How To Read Marx

Portrait and signature of Karl Marx in "Marx and Engels, Selected Works" Volume IV - Public DomainPortrait and signature of Karl Marx in "Marx and Engels, Selected Works" Volume IV - Public Domain

So you want to read Marx do ya? Perhaps you’re feeling a bit devious and wish to indulge in the intellectual sin of wasting your time reading clearly disproven political and economic theory. Perhaps you’re already committed to the idea of a more rational and above all more moral society, and you’ve heard that Marx has significant insights to bolster your arguments and deepen your understanding. Maybe you’ve already tried and you simply couldn’t get the meaningfulness of outdated rhetorical styles and obscure philosophic theory. Well, you’re in and out of luck.

What I will offer here is not a reading list. I’ll offer a book or two in the end for anyone interested, but it’s not the main concern. If the question is how to read Marx, then this is to be differentiated from what to read from or regarding Marx. So how are you to read Marx?


Historical chronology of ‘systems’/theories

The first major thing to note is that Marx changed his mind on a lot of things from his earliest to his latest writings. Because of this it is not entirely correct for anyone to say that if you want to know what Marx really thought you must just go read x and y works due to the contradictory nature of many things that Marx says, statements which are irreconcilable with later works or prior works. There is a set of continuing goals and problems Marx deals with in his entire corpus, but the way in which they’re dealt with is not the same. Hence you have a Marx that in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 is very Feuerbachian, and a Marx in The German Ideology which in many places strikes very closely to reductive materialism and scientism, and a Marx of Capital which has moved away from questions of culture and grand historical aims to focus on a very strict scientific theory of capital purged from explicitly humanistic and moral elements. Whatever Marx ‘truly believed’ is ultimately pointless to ascertain, but there is a necessity in finding a coherent aim or theory under all the changes over time.

Not only is there a problem in seeing a specific claim as the claim that Marx truly believed because he changed his mind elsewhere, but there is a problem in seeing absolute discontinuities where there is really a continuity. Throughout his life Marx dealt with the major issue he saw in class society: alienation, especially as it was manifesting and becoming more extreme in modernity. This concern never goes away and remains as the real background of the whole reason that the communist project should be enacted at all. Were it not for alienation there could be no justification, none, for why communism is a better social form than all other forms of class society, and hence no reason to fight to make the cause a reality. Marx changed his focus away from alienation as such in the late system of Capital towards the way in which capitalism exists and how it is alienating, but the goal of ending alienation in communism remained despite the new point of criticism. Likewise other positions of Marx can be seen to be continuous in their discontinuity, e.g. free speech, where Marx in some writings champions freedom of the press, yet in others very clearly calls for censorship of the enemy. These aren’t self-contradictions, they’re quite in line with Marx’s pragmatic concerns in political activities.


Definitions vs Concepts

“Marx’s words are like bats: one can see in them both birds and mice”
— Vilfredo Pareto

Marx, like Hegel, does not think according to regular analytic conventions. Definition is something that does not exist in Marx’s works. If you try to codify anything Marx says about something like capital as definitions, then you will in the end be perplexed because the ‘definition’ changes according to its analysis. Capital, you’ll find, has multiple meanings: as things, a process, a relation, and even an active subject in the world. Communism /socialism likewise has many meanings. For Marx communism/socialism is not just the trite and dead definition of ‘worker ownership of the means of production’. As Marx says somewhere in The German Ideology: “We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”. As you read Marx you’ll find that all things have meaning in context and do not retain that meaning in all context.

Marx is not in the business of defining by nailing down something to one moment of thought. The best that can be said about this style is that rather than directly pointing at its content as a set unchanging object, its content is ‘living’ processes that are understood in their development. Why is definition such an issue? Because no definition gives the proper perspective. Capital isn’t just generalized commodity production, or the worker-capitalist relation, or M-C-M’, or the case of the 0.1% owning 90% of the total wealth of a nation, or any specific scenario. Capital is also its history, the history of class struggle, the history of commodity exchange and money. Saying that capital is simply M-C-M’ in the industrial worker-capitalist relation completely ignores that commodities are also capital, that money is also capital, that humans are also capital, that capital is also the history of the development of value, and that capital is the entire function of capitalist society. Capital, you’ll find, includes the ideas which precede it logically and historically in value. Imagine that to really understand a fridge you would have to understand the conditions of that fridge existing, of its process of having come into being, and you have a sense of the historical and present aspects of Marx’s terms. Marx uses many momentary definitions, and all they are meant to do is to show a momentary dominant aspect of relation in context, but a relation that should not be forgotten in other contexts either. These manifestations of concepts/forces in context is not always coherent, and when it comes to processes this is perfectly reasonable. The conditions change, and the results and forms of the process change with them.



I have prior to this written an article concerning dialectics here and you may want to check it out. What I’ll say here about dialectics is brief and does not concern a so called method, but simply a resulting form; I think it’s quite easy for people to understand this on their own from just reading Marx. More often than not, attempts to expand these basic notions do far more to mystify and obscure the topic than to clarify the small obscure moments most people initially see. Dialectics here basically regard a relation that is contradictory yet necessarily united by its content.

Dialectical relationships: Such relations are of the kind of contradictory forces or concepts that in their meaning, or existence, require their opposite. This is the famous unity of opposites dialectics is described as by many Marxists. Such relations are: {worker-capitalist}; {commodity-value}; {material-ideal} etc. The worker and the boss have no meaning or existence without each other, likewise commodities and value require each other, etc.

The best way to say this, I think, is with a visualization. There is a great resource created by someone on a specific reddit sub, /r/pathofcapital, which has diagrams of dialectics that appear in Capital Vol. 1. Here is the first dialectic with one slight modification from the original, in which the error is making value a concept different from what Marx uses it as, mere shorthand for exchange-value (which is really socially necessary abstract labor time to reproduce a commodity):


↱              Use-Value            ↰

.                      Commodity                       ⇅

↳ Exchange-Value (value)


Now, what does this mean? It reads as follows: commodities, as things produced for exchange, function in exchange in two aspects. These two aspects are as use-values and exchange-values. Use-value and exchange-value are contradictory aspects. Why? Because the use-value is what a thing is desired for, and what is ‘consumed’ and falls out of the economic sphere once it is consumed; if one wants to have the use-value of a commodity one gives up its exchange-value for if the use-value is used then there is no commodity to exchange. The exchange-value is the aspect which allows a commodity to exchange for another commodity, and in the form of money this never leaves circulation. If one wants the exchange-value of a commodity, one must give up the use-value. In capitalism exchange-value is the only recognized value, hence what is referred to as value in capitalism is exclusively exchange-value. While in the commodity use-value and exchange-value are in contradiction, this is not a completely necessary contradiction for use-value. Use-value does not depend on exchange-value, but exchange value does… until money comes onto the scene and gives exchange-value the form of use-value as exchange-value itself, seeming to suspend the dependency of value on a real commodity to manifest it, and when fiat money comes about fictitious capital becomes a possibility, i.e. the appearing of activity of value where there actually is no real value.

It is necessary to state that dialectical relations are not applicable to all contradictions, something that the /r/pathofcapital maker does. Inversions are dialectical in a different sense than that of a dialectical contradiction, e.g. commodity fetishism is an inversion of the subject/object dialectical order where objects are seen as the active subjects, but inversions are not dialectic contradictions themselves. Capitalism is a supreme example of inversion! It is the most idealistic, the most abstract, the most irrational, and the most inhuman social system that has ever existed. In this system an abstraction called money (value) has more priority in reality over actual material goods; growth, the expansion of capital, is a theological ordinance that may not be broken; production must be anarchic and carried out for no definite aims other than to fuel consumptive desire so that capital flows; people work more hours, are more isolated, are more disillusioned, hopeless, and psychologically stunted and broken than ever before–humanity, ironically, now aims at living like clockwork machines rather than as human beings.

So there are a lot of things that go on which in some sense can be called dialectical, but I’m of the opinion that it is sufficient to say that it’s all just insane.


Suggested readings about reading Marx

For those of you interested in a list of some things to read:

On Dialectical Materialism by Paul Moufawad

–For a simple overview of dialectics as used and understood by Marxists. A bit of an Althusserian bent.


Dance of the Dialectic by Bertell Ollman

For getting a taste of thinking in process rather than definitions. There is an overly monistic bent to his own views of Marx.


Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society
by Bertell Ollman

— Contains about half of the chapters of DoTD, but mainly useful for seeing Marx’s view of human nature and its continuity through his philosophy and politics.


The Concept in Hegel’s Logic by Andy Blunden

— For getting a sense of what Marx’s concepts are like in form; a bit of advanced philosophy. Not really necessary unless you’re really interested in the theory of the theory of dialectics itself.


The Meaning of Hegel’s Logic by Andy Blunden

The relation of Hegel’s Logic to Marx’s work. Emphasis on Hegel


And, of course, you should really, first and above all, just read Marx’s works. Marx is very understandable on his own, and the only reason to ever go out beyond his own works concerns the theory of the theory, which, while important, isn’t really important unless you plan to be in the leadership of a party. The common person won’t be convinced by your arcane dialectics, and thusly it’s not even worth mentioning to them.

About the Author

Autodidact on philosophy and science. My aim is merely to reveal one sided views for what they are, and to offer points for critical reflection.

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