Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 10, 2013

A reading guide for students of Marxism

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

A Marxist education

In early February I received this email from a Marxmail subscriber:

If I am not imposing on you —could you recommend some items to read to get some concise (assuming that is the right word to use) and basic understandings of marxism in its pure form and then the debates that either honed it or distorted it. I am new to this other than having some info from high school and reading the communist manifesto. I can follow some of the items sent to the list but the background to some of them is way above my level. Thanks for any recommendation you can make.

It has taken me a while to get around to responding to this but this does not reflect a lack of interest on my part. To the contrary, this is one of the main reasons I launched Marxmail—to help people new to Marxism get a better handle on the main concepts without enduring the sectarian nonsense I had to put up with as a recruit to the Trotskyist movement in 1967.

Despite my regrets about the 11 years I spent in the movement, I can say that I received a very good education from some very capable teachers, including old-timers who were closely connected to Leon Trotsky, like George Novack, Farrell Dobbs, and Joseph Hansen. I always had the hope that the participation of veteran Marxists on Marxmail would help new comrades get up to speed, especially since many of the discussions take the form of sharp debates. Some of the best lessons I received in Marxism were not part of an organized lecture series but debates at a branch meeting with people like Peter Camejo on the other side of a question from Larry Trainor, an older trade union veteran of the party.

Before recommending a reading guide, I want to refer you to a Yahoo mailing list I initiated in January 2008 to meet a similar request. The archives are here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/marxism_class/. Basically the format was a post from me followed up by discussion. As it turned out, there wasn’t much discussion. Looking back in retrospect, I think the attempt at an online class had mixed results. I tended to write about topics that probably reflected a bit too much of my own concerns that were often a bit abstruse. Also, the mailing list medium does not lend itself to the kind of give-and-take that you would get in a physical as opposed to a virtual classroom.

There is a very good chance that I will return to this at some point in the future but in a different format. It will probably be based on videos of me lecturing on basic concepts on a blog with people asking questions or making comments. There’s also a good chance that I will try to use Skype for online discussion, keeping in mind that you are limited to 8 people communicating at once. I really have to look into different options, including the possibility that some leftwing institution would donate the resources for an electronic classroom like the kind that MIT and Columbia University are using. In general I am skeptical about electronic classrooms but for people like us spread across 5 continents there’s probably no alternative.

Okay, without further ado, here is a reading guide for learning Marxism divided to online texts and those only available in dead trees format. I should add that Les Evans, a leader of the SWP who has since evolved into a Christopher Hitchens figure politically but without his overweening ambitions, recommended a number of the online texts to me back in the late 60s.


1. Karl Marx, “Wage Labor and Capital”. Although this is an unfinished work, it is an excellent introduction to Marx’s basic economic theories written in a straightforward manner geared to the audience: the German Workingmen’s Club of Brussels.

2. Ernest Mandel, “An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory”. Like the work above, it was written as a kind of introductory text.

3. Frederick Engels, “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”. This is actually an excerpt from a larger work, “The Dialectics of Nature”, that is not nearly as important as this part that is generally read on its own. It anticipates much of modern ecological thought.

4. Abram Leon, “The Jewish Question”.  I joined the SWP just around the time of the Six Day War in 1967 when there will still lots of illusions about Israel on the liberal left. As someone raised in a kosher home with mom a Zionist zealot one of the first questions I had for Les Evans is what was the Marxist position on anti-Semitism. He proceeded to give me an impromptu 30-minute one-on-one lecture drawn from Leon’s book. Leon, I should add, was a Belgian Trotskyist who died in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII.

5, Leon Trotsky, “Their Morals and Ours”. I have always regarded Trotsky as the finest writer of the Marxist movement. In this brilliant polemic, he answers liberals who have accused Marxists of believing that the ends justify the means. Here is a sample: “Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.”

6. V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism”. Some believe that this work is obsolete since it addresses inter-imperialist rivalries of the sort we haven’t seen since WWII. I would reply that the greater value of the work is its ability to unmask the connections between big banks and the state, of obvious relevance to the contemporary scene.

7. Evelyn Reed, “Is Biology Women’s Destiny?”. A good introduction to the themes Reed dealt with in a large book titled “Woman’s Evolution” that is only available in print from Pathfinder Press, the SWP publishing wing. I think the book is very much worth reading but only if you get it second hand from Amazon or from the library.

8. CLR James, “The Historical Development of the Negro in the United States”. Using his party name JR Johnson, James demonstrates the kind of analysis that made him such a strong influence on the Marxist wing of the Black Nationalist movement of the 1960s and 70s.

9. Jim Blaut, Lenin’s evolution on the National Question. This and two other chapters from Blaut’s book on the national question can be read here. Blaut was a member of Marxmail until his untimely death in 2000. I plan to scan and upload the remainder of his book over the next few months.

10. Felix Morrow, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain”. This book shows the remarkable ability of a Trotskyist to expose class-collaborationism. When I first read it, I assumed that all that was necessary in politics was to make such points. Alas, I did not understand at the time that revolutions are not made on the basis of telling workers about colossal failures but leading them in struggle to a successful conclusion. That being said, Morrow is a terrific writer.

I could obviously cite another 50 books and articles but this should be a good start.

Print only

1. Leo Huberman, “Man’s Worldly Goods”. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Huberman was with Monthly Review when he wrote this, a primer on Marxist economics geared to workers.

2. A.L. Morton, “A People’s History of England”. As you can figure out from the title, this is the British counterpart of what Zinn wrote for the U.S. but frankly more engaged with the Marxist method. Morton is great.

3. Robert G. Williams, “Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America”. This is an excellent explanation of how “primitive accumulation” in Central America (driving small peasants off their land and turning it into cattle ranches to supply fast food restaurants) led to the revolutionary struggles of the 1970s and 80s.

4. Michal Perelman, “The Invention of Capitalism”. Michael has written many very good books but this is my favorite. It deals with the primitive accumulation phase of capitalism and the ideology put forward to defend it.

5. Michael Yates, “Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy”. This is a critique of neoliberalism written in a super-clear fashion. Since Michael has taught workers (and prisoners) over the years, he was obviously channeling Karl Marx’s “Wage Labor and Capital”.

6. Doug Henwood, “Wall Street”. The best-selling Verso book of all time will tell you how the stock market works to the disadvantage of working people.

7. Michael Lebowitz, “Beyond Capital”. Michael has lived in Venezuela for more than a decade and provides insights into 21st century socialism based on a classical Marxist erudition.

8. John Bellamy Foster, “The Vulnerable Planet”. Although I have grown disgusted with Foster ever since he gave MR’s imprimatur to Yoshie Furuhashi’s demented blog aka MRZine, I can strongly recommend this book as about the best introduction to the environmental crisis that I can think of.

9. Mike Davis, “City of Quartz”. A dystopian take on Los Angeles by a preeminent scholar who drove a truck once upon a time.

10. Walter Rodney, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”. A brilliant and angry study of colonialism.


  1. Doug Henwood’s Wall Street is out of print and being offered by the author as a free pdf.

    Comment by jon in seattle — March 10, 2013 @ 9:09 pm

  2. No Isaac Deutscher?

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — March 10, 2013 @ 9:10 pm

  3. Thanks for the plug, Lou, and being included in such distinguished company. But Wall Street is available for free download, since Verso let it go out of print: http://www.wallstreetthebook.com.

    Comment by Doug Henwood — March 10, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

  4. Of course folks should add other titles as they see fit. I am not sure which Deutscher would be appropriate since the 3-volume bio of Trotsky might be biting off more than can be chewed for the newcomer to Marxism.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 10, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

  5. I should also mention that Michael Perelman’s book is available online as a pdf.


    Comment by louisproyect — March 10, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

  6. Mandel is a great revolutionary figure of the 20th Century, but his introduction to _Capital_ is less than ideal. For one thing, he is trapped in the incorrect assumption that labor-time is the measure of wealth even in non-commodity cultures. This is in line with Engels, but not with Marx.

    The best introduction to Capital is Michael Heinrich’s _Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital_, from Monthly Review Press, the first introduction in English to take into account the MEGA2 research of the last few years. It has also recommended by some of the folks on Lou’s list.

    Comment by negative potential — March 10, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

  7. Michael Heinrich’s introduction is based on a rather inverted interpretation of the role of abstract labor as a determinant of value which he picks up from Isaac Rubin. A systematic critique of Rubin’s circulationist theory is developed in this article by Guido Starosta and Axel Kicillof which you can probably find for free if you google it: ‘On Materiality and Social Form: A Political Critique of Rubin’s Value-Form Theory’. It’s “funny” how opinions in the discourse of the left merely categorize texts as “best” or “less than ideal” without the faintest hint of an objective analysis…

    Comment by Silvio Siempre — March 10, 2013 @ 9:49 pm

  8. I’m glad that Lou is responding to this query with a comprehensive list. I want to add to the list the works of Istvan Meszaros, whom I think of as without doubt the most important living philosopher. He is certainly not an easy read, any more than is Marx, but in reading his writings, 19 books and counting, from the early (1970) Marx’s Theory of Alienation, through Beyond Capital (1995), to his two-volume Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness (2010-11), and to his just-republished The Work of Sartre, I am learning as I have never learned before, other than in the works of Marx (which Meszaros masterfully illuminates), about the present social system, its emerging structural crisis, and the imperative and possibilities of its positive, necessarily “totalized” displacement.

    I also have gained a much clearer picture of the relationship of the dialectical mode of thought to historical materialism, the organic nature of social systems, the irreplaceable agency of the working class in bringing about social self-emancipation, the essential relationship between theory and social action – about the absolute necessity of understanding, theoretically and in detail, in all its complex interconnections, however difficult and painstaking, that system which we would confront and replace. (Would we, for example, attempt to confront and traverse the physical, geographical world without thoroughly studying the best map of the terrain that we could find?)

    I am at a loss as to why Meszaros is not recognized appropriately on the left for his penetrating analysis of capital as a system, his explication of Marx’s thought, convincingly refuting any distinctions being made among Marx’s periods of study from 1842 through 1883, such as what he sees as mistaken concepts of “epistemological break” or of Marx’s supposed supersession of “Hegelian” influences; as well as the clarity he brings to concepts like “base and superstructure”, the “dialectical” mode of analysis, the integrality of the complex network of linkages and the necessary organicity of social systems, the ways in which we can think of the complex problems of a transition out of the capitalist mode of production toward socialism through collective “self-emancipation”, the self-mediation that takes place between humanity and nature in the varied social forms of humankind’s productive activity, and the profound relationships of those interactions on the environment.

    Comment by Ralph Johansen — March 10, 2013 @ 11:07 pm

  9. For a truly great read, chock-full of Marxism as praxis. Trotsky’s 3-volume history of the Russian Revolution. Available online.

    Comment by David Berger — March 10, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

  10. Silvio Siempre,

    That pitiful article by Starosta and Kicillof has been demolished by Werner Bonefeld (which can also be found by Googling).

    So you’re some Ricardian with an axe to grind. Excuse me while I stifle a yawn.

    Comment by negative potential — March 10, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

  11. Yes I’ve read the article by Bonefeld, but why should Ibother replying to your pissing contest when all you’ve got to offer is a handful of adjectives that supposefly make you look “tough” on the internet, what a useless tool…

    Comment by Silvio Siempre — March 11, 2013 @ 12:21 am

  12. I’d be wary about secondary writers like Mandel, Meszaros and so on. As we can see above, they tend to introduce competing brand loyalties. I’d suggest sticking as much as possible to original sources – Marx, Engles, Lenin, and, yes, Trotsky (but mainly the first two), as well as whatever is necessary to expand upon the areas they didn’t spend much time on – women’s liberation, racism, the environment, etc – plus material specific to the particular context in which comrades are working. (For example, material relevant to the US isn’t such a priority for Australian leftists, and vice versa).

    Unfortunately in some cases, secondary introductory material is preferable to forcing comrades to swim unguided in an ocean of material importance. Furthermore, as with anything, getting a grip on the basics is necessary to really understand the more advanced stuff. But comrades will often come into the movement with specific interests, and tend to follow those without paying much attention to to other areas, so they may never really move beyond the basics in some fields.

    Comment by Alan B — March 11, 2013 @ 12:29 am

  13. Priceless. One thin pamphlet by Marx, and an excerpt from a book by Engles that is hardly devoted to Marx’s critique of capital. For everything else, there’s Mastercard

    Comment by S. Artesian — March 11, 2013 @ 1:03 am

  14. A Filipino ex-CP member, Sonny Melencio, is supposed to have once remarked that in the CPP, they only were allowed to read Lenin “with a Mao condom”, meaning only as quoted and interpreted by Mao.

    Regardless of the fairness of this, or whether or not it has been reported correctly (I wasn’t there), it’s a reminder that there is no substitute for reading the original material yourself. Fortunately, a huge amount of stuff is now free online, especially nearly everything written by Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

    Comment by Alan B — March 11, 2013 @ 1:43 am

  15. I am surprised not to see Engels’ “Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State” – it is elementary and leads to more questions about gender inequalities.
    Eloise Linger, Associate Professor, SUNY Old Westbury, and a proud student of Larry and GustieTrainor in the 1960s.

    Comment by Eloise Linger — March 11, 2013 @ 2:22 am

  16. Somone needs to check the clock setting.

    Comment by Eloise Linger — March 11, 2013 @ 2:23 am

  17. Don’t know how the date is formatted but it is under WordPress’s control, not mine.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 11, 2013 @ 2:29 am

  18. More thoughts, and some specific suggestions: a lot of comrades have very little knowledge of most of the historical events discussed in various texts. It’s often useful to provide a brief overview and timeline, even if the associated political commentary is worthless. You could even use Wikipedia for this, even though it defines political worthlessness! Warn them about the limits of such sources though.

    I’ll second “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. It’s based on 19th century research, but asks the right questions and isn’t completely factually wrong.

    “Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder” is worthwhile, especially the second chapter. No discussion of the revolutionary party makes the slightest sense without having that right up front.

    “The Civil War in France” is critical to understanding the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    There’s so much more. No time.

    Comment by Alan B — March 11, 2013 @ 2:47 am

  19. Thank you very much for these references.
    There is a lot of wading around in this stuff of Socialism and Marxism. As recent as yesterday a good friend discribed Bill Van Auken WSWS as a tool for Empire. i’ve heard negative comments on SWP etc ~ it’s hard to know where the quick-sand is and the path to a Socialist Democratic Republic stands.
    oddly my first desires are to read “The Jewish Question” as i work to End the Occupation and Full Right of Return and the one on Neo-liberalism as it is the prevelant problem of the world today ~ Michael Yates “naming the sys…”
    So much info so little time. note Louis, i was a grunt headed to the rice paddies of Viet Nam Oct ’67 as you were joining the SWP. We should have been fighting for Ho Chi Minh instead.

    Comment by William Crain — March 11, 2013 @ 6:50 am

  20. We have a website about marxist readings in turkish. It is http://www.okumalisteleri.org

    Comment by Diyar — March 11, 2013 @ 7:35 am

  21. Good one: “We should have been fighting for Ho Chi Minh instead.” Promoting violence in the service of single-party dictatorship. A perfect strategy for winning hearts and minds to the cause of socialism. Ever read Mein Kampf? No, of course you haven’t. Der Fuhrer’s not on the approved list.

    Comment by Noone Nohow — March 11, 2013 @ 8:11 am

  22. BTW, a special hats-off and thanks to Ralph Johansen for calling our attention to this “without a doubt the most important living philosopher” Istvan Whatsisname fella. And for yet another, always-valuable reminder that the “structural crisis” of our “present social system” has been “emerging” in our never-quite-realized imaginations more than 150 years already. So close you can almost taste it, know what I mean? Yum. It tastes almost as good as my mom’s vagina.

    Comment by Noone Nohow — March 11, 2013 @ 8:43 am

  23. There is so much one can read. But I am interested to see Mike Davis in there. He is the best living Marxist author in my opinion. I would say though Ecology of Fear just shades City of Quartz. He should get on a write his story of Californian youth culture, teenybopper riots and the battle to free the strip while he still can

    Comment by Roobin — March 11, 2013 @ 9:35 am

  24. Yeah I’d like to move ‘Engels’ “Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State” up the list to replace Leon Trotsky, “Their Morals and Ours”.

    Comment by Shane Hopkinson — March 11, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

  25. I think that Engels’ “Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State” is best read in conjunction with Henry Lewis Morgan’s book, “Ancient Society,” from which Engels drew heavily upon. Henry Lewis Morgan was a 19th century American attorney turned anthropologist who conducted field research on the Iroquois and other American Indian tribes. The social evolutionism that he presented in “Ancient Society” made an impact on both Marx & Engels, both of whom viewed as being not only consistent with their own materialist conception of history but as expanding it to encompass prehistorical societies. In one sense this is curious because Morgan was no socialist, indeed he saw the liberal capitalism of his day as being the epitome of human social development and he argued that the survival of the American Indians would depend on their being able to successfully assimilate into the white man’s society, whereas, both Marx & Engels valued the cultures of the American Indians for their being non-capitalist formations whose “primitive communism” prefigured the communism that the proletariat would develop on the basis of advanced technology.


    Comment by Jim Farmelant — March 11, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

  26. I would add Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, The Revolution Betrayed, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, and Deutscher’s 3-volume biography of Trotsky. Also Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery.

    Comment by David Altman — March 11, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

  27. My experience here is limited, but here are some I consider important, although light on theory:

    1) as do others, Deutscher’s 3 volume biography of Trotsky, which I found compelling and quite easy to read, and even if someone only reads one or two volumes, there is still much to be gained from the experience

    2) “Marx at the Margins” by Kevin Anderson, a work that encourages us to look beyond the mistaken embrace of Marx as a scientific determinist by refererence to his exposure to anthropology in the later years of his life

    3) “Mountain Fires” and “New Fourth Army” by Gregor Benton, in these books, Benton investigates the Chinese Revolution in actual practice in South and Central China from 1934-1941, revealing a rich social mosaic in marked contrast to the hagiography of Mao and Yanan (“Mountain Fires” is out of print, and can probably only be found through a university library through a worldcat search)

    4) “The Comrade from Milan” and “The Tailor of Ulm”: personal memoirs of the rise and fall of the Italian PCI in the postwar era

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 11, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

  28. i like this by yates and magdoff : The ABCs of the Economic Crisis, What Working People Need to Know
    uses current events to apply the theory

    Comment by jp — March 11, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

  29. “Communism and Class Consciousness” is one of the best modern texts, available in print and for free online here; http://en.internationalism.org/pamphlets/classconc

    Comment by Cliff — March 11, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

  30. Needs more Marx, the guy who everyone is writing of. Any chapter of Capital is good if one doesn’t want to read the whole thing. For Capital 1 maybe start with the last chapter, for Capital 3 the chapter on the tendency for profit to fall. Capital was published in 1867 whereas 1) on the list is 1847. His views changed a bit in that time.

    As for Lenin, inter imperialist rivalries still exist and will only increase as U.S. hegemony falters.

    Comment by purple — March 12, 2013 @ 12:31 am

  31. Sorry to disappoint Louis but you were never recruited to the `Trotskyist movement’. You were recruited to and willingly joined a petty bourgeois degenerate shrill sect and there you remained for many years.

    Comment by Jean Alain — March 12, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

  32. Well ‘No One’ ~ the mood and tempo in Viet Nam was hardly a place of meeting halls and discussion groups in ’67 – ’68 ~ you might want to check your history books ~ the Capitalists from Dow, Remington Arms, Lady Bird, on and on were making a killing, killing!
    I hardly think that a Single Party dictator or whatever would be to your approval ~ i can attest to the courage and intestinal fortitude of his Armies. As evidenced by the facts against OVERWHELMING ODDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Think about the devastation, hardships and just being able to eat ~ i want to remind you that Life doesn’t happen in a Vacuum as you would like ~
    i’m pretty sure i was sent there to rape, pillage and plunder (tho NOT in my Squad or platoon) ~ the ‘violence’ you speak of perhaps you can elucidate what i or they should have been doing?

    Comment by William Crain — March 12, 2013 @ 11:01 pm

  33. [...] A reading guide for students of Marxism (louisproyect.wordpress.com) [...]

    Pingback by Poumerotica | Poumista — April 14, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

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