A Guide to Reading Karl Marx for the First Time / by Michael Lazarus

With inequality and class struggle on the rise, there is more interest in Karl Marx’s thought now than there has been for decades. (david_jones / Flickr)

Although it’s been sitting on your shelf for years, your paperback copy of Capital has a tellingly uncreased spine. It’s time to change that — here’s a guide to how.

Sometimes just the suggestion of Karl Marx’s specter is enough to make headlines. Regardless of how you feel about her music, it was pretty iconic when Grimes broke up with Elon Musk and then posed for the cameras holding a copy of The Communist Manifesto. The stunt implicitly rallied the symbolic power of the manifesto against her ex-boyfriend, one of the twenty-first century’s best personifications of capital.

It is one thing to weaponize Marx and Friedrich Engels’s revolutionary pamphlet in a PR war between the megarich. It is quite another to read Marx and use his thought to criticize and change the existing order. This task is becoming more urgent — with inequality and class struggle on the rise — there is more interest in Marx’s thought now than there has been for decades. Yet for both new leftists and the more practiced alike, it can be a challenge to infiltrate Marx’s writings. It does not help that he wrote an extraordinary amount, especially for someone who died at the relatively young age of sixty-four. The English version of Marx and Engels’s collected works runs to fifty volumes, but even this is not their complete works.

Reading Marx, however, is a joy, and not just because his critique of capitalism is unsurpassed. His thought is fundamentally concerned with human freedom,  and his writings go well beyond the detail of economic exploitation under capitalism — they challenge all forms of social domination. He was a brilliant stylist whose oeuvre spans political journalism, philosophy, history, and political economy. His interests in literature, linguistics, science, mathematics, and anthropology fed into his major ideas and enrich his writing. While there is more than one way to approach Marx, it does help to have an overview of his key texts as well as their political, historical, and intellectual context.

Political Writings

Many German workers prior to World War I demanded to be buried with The Communist Manifesto. This commitment is a testament to the profound importance that text held for the early twentieth-century workers’ movement. For this reason alone, The Communist Manifesto, first published in 1848, is probably the best starting point for readers who are new to Marx. It helps that it is also one of the most famous and powerful texts ever written.

Building on drafts put together by his lifelong collaborator and friend Friedrich Engels, Marx wrote the text in a matter of weeks. It was intended as a declaration of the views of the Communist League, a small working-class party that counted Marx and Engels among their members. Despite its brevity, the text is densely layered. It conveys a sense of the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 and contains some of the most famous lines Marx ever wrote, including this passage from the famous opening chapter, “Bourgeois and Proletarians”:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

As well as eloquently denouncing capitalism, The Communist Manifesto explains some of the most essential parts of Marx’s theory, including his analysis of class struggle and historical change and his argument for working-class political organization. Marx aims to grasp the political present and make explicit the social dynamics of the modern world. This is why it is also worth returning to — each new reading reveals new layers to Marx’s thinking.

In 1872, Marx and Engels gave The Communist Manifesto a new preface in which they made one major addition. Having carefully observed the Paris Commune — an 1871 uprising that held France’s capital for nearly three months — they became convinced that it would be impossible for the working class to merely take hold of the state and use it against capitalism. As a result, in The Civil War in France, written shortly after the commune was suppressed, Marx argued that only institutions created and controlled by the working class could embody a democratic, political alternative to capitalism.

Drafted in London, where Marx spent most of his life in exile, The Civil War in France was originally intended as a public statement on behalf of the First International, a network of socialist groups and unions from many countries. As a result, it went on to inspire socialists the world over, demonstrating that worker’s organizations could collectively and democratically constitute their political power. The Civil War in France is a testament to Marx’s radical idea of democratic organization and vision of social emancipation.

He saw communism as a radically different system in which our needs — which are both potentially unlimited and vary from individual to individual — should come first.

If The Civil War in France was aimed at the public, Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program was intended as a polemic within the socialist movement, directed mainly at the newly formed Social Democratic Party of Germany. In this short text, Marx is acerbic in criticizing socialists who considered themselves Marxists but who misunderstood key aspects of his theory. Indeed, we find in the Critique of the Gotha Program a number of crucial ideas that Marx does not address elsewhere to the same extent. Most famously, he discusses the transition from capitalism to communism, noting that socialism and communism should not be seen as two distinct stages. Rather, Marx envisions socialism and communism as different “phases” in the development of a new form of society after capitalism.

This helps us understand his famous slogan describing communism: “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” Marx proposes a form of life beyond the “limited horizon of bourgeois right,” where production is reorganized based on rational and collective decision-making. Marx is a critic of any view, socialist or otherwise, that argues for equality merely in the form of wealth redistribution. He saw communism as a radically different system in which our needs — which are both potentially unlimited and vary from individual to individual — should come first. The point of communism is to provide for a life in which we are free to flourish to our fullest potential. In his view, freedom and democracy requires a social organization that overcomes the capitalist form of labor.

Marx’s Early Work

Prior to 1848, most of Marx’s works were concerned with philosophy. As a young man, Marx was part of an intellectual milieu defined primarily by the ideas of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Famously, following his death in 1831, Hegel’s followers in Germany divided into two currents, each of which claimed his legacy. The “right Hegelians” typified a conservative and religious philosophy and supported the antidemocratic Prussian state. The “left Hegelians,” by contrast, favored an anti-religious version of Hegel’s philosophy and advocated for radical political and social reforms. Although Marx is often considered a left Hegelian because he affirmed a radical critique of religion and politics, he was never strictly in this camp. Crucially, he did read Hegel with depth and devotion. Hegel remained a fundamental intellectual influence on Marx’s thought for the rest of his life.

As a result of this influence, Marx’s “early” writings — generally said to span from 1839 to 1845 — are very much marked by Hegel’s distinctive and difficult terminology. On top of this, Marx extensively polemicizes against many now-obscure contemporaries. For this reason, they can be hard to approach. Nevertheless, these early works contain some of Marx’s most striking theories about human nature, human activity, and the alienation of labor. To approach these texts, it is beneficial to find a quality selection. Two excellent volumes are Karl Marx: Selected Writings (1977), edited by David McLellan, and The Marx-Engels Reader (1978), edited by Robert C. Tucker. Understanding Marx’s early work is also made much easier by reading a quality biography like Michael Heinrich’s Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society (2019) or a commentary on Marx’s ideas like Peter Hudis’s Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (2012).

Perhaps the best early text to start with is On the Jewish Question, written in 1843. It is among the most important of Marx’s early writings since in it he outlines a critique of modern politics that is still powerful today. In this short article, Marx analyzes the variety of liberalism that focuses on human rights and became dominant after the French Revolution in 1789. He argues that the liberal approach to political citizenship defends equal rights but ignores the concrete inequality produced by the modern market. In Marx’s account, there is a dichotomy between the political life of citizens and the private life of the economy. Although political life appears to be free, rational, and equal, the power of the market and private property undermines this by giving real-world power to owners of capital. Marx argues that political rights are needed but must be expanded and made universal as human freedom. We need to envision human emancipation to adequately grasp freedom.Without theory, practice is blind, and without practice, theory is impotent.

After coming to this insight, Marx increasingly turned his attention toward understanding how capitalism organizes production and labor. As well as taking inspiration from Hegel’s idea of alienation, in order to understand where wealth comes from, he attentively read early economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. In the course of these studies, Marx wrote notebooks to help him clarify his thinking. After being rediscovered in the 1930s, these notebooks became known as the 1844 Manuscripts.

Marx’s 1844 writings contain his first great confrontation with bourgeois political economy.  Marx is trying to work out the nature of human being under capitalism, which he sees here as “alienated” and “estranged.” Not only does capitalism take away our control over our productive and conscious activity, Marx argues it also denies us the rewards of our individual and collective labor capacities. When we sell our labor to an employer for a wage, we lose control of what we do, what we produce, and the social and environmental context of our labor.

Marx’s early writings are often seen to be bookended by his 1845 Theses on Feuerbach. This short text includes the widely cited eleventh thesis: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” It is probably the single most famous sentence to flow from Marx’s pen, and it encapsulates the contradiction between theory and practice that Marx was dedicated to overcoming. His point, however, has been lost on many interpreters. Many more practically minded Marxists take the first part of the thesis to mean that philosophy is no longer necessary and that we should instead focus on actively making change. At the same time, more academic readers explore the theoretical significance of Marx’s idea of practice while forgetting that he was trying to develop a theory that could help revolution succeed. Rather, Marx’s point in the eleventh thesis is that theory and practice need each other. Without theory, practice is blind, and without practice, theory is impotent.


Approaching Capital, Marx’s magnum opus, can be daunting — but it is well worth the effort. While Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto very quickly, Capital became his life project. At first, he planned six volumes, although as he grew older and his health declined, he revised the plan to encompass four volumes. Only the first appeared in his lifetime, in 1867. However, thanks to various drafts and manuscripts Marx left behind, Engels edited and published the second two volumes of Capital after Marx’s death. His manuscripts intended for a fourth volume, a critical history of economic theory, were published later as Theories of Surplus Value. Far from containing all the answers, like Marxism as a whole, Capital remains unfinished.

Despite its undeserved reputation as a dull work of economics, Marx’s prose in Capital is often exciting (at least in Volume 1), and his argument is both polished and carefully structured. More importantly, Capital is an achievement because it contains an account of the concepts that are necessary to start to understand capitalism as a social form of life and a historical set of social relationships. While these social relationships structure our lives, they are not natural but are the product of a specific historic and economic system.

In the first chapters of Capital, Marx argues that capitalism is fundamentally defined by commodity production and exchange. Commodities, as he explains, have a “use-value,” which is to say, for something to be a commodity, someone must find it useful in meeting some need. Yet commodities are not defined or valued by their use alone but by their sale on the market as commodities. For example, a meal cooked for friends certainly meets a human need — but it is not a commodity. Rather, commodities possess “exchange value,” which names their worth in prices.

To understand this, Marx asks why wealth appears under capitalism in the form of value, a social relationship expressed as money, and how this value is constituted. Part of his answer is that capitalism depends on treating human labor power as a commodity. The exchange value of labor power is measured in wages. Meanwhile, the use value of labor is consumed during the working day to produce commodities for sale on the market. This is a crucial insight and contains the key to Marx’s theory of exploitation. During the workday, our labor produces more value than we are paid in wages for our labor power. Although the transaction appears to be fair, our time at work produces more new value than is represented by our wages. This “surplus value” goes into the pockets of the capitalists who own the machinery, land, and raw materials needed for production. With this process in mind, it is easier to grasp that competition between capitalists is not just a question of greed, but of the relentless necessity to accumulate that is built into the capitalist form of value.

Capitalism depends on treating human labor power as a commodity.

Crucial to Marx’s argument is that value does not arise distinctly from every act of physiological labor but from a social process that equates human labor as “socially necessary labor time” and renders laboring activity abstract and commodities uniform as values. This process necessitates exchange, since it is only the sale of commodities that validates their social value.

Marx gives us an account of how commodities, money, and capital serve as distinct moments in the constitution of value. These economic forms are all social relationships that are, for Marx, dependent on laboring activity that has been alienated from the people who sell their work for a wage. As a result, the products of human labor stand over the people who made them, appearing as separate and independent from us. The market reduces human beings to a purely economic function as buyers and sellers of commodities. Marx’s term for this phenomenon in Capital is “fetishism” and it applies to his analysis of commodities, money, and capital. These social forms have incredible power as relations of domination, impersonal and omnipresent under capitalism.

It is also important to stress that Capital is a critique of economic theory in toto. Marx’s achievement is to show that value itself is a historical form of life and as a result can be transformed. By showing that capitalist social relations are not natural but a product of history, he demonstrates that capitalism is prone to crisis and rupture. This means that social change is both possible and necessary.

Read Marx With Comrades

Reading Marx with others is always rewarding, and it can help to approach his thought with comrades, colleagues, or friends as part of a reading group. Understanding Marx’s writing is not as difficult as it can seem at first, but like any great thinker, the work pays off. As Marx warned readers of Capital, “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”

Yet it is precisely the heights we can reach by reading Marx that can help us analyze what is wrong with the modern world. Thanks to Marx’s lifelong commitment to freedom and human flourishing, his vision illuminates our path to changing it.

Michael Lazarus teaches politics and philosophy at Monash University. He works on normative ethics and the critique of political economy.

Jacobin, May 3, 2022, https://jacobinmag.com/