Reading Marx’s Capital

marx-das-kapitalAs 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.

He replied.

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.

Capital – Full Text and Downloads at

Reading Capital with David Harvey (Video Series)

The Meaning of Marxism

BBC In Our Time: Marx

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

Capitalism Threatens Democracy – NYT Op Ed

From Thomas Edsall:

Thomas Piketty’s new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” described by one French newspaper as a “a political and theoretical bulldozer,” defies left and right orthodoxy by arguing that worsening inequality is an inevitable outcome of free market capitalism. Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, does not stop there. He contends that capitalism’s inherent dynamic propels powerful forces that threaten democratic societies.

Read More: Capitalism vs. Democracy –

What I’m Reading: Subterranean Fire

Sharon Smith presents the history of radicalism in the U.S. Labor Movement from the late 1800s forward, with an eye toward reclaiming its rich heritage for the Working Class struggles of today.

The title of the book comes from something Labor martyr August Spies said prior to his execution. “If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement, then hang us. Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, the flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.”

The Crisis of Civilization

The Crisis of Civilization is a documentary about the end of the Industrial Age based on the book by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed. Director Dean Puckett and Animator Lucca Benney remix, interweave and otherwise mashup clips and images from far and wide to illustrate Ahmed’s narration.

The film provides compelling evidence that the many crises facing us in our day are all interrelated manifestations of a single failing global system. The question is not whether there should be dramatic changes to our way of life. For better or worse, change is already upon us. The question is whether we can find a way to sustain human life and liberty in the coming age.

Our days of denial are coming to a close.

In Depth with Chris Hedges

The excellent conversation with Chris Hedges that aired live on Book TV New Year’s Day is now available to view online. This broadcast is three hours long, but it is highly recommended to anyone who cares about liberty (and life) on this planet.

Follow the link below for more.

In Depth with Author and Journalist Chris Hedges. [C-SPAN] – On Book TV’s In Depth, author and journalist, Chris Hedges. The Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent spends three hours taking viewers’ calls, emails and tweets on topics such as terrorism, religion and politics.

What I’m Reading This Week

One of the things that I like best about the Kindle is that I can keep a wide variety of reading material at my fingertips. I find that I read more, because I can steal ten minutes here and there (taking a break at midday, waiting in the car for my daughter to be dismissed from school, etc.), and I don’t have to choose ahead of time what I’ll be reading. If I don’t have time to dig into a chapter of something difficult or laborious, I can read a poem or magazine article. If something isn’t holding my attention for whatever reason, I can move on to something else. My friend, Joel Anderson, calls this “Kindle Assisted Attention Deficit Disorder” but I actually think that the device helps me to keep my attention focused. It’s not like reading on the Web where there are constant distractions, and it’s not like being trapped in a room with a single volume (say, War and Peace).

In any case, I thought that from time to time I’d share some of the things that I’m reading. Most of these will be available for Kindle. Many of them will be available free-of-charge, either in the Public Domain, free to Amazon Prime members, or available from a lending library. I might occasionally share my own thoughts on what I’m reading as well, but would encourage you to read for yourself.

Also, I’d love to know what you’re reading. Feel free to post comments with observations, recommendations or a simple bibliography.

Here’s what I’ve been reading this past week.


Ten Days That Shook The World – John Reed’s masterpiece gives us a firsthand account of Red October.

Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman sings for soul and body in the finest free-verse America has ever seen.

A People’s History of the United States – From Columbus to the War on Terror, Howard Zinn presents the unvarnished truth. Highly recommended…

Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism – I have been woefully ignorant concerning the Socialists and Anarchists, and am determined to correct this deficiency in my education during 2012. This book is a very tough read, but I’m finding it worthwhile. Essential study on an important topic from authors Lucien Van Der Walt and Michael Schmidt…

2600 Magazine: The Hacker Quarterly  – An old favorite…

Anarchism To The Rescue

When someone says the word “Anarchist” what images come to your mind? Are they cartoonish little guys in black fedoras and trench coats carrying bombs? Is the one “fact” you remember about Anarchists from your high school world history classes that one of them was “to blame for the First World War?”

Entire volumes have been written in an attempt to explain what Anarchism is, how it developed and why it may still be relevant today. At its center, though, is the longing for freedom and for solidarity within the working class.

Nathan Schneider has written an excellent essay for The Nation, exploring what Anarchist roots have brought to the Occupy movement.

At its core, anarchism isn’t simply a negative political philosophy, or an excuse for window-breaking, as most people tend to assume it is. Even while calling for an end to the rule of coercive states backed by military bases, prison industries and subjugation, anarchists and other autonomists try to build a culture in which people can take care of themselves and each other through healthy, sustainable communities.

Schneider outlines some of the limitations that these roots seem to have placed on the Occupy movement, and the frustrations that a stubborn commitment to consensus has caused for traditional political leaders and groups. He cautions us to recognize what the movement is not (and will never be), but also points to what it has already done. “They’ve reminded us that politics is not a matter of choosing among what we’re offered but of fighting for what we and others actually need‚ not to mention what we hope for.”



Read Nathan Scneider’s Essay: Thank You Anarchists [The Nation]

Learn More About Anarchism: AK Press

A Definitive History of Anarchism: Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt

Worker-Owners of America, Unite!

Gar Alperovitz, author of America Beyond Capitalism, writes in the New York Times about a possible trend toward economic democracy.

Worker-Owners of America, Unite! [] – Some 130 million Americans now participate in the ownership of co-op businesses and credit unions. More than 13 million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned companies, six million more than belong to private-sector unions.

Alperovitz also appeared on Democracy Now! this week to discuss his notion that we may be in the midst of a profound transition towards an economy characterized by more democratic structures of ownership.