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Understand Marxist theory (Part I)

A guide by M. A. Krul (London, United Kingdom)
(REAL NAME)   

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Marx & Engels in General:

You'll probably want to start with reading on Marx & Engels in general, and their position in 19th Century thought, etc. The best start I think would be to read Karl Marx: A Biography; Fourth Edition. Very entertaining and accessible overview of Marx as a person and thinker. A second useful book of this kind would be The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge Studies in the History and Theory of Politics). Absolutely essential reading on Engels is The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels: A Reinterpretation. Much of this is a very correct criticism of the anti-Engels views of most modern Marxist authors, which may be easier to understand if you have read the economic works recommended below first. But you might want to read this book twice, it is worth it.

For understanding the times and background Marx & Engels came from, it's necessary to have a good working knowledge of the history of the 19th Century on the continent. There are many, many books with such information; any general overview of modern history will do. You can get them as precise or as general as you want. In any case it is important to keep the chronology of events in your head, and to understand the political systems of the UK, France, Germany and Russia from Napoleon's defeat on, as well as understanding the revolutions of 1848 and 1871. If you get confused, there's the Dictionary of 19th-Century History, The Penguin (Dictionary, Penguin) that can aid you.

Then you can start with each of the aspects or subjects that Marx & Engels wrote about, depending what interests you most. I'll just give titles per subject, choose whichever subject you want to start with yourself. They all obviously refer to each other, so you'll need to do all of the subjects to really grasp the matter.


Marxist Economics:

This is probably the subject you'd want to start with, or else with philosophy. But I'd begin here. This is also by far the broadest subject in terms of books written about it and different views. I'll just suggest some books I consider very good, beginning with introductions and getting increasingly specialized.

First, you'll need to have an idea what exactly are the basic intuitions which gave Marx & Engels the opportunity for their criticism of capitalism. The thing to read here, though it is written in difficult philosophical language, are the so-called Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the Communist Manifesto (Great Books in Philosophy)). If you do not understand it at first, it doesn't matter; it may become apparent later. It helps to have a rudimentary knowledge of the method of G.W.F. Hegel for this, but it's not strictly necessary. Another book of importance to read is Proudhon: What is Property? (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought). Proudhon was an anarchist and dd not get along with Marx at all, but this book is a good critique of property rights, which can pave the way for an understanding of the possibilities of radical economic criticism. Finally, a must-read (very exciting reading too) is The Condition of the Working Class in England (Classics S).

I would then not yet begin reading Das Kapital; it is very difficult reading, even for Marxist experts, and is exceedingly long. If you're anything like me, you'll want to understand what could be wrong with the common, orthodox view of economics taught everywhere first. You know, supply and demand, wages vs. inflation, etc. I think the best way to understand the superiority of Marxist economics is this approach, to gradually get from orthodox neoclassical to increasingly radical views. Therefore, I'd start with reading some radical neoclassical critiques. To begin with: Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences, and The ABCs of Political Economy: A Modern Approach, as well as A Guide to What's Wrong with Economics (Anthem Frontiers of Global Political Economy). Finally, good criticism on historical grounds is Economics and World History: Myths and Paradoxes and The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Foundations of Economics: A Beginner's Companion is also a very good critical introduction. That forms step 1.

Then you will want to get introductions to Marxist economics as contrasting this approach. There are several good ones that you'll want to read. Marx's Capital Fourth Edition is a must read. Same goes for Reading Capital Politically although I would skip the introduction on that one. Very useful is also The Limits to Capital (I've read and reviewed the old edition but I assume the new is as good). Finally, Rereading 'Capital' and Anti-Capitalism: A Marxist Introduction. That forms step 2.

Then we can go on to more specialized works, to get to the bottom of the matter. The exact sequence of these doesn't matter much, just read them in any order you feel enhances understanding. Imperative is that you read Capital and Exploitation. But be sure to skip the chapters on Engels (you'll see later why). Equally essential is reading Beyond Capital: Marx's Political Economy of the Working Class. Both are tough reading but very rewarding to understand and essential to grasping the Marxist critique of political economics. I'd also read Economic Theory and Ideology as well as Social Capital Versus Social Theory (Routledge Studies in Contemporary Political Economy). Finally, to really understand the Law of Value, read The Value of Marx: Political Economy for Contemporary Capitalism (Routledge Frontiers of Political Economy). Then at this point it should be possible to read Das Kapital itself without too much trouble. The Penguin edition is quite nice, in three parts: Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics), Capital : A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics) (Volume 2) and Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3 (Penguin Classics). Also be sure to read Theories of Surplus Value (Great Minds Series). That would be step 3.

Then for the currently relevant, technical works. A highly useful critique of game theory can be found in Game Theory: A Critical Introduction. A critique of consumption theories can be found at The World of Consumption: The Material and Cultural Revisited (Economics as Social Theory) (note this book has two different editions, both are worthwhile). A critique of modern development economics is Development Policy in the Twenty-First Century: Beyond the Post-Washington Consensus (Routledge Studies in Development Economics) and The New Development Economics: Post Washington Consensus Neoliberal Thinking. Essential reading to understand shopfloor conflict, wage and profit differentials and inflation in modern discussions is Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparity Under Capitalist Competition and Distributional Conflict and Inflation. For a Marxist analysis of the "New Economy", "Virtual Age" and stuff like that, read Technology and Capital in the Age of Lean Production: A Marxian Critique of the "New Economy" (S U N Y Series in Radical Social and Political Theory). An application of Marxist analysis to the Soviet Union itself is The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience: Essay in the Critique of Political Economy (Praeger Series in Political Economy). This will be impossible to consider until you have a very good grasp of the power of Marxist analysis though; you'll definitely need to have read Weeks and such first (and agree with them). And if you've done all this, then there's a plethora of Marxist political economy still to read, but I'm sure by that time you won't need my help.


Historical materialism and Marxist views of history:

Here I would begin reading Development of the Monist View of History, The. Then also Fundamental Problems of Marxism by the same. Secondly, it is essential to read Marx' own example of Marxist history, which is The Eighteenth Brumaire Of Louis Bonaparte, an excellent and eminently readable work (to understand this, it's necessary to know the background of France in the period 1848-1870; check the historical overview you chose). Another book that goes into Marxist criticism of idealism is Karl Marx's Theory of Ideas (Studies in Marxism and Social Theory). Essential in any case is also Friedrich Engels' two major works dealing with this subject, Anti-Dühring (in Werke, 43 Bde., Bd.20, Anti-Dühring. Dialektik der Natur) and The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, in the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan. Both are very good reads and easy for anyone: Engels is a much better writer than Marx in terms of ease of reading.
There are also many modern applications of historical materialism to current subjects. A good example of its application to modern economics is Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account (Historical Materialism Book Series). Absolutely crucial is understanding the historic development of capitalism and the concept of primitive accumulation. The best books on this subject are The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation and The London Hanged: Crime And Civil Society In The Eighteenth Century. Also extremely readable and useful is E.P. Thompson's seminal work The Making of the English Working Class. On the subject of imperialism, a good book (despite the somewhat dubious title) is Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World.

This is the first part of my guide. The second part goes into Marxist philosophy, Marx and the environment and post-Marx&Engels authors.

Products mentioned include:
Marx & Engels in General:
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Marxist Economics:
5.  The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the Communist Manifesto (Great Books in Philosophy) [Unabridged]  by Karl Marx
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15.  Reading Capital Politically  by Harry Cleaver
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16.  The Limits to Capital  by David Harvey
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17.  Rereading 'Capital'  by Ben S. Fine
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18.  Anti-Capitalism: A Marxist Introduction  by Alfredo Saad-Filho
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19.  Capital and Exploitation  by John Weeks
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20.  Beyond Capital: Marx's Political Economy of the Working Class  by Michael A. Lebowitz
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28.  Game Theory: A Critical Introduction  by Yanis Varoufakis
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32.  Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparity Under Capitalist Competition  by Howard Botwinick
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34.  Technology and Capital in the Age of Lean Production: A Marxian Critique of the "New Economy" (S U N Y Series in Radical Social and Political Theory)  by Tony Smith
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Historical materialism and Marxist views of history:
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37.  Fundamental Problems of Marxism  by G. V. Plekhanov
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38.  The Eighteenth Brumaire Of Louis Bonaparte  by Karl Marx
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41.  The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, in the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan  by Friedrich Engels
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Author

M. A. Krul (London, United Kingdom)
(REAL NAME)   
Qualifications: Marxist student of philosophy and economics
Last updated: 11/26/06
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