This article originally appeared in The Advocate: The Progressive Voice of Coos County, Oregon, July 2011.

Karl Marx
by Lionel Youst

My life as an autodidact began when I dropped out of North Bend High School following my Freshman year. Since then I’ve tried to learn something new every day but it’s kind of hit and miss. Gaps and lacuna show up all the time. For example, I’m 77 years old and just now getting into Marx. I don’t know why it took so long, but it was worth the wait. The guy is a truly outstanding writer, when he wants to be, and he loves footnotes as much as I do. If you follow them along you find that he is sometimes witty and often sarcastic, stunningly well read, and really smart.

Besides that, his critique of political economy (the several volumes of Capital, the first volume published in 1867) is an indelible part of the Western Canon of literature. It is considered one of the Great Books of the Western World even by the arch conservative University of Chicago! Maybe that’s why nobody I know ever read it. But that book made Marx the most important political philosopher in the history of the world, reason enough to want to know what’s in it.

What turned me on to him was a review I read in the February 3, 2011 edition of the London Review of Books. The review was of two current books by David Harvey: The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, and A Companion to Marx’s Capital. The review mentioned, in passing, that David Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, he has been teaching a course on Marx’s Capital for 40 years, and it is available free, on line. Following the great economic crash of 2008, his course has become phenomenally popular. I think it has been on his website for about two years and has received over a million hits already. Go there:

Curiosity drew me to the web site and I ended up going through all 13 of Harvey’s two-hour lectures, which constitute a close reading of Marx’s Capital, Volume I. By lecture 3, I realized I needed to have the text and so I ordered the Penguin Classics edition of Capital, Volume I, and also David Harvey’s Companion – which is an expanded version of his lectures. I consider the time I spent watching that fascinating series, and reading those two books, to be the most enlightening period of a lifetime trying to educate myself.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 the pundits all announced that Marx was dead, of only historical interest from then on; a big deal in his time but his time had past. The world was in the midst of the great Reagan/Thatcher roll-back of social programs, destruction of labor unions, elimination of governmental regulations, and the freeing of capital to flow easily across borders. The setup allowed the compound growth that a capitalist mode of production requires to survive. It brought a billion or so East Asian peasants into the sub-minimum wage workforce, which in turn brought real wages down in the “developed world.” Consumption was bolstered by the low prices of Chinese manufactured goods available at Wal Mart, and easy high interest credit on plastic.

The elimination of any restraints on global financial institutions permitted the legal fraud of so-called sub-prime loans and derivative markets. In the United States, benefits of that growth accrued almost entirely to the top ½ of one percent of households, which have became more obscenely rich than they ever were, while the lower 99 ½ percent of households barely held their own, and most of them went down in real dollars. The first contradiction of capitalism according to Marx is the class struggle, which on a global scale is far more prominent today than it was in his time 150 years ago. The top one-half of one percent vs. the rest of mankind is a real struggle. But an even more prominent contradiction of capitalism shows up in the results of its need for compound growth, accumulation for its own sake, forever. It is pretty obvious that the global environment will not sustain such growth forever – you don’t have to be a genius to know that there has to be an end to it.

Marx probably thought the capitalist mode of production would be replaced by a more socially responsible system much sooner, before it became a global environmental issue. He hadn’t known that John Maynard Keynes and Roosevelt’s New Deal and the European Social Democrats would save capitalism from itself by siphoning some of its surplus value into socially necessary programs, thereby letting it limp along for another two or three generations. It actually worked fairly well until the 1970’s when the Reagan/Thatcher reversal began, culminating in the crisis of 2008 which brought the issue to a head.

Nobody ever looked at the capitalist mode of production more clearly, or more critically, than Karl Marx. He has a lot to say that rings so very true, and his critique of 150 years ago probably more closely describes the global Capitalism of today than the more primitive capitalism of his own time. Following is my reading list, which since February got me to where I am on the subject. I recommend it:

  • (13 lectures, a close reading of Marx’s Capital, Volume I)
  • Capital, Volume I, by Karl Marx. Penguin Classics.
  • The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, by David Harvey. Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • A Companion to Marx’s Capital, by David Harvey. Verso, 2010.
  • Why Marx was Right, by Terry Eagleton. Yale University Press, 2011.

Lionel Youst