on 5 July 1999
This is an excellent selection of the writings of Karl Marx. This includes many writings which do not make it into the usual Marx/Engels Readers; Writings including Marx's Letters, his criticism of Bakunin, more writings on economics than in the usual Reader, and so on. One flaw of it, though, is that it does not contain the later writings of Engels writen after Marx's death. I suppose this is to be expected; It is after all *Marx's* writings, not Engels. However, the loss does not affect it much, and the book is still one of the most valuable tomes of Marxism I've bought. I'd recommend anyone interested in the thought of Karl Marx to get this book; If one is interested in both the writings of Marx and Engels, I'd recommend they get this book and the Marx/Engels Reader to supplement it. I have both, and both are fascinating.
This selection of Marx's works edited by McClellan is wide enough to enable one to determine Marx's importance as a political thinker. Engels forever saw Marx's central achievement as "scientific socialism", but Marxism is not a science for its predictions are inaccurate. Marx wrongly predicted that workers would remain close to subsistence level, with many reduced to "pauperism". He was wrong to predict inexorably falling profits. He thought society would divide into just two classes but failed to see the rise of the managerial class and white collar workers in general. He predicted revolutions in advanced countries, but revolutions have been in backward countries such as Russia and China and Marxist only in name.
If Engels was wrong did Marx contribute anything of lasting significance? What about historical materialism? Engels compared Marx's "law of development of human history" with Darwin's "law of development of organic nature." The theory supposes that economic relations provide the substructure of society which determines the nature of the "superstructure", i.e. the law, form of government, culture etc. The theory of the dialectic used in this way has been discredited, and too many of Marx's followers adopted a crude economic determinism. However, a refined historical materialism helps us to understand that many institutions, ideas and events are at least influenced by economic matters. The European Reformation and the English Civil War are among events illuminated by the kernel of truth in historical materialism.
The theory of the class struggle is inextricably interwoven with historical materialism, for it is through the class struggle that history unfolds. Much of what Marx wrote on class in now seen as defunct, and critics disagree with Marx's use of class primarily as an economic group. However, Marx's theory that all forms of inequality can be reduced to social class, and that classes form the only significant social groups in society, comprises one of the two theories (Weber's being the other) that now dominate modern thinking on class. This is a measure of Marx's continuing importance as an analyst of class.
Marx's theory of alienation has risen in critical esteem as scientific socialism has declined. Alienation means that people are unable to derive satisfaction from their work, or from the products of their labour. Marx supposed that alienation arose from an economic system involving the exchange of goods, for the goods produced became mere "commodities" for sale rather than the means to "self-realisation". Marx observed that two features of modern industry - mechanisation and specialisation - further increase alienation, but believed that it is capitalism itself that is more important. In this he has been often criticised but alienation is an important concept and like other worthwhile theories has stimulated thought and led to modified alienation theories such as those of Gorz and Marcuse, whose theories encompass leisure as well as work, such that under capitalism people are alienated from both work and leisure.
Also significant is Marx's view of human nature, a key element in political thought. Marx supposed that human nature is malleable, altering according to socio-economic conditions in each time-period. Few people now agree with Marx that human nature is as pliable as he supposed but almost all agree with him that human nature can and does change according to circumstances.
Finally there is Marx's critique of the liberal conception of freedom. The mid-nineteenth century was dominated by the liberal concepts of negative liberty, the minimal state and laissez-faire economics. Marx, however, saw that actions that are rational and utility-maximising for individuals could harm the interests of society as a whole. Take the vexed issue of private versus public transport. The M25 into London is choked every morning with commuter traffic. Buses could complete the journey in a fraction of the time (and assist commercial transport to the benefit of the whole economy). An individual can use a bus, but whilst there are so many cars the bus is no quicker and less convenient. The liberal conception of freedom has led to a paradox: we have each chosen in our own interests, but the result is in no one's interest. Individual rationality, collective irrationality. Marx saw that capitalism involved this sort of collective irrationality. The problem, of course, is how to persuade people to cooperate for the common good (to use the bus in the above example) without unacceptable coercion, for it is in the interests of each individual for others to participate in the collective action whilst he remains a free-rider. Nevertheless, this in no way invalidates the force of Marx's critique of liberal freedom.
on 2 February 2016
Although McLellan himself is an academic rather than a Marxist, he has put together an excellent selection of Karl Marx’s writings, including some of the shorter writings in full, as well as extracts from the longer works. The only problem with the book is that it is restricted to Marx himself and does not include the works of Marx’s lifelong friend, comrade and collaborator Friedrich Engels, except those which were written jointly with Marx. For this reason I prefer Robert C. Tucker’s “Marx-Engels Reader” to this volume.
In his speech at Marx’s graveside (which is included in this collection), Engels outlines the three key elements of Marxism. Firstly, there is the materialist conception of history. Engels states that: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history…”
As Marx himself puts it in “Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”:
“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.”
Secondly, Engels points out that Marx “also discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production…” and particularly emphasises the “discovery of surplus value”, which is the mechanism through which the capitalist class exploits the working class (which today includes both manual and white collar workers).
As Marx wrote in “Capital”: “The essential difference between the various economic forms of society, between, for instance, a society based on slave-labour, and one based on wage-labour, lies only in the mode in which this surplus-labour is in each case extracted from the actual producer, the labourer.”
(Marx’s analysis of capitalism also makes good use of his dialectical approach and his theory of alienation.)
Thirdly, Engels shows that Marxism is the theory of working class revolution. “For Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute to… the liberation of the modern proletariat…”
A revolution was necessary partly because “... the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another...” (The Civil War in France) and partly because in the process of the class struggle the ideas of the majority of the working class would change, as is shown in these two passages from “The German Ideology”:
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time the ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production...”
“Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
Finally, the democratic nature of the revolution that Marx envisaged (in total contrast to the bureaucratic and tyrannical Stalinist regimes which claimed to be following Marx, but which in fact were/are state capitalist societies) is shown when Marx writes (in “The Civil War in France”) about the short-lived Paris Commune as his model for a workers’ state:
“(The Paris Commune) filled all posts — administrative, judicial and educational - by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors. And in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers.”
Extracts like these make this book very useful for anyone interested in Marxism. And don’t forget that: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” (Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”.)
Whether I love it or not is a different matter. It is dense, requires lots of comprehension of the terms he uses and an understanding of economics. Brought back to it after reading about Maurice Saatchi and his "conversion" to Marx as a predictor of the current position of the state. This is just his selected readings, they are immense in depth in what he covers. The mind of the man is broad, deep and has an extra dimension entitled colossal.
In some sections he appears to be just point scoring against Proudhon and Stirner plus the Young Hegelians (German Ideology in particular) in others he offers an incisive critique of current monopoly capitalism and how it constrains the individual into the formation of a social class. Whatever way you twist you will come up against Marx as a brick wall wrapped around the modern era.
Whatever the views are on the immanence of his millenarian vision, the economics analysis as Saatchi has depicted requires a great deal of reflection on what he has uncovered. Whilst Weber is credited in looking at the realm of ideas and how status groups emerge, this is not far from what Marx was also writing about -see his 1872 speech at the end. Ultimately he saw two classes emerging, the super rich who ran the monopolies and those engaged in full time work to survive.
Pauperisation within the Western World however has not occurred en masse as he visualised...at least not yet economically perhaps culturally. But with the decrease in the levels of critical analysis there is an intellectual pauperisation to the levels that Pavlov would have appreciated, as the ideology of the ruling classes and the belief in their sanctity has overtaken religion as the main social belief.
Here he unpicks the various belief systems that have kept capitalism trundling on for over two hundred years and lays them bare. Within the present climate his analysis has struck a chord with the libertarian right more than the working class itself. It is the world turned upside down. He never predicted that.
on 16 December 2014
Excellent sampler of Marx's work. Some of his earlier writings on alienation have stood up better than his later theories. From what I have been told, the choices from "difficult" texts are well selected, giving an idea of the thinking without having to read the whole of Marx's works.
on 23 January 2012
This is a great edition of Marx's work. The work is presented in chronological order, which is really helpful to follow the way in which Marx's ideas develop. In addition, each 'historical' section is preceded by a short contextualising comment by McLellan which is very helpful indeed. If you are studying Marx a little more in depth, you will be glad you got this book.