Book Review: About Books
The newcomer to the study of Marxian economics frequently finds that Marx’s own works are rather heavy going. He searches around for books by other authors who may be able to propound Marx’s theories in a more easily readable form. Unfortunately, during the past eighty years, there have been many who have sought to simplify Marx or to tell the world what, in their opinion, Marx really meant. The total product of their labours would justify Marx in demanding to be saved from his friends,
If the student is determined to approach his studies through the medium of second-hand interpretations of the theories, we can save him much wasted time by directing him to the soundest of the books on the subject.
Probably the most useful work of this nature is Karl Kautsky’s “The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx.” There is little we can say about this book except that it was written expressly for the purpose for which the student wants it and it is a job well done.
Next in order of merit is “The Theoretical System of Karl Marx” by Louis B. Boudin. Boudin does not deal exclusively with Marx’s economic doctrines. He devotes a few chapters to the materialist conception of history, the social revolution and to some of Marx’s critics. Boudin quite correctly makes his early chapters on the materialist conception of history serve as a brief introduction to the study of the workings of the capitalist system. The usefulness of this book to a new student is limited because the author devotes quite an amount of space to replies to critics of the Marxian doctrines. These replies are extremely useful to anyone who has a grounding in the study but are likely to leave the novice a little bewildered. All the same, the book is good and cannot be excluded from a list of this nature.
Julian Borchardt has attempted to present “Capital” in a more readily digestible form by treating it in a different manner to other writers. He has taken a number of chapters from the three volumes of “Capital” and re-arranged them in an order which, he claims, will make them more easy to assimilate. He has eliminated some of Marx’s repetitiveness but has not attempted to alter the wording. Borchardt also claims, quite correctly, that the majority of those who read “Capital” do not get farther than volume one, but that volumes two and three are necessary for a complete understanding of Marx’s theories. Whether Borchardt’s work will be found easy going is doubtful, but for those who cannot avail themselves of the three original volumes it is useful. The only edition of this work that we are able to trace today is collected with some short writings by Frederick Engels and Lenin and Marx under the title “Capital and other Writings of Karl Marx,” and published by The Modern Library. New York.
Ernest Untermann has written a book entitled “Marxian Economics.” Untermann deals with his subject more historically than the previously mentioned authors, in fact over half of his book is devoted to an historical approach to the Marxian economic theories. It cannot be taken as a substitute for “Capital” but rather, as the author claims, a popular introduction to it.
There is one book which, because of its title and its availability may attract a student’s attention. It is “The Meaning of Marxism” by G. D. H. Cole, published by Victor Gollancz. This is a re-hash under a new title of Mr. Cole’s, “What Marx Really Meant” published in 1934. As a Marxist Mr. Cole would make a good plumber. What he thinks Marx meant is a lot different to what Marx said. A detailed criticism of “ What Marx Really Meant” appeared in the Socialist Standard in June, 1934. It stands equally well for the later book. The student should avoid Mr. Cole as an interpreter of Marxism.
Despite the good qualities of the first four books we have mentioned none of them are a real substitute for Marx’s original work. If the student has time, diligence and enthusiasm we recommend that he bypasses these attempts at simplification and gets down to his studies with the three volumes of “Capital” We recognise that a study of Marxian economics is not simple and that there is some justification in the criticism that Marx’s style is heavy, but his work cannot be adequately compressed into a book of a couple of hundred pages. Much of the so-called heaviness of Marx’s writing is due to the fact that he approaches all his points from every conceivable angle, neglecting no avenue of argument to prove his case. It is that which gives rise to the repetitiveness that scares away some of his readers.
The best of the translations of “Capital” are those by Ernest Untermann and by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. The translation by Eden and Cedar Paul which is used in the Everyman’s Library edition published by J. M. Dent has some minor faults but cannot be condemned because of them.
In conclusion, there is a useful little book that is worthy of mention. It gives an answer to many of the criticisms of Marx’s theory of value. “Boehm-Bawerk’s Criticism of Marx” by Rudolf Hilferding published by the Socialist Labour Press. Of course, this book cannot be read until one has an understanding of Marxism, but, after the elementary phases of study, it can be useful for clearing away a number of cobwebs.