Karl Marx

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About the book

Philosopher, economist, political theorist and revolutionary, Karl Marx is one of the most legendary, influential thinkers of all time. His work changed the course of history and continues to impact upon people and governments across the globe. But who was this extraordinary man and what made him tick? Who the Hell is Karl Marx? traces the life and times of this great thinker, and then takes a deep dive into three of his key ideas – class struggle, capitalism and communism. Written in an engaging and easy-to-read way, this book will tell you all you need to know about Marx while showing you how his powerful and original ideas continue to be as vital and relevant to political debate today as they were in his own time.

Chapter 1: Marx's Life Story

Chapter 2: Influences on Marx's Thinking

Chapter 3: History as the Story of Class Warfare
This chapter takes the reader through Marx's concept of a divided nation, looking at his controversial Communist Manifesto and the impact this had as revolutionary events began to flare up across the continent of Europe.

Chapter 4: Capitalism and Crisis
This chapter details Marx's journey in discovering the inner workings of capitalism, the relationship of labour to commodities, the resulting crisis of overproduction and its dire consequences for society as a whole.

Chapter 5: The Fight for Socialism
Charting Marx's vision for a fairer society, this chapter explains how Marx considered socialism to be the first stage in a dynamic process of forward movement in human history. 

About the author

Manus McGrogan is a historian who has written widely on the events of May 1968 in France and their legacy, as well as the global radical movements of the 1960s and 70s. His interest in Marx stems from socialist and antiwar activism. A languages and history lecturer, McGrogan has also taught in both secondary and higher education, most recently at the Universities of Portsmouth and Sussex, UK. Originally from Belfast, N. Ireland, he has lived in Brighton since 1983.


"The latest in the Who the hell is . . . series, Manus McGrogan’s Who the hell is Karl Marx . . . and what are his theories all about? is a nifty little primer on how to think with Marx in the 21st century. McGrogan does not hide his great admiration for Marx’s ideas—the book is dedicated the memory of Leon Trotsky—but nor does he extol Marx’s thought uncritically. Instead, McGrogan places Marx within his intellectual milieu and traces the development of his key concepts that continue to draw readers to his work today.

In the first chapter, McGrogan provides a brief biographical overview that situates Marx’s life within the economic and political tumult of the 19th century. Chapter two focuses on key theorists and traditions that shaped Marx’s thought from his early years as a student of law and philosophy in Germany to his later life as a journalist and revolutionary in London. The central chapters of McGrogan’s book elaborate on three themes in Marx’s thought: “history as class struggle,” “capitalism and crisis,” and “the fight for socialism.” With a minimum of jargon, McGrogan shows how these themes emerged through dialogue with contemporary theorists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Max Stirner, and most importantly Friedrich Engels, and through Marx’s careful observations of key world events, from labor struggles in Europe to the American Civil War.

For students and activists alike new to the world of Marx, these three chapters offer what pedagogists Jan Meyer and Ray Land famously referred to as “threshold concepts,” previously inaccessible perspectives that reveal the world anew. In his conclusion, McGrogan hints at the enduring power of Marx’s thought to illuminate key events of the 21st century such as the 2008 global economic crash, the 2011 Arab Spring, and the ongoing French yellow vest movement. Were he writing this chapter today, in April 2020, McGrogan would no doubt suggest how we might view global inequalities exposed by the Coronavirus pandemic through a Marxist lens. The book’s greatest utility, however, lies in its ability to help newcomers think with Marx about the world on their own."

Dr Ron Haas | Texas State University, USA

"Karl Marx wanted to do two things at once: he wanted to understand how change happened in a complex, shifting world. He also wanted to give working people the tools to change things for themselves.

The first meant he used an array of complicated theoretical analyses and was willing to turn existing understandings of society on their head or inside out. The second meant he made an effort to make his ideas easy to understand, even where those ideas, because they ran so hard against the prevailing wisdom, looked confusing: As Karl said, 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.' So Marx wrote both his dense, three-volume analysis of political economy, Capital, and his popular 50-page pamphlet The Communist Manifesto.

We go through a bit of a cycle where Marx periodically gets declared 'outdated' because his view of capitalism as a system riven by crisis and class conflict are 'old-fashioned.' Then capitalism has another crisis and lots of new readers get interested in old Karl. Since the 2008 financial crisis we have been in one of the Marx-is-interesting phases. Marx wanted to both look deeply into the tangled way change happens and have a straightforward explanation for working people on how to make change happen. But another way many mainstream commentators like to divert people away from Marx is to put him in the 'difficult theory' box. Socialist historian Manus McGrogan has done us all a service with his new book, Who the Hell is Karl Marx?, which pulls Karl right out of that 'difficult' box into an accessible summary of his life and ideas.

McGrogan’s 115-page book is a very economical explanation of Marx’s concepts, how he got them and what he did with them. It is in the new series Who the Hell is…? which aims to 'look at the lives and cultural influences of some towering intellectuals — as well as their most groundbreaking ideas — to see how it all fits together.' The series aims to 'deconstruct their academic jargon into plain English, so you don’t have to.'

If you know anyone who’s off to university, this would be a great gift, because there is a strong possibility they will be taught about the 'difficult' Marx, where McGrogan makes an effort to make the 'difficult' understandable. One of the features of the socialist movement is that we are all students and don’t depend on universities for our educations, so this is equally a good book for everyone interested in Marxism as a theory of change.

McGrogan opens up Marx’s more powerful analytical tools — like the 'dialectic,' with its movements from 'thesis-antithesis-synthesis' and explains how this is really a theory of conflict and change, inherited from philosophy, but sharpened by his personal experience of revolution. He shows what 'base and superstructure' mean as a way of analysing society, how 'the history of class struggle' means more than just a Victorian battle between top-hatted gents and flat-capped blokes.

The book is short and sharp, but does not oversimplify Marxism. It’s also nicely illustrated with pictures from Marx’s own time. I’d particularly recommend the book to the very large number of people who have been pulled into politics around Jeremy Corbyn: I think there is a very popular understanding of business and politics around Corbynism which sometimes tends to the conspiratorial, to an idea of rich people buying off politics.

McGrogan’s book is a useful reminder of how Marx saw this as a social process, driven by class interests, not an individual corruption. McGrogan writes as somebody who is sympathetic to Marx, but unsympathetic to the (now dismantled) communist-bloc countries, so a couple of his asides might annoy those who do see them as some fulfilment of Marx’s hopes, but the overwhelming focus of the book is Marx himself, his writings and his activism, rather than subsequent debates about what is the 'best' version of Marxism."

Solomon Hughes | Morning Star, Friday 24 April, 2020

"Do we need another book on Marx? Many recently published books deal with Marx’s approach to history, to economics, to ecology and to the family in innovative and exciting ways. Having read this book, the answer is a definite yes.

We need books that present Marx and his ideas to new readers, and which remind all readers of the depth of the tradition in which we stand and its capacity to explain and contest the challenges we face.

This book is a general introduction to Marx’s life, ideas and political activism. Manus McGrogan successfully weaves the disparate strands of philosophy, economic, history and biography together in a narrative that is accessible without losing any depth of analysis.

Who the hell is Karl Marx? presents all the key events in Marx’s life, giving a vivid sense of his involvement in the aftermath of the insurgency in Cologne in 1848, his life as a political refugee in Paris, Brussels and London, and his close engagement with the British working class movement.

Through these experiences, young Marx evolved from radical liberal to democrat and socialist and communist. In later years, the insurgent Paris Commune of 1871 had a huge impact on Marx’s conception of workers’ power.

Marx also interacted with the important radical and socialist thinkers of his time ,and these interactions shaped the development of his theoretical approach. Marxism was never a finished project: Marx reacted to scientific and political theories, such as those developed by Charles Darwin, throughout his life.

The role played by Jenny Marx in all these events is prominent in the book; a refreshing change from most Marx biographies which tend to portray her as a long-suffering, wronged wife rather than a socialist in her own right.

Marxism developed through a series of collaborations, with Jenny, Frederick Engels and a host of other radical activists and philosophers, including the Utopian Socialists whose contribution to Marxist thought is given proper prominence.

The book explains the origins and importance of all key aspects of Marxist thought: historical materialism, the labour theory of value, capitalism and crisis, and how a communist society could be organised.

By reasserting the centrality of Marx’s thought, the author provides many useful quotes and arguments that we need to challenge capitalism today. We can contest the ideas generated by the ruling class through all the powerful means at their disposal through our self-organisation.

The emancipation of the working-class was and remains at the centre of Marxist theory and practice.

Marxism was born out of a collective response to capitalism, through both struggle and ideas. Even as capitalism was establishing itself, it was fiercely contested by Marx and Engels, and by tens of thousands of working-class men and women who repeatedly organised and fought back.

There was a massive increase in Marxism after the economic disasters of 2008. We are now in the grip of another crisis born out of the drive for profit and competition inherent within capitalism that should again create an interest in Marxism and alternatives to capitalism. This book is a timely reminder of what we are fighting for and why."

Judy Cox | Socialist Review, April 2020 issue

"A more comprehensive list of Marx biographies can be found at the end of this review but, by and large, they are lengthy to the extent that they may deter new readers rather than encourage them from entering the fascinating world of Marx’s writings. So this short introduction, covering the life and works of Karl Marx in a mere 125 pages, is to be welcome.

In Who the hell is… Karl Marx? Manus McGrogan has produced a useful pocket-sized introduction to the fundamentals of Marx and Marxism. The layout and subject order is well conceived and executed. There is on pages 24-25 a very useful timeline of the life of Karl Marx which is accompanied with a parallel chronology of historical events which would have influenced the development of his thought.

Who the hell is… Karl Marx? is a worthy pocket companion to Alex Callinicos’s The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (1983) and provides a comprehensive introduction for those wanting to explore ideas that still have the power to change the world for the better."

Brian Parkin | RS21.org

"I enjoyed reading this book as a good introduction to Karl Marx - both his background and his theories. The book was a perfect length - I managed to read it over a couple of days or so. The book is well written, and I most enjoyed how the author linked Marxist theories/ideas to modern day news and scenarios. I would recommend reading this."

Dr Hajra Siraj | Imperial University, London