Book Review: What Everyone Should Know About Karl

Karl Marx- A World to Win, by William A Pelz

If it needed to be said  . . . . , ‘if you read just one book about Marx, make it this one’. It has everything and accomplishes far more than its modest aim on the book cover, which is, to inform ‘undergraduates with little or no background knowledge of Marx and his theories’.

In a little over a hundred pages Bill Pelz’s work covers everything the uninformed as well as the informed reader needs to know about Marx. The book looks at Marx’s ideas, his relationship and lifelong collaboration with Engels, his often poverty stricken person- al life and his involvement with the emerging socialist movement.

Written by a long serving member of the Socialist History Society, this is no laudatory exposition of Marx. It is a warts and all survey summed up by the writer’s own judgement of his subject. ‘Marx was, as are all people, deeply flawed and doubtlessly wrong about many things. Still, he made a major contribution to world history by supporting a more just version of modern industrial society…..

Agree or disagree with Karl Marx, and a strong case can be made for either viewpoint, it is hard to ignore his critique of industrial capitalism, or forget his dream of a more cooperative, just, and peaceful world’. Bill Pelz rescues Marx from his modern day detractors who question his commitment to democracy.

Marx was a democrat in every sense of the word. He championed the right to vote for all, including the freed slaves of the American Civil War, and women. We sometimes need to remind ourselves that it is only relatively recently that the ruling class have become converts to democracy. At the turn of the 20th century democrat was a term of abuse hurled at socialists and others who defended the right to vote. For Marx, as the author points out, democracy was not just about elections. ‘Marx would not consider most governments -be it China or the United States- democratic.

For Marx, democracy was more than constitutions, elections, and the formal apparatus of government. Democracy would have to serve the mass of the population in practice not just in theory.

Writing about the short-lived Paris Commune in his work ‘The Civil War in France’ Marx complimented the communards on such democratic measures as the immediate recall of elected officials, rotation of officials, limitation of politicians’ pay to that of an average worker. For Marx, as Bill Pelz explains, democracy and socialism were inseparable bed partners and one was not possible without the other.

Apart from defending Marx from his critics, where these attacks were unjustifiable, the author gives a series of brilliant and simple expositions of Marx’s key ideas, the labour theory of value, the nature of class, dialectics and historical materialism, it’s all there. Bill Pelz also expands on Marx and Engels’s often overlooked admiration for capitalism. In their bestselling, never to be out of print, masterpiece, The Communist Manifesto, the two friends ex- tolled the benefits that capitalism brought in a short space of time to underdeveloped parts of Europe. Factories, cities, exploitation of raw materials, railways, the ending of rural ignorance, all this and more, led to developments for the human race never before witnessed.

Taking swipes at those in the years following Marx’s death, who claim adherence to his ideas, Bill Pelz distances himself from any of the contenders for Marx’s mantle. Of the former Soviet Union and the crimes committed during the Stalin era the author rightly suggests. ‘He (Marx) and Engels can no more fairly be charged with Stalin’s gulag than Martin Luther can be indicted as the architect of the Holocaust or St Peter blamed for the Spanish Inquisition.’

This book comes with the highest recommendation for its content and breadth. It can be read by newcomers to Marx and also by the usual suspects, those who have been dipping in and out of Marx for years, like the present reviewer. We will all gain by this first class portrait of the man and his ideas. There is something refreshing and new for the old- timers, and a new world opening up for the newcomers. But, and most important of all, it is a splendid read. Bill Pelz can convey ideas in straight forward language that the average reader can understand. It is a skill that is lacking in some academic writers of history. The best ideas in the world are impotent if the owner can’t convey them clearly. Bill Pelz certainly can. Apart from telling us about Marx, at the same time he teaches us how to write. A winnable combination.

Mike Squires


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