Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

10 Marxist classics every socialist should (eventually) read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

There are no short cuts to understanding Marxism in all its complexity. To apply Marxism to current day struggles and processes we must read the classics and study historical events. The following are ten classic Marxist texts that every socialist should aim to read to develop their understanding of Marxist theory.

1. Communist Manifesto (Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, 1848)

Written in surprisingly clear language (it was commissioned by the first ever international working class organisation the Communist League), the Communist Manifesto is the most famous socialist text. It analyses the nature of capitalism and its international scope. It explains why the working class is the driver of social change. The later parts are dated as they analyse various organisations of that era. However the first half is still the most quoted and clearest explanation of the progressive and reactionary nature of capitalism as well as the clues to its overthrow.

Difficulty level: 2/5

comm manifesto for web

2. Capital (Karl Marx, 1867)

Capital is the definitive explanation of the current economic system we live under. It argues that the unpaid labour of the working class is the source of surplus value and profit. This partially explains the driving force of capitalism and an inherent contradiction. Start with a basic explanation of Marxist economics before trying this classic.

Difficulty level: 5/5


3. What is to be Done (Vladimir Lenin, 1902)

The best explanation of the importance of a centralised party to ensure social change occurs. This includes the need for fulltime organisers and a publication. It explains the importance of involvement in struggle for such a party with the goal of raising socialist ideas. Has a certain one-sidedness due to the battle Lenin was waging at the time against the ideas of pandering to spontaneity which he corrected later.

Difficulty level: 2/5

what is to be done

4. Reform or Revolution (Rosa Luxemburg, 1900)

Still one of the clearest explanations of why only an overthrow of capitalism that make permanent peace, economic progress and a rapid rise in living standards.

Difficulty level: 2/5


5. Results and Prospects (Leon Trotsky, 1906)

The book where Trotsky first outlined a central theme of modern Marxism, the theory of the permanent revolution. The idea that after consolidating itself, the advanced capitalist countries brought their system readymade and imposed on the underdeveloped world. They exploited raw materials and used cheap labour and found new markets. They transformed the defeated ruling strata in Africa and Asia into a compliant weak capitalist class. The drive against colonialism and imperialism in the so-called third world would come from the small urban working class leading the peasants, not from the local ruling elite. A future revolution there would combine the uncompleted tasks of the capitalist (bourgeois) revolution eg land reform with the tasks of socialism. The CWI updated this theory in the post- World War Two period.

Difficulty level: 4/5


6. State and Revolution (Vladimir Lenin, 1917)

Lenin explains the role of the state (armed forces, police, judiciary etc) in capitalism and indeed all class societies. At the end of the day it is made up of armed bodies of men to protect the ruling class. No revolutionary class can use the state machine of the class they seek to overthrow – which does not mean we do not try to divide this machine on class lines where possible.

The ideas Lenin lays out in State and Revolution were essential to the success of the Russian Revolution, the first time workers took power and built up their own state institutions to construct a new society.

Difficulty level: 2/5


7. The History of the Russian Revolution (Leon Trotsky, 1930)

Simply the best explanation of the most important event in world history, written by its co-leader (with Lenin). This anatomy of a revolution has generic lessons for all revolutions. It was described by Bernard Shaw as the greatest piece of prose he’d read.

Difficulty level: 3/5

History of the Russian Rev

8. Revolution Betrayed (Leon Trotsky, 1936)

The definitive explanation of why the Russian Revolution degenerated – it was not inevitable or natural but as a result of a series of political defeats and errors that were fought against by the Left Opposition inside the party. It is vital to understand this process in order to ensure it is not repeated in future revolutions.

Difficulty level: 4/5

revolution betrayed

9. The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Leon Trotsky, 1930s)

A series of articles outlining the United Front strategy Trotsky believed the German Communist and Social Democratic Parties needed to undertake to stop the fascists winning power. By offering to work together on practical tasks to stop the rising Nazi Party, the communists could win over the bigger, more moderate Social Democratic Party’s rank and file by exposing their rotten leadership in the course of struggle.

Instead, the Communist Party, on Stalin’s advice, treated the Social Democratic as little different than the fascists (‘social fascists’), allowing Hitler to divide the left and come to power.

Difficulty level: 3/5


10. Transitional Programme (Leon Trotsky, 1938)

Written on the eve of the Second World War, it is an attempt to develop a programme and a political perspective for the working class. It takes into account where the consciousness of the masses is at and tries to develop it to the next level. The transitional approach is what’s key here, rather than every dot and comma of the demands from 1938 which may not be all relevant for today.

The function of the Transitional Program was to build a bridge between those struggles and the need for a socialist transformation. “This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”

Difficulty level: 2/5

trans prog

By Stephen Jolly


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