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TOP 500 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 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 2 December 2010
This is a brief and a very well-done guide into the Marxist view of the society of his time.... if you want to understand The Capital, this book could be the right first step to approach Marx's conception of history and economy... Not only is this book useful to students of economics but also to students of literature, like me, thanks to its easy and clear language! This is a perfect "preview"/"summary" of the Marx's studies..... so, if you want to make a detailed research on Marx, you need to read some of his major works, as this guide just wants to present his studies to the readers who are unfamiliar with Marxist world :-)
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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 14 November 2010
I would praise Singer for expounding clearly and concisely his own unique unifying theory about Marx. The way he draws on past philosophers as influences on the great man is particularly rewarding, and alltogether this is a very well written book. I say 'a little on the short side' because that's what it is; although it is 'a very short introduction', many in this series are twice as long, and the great man himself deserves, I think, a little more expounding on.
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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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on 10 April 2010
Let's be frank: this is a book that will be bought by undergraduates to brush up on their understanding of Marx for an essay or an exam. It fills this purpose pretty well, giving a good overview of Marx as a political thinker. It is a well written book, I read it in one sitting after finding up a copy in a second-hand bookshop. Particularly good is Singer's treatment of how Marx's thought developed out of an engagement with Hegel. Singer is also fair in regards both the limitations of Marx as a social prophet and his strength as a critic of capitalism and theorist of human freedom. Thankfully little time is wasted on the blind alley of 'dialectical materialism' (a phrase Marx never used). What is odd, however, is how dismissive Singer is of Marx as a social or historical thinker. A bit surprising, considering the influence Marx's materialist ideas have had over thinkers including Braudel, Weber, Adorno, Hobsbawm, Sraffa, EH Carr and many others. But other than this, the book is successful at what it intends to do, providing a good introduction to a student new to Marx. For a detailed interrogation of Marx as a social theorist, I recommend GA Cohen's 'Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence'.
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on 22 February 2014
As someone who had always been interested in Marx but had never actually gotten around to reading his works, this was an excellent introduction to the man and the environments that informed his beliefs. Recommended.
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