A Short Animated Introduction to Karl Marx

Is Karl Marx’s cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism still rel­e­vant to the 21st cen­tu­ry? Can we ever read him inde­pen­dent­ly of the move­ments that vio­lent­ly seized state pow­er in his name, claim­ing to rep­re­sent the work­ers through the sole will of the Par­ty? These are ques­tions Marx­ists must con­front, as must all seri­ous defend­ers of cap­i­tal­ism, who can­not afford to ignore Marx. He under­stood and artic­u­lat­ed the prob­lems of polit­i­cal econ­o­my bet­ter than any the­o­rist of his day and posed a for­mi­da­ble intel­lec­tu­al chal­lenge to the val­ues lib­er­al democ­ra­cies claim to espouse, and those they actu­al­ly prac­tice through eco­nom­ic exploita­tion, per­pet­u­al rent-seek­ing, and the alien­at­ing com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of every­thing.

In his School of Life video explain­er above, Alain de Bot­ton sums up the received assess­ment of Com­mu­nist his­to­ry as “dis­as­trous­ly planned economies and nasty dic­ta­tor­ships.” “Nev­er­the­less,” he says, we should view Marx “as a guide, whose diag­no­sis of capitalism’s ills helps us to nav­i­gate toward a more promis­ing future”—the future of a “reformed” cap­i­tal­ism. No Marx­ist would ever make this argu­ment; de Botton’s video appeals to the skep­tic, new to Marx and not whol­ly inoc­u­lat­ed against giv­ing him a hear­ing. His ideas get boiled down to some most­ly uncon­tro­ver­sial state­ments: Mod­ern work is alien­at­ing and inse­cure. The rich get rich­er while wages fall. Such the­ses have attained the sta­tus of self-evi­dent tru­isms.

More inter­est­ing and provoca­tive is Marx’s (and Engels’) notion that cap­i­tal­ism is “bad for cap­i­tal­ists,” in that it pro­duces the repres­sive, patri­ar­chal domin­ion of the nuclear fam­i­ly, “fraught with ten­sion, oppres­sion, and resent­ment.” Addi­tion­al­ly, the impo­si­tion of eco­nom­ic con­sid­er­a­tions into every aspect of life ren­ders rela­tion­ships arti­fi­cial and forms of life sharply con­strained by the demands of the labor mar­ket. Here Marx’s eco­nom­ic cri­tique takes on its sub­tly rad­i­cal fem­i­nist dimen­sion, de Bot­ton says, by claim­ing that “men and women should have the per­ma­nent option to enjoy leisure,” not sim­ply the equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to sell their labor pow­er for equal amounts of inse­cu­ri­ty.

The video won’t sway staunch­ly anti-com­mu­nist minds, but it might make some view­ers curi­ous about what exact­ly it was Marx had to say. Those who turn to his mas­ter­work, Das Kap­i­tal, are like­ly to give up before they reach the twists and turns of the argu­ments de Bot­ton out­lines in broad strokes. The first and most famous vol­ume is hard going with­out a guide, and you’ll find few­er bet­ter than David Har­vey, Pro­fes­sor of Anthro­pol­o­gy and Geog­ra­phy at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York’s Grad­u­ate Cen­ter.

Harvey’s Com­pan­ion to Marx’s Cap­i­tal has guid­ed read­ers through the text for years, and his lec­tures on Marx have done so for stu­dents going on four decades. In the video above, see an intro­duc­tion to Harvey’s lec­ture series on vol­ume one of Marx’s Cap­i­tal, and at our pre­vi­ous post, find com­plete videos of his full lec­ture series on Vol­umes One, Two, and part of Vol­ume Three. Har­vey doesn’t claim that a kinder, gen­tler cap­i­tal­ism can be found in Marx. But as to the ques­tion of whether Marx is still rel­e­vant to the vast­ly accel­er­at­ed, tech­no­crat­ic cap­i­tal­ism of the present, he would unequiv­o­cal­ly answer yes.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Harvey’s Course on Marx’s Cap­i­tal: Vol­umes 1 & 2 Now Avail­able Free Online

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

What Makes Us Human?: Chom­sky, Locke & Marx Intro­duced by New Ani­mat­ed Videos from the BBC

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Bert says:

    Seri­ous­ly? Marx­ism has been tried so often and the result so far is 100m dead. There have even been a cou­ple of con­trol exper­i­ments (Ger­many, Korea) with pret­ty clear results: pover­ty, autoc­ra­cy, mur­der in the com­mu­nist side and a des­per­a­tion to escape to the free mar­ket side.

    If you want “repres­sive, patri­ar­chal dom­i­na­tion” look no fur­ther than the Marx­ist left.

    And yet still we have apolo­gia such as the above, still peo­ple say­ing “oh, it’s nev­er been done right”.

    It can’t be done right, because it always comes up against human nature.

    I weep for our futures.

  • Jason Baxter says:

    Bert, if you’ve ever spent any time at Open­Cul­ture, you’ll find that all kinds of religions–Marxism, Bud­dhism, Islam, etc.–except Christianity–are wel­comed. They have great links here and there, but the main phi­los­o­phy is pro-every­thing that’s against the God of the Bible and Chris­tian­i­ty.

    I agree. Marx­ism in this day and age? Prop­er­ty theft, pover­ty, emp­ty shelves, decades-behind tech­nol­o­gy and pro­duc­tion, star­va­tion, mass mur­der. Yep, that’s a great phi­los­o­phy to stand behind. Yeesh.

  • Kristian Petterson says:

    That’s a nice lit­tle Straw­man you and Jason have got there, Bert.

    I gen­uine­ly don’t see any­one pro­vid­ing apolo­gia — this is sim­ply pré­cis and analy­sis.

    Run off and find some wind­mills to tilt at, Tiger.

  • Jason Baxter says:

    Gen­er­ous of you, I’m sure. I’m sim­ply try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate to Bert the nature of Open Cul­ture. Don’t see any­thing ridicu­lous about it at all. The guys at OC like, for exam­ple, David Bowie, elec­tron­ic music, his­tor­i­cal maps, the Bea­t­les, John Cage, Buddhist/Islamic/nihilist/evolutionist philoso­phers, etc. The Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy intro is sim­ply a reflec­tion of your bent/taste. You would­n’t put it on your site if you did­n’t sub­scribe to or appre­ci­ate the phi­los­o­phy, or else we would see Chris­t­ian, lib­er­tar­i­an, Hillary-cor­rup­tion-expos­ing, or prop­er­ty rights-affirm­ing pieces reg­u­lar­ly, for exam­ple. It’s your right! You built the site; you get to choose to pro­mote what you like, and many of us non-left­ists who vis­it your site enjoy the Bea­t­les, clas­sic films, and so on. I’m just let­ting Bert know the score. No offense.

  • Gerald says:

    The post states we “can­not afford to ignore Marx.” I agree, but only to make sure we nev­er for­get what a false and dis­as­trous ide­ol­o­gy his is. Marx’s ideas have been thor­ough­ly dis­cred­it­ed by decades of expe­ri­ence and, unfor­tu­nate­ly, through the suf­fer­ing, oppres­sion, and deaths of mil­lions. I don’t know much about Bot­ton’s back­ground or views in eco­nom­ics, but I find it incred­i­ble that his pre­sen­ta­tion made no effort what­so­ev­er to show how and why the Marx­i­an the­o­ries he described have been debunked.

  • Jason Baxter says:

    My point, Kris­t­ian, was that the piece’s inclu­sion implies endorse­ment by OC, as if you did­n’t know. Hope that clears it up, Tiger.

  • geoff says:

    Care­ful with those con­dem­na­tions guys! A lot crimes have been com­mit­ted under the ban­ners of Chris­tian­i­ty, colo­nial­ism, cap­i­tal­ism and lib­er­al democ­ra­cy too. You could just as eas­i­ly say these have been debunked by their fail­ures as well. Har­vey’s lec­ture, by the way, is pret­ty inter­est­ing. Well worth a view­ing.

  • Tibor Sallai says:

    The Amer­i­cans always think they know it bet­ter. I’ve seen the nature of the com­mu­nism. I learned about all my life. There is no equal­i­ty. Not ful­ly. Because we have dif­fer­ent needs and dif­fer­ent dreams. And com­mu­nism nev­er let you reach your full poten­tial. Because it’s an oxi­moron.

  • Tibor Sallai says:

    The fact that they don’t accept Chris­tian­i­ty is exludes the use of their name… Open? Bah!

  • Tibor Sallai says:

    Analy­sis which is nev­er fin­ished ful­ly. Because if they fin­ished it they would saw the ulti­mate fail­ure of com­mu­nism.

  • John Doe says:

    I love hear­ing peo­ple use the human nature is evil argu­ment.

    If human nature is inher­ent­ly evil then should our sys­tem of mate­r­i­al dis­tri­b­u­tion incen­tivise com­pe­ti­tion and pit all of the evil peo­ple against eachother, or would it be bet­ter to incen­tivise coop­er­a­tion to under­cut their evil?

    If cap­i­tal­ism is the nat­ur­al state of mar­kets, why does a gov­ern­ment need to enforce it? Should­n’t the mar­kets func­tion regard­less? Would­n’t a gov­ern­ment do bet­ter to improve the lives off all of it’s peo­ple, not just those deemed pro­duc­tive?

    If only pro­duc­tive peo­ple are wor­thy of aid, and the unpro­duc­tive peo­ple are unwor­thy of aid, what hap­pens to peo­ple of impair­ment? Should they be tak­en care of or left to suf­fer since they are less pro­duc­tive.

    Ulti­mate­ly it does­n’t mat­ter, what mat­ters is the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment devot­ing 700 bil­lion dol­lars a year export­ing war and dev­as­ta­tion to the third world, while claim­ing there’s not enough mon­ey to give chil­dren school lunch at home. How any­one can look at the numer­i­cal bud­gets and think that it is rea­son­able and cor­rect is delu­sion­al.

    Whether or not this is a guar­an­teed and inevitable con­clu­sion of cap­i­tal­ism is mute, its the con­clu­sion of what­ev­er it is that we have. War­mon­gers and “law and order” slavers should be run out of civ­il soci­ety, their way is the way of the sav­age ani­mals that they see in each human they meet. The Hobb­sian state of nature might exist if the good peo­ple of the world stopped allow­ing these leech­es to plague our soci­ety. There should only be one law to which all humans abide; those who make or strive for war or pris­ons should be shamed ruth­less­ly with the goal being pub­lic apol­o­gy or sui­cide. Assault, mur­der, rape, and kid­nap­ping are all small scale war.

  • Jwan Roberts says:

    Every­one has dif­fer­ent dreams and dif­fer­ent plans in life, com­mu­nism could nev­er reach your full poten­tial or dream

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