The Ideas and Hopes of David Harvey

July 15, 2019 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

R.G. Williams

This short essay is a study of the Marxism of David Harvey. David Harvey is probably the most well-known Socialist alive today. David Harvey is also probably the most well-known Marxist alive today. Harvey has established himself as both a Socialist intellectual and as a Socialist thinker. Harvey is one of the most interesting figures of the Left. His ideas on economics, politics, and crisis, are some of the best new ideas to have emerged in the last few decades. His ideas have helped to push Marxism into new politics and new developments. His ideas have helped to develop Left ideas and Socialist ideas into new ideas. Harvey is one of the key Left thinkers alive today. This brief essay is a Left essay on his work.

Harvey is a Left thinker. Harvey, by training, is a geographer but he has made politics and economics the focus of much of his work and much of his writing. He came to Marx, to Marx’s politics, and to Marx’s economics, early in his career — via his interest in geography and the politics of geography. This interest in Marx and Marxism has developed across his academic career both as a researcher and as a teacher. Over a series of articles, essays, and books, from the late 1960s to present, Harvey has established himself as a leading figure in Marxist economics, Marxist politics, and the interpretation of Marx’s economics and Marx’s politics. In terms of politics and political thought he has been a member of the intellectual Left and political Left for a long period of time. In the current period it is Harvey’s interest in Marx’s politics and Marx’s economics where he has been most effective for Socialist thought — both for Socialists and for Marxists. Harvey, also, has provided the Left with concrete ideas and theoretical ideas, in a difficult period for the Left since the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Harvey has developed the ideas of the Left and of Socialism.

Harvey is a Socialist thinker. Harvey has contributed to Left thought and to Socialist thought. Harvey has written a huge amount on a variety of theoretical subjects and political subjects — from geography to economics, from politics to history, from Marxist theory to Marxist politics. Together his work forms some of the most varied and effective Left analysis and Socialist analysis to have been produced by the modern Left — at least since the 1960s and 1970s. What has always distinguished Harvey has been his determination to develop new ways of thinking about both Marx and Marxism, and new ways of applying both Marx’s method and Marx’s ideas to the economic problems and political problems of Capitalism. In political terms his Marxism remains one of the most developed examples of Marxism to have appeared in both the 20th century and the 21st century. Harvey’s work, across his various political subjects and various economic subjects, is also highly analytical, and has never been polemical or sectarian. Indeed, on this point, his Marxism and his work has tended to avoid the political and polemical divisions of the Left over the past thirty years, despite Harvey’s own connection to the ideas and politics of the Left and the Socialist Left.1 Harvey is a man of the Left — but he is a man who tries to avoid sectarianism. His theory and sense of practice means that much of his thought remains useful and effective. Indeed, his writing highlights the connection between theory and politics — a point of importance for all Socialists. Harvey’s Marxism and Harvey’s Socialism is useful for all Marxists and all Socialists.

Harvey has contributed many new ideas to the Left and to Socialism. His key main ideas and contributions include: Marxist geography, Marxist economics, Marxist politics, critical geography, the theory of the right to the city, and the theory of accumulation by dispossession. These ideas make up the bulk of Harvey’s work and Harvey’s thought. In the area of Marxist geography Harvey has practically developed most of the recent ideas which form Marxist geography — certainly since the 1960s and the 1970s. In the area of Marxist economics Harvey has developed some key insights into the nature of Capitalism and the crisis of Capitalism. Harvey has also helped to make Marx’s economics understandable to a wide and increasing audience—especially in the form of Harvey’s lectures on Capital Vol. I. Indeed, it is Harvey’s lectures on Capital where he has been the most influential—as his lectures have drawn many new young people to both the ideas of Marx and Marxism. The lectures, published as a series of books on Capital, have provided a whole new generation with a firm basis to engage with both Marx and Marxism. Harvey’s other ideas have also been useful—and vital. His ideas on the ‘right to the city’ have shown how important urban life and urban production have become in the modern world—and the need to place urban life and urban society at the centre of any modern social struggle for Socialism. Harvey’s ideas about the form and function of urban life in the modern reality of Capitalist production are also fascinating as examples of applying Marx’s own ideas about cities and urban society to contemporary Capitalism.2 Harvey’s theory of accumulation by dispossession has also been vital to understanding the development of class struggle under Neo-Liberalism. In all, Harvey’s work has been vital to the economic analysis of modern Capitalism — especially since the crisis of 2008.

Harvey’s chief work and chief contribution has been in the areas of politics and economics. Via a series of books, essays, and articles, stretching back to the 1960s and 1970s Harvey’s work has always managed to combine deep theoretical thinking with deeper political thinking. This political commitment to Socialism is in all his work since the 1960s.

Harvey’s political thinking and political analysis has broadly been consistent — that of the Left and of Socialism. In terms of his political evolution Harvey has only shifted further towards the Left and towards Socialism as his politics and his thought has developed. In general, however, Harvey has remained a consistent Socialist. This is a key point to his Socialism.

Harvey’s main work has been in the areas of economics, politics, and geography. Harvey’s main work has also been in the area of the crisis of Capitalism since 2007 and since 2008. He has written on other topics—such as history and intellectual history—but the bulk of his works have been on economics, politics, sociology, and geography. Much of this work overlaps in terms of their subjects—with Harvey combining economics, politics, history, sociology, and geography in many of his works. Harvey’s method has been to apply a materialist analysis to the development of Capitalism, focusing particularly on its geographical development and its economic development. Harvey’s work has also focused on understanding the development of the crises of Capitalism and how these relate to the economics, politics, ideas, and geography of Capitalism. Harvey’s particular focus on the geography of crisis has always been a strong part of his analysis and his work — allowing him to trace the geographical development of the major crises of Capitalism. Since 2008, Harvey has also been vital in developing a Socialist analysis of the crisis of Capitalism. Harvey’s particular strength as a researcher and as a thinker has been his ability to use the method of Marx to develop the basic analysis of Marx to understand the contemporary development of Capitalism. Harvey’s method is similar to the method of Marx—but it is a method which has been updated to account for the development of Capitalism since the 19th century and since the 20th century. Harvey’s work stretches across decades — but he has always been consistent in terms of his arguments and his theories—arguing always for Socialist politics and for Socialism. His work, especially his work on geography, makes Harvey one of the leading Socialist thinkers of our times.

Harvey’s main subject is geography and the politics of geography. It is the subject of geography that has been central to his work for most of his intellectual career — from its origins to today. His contribution to the development of a Marxist geography was one of his first intellectual contributions — developing from the work of Marx and Engels themselves, especially on questions of urban geography. 3 Harvey has expanded the thought of Marx and Engels themselves on geography. 4 Marx’s ideas on the global expansion of Capitalism and Engels’ ideas on urban development, provided Harvey with his basic theory.5 Harvey’s Marxist geography has emerged from such origins. His graduate work at Cambridge and most of his subsequent work has been in that field. His geographic work, particularly, has focused on urban geography and the geography of the city — particularly in the development of the social theory of the right to the city.6

Harvey’s work is of importance to the Left. In economics Harvey has done a great deal of good work — producing an updated version of Marx’s economics which reflects the structure and politics of Capitalism today. His work on the general operation and general structure of Capitalism is an excellent example of Marxist economics. His work on the present crisis of Capitalism, since 2008, has not only expanded Marx’s theory of crisis but has applied it to the crisis of today. Marxist economics owes Harvey a great debt.

Harvey has written a number of articles and books. Harvey’s most interesting statements on politics and economics have been stated in two key books — ‘Limits to Capital’ (1982 and 2006), and ‘The Enigma of Capital’ (2010).7 The first book is a study of Capitalism itself. The second book is a study of the recent Capitalist crisis of 2007-2008 — or at least a study of the beginnings of the contemporary crisis of Capitalism. Both also deal with the reality of crisis in the process of Capitalist development. ‘Limits to Capital’, with its particular attention to the politics, economics, history, and geography of Capitalism, is an excellent addition to the study of Marxist politics and Marxist economics.8

Harvey has also contributed to other areas for the Left—to the real ideas of the Left. He has helped to show that the Left can still develop powerful ideas. He has helped to show that the Left can still think about the reality of Capitalism as it exists today.

Harvey’s Socialism is an international Socialism. Harvey’s internationalism extends to his international analysis of Capitalism. Harvey has always been interested in Capitalism as an international system and as an international system of economics and politics. Like any good Marxist Harvey’s work has never been limited by geographical, political, or national limits. On the other hand, Harvey has also shown, throughout his work, that he is capable of focusing his research into smaller areas of analysis—particularly in regard to his studies of cities, urban environments, social struggles, intellectual struggles, history, and politics. Much of Harvey’s research, and his method, influenced by Marx, has been to focus on both the international and the particular. This follows through to Harvey and his politics — particularly his Socialism.

Harvey’s Socialism is an economic Socialism. He understands the reality of economics – and the power of economics. His economic work has always highlighted that the Left requires both a Socialist economics and a Socialist politics if it is to overcome the problems it faces in the present — since the 1980s and since the 1990s — and if it is to overcome Capitalism itself to establish Socialism. It is important to stress that Harvey has always been a political thinker and an economic thinker, but he is not a political theorist. His work is useful for the construction of a Left politics for Socialism today and for a Left alternative to Capitalism, but that work is only part of developing those Left politics. The Left will need to utilise Harvey’s work — but not expect Harvey’s work to answer all political questions and economic questions for the Left. Harvey’s work is simply part of developing a Socialist politics.

Harvey’s Socialism is a working-class Socialism. Harvey’s Socialism is a practical Socialism. Harvey’s Socialism is a political Socialism. In many ways Harvey’s Socialism is very similar to Marx’s Socialism — stressing the need for Socialist politics and working-class politics to achieve Socialism. Harvey has always tried to connect his Socialism to mass movements — particularly social movements of the urban poor and unemployed. Harvey has also tried to adapt his Socialism to the reality of politics — especially after the end of the Cold War and the rise of Neo-Liberalism. Indeed, much of the best political work from Harvey has come in the last twenty years—in response to the current crisis of Capitalism. It is important to stress that Harvey has always maintained a highly pragmatic and cautious sense of the struggles of the Left and of Socialists, one consistent with his own cautious sense of the struggle for Socialism. He has never been one to suggest that the Socialist Revolution itself is about to happen or that its victory is inevitable. Harvey has always tried to adapt his Socialism to the concrete struggle for Socialism. Indeed, Harvey has always understood that the motor for Socialism will always come from an effective Left and an effective mass movement of the working class and other social forces. His studies of the social movements of the past forty years highlights how such social movements will be vital for any struggle for Socialism.9 Harvey has always stated that the movement for Socialism and the struggle for Socialism cannot simply be willed into being — it must be constructed with effective politics and effective political thought. This point is clear in Harvey’s politics and Harvey’s understanding of Socialist strategy and Socialist politics. Today the Left needs such thinking — if the Left is ever to develop a Socialist strategy and a Socialist politics capable of confronting Capitalism.

Harvey is one of the most interesting Left thinkers alive today. His work is probably some of the best Marxist writing to have emerged in the early 21st century. It deserves to be read. You should read his work.

Harvey has also been an important thinker for a new generation of the Left. He has clearly inspired many new Left thinkers. This is very important. If the Left is to advance, today, it needs to inspire new thinkers – people who can both interpret the world and change it. Harvey has been vital – to inspiring a new generation of the Left.

Harvey is a hopeful figure. If you read his work, he is clearly optimistic about the chances for humanity today – despite the problems of our times. He believes that there are opportunities – for the Left, for Socialism, and for real social change. Of course, Harvey recognises the reality of Capitalism today, and the problems of the Left, but he also understands that we can change the world. Harvey, despite his realism about the world today, is a very radical optimist.

Harvey is the sort of thinker the Left really needs today – a radical thinker who can think of new ideas. Harvey is interesting, both as a radical intellectual and as a public intellectual, because he has managed to strike the uneasy balance between the two—and to do it as a Marxist. This balance has always been important for intellectuals of the Left, especially Marxist intellectuals. For Harvey, this balance between research and radical politics has always been objectively clear. Neither Harvey’s work nor Harvey’s politics can be separated from each other. His work and his politics form a political whole — in both his politics and his economics in particular. His work is both academic and rigorous, as well as accessible to all. In an age where Marxism has largely had to slowly recover its strength since 1989, Harvey held out as an effective Marxist thinker — developing both his ideas and his work in an age, after 1989, when the Left struggled to develop new ideas. In politics Harvey has always noted the difficulties of the Left, certainly since the great turns and great struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. In terms of the politics of the Left, Harvey has always maintained that there are political opportunities for the Left to make political advances towards Socialism — despite the current strength of Imperialism, Capitalism, and the Capitalist state. In the present period of crisis, Harvey has managed to keep his Marxism alive for today’s struggle and for today’s politics. Harvey has always remained optimistic, despite the pessimism of our times. Meanwhile, the struggle for Socialism continues. Harvey’s ideas clearly, and decisively, help in that struggle.


1. D. Harvey, Social Justice and the Right to the City, (1972)
2. D. Harvey, Limits to Capital, (1982)
3. K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (1848)
4. F. Engels, The Housing Question, (1872)
5. F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, (1845)
6. H. Lefebvre, Le Droit à la Ville, (1968)
7. D. Harvey, Limits to Capital, (1982 and 2006)
D. Harvey, The Enigma of Capital, (2010)
8. D. Harvey, Limits to Capital, (1982, 2006)
9. D. Harvey, ‘The Right to the City’, (2008)



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This post was written by R.G. Williams

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