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Study Guide to Marxism

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote a great deal, on a wide variety of subjects and over a long period of time.  Some of their writing was in response to political issues of the day which are long forgotten, some was concerned to criticise opponents who held views now rarely encountered, while some was of a very abstract and philosophical nature.  So it can be very difficult for someone with no previous acquaintance with their work to know where to begin.  And diving in at some unsuitable place (Capital, vol. 1, ch. 1, for instance) may discourage further exploration.  This study guide is therefore directed at Party members who have read none or very little of the writings of Marx and Engels; it is intended to steer them through the mass of texts and commentaries, by suggesting items to read and points to look out for and consider while reading.

The World Socialist Movement has published much on Marxism, but three things in particular stand out.  The March 1983 Socialist Standard was a special issue on the centenary of Marx’s death, and contains some excellent articles.  The 1978 pamphlet Some Aspects of Marxian Economics (recently reprinted) has a clear account of a part of Marx’s ideas which many find rather technical, his labour theory of value.  The pamphlet Historical Materialism, dating from 1975, is an exposition of the materialist conception of history.  Reading these three is certainly the best way of preparing for the original texts.

Marx’s writings cannot be simply divided into those on economics, those on history and those on politics, for these subjects were for Marx closely interrelated.  But taking each of these headings in turn, we can offer some suggested reading.

Marxian Economics

The best short account of Marx’s approach to economics is his Value, Price and Profit (sometimes known as Wages, Price and Profit).  Given as a speech in 1865, this argues against the view that real wages can never rise, and in so doing, it explains in straightforward terms the key concepts of labour power, exchange value, surplus value and exploitation.  An earlier work of a similar nature is Wage Labour and Capital, from 1847.

With a bit of preparation, such as reading the works already cited, Capital will be found to be less formidable than is often thought.  But it is not easy reading, and is not something to be read quickly or just the once.  We would suggest that the part to be tackled initially is chs. 1-9 of volume 1 (1867).  It may be helpful to outline Marx’s presentation of topics.

Under capitalism, wealth takes the form of an immense accumulation of commodities, so Marx begins (ch. 1) by an analysis of the commodity, which leads to the distinction of use-value, value and exchange-value.  The value of a commodity is the amount of labour-time socially necessary for its production.  The air has use-value but no value, as its usefulness does not result from labour.  Different forms of value are discussed before Marx turns to the fetishism of commodities, whereby commodities seem to take on a life of their own, rather than being seen as products of human labour.

Then comes (chs. 2 & 3) a discussion of money, the universal measure of value and means of exchange.  A general rise in the price of commodities may result from a fall in the value of money (inflation).  The exchange of commodities follows the circuit Commodity-Money-Commodity (C-M-C).  The total of such circuits is the circulation of commodities, and the starting-point of capital.  Alongside the C-M-C circuit is that of M-C-M (i.e. buying in order to sell), and money which circulates in this way is potentially capital.  Money which begets money (M-C-M’) is the general formula of capital (ch. 4).

But a contradiction now appears (ch. 5), as Marx shows that the creation of surplus-value and conversion of money into capital cannot come about by commodities being sold above their value or being bought below it – it is not circulation that creates value. Instead, there is a commodity the consumption of which (uniquely) creates value, viz. a person’s mental and physical capabilities for work, or labour power (ch. 6).  Only under certain circumstances, however, is labour power offered for sale as a commodity.  When it is, the value of labour power is determined by the quantity of means of subsistence necessary for the worker’s maintenance.  Capitalists buy labour power, workers sell it in return for wages.

Besides human activity, the work process needs a subject for people to work on (ch. 7).  Some subjects of labour are spontaneously provided by nature (e.g. fish in the sea or ore in the ground); but most – called raw materials – have been previously worked on by labour (e.g. ore extracted from the ground and ready for washing).  Also needed are instruments of labour (tools etc.).  Together, instruments and subjects of labour make up the means of production.

But back to labour power, which is a source of more value than it has itself.  The capitalist, having bought the labour power, can oblige the worker to work for longer than is required to produce the value of that labour power, and so surplus value is produced.  Capital can be seen as being of two types (ch. 8).  Constant capital, represented by means of production, undergoes no alteration of value in the process of production; but variable capital, represented by labour power, produces an excess or surplus-value.  Since the value of constant capital merely reappears in the product, the rate of surplus-value is to be measured by comparing the surplus-value with just the variable capital, not the whole capital.

The time that the worker spends on producing surplus value is surplus labour-time, and the work done during this time is surplus labour (ch. 9).  The rate of surplus-value can also be measured, equivalently, by comparing necessary to surplus labour.  The aim of capitalist production is the production of surplus value.

We should stress that Capital is not just a book about economics, as it contains a mass of historical material as well.  For instance, ch. 10 of vol. 1 deals with working conditions in the early capitalist factories.  Chs. 26-31 cover the historical origins of capitalism, including how the agricultural population was moved off the land in the Highland Clearances.  Ch. 32 is a short description of the historical tendency of capitalist production, with a reference to the expropriators being expropriated.  In addition, ch. 19 discusses the difference between appearance and reality in capitalist economics (on which see ‘The Illusion of Ideology’, Socialist Standard June 1981).

Materialist Conception of History

A basic statement of Marx’s approach to history is what is known as the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859; for short, the 1859 Preface); the key passage is reprinted in various places, including the Historical Materialism pamphlet.  This introduces the idea of the economic structure of society (the base, as it is often called), which consists of the relations of production.  A legal and political superstructure arises on the foundation of these relations.  In times of social stability, the relations of production correspond to the state of development of material productive forces; social revolutions are engendered when the productive forces develop so as to come into conflict with the established relations of production.

A more discursive presentation of historical materialism can be found in Part One of Marx’s and Engels’ joint work The German Ideology (1845-6).  This was in fact the first written account of their new theory.  A number of crucial propositions are set forth that before people can “make history” they must be in a position to live, so that the first historical act is producing the means to satisfy people’s needs; that life determines consciousness, not vice versa; that the ideas of the ruling class are always the ruling ideas.  Under capitalism the division of labour is an alienating, restricting factor, whereas socialism will render people free to choose to engage in a range of activities.

Historical materialism receives a rather more concrete exposition in the famous Communist Manifesto (1848; more accurately, the Manifesto of the Communist Party).  This was issued in the name of Marx and Engels, but was essentially Marx’s work.  The Party published a centenary edition in 1948, with a useful examination of ‘The Last 100 Years’.  Like many editions, this also contains Engels’ preface to the 1888 English translation, which is invaluable in making clear that not all of what had been penned forty years previously remained defensible, especially the centralising (in fact, state capitalist) political measures proposed.  Engels also sets out what he considers to be the fundamental proposition of the Manifesto, the centrality to history of the mode of production and class struggle.  The main text itself is a lively polemic, emphasising the historically revolutionary role of the capitalist class, but also its production of its own gravediggers – the proletariat who will destroy it.  The working-class movement is the conscious movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority.

A specific application of the materialist approach to history can be found in two works by Engels, Socialism Utopian and Scientific (1880) and The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).  The latter chronicles the supposed ending of matrilineal descent (“the world historical defeat of the female sex”), the decline of clan-based society, and the rise of the state and class society.  However, not all of Engels’ conclusions here can be sustained (see ch. 1 of the Women and Socialism pamphlet, 1986).

Historical materialism, of course, does not just deal with the analysis of the past, it also shows how society can be changed.  Marx made it clear that he aimed not at interpreting the world but at changing it in his brief Theses on Feuerbach (1845).  Here, too, and also in The German Ideology, Marx deals with the origin of ideas (on which see also ‘Men, Ideas and Society’, Socialist Standard September 1973).

Working Class Political Action

For Marx’s political views, i.e. his views on political activity and political programmes, the Communist Manifesto is again relevant.  See also the final section (entitled ‘Strikes and Combinations of Workers’) of The Poverty of Philosophy (1847).  Both works deal with the nature of the Socialist revolution, and the latter contains the important concept of a class for itself (i.e. a united class-conscious working class), which Marx elsewhere contrasts with a class in itself.

The Civil War in France (1871) contains Marx’s contemporary reactions to the establishment and defeat of the Paris Commune.  This work is often relied on by Leninists for support for the view that workers should “smash the state”; for discussion of the validity of this interpretation, see ‘Lenin vs. Marx on the State’, Socialist Standard April 1970.

Many interesting points on political activity emerge from Marx’s and Engels’ involvement from 1864-76 with the International Working Men’s Association (the First International).  The Provisional Rules, which Marx drafted in 1864, proclaimed that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class, and that this was a world-wide, not a national problem.  The 1872 Speech on the Hague Congress acknowledged the possibility of workers winning political power by peaceful means.

The IWMA acted essentially as a liaison body between trade unions in various countries.  Marx’s and Engels’ activity in it was based on the assumption that independent working-class political activity would grow out of independent working-class action on the economic field through trade unions, and that a socialist political consciousness would develop out of independent political activity.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that they were wildly overoptimistic with regard to the latter, but they were by no means uncritical supporters of a trade unionism and political action that merely sought better wages and conditions within capitalism, as can be seen from their repeated calls on trade unionists to take political action to abolish the wages system.  See, for example, the conclusion to Marx’s Value, Price and Profit, and some of the articles which Engels contributed in 1881 to the weekly journal Labour Standard, especially those on Trades Unions and A Working Men’s Party.

The most misinterpreted of Marx’s later works is the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), where leftists claim that Marx distinguished Socialism from Communism and advocated the dictatorship of the proletariat.  On this subject, see ‘Themes from Marx’, Socialist Standard June 1982.  For a full discussion of ‘Marx’s Conception of Socialism’, see Socialist Standard December 1973.

The works of Marx and Engels should be read in complete form, not in the many anthologies which present selections out of context.  Even here, though, there are exceptions.  One is The German Ideology, most of which is no longer of vital relevance; but Lawrence & Wishart publish an edition containing the seminal Part One (and the Theses on Feuerbach).  The other is a Penguin, Karl Marx Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy (edited by T. Bottomore & M. Rubel), a very good collection which consists of short thematically-arranged passages.

Many shorter works are available separately in editions published in Moscow or Beijing, and in various volumes of selected works.  The Labour Standard articles by Engels can be found in the Moscow publication Marx and Engels on Britain.  Penguin publish the three volumes of Capital (as do Lawrence & Wishart), the Communist Manifesto and Origin of the Family….  There is also a Pelican Marx Library, four volumes containing (among much else) the following of the items mentioned here Theses on Feuerbach, 1859 Preface, Communist Manifesto, Provisional Rules of the First International, Civil War in France, Speech on the Hague Congress and Critique of the Gotha Programme.  Some of the chapters of Capital on the emergence of capitalism are/were available separately as Genesis of Capital (published in Moscow).

The secondary literature on Marxism is enormous, much of it being written from a hostile, a Leninist or an overly-academic standpoint.  But the following are worth recommending

M. Rubel with M. Manale Marx Without Myth. Blackwell 1975. (A study of Marx’s writing against the background of his life and contemporary events.  Be sure to read the Introduction.)

J. Sanderson An Interpretation of the Political Ideas of Marx and Engels. Longman 1969.  (A straightforward, objective account; see review in Socialist Standard January 1971.)

G. Cohen Karl Marx’s Theory of History. Clarendon Press 1978. (Aims at providing a rigorous presentation of historical materialism; see review in Socialist Standard August 1979.  Many members will find this book very hard-going, though.)

T. Carver Marx’s Social Theory. Oxford University Press 1982. (Like Cohen, this starts out from Marx’s 1859 Preface, but sees it as expressing a hypothesis for research rather than a law of social development.)

B. Fine Marx’s ‘Capital’.  Macmillan 1989.  (A short introduction to Marxian economics; see review in Socialist Standard December 1989, and of an earlier edition in Socialist Standard  June 1978.)

K. Graham The Battle of Democracy. Wheatsheaf 1986. (Ch. 9 is a good account of Marx’s ideas on history and politics.)

A. Buick & J. Crump State Capitalism. Macmillan 1986.  (Ch. 1 describes the economics of capitalism in Marxian terms.)

Some questions to consider

Communist Manifesto

1. What did Marx mean in claiming that the bourgeoisie (capitalist class) “creates a world after its own image”?

2. In what way did the bourgeoisie play a historically revolutionary role?

3. Why is the proletariat alone a really revolutionary class?

4. Which single sentence sums up Communist theory?

5. Why is capital a social, not a personal, power?

Critique of the Gotha Problem

1. How is communist society in its early stages influenced by the capitalist society it has emerged from?

2. How does the more advanced form of communism differ?

3. What is the dictatorship of the proletariat?  Does Marx see it as a form of society between capitalism and communism?


1. How does exchange value differ from value?

2. Is money a commodity?

3. How does capital differ from money which is not capital?

4. How does a historical and moral element enter into the determination of the value of labour power?

5. Why is it appropriate to discount constant capital in calculating the rate of surplus value?

German Ideology

1. Do circumstances make people, or vice versa?

2. Why do people appear to be freer under capitalism than earlier social systems?  Is this appearance in fact correct?

Theses on Feuerbach

Did Marx believe that philosophers could change the world?

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