Karl Marx: The Indiscrete Charm of Incompleteness

In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of interest on the part of international scholars about a misunderstood author: Karl Marx. His thought, while apparently old-fashioned, in fact still remains indispensable for understanding our present moment and has finally returned to open fields of knowledge. His work, at last freed from the odious function of instrumentum regni which had served as a purposive instrument in the past, becomes the focus of a renewed interest.

The publications of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA²), which resumed in 1998 after the interruption that followed the collapse of the socialist countries, the reorganization of the ongoing edition of his writings, and the transfer of MEGA² headquarters to the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, are the most significant examples of this renewed interest in Marx’s work.1 Recently the important target of the publication of the fiftieth volume – the tenth from resumption of publication out of some 114 (each one being made of two books, text and critical apparatus) – was attained.

Many of the latest philological insights of the new historical-critical edition highlight a peculiar feature of Marx’s work: incompleteness. Marx left many more manuscripts than printed writings. This was also the case for Capital, whose entire publication, including all the preparatory works from 1857 onwards, will only finally be brought to its accomplishment in the second section of MEGA2 in 2009.

After Marx’s death, Engels was the first to tackle the challenging enterprise – given the dispersion of the materials, the oddity of Marx’s language, and the illegibility of his handwriting – of publishing the fragmentary Nachlass of his friend. This series of difficulties is especially apparent in the third book of Capital,2 the only one to which Marx was unable, even roughly, to provide a definitive form. The intense editing activity on which Engels focused his efforts in the period between 1885–1894 resulted in a transition from a very rough text, mainly comprising “thoughts recorded in statu nascendi” and preliminary notes, to an organic text of a systematic economic theory. Not surprisingly, this resulted in many errors of interpretation. Of greater interest, in this respect, is the preceding volume.3 In fact, it contains Marx’s last six manuscripts, spread over the period 1871 – 1882, for the third book of Capital. The most important of these manuscripts is the voluminous Mehrwertrate und Profitrate mathematisch behandelt of 1875, as well as the texts added by Engels in his editorial capacity. These particular manuscripts depict, with unequivocal exactitude, the course traversed by them up to their published version and, throwing into sharp relief the number of interventions in the text – far greater than had till now been hypothesized – they allow us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of Engels in his role as editor. As additional confirmation of the value of this book, it is worth emphasizing that 45 of the 51 texts in this book are published here for the first time.

Philological research of the MEGA2 has also produced important results for the first section, which includes the writings, the articles, and the drafts of Marx and Engels (the texts are presented in the original language as written by the two authors). Two volumes were published recently. The first4 includes two hundred articles and drafts, drawn up by the two authors in 1855 for the New York Tribune and the Neue Oder-Zeitung of Breslau. Various supplementary studies have made it possible to add another 21 texts (which had not been attributed to the two authors as they were published anonymously in the important American Daily), hence as belonging to their most famous writings on European politics and diplomacy, on the international economic crisis, and on the Crimean War; the second volume5 presents some of Engels’s later writings. The volume contains projects and notes, including the manuscript Rolle der Gewalt in der Geschichte, but without the comments of Bernstein, who had been its first editor; addresses to the organization of the workers’ movement; and a series of prefaces to reprints of writings and articles already published. Among these latter, of particular interest are Die auswärtige Politik des russischen Zarentums, the history of two centuries of Russian foreign politics published in Die Neue Zeit but then forbidden by Stalin in 1934, and Juristen-Sozialismus, written with Kautsky, whose paternity of individual parts is, for the first time, recognized with certainty.

There are also interesting developments in the third section of the new historical-critical edition, which contains the correspondence. The main theme in a recently published volume6 is Marx’s political activity within the International Working Men’s Association, which was set up in London on September 28, 1864. The letters document Marx’s activity in the first years of life of the association, in which he rapidly took on an ever-growing role, and attest to his attempt to combine his public commitment – that after 16 years saw him again on the front lines – with his scientific work. Among the issues debated: the role of trade unions whose importance Marx emphasized by pitting himself, at once, against Lassalle and his proposal to set up cooperatives funded by the Prussian State: “the working class is either revolutionary or nothing”; the polemic against the Owenist Weston, that resulted in the cycle of lectures which were to be collected in 1898, after his death, in Value, Price and Profit; the remarks on the Civil War in the United States; Engels’s booklet The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers’ Party.

The other recent volume of correspondence7 has as its background the economic recession of 1857. This crisis sparked Marx’s hope for a resumption of the revolutionary movement after the stalemate following from the defeat of 1848: “the crisis has been burrowing away like the good old mole it is.” This expectation resulted in a resurgence of Marx’s intellectual productivity and pushed him to delineate the contours of his economic theory “before the déluge,” for which he hoped, but which was again unrealized. It was just in this period that Marx composed the last notebooks of his Grundrisse8 – a privileged standpoint from which to observe the evolution of the conception of the author – and decided to publish his work in instalments, the first of which, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, appeared in June 1859. From a personal point of view this phase was marked by a “gangrened misery”: “I don’t suppose anyone has ever written about ‘money’ when so short of the stuff.” We see Marx fighting desperately despite his precarious situation to complete his “Economics”: “I have got to pursue my object through thick and thin and not allow bourgeois society to turn me into a money-making machine.” Nevertheless, though dedicated to completing the second instalment, Marx was never able to bring it to an end and the first book of Capital was only published in 1867. The remain- ing part of his immense project, despite the systematic character it is often given, would only be realized in part and it would remain extraordinarily full of abandoned manuscripts, provisional drafts, and unaccomplished projects.

Faithful companion and damnation of the entire literary production of Marx, this incompleteness is naturally also evident in his early works. The first number of the new series of “Marx-Engels-Jahrbuch,”9 which is entirely devoted to The German Ideology, proves this irrefutably. This book – which anticipates volume I/5 of MEGA2, whose publication is expected in 2008 – contains parts of the manuscript rightly attributed to Moses Hess and, unlike the publications issued so far, will include the papers of Marx and Engels just as they were left by their authors, i.e. without any attempt at reconstruction. The parts included in the yearbook correspond to “chapters”1 Feuerbach and 2 Sankt Bruno. The seven manuscripts that survived the “gnawing criticism of the mice” are collected as independent texts and put in chronological order. The uneven nature of this text is readily inferred from this edition. In particular, the chapter on Feuerbach is far from complete. Yet on the whole, this volume helps to establish reliable bases for further research on the elaboration of Marx’s thought. The German Ideology, which is sometimes even considered as an exhaustive presentation of Marx’s materialistic conception, has now been put back to its original fragmentary character.

Finally, always as far as the young Marx is concerned, it is worthwhile signalling the re-edition of the collection of Marx’s early works by the social democratic scholars Landshut and Mayer.10 This edition, published in 1932 at the same time as the “first” MEGA, provided the dissemination of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and the German Ideology, till then unpublished, despite a number of errors regarding the content and the arrangement of the different parts of the texts and a bad deciphering of the original version.

After many seasons marked by deep and reiterated incomprehension of Marx, resulting from the attempted systematization of his critical theory – given its originally incomplete and non-systematic character– by the conceptual impoverishment which has accompanied its popularization, by the manipulation and censorship of his writings, and the instrumental use of the same for political purposes, the incompleteness of his work stands out with an indiscrete charm, unobstructed by the interpretations which had earlier deformed it, even manifestly becoming its negation.

From this incompleteness re-emerges the richness of a problematic and polymorphous thought and of a horizon whose distance the Marx Forschung (the research on Marx) has still so many paths to travel.


Review of Radical Political Economics

Pub Info:

Vol. 41 (2009), n. 2, 265-268


DOI: 10.1177/0486613409331465

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