Favorite books?

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Favorite books?

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1uhgreen First Message
Mar 18, 2007, 7:00pm

Seeing as this is a website for books, I thought the best first topic should be about what everybody's favorite books regarding socialist or Marxist philosophies.


Hopefully something other than The Communist Manifesto and Capital.

Mar 20, 2007, 10:21am

I look around the world and see the results of Marxist thought, or at least a philosophy that goes by the name of marxism or communism and wonder if this group is open to discussion of books such as The Gulag Archipelago or A People's Tragedy or if you just want to concern yourself with the mental masterbation that produced these inhuman failed utopian governments?

Mar 22, 2007, 5:42pm

geneg: there are no doubt examples of socialism gone horrible awry in the world. I am sure there are many who would be happy to have an intellectual debate on the pros/cons of socialism, however, judging from the tone of your message, you are not one of them; please correct me if I have misread your tone. In my opinion, the world has yet to find a perfect philosophy in which to govern a society by. I am also surmising (again, based on the tone of your message) that you are most likely a capitalist. Indeed, socialism may not be perfect, but capitalism (especially America’s current form) is far from perfect either. Anything resembling a perfect philosophy is probably somewhere in between.

Edited: Mar 22, 2007, 10:25pm

Geneg, I don’t necessarily agree with your post.

First of all I find the main problem in your last sentence. I don’t think that traditional writings of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels could be considered “mental masturbation” any more than you could consider The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith mental masturbation for capitalism. There is no doubt that Stalinism didn’t and doesn’t work. I think you could definitely argue that point but that doesn’t mean that Marxist writings should be totally discarded because regimes abuse and distort these writings.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t be limited by these traditional writings, mainly because I think they’re outdated. The concepts are important, but the practicality isn’t actually all there. The world is more complicated than it was in Marx’s day and I don’t think it’s going to get any less complicated.

If you want to talk about books like A People’s Tragedy, I’m more than happy.

Mar 23, 2007, 11:52pm

Dodger, uhgreen, I think that uncontrolled capitalism is as destructive of the middle class as state controlled economies are destructive of entrepreneurialism and innovation. Most of the people in the USA these days are wage slaves. Very few people are able to stand out in their jobs enough to break out of the pack and move out of their slavery. Two groups of people are being ground in the mill of the market, the wage slaves and the small businessmen. Our current government leans heavily toward fascism. They have privatized government functions such as making war and steering business to the highest bidder. Innovation is being suppressed, and the government is engaged in the largest transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy as ever seen in history.

I am no fan of unfettered capitalism. In the sixties and seventies we had a nice balance of unions, regulation and taxation that kept the middle class healthy and growing. It provided a modest safety-net for the poorest Americans. Not perfect but not repressive except in the minds of the most selfish among us.

The problem I have with government planned economies is that to be successful they must have a substantial control over what is an essentially chaotic, uncontrollable system. This requires the level of control available only to totalitarian regimes. Totalitarianism universally uses terror and fear to effect its control. The entire premise behind marxist/leninism as I understand it is unnatural and inhuman. You can't take what someone creates for themselves and distribute it evenly to everyone else without force.

I call any thought that sounds reasonable, but is based on unreasonable assumptions mental masterbation. I apply it equally to Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Both systems have at bottom the accumulation of either wealth or power or both in the hands of a few. This is the way the world works. People are essentially selfish and not altruistic. In Marx's day evolution was in the air and humans were seen as malleable and able to be molded into whatever was needed/desired. As we know now that is manifestly not the case, people will not willingly moderate their avarice through the markets, nor will they submit willingly to repression aimed at directly modifying human behavior.

I;m watching Bill Maher while composing this. I hope it makes sense.

Edited: Mar 25, 2007, 3:47am

geneg, I am happy to see that I have indeed misjudged you, and your comments. In fact, it seems that I agree with you quite a bit. So, with that, I happily apologize to you for my misreading of you. I implied that I would be happy to debate the subject, unfortunately, I think we agree too much with each other to actual have a debate ... oh well.

You are spot-on with your “wage slaves” distinction! There are so many conversations about class in America, and the disappearing middle class. Frankly, people miss the obvious, in America, there are two classes: those who have to work, and those who work to fill up their time (because they’re already rich--from “old money”, a recent business success, inheritance, et cetera).

You are spot-on in regards to the two “groups of people ... being ground in the mill of the market”, too. The US’s form of capitalism is horribly destructive to entrepreneurialism; the “American Dream” of starting (and successfully running) one’s own business is becoming harder and harder. If a business owner is not forced out of business by major companies (such as Wal-Mart), they will probably be bought out by that same company. And the very definition of a small business has changed drastically; it now means a company that only earns a measly few million dollars per year. What was known as a small business more than a decade ago is now seen as a pseudo-business, and is usually referred to with platitudinous names such as “home-based business”.

The US government not only privatizes things such as war, but prisons, and other court ordered “treatments”, making the idea of actually rehabilitating someone unappealing. With the large amounts of money to be made from these “industries”, why should the companies profiting actually try to “fix” anyone? It’s bad for business.

As you point out, the US’s uncontrolled capitalism hurts the American middle class, but I would add that it also huts people of various classes around the globe--economically, emotionally, and physically. American business care only about turning a profit for their shareholders; if that means the nine-year-old girl in Thailand only makes five cents an hour for making their goods: that’s fine with them. If it means that the factory they own in Ecuador constantly pollutes and contaminates the local’s drinking water: no problem, to them, it’s just a “cost of doing business”.

And again, I cannot disagree with you on unions; the death of the union is very largely to blame for the current, aforementioned, issues. I find the behaviour of major companies (Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, et cetera) toward unions proof that they know what threatens to defeat their fascist business practices--and deflate their ridiculous profits.

Lastly, I cannot disagree with you on the issue of government-planned economies. If the copious real world examples of the inherent problems with socialism/communism/Marxism are not good enough, I find Orwell’s Animal Farm to be a perfect example. The problem: someone has to be in control, and that someone has the means and opportunity to become corrupt (absolute power doing what it does and all). Which in a real world example, creates people such as Stalin.

So, not much of a debate, but I feel better for ranting. No Bill Maher fore me (I’m too cheep to pay for premium channels) but I’m off to watch John Stewart.

Mar 25, 2007, 8:21am

My first post was basically to see if this group was for real debate on marxism/leninism or people wanting to talk about a different brand of power. Power is what I object to.

I believe the best we can come up with is a modified free market system where the excesses of the market are regulated out as much as possible. Power must be exerted somewhere in the economic equation and I would rather have it on the side of the individual, than the business, but it should be wielded in a moral manner that benefits both the business and the consumer. This is a tricky balancing act.

I remember many hot nights in college debating these subjects and the lesson I took away was the best economic system benefits as many people as possible with the least exertion of control. At this time Khruschev was pounding shoes at the UN, we had recently gone through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Mao was conducting his Red Guards purges in China. It seemed it took much more idealistic commitment to make marxism/leninism/maoism work than most people were able to put forth. If everyone came out of a mold, you could, but they don't, so you can't. To cut to the chase of one of my favorite quotes, "...willful ignorance is the enemy." It seems to me marxist/leninist thought contains a lot of wilfull ignorance regarding the human condition. Idealists tend to shout down people who disagree with their positions (watch Fox News for a week) rather than debate. I was just checking the tenor of this group before getting involved.

BTW, on a different subject, books, I just finished a novel by Nobel Laureate Mikhail Sholokhov Quiet Flows the Don about the Don Cossack experience in WWI and the 1917 Revolution and am now reading And the Don Flows Home to the Sea, the second part of the story covering their experiences in the ensuing Civil War. I have read a lot about the Russian Revolution and many of its main participants and it is just a true tragedy.

Edited: May 18, 2007, 5:03am

Useful books on Marxism and socialism:

Sidney Hook's Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx (Be sure to read the Amazon reviewer's review of it, which has useful information about the book.)
Alec Nove's The Economics of Feasible Socialism.
Bill Warren's Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism.
Bertram Wolfe's Three Who Made a Revolution.
Joshua Muravchik's Heaven on Earth: the Rise and Fall of Socialism.

May 18, 2007, 4:17pm


Thanks for the recommendations.

Jul 8, 2007, 1:43am

If one were intellectually curious, and one had a low tolerance for jargon, where could one go for a gentle introduction to the current trends in Marxism?

Not a marxist, but I am willing and eager to learn about this old world, and I'm open to give other opinions a listen.


Jul 9, 2007, 4:33pm

There's Leszek Kolakowski's Main Currents of Marxism, which does have some philosophical jargon ("the contingency of existence", "the soteriology of Plotinus", etc.). Not easy reading, but encyclopedic. Also not especially current -- it was written in the '70s and doesn't look like it was updated in its 2005 single-volume edition, probably not least because Kolakowski argues that Marxism as a serious school of thought broke down around the middle of the twentieth century.

Or if you're more interested in parties and sects than philosophical issues, you might enjoy browsing through some posts at Leftist Trainspotters. Max Elbaum's Revolution in the Air is a decent history of a particular Marxist trend in the US, "Third World Marxism", that was popular in the '60s-'80s.

Jul 9, 2007, 5:37pm

I love Leszek Kolakowski's essays. Seems like a decent, gentle man with a sense of humor.

I had thought of the book you'd mentioned, but I'm really curious about the state of Marxism today. The Leftist Trainspotters thing looks interesting.


Aug 14, 2007, 7:33pm

Thanks for all the recommendations here, it is really useful

Aug 16, 2007, 3:03pm

Two more books which are pretty good expositions of, or commentaries on, Marxism by smart people: Essays on Historical Materialism edited by John Rees, and Marxism and Social Science, edited by Andrew Gamble, David Marsh and Tony Tant. The contributors to the latter are all bloodless academics, whereas the former's contributors are all active participants in the struggle to build a Leninist Vanguard Party. But both are worth reading if you want to get a feel for contemporary Marxism.

Aug 31, 2007, 5:28pm

I have just acquired Kolakowski's book, and immediately turned to the section on Trotsky, the one historical subject I know something about.

Kolakowski is very disappointing. His reading of Trotsky is superficial and actually misleading.

The problem is probably that Kolakowski never had any empathy for his subjects, or at least for the revolutionary Marxists in the Bolshevik tradition. Reading them was probably distasteful to him, and he had pre-conceived ideas about what they had to say. His views of Trotsky seemed to be a mixture of liberalism and Stalinism: Trotsky the militarist who sought to impose socialism by bayonet, Trotsky the totalitarian whose only difference from Stalin was that Stalin won the internal Party struggle and Trotsky did not.

For example, although Kolakowski discusses Trotsky's reponse to the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939, he leaves the impression that Trotsky thought it was a good idea. But this is not true at all.

Anyway, I am going to read what Kolakowski says in the rest of the book with a grain of salt.

Aug 31, 2007, 8:23pm

15 Doug1943: I'm looking forward to your reaction to Kolakowski's book in general. Main Currents of Marxism was the first serious, long work I read on the subject. I was impressed, but I wasn't able to compare it to anything in the same subject.


Sep 2, 2007, 1:29am

RDurick: Iprobably won't have much to say about the rest of the book, because Trotsky is the only thinker Kolakowski takes up with whom I am familiar in detail. (I was a Trotskyist, and read everything (in English) which he wrote -- usually several times over. I think it is difficult -- not impossible -- to really get to know a political movement's ideology if you yourself are hostile to that ideology.

I can imagine having to write an appreciation-and-critique of, say, an extreme monarchist/religious ideology. Just reading their ideas, as expressed in their own writings, would be painful to me. But if I had to do it, I would try to suspend disbelief, so to speak, and understand their views sympathetically -- try to thnk like a religious monarchist. Then I would be more able to criticize them "from the inside".

Edited: May 3, 2008, 3:14pm


Are you saying that you have a problem with masturbation? Please elaborate.

May 3, 2008, 3:28pm

No, I have no problem with masturbation. Everyone does it. I do have a problem with the kind of flatulence that comes of intellectual discussions that start from flawed premises. What's the point?

May 4, 2008, 4:36am

Well, you referred to mental masturbation earlier. Personally, I would have been happy to discuss the Gulag Archipelago, but it wasn't clear to me whether you wanted to talk about it, or whether you were out to bait reds, or whether you were saying that you didn't like masturbation. That's all.

May 4, 2008, 8:14am

Unfortunately, my style of learning and/or coming to an understanding has a lot of questioning premises and digging through each layer, as much as the other participants are willing in any case, before they grow irritated or just give up in exasperation. It's the only way I know. The reason I was reading the communist works was to learn, not bash it necessarily. If I can't make a system work in my head, I don't accept or trust it as any kind of solution to anything. But the key is I have to buy off on it. I don't accept things at face value or because someone smarter than me tells me so.

It has been thirty years since I read the Gulag. I'm not sure I remember it well enough to debate.

May 25, 2008, 5:27pm

This message has been deleted by its author.

Edited: Jul 4, 2008, 12:15pm

Well, aside from the Communist Manifesto, I would recommend:

The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844

Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844

Capital: An Abridged Edition

The Poverty of Philosophy

The Marx-Engels Reader, by Robert C. Tucker

A History of Economic Thought, by William J. Barber

Jul 6, 2008, 7:00am

The problem with taking Marx/Engels neat is that their writings pre-suppose a fair amount of knowledge of European history and philosophy on the part of the reader. Even with that, they are not always very accessible, and someone trying to puzzle out the rather elliptic formulations in the writings of the young Marx may give up in disillusionment.

So some commentaries are necessary, for reading in parallel, when you are reading Marx directly.

I am not a Marx-specialist, so I cannot comment on how reliable the Wikipedia entries for these titles are. But something like them is probably useful if you are going to start reading these volumes.

The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, for example, are discussed in Wikipedia and some background like this is useful.

However, nothing can take the place of having a basic knowledge of European history up to this time, and in particular the French and English revolutions, the situation of the German states, the state of the labor movement in Europe and particularly in Great Britain. Without that, much of Marx's writings will appear to float in the air.

Oct 17, 2010, 5:12am

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Gerry Cohen. His Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence is legendary.

I read it recently and I recommend it without reservation.

Oct 21, 2010, 4:29pm

I tried to read the late Gerry Cohen's book mentioned in the previous post, and didn't find it very accessible. I'll have another go, based on the favorable comment about it. I would be curious if anyone else has read it, and what they think of it.

Oct 21, 2010, 5:00pm

> 26

The plethora of analogy and example is what makes the book accessible to me. He spells out everything.

Edited: May 16, 2011, 4:00pm

There's so much more to Marxism than just Marx! Read some stuff from the Frankfurt School, particularly The One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse and also Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

May 17, 2011, 6:47am

I'm currently reading Eagleton's Why Marx was right. Not bad. Love the stylistic elements coupled with the hard nosed realism of the savagery of laissez faire fundamentalism.

May 17, 2011, 5:24pm

When you are done with Why Marx Was Right you might want to look at this article from Commentary about why Eagleton is wrong.


May 19, 2011, 2:56am

> 30

Well, if I wanted to read something with credibility on this issue I certainly would not go to your source....what was it? .....the Commentary Magazine?

Yes, well I had a look at the 'about' pages after sniffing a rat....

COMMENTARY is America’s premier monthly magazine of opinion and a pivotal voice in American intellectual life. Since its inception in 1945, and increasingly after it emerged as the flagship of neoconservatism in the 1970s

They would hardly say anything else would they?

May 19, 2011, 5:02pm

I suppose that sort of attitude saves you a lot of time and effort. Sorry to have bothered you.


May 20, 2011, 8:00am

> 32 Oh the irony!