On September 17 of 1872 came out the French translation of Marx’s ‘Capital’, to which he contributed by developing his ideas about capital accumulation and colonialism. 150 years ago, this text helps us to better understand Marx as a thinker who expressed himself unambiguously against the ravages of colonialism.
In February 1867, after more than two decades of Herculean work, Marx was finally able to give his friend Friedrich Engels the long-awaited news that the first part of his critique of political economy was finished. Thereafter, Marx travelled from London to Hamburg to deliver the manuscript of Volume I (“The Process of Production of Capital”) of his magnum opus and, in agreement with his editor Otto Meissner, it was decided that Capital would appear in three parts. Brimming with satisfaction, Marx wrote that the publication of his book was, ‘without question, the most terrible missile that has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie’.
Despite the long labour of composition before 1867, the structure of Capital would be considerably expanded over the coming years, and Volume I too continued to absorb significant energies on Marx’s part, even after its publication. One of the most evident examples of this commitment was the French translation of Capital published in 44 instalments between 1872 and 1875. This volume was not a mere translation, but a version ‘completely revised by the author’.
The Search for the Definitive Version of Volume I
After some interruptions due to his poor health, and after a period of intense political activity for the International Working Men’s Association, Marx turned to work on a new edition of Capital, Volume I, at the beginning of the 1870s. Dissatisfied with the way in which he had expounded the theory of value, he spent December 1871 and January 1872 rewriting what he had published in 1867. A reprint of Das Kapital that included the changes made by Marx came out in 1872. This year had fundamental importance for the dissemination of Capital, since it also saw the appearance of the Russian and French translations. Entrusted to Joseph Roy, who had previously translated some texts of the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, it appeared in batches with the publisher Maurice Lachâtre. The first one was published 150 years ago, on September 17.
Marx agreed that it would be good to bring out a ‘cheap popular edition’. ‘I applaud your idea of publishing the translation […] in periodic instalments’, he wrote. ‘In this form the book will be more accessible to the working class and for me that consideration outweighs any other’, he argued with his publisher. Aware, however, that there was a ‘reverse side’ of the coin, he anticipated that the ‘method of analysis’ he had used would ‘make for somewhat arduous reading in the early chapters’, and that readers might ‘be put off’ when they were ‘unable to press straight on in the first place’. He did not feel he could do anything about this ‘disadvantage’, ‘other than alert and forewarn readers concerned with the truth. There is no royal road to learning and the only ones with any chance of reaching its sunlit peaks are those who do not fear exhaustion as they climb the steep upward paths”.
In the end, Marx had to spend much more time on the translation than he had initially planned for the proof correction. As he wrote to the Russian economist Nikolai Danielson, Roy had ‘often translated too literally’ and forced him to ‘rewrite whole passages in French, to make them more palatable to the French public’. Earlier that month, his daughter Jenny had told family friend Ludwig Kugelmann that her father was ‘obliged to make numberless corrections’, rewriting ‘not only whole sentences but entire pages’. Subsequently, Engels wrote in similar vein to Kugelmann that the French translation had proved a ‘real slog’ for Marx and that he had ‘more or less had to rewrite the whole thing from the beginning’.
In revising the translation, moreover, Marx decided to introduce some additions and modifications. In the postscript to Le Capital, he did not hesitate to attach to it ‘a scientific value independent of the original’ and stated that the new version ‘should be consulted even by readers familiar with German’. The most interesting point, especially for its political value, concerns the historical tendency of capitalist production. If in the previous edition of Capital Marx had written that ‘the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to those less developed, the image of its own future’, in the French version the words in italics were substituted with ‘to those that follow it up the industrial ladder’. This clarification limited the tendency of capitalist development only to Western countries that were already industrialized.
He was now fully aware that the schema of linear progression through the ‘Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production’, which he had drawn in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), was inadequate for an understanding of the movement of history. He did not see historical development in terms of unshakeable linear progress towards a predefined end. The more pronounced multilinear conception that Marx developed in his final years led him to look even more attentively at the historical specificities and unevenness of political and economic development in different countries and social contexts. This approach certainly increased the difficulties he faced in the already bumpy course of completing the second and third volumes of Capital. In the last decade of his life, Marx undertook thorough investigations of societies outside Europe and expressed himself unambiguously against the ravages of colonialism. It is a mistake to suggest otherwise. Marx criticized thinkers who, while highlighting the destructive consequences of colonialism, used categories peculiar to the European context in their analysis of peripheral areas of the globe. He warned a number of times against those who failed to observe the necessary distinctions between phenomena, and especially after his theoretical advances in the 1870s he was highly wary of transferring interpretive categories across completely different historical or geographical fields. All this is clearer thanks to Le Capital.
In a letter of 1878, in which Marx weighed the positive and negative sides of the French edition, he wrote to Danielson that it contained ‘many important changes and additions’, but that he had ‘also sometimes been obliged to simplify the matter’. Engels was of this opinion and did not include all the changes made by Marx in the fourth German edition of Capital that he published in 1890, seven years after Marx’s death. Marx was unable to complete a final revision of Capital, Volume I, that included the improvements and additions he intended to improve his book. In fact, neither the French edition of 1872-75, nor the third German edition – that came out in 1881 –, can be considered the definitive version that Marx would have liked it to be.
Marx through Le Capital
Le Capital had considerable importance for the diffusion of Marx’s work around the world. It was used for the translation of many extracts into various languages – the first in the English language, for example. More generally, Le Capital represented the first gateway to Marx’s work for readers in various countries (the first Italian and Greek translation were made from the French edition). Since French was more widely known than German, it was thanks to this version that Marx’s critique of political economy was able to reach Spain and many countries in Hispanic America more rapidly. Much the same was true for Portuguese-speaking countries.
Colonialism also partly shaped the mechanisms whereby Capital became available in the Arab world. The French edition played a prominent role in Algeria, which in the 1960s was a significant center for facilitating the circulation of Marxist ideas in “non-aligned” countries. The significance of Le Capital stretched also to Asia, as demonstrated by the fact that the first Vietnamese translation of Volume I (1959-60), was conducted on the French edition.
One hundred and fifty years since its first publication, Le Capital continues to be a source of stimulating debate among scholars and activists interested in Marx’s critique of capitalism. It has had a significant circulation, and the additions and changes made by Marx, during the revision of its translation, contributed to the anti-colonial and universal dimension of Capital that is becoming widely recognized nowadays thanks to some of the newest and most insightful contributions in Marx studies.