Can the 21st Century Reader Read Karl Marx in the Original?

The bi-centenary of his birth on May 5, is as good a time as any to read Karl Marx first-hand, without help from his interpreters who often turn out to be his falsifiers.


It is a commonplace from the critical cannon of three generations that Karl Marx is not an easy read, that, indeed, his works are best read with annotations, rather than in the unedited original. It is a safe guess that many more people have approached Marx through Ernst Fischer’s classic Marx in His Own Words than have chosen to put their nose to the grindstone of the formidable, Capital. Even as eminent a Marxist scholar as Ashok Mitra – West Bengal’s former finance minister – once wrote about how, when repeatedly buffeted by Marx’s dense, tightly-packed prose, men of his generation often turned to Lenin’s writings for help.

The context, in Mitra’s case, was of course the lucidity of Lenin’s prose (relative to some ‘ardent’ revolutionists of the 1970s who wrote pompous nonsense) rather than the abstruse quality of Marx’s, but the point about Marx being a tough read was not to be missed nevertheless.

Which elements in Marx’s writing make it ‘heavy going’? The following paragraph, one of the most widely-quoted excerpts from his work, is a good starting point to understand the demands that Marx’s prose makes upon the reader:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or – to say the same thing in legal terms –with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

Prose rarely comes more densely-packed than this. The paragraph quivers like a muscle stretched taut, with the chain of thought moving relentlessly forward. It not merely makes a point, it drives the reader inexorably towards that point. The reader’s every faculty is exercised, and regardless of whether he agrees with the writer, he is caught up in the vortex of the latter’s thought process.

Let us now turn to the paragraph that opens The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagu of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.”

On the face of it, this is fairly easy to read. The tone is mischievous, mocking – but the modern-day reader familiar with only the broad history of the French Revolution is bound to be out of her depth here. Marx the historian does not rest with invoking characters from the Revolution alone: he moves back and forth between giants and dwarfs of the 18th/19th century Europe, and does so at blinding speed, piling it on till he hits home, witheringly, with “the second edition of the…….”

This is a familiar enough trait in his writing – the frequent and varied use of references and allusions, historical, philosophical and literary. Many of today’s readers are unfamiliar with historical details that are taken for granted in Marx’s work. And since Marx was widely and deeply read in French, English, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin – besides, of course, German – literature, he freely drew upon Shakespeare, Dante, Aeschylus, Goethe, Cervantes, Balzac, Diderot or Heine whenever he felt the need.

The chair Karl Marx used to sit in at the British Museum Reading Room, London. Credit: Special Arrangement

Somewhat late in his life, he even taught himself Russian so as to be able to access Russian documents first-hand, and soon enough, he was reading Pushkin, Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov in the original. Therefore, the variety and richness of his references can sometimes be overwhelming for today’s readers: after all, which modern commentator of political economy would think of rounding off his preface to a critique of capitalism by quoting from Dante’s Divina Commedia, as Marx does in the following paragraph from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy?

“This sketch of the course of my studies in the domain of political economy is intended merely to show that my views – no matter how they may be judged and how little they conform to the interested prejudices of the ruling classes – are the outcome of conscientious research carried on over many years. At the entrance to science, as at the entrance to hell, the demand must be made:

Qui si convien lasciare ogni sospetto
Ogni vilta convien che qui sia morta.


Some of the terseness of Marx’s prose has to do with the very real difficulties he had in making time for his writing. He was, after all, a socialist leader first, the founder of the First International, organiser, pamphleteer and teacher to a whole generation of European and American socialists. Some of his writing, therefore, remained only a rough sketch of what he planned to enlarge upon later, for example the hugely influential Theses on Feuerbach, which starts off by surprisingly privileging idealism over materialism:

“The chief defect of all materialism up to now … is that the object, reality, which we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of the object of contemplation; but not as sensuous human activity, as practice; not subjectively. Hence in opposition to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which of course does not know real sensuous activity as such.”

Marx had hoped to develop these theses into a complete ‘philosophy of praxis’, but this “brilliant germ of the new world outlook”, as Engels called these notes, remained a germ, with Marx never getting around to combining the notes into a major work. The Theses therefore wear a somewhat forbidding look for the lay reader.

Capital, Marx’s magnum opus, was built on nearly 20 years of back-breaking research into classical political economy, terms of foreign trade, the world market, English labour law, landed property, taxation, machinery and its impact on modern industry and the life of the working-class, wage labour and countless other areas intermeshed with his central enquiry into capitalism and the nature and estimation of use/exchange/surplus value.

In ‘Capital’, Marx is narrator, commentator, critic, analyst, philosopher, visionary rolled into one. Credit: Amazon.ukCredit: Amazon.uk

He never believed in second-hand information, always going to the source itself, no matter how tedious the process, browsing around second-hand bookshops and spending endless hours at the British Museum Library day in and day out for many years, taking elaborate notes and going over them meticulously. Paul Lafargue, the French socialist leader and Marx’s secretary in the 1860s, describes how, “in order to write the twenty pages or so on English factory legislation in Capital, he went through a whole library of Blue Books containing reports of commissions and factory inspectors in England and Scotland. He read them from cover to cover, as can be seen from the pencil marks in them. He considered these reports as the most important and weighty documents for the study of the capitalist mode of production.”

Marx was so punctilious in his work-ethic that he would not merely read up but quote extensively from, and acknowledge his debt to, even little-known authors, and to his reader this habit can sometimes look like a cluttering up of his main argument. In part three, Marx’s treatment of ‘the working day’ alone takes up 85 closely-printed pages and goes meticulously into, among other things, day and night work, the relay system, compulsory laws for the extension of the working day from the middle of the 14th to the end of the 17th century, branches of English industry without legal limits to exploitation and the struggle for the ‘normal working day’.

In the process, he draws extensively from official reports such as those of the Children’s Employment Commission and sundry factory inspectors, but also from Niebuhr’s Roman History and from Dryden and Virgil. For the modern reader brought up on either rigidly specialist or easy-to-read, non-demanding literature, such an intellectual tour de force is difficult to come to terms with, for obvious reasons. Marx was indeed attempting what no man had done before him or after, namely writing and analysing the history of a society in real time, even as it was playing out around him, and tying it in with all that had gone before it in every aspect of human civilisation, social, political, economic, cultural or even anthropological.

In Capital, he is narrator, commentator, critic, analyst, philosopher, visionary rolled into one. Arguably, this is the best exemplar of multidisciplinary scholarship anywhere in the world. If we do not anticipate the complexity of his analysis, therefore, and expect to breeze through his text, we have only ourselves to blame.

Let us also not forget Marx’s uncanny capacity for the pithy description, to which the following paragraph from The Communist Manifesto bears witness:

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life-and-death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed not only at home but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations becomes common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible….”

To recall that this was written in 1848, nearly 150 years before ‘Globalisation’ became such a buzz word, is truly extraordinary. But Marx was also the master of devastating, pitiless irony and of poignant, passionate prose, as we can see from the following excerpts:

“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more it sucks.”

“Labour certainly produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It produces beauty, but deformity for the worker. It replaces labour by machinery, but it casts some of the workers back into a barbarous kind of work and turns the others into machines. It produces intelligence, but also stupidity and cretinism for the workers.”

“Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great hearts of the working class. Its exterminators’ history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them.”

The bi-centenary of Marx’s birth will hopefully prompt many new readers to turn to the work of one of the greatest prose writers of all time.

Anjan Basu is a literary critic, translator and commentator based in Bangalore. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com