Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 29, 2017

Recommended Marxist readings

Filed under: Marxist literature — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

Mr Proyect,

Please excuse the intrusion on your time, but I’m a little lost and would appreciate some guidance.

I’ve been trying to understand Marxism and its variants for years, now, but it is a very thick and deep forest. It doesn’t help that there seem to be a lot of strongly held opinions out there, and everyone criticizes everyone else. That’s probably a good thing for the movement, but it is quite bewildering for the outsider or beginner.

For example, there are Marxism, Trotskyism, Communism, Socialism, and so on, and I see that each has multiple definitions (depending on whom and when one asks). One book I read on Marxist economics said that even Karl Marx himself said he didn’t recognize all the the things called “Marxist”, so many things were done in his name. To make matters worse, there are all of the uncertainties of history related to Marxism and its offshoots: Bolsheviks were financed by New York bankers, the Soviet Union betrayed the Spanish communists when they were fighting Franco, CIA strategy was developed in part by ex-Trotskyists, and so on. This can’t all be true, there are so many contradictions.

I’ve been exposed to American history all of my life (some of it quite false), and I am a little comfortable navigating around it, though I am certainly not an expert. That includes U.S. law (and its roots in England), the various antecedents of American “philosophy” (again, right and wrong), and the roots of U.S. culture. But, when it comes to other ways of thinking and other histories, I am a stranger. My idea of Russian history, for example, is a mass of facts, many contradictory, so I don’t have a sense of how it all ties together. I know that a lot of it relates to this or that political theory, and I know that Marxism started more in England than in Russia, so maybe it doesn’t have much to do with Marxism. But this cannot be exceptional: most of the thievery by the privileged in the U.S. is simple thievery, not based on anyone’s awareness of surplus value or democracy or anything like that. Maybe theory is just theory, and it’s simply fantasy to tie them much together.

I read and enjoyed Harman’s A People’s History of the World, and enjoyed it immensely. However, it only went so far, and it had very little theory in it. I’m not sure where to go from there. Marx himself is very dense, and frankly I have trouble following him, but things have moved forward from him, anyway, so he’s probably not the best place to start. Trotsky, Lenin, and Luxemburg (for examples) are quite readable, but I don’t know how to put them into perspective.

I don’t see a reading list on your web site.

So here’s my question and request: Can you recommend a book (or maybe several) which gives a “fair and balanced” introduction to all of these things, including both history and theory? (No, not “fair and balanced” in the Fox news sense!) Some theory, some history, some sense of relative theoretical and historical importance? By history, I’d like to see both history of Marxism et al themselves, as well as history of people and nations. When it comes to economics, numbers and formulae don’t bother me, I majored in math and economics. (And it’s quite possible to get an economics major without hearing either of the words, “ethics” or “Marxist”.)

Again, thank you for your time.

Best regards,


Dear M.,

I see that you have read Chris Harman’s History of the World. I have that on my bookshelf at home and am looking forward to the time when I can read it myself. It sits next to Neil Faulkner’s A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals that I hope to get to as well. Faulkner, like Harman, was a member of the British SWP until he left in a split led by John Rees. Like a number of people trained in this movement, these are the elite of Marxist theory. I would also recommend anything written by Neil Davidson, who may still be a member—I’m not sure. Davidson’s latest book is titled We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolutions and would be a good place to start since it is a collection of his articles that appeared in scholarly journals. Also, A.L. Morton is another British historian that I hold in high regard. Morton was a member of the British Communist Party Historians Group that included Morton, Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson. Morton wrote a People’s History of England that is priceless as history as well as a model of how to reach a non-academic audience. I suspect that Howard Zinn had Morton’s book in mind when he wrote his American history. The good news is that Morton’s book is freely available on the net (https://libcom.org/history/peoples-history-england). I also recommend CLR James’s Black Jacobins that is about the revolution in Haiti led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. James was a great historian and arguably the most important Marxist thinker after the death of Leon Trotsky.

Turning to Russian history, I strongly recommend Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution that is online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/. Trotsky was a great writer and his history was viewed as a literary masterpiece even by those who disagreed with his political analysis. I also have high regard for anything written by Moshe Lewin, who started off as a blast furnace operator in a Polish factory during WWII and then became a major figure in academic Sovietology. I read his Russia — USSR — Russia: The Drive and Drift of a Superstate and recommend it highly. Another important work that will help you understand Soviet Communism is Stephen F. Cohen’s biography of Nikolai Bukharin. Like Lewin, Cohen is influenced by Marxism but is not really ideological in the same way as Trotsky or CLR James. To round out “the Russian question”, I would recommend Isaac Deutscher. His 3-volume biography of Leon Trotsky is indispensable. Deutscher started off as a Trotskyist but became critical of the movement later on. There’s a collection of his articles in Marxism, Wars and Revolutions: Essays from Four Decades that was written in 1985 that covers Russia as well as other topics. I have read some of the articles and found them very useful, especially one on the Polish Communist Party that will be referenced in a forthcoming article about the filmmaker Andrjez Wajda I am working on.

To conclude on economics, I’d have to start with Ernest Mandel who despite his life-long membership in the Trotskyist movement was regarded as a world-class economist even by his ideological adversaries. There is a large collection of his books and articles here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/index.htm. I particularly recommend An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory that was written in 1967. I am also very partial to the economists who are associated with the Monthly Review, a journal and book publishing company founded by Paul Sweezy in 1949. Sweezy and MR co-editor Paul Baran wrote Monopoly Capital in 1966, a book that dealt with the American economic system as well as the social relations that had characterized the post-WWII expansion (TV, advertising, etc.) Another MR classic is Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, a 1974 book that is focused on the impact of automation on work. Braverman, unlike Sweezy and other MR editors, had a background in the Trotskyist movement but by the time he became associated with MR, he had developed a much broader outlook. Braverman’s book is online here: http://libcom.org/library/labor-monopoly-capital-degradation-work-twentieth-century

Maurice Dobb is among the authors published by MR’s magazine. To illustrate how broad its outlook, Dobb was involved with a major debate with Paul Sweezy in the 1950s over the origins of capitalism but that did not exclude him from consideration as a contributor to the magazine. I strongly recommend Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism that is focused on British economic history and as a good complement to A.L. Morton’s book. If you read the two in tandem, you’ll learn about British history and the Marxist class analysis. Like Morton’s book, Dobb’s is online: http://digamo.free.fr/dobb1946.pdf.

You also might want to look at the archives of a Yahoo mailing list I created in 2008 that was designed as an introduction to Marxism class. It never quite turned into an online seminar that I hoped it would become but you can find a number of “lectures” I gave to the group that you might find interesting: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/marxism_class/conversations/messages

Finally, I would recommend David Harvey’s online lecture videos on Karl Marx’s Capital. Harvey is a major Marxist economist in his own right and admired greatly by his students: http://davidharvey.org/reading-capital/

This list of course does not exhaust the subject of learning about Marxism but I guarantee that a careful study of the included works will give you a leg up.

Comradely, Louis

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