Chris Harman

How Marxism Works


There is a widespread myth that Marxism is difficult. It is a myth propagated by the enemies of socialism – former Labour leader Harold Wilson boasted that he was never able to get beyond the first page of Marx’s Capital. It is a myth also encouraged by a peculiar breed of academics who declare themselves to be ‘Marxists’: they deliberately cultivate obscure phrases and mystical expressions in order to give the impression that they possess a special knowledge denied to others.

So it is hardly surprising that many socialists who work 40 hours a week in factories, mines or offices take it for granted that Marxism is something they will never have the time or the opportunity to understand.

In fact the basic ideas of Marxism are remarkably simple. They explain, as no other set of ideas can, the society in which we live. They make sense of a world wracked by crises, of its poverty in the midst of plenty, of its coups d’etat and military dictatorships, of the way in which marvellous inventions can consign millions to the dole queues, of ‘democracies’ that subsidise torturers and of ‘socialist’ states that threaten each other’s people with nuclear missiles.

Meanwhile, the establishment thinkers who so deride Marxist ideas chase each other round in a mad game of blind man’s buff, understanding nothing and explaining less.

But though Marxism is not difficult, there is a problem for the reader who comes across Marx’s writings for the first time. Marx wrote well over a century ago. He used the language of the time, complete with references to individuals and events then familiar to virtually everyone, now known only to specialist historians.

I remember my own bafflement when, while still at school, I tried to read his pamphlet The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

I didn’t know either what Brumaire was or who Louis Bonaparte was. How many socialists have abandoned attempts to come to grips with Marxism after such experiences!

This is the justification for this short book. It seeks to provide an introduction to Marxist ideas, which will make it easier for socialists to follow what Marx was on about and to understand the development of Marxism since then in the hands of Frederick Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and a whole host of lesser thinkers.

Much of this pamphlet first appeared as a series of articles in Socialist Worker under the title Marxism Made Easy. But I have added substantial fresh material. A little of this I have lifted wholesale from two previous attempts to provide a simple exposition of Marxist ideas: Duncan Hallas’s The Meaning of Marxism and Norwich SWP’s Marxist Education Series.

One final point. Space has prevented me from dealing in this pamphlet with some important parts of the Marxist analysis of the modern world. I have included a substantial further reading section at the back.


Last updated on 26 January 2010