Harold Meyerson writes for The Guardian: It used to be a dirty word. Bernie Sanders helped remove the stigma – but it’s the spectacular failure of capitalism that has really changed people’s minds.
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
The Chicago DSA’s Talkin’ Socialism podcast was one of the first that I found when I was looking for an education in the matter. These are recorded each month in conjunction with the regular meeting of the chapter, and have covered a wide range of topics from socialist history and theory to current events here in Illinois.
Recently, the program has undergone something of a reboot. Producer Robert Roman has moved the show site to WordPress.com, and the feed has been resubmitted to the iTunes directory.
Highly recommended. Here are some links.
Note: This is another short post about my personal political journey thus far, and about some efforts to help build an effective American Left in the 21st Century. Views and characterizations are my own. I do not speak for the organizations mentioned, nor for of any of my comrades. As always, comments are welcome.
I’ve written previously about my political awakening which began in earnest a few years ago. Early on, I recognized the need to work together with others toward fundamental change. One of the things that I did was to join the Wobblies. I remain a faithful dues-paying member of the IWW, and now also carry a National Writers Union card. Union membership is something that I consider to be part of my core identity.
I also began to learn about political organizations on the broader left. There is a dizzying range of them in the United States. There are Social Democrats, and Democratic Socialists, and Feminist Socialists, and Committees of Correspondence, and Spartacists, and Trotskyists, and Marxists and Revolutionary Socialists and Anarcho-Syndicalists, and Christian Anarchists – and many, many others.
I studied lineages and politics and structure and governance and international affiliations and a host of other details about each group. The two organizations of most interest to me were the Democratic Socialists of America and the International Socialist Organization. Both have active Chicago chapters (which was important to me since we were anticipating a move north from Central Illinois to the Chicago Southland), both are relatively large organizations, and both have lineages that can be traced back to the heroes of 20th-century American radicalism.
I joined the DSA in early 2012.
In the four years since, my political education has continued. Two particularly important influences have been Marx’s writings and Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform Or Revolution. The idea that we cannot merely reform our way to a just society is now evident to me. This doesn’t mean that reforms aren’t important, but that we do have to have strategies beyond that. The more I’ve read and learned, the further left my politics have trended.
So I was delighted when a friend in another organization mentioned, in passing, the “left wing of the DSA around Jacobin.” Up until then, I had no idea that an organized “left wing” existed.
I contacted someone I knew at Jacobin, and they put me in touch with someone involved in the DSA Left Caucus. I was welcomed into the caucus in late April of 2015.
Although there is no litmus test nor a point-by-point statement of principles which a member is bound to accept, there seems to be general agreement across the caucus around the following ideas.
- We’d like to see a greater focus on education in theory and history throughout our organization.
- We are socialists, organizing for socialism. We’re not liberals or progressives or social democrats.
- We are committed to solidarity with those who are most oppressed under capitalism including women, people of color, first peoples and LGBTQ people.
- We believe in internationalism, and in showing solidarity with the struggles of oppressed people worldwide, particularly those who are victims of American imperialism.
- We want to help build an independent socialist political movement in the United States while maintaining a flexible and undogmatic approach to elections in the meantime.
- We are committed to building relationships across the American Left, and to pursuing a united front with comrades from other socialist organizations where possible.
- We are committed to solidarity with our rank-and-file union sisters and brothers, and to supporting movements for union democracy.
The DSA is not only the largest explicitly socialist organization in the United States, it is one with a rich intellectual and activist history, and a structure that continues to guard against uncritical acceptance of predominant ideas. The Left Caucus provides auspices for thoughtful discussion and purposeful organization toward a more vibrant and effective DSA, and hence a more vibrant and effective American Left. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be learning and working alongside this group of exceptionally bright and committed activists.
Red Pepper interviewed the Labour Party leader and asked if it was his sense that the same type of thing (insurgent political campaigns from the Left achieving victory against all odds) is happening elsewhere.
Yes. Because this wasn’t anything to do with me. This was to do with people wanting a different way of doing politics – particularly the young people who came in and were very enthusiastic. Our campaign was a combination of the young and the old, very little in between, the middle-aged weren’t there. They were either under 30 or over 60, most of the people that came in to work on the campaign, and the phone-banking they did was quite extraordinary. There was one of them where I witnessed this 18-year-old Asian girl with a burka explaining to a 90-year-old white woman how to operate the mobile phone to make calls, and they were both getting on just fine. And it was kind of lovely.
Read the interview: ‘What we’ve achieved so far’: an interview with Jeremy Corbyn | Red Pepper
Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene interviews Roger Waters, who weighs on in his current projects and surveys the worldwide political scene.
I think people are just beginning, as they sleepwalk their way through imperial capitalism, to realize the law is being eroded and the military are taking over commerce and the corporations are taking over government and that we the people no longer have a voice. To some extent, The Wall is asking the question, “Do you want a voice? And if you do, you better bloody well go out and get it because it’s not going to be handed to you on a plate.”
Syrian Kurds have launched an unlikely radical experiment in governance without hierarchy, patriarchy or capitalism. Their inspiration? American political philosopher Murray Bookchin.
Read more about the PKK at this link.
“We have shattered the myth that there is nothing progressive candidates can do against the avalanche of corporate money. We have shown that it is entirely possible, if there is the political will, to refuse donations from big corporations and instead base ourselves on the support of working people and win. That is why we have won, and successfully I might add, not just independent of corporate cash but also independent of the two political parties that represent that corporate cash.”
Kshama Sawant spoke to her supporters on November 3rd as her reelection victory was confirmed.
Read the full text of the speech.
Maria Svart of the DSA was on Washington Journal last Sunday to talk about the organization, Democratic Socialism and the Bernie Sanders campaign.
“Do we want a society where greed rules and it’s everyone for themselves and we don’t look out for each other, or do we want a society where we work together?”