THOMAS SOWELL, a fellow of the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford, is probably the best known of the small but articulate band of black intellectuals who share the neoconservative view that many or most Great Society ventures have either failed to help the black community or, worse still, actually harmed lower-class blacks by offering them financial incentives to remain dependent on welfare grants. In several widely discussed books, Sowell, an economist by training, has attacked affirmative action as destructive of black incentives and self-esteem. The nub of his argument is the claim that class not race is the barrier to black success of the kind already achieved by Asians, Jews, Itaans and other groups who successfully overcame discrimination by those who had preceded them as immigrants.

Before he turned his attentions to social policy, Sowell specialized in the history of economic ideas. His current volume on Marxism, begun a quarter of a century ago as a Harvard honors thesis, is explicitly directed at readers in search of a guide to the original Marx of Capital, and to a smaller extent of the Communist Manifesto, the Grundrisse, and other fruits of the collaboration between Marx and Engels. Although he cannot resist occasional thrusts at eminences like Paul Sweezy and Paul Samuelson whose versions of Marxism in Sowell's view are more Sweezy or Samuelson than they are the master himself, he steers clear for the most part of the voluminous controversies that have attended Marxism from its inception and continue endlessly to proliferate.

Since most of these arguments are conducted in the turgid language of economics, mathematics, Hegelian philosophy, psychiatry, literary criticism, or a baffling combination of two or more of the above, Sowell deserves credit for self-restraint. Moreover, he shows considerable respect for Marx's achievement and struggles to explain why, right or wrong, the Marxist version of human history is globally powerful. Marx was the first and in many ways the greatest theorist of capitalism whose work influenced writers like Joseph Schumpeter, Daniel Bell, and Sidney Hook, now one of Sowell's Hoover colleagues.

The pity is that newcomers to Marx are unlikely to derive from Sowell a clear sense of the majestic structure of Marxist thought. Much of the text is laden down with long quotations from Capital or other items in Marx-Lenin bibliography. Sowell's style, quite at variance with the clarity and force of his writings on race and class, is that of an intelligent graduate student swamped by the volume of the material he endeavors to analyze in coherent form. Indeed, anyone inclined to devote the time and effort required to follow Sowell would do better to pick up volume one of Capital and, if hooked, proceed to volume three. Only long-term addicts should indulge in the middle volume. Marx's own exposition of the labor theory of value is considerably more accessible than is Sowell's. One glaring omission is any serious discussion of primitive accumulation, Marx's explanation of the sources of 18th-century capital accumulation as force and fraud.

Sowell is particularly disappointing in his scrappy account of Marx's life and the even more casual pages devoted to Marx's influence. I got the eerie sense that Sowell has been keeping his original Harvard notes, supplementing them with new ones, sorting them in rough piles, and hoping that somehow a useful book would jump from notes to typescript en route to the bound volume. Too bad. Someone should write a good, clear guide to Marx.