As the working-class protagonist Richard commits himself to political militancy in Morris’s narrative poem ‘Pilgrims of Hope’, he remarks: ‘When I joined the Communist folk, I did what in me lay/To learn the grounds of their faith. I read day after day/Whatever books I could handle … ‘. Sadly, the poem doesn’t actually specify what volumes our hero turns to at this point. But what book or books might we want to put into the hands of a contemporary Richard who sought to give him or herself a good grounding in socialist theory in the early twenty-first century?
There are many candidates, naturally. But a strong favourite, in my view, would be David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital (Verso, 2010). I read his Condition of Postmodernity when it first came out in 1991, and found it a powerful materialist regrounding of the cultural debates around postmodernism current at the time. As an extraordinarily productive Marxist geographer, Harvey was part of that crucial ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities of which Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies (1989) might be regarded as the manifesto.
Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital, which is based upon his lecture series on Marx’s magnum opus, is a lucid, thoughtful and eminently approachable guide to the great tome itself; and is given a contemporary edge by being written in the wake and light of the capitalist crash of 2008. As Harvey puts it early on, Marx’s ‘scientific method is predicated on the interrogation of the primarily British tradition of classical political economy, using the tools of the mainly German tradition of critical philosophy, all applied to illuminate the mainly French utopian impulse in order to answer the following questions: what is communism, and how should communists think?’ Plenty there, then, for new militants to cut their teeth on, and no guide could be more genial and searching than David Harvey. Anyone who wants to sample the original lectures can find them at: davidharvey.org/reading-capital/