Marx: the shortlist

Martin Thomas

A reading group in London on Marx's Capital volume 1, organised by Workers' Liberty, has recently completed its labours, and discussed what to study next.

Capital volume 1, according to both conventional wisdom and the stated opinion of Marx's close comrade Frederick Engels, was Marx's "chief work", and anyone who wants to express even a half-informed opinion about the body of ideas which has become known as "Marxism" needs to study it.

It is a sizeable book, and it rewards re-reading. Yet, as Marx himself wrote in a preface: "With the exception of the section on value-form [chapter 1 section 3]... this volume cannot stand accused on the score of difficulty. I presuppose, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself". Even on a first reading, it is not hard to absorb the basic argument.

At the last session of the London reading group, some participants proposed next to tackle volumes 2 and 3 of Capital. It seems logical: if you read volume 1 of a three-volume work, then to get the full story and bring your studies to a conclusion you read volumes 2 and 3.

I argued for a different choice. Despite the volume-number tags, Capital volume 1 is a relatively complete and rounded work, and written so that it is possible to understand it well without formal training in economics. Volumes 2 and 3 contain relatively little in the way of conclusions to discussions started in volume 1. They consist much more of investigations, often incomplete and patchy, of issues which Marx considered not so central that they must treated in volume 1.

They are not volumes completed by Marx for publication. They are compilations by Engels from Marx's notes and rough drafts. They are full of repetitions, loose ends, confused jumbles of arithmetic, false starts, etc.

Before tackling the notes and rough drafts, I argued, readers should first equip themselves with a knowledge of the chief texts Marx which completed, and at least some knowledge of mainstream economics.

Marx completed a lot for publication, but his schedules were set by imperatives at the time, not by a plan to provide a tidy reading list for people over a century after his death. Much of what he wrote was journalism, and a sizeable proportion, journalism written for the bourgeois press primarily to earn a living. His biggest published book, after Capital volume 1, was Herr Vogt, a polemic against and exposure of another German émigré radical who slandered Marx in 1859.

What were the chief texts in which Marx stepped back a little from current events and directly addressed basic and epochal questions?

In Capital volume 1 Marx referred back to just four of his previous writings, other than the 1859 Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, which was essentially a first draft of parts of the first three chapters of Capital.

Those four texts were:

  • The Poverty of Philosophy, a polemic against the French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, written in 1847. Marx refers to The Poverty as many times as to all the others added together.
  • The Communist Manifesto of 1848.
  • Wage Labour and Capital, a text which originated as a series of lectures by Marx in Brussels in 1847, was published as a series of articles in a paper which Marx edited in Germany in 1849, and then again, edited by Engels, as a pamphlet in 1891.
  • The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, an account of Bonaparte's coup in France in December 1851.

In the preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx gave a list of those of his previous writings which he considered of permanent value. The list included The Poverty of Philosophy, Communist Manifesto, and Wage Labour and Capital, but not The 18th Brumaire. (The reference in Capital to The 18th Brumaire is tangential, and, though The 18th Brumaire is widely considered maybe the most brilliant of Marx's pieces of writing, all the general ideas in it are heavily entwined with detail of events in France in 1848-51). In place of The 18th Brumaire Marx mentioned a small pamphlet (originally a lecture) On the Question of Free Trade, from 1848.

After Capital volume 1, Marx completed just one other substantial work for publication: The Civil War in France, his account of the Paris Commune of 1871.

I'd argue for including seven other titles in a list of "basic" texts: the Theses on Feuerbach (1845), the March Address (1850), the Inaugural Address and Rules of the First International (1864), Wages, Price and Profit (1865), the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), the Circular Letter (1879), and Socialism, Utopian and Scientific (1880: written by Engels in collaboration with Marx).

Wages, Price and Profit is, I think, best read together with Capital (between chapters 10 and 11), and the London reading group read it that way. Excepting that leaves us a list of eleven "basic texts" supplementary to Capital.

Marx started adult life as a university student of law and then philosophy, writing a doctoral dissertation on Greek philosophy in 1841. He was a radical democrat, and philosophically influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach, a student but also a sharp critic of Hegel, who wrote a slashing critique of Christianity and would in old age join the German Social-Democratic Party.

Unable to get an academic post, Marx worked as a journalist in 1842-3. In late 1843 he moved to Paris and for the first time came into contact with working-class socialist organisations. They won him over, though Marx's socialist ideas would in time develop far beyond the ideologies then current in Paris.

Marx still felt he had much work to do to sort himself out in philosophy, and with Frederick Engels, with whom he collaborated from August 1844, he wrote about it. Eventually he "willingly... abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice", and moved on.

The Theses on Feuerbach were written as part of that effort in spring 1845. Engels discovered the Theses much later, in 1888, and published them "as the first document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world outlook" which Marx was developing.

Marx would write that "the salient points of our [his and Engels's] conception were first outlined in a scientific, although polemical, form in my Poverty of Philosophy". The title itself, Poverty of Philosophy, signalled a turn away from philosophising to scientific and empirical investigation.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the most influential writer of the time among socialists where socialists were strongest, i.e. in France. Marx had initially been favourably impressed by the Proudhonist-influenced workers' circles in Paris and by Proudhon himself, crediting him with "the first resolute, pitiless, and at the same time scientific investigation of the foundation of political economy, private property".

Marx became increasingly critical of Proudhon's historical schematising, his use of would-be Hegelian dialectics, his approach of seeking a new synthesis which would continue the "good side" of bourgeois society and discard the "bad side", and his indifference or even hostility to workers' trade-union struggles. (The socialism which Proudhon advocated was a sort of federation of workers' cooperatives, between which economic justice would be ensured by regulated fair exchange and the absence of interest charges).

Spurred by a new book from Proudhon, The Philosophy of Poverty, in 1846-7 Marx pulled his ideas together into a crisp critique. He argued especially that "it is the bad side that produces the movement which makes history, by providing a struggle", and that the elemental workers' struggle, for wages and for the defence of the workers' own organisations, provided paths by which the working class could "constitute itself as a class for itself".

That The Poverty is written as a polemic against Proudhon makes it (and especially, unfortunately, its earlier sections) more difficult for the present-day reader. Reading Proudhon's text The Philosophy of Poverty - a rambling, convoluted, and often opaque book - doesn't help much, either. However, if we read The Poverty primarily for the positive expositions of his own approach which Marx inserts, and if we avoid getting stuck in chapter one and move on briskly to the clearer chapter two (the book has only two chapters), then we get sharp and vivid passages from Marx on how human history evolves and what scientific dialectics should be.

Modern editions include, alongside The Poverty itself, two summaries written by Marx himself of the book's main points (a letter and an article). Reading those first helps.

In February 1845 Marx had been expelled by the French government, and for the next three years, until the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848, he lived in Brussels. There, he became more involved in active political organising. From early 1846 he and Engels initiated a Communist Correspondence Committee. In early 1847 they and the other CCC members were convinced to join a longer-established communist group, the League of the Just, which would soon rename itself Communist League.

Marx and Engels quickly became influential in the Communist League, and hastened its evolution away from organising secret groups (in the hope of one day introducing communism by armed coup) towards a strategy based on the mass self-mobilisation of the working class for its collective interests and for democracy.

The Communist Manifesto, written as a new manifesto for the League between December 1847 and February 1848, summed up that conception. Wage Labour and Capital and On the Question of Free Trade were ancillary texts of the same period.

From February 1848, revolutions broke out across much of Europe. They were essentially democratic revolutions, led by the middle class, against old monarchies, but the working class emerged with an independent voice and role for the first time on a large scale.

Marx was active in the revolution in Germany. With the ebb of the revolution - the democratic upheavals were, essentially, defeated everywhere, though often their after-effects could be seen in modifications which the victorious despots subsequently felt necessary - he had to move to Paris in mid-1849, and shortly afterwards to London, where he would spend the rest of his life.

The March Address was a manifesto written from London in 1850 in the hope (unfounded as it turned out) that the revolution would soon revive. It summed up lessons from 1848-9. It formulated clearly, for the first time, the idea of the independence of the working class as the guideline of Marxist politics.

Many of the other leaders of the Communist League also ended up in London. In exile, disputes brewed. In September 1850 the Communist League split, and both factions soon withered.

The conventional summary, given apparent authority by comments by Marx and Engels themselves, is that Marx then withdrew from active politics for the next 14 years and turned to research in economics.

It is not quite true. When the First International was founded in 1864, Marx was quickly brought on to its committee as the "representative of the German workers", a status which proves that he had remained in circulation among the radical German workers exiled in London, and he quickly brought a number of other Communist League veterans along with him.

As well as attending meetings and, for example, working to support Communist League members in Germany hauled up in court after the defeat of the revolution, Marx wrote surveys to draw the lessons from the events of 1848-50 - The Class Struggles in France and The Eighteenth Brumaire.

He also spent much time studying. From 1857-8 onwards he wrote a succession of notes and drafts from which he would later produce Capital volume 1 and which provided the basis for Engels's compilation of volumes 2 and 3 and Kautsky's compilation of three volumes entitled Theories of Surplus-Value.

In those studies he made two major breakthroughs. In his early texts Marx agreed that wages would gravitate to a physical-subsistence minimum (the "iron law of wages"). In fact wages are determined by "subsistence" only with the qualification that "subsistence" depends on "the level of civilisation" and "habits and expectations", not just bare physical requirements.

Marx also found that whereas previously he had followed other economists in talking of "labour" being bought and sold, in fact what workers sell is labour-power, not labour. Engels's introduction to the 1891 edition of Wage Labour and Capital would provide the crispest explanation of this point.

The British labour movement in this period was at a low ebb. Trade unions were almost all unmilitant craft unions, not advancing politically beyond the Liberal Party. Socialist discussion was confined to small circles of ageing Chartists and Owenites.

The First International, from 1864 to the early 1870s, recreated a mass political labour movement, and Marx got involved. For it he wrote his third "manifesto", the Inaugural Address and the Rules. There for the first time Marx spelled out that "the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves". He also showed that the working class could raise itself to greater strength even within capitalist society by battles in which, though only on partial question, workers could win victories for the principle of "social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class".

In 1871 the working class took political power for the first time, though only very briefly (for nine weeks) and in one city (Paris - the Paris Commune). Marx responded with a pamphlet for the First International, The Civil War in France. For him the vindication of the workers' struggle was more important than the fact that some of the prominent English trade unionists in the First International were alarmed and antagonised by his defence of the Commune.

The Commune, wrote Marx, had shown that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes". The working class had to "break the modern State power" and replace it a "working-class government", a "political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour".

The First International collapsed in the 1870s, and by then Marx was in ill-health. He would write two important texts which are almost manifestos, in the form of critiques of programmatic documents produced by German comrades.

The Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) is the most mind-rattling of Marx's texts. Marx cites the clauses of a German socialist manifesto, one after the other. Almost every first-time reader thinks, as they read each clause: "That looks all right. What could Marx object to in that?" And then Marx shows the clause to be nonsense. He was reworking his critique of previous socialist ideologies, already expressed in The Poverty and in section four of the Communist Manifesto, on the basis of the more rounded understanding which he had achieved through his work on Capital.

The Gotha Critique is usually published with a letter by Engels on the same issue which serves as a good introduction for the first-time reader.

In 1878 the German socialist movement was forced to move most of its activity underground or into exile by new repressive legislation, which would last until 1890. Some of its leaders responded by advocated a milder, less aggressively and distinctively working-class, approach.

Marx and Engels wrote a blistering reply, the Circular Letter. "We have stressed the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as the great lever of the modern social upheaval... We cannot ally ourselves with people who openly declare that the workers are too uneducated to free themselves and must first be liberated from above..."

Capital contains little directly about politics, and Marx's earlier political writings lacked the fully-developed analysis of capitalist dynamics made in Capital. A new synthesis of political manifesto and economic-historical analysis was provided by Engels.

Engels was spurred to write by the demands of polemic. In 1877-8 he wrote a response to Eugen Dühring, a Berlin professor who was winning influence in the German socialist movement with a doctrine in some ways similar to Proudhon's. Marx read Engels's whole text before publication, and himself contributed a chapter of it.

Some of Engels's Anti-Dühring is clogged up for today's reader by its close engagement with Dühring's writings (voluminous, idiosyncratic, inaccessible, and uninfluential today). But Engels wrote whole large sections of Anti-Dühring as straight exposition of his and Marx's politics, and of how they were rooted in the dynamics of capitalism and working-class struggle.

Those large sections were extracted and reassembled into a pamphlet under the title Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, which was the basic handbook of "Marxism" for Lenin's, Trotsky's, and Luxemburg's generation.

The list

Communist Manifesto

1. Theses on Feuerbach
2. Wage Labour and Capital
3. On the Question of Free Trade
4. Poverty of Philosophy; Marx also summarised the argument in the letter to Annenkov and letter to Schweitzer
5. March Address
6. Inaugural Address and Rules
7. Civil War in France
8. Critique of the Gotha Programme (also summarised in Engels' letter to Bebel).
9. Circular Letter
10. Socialism, Utopian and Scientific