“Intro to Marxian Economics” 1 (1of6) – Richard D Wolff

“Intro to Marxian Economics” 1 (1of6) – Richard D Wolff


So this is a course in Marxian theory. And I want to lay out for you a little bit about who I am, and how this is going to be organized. It’s going to be quite intensive. I have four weeks, every Monday, for two hours for four weeks to present a kind of condensed, intense, version of what I think Marxian theory basically is like. That means that today I’m going to introduce Marxian theory. But particularly by distinguishing it from other kinds of theory so that you can see what makes it the unique and different theory it is and enable you, hopefully, to use Marxian theory alongside of, or instead of, other kinds of theory when trying to understand the world around you. Say, for example, the current economic crisis. First let me introduce myself, so you know where this is coming from. I’m a professional economist. I went to the University and got PhD to become a professor of economics. And I have been doing that for the last 30 years. Most of that time at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst from which I officially retired december of last year. And I now teach at the New School in Manhattan, New York City. In my capacity as an economist I have had to learn both the conventional, often referred to as mainstream economic theories, and, on my own, I learned the Marxian economic theory. I had to do it on my own because it’s not part of the curriculum here in the United States. And a word about that is appropriate. in other societies, including many other capitalist societies, It is perfectly normal, usual, routine for people who are Marxists to lecture and teach courses in schools and universities, alongside their non-Marxists colleagues. That is not the case here in the United States. United States is afraid. As a society it is afraid and has been for a very long time. So for example the majority of Economics Department in the United States do not have any Marxist at all on the faculty. A few, in the interests of diversity or balance, get a token Marxist. A little bit like they would get a token woman, a token african-american etc you get a token leftist, a token marxist… And there are some like that… and I myself have been that in a variety of situations. I was helped in my particular case, which is relevant here, because my education was at the what I consider the premier American universities. I went as an undergraduate to Harvard, then I went to Stanford to get a masters in economics, and then I went to Yale, to finish my education, when I got another masters in economics, a masters in history and a PhD in economics. So I am a loaded product of the best United States has to offer. And apropos of course in Marxian economics, let me explain that at no time, when I was a student at Harvard, or Stanford, or Yale, did any professor – with one exception and he was the only Marxist there – no professor ever required me to read – with one exception – Marxism. […?] If you ask these folks “why?”, they would be awkward. There is really no explanation. The truth of it is, which they mostly wouldn’t say, is that people in my age, my colleagues, don’t know Marxian economics… Hence, they are literally not qualified to teach it, partly because where they went to school no one taught them. So where they would have learned it? They would have had to do it on their own, which is what I did. From an early age, partly because of my family and partly because of people that I sought out outside university, I learned what this was about. I was given, by kind professors who are friends in other departments or universities, I was given books to read. They would occasionally meet with me to discuss it. Basically I carved out my own curriculum, because I wanted to learn. But absent that desire, and absent some people to help me, it would have been undoable. So I am in a peculiar position as a an older American professional economist that I have and had to develop in my life a competence in the conventional mainstream theories because that’s what they taught me in school, that’s what they tested me on to get my PhD, and that’s what I have to teach in many of the school in what I have worked in my life. That’s my assingnment: go, teach that material. So I know that. But I have also learned the Marxian alternative. My colleagues never had this opportunity. They know what they had to learn like I did, but when I begin to talk, when I present my analysis, they have NO IDEIA what I’m talking about. They either cannot participate in a conversation, or make a kind of shorthand in which they are either hostile, because Marxism generates hostile feelings in people. Or they are simple minded. That is, they offer a kind of Marxism in discussions with me that’s a bit of a caricature. It’s like a difference between trying to talk to a literary professor about a great piece of English literature and having someone chime in, who never did more than read the classic comic book about that novel. And that’s not a very interesting conversation after a few minutes. That has been my experience. And so part of the rationale of this course, the whole idea of teaching this way, is to try – in my own limited way – to remedy the defect of American higher education: the fear in the United States about confronting, learning and critically thinking about an alternative way of thinking. And let me give you a metaphor that I think captures this. If you were interested in understanding a family, say a family of a boyfriend/girlfriend that you have, or the family of a relative of yours, or the family of your neighbors, and you knew that there was mother and father and three children. And you began by saying: I’m gonna ask the children what they think about this family, in way to learn about it. You quickly discover that one of the children – the first one you happen to encounter – loves their mother father and just thinks that the family they grew up in was a blessing, was the best possible family they could have had, that nurtured and loved them and so forth. Would you seriously think about this person’s evaluation of the family? For sure. There was a child, children study their parents a lot more than we mostly recognize. And so, such a child would have invaluable insights into the knowledge about that family. Now suppose you found out that one of the other two siblings didn’t like the family, didn’t feel nurtured, felt excluded, felt hurt, felt to be less love than the others. Would you talk to that one also if your goal was to understand the dynamic of the family? Would you restrict yourself to a celebrant? Or would you feel it was more appropriate to interview this one who celebrates, but also the one who criticizes? I think most reasonable people would answer that question by saying: of course to get reliable insights you should investigate both the observer who loved and the observer who didn’t”. The one who praises and the one who criticizes. You will then have to make up your own mind as to which of the more persuasive or more likely you’ll take a little bit of each one in composting together your particular ideia. That would be the reasonable way to economics too. The point of the the story is this: capitalism in Europe is about 200 to 300 years old and from the beginning of capitalism’s arrival on the scene, as it replaced the pre-existing system – feudalism that existed Europe – capitalism, like every other economic system human beings have ever lived in, has had people who loved it, and has had people who DON’T! That’s normal, that’s natural. Karl Marx was born in 1818 in the midst of this successful emergence of capitalism in Europe. He is a product of modern capitalism as it took hold in the 19th century. He lived from 1818, when capitalism was really coming into Germany, to 1883, when capitalism had become the dominant economic system in that country. So he is a student on a product of capitalism. But, like many, he was a product who became critical. That is, his experience as a mature young person – I’m going to describe it in few minutes – was an experience of thinking and living in capitalism that lad him, as indeed many others, to be critical. And he developed an analysis of capitalism that was critical of… He believed the human race could and should do better than capitalism. As I said, I’m going to explain it in a moment, but I want to get clear that he is critical. And that one of the key distinctions between Marxian economics and conventional economics is that the conventional economics fundamentally celebrates, applauds and values capitalism. And Marx DOESN’T! They both studied capitalism… a little footnote for those who may not be familiar with this: Marx never wrote a book about communism. Marx never wrote a book about socialism. he never wrote an article about either of these. That was not his interest. He felt that was looking into the future, which is not what he did. He was an ANALYST OF CAPITALISM. His books are about how the capitalist system works. But he never hid the fact that he was a critic who wanted to get beyond capitalism. And so he’s like that sibling who is critical of that family, as opposed to the celebrants, who aren’t. Let me turn then to Marx as a particular figure, since this critical approach to capitalism is associated with his name. As I say he was born in Germany in 1818. And as a young man he came from middle-class parents and so he did something that was very rare for German young people at that time: he went to college. Something like 1% of young people ever did that, which was typical of Europe at that time. Mass education is a 20th century phenomenon. Didn’t existed in 19th century anywhere. Any case, he went to the university and he majored in Philosophy. And he got the equivalent of a PhD, his doctorate, in Germany. And his first job was as a young professor of philosophy of a German university. Because this was around the middle of the 1840’s it was a time when there were revolutionary changes, because capitalism coming in and contesting with feudalism, produce lots of struggle in these societies. And particularly in 1848 there was a wave of revolutions – they called the revolutions of 1848. They happen in every European country. Marx got caught up, as many young intellectuals and Germany did, in the revolutionary ferment. And this introduced him to critical thinking about German society, which he really hadn’t encountered so much as a pretty pampered young student, who studied Greek Philosophy. His doctoral dissertation was on Epictetus, an ancient Greek philosopher. So he got caught up in political action, like many young people, and it really changed his way of thinking. He began to be less interested in Philosophy, although always remained interested. And focused himself instead on understanding the world as it was. What he called, and others at that time called, “Political Economy”. In those days they made didn’t rigid separations between economics over here and politics over there. That was thought to be artificial and unlike the way the world was… the world mixes everything together, so it makes politics and economics, because they’re always so inter-joined. So everybody in those days called themselves, who studied these things, a “political economist”. That was the name that was given to what Adam Smith did, what David Ricardo did, and what Marx did. In his involvement, he came to the attention of the German police, whose job was always to keep an eye on this. And as he became more active the German police did to him what they did it to many young radicals. In those days the appropriate thing was: you do not arrest these people, you do not jail this people, you do not injury these people and you do not kill them.

52 Comments on "“Intro to Marxian Economics” 1 (1of6) – Richard D Wolff"


  1. Thanks for making videos like these; they really are important. How can society pass judgement on something it doesn't understand? And, like you said, Marx simply provides a viewpoint from which to view capitalism. Thanks for helping me become educated.

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  2. Mr. Wolff, thank you so much for providing your educational series. I've learned so much from you in only a few days. Loved Capitalism Hits the Fan, and these dedicated coarse series are fantastic studies. Thank you

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  3. Dr Wolf – appreciate you posting these lectures. As you point out, there's a severe paucity of formal Marxist education and you are helping this student in autodidactic efforts to correct this deficiency. Thanks!

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  4. comparing Marxism to capitalism when you don't understand capitalism just makes you look foolish. home boy should read real capitalist literature and not refer the the rubbish that he was force fed in the education system.

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  5. interesting fact…..Marx thought capitalism was impossible without the state….ironically, we call that socialism today!

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  6. no one learns marxism bc it is so easy to disprove……premise: the labor theory of value does not account for prices or value. Conclusion: there is no exploitation in the market. conclusion 2: marx is incorrect and capitalism rocks!

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  7. marx was a loser. let me give you an analogy: we dont avoid marx bc we are afraid….we forget him for the same reason we forget ptolemy, reading his work is obsolete and useless.

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  8. Marx theory of economics may sound beautiful but its implementation in reality has been shown to be a failure from Russia to China.

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  9. Yeah because turning two famine ridden agrarian backwaters into super powers is failure

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  10. I also reacted to what he said at that moment. But, it has to be admitted that The Manifesto of the Communist Party is not an important book and has no theory in it… It’s just a small propaganda book to hand to people to convince them.

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  11. Considering that Marxism is a criticism of capitalism, not an outline for a future, communist society, I'd really love to hear more about how it was put into practice in those two countries. And then, after that, maybe you can explain to me how Roger Ebert's review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo resulted in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

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  12. It's refreshing to see Marx approached, and approached in the more rigorous way (Das Kapital as opposed to the Communist Manifesto).

    I'm a center-left progressive who has taken up an interest in Marxian crisis theory. I've come to the conclusion that a "full employment profit squeeze" is might be a good way to reduce inequality. If the next Fed chair is a dove and keeps the labor markets tight, Marxian theory suggests it might push up wages and squeeze excessive profits out of the economy.

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  13. Is there are reading list for this course? I'd really like to be able to do the readings along with the lecture series.

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  14. There's a video of a public domain protest folk song that ties-in, somewhat, to this course, titled "The Workers All Wealth Create" that ties-in, somewhat, to this course, recently posted at following link: The Workers All Wealth Create–Bob A. Feldman

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  15. "Communism is the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man. It is, therefore, the return of man himself as a social, i.e., really human being, a complete and conscious return which assimilates all the wealth of previous development. Communism as a fully developed naturalism is humanism and as a fully developed humanism is naturalism. It is the definitive resolution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man. It is the true solution of the conflict between existence and essence, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species. It is the solution of the riddle of history and knows itself to be this solution."

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  16. Evolution Economy
    is a free open market that evolves thru time is the best working model.
    Martxism, Socialism or Communism didnt work they tried it and failed.
    Current world ecocnomy is gobalised its too complex and modern for Martx.

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  17. "Like every other economic system human beings have ever lived in has had the people who love it and have had the people who don't."
    How will socialism or communism be any different?

    We all know Marx never described what a communist society would look like, and yet you say he "wanted to get beyond capitalism." Was he insane? What if what comes after capitalism is infinitely worse than the system we are living under now?

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  18. I studied Marxian theory in the late 1980s under Dr. Michael Perelman at CSU-C. The library at CSU-C has a 1st edition of Capital (I & II)! It did me no favors in academia, however. I was nominated for the Smale Award but was only awarded "runner up" solely BECAUSE my models incorporated Marxian thought.

    The laugh is on my opponents though. My economic models have accurately forecast every downturn in US macro-economics since 1990.

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  19. Brilliant set of lectures! Wonderful teacher, very animated (sight and sound) and full of life. Needs to hit more of the mainstream. Did not know about this gentleman. THANK YOU!!

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  20. marx never wrote about communism? what about the communist manifesto? can someone explain this to me?

    i saw this on wikipedia:
    "According to Sylvia Nasar, Marx never learned to properly speak English and never visited an English factory despite living in England during his last thirty years."
    whats that all about?

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  21. The example on the two children, where one loves and the one that critics the family life. I wish he could draw the line between adam smith, karl marx and the two children. Adam smith (loving child) grew up, was a successful teacher and strived to be a human. Where as the Karl Marx (unloving child) took everything from everyone around him, drank all the time, lived off Engels, complained, failed at nearly every job that had to be given to him. Why do we take his work seriously, when the man himself couldn't have survived without the people around him who were successful in the very system he despised. If people want Marxism or Communism, there is no need to push for it, because the workers will rise up and create it when they are fed up, according to the theory. By foisting it on people you are not going to achieve marxism but something similar to Stalinism. So how about we just let the ideas exist, but let it rest. Let people make their own minds up instead of forcing ideas on them.

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  22. I really wish the audio was cleaned up on this. I share it all the time to friends and people who I think are listening, but the audio makes it harder to pay attention.

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  23. If universities are afraid to hire Marxist economics professors, then why are they so willing to hire Marxist literature, sociology, and history professors? I realize that academic departments usually do their own hiring, but it doesn't seem to be the case that universities are afraid of Marxists when Marxists are disproportionally represented among university professors.

    Also, Wolff's experience of having never been assigned Marx throughout college appears to be a unique one. A large survey of US college course syllabuses found The Communist Manifesto to be the fourth most frequently assigned text: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/02/03/what-ivy-league-students-are-reading-that-you-arent/

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  24. CC in English and Portuguese have been helpfully provided by a volunteer! Please help contribute English and translated subtitles to our channels and help spread the word: http://www.youtube.com/timedtext_cs_panel?c=UCB-5u8VgFc_TI1aAj8_SmDA&tab=2

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  25. You are inspirational!!! Thank you, I am currently in Masters Program at Hunter College for Education and truly appreciate your candid true representations! Thank you!!!

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  26. interesting, marxism isn't taught in the american education system but there seems to be no shortage of anti-marxism experts…  i remember doing a number of papers in college challenging my professors in their pro-capitalist, pro-american, and pro-christianity teachings, they never failed to give me a bad mark in doing so.  american education is a capitalist propaganda machine.

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  27. I'm from India and want to learn this in detail which among Karl Marx books is best suited to learn in detail about Marxian Economics.

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  28. Labor surplus means there are not enough jobs. This means that the price for labor is above the market equilibrium rate — i.e. the rate at which the demand will be equal to the supply. Labor surplus is self-correcting in a free market, because the more the surplus, the less people will be willing to work for, because they will be that much more desperate just to HAVE a job, any job, that would be all the more scarce yet if the wage rates were arbitrarily set above ME. It does no favors to the unemployed. The remarkable thing about this, however, is that as this surplus is eliminated (by falling wages which creates more jobs), you will have a much more productive economy, with lower prices, creating a lot of demand (for both labor and the stuff being produced — remember, supply being higher than demand lowers prices further, stimulating more demand, which stimulates more production and hiring, which increases the supply (of both jobs and goods), this in turn results in higher wages as the labor surplus is naturally eliminated, not by central planning but be the natural workings of incentives, and reality. It's how the 'invisible hand' works.

    Having a labor surplus means that the wages need to come down in order to eliminate itself. …Or, you could just 'eliminate' all of the otherwise workers… ahem..

    There is a balance to things. Wages being too high will create AN EVEN BIGGER LABOR SURPLUS. Wages being too low (in a free economy) will mean that you will not have any labor surplus to speak of, but rather, a shortage of labor (or, a surplus of jobs), and 'just right' (as Goldilocks would say) is the rate at which there is neither a shortage of labor or jobs. What good is it to have more jobs, if those jobs are not able to be filled, or higher wages, if it comes at the cost of jobs, and are self-defeating anyway as they rob not only the labor pool (creating an even greater labor surplus — the "problem," right?) but the economy itself, such as to rob those workers of the VALUE of the money they make anyway. That's what people don't get, that value is relative. What then would "high" vs "low" wages mean? Can you define these? NO, you can not. People are childishly simple in their thinking about these things, either not being aware of or ignoring the dynamics which determine value and purchasing power, as they all relate to supply and demand, and not realizing that the value of a dollar isn't just set by fiat, and neither then, can prices. Economics is like a rubix cube that when left to it's own devices, solves itself, but which can NEVER do this from, or with, deliberate human intervention. But, some people don't like the color of the rubix cube, and so are never happy until they achieve the sort of pattern that can never be obtained, at least not anywhere but in the imagination of the beholder, and the more they try to make it fit their preferred picture, the further away from it it gets, which is inevitable, and understood as well as the reason for which, by those who actually understand economics. Real economics, but economics none the less (which Marxism has nothing to do with).

    Karl Marx was not an economist. You will find no "economic theory" in any of his writings. Nothing new there. Merely the observation of and lamenting at the fact that we see certain outcomes less favorable from a subjective (as opposed to objective) standpoint than some envisaged alternative existing nowhere but in the imagination of the utopian dreamer. It's stupid. It's Childish. Imagine having a 3 year old running the entire economy of the world (or trying to), through central planning, and passing a new law called the "Every child gets a free pony Act." Why, who would be opposed to this? And why would they not care for the happiness and well-being of the children? The CHIIIIIIILDREN!!! ….. That is the level of stupidity, of communism and central planning, and no exaggeration either, is the scary thing. In fact, it doesn't do it justice. Seriously, how could anyone be stupid enough to think it's a good idea? Even without studying and understand economics? Just look at REALITY. You know what Einstein said about insanity.. And of course, Edmund Burke — The only lesson of history is that people never learn the lessons of history.

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  29. One of the most interesting aspects of communist thought, is that it relies upon the railing (not even an argument proper) against an economic system that doesn't even exist, as the basis of supporting an economic system that never could exist, at least not anywhere but outside of reality. Ever noticed how even communists never really assert outright that they know of a system that can produce better outcomes than capitalism, or at least, they never really argue this (because they can't, with a straight face), but rather, leave it up to the assumption of the naïve and impressionable listener, to deduce on their own, that such is the case — and that this is, of course, communism, or, "Marxism."

    Even communists know they can't make any argument in favor of communism, that holds up to scrutiny (and REALITY); rather, they can only offer criticisms of "capitalism" while usually referring to situations which are hardly capitalist, if at all, but rather, fascist/socialist.

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  30. I see a strong similarity between how the people accept Marxism, compared to Evolution. Both were criticized for hundreds of years, and withheld from the educational system, only to find out that they are both very true and relevant to understanding our world today.

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  31. I think it is factually incorrect to claim that Marx never wrote a book about communism or socialism…he has written 'communist manifesto' which is considered to be the most important work alongside 'Das Capital'…Though I agree with the fact that 'Das capital' was more of a critique of the capitalist economic model, in his other works(communist manifesto, Critique of the Gotha Program) he seems to have chalked out the transition from capitalism to communism through socialism…if someone has another perspective on this,please share your opinion.
    I also find that Marxist followers often pick out the certain aspects of Marxian works which are varied from economics to sociology to suit their narrative and it changes according to the audience.

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  32. And thus starts the standard academic speak, you can't understand this because you didn't study it like me, blah, blah. The corollary to this (nonsense) is that me, the academic is thus uniquely positioned to adjudge on the rights or wrongs of this question. Whether it be surplus value or a water lily in a Monet. Pure distilled whippet shit.

    You can explain the bare bones of Keynesian economics, or the fundamentals of the Austrian School, etc., to an economic illiterate. And in all fairness you can do the same, up to a point with Marx. That point being, and it's a very big point, when he (Marx) enters the theological realm of Labour, and then continues down into the depths of babbledom. Marx is good, to a point. He describes, or rather interprets what Engels told him, about contemporary capitalism. The failing is that even as he was theorising, the world he was trying to model, was passing from view. His contention that there is a universal decline in profit, is correct, up to a (very important) point, but like a steady state cosmologist he resolutely refused to apply observational data to his already creaking theory. That shysters like Wolff are still peddling the line that they have the keys to the kingdom, akin to some demented Scientologist, speaks to the basic problem of Marx, he was basically wrong, on just about everything of substance. Like a crazy 1st millennium Christian, he thought that the end of capitalism was nigh, it wasn't, and it's still staggering on a century later, having seen off both the USSR and (in reality) 'Communist' China. When it does come grinding to a halt, which it will within what's left of lifetime, it won't be because of anything Marx said or did.

    Like his latter day apologists, Marx was a windbag first and foremost. Someone with a morbid fear of actual labour, who spent a lifetime and most of his best friends fortune, writing arcane twaddle, whose basic foundations and operating logic, a smart teenager can find fault with.

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  33. I live in england. We study marx as a great thinker but apparently hayek is an extremist. Absolute bollocks

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  34. I will agree that capitalists have become glutenous pigs.. but many say marxism
    doesn't work as shown it the past.. what will make it different now?.

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  35. I'm puzzled by the statement at 11:25 "Marx never wrote a book about communism." Didn't Marx and Engels write the Communist Manifesto? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Communist_Manifesto#Writing

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