Can anyone recommend a good introduction to Marxism?
June 24, 2011 3:06 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend any good introductions to Marxism? More and more, as I get older, I find that the socialist view of the world as a set of competing classes, with one class exploiting the others, makes more and more sense. It also seems increasingly clear to me that this is going on at the moment. However, I am still quite new to Marxism and a little put off by and daunted by Das Kapital...

Also, I want to find out about Marxism since Marx, as well as Marx himself.

So, can anyone recommend a good introduction to Marxism? Especially one that uses contemporary examples, or engages - fairly - with the modern criticisms of Marx?

Please note: I have already read Francis Wheen's biography of Marx and the Communist Manifesto. I also have a copy of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and Chris Harman's A People's History of the World (although for some reason I keep not getting around to reading them...) So please don't recommend those.

I have heard of Terry Eagleton's Why Marx was Right, but past work by Eagleton has not impressed me much, so I am hesitant. Is it any good?

Oh, and I am not particularly interested in hearing about critiques of Marxism.
posted by lucien_reeve to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
How about Marxism: A Very Short Introduction?
posted by piato at 3:38 AM on June 24, 2011

Marx for Beginners.
posted by plep at 3:49 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

For a great primer on Marx and his understanding of history, economics, and morality, check out this entry at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It is important to understand Marx's ideas within the context of his time and political circumstances. The SEP article summarizes the basis and rationale of his theoretical framework.

It is helpful to contrast socialism against other systems. This link leads to an explanation of the philosophy of socialism nested in the broader article of political philosophy at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Read the whole thing to see the basic spectrum of systems.

While these resources aren't extensive, they are substantial.

When you're ready to jump into Das Kapital directly, it's available at the The Library of Economics and Liberty here: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I. The Process of Capitalist Production, Vol. II. The Process of Circulation of Capital, Vol. III. The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole.

Bonus: Marx and Engels Internet Archive.
posted by troll at 3:55 AM on June 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Piato and Plep: thanks for the suggestions. I have seen both of those and, while they look interesting, I was hoping for something perhaps a little bit more in depth. It's always difficult to say with an introductory guide, of course, but I think I want something that really feels like it can sort of lead me on from the kind of understanding I could get from wikipedia or a general outline of economics/intellectual history, towards a deeper understanding of Marxist analysis and how it answers its critics. Does that make sense?

troll: thank you for the links. I was not aware of the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. It looks useful. I'm pretty clued up on the history of philosophy generally, though - it's more that I want to find something that says, in effect - "you've heard of Marxism, but you have your doubts? Well, here's how I would answer those doubts, from within the Marxist intellectual tradition... This is what I think Marxism does that other systems don't..."
posted by lucien_reeve at 4:10 AM on June 24, 2011

This is a very difficult topic. Most introductions and overviews to Marx are written by partisans, either Communists or ex- and anti-Communists. People will probably recommend Leszek Kolakowski's Main Currents of Marxism or Paul Sweezy's Theory of Capitalist Development, but I would avoid both them for this reason, at least until you are more comfortable with the general concepts.

Also, as you say, "Marxism" actually means a lot of different things. It can mean:

*What Karl Marx really thought during his lifetime
*What people inspired by Marx thought during the last 150 years
*What people inspired by Marx did during the last 150 years
*What is true, relevant, and useful in the above three categories.

Really the subject is so broad that you're going to struggle with a single accurate overview. It's more of a long-term learning project. You don't need to be intimidated or make a huge effort, but you should expect to take a little while and read a few things before you really get to grips with the topic.

I'll recommend one or two books in each of the above categories:

What Marx Thought: Really you have to read Capital. Don't be afraid! You can do it! David Harvey has published an excellent Companion to Marx's Capital, which is a written version of his popular introductory lecture series. Read both side by side and you'll have the best possible introduction to Marxism. Harvey's book matches your description of what you're after: "This is what I think Marxism does that other systems don't..."

Thought inspired by Marx: The Marxist journal Historical Materialism put out an excellent anthology of essays, A Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism, which gives a very thorough, independent, non-partisan overview of the main schools of Marxist theory. It doesn't cover the big "isms" like Maoism, Trotskyism, or Marxism-Leninism (aka Stalinism), but those are mainly of historical interest. See my next category.

Actions inspired by Marxism: On the Russian Revolution, which is important both historically and theoretically, I'd recommend Deutscher's biography of Trotsky for an exciting and beautifully written overview, then Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism, Rabinowitch's Bolsheviks in Power, and Murphy's Revolution and Counterrevolution for fascinating ground-level social history of what the revolution meant to Russians. I don't really know enough about China to recommend books there.

What's true and relevant in Marxism: Revealing my own prejudices, you could do a lot worse than Moishe Postone's Time, Labor, and Social Domination.

One, two, many introductions!
posted by wwwwwhatt at 4:23 AM on June 24, 2011 [27 favorites]

Further, although I personally think it's much better to just read Capital with some kind of guide, you should check out David Harvey's The Limits to Capital and Paul Sweezy's Theory of Capitalist Development, as they are often recommended introductory reading for budding Marxists who are scared of Capital, and they might work for you. Different strokes.
posted by wwwwwhatt at 4:31 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Marxism and Social Science by Andrew Gamble, David Marsh, and Tony Tant.
"For much of the twentieth century, a critical engagement with Marx and Marxism has been an essential part of social science ... (yet) Marxist ideas, concerns, and methods seem to belong to a past era. "Marxism and Social Science" argues that Marxism continues as a living tradition, a system of thought that remains relevant and instructive to other theoretical positions and contemporary world changes. Contributors address ... (the) utility of Marxist approaches to a wide range of substantive issues: the state, welfare, democracy, culture, class, globalization, ecology, nationalism, and communism. What emerges is the extraordinary richness and diversity of the Marxist intellectual tradition and its enduring importance for understanding the twenty-first century world."

Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton.
"Eagleton takes on ten common criticisms of Marxism, one chapter at a time, making the argument in each case that the criticism is based on a distortion or a misunderstanding of Marx’s work. His general position is that most of those who criticize Marx are attacking an inaccurate stereotype. To counter this, Eagleton quotes extensively from Marx’s writing, especially from those works little known to non-Marxists who typically have read only The Communist Manifesto or who have been educated in Marxism solely by its opponents."
posted by troll at 4:33 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Das Kapital isn't too tough, really. Especially if you read one section at a time, instead of trying to cram it like I did (it was assigned to me in 11th grade - homeschooling wasn't always fun.) Just remember that Marxism is quite a bit bigger than a theory about class struggles.
posted by SMPA at 4:48 AM on June 24, 2011

Response by poster: Gosh, thank you wwwwwhat. That's superb and exactly the kind of detailed and intellectually high level (whilst still introductory) approach that I was after.
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:07 AM on June 24, 2011

I'm a member of the present Communist Party, which, despite the name, is actually a Socialist Party based on Marxism/Leninism. Our meeting place frequently has classes and seminars on Marxism (not limited to members) so maybe you could look around your area to see if something similar is offered? Also, in terms of contemporary Marxism, the Communist Party USA website as well as the People's World might interest you.
posted by eunoia at 6:26 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you want way in-depth, any of the books on Marx by G.A. Cohen, Jon Elster, or Allen Wood will be great. Cohen and Elster wrote theirs from a school often called "analytical Marxism," that offered a very different (but IMO better) gloss on Marx than the traditional; Cohen is usually considered the best. Wood is just a ridiculously good scholar who has produced enlightening interpretations of many of the major German philosophers, his stuff on Kant and Hegel is also great.

#1 choice: G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defense.

[Credibilityfilter: I'm finishing a phd in political theory at the moment]
posted by paultopia at 7:52 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

'Marxism' is a large and contested category.

It sounds like (like me) you're interested in the political/economic side as opposed to philosophy, historical materialism and so on. At some point this does mean grappling with at least volume 1 of Capital. Happily, Marx wrote his own summary of vol 1, Value, Price and Profit. Actually, it was a speech to the IWMA. You can find it published in an edition with the earlier Wage Labour and Capital.

It would be worth reading Value... to give yourself a grounding in basic concepts before tackling Capital. David Harvey's Companion... is mentioned above, it's the most comprehensive guide I've read, but Ben Fine's Marx's Capital is in its 5th edition and is very popular.

Harvey's book grew out of the lectures he's been delivering for 20+ years - recently videoed. There's another good set of videos, Kapitalism 101.

Personally, I'm an anarchist sympathetic to libertarian marxism, so after Marx it's that current I'm interested in rather than Leninism/Trotskyism/Maoism etc.

So I'd recommend the council communists such as Pannekoek and Mattick, the autonomists, and some ultra-left stuff - Dauve's Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement is very good.

A detour into the work of the 50s/60s groups Socialism or Barbarism in France and Solidarity in the UK might be of interest - especially as they (or at least their leading thinkers Castoriadis and Brinton respectively) came to move out of Marxism - arguably based on a misreading of the bureaucratisation of society and the ability of capitalism to avoid crises. Solidarity's As We See it/As We Don't See it 'manifesto's remain strong articulations of a libertarian socialist position.

In terms of magazines, there's Aufheben and Endnotes, or less heavily Socialist Standard, published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain who have held to a 'pure' anti-leninist Marxism since 1904.

Many of the links I've used come from Libcom - their library is huge, and if you use the tags they've helpfully identified key articles on various topics or by various authors.

Oh, one area to explore might be the controversy over the labour theory of value and the transformation problem. It's a big topic and I've waffled on, but google/wikipedia around the 2 phrases. Stuff around Sraffa and Ian Steedman's Marx after Sraffa should throw up some interesting debates and responses to the challenge. The analytical marxists had their own response to this and other issues (on preview, paultopia's Cohen suggestion is a good one). Steve Keen has an idiosyncratic take on Marx and this issue.

And finally, there is a detailed defence of class struggle politics and economics (and critiques of neoclassical economics) in the massive Anarchist FAQ. One caveat is that the author does spend too much time in places trying to demonstrate that anarchists came up with concepts before Marx, or that Marx had some tendencies that fed into Leninism and the state capitalists. I'm an anarchist myself, but I don't care who came first. To be fair though he does recognise the good stuff about Marx and the libertarian Marxists that followed.
posted by spectrevsrector at 7:54 AM on June 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

Allow me to propose the shamefully underrated "Introduction To Marx And Engels: A Critical Reconstruction, Second Edition by Richard Schmitt.

A long time ago, I had a small library of these introductions and this was the one volume that got shredded over time. Bent covers, coffee stained pages, and people going " I want to read the one that [a previous reader] read." It's a good book.
posted by historyisaweapon at 8:09 AM on June 24, 2011

Response by poster: I must say, this is a fascinating list. I'm listening to the David Harvey lectures. They are very good. I had always sort of vaguely known that Marxism was a huge, complex and fascinating area of study with many movements and concepts all its own. I look forward to gorging myself on this intellectual feast!
posted by lucien_reeve at 8:15 AM on June 24, 2011

Try Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station. It's almost the only classic text on Marxism that doesn't give me the ideological hives, and it's very well-written to boot. I would say it's perfect for what you're looking for.
posted by nasreddin at 8:27 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Alright. I've girded my loins and I have ordered Volume 1 of Capital from Amazon. I plan to work through it in conjunction with listening to David Harvey's lectures online.

I wonder if anybody would be interested in establishing some kind of Mefite group to read through it together?
posted by lucien_reeve at 8:53 AM on June 24, 2011

I want to second nasreddin's suggestion for To the Finland Station. This was around my first introductions to this history, and I haven't read anything that really matches it. I prefer recommending historical works too because they are cognizant of their purpose in teaching.

The best recommendation I can give you from what I can gather though, would be G. E. M. de Ste. Croix's The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. This is a historical work, whose introduction is irreplaceable. It's a great historical work, abound in footnotes for further research. But in the opening he describes his purpose and method. He will show you how one goes around defining a class, and what exploitation actually means and what it entails and what this all means for defining a society as a feudal society, or capitalist, or ancient-slave, or what have you.

Why I prefer historical works, is as Lenin said, "It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!" I recall Lenin being known as having an encyclopedic knowledge of Capital in his time, though god knows where I came across this. Then again, I'm rather sectarian, as we extremists tend to be. My point is, there is any number of ways to even interpret Marx's Capital. But historians, even though I may disagree with them at crucial points or in fundamental ways, have their heads on straight and I think have done the best job out of everyone in continuing in Marx's footsteps.

Anyways, my recommendation is a breadth of reading. Just be aware of who you're reading. Althusser (anti-Hegelian), Kolakowski (was a socialist, but then became an opponent), Paul Sweezy, me, Sartre (existentialist), Cohen (analyticalist), etc. we all have our particularities that color not only our development of Marx's thought, but the actual interpretation of his thought. Even though I'm strongly opposed to Kolakowski and Cohen's positions, I feel they are worth looking at. Not even necessarily to critique, but just to learn from.

Of course, this all maters on what kind of person you are. It appears you're not low brow enough for an introductory work, but beyond that it remains to be seen. Will you struggle through Capital Vol. 1 and leave it at that? Or will you read the remaining volumes, Marx's Theory of Surplus Value, and then examine Lenin's, Sweezy's, Hilderfing's, and Ernest Mandel's development of the stages or periodizations of capitalism and the contemporary controversy in communist circles still today on these concepts?

I recommend taking a periodic look at I've given them up a long time ago, but I've met their members and they're a good group of guys. They're on the leading edge of the communist movement in United States in my honest opinion at the moment (though it doesn't appear that way. But trust me, their internal structure is not at all represented by what happens on the website front end). Articles by them tend to be periodically good or bad, though I suppose that again depends on your preferences. Sometimes it's very contemporary, other times sharp discussions will occur over basics or fundamentals to Marxism. I'm sure if you ask there you can find good help. Though as I said before, know the authors. They have a slight Maoist tinge, but then again most groups today are like that.

Feel free to message me if you want about anything. Best of luck!
posted by SollosQ at 11:08 AM on June 24, 2011

Lots of good suggestions above; I'll just add the newly published The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism by The Nation columnist John Nichols. I was at last night's presentation The Return of Socialism in Madison, Wis., covering exactly what you say:

I find that the socialist view of the world as a set of competing classes, with one class exploiting the others, makes more and more sense. It also seems increasingly clear to me that this is going on at the moment.

It may not be anything like a basic introduction to Marxism, but it's certainly about what's happening right now and putting it in an historical context.
posted by dhartung at 12:54 PM on June 24, 2011

I second the recommendation to become a regular reader of Kasama. Its comment section is excellent, because at least from the outside it seems to combine moderation with allowing everyone to have their say, including those sharply critical of Kasama. By moderation I mean that the comments aren't a nest of spammers, posters constantly repeating themselves or endless flaming. There are lots of other excellent Marxist blogs in English, but they often come out of such a specific view that's it hard to immediately recommend them and none of them have the the lively exchange of views in the comments section that Kasama has. Often specific comments, such as a well-written dissenting comment, will be turned into a new post.
posted by Gnatcho at 5:24 PM on June 24, 2011

What Marx Thought: Really you have to read Capital. Don't be afraid! You can do it! David Harvey has published an excellent Companion to Marx's Capital, which is a written version of his popular introductory lecture series. Read both side by side and you'll have the best possible introduction to Marxism. Harvey's book matches your description of what you're after: "This is what I think Marxism does that other systems don't..."

This is the correct answer. Harvey's Companion is invaluable, and Capital is essential.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:22 PM on June 24, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all! One thing I am heartened by is the presence of so many contemporary groups. I'm not sure if Marxism (or some sub-group thereof) is "the" answer to our present economic problems, but I think it's quite heartening to see that there are people thinking about this and trying to move society in a better direction. It helps to balance out the occasionally rather depressing news of yet another right-wing government once again trying to hand more power over to their cronies in the private sector.

I have had a bit of interest in the idea of a Mefite reading group for capital - anybody else who is interested, please memail me over the next week or so. It sounds like quite an intellectual adventure.
posted by lucien_reeve at 1:49 AM on June 25, 2011

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