various ways Marx’s thought is being rebooted for the 21st century. A penetrating book, it connects the origins of racism to the structures of economic inequality. With plenty of Marxist ideas (among others) in her toolbox, Taylor critically examines the notion of a “colour-blind” society and the US’s post-Obama order to great effect.

4. Why Marx was Right – Terry Eagleton

A call to reconsider the widely accepted notion that Marx is a “dead dog” from renowned literary theorist Terry Eagleton. In this provocative and highly readable book, Eagleton questions the plausibility of ten of the most common objections to Marx’s thought – among them, that Marx’s ideas are outdated in post-industrial societies, that Marxism always leads to tyranny in practice, that Marx’s theory is deterministic and undermines human freedom. Always witty and passionate, Eagleton peppers his spirited defence (with some reservations) of Marx’s ideas with his own literary and cultural insights.

5. Jacobin magazine – edited by Bhaskar Sunkara (available online)

In the era of the Occupy movement, “taking a knee” and #MeToo, the discussion of Marx’s ideas has gained an increasing presence on the internet. One of the most notable examples is the socialist magazine and online platform Jacobin, edited by Bhaskar Sunkara, which currently reaches around 1m viewers a month.

Covering topics from international politics and environmental movements to the recent education strikes in Oklahoma and West Virginia and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, it’s a lively source for anyone who wants to see an analysis of contemporary politics that’s influenced by Marx’s thought.

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