Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx by Max Beer

A decent overview, but not for beginners
Karl Marx
You can’t really read a great deal of literature and history published in the last 150 years without coming across Marxist themes and ideas. Love it or hate it, Marx’s philosophy was a world-changing event, the effects of which still persist to this day. For all his monumental influence, however, American students are unlikely to encounter anything but the most cursory mention of Marx in school, unless you majored in philosophy or economics. The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Friedrich Engels is brief and pretty easy to follow, but it seems a rather incomplete expression of Marx’s philosophy, more propaganda than treatise. If you really want to know what Marx is all about, you’ve got to read Capital, which is hardly a book for novices. Unwilling to invest the time and effort necessary to tackle that intimidating tome, I was hoping to find an intelligent primer that would give me an overview of the main components of Marx’s philosophical system. This led me to The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx, a 1921 publication by Austrian Marxist scholar Max Beer.

The contents of the book are definitely more Teaching than Life. Beer devotes few pages to biography and chooses to focus primarily on Marx’s writings. Before he even gets into Marx, however, Beer first provides an introduction to the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Marx was a follower of Hegel, and a grasp of Hegel’s concept of the dialectic is integral to an understanding of Marx’s work. Beer also goes into a lengthy synopsis of the philosophy of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French Socialist philosopher who sparred with Marx over a number of intellectual issues. Though I suppose this overview of Proudhon may be necessary for clarifying the finer points of Marx’s thought, it feels a bit tangential. Likewise, it seems a strange choice by Beer to devote a large portion of the book’s conclusion to the economic theory of David Ricardo, as opposed to handling that earlier in the book. The most bothersome part about these side trips is not so much that they distract from Marx but rather that Beer writes about his subjects as if he assumes you’ve already read their work. In fact, it is difficult to determine who exactly Beer wrote this book for, as it doesn’t read so much like an introduction to Marxist thought as it does a recap, a sort of postgraduate cheat sheet. Beer includes too many extended quotes from Marx’s works in the text when that space would have been better occupied by more summation and explanation.

Thankfully, there is still room for Beer to outline the fundamental concepts of Marxism, as I had hoped. Chapter IV: The Marxian System takes up the entire second half of the book, and for the most part delivered the overview I was hoping for. Again, it is not written for the philosophical rookie, so Beer’s text is not always easy to follow. Some of the more mathematical economic theory, like the calculation of surplus value, is written out in paragraph form, when simple equations or charts would have been much more helpful.

Admittedly, one of the qualities that attracted me to this work is its brevity. The printed edition was only 130 pages long. Once I got into the ebook, however, I realized those must have been some pretty dense pages because this work is by no means a brief, easy read. In some respects, Beer succeeded in answering my questions about Marx, but in others he still left me scratching my head. This work is likely too elementary for real graduate students of philosophy, but I would only recommend it to those lay readers who have a serious interest and considerable experience in reading philosophical texts.
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