Monday, 6 May 2013

Five Books on Marx and Marxism

It was that there Karl Marx's 195th birthday yesterday, and things would be remiss if this blog didn't mark it in some way. So here are my five favourite books on Marx and Marxism. What books have you particularly enjoyed and/or had the biggest impact on you?

Selections from the Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci (1971). A long time ago I wrote a series of posts that aimed to comment on the entirety of this brick-thick tome, but I only got as far as finishing off the section of The Modern Prince before life intervened and said no to more blogging. I digress. Taken as a whole, the Selections probably constitute the most important Marxist theoretical work undertaken since the early days of the USSR. Written in a difficult style to hoodwink Gramsci's jailers, the analysis of Italy's class structure, the meditations on socialist strategy, the nature of modern capitalist production, it is packed with insights and programmes for further study. Quite why the bulk of the "anti-Stalinist" far left prefer Trotsky to Gramsci baffles me.

For Marx by Louis Althusser (1965). Here's another fella who's had a good blogging. Althusser's project was a controversial one: a purging and reconstruction of Marx and Marxism without those awkward essentialisms and metaphysical overhangs. And I think he almost pulled it off. I say 'almost' for two reasons. As a loyal partisan of official communism, Althusser's arguments appealed to textual fealty in the last instance, but was doing so to replace Marx's language with a specialised and highly technical vocabulary of his own. Secondly, the purge of metaphysics went hand-in-hand with a more coherent systemisation of Marx's thought. While the ejection of essentialism saw an importation of Freudian concepts and methods (condensation, overdetermination, symptomatic readings), the scientific character of his reworked Marxism (theory) was guaranteed by a further appeal to a meta-philosophy (Theory) that somehow floated above the daily grind of the sociological cogs. Nevertheless, despite writing in an almost impenetrable, dense style For Marx is a masochistic pleasure that ruthlessly attacks woolly thinking while, ironically, exhibiting some itself.

Marx's Ecology by John Bellamy Foster (2000) At Socialism 2005 in a debate with Derek Wall of the Greens, I recall either Hannah Sell or Judy Beishon declaring this book "should come with a health warning". And reading it it's quite clear why. Foster takes us on a philosophical tour of materialism from ancient Greece to the 1930s, looking at the linkages between successive conceptions of the natural world, science and naturalism, the emergence of ecological thinking in the 19th century, the supersession of mechanical materialism by materialist dialectics. He discusses how Marx very clearly understood the opposition between us as a species and the natural world was an ideological fiction and that in fact we were part of the same 'metabolism'. Historical materialism was the understanding of how this human/nature metabolism developed over time in a dialectical fashion, leading Foster to conclude that Marx was the first properly ecological thinker. This is definitely a provocative but deeply interesting argument, made more attractive by his engaging intellectual history of materialism down the ages. So why was the SP so hostile? Was it because Foster inadvertently demonstrated their own understanding of materialism to be distinctively pre-Marxist?

The Retreat from Class by Ellen Meiksins Wood (1986). I'd never heard of Wood until the very first issue of Historical Materialism landed on my doormat. In it was, if memory serves, two articles on her work understanding the emergence of capitalism. Against a received orthodoxy that tended to treat the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a mechanical unfolding of the productive forces (as per a strict determinist reading of the 1859 Preface), she argued that a) capitalist society was an outcome of the class struggles of decaying feudalism, and b) as such it was no more inevitable than a socialist society is. The obviousness of her position nevertheless sounded dangerously iconoclastic, and I promptly checked The Retreat from Class out from the library. I'm glad I did. At the time I was reading a lot of post-Marxist and postmodern social theory. I could see some of it had a point but it never sat easy with me because, as a working class kid, it wrote over, ignored, or dismissed class. Wood's book came like a thunderbolt because not only did her fierce polemic restate a classical Marxist understanding of class as a relationship, she systematically (and sarcastically) took apart your Stedman Joneses, your Laclaus and your Mouffes. If I was to recommend one book to younger, more radical activists than I covering the key debating points of socialist strategy in the wake of post-Marxism, this would be it.

Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Theory by Robert Paul Resch (1992). I imagine this won't be on many people's top five works of Marxist social theory. Indeed, being published a long, long time after the tide of Althusserian Marxism had receded this muscular defence of so-called Structural Marxism must have stood out like a sore thumb. But that's no crime in and of itself. Another weighty tome, not only does Resch provide the clearest critical overview of Althusser's entire work available (at that point) in English, this magisterial survey covers practically everything - and I mean everything that came out of the Althusserian school of thought. It seems every article, every polemic, every study, no matter how obscure, gets a mention. And if that's not enough, Foucault and Bourdieu - two thinkers normally held up as surpassing Althusserian Marxism in sophistication and explanatory power - are audaciously annexed by Resch to it. As a primer, this is by far and away the best book out there on Althusser's Marxism and his impact and was probably the most powerful statement of the case for explanatory social theory at the moment postmodernism was driving all before it in the academy.


Michael Ezra said...

I have responded to this post with my own five books on Marx and Marxists here. My selection is somewhat different to yours!

Stuart said...

Adventures in Marxism by Marshall Berman:

Chris said...

Speaking of Berman, I have for some time been toying with the idea of writing an article titled,

"In defence of the working class, a response to the left"

Though I think Phil would be better equipped to take on this essential project.

Unknown said...

Considerations on Western Marxism – Perry Anderson. Particularly the short ‘Problems’ section.
1)Underestimated nationalism
2)Some hints about supporting parliamentary solutions in some developed economies but no clues about how to approach this.
3)Tendency to economic catastrophism picked up by later activists. Economic crises will do much of the work for Marxist activists.
Good outline. Still relevant.

Anonymous said...

Everything by Ellen Wood is worth reading. Her collection 'Democracy Against Capitalism' is perhaps the best single volume on historical materialism there is.

But Althusser???

As a document of the internal ideological struggles of the PCF in the 1960s his For Marx is crucial.

But as a guide to Marx it is pretty useless. I think Simon Clarke's critique of Althusser is on the mark.

I would recommend The Violence of Abstraction by Derek Sayer (great but hard to find) and the Penguin collection of Marx's Early Writings (with an important introductory essay by Lucio Colletti).

Roobin said...

"Quite why the bulk of the "anti-Stalinist" far left prefer Trotsky to Gramsci baffles me."

I very much agree. I've been on the verge of getting into John Bellamy Foster (but have to marshall my money), I may now take the plunge.

Roobin said...

"Quite why the bulk of the "anti-Stalinist" far left prefer Trotsky to Gramsci baffles me."

I very much agree. I've also been on the point of getting into John Bellamy Foster, but never had the money and the time. I may well do that now.

Phil said...

Funnily enough, Resch's book also recommends Wood's work as an example of the sort of anti-teleological, anti-essentialist Marxism Althusser was striving toward.

I agree, as a 'Marxologist' Althusser wasn't much good. But I still rate his attempted reconstruction - despite the critiques levelled at it (and yes, I've read Clarke's extended attack).

Phil said...

I haven't read more of Foster's stuff, but if is is of the Ecology's quality it will be good.

Ken said...

The problems of Marxism section in
Considerations on Western Marxism – Perry Anderson.
1)Not much understanding of nationalism and underestimated it (See 1914)
2)Some hints about supporting parliamentary solutions in some developed economies (US and Holland mentioned) but no clues about how to approach this.
3)Tendency to economic catastrophism picked up by later activists. Economic crises will do much of the work for Marxist activists.
Good outline of problems which some might argue remain.