Reading List

Western Marxist Theory: Verso Student Reading

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Western Marxism is broadly understood as a set of concerns deveoped by theorists in Europe who were looking for new paths for Marxist research after the October Revolution. Often critical of what they perceived as the dogmatic Marxism issuing from the Soviet Union, these thinkers (the Frankfurt School, Althusser, Gramsci, Korsch, Lukacs, and others) were united by an intense interest in understanding how ideology and culture (the so-called 'superstructure' as opposed to the 'base') function within capitalism, as well as a renewed focus on the philosophical roots not only of Marxist thought but of modernity in general. Use this list to navigate Verso's collection of key works by Western Marxist thinkers and stock up on essential reading for your courses this year. See also our Key Debates in Theory reading.

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Originally published in 1965, Reading Capital is a landmark of French thought and radical theory, reconstructing Western Marxism from its foundations. Louis Althusser, the French Marxist philosopher, maintained that Marx’s project could only be revived if its scientific and revolutionary novelty was thoroughly divested of all traces of humanism, idealism, Hegelianism and historicism. In order to complete this critical rereading, Althusser and his students at the École normale supérieure ran a seminar on Capital, re-examining its arguments, strengths and weaknesses in detail, and it was out of those discussions that this book was born. 

The three-volume text by Henri Lefebvre is perhaps the richest, most prescient work about modern capitalism to emerge from one of the twentieth century's greatest philosophers and is now available for the first time in one complete volume. Written at the birth of post-war consumerism, Critique was an inspiration for the 1968 student revolution in France. It is a founding text of cultural studies and a major influence on the fields of contemporary philosophy, geography, sociology, architecture, political theory and urbanism. Lefebvre takes as his starting point and guide the "trivial" details of quotidian experience: an experience colonized by the commodity, shadowed by inauthenticity, yet remaining the only source of resistance and change. This is an enduringly radical text, untimely today only in its intransigence and optimism. 

Louis Althusser’s renowned short text "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" radically transformed the concept of the subject, the understanding of the state and even the very frameworks of cultural, political and literary theory. The text has influenced thinkers such as Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek.

The piece is, in fact, an extract from a much longer book, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, until now unavailable in English. Its publication makes possible a reappraisal of seminal Althusserian texts already available in English, their place in Althusser’s oeuvre and the relevance of his ideas for contemporary theory. On the Reproduction of Capitalism develops Althusser’s conception of historical materialism, outlining the conditions of reproduction in capitalist society and the revolutionary struggle for its overthrow.

The publication of For Marx and Reading Capital established Louis Althusser as one of the most influential figures in the Western Marxist tradition. On Ideology charts Althusser’s critique of the theoretical system unveiled in his own major works, and his developing practice of philosophy as a “revolutionary weapon.” 

No other country and no other period has produced a tradition of major aesthetic debate to compare with that which unfolded in German culture from the 1930s to the 1950s. In Aesthetics and Politics the key texts of the great Marxist controversies over literature and art during these years are assembled in a single volume. They do not form a disparate collection but a continuous, interlinked debate between thinkers who have become giants of twentieth-century intellectual history. 

Written between 1944 and 1947, Minima Moralia is a collection of rich, lucid aphorisms and essays about life in modern capitalist society. Adorno casts his penetrating eye across society in mid-century America and finds a life deformed by capitalism. This is Adorno's theoretical and literary masterpiece and a classic of twentieth-century thought. 

In The Notion of Authority, written in the 1940s in Nazi-occupied France, Alexandre Kojève uncovers the conceptual premises of four primary models of authority, examining the practical application of their derivative variations from the Enlightenment to Vichy France.

This foundational text, translated here into English for the first time, is the missing piece in any discussion of sovereignty and political authority, worthy of a place alongside the work of Weber, Arendt, Schmitt, Agamben or Dumézil. 

 An explosive analysis of the central strategic concepts in Gramsci’s thought, as revelatory today as on first publication in New Left Review in 1976. This landmark essay has been the subject of keen debate across four decades for its disentangling of the hesitations and contradictions in Gramsci’s highly original usage of such key dichotomies as East and West, domination and direction, hegemony and dictatorship, state and civil society, war of position and war of movement. In a critical tribute to the international richness of Gramsci’s work, Anderson shows how deeply embedded these notions were in the revolutionary debates in Tsarist Russia and Wilhemine Germany, in which arguments criss-crossed between Plekhanov, Lenin, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Lukács and Trotsky, with contemporary echoes in Brecht and Benjamin. A preface considers the objections this account of Gramsci provoked, as well as a memorable intervention by the late Eric Hobsbawm.

For Goldmann, a leading exponent of the most fruitful method of applying Marxist ideas to literary and philosophical problems, the “tragic vision” marked an important phase in the development of European thought, as it moved from rationalism and empiricism to the dialectical philosophy of Hegel, Marx and Lukàcs. Here he offers a general approach to the problems of philosophy, of literary criticism, and of the relationship between thought and action in human society. 

This revealing autobiography of the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács is centered on a series of interviews that he gave in 1969 and 1971, shortly before his death on 4 June 1971.

Stimulated by the sympathetic yet incisive questioning of the interviewer, the Hungarian essayist István Eörsi, Lukács discusses at length the course of his life, his years of political struggle, and his formation and role as a Marxist intellectual. From a highly evocative account of his childhood and school years, Lukács proceeds to discuss his political awakening; the debates within the socialist movement over the First World War form the prelude to an assessment of Tactics and Ethics, written in 1919; from there the discussion turns to Lukács’s early major contribution to Marxist philosophy, History and Class Consciousness.

The Destruction of Reason is Georg Lukács’s trenchant criticism of certain strands of philosophy after Marx and the role they played in the rise of National Socialism: ‘Germany’s path to Hitler in the sphere of philosophy,’ as he put it. Starting with the revolutions of 1848, his analysis spans post-Hegelian philosophy and sociology. The great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, neo-Hegelians such as Leopold von Ranke and Wilhelm Dilthey, and the phenomenologists Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, and Jean-Paul Sartre come in for a share of criticism, but the principal targets are Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Through these thinkers he shows in an unsparing analysis that, with almost no exceptions, the post-Hegelian tradition prepared the ground for fascist thought. 

Written by one of political theory’s leading thinkers, The Philosophy of Marx examines all the key areas of Marx’s writings in their wider historical and theoretical context—including the concepts of class struggle, ideology, humanism, progress, determinism, commodity fetishism, and the state. Etienne Balibar opens a gateway into the thought of one of history’s great minds. 

The interpretation of Hegel has been a focal point of philosophical controversy ever since the beginning of the twentieth century, both among Marxists and in the major European philosophical schools. Yet despite wide differences of emphasis most interpretations of Hegel share important similarities. They link his idea of Reason to the revolutionary and rationalist tradition which led to the French Revolution, and they interpret his dialectic as implying a latently atheist and even materialist world outlook.

Lucio Colletti directly challenges this picture of Hegel. He argues that Hegel was an essentially Christian philosopher, and that his dialectic was explicitly anti-materialist in both intention and effect. In contrast to earlier views, Colletti maintains that there is no contradiction between Hegel’s method and his system, once it is accepted that his thought is an exercise in Absolute Idealism stemming from a long Christian humanist tradition. He claims, on the contrary, that intellectual inconsistency is rather to be found in the works of Engels, Lenin, Lukás, Kojève and others, who have attempted to adapt Hegel to their own philosophical priorities.

Walter Benjamin is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic intellectual figures of this century. Not only was he a thinker who made an enormous impact with his critical and philosophical writings, he shattered disciplinary and stylistic conventions.

This collection, contains the most representative and illuminating selection of his work over a twenty-year period, showing the richness and the multi-dimensional nature of his thought. Included in these pages are aphorisms and townscapes, esoteric meditation and reminiscences of childhood, and reflections on language, psychology, aesthetics and politics. 

Walter Benjamin was fascinated by the impact of new technology on culture, an interest that extended beyond his renowned critical essays. From 1927 to ’33, he wrote and presented something in the region of eighty broadcasts using the new medium of radio. Radio Benjamin gathers the surviving transcripts, which appear here for the first time in English. This eclectic collection demonstrates the range of Benjamin’s thinking and his enthusiasm for popular sensibilities. His celebrated “Enlightenment for Children” youth programs, his plays, readings, book reviews, and fiction reveal Benjamin in a creative, rather than critical, mode. They flesh out ideas elucidated in his essays, some of which are also represented here, where they cover topics as varied as getting a raise and the history of natural disasters, subjects chosen for broad appeal and examined with passion and acuity.

The Benjamin Files offers a comprehensive new reading of all of Benjamin’s major works and a great number of his shorter book reviews, notes and letters. Its premise is that Benjamin was an anti-philosophical, anti-systematic thinker whose conceptual interests also felt the gravitational pull of his vocation as a writer. What resulted was a coexistence or variety of language fields and thematic codes which overlapped and often seemed to contradict each other: a view which will allow us to clarify the much-debated tension in his works between the mystical or theological side of Benjamin and his political or historical inclination. The three-way tug of war over his heritage between adherents of his friends Scholem, Adorno and Brecht can also be better grasped from this position, which gives the Brechtian standpoint more due than most influential academic studies. Benjamin’s corpus is an anticipation of contemporary theory in the priority it gives language and representation over philosophical or conceptual unity; and its political motivations are clarified by attention to the omnipresence of history throughout his writing, from the shortest articles to the most ambitious projects. His explicit programme – “to transfer the crisis into the heart of language” or, in other words, to detect class struggle at work in the most minute literary phenomena – requires the reader to translate the linguistic or representational literary issues that concerned him back into the omnipresent but often only implicitly political ones. But the latter are those of another era, to which we must gain access, to use one of Benjamin’s favorite expressions. 

Towards a New Manifesto shows Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in a uniquely spirited and free-flowing exchange of ideas. This book is a record of their discussions over three weeks in the spring of 1956, recorded with a view to the production of a contemporary version of The Communist Manifesto. A philosophical jam-session in which the two thinkers improvise freely, often wildly, on central themes of their work—theory and practice, labour and leisure, domination and freedom—in a political register found nowhere else in their writing. A thrilling example of philosophy in action and a compelling map of a possible passage to a new world. 

What makes a fascist? Are there character traits that make someone more likely to vote for the far right? The Authoritarian Personality is not only one of the most significant works of social psychology ever written, it also marks a milestone in the development of Adorno’s thought, showing him grappling with the problem of fascism and the reasons for Europe’s turn to reaction. Over half a century later and with the rise of right-wing populism and the reemergence of the far-right in recent years, this hugely influential study remains as insightful and relevant as ever. 

Grand Hotel Abyss combines biography, philosophy, and storytelling to reveal how the Frankfurt thinkers gathered in hopes of understanding the politics of culture during the rise of fascism. Some of them, forced to escape the horrors of Nazi Germany, later found exile in the United States. Benjamin, with his last great work—the incomplete Arcades Project—in his suitcase, was arrested in Spain and committed suicide when threatened with deportation to Nazi-occupied France. On the other side of the Atlantic, Adorno failed in his bid to become a Hollywood screenwriter, denounced jazz, and even met Charlie Chaplin in Malibu. 

Although successive generations of the Frankfurt School have attempted to adapt Critical Theory to new circumstances, the work done by its founding members continues in the twenty-first century to unsettle conventional wisdom about culture, society and politics. Exploring unexamined episodes in the school’s history and reading its work in unexpected ways, these essays provide ample evidence of the abiding relevance of Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, Löwenthal, and Kracauer in our troubled times. Without forcing a unified argument, they range over a wide variety of topics, from the uncertain founding of the School to its mixed reception of psychoanalysis, from Benjamin’s ruminations on stamp collecting to the ironies in the reception of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, from Löwenthal’s role in Weimar’s Jewish Renaissance to Horkheimer’s involvement in the writing of the first history of the Frankfurt School. Of special note are their responses to visual issues such as the emancipation of colour in modern art, the Jewish prohibition on images, the relationship between cinema and the public sphere, and the implications of a celebrated Family of Man photographic exhibition. The collection ends with an essay tracing the still metastasising demonisation of the Frankfurt School by the so-called Alt Right as the source of “cultural Marxism” and “political correctness,” which has gained alarming international resonance and led to violence by radical right-wing fanatics. 

Workers and Capital is universally recognised as the most important work produced by operaismo, a current of political thought emerging in the 1960s that revolutionised the institutional and extra-parliamentary Left in Italy and beyond. In the decade after its first publication in 1966, the debates over Workers and Capital produced new methods of analysis and a new vocabulary for thousands of militants, helping to inform the new forms of workplace, youth, and community struggle. Concepts such as “neocapitalism,” “class composition,” “mass-worker,” “the plan of capital,” “workers’ inquiry” and “co-research” became established as part of the Italian Left’s political lexicon. Five decades since it was first published, Workers and Capital remains a key text in the history of the international workers’ movement, yet only now appears in English translation for the first time. Far from being simply an artefact of the intense political conflicts of the 1960s, Tronti’s work offers extraordinary tools for understanding the powerful shifts in the nature of work and class composition in recent decades. 

In this pithy and panoramic work—both stimulating for the specialist and accessible to the general reader—one of the world’s leading social theorists, Göran Therborn, traces the trajectory of Marxism in the twentieth century and anticipates its legacy for radical thought in the twenty-first. 

The Modernist Papers is a tour de force of analysis and criticism, in which Jameson brings his dynamic and acute thought to bear on the modernist literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jameson discusses modernist poetics, including intensive discussions of the work of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Wallace Stevens, Joyce, Proust, and Thomas Mann. He explores the peculiarities of the American literary field, taking in William Carlos Williams and the American epic, and examines the language theories of Gertrude Stein. Refusing to see modernism as simply a Western phenomenon, he also pays close attention to its Japanese expression, while the complexities of a late modernist representation of twentieth-century politics are articulated in a concluding section on Peter Weiss’s novel The Aesthetics of Resistance

In this passionate and polemical classic work, Norman Geras argues that the view that Marx broke with all conceptions of human nature in 1845 is wrong. rather, his later writings are informed by an idea of a specifically human nature that fulfill both explanatory and normative functions. Over one hundred and thirty years after Marx’s death, this book—combining the strengths of analytical philosophy and classical Marxism—rediscovers a central part of his heritage. 

Galvano Della Volpe was the dominant philosopher of Italian Marxism for twenty years after the Liberation. His most important book was a work of aesthetic theory—Critique of Taste. Della Volpe, proponent of a robust materialism in all his writings, was concerned to rehabilitate the inherently rational and intellectual nature of art. Opposing both the sociological reductionism of Plekhanov or Lukács, and the formalist irrationalism of Croce or New Criticism, Della Volpe’s aim was to demonstrate that conceptual meaning is always inseparable from aesthetic effect. 

In 1961, the prolific French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre was invited to give a talk at the Gramsci Institute in Rome. In attendance were some of Italy’s leading Marxist thinkers, such as Enzo Paci, Cesare Luporini, and Galvano Della Volpe, whose contributions to the long and remarkable discussion that followed are collected in this volume, along with the lecture itself. Sartre posed the question “What is subjectivity?” – a question of renewed importance today to contemporary debates concerning “the subject” in critical theory. This work includes a preface by Michel Kail and Raoul Kirchmayr and an afterword by Fredric Jameson, who makes a rousing case for the continued importance of Sartre’s philosophy. 

Raymond Williams possessed unique authority as Britain’s foremost cultural theorist and public intellectual. Informed by an unparalleled range of reference and the resources of deep personal experience, his life’s work represents a patient, exemplary commitment to the building of a socialist future.

This book brings together important early writings including “Culture is Ordinary,” “The British Left,” “Welsh Culture” and “Why Do I Demonstrate?” with major essays and talks of the last decade. It includes work on such central themes as the nature of a democratic culture, the value of community, Green socialism, the nuclear threat, and the relation between the state and the arts. Here too, collected for the first time, are the important later political essays which undertake a thorough revaluation of the principles fundamental to the idea of socialist democracy, and confirm Williams as a shrewd and imaginative political theorist. In a sober yet constructive assessment of the possibilities for socialist advance, Williams—in the face of much recent intellectual fashion—powerfully reasserts his lifelong commitment to “making hope practical, rather than despair convincing.”

The characteristic form taken by English Marxism since the war has been the study of history. No writer exemplifies its achievements better than Edward Thompson, whose Making of the English Working Class is probably the most influential single work of historical scholarship by a socialist today. An editor of The New Reasoner in 1957–59, a founder of the New Left in 1960, now an eloquent champion of civil rights, Thompson has most recently aroused widespread interest with the appearance of his Poverty of Theory, which combines philosophical and political polemic with Louis Althusser, and powerful advocacy of the historian’s craft. Arguments Within English Marxism is an assessment of its central theses that relates them to Thompson’s major historical writings themselves. Thus the role of human agency—the part of the conscious choice and active will—in history is discussed through consideration of its treatment in The Making of the English Working Class. The problems of base and superstructure in historical materialism, and of affiliation to values in the past, are reviewed in the light of Whigs and Hunters. The claims of utopian imagination are illustrated from the findings of William Morris. Questions of socialist strategy are broached in part through the articles now collected in Writing by Candlelight. Exploring at once differences and convergences between New Left Review and one of its founders, the essay concludes by suggesting the virtues of diversity within a common socialist culture. 

As the crisis of capitalism unfolds, the need for alternatives is felt ever more intensely. The struggle between radical movements and the forces of reaction will be merciless. A crucial battlefield, where the outcome of the crisis will in part be decided, is that of theory.

This book—aimed at both the general reader and the specialist—offers the first global cartography of the expanding intellectual field of critical contemporary thought. More than thirty authors and intellectual currents of every continent are presented in a clear and succinct manner. A history of critical thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is also provided, helping situate current thinkers in a broader historical and sociological perspective. 

First published in 1967, Guy Debord’s stinging revolutionary critique ofcontemporary society, The Society of the Spectacle has since acquired a cult status. Credited by many as being the inspiration for the ideas generated by the events of May 1968 in France, Debord’s pitiless attack on commodity fetishism and its incrustation in the practices of everyday life continues to burn brightly in today's age of satellite televisionand the soundbite. In Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, published twenty years later, Debord returned to the themes of his previous analysis and demonstrated how they were all the more relevant in a period when the “integrated spectacle” was dominant. Resolutely refusing to be reconciled to the system, Debord trenchantly slices through the doxa and mystification offered tip by journalists and pundits to show how aspects of reality as diverse as terrorism and the environment, the Mafia and the media, were caught up in the logic of the spectacular society. Pointing the finger clearly at those who benefit from the logic of domination, Debord’s Comments convey the revolutionary impulse at the heart of situationism. 

Raymond Williams is a towering presence in cultural studies, most importantly as the founder of the approach that has come to be known as “cultural materialism.” Yet Williams’s method was always open-ended and fluid, and this volume collects together his most significant work from over a twenty-year period in which he wrestled with the concepts of materialism and culture and their interrelationship. Aside from his more directly theoretical texts, however, case-studies of theatrical naturalism, the Bloomsbury group, advertising, science fiction, and the Welsh novel are also included as illustrations of the method at work. Finally, Williams’s identity as an active socialist, rather than simply an academic, is captured by two unambiguously political pieces on the past, present and future of Marxism. 

In the name of an assault on “totalization” and “identity,” a number of contemporary theorists have been busily washing Marxism's dialectical and utopian projects down the plug-hole of postmodernism and “post-politics.” A case in point is recent interpretation of one of the greatest twentieth-century philosophers, Theodor Adorno. In this powerful book, Fredric Jameson proposes a radically different reading of Adorno's work, especially of his major works on philosophy and aesthetics: Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory. 

In this major new book, Andre Gorz expands on the political implications of his prescient and influential Paths to Paradise and Critique of Economic Reason. Against the background of technological developments which have transformed the nature of work and the structure of the workforce, Gorz explores the new political agendas facing both left and right. Each is in disarray: the right, torn between the demands of capital and the 'traditional values' of its supporters, can only offer illusory solutions, while the left either capitulates to these or remains tempted by regressive, 'fundamentalist' projects inappropriate to complex modern societies. Identifying the grave risks posed by a dual society with a hyperactive minority of full-time workers confronting a silenced majority who are, at best, precariously employed, Gorz proposes a new definition of a key social conflict within Western societies in terms of the distribution of work and the form and content of non-working time. 

Raymond Williams made a central contribution to the intellectual culture of the Left in the English-speaking world. He was also one of the key figures in the foundation of cultural studies in Britain, which turned critical skills honed on textual analysis to the examination of structures and forms of resistance apparent in everyday life. Politics and Letters is a volume of interviews with Williams, conducted by New Left Review, designed to bring into clear focus the major theoretical and political issues posed by his work. Introduced by writer Geoff Dyer, Politics and Letters ranges across Williams’s biographical development, the evolution of his cultural theory and literary criticism, his work on dramatic forms and his fiction, and an exploration of British and international politics. 

This polemical work presents to the English-speaking world one of the most original philosophical thinkers to have emerged within post-war Europe. Sebastiano Timpanaro is an Italian classical philologist by training, an author of scholarly studies on the nineteenth-century poet Leopardi, and a Marxist by conviction. With great force and wit, On Materialism sets itself against what it sees as the virtually universal tendency within western Marxism since the war, to dissociate historical materialism from biological or physical materialism. Whereas the philosophical legacy of the later Engels has been decried by most prominent Marxists since the 1920s, Timpanaro eloquently defends its essential purpose and relevance, by unfashionably re-emphasising the permanent weight of nature within history. In doing so, he returns to the heritage of Lucretius and Leopardi, and argues for a more consistent materialism that is at once more pessimistic and more hedonistic than any other contemporary version of Marxism. Timpanaro emphasises the insuperable limits of frailty and mortality as unalterable conditions of society whose transformation is the goal of revolutionary socialism. Timpanaro vigorously attacks what he regards as the widespread entente between a diluted Marxism and a fashionable idealism in the west, whether in the form of an “existentialist” or a “structuralist” union of the two. The aversion of the former to the work of Darwin and Engels receives a spirited refutation, no less than the indulgence of the latter towards the work of Saussure or Levi-Strauss. A special introduction written for this English edition deals with the phenomenon of the recent revival of “vulgar materialism” in the Anglo-Saxon world, in the fields of psychology and anthropology, and its relationship to racism. On Materialism will be one of the central focuses of cultural and intellectual controversy within and beyond Marxism in the next decade. 

This classic work from the defining intellectual of the postmodern, Jean Baudrillard, takes Marx’s critique of political economy and its analysis of the commodity form as the starting point for an analysis of signs and their meaning in modern society. Combining semiological studies and sociology of the consumer society, this is Baudrillard’s most extensive engagement with Marxism and shows him at a critical juncture for the development of his thought. 

Fiori’s biography enlarges upon the facts of Gramsci’s life through personal accounts, and through Gramsci’s own writings to relatives and friends. In relating Gramsci’s growth as a political leader and theorist to his private experience, it offers acute insights into his involvement in the factory councils movement. It examines his relationship with political opponents, including Mussolini, and with his comrades within the Communist Party before and during Gramsci’s imprisonment. It is an approach which seeks to explicate, as well as underscore, the substantial achievement of one of the most important figures in western Marxism. 

Born in Martinique, Frantz Fanon (1925–61) trained as a psychiatrist in Lyon before taking up a post in colonial Algeria. He had already experienced racism as a volunteer in the Free French Army, in which he saw combat at the end of the Second World War. In Algeria, Fanon came into contact with the Front de Libération Nationale, whose ruthless struggle for independence was met with exceptional violence from the French forces. He identified closely with the liberation movement, and his political sympathies eventually forced him out the country, whereupon he became a propagandist and ambassador for the FLN, as well as a seminal anticolonial theorist.

David Macey’s eloquent life of Fanon provides a comprehensive account of a complex individual’s personal, intellectual and political development. It is also a richly detailed depiction of postwar French culture. Fanon is revealed as a flawed and passionate humanist deeply committed to eradicating colonialism.

All our student reading is 40% off as part of our Back to University/School sale. Ends September 30, 23:59 EST. See all our student reading lists here.

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