The book that changed my life I encountered almost as an accident.
I have never been a good sleeper, but it got even worse during my doctorate. Worse, on sleepless nights in PhD-land, I also couldn’t read fiction. Each time I tried, my mind just wandered back to the research and I’d get to the end of a page with no notion of what had happened or who these characters were. I needed something else. I don’t remember how I selected Karl Marx’s Capital, but I’m so glad I did. While it rarely helped me to sleep any better, it really did change my life.
It was a shame, I thought at the time, that I had not read it before. My undergraduate education took place in the era when everyone was doing a Foucauldian analysis of something-or-other and in order to get to Foucault ASAP, theory classes swept past Marx. Lecturers (some, I now suspect, rebelling against their Marxist teachers) suggested that Marxist metanarrative was now supplanted by a more contextual understanding of power.
My textbooks, as I recall, used diagrams that on reflection seem intended to show how stupid Marx was. I remember a triangle with tiny, unimportant culture as superstructure atop a wide economic base; and a cycle showing the inevitability of each stage of economic development, ending in Revolution.
I imagined Marxist scholarship as a kind of Calvinist predestination, applied to political economics. The message I felt I was supposed to get was that this Marx stuff was clearly rubbish and ‘we’ – that is, good, ‘reconstructed’ thinkers – have moved on.
Imagine my surprise when my midnight reading revealed a subtle, witty, absorbing thinker, whose insights into the structure of the capitalist economy gave me many an ‘a-ha’ moment. Between economic insights, I also found myself laughing out loud at incisive observations, acerbic criticisms of his contemporary thinkers and oblique references to literary and popular culture. Later, I blamed his beard for hiding the fact that Marx was actually really funny.
I should admit that I did not always understand the implications of what I read – it was midnight, after all. So, one weekend when I was suffering a head cold, I decided to watch David Harvey’s lectures on Reading Marx’s Capital. This helped a lot.
Throughout these reading sessions, I was shocked to discover that that as an undergraduate I had been misled – and in fact, I began to wonder if the authors of those textbooks had even read Capital at all. Culture was not ‘just’ culture; the critique of his metanarrative was severely over-stated; and the materialism that I had imagined in Calvinist, predestined terms was in fact a far subtler argument suggesting that if two structures (say, labour and capital) are set up in conflict with one another, this will almost certainly lead to some sort of change.
While I can’t subscribe to any political economic inevitabilities, this is what really changed my life. It helped me think about the relationships between structure and discourse in understanding inequality – but more, in hoping for a better world.
Then I went on to read other Marx – especially the Theses on Feurbach (very short). I saw that this was not just about incorporating economics with cultural history. Rather, it was also about inserting myself – my body, as well as the emotional, historically-specific ‘self’ the cultural historians had long advocated should be present – in history.
Famously, ‘the philosophers’, Marx said in the Theses on Feurbach, ‘have only interpreted the world, in various ways’ – an observation that could apply to history. Like so many others, ‘the point’ of history, I learned by reading Marx, ‘is to change it’ (the world, that is). Reading Marx suggested that my job as a historian was not just to manage my career (which I have since realised is not even a thing), but rather to also embody the kinds of changes I want to see in the world.
This has shaped, then, the way that I write history and, really importantly, the way that I teach it. I am still learning about Marx and history – and teaching, too, actually. But as I do, those midnight readings of Marx’s Capital mean that I now want the things I learn to become part of me as a historian, not just what I write.
Hannah Forsyth is Lecturer in History and ARC DECRA Fellow at ACU in Sydney. Her DECRA Project ‘Are we all Middle Class Now? A History of Professions in Australia’ began in 2017 and aims to give an account of the growth of professions in twentieth-century Australia. It seeks to explain their relationship to changes in the structures and priorities of government and capitalism locally and through economic and institutional connections to international systems and organisations. She is conducting a statistical study of professions over the twentieth century and a political and cultural study of a selection of sample occupations, including Medicine, Law, Engineering, Teaching, Accounting, Journalism, Nursing and Social Work.