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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 February 2011
After reading the "Manifesto", Engels' "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" and Lenin's "State and the Revolution" anybody embarking on a study of Marxism should read this wonderful little book by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer before proceeding further with Marx's works and academic commentaries on them.

I particularly like chapter 6 (Alienation as a theory of history) and his account of the development of the theory of the materialist conception of history. However, chapter 10 (An appreciation) is especially impressive - or thought-provoking if you happen to disagree with his assessments. Singer argues that Marx deserves to be ranked with the foremost philosophers for two reasons: (1) his critique of the liberal conception of freedom, and (2) his analysis of human nature.

Marx provided the most important of all critiques of the liberal conception of freedom, which is "negative" freedom (freedom from) as opposed to "positive" (freedom to). It sees freedom as non-interference by the state or other individuals. It embraces laissez-faire economics because it sees the market as impersonal, and anyway many supporters of "liberal" freedom believe that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" produces the best possible result. Marx's objections to "liberal" freedom are:
* The interests of individuals are not necessarily the same as the totality of individuals (i.e. the community).
* Markets force us to compete with others instead of co-operating for the good of all.
* Allowing ourselves to be shaped by the market is not true freedom: planning the economy is the first step to controlling our own destiny which is true freedom.

Singer explains Marx's position very lucidly. He uses the example of people living in the suburbs of a city who can commute either by car or bus. As an individual I prefer to use my car instead of waiting for the bus. If 50,000 other people in the suburb do the same then the road is choked with cars and a 10 mile journey takes, say, an hour. Singer continues:
"In this situation, according to the liberal conception of freedom, we have all chosen freely...Yet the outcome is something none of us want. If we all went by bus the roads would be empty and we would cover the distance in twenty minutes...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. The solution, obviously, is for us all to get together and make a collective decision."
Marx believes that capitalism involves this kind of collective irrationality. We may appear "free" because we are not subject to deliberate interference by other people, but Marx thinks we are not free because we do not actually control our own society and will not do so until we collectively determine a planned economy.

Of course, Marx underestimated the difficulty in obtaining the cooperation of each individual in the joint endeavour of controlling society, but Singer is surely right to argue that Marx is the most important critic of the liberal conception of freedom and "it earns Marx a place alongside Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Hegel as a major figure in Western political thought."

The other important achievement Singer identifies is Marx's view that human nature is not fixed. This tends to seem obvious to most of us now but it was not the case before Marx, who stressed the degree to which human nature alters in accordance with the economic and social conditions that prevail. Of course, his own optimistic view of human nature is probably false but that is a separate issue. As Singer observes: "Marx's view of human nature is now so widely accepted that a return to a pre-Marxist conception of human nature is unthinkable."

Definitely a book worth reading.
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VINE VOICEon 21 August 2011
If you're never going to have time to trawl through Capital and Grundrisse, then this book will give you a bluffer's guide in 100 pages. Well, not quite, but it does provide an excellent overview of Marx's life and works, and demolishes many of the myths extrapolated from the many mis-readings of his texts - explaining how much of his work is both more nuanced and sometimes less dogmatic than some popular perceptions would credit. He shows how Marx's critique of political economy has withstood the test of time - even if some of his predictions and his rather opaque summary of capitalism's successor remain less than convincing.

Written in 1980 (and revised in 2000), however, some of Singer's own assessments now begin to look premature. Taking issue with Marx's contention that the income gap between workers and capitalists would increase, with more independent producers swallowed up by a capitalist oligopoly, with workers wages barely covering subsistence, leading to capitalism collapsing under the weight of its contradictions, Singer argues that such predictions "are so plainly mistaken" that they are impossible to defend, with the income gap narrowing since Marx's time (though widening in the last decade of the 20th century), with real wages rising at the expense of profits, and capitalism suffering minor crises but no threat of collapse.

From the viewpoint of 2011, however, this seems more debatable. While it is true that inequality declined and social mobility increased in the years following Marx's death, this was largely due to the development of a social democratic movement, driven by the theories of men like L.T. Hobhouse, which sought to ameliorate the more rapacious extremes of capitalist development - if only to save capitalists from themselves. The reductions in inequality did not occur, therefore, as part of capitalist development, but despite it.

If you look at the social democratic interlude as an aberration, as the neoliberals do, rather than a natural part of the course of economic development, then Marx's predictions come into much sharper focus. As the welfare state has been dismantled by the demiurgy of market fundamentalism, so the capitalist project has been put back on track - with the result that real wages have stagnated, with the proceeds of growth defaulting to the capitalist class, resulting in an acceleration of inequality, pushing many more into virtual subsistence or, at least, debt-peonage as those profits have been recycled to workers not in wages but credit. As a result, the spectre of a collapse of the whole economic system rides abroad again, just as it did at the end of the 19th century, when Marx's influence presented such a threat to orthodoxy.

Perhaps the crisis that capitalism's inherent contradictions seemed to prefigure was not so much forestalled as postponed?

In any case, Marx's writings - out of favour for the 40 years of neoliberal hegemony - have seldom been more topical. This is a good place to start.
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If you don't know anything, or know very little about Marx and his ideas and you need to brush up but don't have the time to sit for hours in a library, then get this book. I am a complete beginner with Marx, I had heard of him but knew nothing about his ideas. I had to acquire this knowledge in a very short space of time for an essay that I was writing for my Masters. This book was perfect, just enough information to give me the basics without getting to indepth AND in an easy to read format.
It covers events in his life as well as his main achievements and ideas.
This book makes no assumptions that you know anythign about Marxism so it is very easy to follow whilst avoiding being patronising or school bookish. In fact the Very Short Introduction series are actually written by very eminent scholars in the field so it by no means superficial or textbook material.
This is an excellent introduction to Marxism, it will give you the basics and will help you identify areas of further reading or study if you are so inclined. If you need an indepth, detailed look at his ideas/theories/life, then this isn't the book for you.
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on 6 November 2003
This book is a very short introduction to Marx's ideologies. It does briefly explore the influences on Marx such as Hegelian philosophy and Engel's contribution. The main text deals with the formation of Marxist theories, their change through time in Marx's writings and the main thrust of their opinion. This book is particularly useful for those who find KAPITAL hard going at first - it acts as a nice intro to some of the heavier economic stuff in Marx's own writings.
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VINE VOICEon 20 February 2013
For some reason a lot of introductions to Marx's work seem to be trying to hard to be quirky and different; perhaps it's a reaction against the dullness of some of his own prose. This book however plays it straight. There is a run through his ideas - grouped conceptually rather than chronologically - and some thoughts about what has had an influence and what hasn't. The author doesn't wear rose-tinted spectacles and isn't afraid to point out the (many) flaws in Marx's logic any more than he shys away from praising his insights. The final chapter is very readable.
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on 7 November 2009
I have to agree with the other reviewers here, this book does exactly what it says on the tin, in an even-handed and unbiased fashion. This is very rare in the academia of marxism, and cannot be praised enough.
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on 3 August 2013
If,like me,you've always had more than a passing interest in Marx but found Capital hard to tackle,this is a great book for beginners.it also explains some of the rationale behind the philosophy and there's a great end to the book.a good read and a bargain to boot.
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on 14 June 2011
This book is well written, well informed and well done. It reveals the life of Karl Marx and his influences, amazingly only in approximately 100 pages. Probably other books that would follow well from this would be 'Communism,' 'Socialism,' or 'Democracy,' that are also in the 'Very Short Introductions' compilation. If anything, there is a lot to remember (although this book is good for giving you the 'jist' of everything)and that it's rather short but then again, the clue was in the title.
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on 10 July 2012
The series of Very Short Introduction books are absolutely amazing. I brought this book along with Kant and Plato and found them informative and enjoyable. However, this text didn't give me the same satisfied feeling. I've read Marx before and would consider myself a student of his ideology. I couldn't however get to grips with Singer and his commentary.

This is purely a personal opinion of course, and other readers may find the book suitable. It would provide a good framework for students (as intended) but to learn Marx, one must read Marx
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on 24 March 2016
I should say that I am no Marxist (or socialist and so on) but would best describe my opinions as a classical liberal. Nevertheless I think this is a fairly balanced account of Marx and his ideas. The chapters on Hegel and the Marxist theory of history are well explained and easy to follow for someone who hasn't read about the ideas for some time.

I knew the most important part of the book would be the sections at the end on Marxist economics. I was expecting an account that did not fully reflect how marx's ideas diverge so much from well established economic ideas (espoused by left or right leaning economists), or how almost all his main empirical predictions were wrong. To my surprise Singer places Marx as a philosopher who was very well read in classical economics and within this framework (e.g. prices/wages are determined by the labour theory of value and not internal valuations and supply/demand) makes various empirical bets. He also emphasizes that Marx realised capitalism is useful for it's productive potential (allows man to escape the war with nature and so on). This is a fair description.

Singer is also completely blunt about how wrong Marx's predictions were: real wages do not tend towards subsistence in free labour markets, productivity in the long run has a POSITIVE correlation with real wages (a staple of modern economics), profit does not seem to tend downwards over time, it is hard to say the frequency of economic crises has been increasing over time and so on.

So why no 5 stars? In the end Singer argues Marx still has relevance by arguing his largest contribution is the challenge he poses to the "liberal conception of freedom". In short: a challenge to the classical (or old English) liberal notion that freedom is characterised by property rights, self ownership and rights to free exchange.There is perhaps something here - a kind of Sen style argument that people need some minimum level of capabilities.

The problem is that the argument Singer gives is really not a good one to justify this position. He explains that if everyone is "free" (liberal conception) to drive in a city the outcome for everyone is worse than if they all got together to agree that taking the bus helps everyone. This analogy is supposed to imply that something more than the liberal conception of "free" is needed to have good social outcomes. But this really doesn't give a fair account of what key authors would consider a free society and how the mechanics of one would work.

The response of a liberal to this analogy would be the following. A free society is characterised by the free exit and entry of individuals into various arrangements (in terms of investment and consumption) - via this fluid framework ("spontaneous order") various solutions are tested until a solution is found that matches the wider variety of individual preferences (price points and consumption types) in a RELATIVELY better way than a centrally imposed solution (e.g. enforcement of bus routes).

For example, in a system characterised by property rights (liberal planning laws and so on) there would be quite a natural incentive (in natural proportion to the amount of congestion) for someone to build more toll roads. The next investor may well bet that someone will use the bus service she invests in (at the price and travel time achieved) and so on. Indeed, there is evidence that many real life problems (congestion, excessive inner city rents) do arise not because of too much of the liberal conception of society is adopted but TOO LITTLE (incentives in central democratic planning systems mean regulations for new road building or house building are too stringent).
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