The Best Books on Marx
It’s time, I believe, for Marx scholars and their publishers to declare time-out on the value-form debate and refocus attention on “Marx and the conjuncture,” particularly his extraordinary writings on the revolutions of 1848. An essential starting point should be the two-volume study that the Vietnamese Marxist Trinh Van Thao published in French in the late 1970s (editions anthropos). In particular the second volume, Analysis of the Political Conjuncture in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, is a virtuoso reconstruction of the evolving theoretical coherence of what has too often been dismissed as “mere journalism.” Verso: translate!
I want to mention this as one of the books that most influenced me, particularly because I think it is less known among my young Marxist feminist comrades than I had thought. It is a collection of essays in response to Heidi Hartmann’s influential essay “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union.” There are three texts in particular in this collection that deserve to be read more widely. The first, by Iris Marion Young, is an exceptionally lucid critique of Hartmann’s core thesis that patriarchy and capitalism are two separate systems. According to Young, the point is not for Feminism to divorce Marxism because its categories are gender blind, but for feminists to take over Marxism and transform it into a theory that understands gender relations and the situation of women as core elements. Here Young proposes to valorize Marx’s concept of “division of labor” as key to unveiling the role of gender for capital accumulation. The second essay that should be widely read is by Gloria Joseph. She demolishes classical dual systems analysis by demonstrating that race rather than gender, particularly in the US context, has functioned as the great equalizer for African-American men and women. To put it simply, while Hartmann and dual systems theories argue that men are united in their will to control women's labour and bodies, Joseph argues that historically there has not been any solidarity between Black and White men because racial and class domination have been far more powerful than gender alignments. Finally, I want to mention Lise Vogel, whose contribution in the volume constitutes her initial reflections on social reproduction and unitary theory that will be later expanded and developed in her book Marxism and the Oppression of Women.
This is a fantastic collection on Marxist feminist theorizing. A must read for everyone seeking to understand the complex workings of class, gender and race.
Yvonne Kapp’s Eleanor Marx is a magisterial, vivid, insightful, deeply moving lapel-grabber illuminating the politics and life of the incomparable and scintillating Eleanor—“Tussy”—Marx. It is testament to the book’s sheer brilliance and depth that, without its laser focus on its subject herself ever wavering in the slightest, Kapp also, in passing, gives a more vital sense of its secondary character Karl Marx (and of Engels too, for that matter) than does any other book I know.
The short articles known as the “Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood” (Rheinische Zeitung, October 1842) encapsulate the rhetorical and theoretical power of Marx’s philosophy and writing, applied to an emblematic material problem created by the increasing poverty of 19th century peasants. In these texts, Marx writes beautiful passages using a set of metaphors between feudalism and the animal kingdom, between bees and workers, which anticipate some of the literary pearls of Capital. He distinguishes between the rights of the privileged classes and the customary rights of the “politically and socially propertyless,” the “elementary mass,” “the poor in all countries,” as a political programme for legal activism that remains to this date sadly under-explored. Marx unveils the fetish and fiction of the law, and shows how the state and Parliament—the Rhine Assembly—feed on these masquerading tricks. He quotes Montesquieu and Shakespeare, and displays an impressive knowledge of world events showing the internationalist many forget him to be today.
The uniqueness of Marx’s style has been noted by many but seldom been subjected to focused investigation. In 1971, the Venezuelan philosopher and poet Ludovico Silva (1937–1988)—also author of an Anti-Handbook of Marxists, Marxologists and Marxians and proponent of a theory of ideological surplus value—published this slim and incisive volume, El estilo literario de Marx, which sought to do just that. Silva, who ingeniously notes the formative role of Marx’s failure as a poet on his triumph as a stylist, isolates three principal elements to Marx’s style. First, an “architectonic” perspective in which the scientific system and the aspiration to the work of art are inseparable. Second, a dialectic of expression that doubles as an expression of the dialectic, such that the “formal and logical relations into which verbal signs enter constitute a plastic gesture destined to reflect the material and historical relations of signifieds.” Third, and crucially, an unparalleled mastery of metaphors as cognitive and poetic instruments. The pages devoted to the metaphors of superstructure, reflection and religion are also sharp polemics aimed at legions of commentators who, insensitive to the economy of Marx’s style, would misunderstand them as theories in themselves, thereby failing truly to grasp the most monstrous and most spectral metaphor of all, capitalism. But avoiding this paralogism is not enough, however, for, as Silva pointedly remarks in his epilogue on alienation: “To be able to imitate Marx’s style one would need to recall that the entire machinery of his indignation is mounted on the serrated gear of his irony.”
Much of Marxist exegeses, in the period of its academisation, bores, driving one back to the Urtext to find flashes of meaning, bile and critique. One piece—produced from within the excitable wake of the avant gardes—shines out amidst the sludge: Franklin Rosemont’s “Karl Marx and the Iroquois.” Hosted multiply across the internet, dateless and without origin, as befits a contribution opposed to the rigid logic of time, it stems, in fact, from 1989 and the sporadic Chicago-based Surrealist journal Arsenal: Surrealist Subversion. It is in praise of those critical and magically poetic works that are “a jigsaw puzzle for which we have to reinvent the missing pieces out of our own research and reverie and above all, our own revolutionary activity.” It is about imagination and sympathy in analysis, about fantasy and contrariety. It parades many ways and reasons to refuse doxa. Crucially it is about what is overlooked by all too narrow gazes and about what may yet return.
The reason I first read Marx was Haraway. But the book I’m nominating for the old Moor’s 200th birthday is a fiction about the CPI(M)—Communist Party of India (Marxist)—on whose pages I shed many tears: Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others. Reading its messy, fleshy account of hunger, factory strikes, feudal psychology, class, caste, property, gender, race and the family, in short, the world of Naxalite revolutionaries from Calcutta in the 1960s—and their contingent, heartbreaking defeat—felt to me like reading the angry, beautiful moments that are always spilling over in Capital. A disclaimer, however: like the 2006 movie of the same title which, albeit in different context, also treats Communism with a big C, this isn’t a book that cheerleads communism (small c) straightforwardly. Better than hollow optimism, The Lives of Others offers a sharper sensorium of the capitalist life-web. It educated my desire for abolition.
Marx’s and Engels’ Manifesto continues to speak to the present as a political text. To write a manifesto is to create a world, to call it into public being. Underlying the text there is an underground reality, the nocturnal proletarian life conjured up by Marx and Engels in the phrase “the specter of communism.” The sense of a threat, the dread haunting European powers and French radicals reveals the density and consistency of that underground mode of life. It is first of all in this sense that the Manifesto is realist rather than utopian. For the specter to become manifestoit is necessary to claim and appropriate the term communism in an affirmative and challenging way.
This gesture retains its relevance and validity today for political writing. What matters most from a radical feminist point of view is the way in which we are mapping the process of conflict and antagonism that crisscrosses bodies and territories. Feminist struggles provide us with an original and particularly effective angle from which to understand the composition of living labor today. In particular it compels us to take into account those contemporary forms of exploitation and extraction of value that go well beyond “free” wage labor, which often works to obscure the multiple forms of non-wage labour as well as their diverse geographies and temporalities. The homogeneity of Engels’ and Marx’s proletariat is thus exploded by a proliferation of differences that emerges from actual struggles compelling us to rethink politically the notion of class.
I first encountered Mario Tronti's Operai e capitale in one of the few short excerpts translated into English, "The Strategy of Refusal." His "Copernican revolution" was awe-inspiring: to understand capitalist domination as a defensive response to the primacy of working-class struggle, both in the political sense that domination is always a response to the potential threat of resistance, and in the economic sense that capital relies on labor for the accumulation of surplus value. Eventually I found a copy in French to work through, and learned Italian pretty much to study this book, which remains, incredibly, untranslated into English. I learned that the general points made in the small excerpt I read were part of a detailed analysis of Marx’s economic writings, in a section called “Marx, Labor-Power, Working Class.” What was extraordinary about Tronti’s analysis was that he joined two dimensions that every reader finds present in Capital but often cannot reconcile: the abstract “logic” of value and the concrete historical accounts of class struggle. Those who, like Marx, believe that the critique of political economy realizes its true potential when it becomes an instrument in the class struggle, will find this book an indispensable weapon.
There is not very much that is analytically messy or disjointed in Marx’s writing. Each idea is threaded to another in an endless—but open ended—chain, whose sequentiality carries its own fierce beauty. In contrast, the lives of Jenny and Karl Marx were ruinously disorganized by poverty, repression and personal loss. I have always loved Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital because, unlike other biographies of Marx, she establishes an exquisite unity between the ideas and politics that animate Marxism and the lived life and loves of the Marxs. Douglas shows how the two aspects bled into each other, lending a savagery and grandeur to both.
This approach also makes Love and Capital one of the best accounts of Jenny Marx’s contribution to revolutionary socialism. Jenny is forever Karl’s “wife” and, at best, his secretary, performing the tedious labour of copying his writing. There is something about the verb “copying” in this context that has always enraged me. It is a subtly gendered synecdoche that too often stands in for women’s mental capacities being doused by the fires of male genius such that the woman can only “copy,” never produce, thought.
Love and Capital tells the story of a Jenny Marx who is Karl’s interlocutor and lover. Eleanor Marx recalled Karl as not loving Jenny, but being in love with her for his whole life, while Jenny saw herself as “an old campaigner … a hoary head in the movement … and [a] tramp.”
The book is a layered account of human relationships of love, jealousies and pain as they existed and were shaped by the political turmoils of a moment. It is not the account of Capital, springing forth from the mind of a genius, but a deeply human account of how the work drew its life-blood from Karl Marx and his intellectual companions, of whom his beloved Jenny was one of the most important.
In Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Silvia Federici provides contemporary feminist movements with the tools to understand Marx’s point that capitalism “comes into the world dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” Focusing her analysis on the historical and ongoing processes of primitive accumulation, Federici reminds us that there was nothing smooth or inevitable about the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Locating the witch-hunts and trials as central moment of class struggle, she begins from a understanding that capitalism produces and makes use of difference in order to function and expand, and although that difference is reproduced by capitalism, it is not reducible to a traditional logic of class. Her focus is the body and how what we have come to understand as gender and sex was forged through the histories and struggles of those bodies who did not imagine themselves as wives, slaves or invisible cogs in the emerging capitalist machine.
See all our Marx reading here.