The Karl Marx Library
The Marx-Engels Reader
The Making of Marx’s Capital
Karl Marx: His Life and Thought
Marx’s Fate: The Shape of a Life
Marx’s Theory of History
Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today
Marxist Perspectives: Vol. I, No. 1, Spring 1978
Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Part One: The State and Bureaucracy
Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Volume II: The Politics of Social Classes
The Marxian Legacy
We are in the midst of an extraordinary outpouring of literature on, about, into, out of, and by Marx. As with all such efflorescences, much of the writing is of small importance and will be of short life, all the more so because the field is being taken over by academics who worry their small points into books and articles of increasingly esoteric significance. Nonetheless, the outpouring attests to more than the academization of Marx. It testifies to the growing fascination that Marx’s thought exerts over our time—a fascination that has survived a hundred debunkings, “disproofs,” and disillusionments to reassert itself as the great intellectual challenge whose measure must be taken by everyone seeking to understand the social condition of mankind.
In this article I would like to describe the general dimensions of this cataract of Marxist writings. But it may help if I first say a word about the fascination exerted by Marx himself.
I have just finished rereading the three main volumes of Capital (there are three subsidiary books that collectively make up a fourth “volume” entitled Theories of Surplus Value); have again made my way, alternately exhilarated and exhausted, through the 983 pages of the less well-known Grundrisse, the unedited “Rough Draft” in which Marx made his first efforts to systematize the ideas that would appear in Capital; glanced back at some of the earlier writings; looked again at a few historical essays dipped into the correspondence and into bits of his journalism. I think I can explain the reason for the magnetism that Marx exerts. It is that Marx had the luck, combined of course with the genius, to be the first to discover a whole mode of inquiry that would forever after belong to him. This was done previously only once, when Plato “discovered” the mode of philosophical inquiry.
To be sure, there had been philosophical explorations before Plato, bold forays by brilliant men, above all the luminous figure of Socrates. But if Plato was not the first to ask philosophical questions, he was the first to systematize the method of posing and considering these questions, so that later thinkers, no matter how great or original, found themselves pursuing a task whose nature was still essentially that articulated by Plato. That is why, in a sense, all of philosophy is a commentary on Plato’s work, even when it goes far beyond Plato or arrives at conclusions that are completely at variance with his own.
So it is with Marx. Here I do not refer to Marx the economist who certainly did not “invent” the discipline already developed to very great heights by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. I refer to Marx the inventor of critical social science, who “critiqued” economics (to use the dreadful neologism that seems to be unbudgeably situated in contemporary Marxist writing). Capital is a book about a social system, not a book about economics. Its subtitle, we often forget, is “A Critique of Political Economy.” Thus if …