Book review: Understanding Marxism by Richard D Wolff

In this book by Richard D Wolff, a Marxist economist, he gives a concise introduction to the core concepts of Marxist theory. It is a mere 42 pages long, hence could be read in an hour or two. So it may be more appropriate to treat this as an essay or a monograph. This is no criticism of the book. Given the target audience are those unfamiliar to Marxist theory, the easily digestable nature of the book will be helpful to attract audiences who do not have the time or means to read over Marx’s Communist Manifesto, three volumes of Capital and 1844 Manuscripts (although it would be great if the book did inspire some further reading into these works).

Since the book is quite short, in this review I will not use any direct quotes or go into any depth of the arguments raised. Wolff begins by arguing that an interest in Marxism academically has been avoided for a long time due to political reasons, such as 1960s-1980s Red Scares. From this he encourages the reader to put their fears aside and to give Marxist theory a fair analysis in comparison to Capitalism.

The main bulk of the book is dedicated to explaining the Marxist concept of exploitation through class systems. Wolff explains Marx’s observations on previous class systems and how exploitation has carried on from those systems into the current Capitalist system. He also explains how the nature of such a system makes the workplace non-democratic and how it exaberates inequality due to its internal inconsistencies.

The book ends with Wolff arguing that an economic model of worker cooperatives can resolve the issue of the workplace being non-democratic and also addresses the internal inconsistencies that the employer-employee relationship Capitalism possesses.

Overall, Wolff does a great job explaining the Marxist concept of exploitation. This would be a useful resource for those without an understanding of Marxism looking for a basic start or something not requiring extensive reading. However, one criticism I will raise is that Wolff never mentions the Marxist concept of Alienation in his book. Marx was just as committed to the problem of Alienation as he was to Exploitation. So it seems bizarre that Wolff did not mention this in a book dedicated to introducing the lay person to the fundamentals of Marxist theory.

To be fair, there are some points made in the book that implicity refer to problems of alienation. For example, Wolff argues that the problem of a non democratic workplace separates the workers to what they are producing and how bringing democracy into the workplace connects the worker with what they are producing. However, I would have liked him to define and explain the concept of alienation to the reader and explicitly tie the issue of democracy in the workplace to that concept. And given the book is already very short, a few pages dedicated to alienation I think is necessary for a book called ‘Understanding Marxism’.

Despite this criticism, for those unfamiliar to Marxism, this book would be a great start. From that point, https://www.marxists.org/ is a great resource for further reading.

If you wish to purchase Wolff’s ‘Understanding Marxism’, an Amazon link is provided below:

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I am currently completing my honours degree in Philosophy.

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