Former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson once remarked that he could never get past the first page of Marx’s Capital. Irrespective of the vote-chasing reasons behind Wilson’s cynical comments, many would accept his caricature of Marxism as an arcane theoretical system whose secrets remain the preserve of the professoriate.
While this myth partly has roots in the way anti-Stalinist Marxists retreated into the academy after the defeats of the 1930s, there is a more basic problem which socialists can’t avoid. Just as modern physics must look beneath the surface order of things to view its essence, Marxism includes a method for looking beneath the appearance of the social world to its underlying structure.
Indeed, Marx once commented that science would be superfluous if things appeared as they actually are. It is because they don’t appear thus that Marxism, like physics, chemistry and biology, includes a set of concepts that may at first sight seem strange and perplexing. In fact, Marxism is more difficult than these natural sciences because it includes an account of conscious human agency.
Nevertheless, though Marxism often challenges common sense assumptions it is also rooted in everyday experiences of the world. For instance, Marx’s concept of exploitation acts as a challenge to the commonplace idea of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” but it does so from the basis of an equally common experience of work as a place where employers do their damndest to screw every last drop of effort from us. It is because Marx’s ideas are rooted in practice that, despite requiring some effort, it is not that difficult to understand them.
One undeniable problem is that Marx both developed new concepts and used existing concepts in new ways. For instance, class was a well worn concept when Marx picked it up, but he used it in a very different way to its common usage in both the 19th and 21st centuries. Conversely, it is the strangeness of the concept of abstract labour that makes it initially hard to grasp. But like gravity in Newton’s physics, the concept of abstract labour can easily be understood with a little help. It is because it offers this help that Ian Fraser and Lawrence Wilde’s The Marx Dictionary is an excellent resource that will be of use to anyone trying to make sense of Marx’s writings.
The Marx Dictionary is actually the third volume with a similar title on my shelves: what makes this one worth reading? Two reasons immediately spring to mind: it offers something different and delivers on its promise of providing an excellent introduction to many of the key concepts used by Marx. On the one hand it covers a much wider selection of concepts than are to be found in Terrell Carver’s A Marx Dictionary, published in 1987. Both books open with a brief survey of Marx’s life, but then Carver focuses on just 16 key concepts, each of which attracts a fairly substantial essay. Fraser and Wilde, by contrast, cover about ten times as many concepts in a not substantially longer book. While gains in breadth are made at the expense of some loss of depth, this does not mean that what is covered in The Marx Dictionary is superficial – far from it. Fraser and Wilde know their Marx, and provide authoritative definitions of numerous concepts.
On the other hand, by contrast with Tom Bottomore’s A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, published in 1991, Fraser and Wilde’s book is both more compact – it deals with Marx rather than Marxism – and is less concerned with debate. But whereas it is a great strength of Bottomore’s collection that it surveys debates on a very wide range of topics in a way that leaves the reader in no doubt that Marxism is a powerful, contested and living field of enquiry, Fraser and Wilde’s lack of concern for debate should not be seen as a weakness. Rather their book is best used to complement other works of Marxist theory.
For those struggling to make sense of Capital or any more recent Marxist attempt to make sense of our world, Fraser and Wilde have produced a very useful resource. The Marx Dictionary not only provides a classical Marxist account of numerous concepts, it also does so in the kind of clear style which gives the lie to the myth that Marxist theory is a preserve of academics.
The Marx Dictionary is published by Continuum, £18.99