LibrarianShipwreck

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Guest Post: The Strange Life of the Collected Works of Marx & Engels

Pirates, today we have a guest post from friend of the LibrarianShipwreck Ryan Moore. Ryan is assistant professor of sociology at CUNY-Queensborough Community College. He is the author of Sells like teen spirit : music, youth culture, and social crisis (NYU Press, 2010). He has dogs instead of cats, but we forgive him.


 

Let’s face it: Karl Marx is hotter than ever. The guy has been dead for 130+ years, his ideas have supposedly been refuted by multiple generations of “thinkers” from all over the world, and yet his ghost continues to haunt everyone from the New York Times to Rolling Stone to Foreign Policy with the idea that he might have been right all along, at least about capitalism. Now, the “radical” publishing house Lawrence & Wishart is demanding that the collected works of he and Friedrich Engels be removed from the Marxists Internet Archive at Marxists.org, a site where the public has had free access to these writings for years. Adding insult to injury, Lawrence & Wishart is insisting that their collected works must be removed from the Marxists Internet Archive on the eve of May Day, April 30, 2014.

For many decades following his death in 1883, the world only had access to a fraction of Marx’s total intellectual output. The key text, of course, was Capital, along with widely circulated pamphlets like The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Even the brightest among the first generation of Marxist intellectuals—like Kautsky in Germany, Plekhanov in Russia, or Labriola in Italy—operated with a remarkably limited understanding of Marx’s ideas. Reading Capital in isolation from the rest of his writings supported a narrow, deterministic understanding which overestimated the primacy of economic factors in social life and simply assumed that socialism would emerge from the inevitable collapse of capitalism.

With the discovery, publication, and translation of a wider range of Marx’s earlier writings, a more balanced and complete understanding of his ideas began to develop during the twentieth century. The immense—and still unfinished—project of compiling the collected works of Marx and Engels began in the Soviet Union during the 1920s, under the direction of David Riazanov at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. Riazanov played a central role in acquiring and publishing some of the early writings of the young Marx, including The German Ideology and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The latter were written by a 26 year-old Marx during his brief time in Paris, expressing a more humanist side which was concerned with the forms of alienation under capitalism, and which hazily conceptualized socialism as the collective fulfillment of humanity’s creative potential.

The discovery of Marx’s early writings, which find him engaging with Hegelian dialectics and various philosophical strands of humanism, were met with vehement repression from the Soviet Union. Even before the publication of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Georg Lukács’ essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” had brilliantly reconstructed the Hegelian roots of Marx’s thought by way of his concepts of exchange value and commodity fetishism. For his efforts, Lukács was condemned by the Fifth Comintern Congress of 1924 and forced to publicly recant his ideas. Riazanov’s fate was more tragic: he was arrested by Stalin’s secret police in 1931, accused of assisting a Menshevik counter-revolution, deported to a forced labor camp, and finally executed in 1938. Stalin’s forces also quickly terminated the project of obtaining and publishing the collected works of Marx and Engels which Riazanov had begun.

In the face of state repression, a dissident form of so-called Western Marxism began to develop in the years between the two World Wars. Western Marxists assigned greater significance to the writings of young Marx, particularly his concept of alienation, and at the same time moved away from the economism and scientific positivism which dominated the official Marxism of the Communist International. An array of eclectic thinkers, including Gramsci, Korsch, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin, Sartre, and Lefebvre, represented a new kind of Marxism, one which would be profoundly shaped by the Left’s tragic series of defeats across Western Europe in the interwar years.

The impetus for translating and publishing Marx’s writings shifted accordingly toward the West in the post-war years. The first English edition of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, translated by Tom Bottomore, would be published in 1959 by none other than Lawrence & Wishart. Some of Marx’s other early writings (such as Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and On the Jewish Question) presented his most trenchant critique of the state as he struggled to transcend Hegelian philosophy. The anti-statism of the young Marx stood in glaring contradiction with Stalinism, and so the task of translating and publishing these writings was taken up by dissidents like the independent French scholar Maximilien Rubel. Rubel charged that Stalin “could not tolerate the publication in its entirety of an oeuvre that stigmatized his despotism via the merciless struggle waged by Marx and Engels against police states: those of Louis Napoleon, of Prussia, of Tsarism” (emphasis in original, quoted in Anderson, Marx on the Margins, p. 250).

Western Marxism would later provide an intellectual foundation for the New Left. The late Marxist humanist Marshall Berman recalled that as a teenager in 1959 he bought twenty copies of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and distributed them as gifts for Hannukah. He remembered the day he walked into a bookstore called Four Continents located near Union Square in New York City and found the manuscripts priced at fifty cents apiece:

The clerk said that, after sales taxes, twenty copies would cost about $11. I ran back to the rear, grabbed the books, and said, “You’ve just solved my Hanukkah problem.” As I schlepped the books on the subway up to the Bronx (Four Continents tied them up in a nice parcel), I felt I was walking on air. For the next several days I walked around with a stack of books, thrilled to be giving them away to all the people in my life: my mother and sister, my girlfriend, her parents, several old and new friends, a couple of my teachers, the man from the stationary store, a union leader (the past summer, I’d worked for District 65), a doctor, a rabbi. I’d never given so many gifts before (and never did again). Nobody refused the book, but I got some weird looks from people when I breathlessly delivered my spiel. “Take this!” I said, shoving the book in their faces. “It’ll knock you out. It’s by Karl Marx, but before he became Karl Marx. It’ll show you how our whole life’s wrong, but it’ll make you happy, too. If you don’t get it, just call me anytime, and I’ll explain it all. Soon everybody will be talking about it, and you’ll be the first to know.” (Adventures in Marxism, p. 8).

Marx is one of those intellectuals whose ideas should be understood in the context of his total output, and this includes not only the early works but also the fragments of his later writings. For example, there are the letters he wrote to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association and the articles he wrote for pay about the U.S. Civil War for the New York Tribune. Indeed, the scholarship on Marx continues to grow as researchers delve deeper into his collected writings and notebooks, some of which have still yet to be published in any language. In 2010, Kevin Anderson published the landmark Marx on the Margins, which examined Marx’s scattered writings on the struggles that raged in his time everywhere from Ireland to India to Indonesia. Again, these writings present a more nuanced version of Marx than one discovers in Capital and the other works of political economy, as Marx is compelled to analyze social struggles in which politics and ideology are determining and not simply determined. Above all, Anderson shows how Marx, especially toward the end of his life, was in fact wrestling with questions of colonialism, nationalism, and ethnicity. It is tragically ironic that these same issues presented so many intellectual difficulties for Marxists throughout the twentieth century.

In the days leading up to Lawrence & Wishart’s removal of the collected works from Marxists.org, a petition circulating on change.org has been signed by more than 4,000 supporters. The publisher released a statement claiming it has been subjected to a “campaign of online abuse” and that the accusations against them are “baseless, slanderous and largely motivated by political sectarianism from groups and individuals who have never been friendly to L&W.” Their statement also asserted that the publisher is “currently negotiating an agreement with a distributor that will offer a digital version of the Collected Works to university libraries worldwide.” Lawrence & Wishart characterizes this as “maintaining a public presence of the Works,” but what it actually does is restrict access to members of the academy, and thus further contribute to the academic ghettoization of Marxism. A response from the Marxists Internet Archive put it simply: “This is not public access.”

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About oneofthelibrarians

Respectable librarian by day, dirty street librarian by night & other days.

One comment on “Guest Post: The Strange Life of the Collected Works of Marx & Engels

  1. Pingback: Radical Resources for May Day (and every day) | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on April 30, 2014 by in Access, Books, Copyright, Guest Post, Impending Doom, Legal, The Commons, The Internet, WTF? and tagged , , , , , .

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