Opinion | Friday, 4th May 2018

Five things to read if you want to understand Marx

Dr Robert Jackson gives his top picks on the philosopher's 200th birthday

Karl Marx
Dr Robert Jackson lists five essential reads to understand Karl Marx

Originally published on The Conversation

by Dr Robert Jackson, Lecturer in Politics and Philosophy

1. A Companion to Marx’s Capital – David Harvey

From social movements to student reading groups, from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to articles in the Financial Times, Marx’s economic writings are at the centre of debate once again. And one of the figures most associated with these discussions is the geographer David Harvey.

Based on his popular online lecture series, Reading Capital with David Harvey, this book makes Marx’s Capital accessible to a broader audience. Guiding readers through Marx’s challenging (but rewarding) study of the “laws of motion” of capitalism, Harvey provides an open and critical reading. He draws out the connections between this world-changing text and today’s society – a society which, after all, is still shaped by the economic crisis of 2008.

2. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life – Jonathan Sperber

For Jonathan Sperber, a historian of modern Germany, Marx is “more a figure from the past than a prophet of the present”. And, as its title suggests, this biography places Marx’s life in the context of the 19th century. It’s an accessible introduction to the history of his political thought, particularly as a critic of his contemporaries. Sperber discusses Marx in his many roles – a son, a student, a journalist and political activist – and introduces the multitude of characters connected with him. While Francis Wheen’s well-known Karl Marx: A Life is a more freewheeling account, Sperber’s writing is both highly readable and more deeply rooted in historical scholarship.

3. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation – Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Writing about the US just over 150 years ago, Marx noted that: “Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.” And the influence of his ideas about the relationship between race and class is visible in debates right up to the present day.

Penned by academic and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who came to popular prominence in the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement, this is a timely read for those interested in the various ways Marx’s thought is being rebooted for the 21st century. A penetrating book, it connects the origins of racism to the structures of economic inequality. With plenty of Marxist ideas (among others) in her toolbox, Taylor critically examines the notion of a “colour-blind” society and the US’s post-Obama order to great effect.

4. Why Marx was Right – Terry Eagleton

A call to reconsider the widely accepted notion that Marx is a “dead dog” from renowned literary theorist Terry Eagleton. In this provocative and highly readable book, Eagleton questions the plausibility of ten of the most common objections to Marx’s thought – among them, that Marx’s ideas are outdated in post-industrial societies, that Marxism always leads to tyranny in practice, that Marx’s theory is deterministic and undermines human freedom. Always witty and passionate, Eagleton peppers his spirited defence (with some reservations) of Marx’s ideas with his own literary and cultural insights.

5. Jacobin magazine – edited by Bhaskar Sunkara (available online)

In the era of the Occupy movement, “taking a knee” and #MeToo, the discussion of Marx’s ideas has gained an increasing presence on the internet. One of the most notable examples is the socialist magazine and online platform Jacobin, edited by Bhaskar Sunkara, which currently reaches around 1m viewers a month.

Covering topics from international politics and environmental movements to the recent education strikes in Oklahoma and West Virginia and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, it’s a lively source for anyone who wants to see an analysis of contemporary politics that’s influenced by Marx’s thought.

More articles