As my political awakening unfolded a few years ago, I began to read more widely from sources beyond the mainstream of U.S. commentary. What I was reading often made reference to Karl Marx. At some point, I realized that I had never read Marx. The thought had never crossed my mind prior to that moment, but it suddenly seemed very odd that I was able to graduate with honors from a decent public high school and a fine private university without ever reading one of the great philosophers of all time. I’d never even read of him by reference, that I could remember.
Here is all that I knew of Marx from all those years of formal education: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” and “religion is the opiate of the masses.”
So, I decided to dive right in to Marx’s major work, Das Kapital. It didn’t take long for me to give up in abject frustration. I wrote this to a friend.
I’ve been slogging my way through “Capital.” I’m finding Marx incredibly difficult to follow, and feel like a 5-year-old. Is there some resource out there that will help me make sense of his basic theories? Especially having difficulty with concepts like surplus value, the distinction between use value and exchange value, etc. I’m a serious person who knows how to concentrate and have been told that I’m fairly bright – but I’m not understanding the details at all.
If you are starting your adventures in Marx with “Das Kapital” then my immediate advice would be – STOP!
He recommended beginning with secondary sources and some of Marx’s shorter, earlier, more accessible writings, and I took his advice, abandoning Capital for the time being. In its place I began to read (and listen to) Marxists of our day. Paul D’Amato’s The Meaning of Marxism was particularly helpful, as was much of the material from We Are Many.
After a couple years of studying, I gave Capital a try again, and once again put it down somewhere in the first few chapters. I was convinced that I would never have the fortitude to complete it.
Then in early 2015 DSA ran a series of video conference sessions with Joseph Schwartz that was an introduction to Marx. I found that I was understanding the material fairly well, and the idea came to me to make another run at Capital as a summer reading project. I’d also listened to another talk from We Are Many about the book, and they had mentioned that if you can get through the first few chapters, the rest of it is easier going. I took a deep breath, picked up my Kindle and started again from the beginning.
It took me months of on-again, off-again effort, but I finally finished reading the first volume last evening. Although none of it is especially “easy” to read, I agree that the first few chapters are the most difficult. I also found that there were parts, mainly those featuring formulas, that I just could not decipher. I soldiered on through these, deciding to come back and research those parts further, not allowing the lack of mastery of each concept to impede progress. It was a comfort to know that even those who have read this work dozens of times still find that they gain insight upon each new encounter.
The main things that struck me throughout the experience were both unexpected. First of all, it is uncanny that Marx’s descriptions of how capitalism works explain what we see going on in society today. The exploitation, alienation and oppression that we experience are part and parcel of the capitalist mode of production, and Marx describes it all with incredible precision. For something first published in 1887, the insights and the accuracy of analysis concerning what is happening today is astonishing.
I was also struck by Marx’s wicked sense of humor. There were times when I literally laughed out loud while reading Capital. This was certainly a surprise.
I would not have been able to make sense of this book absent a foundation of knowledge and without some helpful resources. If you’re interested in attempting to read it, I would encourage you to do so. It’s an arduous adventure, but well worth the trouble. Here are some links that may be helpful.
From We Are Many:
How to Read Marx’s Capital (2008) – Larry Bradshaw
Introduction to Marx’s Capital (2010) – Sid Patel
Understanding Marx’s Capital (2014) – Leia Petty
Introduction to Marx’s Capital (2015) – Sid Patel and Daphna Their