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Saturday, January 15, 2011


Today I launch what will undoubtedly be a many part tutorial on the thought of Karl Marx. Since there may only be a handful of folks out there who actually want to read such a tutorial, I will intersperse these segments on my blog with my usual commentary on the passing scene. If anyone wishes to take this tutorial really seriously and supplement it with readings, let me begin with a few suggestions. The most important thing, of course, is to read Marx himself. The essential texts are The Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The Communist Manifesto, and Volume One of CAPITAL. Among the early works, Part One of THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY is also useful. Serious students will want to read all of CAPITAL -- the three volumes, plus the so-called "fourth volume" -- the three volumes of THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE -- but as that comes to five thousand pages of discussion of economics, I will understand if you give it a pass.

This will be a tutorial on the thought of Karl Marx, not on Marxism, as it has come to be called. There will be no discussion of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Max Schachtman, Rosa Luxembourg, the First, Second, Third, or Fourth Internationals, or even of the Sunnyside Progressive School, which I attended until age six. If there is anyone for whom this multi-part tutorial is not enough Wolff, there are always my two books on Marx: UNDERSTANDING MARX and MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY. Some years ago, Jerrold Siegel, a Professor at Princeton, published a magnificent biography of Marx called MARX'S FATE. I recommend it most warmly.

So, enough throat clearing. Let us begin.

Marx was born in 1818, in a small town near what is now the border of Luxembourg. Although he came from a long line of rabbis, his father had made a pro forma conversion to Christianity so that he could pursue his career as a lawyer. Marx was a brilliant student, and his parents had great hopes for him, perhaps as a professor. At seventeen he went off to university, studying first at Bonn [if my memory serves me -- I am doing this from memory, rather than spending time checking things in books] and then at Berlin. He earned a doctorate in philosophy with a dissertation on the ancient Greek atomists. I have actually read Marx's doctoral dissertation, and you can trust me that it is not the very first thing by Marx you would want to read. Its significance for his later development is that it dealt with philosophers who espoused materialism, not -- as was then the philosophical rage in German speaking Europe -- idealism.

To understand Marx's life and thought, it is essential to call to mind, at least in its broad outlines, what was happening in Europe when Marx was growing up. There were two great upheavals underway, both of which had a profound effect on Marx, and, indeed, on every other important thinker of that time. The first was the political upheaval triggered in the late eighteenth century by the overthrow of the ancien regime in France, and then by the series of military and political revolutions that were carried across Central and Southern Europe by Napoleon's armies.

It is difficult for us, at this remove, to appreciate just how deeply the French Revolution shook the European world. France was the wealthiest and most powerful nation in Europe. The court at Versailles was the wonder of the civilized world, its wealth and elegance the model for every lesser ruler, from Prussia to Russia. Continental Europe had not been much troubled by the overthrow and eventual restoration of the Stuarts in England a century earlier, but when the head of Europe's most powerful monarch fell into a basket, people took notice.

Napoleon's brief conquests broke up the old Hapsburg Empire and set free cultural and political forces that transformed Central Europe. One can see the effects in the music of Chopin and Liszt, and even in the collection of folk tales in local languages assembled by the Brothers Grimm. Politically, Europe was aflame. In 1830, when Marx was a boy of twelve, the Paris Commune brought the existing monarchy to an end, and though a new monarchy was quickly installed, the lesson of those three glorious days was that direct action in the streets by the common people could have dramatic revolutionary effects.

All of this must be kept in mind when one reads THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, written by Marx in 1848 shortly before another round of political upheavals. The optimism Marx exhibits in that early work is a direct consequence of the lessons of the previous sixty years. If the Old Regime in France could be toppled, if the Hapsburg Empire could be shattered, if street riots could bring down kings, how unreasonable was it to suppose that dedicated communists could bring into existence the next stage of history?

The second great upheaval was less dramatic, but Marx eventually concluded that it was much more important, and indeed was the cause of the political transformations -- I refer, of course, to the explosive rise and expansion of capitalism. Unlike the political revolutions, this transformation matured first in England. Even France, whose highly developed and rationalized economy was still largely agricultural, did not experience the capitalist transformation as early as did England, and in the part of Europe in which Marx was growing up, the economy was still for the most part in a late feudal stage of development.

Marx devoted his life to analyzing capitalism, and we shall have a great deal to say, later on, about his insights and conclusions. In these opening remarks, I want to deal, as it were with surfaces, appearances, rather than with the underlying structure of the economy. There were four or five ways in which capitalism thrust itself into the consciousness of social observers both in England and, somewhat later, on the continent. First of all, there was an explosion of output. Goods were spewed from the new factories in astonishing quantities. In his great work, THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING-CLASS IN ENGLAND IN 1844, Friedrich Engels, Marx's lifelong collaborator and friend, describes the shop windows filled with goods, like a great cornucopia overflowing with the bounties of industry. Marx chooses to begin the very first paragraph of CAPITAL by saying, "The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as 'an immense accumulation of commodities.'" [He is quoting himself here from an earlier work.] This sudden expansion of the scope of output worked profound changes in English, and later in continental, society.

The second striking consequence of the advent of capitalism was the phenomenon of the "new men," factory owners who had begun life in modest circumstances as apprentices or journeymen, and made money so rapidly that in their own lifetimes they were able to marry their daughters off to impecunious aristocrats or buy themselves titles. European society was, of course, accustomed to enormous disparities in wealth, but rich families and individuals by and large derived their wealth from ownership of land, which had been inherited from previous generations. There were, of course, times of great trouble in the history of Europe when fighting men, by force of arms, seized great estates and catapulted themselves into the ranks of the nobles, but the newly wealthy capitalists were not buccaneers, aggrandizing themselves at the point of a sword. Indeed, it really was not clear how they were able to become so rich so fast.

The third great change in English society was the transformation of cities. Huge slums sprouted up, inhabited by landless, propertyless people whose sole source of food and shelter was day labor in the new factories. Many of these were former peasants, driven off the land by country squires who enclosed their land and turned it into sheep pastures to feed the new cloth factories' demand for wool.

The fourth great change was the erosion of the traditional authority and position of the landed aristocracy and the clergy. This is a complex story going back to the late Middle Ages, and it would take too long even to sketch here. Suffice it to say that capitalism truly was, as Marx was among the first to observe, the most revolutionary force ever let loose upon society.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that among the byproducts of the explosive growth of capitalism was the emergence, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, of a large, literate class of businessmen, merchants, and their families, who became not only a market for the novel, as literary historians have noted, but also a powerful class demanding a real voice in the affairs of government, and prepared to call into question the traditional authority of king, noble, and cleric.

All of this was taking place as the young Karl Marx went off to university in 1835. Tomorrow, we shall have to talk about what he found when he got there.


Amato said...

Professor, this is great. I am very excited about this tutorial. I am sure it will be incredibly insightful and help further my nascent study of Marx.

One question: have you read Francis Wheen's Karl Marx: A Life? I read it and thought it was quite good, but again I'm only a novice so I wasn't totally sure.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I don't know it at all. Siegel's is the only fullscale biography of Marx that I have read. It convinced me that he was a really unpleasant character!

Chris said...

I read Wheen's. It was very interesting to learn about the life of Marx, but I learned next to nothing about the thought of Marx. So I don't recommend it for anyone interested in historical materialism, marxist economics, class relations, dialectic, etc etc. But, if you're looking for a pleasurable, and often hysterical, read about Marx's life, it's great.

wallyverr said...

The University of London has for many years had a module on Marx/Marxism in the philosophy BA. There is a useful guide to reading of both primary and secondary texts at

G.A. Cohen was the local authority on Marx, so the syllabus probably reflects his interests and influence.

Michael said...
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Michael said...

Looking forward to reading the rest of this series. I only have a layman's understanding of Marx, which is to say I don't know a dammed thing.

The Toy Story 3 reference made my day.

Michael said...

I realize I'm a little late on this, but if anyone is interested the BBC Radio program "In Our Time" had an interesting episode recently on the industrial revolution's emergence in England (It actually begins with a quotation from Engels' book). It's an interesting conversation among academics, although it gets heated pretty quickly. I think it's worth a listen:

Magpie said...

I've only recently learned of this series on the thought of Marx.

Judging by this first post, I can put my reaction in two ways: (1) I am looking forward for the rest of the series; more simply (2) Wow.