Review: Desai’s Marx’s Revenge

Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism

Meghnad Desai

I’m genuinely surprised I don’t hear this book talked about more.

On a macro level, Marx’s Revenge makes the argument that Marx would have welcomed globalization (the left’s boogie man of the day in 2004 when this came out) as the evitable next step in capitalism. This is a thought provoking idea, but looking back now, more than ten years after I read this, it isn’t what sticks out with me. What I remember is that this was also a surprisingly good introduction to the world of classic economics (Smith, Ricardo, and Keynes) and continental thought (Hegel).

I read this at age 29, having just started an undergraduate course of study in economics and philosophy. I found Desai’s explanations of Hegel, Smith, and Ricardo, and how they influenced Marx to be extremely helpful. Concise enough to be approachable to the general reader, but serious enough to really help me understand the issues at play. I was taking David Harvey’s Capital class when I read this, and my god was this a helpful tool in my quest to keep up with the much greater knowledge of grad students sitting around me.

I really enjoyed this when it came out and even pressed it into the hands of a few friends. I wonder what the much more pro-market 2016 version of myself would think of it today. My guess is the history would stand up — the theory, perhaps not so much.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Dufourmentelle’s Negri on Negri

Negri on Negri: in conversation with Anne Dufourmentelle
Antoni Negri and Anne Dufourmentelle

Antonio Negri – seventies radical reborn in the early 2000s as darly of the left with his massive theoretical work on the nature of late capitalism and resistance to it (Empire and Multitude). He’s one of the few fashionable Marxists that one should take seriously. Here he is at his most accessible, talking about his history, both the personal and political and about the ideas that went into Empire.

The book is a collection of interviews, organized alphabetically. Fittingly, it starts with A for Armed Struggle. Negri served a serious prison sentence for his alleged involvement in the Red Brigades, the left wing terrorist organization in Italy in the seventies and eighties (he denies the charges in the book).

This is a great place to start with a very important thinker whose writing tends to be rather difficult.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Piven and Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements

Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail
Frances Fox Piven, Richard Cloward

The classic Marxist tract every undergraduate leftist must read. Basically, by looking at specific case studies, including labor struggles and the civil rights movement, Piven and Cloward argue that poor people’s movements grow and flourish when they are amorphous and lead from below. They whither and die when top down leadership tries to stifle the movements natural radical democracy. What is important for a successful movement is therefore not that it has access to money and elite circles, but rather that it gathers widespread public support and disrupts the social order in a way that creates new, exciting opportunity.

My political theory education is spotty at best, but I think there’s a lot of truth in here, even if it is presented in, perhaps, a reductionist way.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Marx’s Capital Volume I

Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics)
Karl Marx

This is another one of those reviews that feels a bit silly. If you’re interested in a life of a mind, you should read Capital. It’s one of the top ten most important books in history, and I am profoundly unqualified to review or critique it. However, this is America, and it is my god given right to post book reviews on my blog, so fuck you.
One of the great misconceptions about Capital is that it is dry and difficult. Many people seem to think that reading it would be a chore. Not true. Admittedly, I was lucky enough to read it with David Harvey, a pretty engaging dude in his own right, but I think even if you were to read it on your own or in a study group, you’d find it funny, engaging, and not all that hard. It assumes perhaps a small amount of understanding of classical political economy (Malthus, Smith, Ricardo, etc) but not much. A copy of the vintage edition and access to Wikipedia is really all you need.
Still, I’d say if you’re going to read it, read it in a group. Some of the ideas need to be worked out, but four friends of average intelligence can understand this book with a minimal level of effort.

That said, is it worth it for you to take the time to read this monster? I’d say so. While I may think a number of Marx’s ideas as laid out here are just plain wrong,* and the ideas of many of those who followed in his footsteps to be even more misguided, I still think this is one of the most important books in history.

As a friend once wrote about Capital, “this is literature”. It definitely is, with all the complications that come with that classification. This book does not explain the workings of a capitalist economy. It is not a science textbook. It is a brilliant work that is part history, part political theory and part a discussion (and refutation) of classical political economy. Everyone should read it, but no one should take it all at face value.

* I think the labor theory of value doesn’t hold up, and predictions of the inevitable death crisis in capitalism have proven to be, well, wrong. That isn’t to say there isn’t a ton to learn from this book. Marx’s analysis of the growth of the capitalist economy may not always be historically dead on, but it is valid, brilliantly argued, and worth grappling with.