Reading List

Why does the left talk so much about work? Verso Student Reading on Labor and Marxism


Capitalism generates multiple vectors of oppression that are worthy of moral outrage. So why does the left focus so much on work and workers? Is there a more pressing agent of social transformation today, or a more strategic one? Or does the focus on work and workers cut to the root of how we understand domination in capitalism as a social form, as well as how to transcend it?

Basic freedoms often taken for granted in modern societies were not simply given to us by elites but had to be won through organized, often bloody struggle against capitalists and their representatives in the state. But is the workplace still the most important place to directly challenge capital, and are unions still the key to generating working class power? Should the left continue to consider labor as the most important political force for social transformation, or should we leave the working class behind in search of a different agent of social change? To answer these questions, we have to understand not only Marx’s theory of capitalist reproduction, but also the history of the labor movement and its relationship to socialist and communist parties. Given that the basic social relations have not changed since the dawn of capitalism, studying the history of labor's victories in the past might provide clues to how gains can be won in the future. 

The readings below tackle the basic questions that orient radical thinking about work: why every workplace within capitalism is tyrannical; why capitalists must constantly intensify their exploitation of labor; and how workers can best fight today to gain power not only at work but in society at large. 

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All of Marx’s essential political writing in one volume 

Marx and Engels’s enduring insights into the capitalist system: its devastating impact on all aspects of human existence; its susceptibility to enormous convulsions and crises; and its fundamental weakness. 

An exhilarating challenge to the way we think about work, technology, progress, and what we want from the future.

A radical and pragmatic manifesto for tackling the interconnected crises of contemporary capitalism: work, care and the environment. The time we spend at work is neither natural nor inevitable. Instead the amount of time we spend working is a political, cultural and economic question. 

In Revolting Prostitutes, sex workers Juno Mac and Molly Smith bring a fresh perspective to questions that have long been contentious. Speaking from a growing global sex worker rights movement, and situating their argument firmly within wider questions of migration, work, feminism, and resistance to white supremacy, they make clear that anyone committed to working towards justice and freedom should be in support of the sex worker rights movement.

Capitalism is a moral, political, and ecological disaster; it is also an incredibly powerful social system that seems to only get stronger. How do we think about an alternative that is possible within this system? Why is socialism still the most practical alternative to our alienated society? 

Tracing the history of some of socialism’s highs and lows—from the creation of Germany’s Social Democratic Party through bloody communist revolutions to the predicaments of midcentury social democracy—Sunkara contends that, in our global age, socialism is still the only way forward. Drawing on history and his own experience in left-wing activism, Sunkara explains how socialists can win better wages and housing and create democratic institutions in workplaces and communities.

Workers and Capital is universally recognised as the most important work produced by operaismo, a current of political thought emerging in the 1960s that revolutionised the institutional and extra-parliamentary Left in Italy and beyond. 

Based on Harvey's recent lectures, this current volume—finally bringing together his guides to volumes I, II and much of III—presents this depth of learning to a broader audience, guiding first-time readers through a fascinating and deeply rewarding text. A Companion to Marx’s Capital offers fresh, original, and sometimes critical interpretations of a book that changed the course of history and, as Harvey intimates, may do so again. 

In this elegant book, Erik Olin Wright has distilled decades of work into a concise and tightly argued manifesto analysing the varieties of anti-capitalism, assessing different strategic approaches, and laying the foundations for a society dedicated to human flourishing.

A systematic reconstruction of the core values and feasible goals for Left theorists and political actors, Envisioning Real Utopias lays the foundations for a set of concrete, emancipatory alternatives to the capitalist system. Characteristically rigorous and engaging, this will become a landmark of social thought for the twenty-first century. 

Prisoners of the American Dream is Mike Davis’s brilliant exegesis of a persistent and major analytical problem for Marxist historians and political economists: Why has the world’s most industrially advanced nation never spawned a mass party of the working class? 

A bracing riposte to the conventional wisdom concerning the irresistible power of globalization, Workers in a Lean World is a definitive account of contemporary labor relations on a global scale. 

Ellen Meiksins Wood criticizes postmodern turns away from "grand narratives" and re-establishes the tradition of Marxism as the most consistent, empirically powerful theory of capitalist society. 

The decline of the American union movement—and how it can revive, by a leading analyst of labor 

In Automation and the Future of Work, Aaron Benanav uncovers the structural economic trends that will shape our working lives far into the future.  

In this established classic, sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello get to the heart of contemporary capitalism. Delving deep into the latest management texts informing the thinking of employers, the authors trace the contours of a new spirit of capitalism. 

In Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Aaron Bastani conjures a vision of extraordinary hope, showing how we move to energy abundance, feed a world of 9 billion, overcome work, transcend the limits of biology, and establish meaningful freedom for everyone. Rather than a final destination, such a society merely heralds the real beginning of history.