Marx always wrote as a revolutionary and as a socialist, but not necessarily as a philosopher. This volume collects some of the more accessible journalism that he wrote for the New York Tribune from 1852-61. It is divided into sections that deal with British Imperialism in China and India, the aftermath of the Revolutions of 1848, British and French Politics and Economy, and the American Civil War. As a general rule he had two purposes in each of these articles. The first was to explain a facet of the European political scene to an American audience, and the second was to heap scorn and ridicule on the powers that be.
There are at least three things that stand our about almost every one of these pieces. The first is the sheer vituperation involved. Marx heartily hated most of the people he was writing about, and he wanted his readers to hate them too. No doubt many of them deserved it. Politicians and financiers have always been rich targets for black comedy, but once the laughter has died away we are left with a fairly bleak picture of the world. It seems there are only two types of people on Marx's horizon - the rich, powerful, foolish and corrupt on the one hand, and the suffering, innocent, oppressed, and powerless on the other. It's not an especially attractive view of the world, either from an intellectual standpoint (things can't be that simple) or from a practical one (if the rich and powerful are all fools, why are they rich and powerful?)
Another thing that stands out about these pieces is the author's erudition. It's clear that Marx was an immensely-learned commentator, and well-able to perceive the essential issues involved in complex political questions. Marx's articles on the causes of the American Civil War are particularly illustrative. They can be read in an hour or two, and explain the issues involved far more succinctly and accurately than many text books. The economic interpretation of history is an immensely powerful tool for interpreting complex events, and, at least to me, seems more or less self-evident. While Marx's particular system of class struggle, revolution, and economics has been shown to have been at best inadequate, and at worst total nonsense, it shouldn't require any particular strain of the intellect to understand that the prospect of making or losing money is a powerful motivation to virtually all political actors. Probably a more powerful motivation than religion, morality, freedom, "civilization," or any of the other fine phrases that have been used to cloak self-interest throughout the centuries. That's not to say that these concepts are completely meaningless - but the world would be a very different place if the great and powerful believed in them with half the conviction they show in asserting their financial interest. As a practical matter, justice and idealism usually only enter into official calculations when they can be combined with some financial or security interest. The lust of politicians for power at any cost, and through any means, has been an open secret since Machiavelli, but it remained for Marx to point out that the industrial revolution had brought financial interests to the forefront for the first time. The insight is as valid today as it was in the 1850's.
The last thing that stands out about these pieces is the tone of moral indignation in which they are written. Marx amply and vividly illustrates the barbarism of European imperialism in Asia, the callous indifference of "civilized" Europeans to the massive scale of misery and want which surrounded them, the desperation of the poor, the cruel brutality of the police, and the hypocrisy and stupidity of the great and powerful. Disreali, Palmerston, and Napoleon III came in for particular and repeated abuse. Indeed, Marx was against pretty much all the governments of his day. The only one he had a kind word for was the Federal government of the United States, but that had more to do with its struggle against "the slavocracy" than any love of bourgeois republics as such. Rather, he saw the northern industrial economy as "historically progressive" in so much as it represented an advance as against the southern agrarian economy, and toward the inevitable future status of all industrial economies - i.e. communism.
At least for me, the value of these pieces was the opportunity to listen to an eloquent exponent of 19th century radicalism as he explained his point of view on then-current events. It helped me to understand how he saw the world, and what kind of assumptions he made about it. When reading a book like this, it's hard to keep from one's mind the knowledge of how his own political philosophy turned out. It's important to remember, though - at least if one wants to give the author a fair hearing - that in the 1850's the Soviet Union hadn't happened yet. Marx couldn't have known the future, any more than you or I can. Certainly he couldn't have known that it would be used to perpetrate crimes far worse than those which he was writing about.
What he was focused on wasn't the theoretical iniquities of the future, but rather the real and tangible crimes of his present. Perhaps he erred, as radicals often do, in focusing so much on removing the old regime that they fail to make adequate preparations for the new. As a general rule revolutions make things worse, rather than better - but again, at the time he wrote, that hadn't become clear yet. The great progress of his own time - that toward democracy and industrialization - had come about as a direct cause of revolution (i.e. the French Revolution.) It wasn't unreasonable to expect that the trend would continue into the future.
In any case, the reader doesn't have to subscribe to Marx's weird eschatological notions of class struggle and the stateless society in order to appreciate these pieces. They capture an authentic voice from the past, and a very influential one at that. For people who really want to understand modern history, it's worth the trouble of giving him a fair hearing.