“Don’t Read Marx” — How To Make Revolutionary Theory Accessible

I know no one will believe this but I got the idea to write this post long before the following tweet blew up on Twitter and got all my Marx-literate friends in an uproar:

Pretty jealous, my tweets only blow up this much when they’re about public transportation.

There were three main takes I saw in response to this tweet from defenders of Marx and I do agree with all of them: (1) the liberal (or as some say “radlib”) obsession with telling people not to read Marx is telling in itself; (2) many if not all of these authors have cited Marx in their own works; and (3) the tweet insinuates that there is some pressure on people to read Marx, which is a completely false premise outside of an insular social circle of Leftists. One other pithy take I would add to this is that any time I see “anti-capitalist” it sets off alarms for me: if your political vision is identified by what you’re not, it tells me very little about what you are. Monarchists are anti-capitalist. Any number of dictators who in fact cooperated with capitalists called themselves “anti-capitalist.”

But here’s my own hot take: if we substituted “anti-capitalist” with “communist” or “socialist,” the first sentence of the tweet is 100% correct. 100%. And I think the reaction to this tweet and the subsequent discourse belies an actual problem in socialist organizing of making Marx’s texts dogma when it has always been his ideas that were revolutionary. I say this as someone who has read all three volumes of Capital multiple times and has read nearly everything Marx has written.

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Also I have this tattoo, which hilariously is often misidentified as “Santa Claus.”

The original reason I was going to write this post was because of a plethora of Capital reading groups in the Democratic Socialists of America. God if there was ever a text of Marx’s I could stop people from ever reading in a DSA reading group ever again it would be Capital Vol. 1. None of this is to dispute the historical importance of the text or even the continuing valence of at least most of the arguments (especially if we cut out everything he said about money). But if you do not know about the history of classical economics and have some base understandings of people like Jean-Baptiste Say, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, etc., you’re going to have difficulty understanding many of the references in the book. While many of the principles of the book still hold true, the material conditions of 19th century Europe are very different from the world of the 21st century. And perhaps most importantly, while there are sometimes clever metaphors about cannibals and vampires and so forth, the prose of the book is awful and the diagrams only mildly helpful:

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Is this Marx or a problem with an algebra test?

What I find so ridiculous about the “don’t read Marx” tweet however is that many of the cited authors also write in an academic prose that is difficult to get through. It’s a problem recognized by scholars like Dr. Carol Boyce Davies who recently criticized during a webinar the Black studies academia for writing in language that was not accessible to the very same people they were writing about.

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From “Black Jacobins” by C.L.R. James. I’m imagining Toussaint Louverture tweeting “You don’t need to read Marx to kill plantation owners.”

The modern US socialist movement is disproportionately in professional sectors, especially academia. Admittedly most socialist movements throughout history have been led by people in professional jobs: Maurice Bishop, Fidel Castro, and Lenin were all lawyers, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Marx both came from academic backgrounds of economics and philosophy respectively, and so on. However, successful revolutions have almost always throughout history come from a combined force of both raising the literacy of the masses (most famously in Cuba) and from producing pamphlets and other texts that condensed ideas into a digestible form. That was the impetus behind the Communist Manifesto. It’s why the most read book of all time next to the Bible is “Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” rather than, for example, Mao’s “On Contradiction.”

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Imagine the cramps this dude would have gotten if he had to hold up the brick that is Capital Vol. 1 like this.

So if not Marx, what should people be reading? People generally read Marx and particularly Capital or Grundrisse to try to understand in economic terms why capitalism is the way it is today. So I am going to propose suggestions for modern economists and political-economists who also do this but in ways that are more accessible. My hope is that if people are reading texts like the ones I am going to cite in reading groups, those reading groups can focus on discussing the ideas of Marx and other socialists without feeling like they are auditing a class called “19th Century Historical Texts.” Not all of the people I am going to cite are Marxists, but of course Marx himself mostly engaged with classical economists in Capital rather than other communists or socialists, so socialists should be reading more than just economists who proudly wear the “Marxist” badge.

  • Michael Roberts looks at the ideas of Marx primarily through contrasting them with other economic schools of thoughts (Keynesian, neoclassical, etc.) and applying them to current events. His blog The Next Recession is full of lots of good short posts that could be used in reading groups and his book The Long Depression could be used for a longer read.

There are many more and no list could possibly capture all of them, nor is my word on the subject somehow definitive. I’m not trying to replace Marx as canon with any of the works I’ve cited here. Instead, I want to give people starting points to reimagine the purpose of reading groups, that rather than the goal being to read Marx and other particular Marxists that the goal should be to inculcate an understanding of Marxist ideas by whatever texts are accessible to the people you are engaging with.

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Feminist socialist writer fighting for econ justice. Views do not represent my firm, DSA, or my cats, who are sadly both ultra leftists.

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