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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