Don’t Read Marx

Andrew P argues that Y/DSA reading and political education groups don’t need to abandon Marx, but should reorganize themselves for the modern worker.

Don’t get me wrong, reading Marx is an illuminating experience that — once you have managed to break through the Hegelian philosophy and technical terminology — accurately reflects the world around us and provides the reader with excellent tools to describe it. But your Y/DSA reading group should not put him on the syllabus. It’s counterproductive.

The goal of a Y/DSA political education and reading group should be to familiarize Y/DSAers and other members of the working class with socialist theory. We need to be informed of the past to know how to build beyond it. But familiarity does not require expertise. Political education and reading groups are vital tools to make sure new members understand what socialism is and how Y/DSA is building it.

But people need to actually attend a reading group to learn any of that. When reading Marx, Engels, Lenin, or almost any other non-contemporary Marxist, it is too easy to get caught up in specifics. Reading Marx and Engels requires the reader to be familiar with Hegelian philosophy — something the average working person has not even heard of — and reading Lenin requires a passing familiarity with the politics of the Second International and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Our goals are attendance and engagement, and while it is not elitist to read Marx, it is not particularly useful either.

In the preface to the 1872 second edition of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels reflect on their most famous document and come to see it as something closer to a historical document and that they felt that they should have written a completely new one given the tidal wave of events that had occurred since its first publication in February 1848.

Despite David Harvey’s insistence (and he’s correct about this) that Das Kapital is a living document, the fact remains that for most it is a historical tome that requires a herculean effort to read. If Y/DSA reading groups are meant to introduce working-class people to socialist theory, then I suggest we listen to Marx in one of the many prefaces he wrote to Das Kapital. Responding to a suggestion to split the book up into several smaller chapters, he wrote: “In this form the book will be more accessible to the working class, a consideration which to me outweighs everything else.”

Marx wrote for the nineteenth-century reader. That does not mean he is wrong — the opposite is true — but the way we learn has changed and we must be willing to change with it. In the French preface, Marx uses the expression “…but here is the reverse of the medal” which, although readily apparent in context, requires more thought from the reader than a more modern phrase. This is not the fault of Marx, he admitted “[t]hat [it] is a disadvantage I am powerless to overcome,” when explaining why he could not allow Das Kapital to be published in a worker-friendly format. Marx is simply not meant for the average twenty-first century reader and we cannot build our political education around texts that are not easily accessible to those who are tired from a 40-plus-hour work week. We must make Y/DSA political education accessible to the working class!

What is to be done? Y/DSA organizers must accept that organizing a reading group is a much bigger challenge than just assigning texts. It requires a thorough pedagogical organization with specific learning goals baked into every meeting. Organizing a Y/DSA political education group requires hard work and there are few examples of its success, but we must treat political education as a critical part of the national Y/DSA platform and make reading groups as accessible as possible if we ever hope to challenge capitalist hegemony.

We do not need reading groups but political education groups. We do not just need organizers but teachers to lead discussions and provide the class with direction. Many readers will resent the “tyranny” that a teacher must necessarily bring to the classroom, but for a group to have any direction there must be some kind of leadership. We also need shorter and easier assigned readings like Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton or The ABCs of Capitalism by Jacobin (available for free here). 

But the right books are not enough; they must also be broken down into smaller sections and include videos and short articles to ensure that even if someone did not read the text there are other, less time-consuming ways for them to participate. Actual political education groups should include lectures and films to ensure that everyone present can take away the basic information, even if they will miss some of the finer points.

That is the important reality of Y/DSA reading groups. When we trade Marx for a modern retelling, we are losing detail but gaining a mass of people who can articulate the basic points of socialist theory in opposition to the overwhelming “capitalist realism” we live under. They will not be experts but, sometimes, it is okay to not be an expert.

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