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The Ideas of Karl Marx: A Beginner's Guide

By Aindrias ó Cathasaigh

Published by the Irish Socialist Network, email , ¬2, pp16

Reviewed by Joe Craig

19th January 2004

This pamphlet is the second published by the Irish Socialist Network, its first a useful account and criticism of social partnership.  This pamphlet on Marx is obviously different but demonstrates a welcome focus on ideas.  The need for promotion and reassertion of basic Marxist ideas could not be greater at a time of working class retreat, particularly in a country that has never witnessed construction of a sizeable working class party worthy of the name.  The Irish left is notorious, or at least should be, for its neglect and disregard for theory and ideas in general.  Its practical weakness being one result.

As the advertisement goes, this pamphlet does exactly what it says on the tin.  It is a beginner s guide to Marx s ideas and in its chosen task it succeeds exceptionally well.  In sixteen short pages it explains in very simple terms, but without dumbing down, Marx s ideas on historical development, the nature of capitalism, the importance of the working class, revolution, oppression and the role of socialists.

Of course much is left out but, given the limitations of space, the end result is an excellent introductory text that could be given to any young (or not so young) person approaching socialist politics for the first time.

Only one discordant note is struck in the text.  In the last page (excluding the well-chosen footnotes) the author states that Marx actually proposes a fairly modest and humble role for socialists. ( p10).  This really isn t so and the quotes and analysis from Marx used to support the statement demonstrate this.

Assertion of this modest and humble  role for socialists follows recognition that Marx s ideas enable workers to overcome the limits of their own (necessarily limited and partial) experience allowing them to draw lessons for future struggles.  Aindrias repeats Marx s statement that the only difference between socialists and the rest of the worker s movement is that socialists stand for the interests of the working class as a whole,  are the most resolute section of the worker s parties of every country,  and have the advantage of insight into the conditions, course and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.  (p16)

Individually none of these roles is a humble one and together their importance is not only not modest but vital to the struggle for socialism.  As Aindrias correctly points out, socialists must be part of the working class and this only confirms their importance to the workers  struggle.

This error flows from one significant oversight in the summary of Marx s ideas  the ignoring of Marx s struggle to build a working class party.  There are references to the role of a workers party in the quotes from Marx but in the text the importance of building a separate working class party in both Marx s life and work is not explained.  This is a serious omission, particularly today when among many radicalising young people the whole idea of parties is anathema.

It is important also to understand this because only an understanding of the importance of building a working class party, and of the importance of the role of socialists, can allow people new to Marxism to understand why much of what they see on Marxist book stalls are arguments among socialists.  If they thought the role of socialists was relatively unimportant they would be right to wonder at what was so necessary about much of what was written by Marx, Engels, Lenin. Luxembourg and Trotsky, to mention but a few.  Many of their most important writings rest on the assumption that what socialists do is absolutely vital.  An introduction to Marxism for those new to socialism should be reinforcing to them how very important their activity is and how this depends on having the right ideas.

Aindrias quotes Marx that the movement of the present they [socialists] represent the future of the movement.  (p16) This can be seen, along with the struggle for unity, as the central problems facing the Marxist movement today and throughout its whole history.  Involved are such problems as: how advanced do we make the demands of any campaign?  Indeed what issues and what campaigns are important?  What platform do we stand on in elections?  Who do we seek unity with and whom do we exclude? Which compromises are permissible and which are not?  It is failures on these questions that lead to the charges brought up repeatedly in socialist debate of popular frontism,  opportunism  or electoralism  etc. etc.  From this we can see that explanation of the ABC of Marxism quickly leads to DEF and the rest of the alphabet.  The only danger is that some on the Irish left go no further than ABC or even forget about the ABC when it comes to their actual activity.

Aindrias is right to preface his short work with the explanation that it is a stimulus to discussion rather than a definitive exposition.   That he has managed to write such a short work on such a vast subject in such a simple and clear way hopefully ensures that it will play an important role in introducing a new generation to the liberating potential of Marxism.  



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