Getting started with Marx and Engels

February 8, 2011

Todd Chretien begins a new series that goes through the works of Marx and Engels.

"PHILOSOPHERS HAVE only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." So wrote Karl Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach when he had reached the ripe-old-age of 27.

Yet Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels spent their lives interpreting the world, covering page after page, year after year. Their Collected Works fill up 50 volumes, which average about 600 pages each.

Thus, if you read 50 pages per hour, it would take you approximately three months, reading eight hours per day, to get all the way through them. A less rigorous schedule would require most of your spare reading time for years or decades. It seems that if you dedicated yourself to simply interpreting Marx, you would have very little time left over for changing anything, never mind the whole world.

Worse still, there are many places in Marx (especially Marx--Engels generally wrote in a more direct style) where reading 50 pages per hour and understanding anything at all is out of the question. For example, in The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism, a polemic against Marx's former mentor, German religious philosopher Bruno Bauer, the two wrote the following:

Columnist: Todd Chretien

Todd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review and to Socialist Worker on the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.

It is self-evident--and history, which proves everything which is self-evident, also proves this--that Criticism does not become mass in order to remain mass, but in order to redeem the mass from its mass-like nature, that is to raise the popular language of the mass to the critical language of Critical Criticism.

"Self-evident." Really? As Liz Lemon would say, "What the what?"

The sheer volume and complexity of Marx and Engels' work means that all but a few experts really ever have the chance to, as Lenin put it, "commune with Marx," by diving into the original texts. This is a shame because much of what the pair wrote is, if challenging, straightforward enough for almost anyone to appreciate (anyone who hates capitalism, that is) and often alternately burst-out-loud funny and tear-jerkingly poignant. See Marx's rant against Louis Bonaparte and his defense of the Communards in The Civil War in France.

SO, AS Lenin famously asked, "What is to be done?" Fortunately, the Marx mountain is not quite as daunting as it seems on first glance.

Twelve of the volumes of the Collected Works are comprised of letters, as are large parts of other volumes. Many of these letters contain fascinating insights and are well worth the read, but it must also be said that Marx and Engels wrote each other nearly every single day, sometimes sending two letters per day. They were best friends, soul-mates, often living in different cities--but fortunately for them, different cities in England during a time when the postal service was hitting peak efficiency.

Thus, the thousands of pages of correspondence between them often take on the quality of late-night, drunken Facebook postings. You're free to read them all if you like, but I think it's safe to skip over the bulk. Further, there are hundreds of pages of love poems, drafts of romantic plays and even a novel that Marx wrote as a teenager. They're in the Collected Works, but we are going to leave the great majority of them aside.

Finally, on a more serious note, Marx was in the habit--remember, this was before the days of easy editing on a computer--of copying out whole pages from other philosophers and economists, and then writing long comments on these passages, which he used to prepare finished articles and books.

Again, some of these notebooks contain important clues to how Marx developed his ideas, but many of them are only half thought-out and were never intended for publication. The Grundrisse, for example, is made up of seven notebooks and runs to 800 pages, which Marx used in order to prepare the much shorter Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. For those who want to understand the development of his thought that went into his masterpiece Capital, reading the Grundrisse offers additional insights, but it is my contention that coming to grips with Capital itself is more than sufficient.

Over the course of this series, my articles will attempt to provide a sort of guide to reading the work of these great revolutionaries. My goal will not be to comment on every word, but to try to offer a framework, both historical and theoretical, to overcome some of the obstacles standing in the way of developing a deeper appreciation of Marx and Engels' most important works.

Before you run out and try to buy a copy of Marx and Engels' Collected Works (which is money well-spent in my book), you should know that the good folks at the Marxists Internet Archive have performed the heroic labor putting almost everything you could ever want or need to read online. I will provide links to all the pieces I discuss, so you can find them on the cheap.

If you prefer the feel of a book, Robert C. Tucker's Marx-Engels Reader is a well-thought-out collection which you can easily get used for a few bucks. Also, cheap copies of most of Marx and Engels' more famous titles are available in editions from International Publishers and can be found in many good libraries or used bookstores.

Many people have some basic familiarity with Marx and Engels' ideas, but if you don't, or would like a refresher course, I would recommend reading Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism from Haymarket Books.

For those who want to know more about Marx and Engels' lives, both personal and political, and to establish the timeline of world and personal events when they produced their articles and books, the best place to start is David McClellan's Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. I will be relying heavily on McClellan's work for this column, and it may be helpful if you get a copy and read along as we proceed through time.

As a general practice, I'll also include any relevant works as references at the end of these columns. Please feel free to suggest any that you think are particularly useful. I welcome questions and comments, disagreements and elaborations, and I will try to respond as time permits.

I will also give you a heads-up about what selection the next column will cover so you can read it beforehand if you're so inclined. For instance, next week, we will begin at the beginning by spending one article on Georg Friedrich Hegel, Marx's intellectual godfather.

Whereas Marx can sometimes be obscure, Hegel raised writing impenetrable prose to an art form, but I think you can get a good idea of what he was trying to get at by simply reading the first four paragraphs from the preface to his Phenomenology of Spirit. Remember: No pain, no gain.

HOWARD ZINN, in his wonderful one-man play Marx in Soho, quotes the protagonist as saying, "All I know is that I am not Marxist!"

Marx was reacting to the misuse and misunderstanding of his economic ideas by French socialists at the time. Unfortunately, things did not improve with age on this front. Certainly no modern thinker has seen his ideas so bastardized and marshaled in support of actions and policies so obviously in opposition to their original intent as has Marx. They deserve better.

Marx and Engels were products of their time, and therefore, some of their ideas have been surpassed in the struggle for human liberation over the past 125 years. However, they lived and fought during the adolescence of an era that continues to shape our lives today--the era of capitalism. Thus, understanding how they made sense of what they were up against, the theories they devised to describe capitalism, and the strategies they came up with to undo it retain a surprising vibrancy and importance in our own time.

One example will suffice. If you want to gain a greater insight into the ongoing revolution in Egypt, pick up a copy of Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Of course, more than a century-and-a-half and the deep blue sea separate Paris in 1848 from Cairo in 2011. But Marx understood, as few others have, what unites such situations across space and time.

That is why we can still learn a great deal from him, and why reading Marx and Engels is worth the effort.

Further Reading

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