Socialist Worker

What to read by, and about, Karl Marx

Marx was a prolific writer. Simon Basketter looks at where socialists who are interested in his ideas should start

Issue No. 2602

As his ideas developed, Marx became a powerful writer

As his ideas developed, Marx became a powerful writer


The best place to start reading Marx is with The Communist Manifesto, which is essential for every socialist.

While the glorious beginning, “A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe” is no longer the agreed one, the book is available in countless cheap editions.

As is the case with many of Marx’s writings it is usually best avoiding whichever academic introduction it comes with and skip to the text.

As he developed his grasp of how capitalism works Marx became an ever-more powerful writer.

The Theses on Feuerbach is short but a statement of intent. “The philosophers have heretofore only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.”

In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx lays out a theory of alienation—the way that capitalism strips workers of humanity by distorting their relationship to their own work and the world around them.

The German Ideology is a blunderbuss of Marx’s early ideas—but it’s best to read the shorter version without the lengthy explanations of why various philosophers are idiots.

Marx’s big books—Critique of Political Economy, the Grundrisse and the great Capital—aren’t as hard to understand as is often made out. But they do take a bit of effort.

Capital in particular is worth persevering with.

It is illustrated throughout with examples of human struggle, from the workers fighting for the ten-hour day to black Americans fighting against slavery.

There is purple prose and grouchy footnotes, and there is theory to change the world.

There are many guides to Capital to help you on your way a but a very good place to start the journey is A Reader’s Guide To Marx’s Capital by Joseph Choonara.

Making a Marx on history—celebrating 200 years since Karl Marxs birth
Making a Marx on history—celebrating 200 years since Karl Marx's birth
  Read More

There are thousands of books on Marx and Marxism. Most are useless—those that do not seek to rubbish Marx try to bury him in complexity.

However many are not, such as Alex Callinicos’ The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. This provides a concise and accurate summation of Marx’s ideas precisely to encourage changing the world as well as understanding it.

In terms of biography Francis Wheen’s Karl Marx is a yomp which does Marx as the sort of bloke Wheen would like to go to lunch with.

Its politics err on the trite but it’s better than a number of worthier tombs for the gossip and anecdotes.

The literary critic Terry Eagleton has written a number of short defences of Marx in recent years including Why Marx Was Right.

But the clearest short exposition of Marx’s ideas is still Chris Harman’s How Marxism Works.

The US socialist Hal Draper wrote at great length, precision, insight and occasionally irritatingly about Marx’s writings.

But perhaps the best place to end is a pamphlet Marx wrote in 1871 called The Civil War in France.

This was about the Paris Commune, where workers “for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their “natural superiors” … the old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag”.

It lasted for two months until it was suppressed by murderous military repression.

In a rage Marx in five days wrote his brilliant pamphlet which he then read out loud to his fellow socialists.

We can’t hear him but we can read him.

Many of Marx’s writing are available online. The best place to go is marxists.org, or order books online at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop 

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