Howard Engelskirchen, Science & Society

I was in Paris a year and a little more after May 1968 and found myself within the swirl of effects generated by Althusser and Balibar’s Reading Capital. I met with Poulantzas to discuss law and studied with Bettelheim at the Sorbonne. Certainly, I was influenced by the book, but I was new to Marxism, and, in any event, the proposal of an ‘epistemological break’ between the young Marx and his younger self’s scientific successor did not hold my attention. In addition to the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, the Results of the Immediate Process of Production (Capital’s unpublished Chapter 6) was available as well as the Grundrisse, and it was all too new, too interesting, and too far-reaching to justify quarantining any of it. Thus, more than a half-century later, it is a pleasure to read the resource Marcello Musto has provided in Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation. On this topic, it confirms the impressive continuity of Marx’s thought. One sees consistent themes developed from the first excerpts of the 1844 Manuscripts to the last sections of Capital I and III. In the book’s Introduction, “Alienation Redux” (available at his website: http://www.marcellomusto .org; see a shorter review for the Jacobin also there available), Professor Musto identifies three lines of debate triggered by the 1844 Manuscripts among Marxists: (1) the idea that this text represents the preeminent core of his thought, (2) the idea of a split between the young left-Hegelian or humanist Marx and mature scientific iterations of him, and (3) a third approach that sees a continuity in his development. Musto places himself in the latter camp, and the materials gathered reflect this: excerpts are collected from the 1844 Manuscripts, “Comments on James Mill,” The Holy Family, The German Ideology, Wage Labour and Capital, the “Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper,” the Grundrisse, the original text of a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, On the Critique of Political Economy (Manuscript 1861–63), the Theories of Surplus Value, the Economic Manuscripts of 1863–1865, the Results of the Immediate Process of Production, as well as from volumes I and III of Capital. Continuity underscores a methodological lesson for us all: In the rigor and persistence of his work, Marx’s early themes were developed not just as science but with a truly breathtaking penetration and vision. Rather than leaving the insights of his youth behind, they became a provocation for transforming classical political economy — involving precisely an ‘epistemological break’ — and in the process (as I argued in Capital as a Social Kind) foreshadowing contemporary scientific realism as a philosophy for science. Tools to elaborate his early ideas were not at hand, so he went about crafting them. Thus, in notebooks for his Doctoral Dissertation (in volume 1 of Marx Engels Collected Works), Marx wrote, “Every separation is separation of a unity” (493), and, indeed, alienation can be understood as a separation severed from the unity to which it belongs. But then we notice in the generality of this aphorism a seed of what is worked out in Chapter 26 of Capital I as the very basis of capitalist production; primitive accumulation there means the separation of the producer from the land, the expropriation of the peasant. Plainly, if the worker is separated from the conditions of production, there can be no production at all. Yet, as Musto’s excerpts abundantly show, for capital, the joining required reproduces the alienation of the starting point: separation is perpetuated in the labor process (e.g., 54, 64–65, 88–91, 150) and reproduced in the result (e.g., 52, 83, 103, 149–50).
In his “Introduction,” Musto offers a critique not only of those who emphasize the early writings at the expense of the scope of Marx’s scientific achievements to come but extends this critique to those who “[pass] backward and forward from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 to Capital, as if Marx’s work were a single timeless and undifferentiated text” (20). It is not hard to find misinterpretations of Marx of all sorts, but in my view there is room to push back here. For sure, an undifferentiated reading of anything, including a single text, can only loosely be called a reading at all, and without doubt, attention must be paid to the trajectory of scientific growth and maturation of Marx’s thought. However, reading Marx’s texts whole seems important — there tend to be always new provocations to gain a fuller grasp of what he is about, and fresh confrontation with the early writings can raise questions till then unsuspected or clarify puzzles long ago put on hold. Indeed, Musto’s small collection gives us precisely a chance to read as a rough whole the concept of alienation as a focal motif in Marx’s thought. For example, conflicts over the Young Marx/Mature Marx led, as Professor Musto recounts, to counterposing the rigor of Marx’s analysis of exploitation with a humanist emphasis on alienation (20). However, a more philosophically grounded understanding of Marx’s science recognizes alienation and exploitation as a unity — as I argue in “Karl Marx and the Riddle of the Nicomachean Ethics 5.5” (forthcoming), the separation of the worker from the conditions of production provides the structural possibility of exploitation such that these are the same thing grasped from two different perspectives; alienation’s exploitative potential as structure is realized in the actual appropriation of laboring activity and the alienating separation it reproduces (see the Grundrisse excerpt quoted at 96: “the same relation from opposite poles”). The texts excerpted are organized chronologically, and the different works from which they are taken are each introduced by a brief paragraph suggesting points of significance. Actually, it can be helpful to read these paragraphs one after another for the overview doing so provides. Professor Musto’s “Introduction” is organized into nine parts: (1) the origin of the concept, (2) the rediscovery of alienation, (3) other concepts of alienation, (4) the debate on the conception of alienation in Marx’s early writings, (5) the irresistible fascination of the theory of alienation, (6) alienation theory in north American sociology, (7) the concept of alienation in Capital and its preparatory manuscripts, (8) commodity fetishism, and, importantly, (9) communism, emancipation, and freedom. The introductory paragraph of this last section is an unusually succinct gathering of a half dozen quotations from Marx, all too rarely emphasized; taken together, they provide an impressively compelling frame for our revolutionary path. Finally, there is a significant omission: while the excerpts are organized from first to later pages according to the text from which they are taken, they are not cited to their source, so it becomes a challenge for the reader to follow up on any particular passage. Professor Musto informs me that this is not true of the Italian edition and assures me also that he will have a reference list on his website connecting each excerpt to the page where it may be found. In sum, thanks to Marcello Musto for revisiting the concept of alienation and highlighting the importance of interrogating this theme today.


Matthijs Krul, Notes & Commentaries

In this intellectual biography, the Italian sociologist and Marxologist Marcello Musto seeks to rehabilitate the theoretical and political output of the last years of Marx’s life. Covering the period from roughly 1879 to his death in 1883, Musto tries to counter a tendency observed both in academic philosophy and in many biographies of Marx, namely to treat his final years after the publication of Capital as more or less uninteresting and a period of intellectual decline, usually skipped over entirely or at least given short shrift. To support this aim, Musto builds on the much greater manuscript knowledge of Marx’s work, thanks to the MEGA2 project, as well as the re-evaluation of the richness of Marx’s late theorizing, as seen in works like e.g. Kevin B. Anderson’s Marx at the Margins.


In some respects, the book – which consists of four essay-length pieces with a brief introduction by the author – must be considered successful in this regard. The combination of personal biographical material, in-depth theoretical discussion, and political and social context in the book gives a real stimulus to taking the last years of Karl Marx seriously. Some of the material discussed will be quite familiar to people well-versed in ‘high Marxology’: the famous draft letters to Vera Zasulich on the possible persistence of the Russian mir, or the work Marx undertook on revising for translations of Capital volume 1 and the publication of volume 2, or Marx’s engagement with the then highly popular ideas of the American economic reformer Henry George. Musto provides some helpful additional context to Marx’s well-known comments on the work of the political economist Adolf Wagner, whose work was representative of the so-called ‘state socialism’ of the time, a highly conservative form of dirigisme that would eventually play a role in defining some non-Marxist strands of social-democracy.


Even so, there is a lot that was quite new (to me, in any case), either in content or in degree. While scholars probably know that Marx wrote mathematical manuscripts, Musto shows just how thoroughly he engaged with pure maths – especially calculus – as an intellectual hobby, something undertaken for pleasure and mental relaxation as much as for the purposes of supporting his theoretical work. Remarkable to me was learning that Marx engaged on a chronological timeline of world history, with short notes and comments, covering global history from about the time of Caesar onwards. This seems to me something of enormous intellectual interest even though it is apparently still largely unpublished anywhere (the references provided give the IISH source material).


There are also some interesting observations from Marx from his brief stay in Algeria, the only time Marx ever left Europe, something typically only alluded to in biographies because it provided us with the last photograph of the man before his death. (It turns out Marx shaved his beard immediately afterwards! Musto gives us a ‘reconstructed’ version of the photo showing what he might have looked like with less hair – it turns out this is something of a cross between Sigmund Freud and Jules Verne.)


Some of the material is interesting but more tragic in nature. The biographical matter is rather grim reading, a chronicle of Marx’s ever-worsening ill health (Musto suggests he had bronchitis that seems to have worsened into tuberculosis) and the loss of his wife and then one of his daughters. He shows how the impression of a lack of intellectual fertility in this period is rather to be blamed on the dispersed and fragmented nature of his writings and activities, often induced by his bouts of illness, which have given the impression of a lack of systematicity.


But in fact Marx did a great deal, and in some respects was at the height of his abilities. Not just in the revisions of Capital, including preparing the French edition often considered the ‘canonical’ version, but also in working through huge amounts of new material: for the question of Russia, for the anthropology of ancient society, for the development of a political programme for the French communists (of the Guesde faction), for the study of the effect of the railways and the growth of joint stock companies, and for the study of colonialism. Merely the constant interruption of illness and the need to move to warmer climes or keep to his bed forced periods of inactivity on him, and prevented much of this labor from being worked up into published or publishable materials.


In this sense, Musto succeeds quite well in demonstrating that Marx died not a doting old man well past his prime, but really at the prime of his intellectual powers and especially at a time when his theoretical range had if anything markedly widened compared to his early years.


Unfortunately the book also has some less felicitous aspects. In his eagerness to underline how Marx’s thought gained in scope and subtlety as it matured, Musto constantly wants to tell us just how flexible and how undogmatic he was, which ultimately comes to sound so defensive that it achieves rather the opposite. It is an irritating habit of Marxologists, who by nature tend to be fans of the man as well, that they are always so keen to contrast in everything the Marx Who Was Right with the Everyone Else Who Was Wrong. The contrast is inevitably made in an ad hoc fashion against a litany of figures whom such a Marxologist wants to blame for a perceived bad reputation Marxism has: whether it’s the Soviets, or Engels, or the Frankfurt School, or the liberal interpreters does not really matter.


While it’s right of course to point out when later commentators or interpreters have misread Marx or use him poorly, this kind of ‘good cop, bad cop’ practice generally does more harm than good for rehabilitating Marx’s reputation, and is annoying for a reader who isn’t looking for a convenient target to shove the ‘blame’ onto (especially poor Engels is often the most convenient straw figure here, and Musto abuses him similarly).


The more Musto cites Marx seemingly just to tell the reader “See! Look how flexible and nondogmatic this is!!”, the less interested one becomes in what Marx was actually saying, since it is (so to speak) damned with vague praise. Here the old novelists’ adage “show, not tell” would have served the author better: whether Marx’s arguments are wise or subtle is a subjective judgment best left to the reader, not imposed by the author, however enthusiastic he is. The fact the individual parts of the book were probably written or published as separate essays also adds a considerable amount of unnecessary repetition and some clunky structure to the overall work, which is all the more a shame given how short it is.


That said, for a solid systematic overview of what Marx – indeed continuously in collaboration with Engels – was up to during the last years of his life, this work is probably as good as it gets, short of consulting the relevant MEGA2 volumes oneself when they are fully published. Musto finely balances the focus on intellectual-theoretical biography with information about Marx’s social and family circle, political acquaintances and antagonists, his travels, and the many different subjects and themes of interest to Marx in his final days. In so doing, he provides a stimulating portrait of genius at work, and makes one all the more lament how the state of medical knowledge in the Victorian era ultimately cut short the fervor of his wide-ranging mind.


Karl Marx: The Anti-Colonialist in Favor of the Liberation of the Arab People

When he lived in Algiers, Marx attacked – with outrage – the violent abuse of the French, their repeated provocative acts, their shameless arrogance, presumption, and obsession to take revenge like Moloch in the face of every act of rebellion by the local Arab population.

“A kind of torture is applied here by the police, to force the Arabs to ‘confess’, just as the British do in India” – he wrote.

Marx: “The aim of the colonialists is ever the same: destruction of the indigenous collective property and its transformation into an object of free purchase and sale”.

What was Marx doing in the Maghreb?

In the winter of 1882, during the last year of his life, Karl Marx had a severe bronchitis and his doctor recommended him a period of rest in a warm place. Gibraltar was ruled out because Marx would have needed a passport to enter the territory, and as a stateless person he was not in possession of one. The Bismarckian empire was covered in snow and anyway still forbidden to him, while Italy was out of the question, since, as Friedrich Engels put it, ‘the first proviso where convalescents are concerned is that there should be no harassment by the police’.

Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, and Engels convinced the patient to head for Algiers, which at the time enjoyed a good reputation among English people to escape the rigours of winter. As Marx’s daughter Eleanor Marx later recalled, what pushed Marx into making this unusual trip was his number one: to complete Capital.

He crossed England and France by train and then the Mediterranean by boat. He lived in Algiers for 72 days and this was the only time in his life that he spent outside Europe. As the days passed, Marx’s health did not improve. His suffering was not only bodily. He was very lonely after the death of his wife and wrote to Engels that he was feeling “deep attacks of profound melancholy, like the great Don Quixote”. Marx also missed – because of his health condition – serious intellectual activity, always essential for him.

Effects of the Introduction of Private Property by the French Colonizers

The progression of numerous unfavourable events did not allow Marx to get to the bottom of Algerian reality, nor was it really possible for him to study the characteristics of common ownership among the Arabs – a topic that had interested him greatly a few years earlier. In 1879, Marx had copied, in one of his study notebooks, portions of Russian sociologist Maksim Kovalevsky’s book, Communal Landownership: Causes, Course and Consequences of its Decline. They were dedicated to the importance of common ownership in Algeria before the arrival of the French colonizers, as well as to the changes that they introduced. From Kovalevsky, Marx copied down: “The formation of private landownership – in the eyes of French bourgeois – is a necessary condition for all progress in the political and social sphere’. Further maintenance of communal property, “as a form which supports communist tendencies in the minds, is dangerous both for the colony and for the homeland”. He was also drawn to the following remarks: “the transfer of landownership from the hands of the natives into those of the colonists has been pursued by the French under all regimes. (…) The aim is ever the same: destruction of the indigenous collective property and its transformation into an object of free purchase and sale, and by this means the final passage made easier into the hands of the French colonists”.

As for the legislation on Algeria proposed by the Left Republican Jules Warnier and passed in 1873, Marx endorsed Kovalevsky’s claim that its only purpose was “expropriation of the soil of the native population by the European colonists and speculators”. The effrontery of the French went as far as “direct robbery”, or conversion into “government property” of all uncultivated land remaining in common for native use. This process was designed to produce another important result: the elimination of the danger of resistance by the local population. Again, through Kovalevsky’s words, Marx noted: “the foundation of private property and the settlement of European colonists among the Arab clans would become the most powerful means to accelerate the process of dissolution of the clan unions. (…) The expropriation of the Arabs intended by the law had two purposes: 1) to provide the French as much land as possible; and 2) to tear away the Arabs from their natural bonds to the soil to break the last strength of the clan unions thus being dissolved, and thereby any danger of rebellion”.

Marx commented that this type of individualization of landownership had not only secured huge economic benefits for the invaders but also achieved a “political aim: to destroy the foundation of this society”.

Reflections on the Arab World

In February 1882, when Marx was in Algiers, an article in the local daily The News documented the injustices of the newly crafted system. Theoretically, any French citizen at that time could acquire a concession of more than 100 hectares of Algerian land, without even leaving his country, and he could then resell it to a native for 40,000 francs. On average, the colons sold every parcel of land they had bought for 20-30 francs at the price of 300 francs.

Owing to his ill health, Marx was unable to study this matter. However, in the sixteen letters written by Marx that have survived (he wrote more, but they have been lost), he made a number of interesting observations from the southern rim of the Mediterranean. The ones that really stand out are those dealing with social relations among Muslims. Marx was profoundly struck by some characteristics of the Arab society. For a “true Muslim’”, he commented: “such accidents, good or bad luck, do not distinguish Mahomet’s children. Absolute equality in their social intercourse is not affected. On the contrary, only when corrupted, they become aware of it. Their politicians justly consider this same feeling and practice of absolute equality as important. Nevertheless, they will go to rack and ruin without a revolutionary movement”.

In his letters, Marx scornfully attacked the Europeans’ violent abuses and constant provocations, and, not least, their “bare-faced arrogance and presumptuousness vis-à-vis the ‘lesser breeds’, [and] grisly, Moloch-like obsession with atonement” with regard to any act of rebellion. He also emphasized that, in the comparative history of colonial occupation, “the British and Dutch outdo the French”. In Algiers itself, he reported to Engels that a progressive judge Fermé he met regularly seen, in the course of his career, “a form of torture (…) to extract ‘confessions’ from Arabs, naturally done (like the English in India) by the police”. He had reported to Marx that “when, for example, a murder is committed by an Arab gang, usually with robbery in view, and the actual miscreants are in the course of time duly apprehended, tried and executed, this is not regarded as sufficient atonement by the injured colonist family. They demand into the bargain the ‘pulling in’ of at least half a dozen innocent Arabs. (…) When a European colonist dwells among those who are considered the ‘lesser breeds’, either as a settler or simply on business, he generally regards himself as even more inviolable than the king”.

Against the British Colonial Presence in Egypt

Similarly, a few months later, Marx did not spare to harshly criticize the British Presence in Egypt. The war of 1882 made by the troops from the United Kingdom ended the so-called Urabi revolt that had begun in 1879 and enabled the British to establish a protectorate over Egypt. Marx was mad at progressive people who proved incapable of maintaining an autonomous class position, and he warned that it was absolutely necessary for the workers to oppose the institutions and rhetoric of the state.

When Joseph Cowen, an MP and president of the Cooperative Congress –considered by Marx “the best of the English parliamentarians” – justified the British invasion of Egypt, Marx expressed his total disapproval.

Above all, he railed at the British government: “Very nice! In fact, there could be no more blatant example of Christian hypocrisy than the ‘conquest’ of Egypt – conquest in the midst of peace!” But Cowen, in a speech on 8 January 1883 in Newcastle, expressed his admiration for the “heroic exploit” of the British’ and the “dazzle of our military parade”; nor could he “help smirking over the entrancing little prospect of all those fortified offensive positions between the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and, into the bargain, an ‘African-British Empire’ from the Delta to the Cape”. It was the “English style”, characterized by “responsibility” for the “home interest”. In foreign policy, Marx concluded, Cowen was a typical example of “those poor British bourgeois, who groan as they assume more and more ‘responsibilities’ in the service of their historic mission, while vainly protesting against it”.

Marx undertook thorough investigations of societies outside Europe and expressed himself unambiguously against the ravages of colonialism. It is a mistake to suggest otherwise, despite the instrumental scepticism so fashionable nowadays in certain liberal academic quarters.

During his life, Marx closely observed the main events in international politics and, as we can see from his writings and letters, in the 1880s he expressed firm opposition to British colonial oppression in India and Egypt, as well as to French colonialism in Algeria. He was anything but Eurocentric and fixated only on class conflict. Marx thought the study of new political conflicts and peripherical geographical areas to be fundamental for his ongoing critique of the capitalist system. Most importantly, he always took the side of the oppressed against the oppressors.


Branko Milanovic, Intervention. Journalism as Emancipation

The literature on the Third, or Old, Marx, by which I mean the literature that deals with the last 16 years of his life (approximately from the publication of “Capital” in 1867 to his death in 1883) is becoming increasingly frequent and influential. I have already reviewed Kevin Anderson’s excellent “Marx at the Margins”. Marcello Musto’s “Les dernieres annees de Karl Marx” (I read the book in French) or “The last years of Karl Marx” is an important addition. Musto’s original was published in 2016 in Italian, and, as he writes in the preface, has already been translated into twenty languages.
Musto’s main thesis, like in other books on the Third Marx, is that Marx’s last years, far from being barren as the common view holds, have been filled with uninterrupted readings in all areas, from ethnography and anthropology to physics, increasing interest in mathematics (which Marx used mostly as a passe-temps) and, most importantly, political and economic discussions that led him further away from the Eurocentric stadial philosophy of history. It is this last part that is, for obvious reasons, most relevant for us today. It “creates” the third Marx: the first being the one of human condition, of “Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts” and “German Ideology”, the second, and best known, the one of “Capital” and other economic writings, and the third, the Marx of globalization.
Despite what Musto attempts to prove, namely that Marx was intellectually very active until almost the end of his life, the reader remains somewhat unconvinced by the argument. In fact, as the detailed chronological review of the last years (and especially of the last two years) shows Marx suffered a lot due to his bad health, deaths in the family (of his wife in 1881, and then just before his own death of his oldest daughter), continued to read and make copious notes across disciplines, but did not really produce much. His objective of finishing at least volume 2 of “Capital” was unfulfilled. Finishing volume 3 was not even on the horizon.
The last intellectually significant contribution was Marx’s discussion in the seventies, with several Russian authors, of Russia’s transition to socialism. That discussion is not only important because of what happened later but because Marx was, for the first time, faced with the question whether his stadial theory of history and ineluctability of socialism, meant also that very diverse societies had to go through the same stages as Western Europe or not. Marx became quite aware of the problem, and papered it over by writing that his schemata were based on West European experience only. This is the non-dogmatic Marx that Musto privileges in his interpretation.
However, the danger of being non-dogmatic is the following: if one admis a multitude of economic systems, or that similar conditions may lead to very different outcomes, one eventually remains without any distinct socio-economic theory, but with many individual case studies. They can be discussed in great detail one by one, and very reasonably so, but this “segmentation” also rules out the inevitability of the ultimate aim that Marx entertained throughout his life: the emancipation of labor, or in other words, socialization of the means of production. If anything can happen, why are we convinced that emancipation of labor is ineluctable?
Looking at the caution with which Marx approached the Russian question (can land held in common be the basis for communist development? does Russia need to develop capitalism first?), one can easily see how very conscient Marx was of the problem. Insisting on Western European stages of history meant irrelevance of his theory for the rest of the world (including India into which Marx was quite interested), but “diluting” his theory too much meant undermining the historical necessity of the ultimate objective. It is only thus that we can understand Marx’s hesitation on the Russian question, and numerous drafts of his famous reply to Vera Zasulich’s letter.
Musto comes to the conclusion that Marx accepted the Russian populists’ view that the commune can provide the basis for direct transition to communism, and against the view that Russian socialists need do nothing but cheer the advance of capitalism in the hope that, when capitalism is sufficiently advanced, it would lead the country automatically to socialism. In other words, Marx accepted the multiplicity of the paths to socialism, and even the political way of achieving this through insurrection and revolution. The multiplicity of the ways to socialism is therefore ideologically compatible with Blanquism or Leninism: audacious political action that may not be fully supported by the “objective” economic conditions, as a way to force history. Lenin’s and later Mao’s interpretations of Marxism are certainly consistent with this view.
A different interpretation is also possible, but its political implication is “attentisme”, that is reformism and pragmatism that eventually took over German Social-democracy and Eduard Bernstein, whom both Marx and Engels thought to be its most promising leader. The two aspects of Marx that are, in theory, indissoluble: a student of historical processes and a political activist, collide. One has to choose what to do: to be a Fabian or a Leninist.
Choosing the latter, that is, “forcing history” leads to some unpleasant conclusions. Not only can “reasonable” voluntarism be endorsed, but even much more “costly” measures too. If it makes sense to use common ownership of land as in the Russian obshchina to build upon it a much more developed, but collectively owned, system, it does make sense, as Stalin did, to proceed to collectivization. Collectivization can be seen not solely as a means to increase agricultural output through economies of scale but to solve the socio-economic puzzle. Stolypin’s reforms and then, after 1917, the seizure of land belonging to nobility had created a very numerous small-holding peasantry. The obshchina mode of production was spontaneously and naturally transformed into a small-scale and increasingly capitalist mode of production. But if a short-cut to socialism is possible, would not the argument that this multitude of small holdings should be combined into a more general collective ownership, supported by more advanced technology, be valid?
The statement on the feasibility of different ways of transition to socialism thus leads one to the acceptance of revolutionary practice as a “midwife” of new economic formations which in turn allows for ever more voluntaristic, or politically-motivated, moves.
Musto does not seem, in my opinion, to fully realize that what seems, from today’s perspective, open-mindedness and non-dogmatism of Marx, can lead to the outcomes like collectivization that he rightly deplores. This is the dilemma faced even today: if everything (or most) is a matter of political will, then, with skillful leaders, the underlying economic and social conditions become less important, and one enters the realm of arbitrariness. But if everything is decided by the social “fundamentals”, then there is no role for politics, or there is only a role for the politics of the possible which is timid, boring and self-limiting.


El trabajo alienado en Karl Marx


New Books Network Podcast – The Last Years of Karl Marx: 1881 1883 An Intellectual Biography (Talk)


Alexander Miller, Capital & Class

This erudite yet highly readable study covers the period from January 1881 to Marx’s death on 14 March 1883. As Musto notes, previous biographers have ‘devoted . . . few pages to his activity after the winding up of the International Working Men’s Association, in 1872’ (p. 5). This tendency to neglect his final years includes authors of classic biographies sympathetic to Marx, such as Franz Mehring (1918), Boris Nicolaevsky and Otto Maenchen-Helfen (1936), and David McLellan (1973), and also more recent and less sympathetic biographies by the likes of Gareth Stedman-Jones (2016). Musto’s aim is thus to fill a gap in the literature, making use of the new materials that have become available since the resumed publication in 1998 of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtaugabe (MEGA2). Musto notes that the demise of Marxism-Leninism makes it possible ‘to read a Marx very unlike the dogmatic, economistic, and Eurocentric theorist who was paraded around for so long’ (p. 4), and he argues that a study of Marx’s last writings can contribute to the emergence of such readings. Far from dimming, Marx’s relentlessly probing and questioning intellect burns all the more brightly as his health – ruined by decades of poverty and overwork – starts to give out. It is a great virtue of Musto’s book that the story of Marx’s theoretical work in his last years is intertwined with a vivid and intimate account of his struggle against bodily frailty and impending death. There are four modestly proportioned but substantive chapters. Chapter 1, ‘New Research Horizons’, provides an atmospheric portait of Marx in his study in Maitland Park Road in North London, toiling ‘at a modest desk no larger than three feet by two’ with his ‘painstakingly rigorous and intransigiently critical [method]’ (p. 11). Musto isn’t exaggerating when he writes that ‘The whole world was contained in his room as he sat there at his desk’ (p. 48): having taught himself Russian, a considerable section of his library consists of texts in the Cyrillic alphabet, such as Maksim Kovalevsky’s 1879 Communal Landownership: The Causes, Course and Consequences of its Decline, a study of which allows Marx to reflect on landownership in countries under foreign rule and how possession rights were regulated in Latin America by the Spanish, in India by the British, and in Algeria by the French. Anthroplogy, ancient societies, organic chemistry, physics, physiology, geology, and differential calculus are only some of the subjects studied, as well as Australia, the United States, and the British colonial occupation of Ireland, all in addition to his ongoing work in political economy and socialist politics. Chapter 2, ‘Controversy Over the Development of Capitalism in Russia’, displays just how far Marx was from being a dogmatist who attempted to shoehorn historical events into a pre-ordained a priori schema. In 1881, Marx received a letter from Vera Zasulich, a Russian activist (who had flown to Geneva, having attempted to assassinate the chief of police in St. Petersburg), asking whether Marx believed it possible that the rural commune (obshchina) was capable of developing in a socialist direction without first perishing and being usurped by capitalism. Based on the schema feudalism-capitalism-socialism, many ‘Marxists’ of the day would answer ‘No’. Musto outlines how Marx himself wrestled with the question for almost 3 weeks, producing 4 drafts of an answer to Zasulich, emphasizing that claims of the historical inevitability of the passage from feudalism to capitalism were ‘expressly restricted . . . to the countries of Western Europe’ (p. 65). In the period of transition from feudalism to capitalism in England, capitalist relations of production were not in existence anywhere else in Europe. This is not the situation of the Russian obshchina in the late 19th century. Marx thus reaches the answer he gave in the 1882 Preface to the Second Russian Edition of the Communist Manifesto: ‘If the Russian Revolution becomes a signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, the present common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for communist development’ (quoted on p. 71). More important than the answer reached was the fact that Marx at this late stage worked it out afresh based on the empirical research and historical analysis at his disposal: he was a social scientist with a remarkably open theoretical cast of mind, not a quasi-religious prophet dispensing ‘teachings’. Chapter 3, `The Travails of “Old Nick”’, details how the theories developed in Capital Volume I began to spread throughout Europe in the 1870s and early 1880s, together with the various obstacles (personal and otherwise) that prevented him completing Volumes II and III. Despite the death of his wife, Jenny, in December 1881 – he was so frail from pleurisy and bronchitis himself that his doctor ordered him not to attend the funeral – Marx resumed his historical studies, constructing `an annotated year-by-year timeline of world events from the first century BC on’ (p.99), and hoping to correct what he now took to be the `completely inadequate . . . schema of linear progression’ through the various modes of production outlined in his (now famous) “Preface” to the 1859 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. His timeline reached 1648 before ill-health again intervened. Unwilling to burden his youngest daughter Eleanor with the task of accompanying him, on his doctor’s advice he set out alone in February 1882 for Algiers, crossing France by train to Marseilles to take a steamship that reached the North African port after a 34 hour crossing through stormy weather. The final chapter, ‘The Moor’s Last Journey’, is the highlight of the book. Other biographies devote at most a few sentences to Marx’s only trip outside Europe, whereas Musto reconstructs from Marx’s correspondence the 72days he spent unsuccessfully seeking relief from ill-health in Algiers. The death of Marx’s eldest daughter Jenny in January 1883 (at the age of 39) is the cruellest blow, followed shortly afterwards by Marx’s own demise. Despite the heartbreaking tale, Musto ends the chapter on an inspirational note of which Marx himself would surely have approved, speaking of the message ‘that radiates incessantly from the whole of his work: organize the struggle to end the bourgeois mode of production and to achieve the emancipation of the workers of the world from the domination of capital’ (p. 125). Making very good use of Marx’s extensive late notebooks, Musto’s important volume constitutes an excellent addition to the literature: it will provide insight and inspiration to all students of Marx and his work.


Paul Blackledge, New Political Science

Marx, or so Marcello Musto argues in this useful study of his work during the last years of his life, has been ill served within the academy. It is not simply that the textbooks continue to reproduce a ridiculous image of Marxism as a form of economic determinism and class reductionism, it is also that even amongst more serious Marx scholars the rebuttal of these charges tends to be made through one-sided reference to his early writings.
The scholarly appeal of Marx’s early writings is obvious enough. One of the joys of teaching Marx includes witnessing students, previously fed a diet of the textbook caricature of his work, respond to the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Without denying the power of this manoeuvre, Musto aims to show that, right up until his death, Marx continued to develop his ideas in a manner that shatters any attempt to dismiss his mature work as a crude variant of materialism.
Insofar as Musto details the power of Marx’s research from the last years of his life, he helps overturn the caricatured distinction between a (good) young Marx against a (bad) mature Marx. The key text whose interrogation forms the core of Musto’s book is Marx’s famous response to Vera Zasulich’s 1881 request for his thoughts on Russia’s peasant communes. The actual reply sent to Zasulich amounted to only a page in volume twenty-four of the Collected Works. However, the brevity of this letter should in no way be interpreted as indicating Marx’s lack of interest in the subject. He had penned three earlier and significantly more substantial drafts of this letter over the previous three weeks, and the ideas contained in these letters had roots in a decade-long research project into Russian history, sociology and politics. In fact, so serious had Marx taken this research on this subject that he attempted to master the Russian language in the 1870s, according to his wife Jenny, “as if it was a matter of life and death.”
Marx’s response to Zasulich is doubly interesting because in it he makes direct reference to the claim, made in the preface to the first edition of Capital, that “the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.” While this passage would seem to suggest that, for Marx, Russia would follow were Britain led, in his letter to Zasulich, he wrote that “the analysis in Capital … provides no reasons for or against the Russian commune” because the claims made in Capital relate only to those West European countries in which capital accumulation had already begun, and not to states which had yet to start down that path.
A number of commentators have claimed that this argument evidences Marx’s shift from a unilinear to a multilinear model of historical development.[1] As against these writers, Musto seems to agree with those theorists who have stressed that Marx, in his most mature writings, deepened rather than broke with the approach taken in Capital: thus he writes that the replies to Zasulich “show no glimpse of the dramatic break with his former positions that some scholars have detected” (69).
Nevertheless, Musto prevaricates on this point. Despite believing there was no “dramatic break” in Marx’s thought, he argues that in the last decade of his life Marx had become 1 I draw on my survey of this literature in Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 29–32. NEW POLITICAL SCIENCE aware that the claim, made in the 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, that history has moved through “the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production” was “completely inadequate” (100). Now if this statement is true, it would seem to imply that Marx’s letters to Zasulich did mark a “dramatic break” with his former unilinear position. As it happens, I think Musto is right to claim that there was no dramatic break in Marx’s thought towards the end of his life because he is wrong to dismiss the 1859 schema as completely inadequate.
The apparent paradox between the 1859 preface and the reply to Zasulich can be resolved once we accept, with Eric Hobsbawm, that the stages outlined by Marx in the former text are best understood as suggesting a logical progression towards growing human individualisation rather than a simple unilinear model of actual historical progress. Indeed, it would seem perverse to ascribe a unilinear model of social evolution to Marx in 1859 given that only eighteen months earlier he had, in the Grundrisse, detailed a wide variety of pre-capitalist economic formations alongside a multiplicity of paths taken through human history.
Readers of the Grundrisse will find it difficult to accept Musto’s claim that Marx’s thought became “more flexible” as he grew older (76). Marx’s historical and political writings evidence that he had always been an eminently flexible thinker, and he had always insisted on rooting theoretical generalisations in detailed empirical work. It was not for nothing that Engels complained to Marx that “as long as you still have a book before you that you consider important, you do not get down to writing.”
Rather than show that Marx moved from a less to a more flexible framework as he grew older, the evidence presented by Musto in this book points to a much more interesting process: as is implied both by Engels’s comments above and by the methodological introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx viewed all his works as provisional points on the road to increasingly concrete analyses rooted in hard, detailed research.
Musto is to be congratulated for adding to our awareness of Marx’s continued deepening of his understanding of the world right up until his death, and we can heartily agree with him that we continue to have much to learn from Marx. Perhaps the chief lesson for us comes from the 1872 Preface to Capital where he wrote: “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” Marx continued this climb right up to his death, and we could do worse than follow his lead.


[1] I draw on my survey of this literature in Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 29–32.

Journal Articles

War and the Left: Considerations on a Chequered History

The economic causes of war
While the science of politics has probed the ideological, political, economic and even psychological motivations behind the drive to war, socialist theory has made one of its most compelling contributions by highlighting the nexus between the development of capitalism and the spread of wars.

In the debates of the International Working Men’s Association (1864-1872), César de Paepe, one of its principal leaders, formulated what would become the classical position of the workers’ movement on the question: namely, that wars are inevitable under the regime of capitalist production. In contemporary society, they are brought about not by the ambitions of monarchs or other individuals but by the dominant social-economic model (De Paepe, 2014a; 2014b; Musto, 2014). The socialist movement also showed which sections of the population were struck hardest by the dire consequences of war. At the congress of the International held in 1868, the delegates adopted a motion that called upon workers to pursue “the final abolition of all war”, since they were the ones who would pay – economically or with their own blood, whether they were among the victors or the defeated – for the decisions of their ruling classes and the governments representing them. The lesson for the workers’ movement came from the belief that any war should be considered “a civil war” (Freymond, 1962: 403; Musto 2014: 49), a ferocious clash between workers that deprived them of the means necessary for their survival. They needed to act resolutely against any war, by resisting conscription and taking strike action. Internationalism thus became a cardinal point of the future society, which, with the end of capitalism and the rivalry among bourgeois states on the world market, would have eliminated the main underlying causes of war.

Among the precursors of socialism, Claude Henri de Saint-Simon had taken a decisive stand against both war and social conflict, regarding both as obstacles to the fundamental progress of industrial production. Karl Marx did not develop in any of his writings his views – fragmentary and sometimes contradictory – on war, nor did he put forward guidelines for the correct attitude to be taken towards it. When he chose between opposing camps, his only constant was his opposition to Tsarist Russia, which he saw as the outpost of counter-revolution and one of the main barriers to working-class emancipation. In Capital (1867) he argued that violence was an economic force, “the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one” (Marx, 1996: 739). But he did not think of war as a crucial shortcut for the revolutionary transformation of society, and a major aim of his political activity was to commit workers to the principle of international solidarity. As Friedrich Engels also argued, they should act resolutely in individual countries against the dampening of class struggle that the propagandistic invention of an external enemy threatened to bring about at any outbreak of war. In various letters to leaders of the workers’ movement, Engels stressed the ideological power of the snare of patriotism and the delay to the proletarian revolution resulting from waves of chauvinism. Moreover, in Anti-Dühring (1878), following an analysis of the effects of ever more deadly weaponry, he declared that the task of socialism was “to blow up militarism and all standing armies” (Engels, 1987: 158).

War was such an important question for Engels that he devoted one of his last writings to it. In “Can Europe Disarm?” (1893), he noted that in the previous twenty-five years every major power had tried to outdo its rivals militarily and in terms of war preparations. This had involved unprecedented levels of arms production and brought the Old Continent closer to “a war of destruction such as the world has never seen” (Engels, 1990: 372). According to the co-author of the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), “The system of standing armies has been carried to such extremes throughout Europe that it must either bring economic ruin to the peoples on account of the military burden, or else degenerate into a general war of extermination”. In his analysis, Engels did not forget to highlight that standing armies were maintained chiefly for internal political as much as external military purposes. They were intended “to provide protection not so much against the external enemy as the internal one”, by strengthening the forces to repress the proletariat and workers’ struggles. As popular layers paid more than anyone else the costs of war, through the provision of troops to the state and taxes, the workers’ movement should fight for “the gradual reduction of the term of [military] service by international treaty” and for disarmament as the only effective “guarantee of peace” (Engels, 1990: 371).

Tests and collapse
It was not long before a peacetime theoretical debate turned into the foremost political issue of the age, when the workers’ movement had to face real situations in which their representatives initially opposed any support for war. In the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870 (which preceded the Paris Commune), the Social Democrat deputies Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel condemned the annexationist objectives of Bismarck’s Germany and voted against war credits. Their decision to “reject the bill for additional funding to continue the war” (Pelz, 2016: 50) earned them a two-year prison sentence for high treason, but it helped to show the working class an alternative way to build on the crisis.

As the major European powers kept up their imperialist expansion, the controversy on war acquired ever greater weight in the debates of the Second International (1889-1916). A resolution adopted at its founding congress had enshrined peace as “the indispensable precondition of any emancipation of the workers” (Dominick 1982: 343). The supposed peace policy of the bourgeoisie was mocked and characterized as one of “armed peace” and, in 1895, Jean Jaurès, the leader of the French Socialist Party (SFIO), gave a speech in parliament in which he famously summed up the apprehensions of the Left: “Your violent and chaotic society still, even when it wants peace, even when it is in a state of apparent repose, bears war within itself, just as a sleeping cloud bears a storm” (Jaurès, 1982: 32).

As the Weltpolitik – the aggressive policy of Imperial Germany to extend its power in the international arena – changed the geopolitical setting, anti-militarist principles sank deeper roots in the workers’ movement and influenced the discussions on armed conflicts. War was no longer seen only as opening up revolutionary opportunities and hastening the breakdown of the system (an idea on the Left since the Revolutionary War of 1792). It was now viewed as a danger because of its grievous consequences for the proletariat in the shape of hunger, destitution and unemployment. It thus posed a serious threat for progressive forces, and, as Karl Kautsky wrote in The Social Revolution (1902), they would in case of war be “heavily loaded with tasks that are not essential” (Kautsky, 1904: 77) to them, and which would make the final victory more distant rather than bring it closer.

The resolution “On Militarism and International Conflicts”, adopted by the Second International at its Stuttgart Congress in 1907, recapitulated all the key points that had become the common heritage of the workers’ movement. Among these were: a vote against budgets that increased military spending, antipathy to standing armies and a preference for a system of people’s militias, and support for the plan to create courts of arbitration to settle international conflicts peacefully. This excluded a resort to general strikes against any kind of wars, as proposed by Gustave Hervé, since a majority of those present deemed this too radical and too Manichaean. The resolution ended with an amendment drafted by Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin and Yulii Martov, which stated that

“in case war should break out […], it is the duty [of socialists] to intervene in favour of its speedy termination, and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war, to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule” (Vv. Aa., 1972: 80).

Since this did not, however, compel the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) to make any change of political line, its representatives also voted in favour of it. The text, as amended, was the last document on war that secured unanimous support from the Second International.

More intense competition among capitalist states on the world market, together with the outbreak of a number of international conflicts, made the general picture even more alarming. The publication of Jaurès’s The New Army (1911) encouraged discussion of another central theme of the period: the distinction between offensive and defensive wars and the attitude to be taken to the latter, including in cases where a country’s independence was threatened (see Marcobelli, 2021: 155-227). For Jaurès, the only task of the army should be to defend the nation against any offensive aggression, or any aggressor that did not accept resolution of the dispute through mediation. All military action that came under this category should be considered legitimate. Luxemburg’s clear-sighted critique of this position pointed out that “historical phenomena such as modern wars cannot be measured with the yardstick of ‘justice’, or through a paper schema of defence and aggression” (Luxemburg, 1911). In her view, it was necessary to bear in mind the difficulty of establishing whether a war was really offensive or defensive, or whether the state that started it had deliberately decided to attack or had been forced to do so because of the stratagems adopted by the country that opposed it. She therefore thought that the distinction should be discarded, and further criticized Jaurès’s idea of the “armed nation”, on the grounds that it ultimately tended to fuel the growing militarization in society.

As the years passed, the Second International committed itself less and less to a policy of action in favour of peace. Its opposition to rearmament and war preparations was very lacklustre, and an increasingly moderate and legalistic wing of the SPD traded its support for military credits – and then even for colonial expansion – in return for the granting of greater political freedoms in Germany. Important leaders and eminent theorists, such as Gustav Noske, Henry Hyndman and Arturo Labriola, were among the first to arrive at these positions. Subsequently, a majority of German Social Democrats, French Socialists, British Labour Party leaders and other European reformists ended up supporting the First World War (1914-1918). This course had disastrous consequences. With the idea that the “benefits of progress” should not be monopolized by the capitalists, the workers’ movement came to share the expansionist aims of the ruling classes and was swamped by nationalist ideology. The Second International proved completely impotent in the face of the war, failing in one of its main objectives: the preservation of peace.

Lenin and other delegates at the Zimmerwald conference (1915) – including Leon Trotsky, who drafted the final manifesto – foresaw that “for decades war spending will absorb the best energies of peoples, undermining social improvements and impeding any progress”. In their eyes the war revealed the “naked form of modern capitalism, which has become irreconcilable, not only with the interests of the working masses […] but even with the first conditions of human communal existence” (Vv. Aa., 1915). The warning was heeded by only a minority in the workers’ movement, as was the call to all European workers at the Kienthal Conference (1916):

“Your governments and their newspapers tell you that the war must be continued to kill militarism. They are deceiving you! War has never killed war. Indeed, it sparks feelings and wishes for revenge. In this way in marking you for sacrifice, they enclose you in an infernal circle”.

Finally breaking with the approach of the Stuttgart Congress, which had called for international courts of arbitration, the final document at Kienthal declared that “the illusions of bourgeois pacifism” (Vv. Aa., 1977: 371) would not interrupt the spiral of war but would help to preserve the existing social-economic system. The only way to prevent future military conflicts was for the popular masses to conquer political power and overthrow capitalist property.

Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin were the two most vigorous opponents of the war. Luxemburg extended the theoretical understanding of the Left and showed how militarism was a key vertebra of the state. Displaying a conviction and effectiveness with few equals among other communist leaders, she argued that the “War on war!” slogan should become “the cornerstone of working-class politics”. As she wrote in the Theses on the Tasks of International Social-Democracy (1915), the Second International had imploded because it failed “to achieve a common tactic and action by the proletariat in all countries”. From then on, the “main goal” of the proletariat should therefore be “fighting imperialism and preventing wars, in peace as in war” (Luxemburg, 1915).

In Socialism and War (1915) and many other writings during the First World War, Lenin’s great merit was to identify two fundamental questions. The first concerned the “historical falsification” whenever the bourgeoisie tried to attribute a “progressive sense of national liberation” to what were in reality wars of “plunder” (Lenin, 1971: 299-300), waged with the sole aim of deciding which belligerents were this time to oppress the most foreign peoples and to increase the inequalities of capitalism. The second was the masking of contradictions by the social reformists – or “social-chauvinists”, as he (1971: 306) called them – who ultimately endorsed the justifications for war despite their having defined it as a “criminal” activity in the resolutions adopted by the Second International. Behind their claim to be “defending the fatherland” lay the right that certain great powers had given themselves to “pillage the colonies and to oppress foreign peoples”. Wars were not fought to safeguard “the existence of nations” but “to defend the privileges, domination, plunder and violence” of the various “imperialist bourgeoisies” (Lenin, 1971: 307). The socialists who had capitulated to patriotism had replaced the class struggle with a claim on “morsels of the profits obtained by their national bourgeoisie through the looting of other countries”. Accordingly, Lenin (1971: 314) was in favor of “defensive wars” – not, that is, the national defense of European countries à la Jaurès, but the “just wars” of “oppressed and subjugated peoples” who had been “plundered and deprived of their rights” by the “great slave owning powers”. The most celebrated thesis of this pamphlet – that revolutionaries should seek to “turn imperialist war into civil war” (1971: 315) – implied that those who really wanted a “lasting democratic peace” had to wage “civil war against their governments and the bourgeoisie” (1971: 315). Lenin was convinced of what history would later show to be imprecise: that any class struggle consistently waged in time of war would “inevitably” create a revolutionary spirit among the masses.

Lines of demarcation
The First World War produced divisions not only in the Second International but also in the anarchist movement. In an article published shortly after the outbreak of the conflict, Kropotkin (1914: 76-77) wrote that “the task of any person holding dear the idea of human progress is to squash the German invasion in Western Europe”. This statement, seen by many as ditching the principles for which he had fought all his life, was an attempt to move beyond the slogan of “a general strike against the war” – which had gone unheeded by the working masses – and to avoid the general regression of European politics that would result from a German victory. In Kropotkin’s view, if anti-militarists remained inert, they would indirectly assist the invaders’ plans of conquest, and the resulting obstacle would be even more difficult to overcome for those fighting for a social revolution.

In a reply to Kropotkin, the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta argued that, although he was not a pacifist and thought it legitimate to take up arms in a war of liberation, the world war was not – as bourgeois propaganda asserted – a struggle “for the general good against the common enemy” of democracy, but yet another example of the ruling-class subjugation of the working masses. He was aware that “a German victory would certainly spell the triumph of militarism, but also that a triumph for the Allies would mean Russian-British domination in Europe and Asia” (Malatesta, 1993: 230).

In the Manifesto of the Sixteen, Kropotkin (et al., 1916) upheld the need “to resist an aggressor who represents the destruction of all our hopes of liberation”. Victory for the Triple Entente against Germany would be the lesser evil and do less to undermine the existing liberties. On the other side, Malatesta and his fellow-signatories (1998: 388) of the anti-war manifesto of the Anarchist International (1915) declared: “No distinction is possible between offensive and defensive wars”. Moreover, they added that “None of the belligerents has any right to lay claim to civilization, just as none of them is entitled to claim legitimate self-defence”. The First World War, they insisted, was a further episode in the conflict among capitalists of various imperialist powers, which was being waged at the expense of the working class. Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Ferdinand Nieuwenhuis and the great majority of the anarchist movement were convinced that it would an unforgivable error to support the bourgeois governments. Instead, with no ifs or buts, they stuck with the slogan “no man and no penny for the army”, firmly rejecting even any indirect support for the pursuit of war.

Attitudes to the war also aroused debate in the feminist movement. The need for women to replace conscripted men in jobs that had long been a male monopoly – for a much lower wage, in conditions of overexploitation – encouraged the spread of chauvinist ideology in a sizeable part of the new-born suffragette movement. Some of its leaders went so far as to petition for laws allowing the enlistment of women in the armed forces. Exposure of duplicitous governments – which, in evoking the enemy at the gates, used the war to roll back fundamental social reforms – was one of the most important achievements of the main women communist leaders of the time. Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, Sylvia Pankhurst and, of course, Rosa Luxemburg were among the first to embark lucidly and courageously on the path that would show successive generations how the struggle against militarism was essential to the struggle against patriarchy. Later, the rejection of war became a distinctive part of International Women’s Day, and opposition to war budgets on the outbreak of any new conflict featured prominently in many platforms of the international feminist movement.

The end does not justify the means and wrong means damage the end
The deep split between revolutionaries and reformists, widening into a strategic gulf after the birth of the Soviet Union and the growth of ideological dogmatism in the 1920s and 1930s, ruled out any alliance against militarism between the Communist International (1919-1943) and the European Socialist and Social Democratic parties. Having supported the war, the parties making up the Labour and Socialist International (1923-1940) had lost all credit in the eyes of the communists. The Leninist idea of “turning imperialist war into civil war” still had currency in Moscow, where leading politicians and theorists thought a “new 1914” was inevitable. On both sides, then, the talk was more of what to do if a new war broke out than of how to prevent one from beginning. The slogans and declarations of principle differed substantially from what was expected to happen and from what then turned into political action. Among the critical voices in the Communist camp were those of Nikolai Bukharin, a proponent of the slogan “struggle for peace”, and among the Russian leaders more convinced that it was “one of the key issues of the contemporary world”; and Georgi Dimitrov, who argued that not all the great powers were equally responsible for the threat of war, and who favoured a rapprochement with the reformist parties to build a broad popular front against it. Both these views contrasted with the litany of Soviet orthodoxy, which, far from updating theoretical analysis, repeated that the danger of war was built equally, and without distinction, into all the imperialist powers .

Mao Zedong’s (1966: 15) views on the matter were quite different. At the head of the liberation movement against the Japanese invasion, he wrote in On Protracted War (1938) that “just wars” – in which communists should actively participate – are “endowed with tremendous power, which can transform many things or clear the way for their transformation” (1966: 26-27). Mao’s (1966: 53) proposed strategy, therefore, was “to oppose unjust war with just war”, and furthermore to “continue the war until its political objective [is] achieved”. Arguments for the “omnipotence of revolutionary war” recur in Problems of War and Strategy (1938), where he argues that “only with guns can the whole world be transformed” (1965: 219), and that “the seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution” (1965: 225).

In Europe, the escalating violence of the Nazi-Fascist front, at home as well as abroad, and the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-1945) created an even more nefarious scenario than the 1914-18 war. After Hitler’s troops attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the Great Patriotic War that ended with the defeat of Nazism became such a central element in Russian national unity that it survived the fall of the Berlin Wall and has lasted until our own days.

With the post-war division of the world into two blocs, Joseph Stalin taught that the main task of the international Communist movement was to safeguard the Soviet Union. The creation of a buffer zone of eight countries in Eastern Europe (seven after the exit of Yugoslavia) was a central pillar of this policy. In the same period, the Truman Doctrine marked the advent of a new type of war: the Cold War. In its support of anti-communist forces in Greece, in the Marshall Plan (1948) and the creation of NATO (1949), the United States of America contributed to avoid the advance of progressive forces in Western Europe. The Soviet Union responded with the Warsaw Pact (1955). This configuration led to a huge arms race, which, despite the fresh memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also involved a proliferation of nuclear bomb tests.

From 1961, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union began a new political course that came to be known as “peaceful coexistence”. This turn, with its emphasis on non-interference and respect for national sovereignty, as well as economic cooperation with capitalist countries, was supposed to avert the danger of a third world war (which the Cuban missiles crisis showed to be a possibility in 1962) and to support the argument that war was not inevitable. However, this attempt at constructive cooperation was geared only to the USA, not the countries of “actually existing socialism”. In 1956, the Soviet Union had already crushed a revolt in Hungary, and the Communist parties of Western Europe had not condemned but justified the military intervention in the name of protecting the socialist bloc. Palmiro Togliatti, for example, the secretary of the Italian Communist Party, declared: “We stand with our own side even when it makes a mistake” (cit. in Vittoria, 2015: 219). Most of those who shared this position regretted it bitterly in later years, when they understood the devastating effects of the Soviet operation.

Similar events took place at the height of peaceful coexistence, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. Faced with demands for democratization and economic decentralization during the Prague Spring, the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decided unanimously to send in half a million soldiers and thousands of tanks. At the congress of the Polish United Workers’ Party in 1968, Leonid Brezhnev explained the action by referring to what he called the “limited sovereignty” of Warsaw Pact countries: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries”. According to this anti-democratic logic, the definition of what was and was not “socialism” naturally fell to the arbitrary decision of the Soviet leaders. But this time critics on the Left were more forthcoming and even represented the majority. Although disapproval of the Soviet action was expressed not only by New Left movements but by a majority of Communist parties, including the Chinese, the Russians did not pull back but carried through a process that they called “normalization”. The Soviet Union continued to earmark a sizeable part of its economic resources for military spending, and this helped to reinforce an authoritarian culture in society. In this way, it lost forever the goodwill of the peace movement, which had become even larger through the extraordinary mobilizations against the war in Vietnam.

One of the most important wars in the next decade began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1979, the Red Army again became a major instrument of Moscow’s foreign policy, which continued to claim the right to intervene in what it described as its own “security zone”. The ill-starred decision turned into an exhausting adventure that stretched over more than ten years, causing a huge number of deaths and creating millions of refugees. On this occasion the international Communist movement was much less reticent than it had been in relation to the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Yet this new war revealed even more clearly to international public opinion the split between “actually existing socialism” and a political alternative based on peace and opposition to militarism.

Taken as a whole, these military interventions not only worked against a general arms reduction but served to discredit and globally weaken socialism. The Soviet Union was increasingly seen as an imperial power acting in ways not unlike those of the United States, which, since the onset of the Cold War, had more or less secretly backed coups d’état and helped to overthrow democratically elected governments in more than twenty countries around the world. Lastly, the “socialist wars” in 1977-1979 between Cambodia and Vietnam and China and Vietnam, against the backdrop of the Sino-Soviet conflict, dissipated whatever leverage “Marxist-Leninist” ideology (already remote from the original foundations laid by Marx and Engels) had in attributing war exclusively to the economic imbalances of capitalism.

To be on the left is to be against war
The end of the Cold War did not lessen the amount of interference in other countries’ affairs, nor did it increase the freedom of every people to choose the political regime under which it lives. The numerous wars– even without a UN mandate and defined, absurdly, as “humanitarian” – carried out by the USA in the past twenty-five years, to which should be added new forms of conflict, illegal sanctions, and political, economic and media conditioning, demonstrate that the bipolar division of the world between two superpowers did not give way to the era of liberty and progress promised by the neoliberal mantra of the “New World Order”. In this context, many political forces that once lay claim to the values of the Left have joined in a number of wars. From Kosovo to Iraq and Afghanistan – to mention only the main wars waged by NATO since the fall of the Berlin Wall – these forces have each time given their support to armed intervention and made themselves less and less distinguishable from the Right.

The Russian-Ukrainian war has again faced the Left with the dilemma of how to react when a country’s sovereignty is under attack. The failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a political mistake on the part of the government of Venezuela, and it makes denunciations of possible future acts of aggression committed by the United States appear less credible. It is true that, as Marx wrote to Ferdinand Lassalle in 1860 (Marx, 1985: 154; Musto, 2018: 132), “in foreign policy, there’s little to be gained by using such catchwords as ‘reactionary’ and ‘revolutionary’” – that what is “subjectively reactionary [may prove to be] objectively revolutionary in foreign policy”. But left-wing forces should have learned from the twentieth century that alliances “with my enemy’s enemy” often lead to counterproductive agreements, especially when, as in our times, the progressive front is politically weak and theoretically confused and lacks the support of mass mobilizations.

Recalling Lenin’s (1964b: 148) words in The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination:

“The fact that the struggle for national liberation against one imperialist power may, under certain circumstances, be utilized by another ‘Great’ Power in its equally imperialist interests should have no more weight in inducing Social Democracy to renounce its recognition of the right of nations to self-determination”.

Beyond the geopolitical interests and intrigues that are usually also in play, the forces of the Left have historically supported the principle of national self-determination and defended the right of individual states to establish their frontiers on the basis of the express will of the population. The Left has fought against wars and “annexations” because it is aware that these lead to dramatic conflicts between the workers of the dominant nation and the oppressed nation, creating the conditions for the latter to unite with their own bourgeoisie in considering the former as their enemy. In Results of the Discussion on Self-Determination (1916), Lenin (1964a: 329-330) wrote: “If the socialist revolution were to be victorious in Petrograd, Berlin and Warsaw, the Polish socialist government, like the Russian and German socialist governments, would renounce the ‘forcible retention’ of, say, the Ukrainians within the frontiers of the Polish state”. Why suggest, then, that anything different should be conceded to the nationalist government led by Vladimir Putin?

On the other hand, all too many on the Left have yielded to the temptation to become – directly or indirectly – co-belligerents, fuelling a new union sacrée (expression coined in 1914, just to greet the abjuration of the forces of the French left that, at the outbreak of World War I, decided to endorse the war choices of the government). Such a position today serves increasingly to blur the distinction between Atlanticism and pacifism. History shows that, when they do not oppose war, progressive forces lose an essential part of their reason for existence and end up swallowing the ideology of the opposite camp. This happens whenever parties of the Left make their presence in government the fundamental way of measuring their political action – as the Italian Communists did in supporting the NATO interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, or as does much of today’s Unidas Podemos, which joins its voice to the unanimous chorus of the entire Spanish parliamentary spectrum, in favour of sending weapons to the Ukrainian army. Such subaltern conduct has been punished many times in the past, including at the polls as soon as the occasion has arisen.

Bonaparte is not democracy
In the 1850s, Marx composed a brilliant series of articles on the Crimean War that contain many interesting and useful parallels with the present day. In Revelations of the Diplomatic History of the 18th Century (1857), speaking of the great Muscovite monarch of the fifteenth century – the one considered to have unified Russia and laid the ground for its autocracy – Marx (1986: 86) stated: “One merely needs to replace one series of names and dates with others and it becomes clear that the policies of Ivan III […], and those of Russia today, are not merely similar but identical”. In a piece for the New-York Daily Tribune, however, in opposition to liberal democrats who exalted the anti-Russian coalition, he wrote:

“It is a mistake to describe the war against Russia as a war between liberty and despotism. Apart from the fact that if such be the case, liberty would be for the nonce represented by a Bonaparte, the whole avowed object of the war is the maintenance […] of the Vienna treaties — those very treaties which annul the liberty and independence of nations” (1980: 228).

If we replace Bonaparte with the United States of America and the Vienna treaties with NATO, these observations seem as if written for today.

The thinking of those who oppose both Russian and Ukrainian nationalism, as well as the expansion of NATO, does not show proof of political indecision or theoretical ambiguity. In recent weeks, a number of experts have provided explanations of the roots of the conflict (which in no way reduce the barbarity of the Russian invasion), and the position of those who propose a policy of non-alignment is the most effective way of ending the war as soon as possible and ensuring the smallest number of victims. It is not a question of behaving like the “beautiful souls” drenched in abstract idealism, whom Hegel thought incapable of addressing the actual reality of earthly contradictions. On the contrary: the point is to give reality to the only true antidote to an unlimited expansion of the war. There is no end to the voices calling for higher military spending and further conscription, or to those who, like the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, think it is Europe’s task to supply the Ukrainians with “the necessary weapons for war” (Borrell, 2022). But in contrast to these positions, it is necessary to pursue ceaseless diplomatic activity based on two firm points: de-escalation and the neutrality of independent Ukraine.

Despite the increased support for NATO following the Russian moves, it is necessary to work harder to ensure that public opinion does not see the largest and most aggressive war machine in the world – NATO – as the solution to the problems of global security. It must be shown that it is a dangerous and ineffectual organization, which, in its drive for expansion and unipolar domination, serves to fuel tensions leading to war in the world.

In Socialism and War, Lenin argued that Marxists differ from pacifists and anarchists in that they “deem it necessary historically (from the standpoint of Marx’s dialectical materialism [sic!]) to study each war separately”. Continuing, he asserted that: “In history there have been numerous wars which, in spite of all the horrors, atrocities, distress and suffering that inevitably accompany all wars, were progressive, i.e., benefited the development of mankind” (1971: 299). If that was true in the past, it would be short-sighted to simply repeat it in contemporary societies where weapons of mass destruction are continually spreading. Rarely have wars – not to be confused with revolutions – had the democratizing effect that the theorists of socialism hoped for. Indeed, they have often proved to be the worst way of carrying out a revolution, both because of the cost in human lives and because of the destruction of the productive forces that they entail. Indeed, wars disseminate an ideology of violence, often combined with the nationalist sentiments that have torn the workers’ movement apart. Rarely favouring practices of self-management and direct democracy, they increase instead the power of authoritarian institutions. This is a lesson that the moderate Left, too, should never forget.

In one of the most fertile passages of Reflections on War (1933), Simone Weil (2021: 101) wonders if it is possible that “a revolution can avoid war”. In her view, this is the only “feeble possibility” that we have if we do not want to “abandon all hope”. Revolutionary war often turns into the “tomb of the revolution”, since “the armed citizenry are not given the means of waging war without a controlling apparatus, without police pressure, without a special court, without punishment for desertion”. More than any other social phenomenon, war swells the military, bureaucratic and police apparatus. “It leads to the total effacement of the individual before state bureaucracy”. Hence, “if the war does not end immediately and permanently […] the result will be merely one of those revolutions that, in Marx’s words, perfect the state apparatus instead of shattering it” or, more clearly still, “it would even mean extending under another form the regime we want to suppress”. In the event of war, then, “we must choose between obstructing the functioning of the military machine in which we ourselves constitute the cogs, or helping that machine to blindly crush human lives” (2021: 101-102).

For the Left, war cannot be “the continuation of politics by other means”, to quote Clausewitz’s famous dictum. In reality, it merely certifies the failure of politics. If the Left wishes to become hegemonic and to show itself capable of using its history for the tasks of today, it needs to write indelibly on its banners the words “anti-militarism” and “No to war!”


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Brian K. Obach, Contemporary Sociology. A Journal of Reviews

Rethinking Alternatives with Marx: Economy, Ecology and Migration is a volume edited by Marcello Musto in which a number of renowned international scholars critically engage a wide range of Marxist concepts. Some reevaluate dominant interpretations of classic works while others apply concepts to contemporary conditions or to our potential future. Several of the authors draw not only on Marx’s vast body of published work, but also numerous unfinished works, notes, drafts, letters and other materials made available through MEGA (Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe), a project compiling the entire collection of writings by Marx and Engels. Thus, some of the work draws on material that may be new even to those well versed in Marxist literature.

This volume is part of the Marx, Engels, and Marxisms series that includes numerous edited volumes and sole-authored monographs addressing many facets of Marx, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Marxist theory, labor, and social movements. The subtitle for this volume, “Economy, Ecology and Migration,” is somewhat of a misnomer. Of course all the chapters address the economy, given its centrality to any Marxist analysis; but of the 13 chapters, just three focus specifically on environmental matters and three address migration. The rest cover an eclectic mix of subjects, all of which are loosely organized into four parts.

The first part, “Capitalism, Gender and Social Relations,” includes two chapters that explicitly concern gender questions. Both authors seek to expand notions of anti-capitalist struggle to allow space for gender and family. In her analysis of class, Himani Bannerji examines the whole set of social relations that constitute one’s class position. That would include family relations that are ultimately as vital to production as factory work. Silvia Federici takes Marx to task for his sparse and superficial analysis of gender given the essential economic contributions that women have made not just in terms of social reproduction, but as unpaid laborers in the home, as slaves, and as underpaid wage workers subject to an array of violence and abuse at the hands of capitalists and male workers exercising power over women through the “patriarchy of the wage.”

The following two chapters in this section depart from the gender theme. Bob Jessop refutes charges of Marxist determinism and calls for a “form analytic historical approach.” This recognizes that the course of class struggle is far from determined by economic or technological forces, but rather it is ever changing based on the state and economic terrain as well as shifts in organization, strategy, tactics and other fluid variables. Workers can pursue a wide range of gains short of revolutionary transformation. This section of the book concludes with a densely written but poetic chapter elaborating on Marx’s concepts of use and exchange value.

The second part of the book is dedicated to environmental crisis. All three authors in this section address the ecologically destructive tendencies innate to capitalism. While Marx has been characterized as a Promethean anticipating complete human domination of the natural world, Kohei Saito teases out the ecosocialist in Marx. Through a textual exegesis of Capital Volume 1, Saito argues that the wealth under communism that Marx alludes to does not necessarily mean material riches and that natural limits will persist. The “original unity” between humans and nature will be restored as will a balanced metabolism between the social and the natural.

The other two chapters in this section offer ideas about how we might achieve that balance. Razmig Keucheyen draws on the work of Gorz and Heller to propose how to collectively reconceive of “need” in ways that would be ecologically sustainable as we transition away from the destructive consumerism endemic to capitalism. Gregory Claeys expresses doubt about whether we will ever get there. Instead he predicts, “The planet will burn, and we will likely be exterminated fighting over the charred remnants” (p. 114). Despite his grim assessment, Claeys offers a series of reforms, from bans on advertising to population control, that he suggests would help mitigate the crisis.

Migration is the subject of the third section. The forced migration of peasants to the city during the enclosures is a central focus for Marx, as is the slave trade, but there is less published material on international worker migration. A long and detailed historical chapter by David Norman Smith draws on Marx’s unpublished works to assess his views on this subject. This includes an examination of competition among workers and the resultant nativism, an analysis very relevant to contemporary working-class struggles. On a related theme, Pietro Basso poses a challenge to current thinkers who, he argues, are misinterpreting Marx to promote what he views as anti-immigrant policies.

The final part of the book addresses an issue on which Marx was especially and perhaps intentionally unclear. It includes three chapters that consider what the future communist society will look like, or at least what it will not look like. Editor Marcello Musto examines the structural failure of the Paris Commune to inform the organization of the post-capitalist state, while Álvaro García Linera identifies the Soviet Union’s inability to move beyond state ownership and to secure true freedom for its people. Michael Brie takes up that theme in the final chapter as he theorizes about a communist society that incorporates liberal notions of individual liberty. Authors in this section comb Marx’s writings for ideas about how a post-capitalist social order can be constructed that meets human needs and allows for individual and social fulfillment, all while living within the natural limits of planetary systems.

As is evident, the chapters in this volume are very diverse in terms of focus, but they also differ greatly in terms of style, and even length. The shortest is just 13 pages while the longest is almost 70. Some chapters would be suitable for a lay audience, while others are geared toward those already in possession of a deep understanding of Marx. Some dissect historical developments while others speculate about the future. A positive interpretation of this would be that there is something here for everyone. A more critical view would be that the volume lacks focus. Either way, Rethinking Alternatives with Marx is a testament to the richness and persistent relevance of Marx’s work. After over a century and a half of examination, scholars can still find material over which to engage in fruitful debate. And, in a more practical sense, Marx can still offer insight into how to understand and to carry out struggle in a world characterized by exploitation, white supremacy, patriarchy, and ecological devastation. This volume allows us to continue to learn from one of the most brilliant social theorists of all time.

Journal Articles

A Reappraisal of Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks: Family, Gender, Individual vs. State, and Colonialism

For a long time, the difficulty of examining Marx’s research in the final years of his life, especially the early 1880s, hampered our knowledge of the important gains he achieved. This is why all the biographers of Marx devoted so few pages to his activity after the winding up of the International Working Men’s Association[1]. Not by chance, they nearly always used the generic title “the last decade” for this part of their work. Wrongly thinking that Marx had given up the idea of completing his work, they failed to look more deeply into what he actually did during that period. But if there was some justification for this in the past, it is hard to understand why the new materials available in the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA²) – the historical-critical edition of the complete works of Marx and Friedrich Engels – and the volume of research on the “late Marx” since the 1970s have not led to a more significant change in this tendency[2].

Contrary to those who claimed that his intellectual curiosity and theoretical acumen faded in his final years, the recent scholarship on Marx has demonstrated that he continued to work whenever circumstances allowed it. He not only pursued his research but extended it to new areas (see Anderson 2010, and Musto 2020a). Marx went deeply into many other issues which, though often underestimated, or even ignored, by scholars of his work, are acquiring crucial importance for the political agenda of our times. Among these are individual freedom in the economic and political sphere, gender emancipation, the critique of nationalism, the emancipatory potential of technology, and forms of collective ownership not controlled by the state.

Furthermore, 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 now clear, despite the scepticism still fashionable in certain academic quarters.

In 1881 and 1882, Marx made remarkable progress in relation to anthropology, pre-capitalist modes of production, non-Western societies, socialist revolution and the materialist conception of history. He also closely observed the main events in international politics, as we can see from his letters expressing resolute support for the Irish liberation struggle and the Populist movement in Russia, and firm opposition to British colonial oppression in India and Egypt and to French colonialism in Algeria. He was anything but eurocentric, economistic, or fixated only on class conflict. Marx thought the study of new political conflicts, new themes and geographical areas to be fundamental for his ongoing critique of the capitalist system. It enabled him to open up to national specificities and to consider the possibility of an approach to communism different from the one he had previously developed.

Anthropology, Family and Gender: The Revolution of Morgan’s Ancient Society
Between December 1880 and June 1881, Marx’s research interests focused on a new discipline: anthropology. He began with Ancient Society (1877), a work by the U.S. anthropologist Lewis Morgan (1818-1881), which the Russian ethnologist Maksim Kovalevsky (1851-1916) had brought back from a trip to North America and sent to Marx two years after its publication.

What struck Marx most was the way in which Morgan treated production and technological factors as preconditions of social progress, and he felt moved to assemble a compilation of a hundred densely packed pages.[3] These make up the bulk of what are known as the The Ethnological Notebooks (1880-81).[4] They also contain excerpts from other works: Java, or How to Manage a Colony (1861) by James Money (1818-1890), a lawyer and Indonesia expert; The Aryan Village in India and Ceylon (1880) by John Phear (1825-1905), president of the supreme court of Ceylon; and Lectures on the Early History of Institutions (1875) by the historian Henry Maine (1822-1888), amounting to a total of another hundred sheets.[5] Marx’s comparative assessments of these authors lead one to suppose that he compiled all this material in a fairly short period in an effort to get really on top of it.

In his previous research, Marx had already examined and extensively commented on past social-economic forms – in the first part of The German Ideology, in the long section of the Grundrisse entitled “Forms Which Precede Capitalist Production,” and in Capital, Volume One. In 1879, his reading of Kovalevsky’s Common Land Ownership directed him once more to the subject. But it was only with the The Ethnological Notebooks that he engaged in more comprehensive and up to date study.

The aim of Marx’s new research was to widen his knowledge of the historical periods, geographical areas and thematic topics that he considered essential for his continuing critique of political economy. It also enabled him to acquire specific information about the social characteristics and institutions of the remote past, acquainting him with material that was not in his possession when he had written the manuscripts of the 1850s and 1860s. Finally, it acquainted him with the latest theories advanced by the most eminent contemporary scholars.

Marx devoted himself to these often time-consuming anthropological studies during the same period in which he aimed to complete Capital, Volume Two (see Musto 2018; 2019). The precise theoretical-political purpose behind them was to reconstruct the most likely sequence in which the different modes of production had succeeded one another over time, with a particular focus on the birth of capitalism. He believed that this would give his theory of the possible communist transformation of society stronger historical foundations.[6]

In The Ethnological Notebooks, Marx therefore put together compilations and interesting notes on prehistory, on the development of family bonds, on the condition of women, on the origins of property relations, on community practices in precapitalist societies, on the formation and nature of state power, on the role of the individual, and on more modern aspects such as the racist connotations of certain anthropological approaches and the effects of colonialism.

On the particular theme of prehistory and the development of family ties, Marx drew a number of priceless indications from the work of Morgan. As Hyndman recalled: “when Lewis H. Morgan proved to Marx’s satisfaction in his Ancient Society that the gens[7] and not the family was the social unit of the old tribal system and ancient society generally, Marx at once abandoned his previous opinions” (Hyndman 1911, 253-254).

It was Morgan’s research on the social structure of primitive peoples that allowed him to overcome the limits of traditional interpretations of kinship, including the one advanced by the German historian Barthold Niebuhr (1786-1831) in Roman History (1811-12). In contrast to all previous hypotheses, Morgan showed that it had been a grave error to suggest that the gens “postdated the monogamous family” and was the result of “an aggregate of families” (Morgan 1877, 515). His studies of prehistoric and ancient society led him to the conclusion that the patriarchal family should be seen not as the original basic unit of society but as a form of social organization more recent than was generally believed. It was an organization “too weak to face alone the hardships of life” (472). It was much more plausible to assume the existence of a form like that of the American native peoples, the sindiasmic family, which practised a “communism in living” (Marx 1972, 115).

On the other hand, Marx constantly polemicized against Maine, who in his Lectures on the Early History of Institutions (1875) had visualized “the private family” as “the basis out of which the sept and clan developed.” Marx’s scorn for this attempt to reverse time’s arrow by transposing the Victorian era into prehistory led him to assert that this “blockheaded Englishman started not from the gens but from the Patriarch, who later became the chief – what inanities!” (292) His mockery gradually reaches a crescendo: “Maine after all cannot get the English private family out of his head” (309); he “transports the Roman ‘patriarchal’ family into the very beginning of things” (324). Nor did Marx spare Phear, of whom he said: “The ass bases everything on private families!” (281).

Morgan gave Marx further food for thought with his remarks on the concept of the family, since in its “original meaning” the word family – which has the same root as famulus or servant – “had no relation to the married pair or their children, but to the body of slaves and servants who laboured for its maintenance, and were under the power of the pater familias” (Morgan 1877, 469). On this, Marx noted:

The modern family contains the germ not only of servitus (slavery) but also serfdom, since it contains from the beginning a relation to services for agriculture. It contains in miniature all the antagonisms within itself, which are later broadly develop in society and its State. (…) The monogamous family presupposed, in order to have an existence separate from others, a domestic class that was everywhere directly constituted by slaves. (Marx 1972, 120)

Developing his own thoughts elsewhere in the compendium, Marx wrote that “property in houses, lands and herds” was bound up with “the monogamous family” (210). In fact, as the Manifesto of the Communist Party suggested, this was the starting point of history as “the history of class struggle” (Marx and Engels 1976, 482).[8]

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) – a book that the author described as “the fulfilment of a behest” and no more than a “meagre substitute” for what his “dear friend” had not lived to write (Engels 1990, 131) – Engels completed Marx’s analysis in The Ethnological Notebooks. Monogamy, he argued, represented the subjection of one sex by the other, as the proclamation of a conflict between the sexes hitherto unknown throughout preceding history. In an old unpublished manuscript, the work of Marx and myself in 1846, I find the following: “The first division of labour is that between man and woman for child breeding” (173). And today I can add: The first class antithesis which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamian marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male. Monogamy [… is] the cellular form of civilized society, in which we can already study the nature of the antitheses and contradictions, which develop fully in the latter. (173-174)[9]

Engels’s thesis posited an overly schematic relationship between economic conflict and gender oppression that was absent from Marx’s – fragmentary and highly intricate – notes.[10]

Marx too paid close attention to Morgan’s considerations on parity between the sexes, which argued that pre-Greek ancient societies were more progressive in respect of the treatment and behaviour of women. Marx copied the parts of Morgan’s book that showed how, among the Greeks, “the change of descent from the female line to the male was damaging for the position and rights of the wife and woman.” Indeed, Morgan had a very negative assessment of the Greek social model. “Greeks remained barbarians in their treatment of women at the height of their civilization; their education superficial, (…) their inferiority inculcated as a principle upon them, until it came to be accepted as a fact by the women themselves.” Moreover, there was “a principle of studied selfishness among the males, tending to lessen the appreciation of women, scarcely found among savages.” Thinking of the contrast with the myths of the classical world, Marx added an acute observation: “the condition of the goddesses on Olympus is a reminder of the position of women, once freer and more influential. Juno greedy for power, the goddess of wisdom springs from the head of Zeus” (Marx, 1972, 121). For Marx, memory of the free divinities of the past provided an example for possible emancipation in the present.[11]

From the various authors he studied, Marx recorded many important observations on the role of women in ancient society. For example, referring to the work Matriarchy (1861) by the Swiss anthropologist Johann Bachofen (1815-1887), he noted: “The women were the great power among the gens and everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, ‘to knock off the horns’, as it was technically called, from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them” (Marx, 1972, 116).[12]

Property Relations, the Individual and the Function of the State
Marx’s reading of Morgan also gave him an angle on another important question: the origin of property relations. For the celebrated anthropologist established a causal relation between the various types of kinship structure and social-economic forms. In his view, the factors in western history that accounted for the affirmation of the descriptive system – which described blood relatives and specified everyone’s kinship (for example, “brother’s son for nephew, father’s brother for uncle, father’s brother’s son for cousin”) – and the decline of the classificatory system – which grouped blood relatives into categories without specifying proximity or distance in relation to Ego (“e.g., my own brother and my father’s brother’s sons are in equal degree my brothers”) – had to do with the development of property and the state (Brown 2012, 123, 104; 164, 136; see also Godelier 1977, 67-8, 101-2).

Morgan’s book is divided into four parts: (1) Growth of Intelligence through Inventions and Discoveries, (2) Growth of the Idea of Government, (3) Growth of the Idea of the Family and (4) Growth of the Idea of Property. Marx changed the order to (1) inventions, (2) family, (3) property and (4) government, in order to bring out more clearly the nexus between the last two.

Morgan’s book argued that, although “the rights of wealth, of rank and of official position” had prevailed for thousands of years over “justice and intelligence,” there was ample evidence that “the privileged classes” were a “burdensome” (Morgan 1877, 551) influence on society. Marx copied out almost in full one of the final pages of Ancient Society on the distortions that property could generate; it operated with concepts that made a deep impression on him:

Since the advent of civilization, the outgrowth of property has been so immense, its forms so diversified, its uses so expanding and its management so intelligent in the interests of its owners, that it has become, on the part of the people, an unmanageable power. The human mind stands bewildered in the presence of its own creation. The time will come, nevertheless, when human intelligence will rise to the mastery over property, and define the relations of the state to the property it protects, as well as the obligations and the limits of the rights of its owners. The interests of society are paramount to individual interests, and the two must be brought into just and harmonious relations. (551-2)

Morgan refused to believe that the “final destiny of mankind” was the mere pursuit of riches. He issued a stark warning:

The dissolution of society bids fair to become the termination of a career of which property is the end and aim; because such a career contains the elements of self-destruction. Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending. It (a higher plan of society)[13] will be a revival, in a higher form (of society), of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes. (551-2)

Bourgeois “civilization,” then, was itself a transitory stage. It had arisen at the end of two long epochs, the “savage state” and the “barbaric state” (the terms current at the time), which followed the abolition of communal forms of social organization. These forms imploded following the accumulation of property and wealth and the emergence of social classes and the state. But sooner or later prehistory and history were destined to join up once again (see Godelier 1977, 124).[14]

Morgan considered ancient societies to have been very democratic and solidaristic. As for the present, he limited himself to a declaration of optimism about the progress of humanity, without invoking the necessity of political struggle.[15] Marx, however, did not envisage a socialist revival of “the myth of the noble savage.” He never hoped for a return to the past, but – as he made clear when copying Morgan’s book – looked to the advent of a “higher form of society” (Marx 1972, 139)[16] based on a new mode of production and consumption. This would come about not through mechanical evolution, but only through conscious working-class struggle.

All of Marx’s anthropological reading had a bearing on the origins and functions of the state. The excerpts from Morgan summarized its role in the transition from barbarism to civilization, while his notes on Maine concentrated on analysis of the relations between the individual and the state (see Krader 1972, 19). Consistent with his most significant theoretical texts on the subject, from the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law[17] (1843) to The Civil War in France (1871),[18] The Ethnological Notebooks also present the state as a power subjugating society, a force preventing the full emancipation of the individual.

In the notes he wrote in 1881, Marx stressed the parasitic and transitory character of the state:

Maine ignores the much deeper point: that the seeming supreme independent existence of the state is only seeming and that it is in all its forms an excrescence of society; just as its appearance itself arises only at a certain stage of social development, it disappears again as soon as society has reached a stage not yet attained.

Marx followed this up with a critique of the human condition under the given historical circumstances. The formation of civilized society, with its transition from a regime of common to individual property, generated a “still one-sided (…) individuality” (Marx, 1972, 329; cf also Krader 1972, 59). If the “true nature [… of the state] appears only when we analyse its content,” that is, its “interests,” then this shows that these interests “are common to certain social groups” and therefore “class interests.” For Marx, “the state is built on and presupposes classes.” Hence the individuality that exists in this type of society is “a class individuality,” which in the last analysis is “based on economic presuppositions” (329).

Against Racism and Colonialism
In The Ethnological Notebooks, Marx also made a number of observations on the racist connotations of many of the anthropological reports he was studying (see Krader 1972, 37; Ward Gailey, 2006, 36). His rejection of such ideology was categorical, and he commented caustically on the authors who expressed it in this way. Thus, when Maine used discriminatory epithets, he firmly interjected: “again this nonsense!” Moreover, expressions such as “the devil take this ‘Aryan’ jargon!” (Marx, 1972, 324) keep recurring.

Referring to Money’s Java, or How to Manage a Colony and Phear’s The Aryan Village in India and Ceylon, Marx studied the negative effects of the European presence in Asia. He was not at all interested in Money’s views on colonial policy, but he found his book useful for the detail it gave about commerce (see Tichelman 1983, 18).[19] He adopted a similar approach to Phear’s book, focusing mainly on what he reported about the state in Bengal and ignoring his weak theoretical constructions.

The authors whom Marx read and summarized in The Ethnological Notebooks had all been influenced – with various nuances – by the evolutionary conceptions of the age, and some had also become firm proponents of the superiority of bourgeois civilization. But an examination of The Ethnological Notebooks clearly shows that their ideological assertions had no influence on Marx.

Marx strongly opposed to colonialism anytime he could. In 1879 he had taken an interest in the land question in French-ruled Algeria. Based on the considerations written by Kovalevsky in the book Common Landownership: The Causes, Course and Consequences of Its Decline (1879), Marx was able to better criticize the negative changes introduced by French settlers in relation to the common landownership that existed in Algeria. From Kovalevsky, he copied down: “Formation of private landownership (in eyes of French bourgeois) is a necessary condition for all progress in the political and social sphere. Further maintenance of communal property ‘as a form which supports communist tendencies in the minds is dangerous both for the colony and for the homeland” (Marx 1975b, 405)[20]. He also extracted the following points from Communal Landownership:

the distribution of clan holdings is encouraged, even prescribed, first, as means of weakening subjugated tribes which are ever standing under impulsion to revolt; second, as the only way to a further transfer of landownership from the hands of the natives into those of the colonists. The same policy has been pursued by the French under all regimes. (…) The aim is ever the same: destruction of the indigenous collective property and its transformation into an object of free purchase and sale, and by this means the final passage made easier into the hands of the French colonists (Marx 1975b, 405).

As for the legislation on Algeria proposed by the Left Republican Jules Warnier (1826-1899) and passed in 1873, Marx (1975b, 411) endorsed Kovalevsky’s claim that its only purpose was “expropriation of the soil of the native population by the European colonists and speculators”. The effrontery of the French went as far as ‘direct robbery’, or conversion into “government property” (1975b, 412), of all uncultivated land remaining in common for native use. This process was designed to produce another important result: elimination of the danger of resistance by the local population. Again through Kovalevsky’s words, Marx (1975b, 408 and 412) noted:

the foundation of private property and the settlement of European colonists among the Arab clans [would] become the most powerful means to accelerate the process of dissolution of the clan unions. (…) The expropriation of the Arabs intended by the law had two purposes: 1) to provide the French as much land as possible; and (2) to tear away the Arabs from their natural bonds to the soil to break the last strength of the clan unions thus being dissolved, and thereby any danger of rebellion.

Marx (1975b, 412) commented that this type of “individualization of landownership” had not only secured huge economic benefits for the invaders but also achieved a “political aim (…): to destroy the foundation of this society”.

The same happened with India. Having examined forms of landownership in that country in the Notebooks on Indian History (664-1858), that he compiled in 1879-80, Marx described the invaders with such terms as “British dogs” (2001, 165, 176, 180), “usurpers” (155-56, 163), “English hypocrites” or “English intruders” (81). By contrast, the Indian resistance struggles were always accompanied with expressions of solidarity[21]. It was no accident that Marx always replaced Sewell’s term ‘mutineers’ with “insurgents” (Marx 2001 163-4, 184). His forthright condemnation of European colonialism was quite unmistakable.

In 1881, after profound theoretical research and careful observation of changes in international politics, not to speak of his massive synopses on India included in the Ethnological Notebooks, referring to the “East Indies,” Marx (1989, 365) noted: “Everyone except Sir Henry Maine and others of his ilk realizes that the suppression of communal landownership out there was nothing but an act of English vandalism, pushing the native people not forwards but backwards”. All the British “managed to do was to ruin native agriculture and double the number and severity of the famines” (368).

A similar example can also be found with relation to Egypt. When Joseph Cowen (1829-1900), an MP and president of the Cooperative Congress – Marx considered him “the best of the English parliamentarians” – justified the British invasion of Egypt[22], Marx expressed his total disapproval to his daughter Eleanor on January 9, 1883. Above all, he railed at the British government: “Very nice! In fact, there could be no more blatant example of Christian hypocrisy than the ‘conquest’ of Egypt – conquest in the midst of peace!” But Cowen, in a speech on 8 January 1883 in Newcastle, expressed his admiration for the “heroic exploit” of the British’ and the “dazzle of our military parade;” nor could he “help smirking over the entrancing little prospect of all those fortified offensive positions between the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and, into the bargain, an ‘African-British Empire’ from the Delta to the Cape”. It was the “English style”, characterized by “responsibility” for the “home interest”. In foreign policy, Marx concluded, Cowen was a typical example of “those poor British bourgeois, who groan as they assume more and more ‘responsibilities’ in the service of their historic mission, while vainly protesting against it” (Marx and Engels 1992, 422-3).

Marx also took a close interest in the economic side of what was happening in Egypt, as we can see from his eight pages of excerpts from “Egyptian Finance” (1882), an article by Michael George Mulhall (1836-1900) that appeared in the October issue of the London Contemporary Review. His own notes concentrated on two aspects. He reconstructed the financial blackmail operated by Anglo-German creditors after the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Ismail Pasha (1830-1895), had dramatically plunged the country into debt. Moreover, he sketched the oppressive taxation system devised by Ismail Pasha that extracted a terrible price from the population, showing particular attention to, and solidarity with, the forced dislocation of many Egyptian peasants[23].

Theories of progress, hegemonic in the nineteenth century and widely shared by anthropologists and ethnologists, postulated that events would follow a pregiven course because of factors external to human action; a rigid sequence of stages had the capitalist world as its sole and uniform destination.

Within the space of a few years, a naïve belief in the automatic advance of history also took root in the Second International. The only difference with the bourgeois version was the prediction that a final stage would follow the inevitable “collapse” of the capitalist system: namely, the advent of socialism (itself subsequently defined as “Marxist!”) (Cf. Musto 2007, 479-480).

Not only was this analysis cognitively unsound; it produced a kind of fatalistic passivity, which became a stabilizing factor for the existing order and weakened the social and political action of the proletariat. Opposing this approach that so many regarded as “scientific,” and which was common to the bourgeois and socialist visions of progress, Marx rejected the siren calls of a one-way historicism and preserved his own complex, flexible and variegated conception.

Whereas, in comparison with the Darwinist oracles, Marx’s voice might seem uncertain and hesitant, he actually escaped the trap of economic determinism into which many of his followers and ostensible continuators tended to fall – a position, light years from the theories they claimed to have inspired them, which would lead many into one of the worst characterizations of “Marxism.”

In his manuscripts, notebooks and letters to comrades and activists, as well as in the few public interventions he could still make against declining physical capacities, Marx persevered with his efforts to reconstruct the complex history of the passage from antiquity to capitalism. From the anthropological studies that he read and summarized, he drew confirmation that human progress had proceeded more quickly in epochs when the sources of subsistence were expanding, from the birth of agriculture on. He treasured the historical information and data, but did not share the rigid schemas suggesting an inescapable sequence of stages in human history.

Marx spurned any rigid linking of social changes to economic transformations alone. Instead, he highlighted the specificity of historical conditions, the multiple possibilities that the passing of time offered, and the centrality of human intervention in the shaping of reality and the achievement of change (see Gailey 2006, 35, 44). These were the salient features of Marx’s theoretical elaboration in The Ethnological Notebooks and, more in general, in the final years of his life.

There is still so much to learn from Marx. Today it is possible to do this by studying not only what he wrote in his published works but also the questions and doubts contained in his unfinished manuscripts. This consideration is all the more valid for the complex, but very rich, notes that we call The Ethnological Notebooks.


Anderson, Kevin B. 2010. Marx at the Margins. On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies. Chicago: University Press
Bloch, Maurice. 1983. Marxism and Anthropology: The History of a Relationship. London: Routledge.
Brown, Heather. 2012. Marx on Gender and the Family: A Critical Study. Leiden: Brill.
Dardot, Pierre and Christian Laval. 2012. Marx, prénom Karl Paris: Gallimard.
Dunayevskaya, Raya. 1991. Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Engels, Friedrich. 1990. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 26, 129–276. New York: International Publishers.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger (edited by). 1973. Gespräche mit Marx und Engels. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Godelier, Maurice. 1977. Perspectives in Marxist Anthropology. London: Verso.
Godelier, Maurice. 2012. The Mental and the Material. London: Verso.
Hyndman, Henry Mayers. 1911. The Record of an Adventurous Life. London: Macmillan.
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Liedman, Sven-Eric. 2018. A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx. London: Verso.
Marx, Karl. 1972. The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, edited by Lawrence Krader Assen: Van Gorcum.
Marx, Karl. 1975a. “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.” In Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, 3-129. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl. 1975b. “Excerpts from M. M. Kovalevskij (Kovalevsky), Obschinnoe zemlevladenie. Prichiny, khod i posledstviya ego razlozheniya [Communal landownership: The causes, course and consequences of its decline].” In The Asiatic Mode of Production: Sources, Development and Critique in the Writings of Karl Marx, 343–412. Assen: Van Gorcum.
Marx, Karl. 1986. The Civil War in France. In Marx Engels Collected Works. Letters 1880–83, vol. 22, 307–359. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl. 1989. Drafts of the Letter to Vera Zasulich: Third Draft. In Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 24, 364-369. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl. 2001. Notes on Indian History (664–1858). Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1976. Manifesto of the Communist Party. In Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 6, 477-519. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1992. Marx Engels Collected Works. Letters 1880–83, vol. 46. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1995. Marx Engels Collected Works. Letters 1883–86, vol. 47. New York: International Publishers.
McLellan, David. 1973. Karl Marx: His Life and His Thought. London: Macmillan.
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Morgan, Henry. 1877. Ancient Society. New York: Henry Holt.
Moses, Daniel. 2009. The Promise of Progress: The Life and Work of Lewis Henry Morgan. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Musto, Marcello. 2007. “The Rediscovery of Karl Marx,” International Review of Social History 52 (3): 479-80.
Musto, Marcello. 2018a. Karl Marx. Biografia intellettuale e politica 1857-1883. Torino: Einaudi.
Musto, Marcello. 2018b. “The Writing of Capital: Genesis and Structure of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy.” Critique 46 n. 1: 11-26.
Musto, Marcello ed. 2019. Marx’s Capital after 150 Years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism. London-New York: Routledge.
Musto, Marcello. 2020a. The Last Years of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Musto, Marcello. 2020b. “Communism.” In The Marx Revival: Key Concepts and New Critical Interpretations, edited by Marcello Musto, 24-50. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Musto, Marcello. 2020c. “New Profiles of Marx after the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA²).” Contemporary Sociology 49, n. 4: 407-419.
Nicolaevsky, Boris and Otto Maenchen-Helfen. 1976. Karl Marx: Man and Fighter. London: Pelican Books.
Rühle, Otto. 2011. Karl Marx: His Life and Work. New York: Routledge.
Smith, David. 2021. “Accumulation and Its Discontents: Migration and Nativism in Marx’s Capital and Late Manuscripts”. In Marx 201: Rethinking Alternatives with Marx: Economy, Ecology, and Migration, edited by Marcello Musto. London: Palgrave.
Solway, Jacqueline, ed. 2006. The Politics of Egalitarianism. New York-Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Sperber, Jonathan. 2013. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liveright.
Stedman Jones, Gareth. 2016. Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Tichelman, Fritjof. 1983. “Marx and Indonesia: Preliminary Notes.” In Schriften aus dem Karl-Marx-Haus, vol. XXX: 9-28. Trier: Karl-Marx-Haus.
Vorländer, Karl. 1929. Karl Marx. Leipzig: F. Meiner.
Ward Gailey, Christine. 2006. “Community, State, and Questions of Social Evolution in Karl Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks.” In The Politics of Egalitarianism, edited by Jacqueline Solway, 31–52. New York-Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Webb, Daren. 2000. Marx, Marxism and Utopia. Aldershot: Ashgate.

1. See, for example, Mehring (2003, 501-32), Rühle (2011, 359-70), Vorländer (1929, 248-78), Nicolaevsky and Maenchen-Helfen (1976, 392-407), and McLellan (1973, 412-51). Even Maximilien Rubel (1957, 416-34), justly famed for his close textual studies, did not go beyond the limits of his predecessors in Karl Marx. Essai de biographie intellectuelle. In Marx: Life and Works, the French scholar wrote that “the last ten years of Marx’s life were like a slow agony” during which “his activity [was] limited to correspondence and a few articles”. But he added: “Nevertheless – even in a period so poor in published work – Marx filled about 50 notebooks, almost exclusively devoted to extracts from his reading. His ‘literary bulimia’ yielded nearly 3,000 pages of microscopic writing. To this should be added, finally, “tons” of statistical material which, at his death, left Engels dumbfounded” (1980, 100).
2. Biographies published in recent years exemplify how, even since the resumption of the MEGA² project, the work of the ‘late Marx’ has been overlooked by the vast majority of scholars. Jonathan Sperber’s (2013) insignificant Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life simply ignored Marx’s late writings. Gareth Stedman Jones’s (2016) lengthy Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion examined the whole period from 1872 to 1883 only in a short epilogue, while devoting five chapters (170 pages) to Marx’s early life (1818-1844), when he published only two journal articles and had just initiated the study of political economy, and three chapters (150 pages) to the time frame 1845-1849. In Sven-Eric Liedman’s (2018) 750-page A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx, there are only two very short sections dedicated to what Marx did after the Critique of the Gotha Programme. One of them – a superficial analysis of Morgan’s Ancient Society (Liedman, A World to Win, 507-13) – is strangely located before the consideration of writings like Herr Vogt (published in 1860) and Marx’s participation in the International Working Men’s Association (1864-1872). The choice of a non-chronological order impedes a clear understanding of Marx’s theoretical evolution during the final phase of his life. Common to all three of these biographies is a scant attention to the secondary literature.
3. To learn about the way Marx used to work and take notes from the books he used to read see Musto (2020c).
4. This title was given posthumously by Lawrence Krader (1919-1998), the editor of these manuscripts. However, the content of these studies is more accurately related to anthropology, hence the title of the section in the present article.
5. The parts from Phear and Maine were included in Karl Marx (1972, 243-336); Marx did not leave a precise dating of his work. Krader, the main researcher of these texts, argued that Marx first familiarized himself with Morgan’s book and then compiled the excerpts – see “Addenda” (87). See also Kautsky’s testimony from his trip to London in March-June 1881 that “prehistory and ethnology were then intensively preoccupying Marx” (Enzensberger 1973, 552).
6. According to Maurice Bloch (1983), Marx wanted first of all “to reconstruct a general history and theory of society in order to explain the coming to be of capitalism.” But he also had a “rhetorical” interest linked to the need for “examples and cases to show that the institutions of capitalism are historically specific and therefore changeable.” However, this second “rhetorical use of anthropological material was never completely separate from the historical use, and the mixture of the two became (…) the source of many problems” (10). Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval (2012), have written that “Marx’s main effort in his final years was to give a new historical foundation to the perspective of communism, at the risk of seriously endangering a theoretical edifice constructed on the basis of the nineteenth-century evolutionist and progressivist episteme” (667). Polemicizing against those who underrate the importance of Marx’s last notebooks, Heather Brown (2012, 147) argued that they “contain some of his most creative attempts at working through the development of human society.” On Marx’s conception of post-capitalist society see Musto (2020b).
7. The gens was a unit “consisting of blood relatives with a common descent,” see Henry Morgan (1877, 35).
8. In a note to the 1888 English edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Engels wrote: “The inner organization of this primitive communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Lewis Henry Morgan’s crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of the primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes” (Marx and Engels 1976, 482).
9. In this work, Engels actually published some of Marx’s comments on Morgan’s book.
10. Cf. Raya Dunayevskaya (1991, 173): “Marx (…) showed that the elements of oppression in general, and of women in particular, arose from within primitive communism, and not only related to change from ‘matriarchy.’”
11. Cf. Brown (2012, 172): “in ancient Greece (…) women were clearly oppressed, but, for Marx, their mythology had the potential to illustrate to them (…) how much freer they could be.”
12. Brown (2012, 160ff), has diligently compiled many other considerations that attracted Marx’s attention.
13. The words in brackets were added by Marx (1972, 139).
14. For a critique of any possible “return to an original state of unity,” see Daren Webb (2000, 113ff).
15. Engels wrongly believed that Morgan’s political positions were very progressive. See, for example, Friedrich Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, March 7, 1884, where he wrote that Ancient Society was “a masterly exposé of primitive times and their communism. [Morgan had] rediscovered Marx’s theory of history all on his own, (…) drawing communist inferences in regard to the present day,” (Marx and Engels 1995, 115-116). Marx never expressed himself in such terms. On the thought of the American anthropologist, see Daniel Moses (2009).
16. According to Krader (1972, 14): “Marx made it clear, as Morgan did not, that this process of reconstitution will take place on another level than the old, that it is a human effort, of man for and by himself, that the antagonisms of civilization are not static or passive, but are comprised of social interests which are ranged for and against the outcome of the reconstitution, and this will be determined in an active and dynamic way.” As Maurice Godelier (2012, 78) pointed out, in Marx there was never any “idea of a primitive ‘El Dorado.’” He never forgot that in primitive “classless societies” there were “at least three forms of inequality: between men and women, between senior and junior generations, and between autochthons and foreigners.”
17. In this work, Marx analysed the “opposition” between “civil society” and “the state;” the state does not lie “within” society but stands “over against it.” “In democracy the state as particular is merely particular. (…) The French have recently interpreted this as meaning that in true democracy the political state is annihilated. This is correct insofar as the political state (…) no longer passes for the whole” (Marx 1975a, 30).
18. Thirty years later, the critique is more sharply focused: “At the same pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labour, the State power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism” (Marx 1986, 329).
19. See also Engels’s view of Money, as he wrote in his letter to Kautsky dated February 16, 1884: “It would be a good thing if someone were to take the trouble to throw light on the proliferation of state socialism, drawing for the purpose on an exceedingly flourishing example of the practice in Java. All the material is to be found in Java, How to Manage a Colony (…). Here one sees how the Dutch have, on the basis of the communities’ age-old communism, organized production for the benefit of the state and ensured that the people enjoy what is, in their own estimation, a quite comfortable existence; the consequence is that the people are kept in a state of primitive stupidity and the Dutch exchequer rakes in 70 million marks a year” (Marx and Engels 1995, 102-103).
20. The words in brackets are Marx’s, while those between quotation marks are from the Annales de Assemblée Nationale, 1873, VIII, Paris 1873, included in Kovalevsky’s book.
21. According to Anderson “these passages indicate a shift from [Marx’s] 1853 view of Indian passivity in the face of conquest;” he “often ridicules or excises (…) passages from Sewell portraying the British conquest of India as a heroic fight against Asiatic barbarism”. Since the articles on the Sepoy revolt, which Marx published in the New-York Tribune in 1857, his “sympathy” for the Indian resistance had “only increased” (Anderson 2010, 216, and 218).
22. Marx was referring to the war of 1882, which opposed Egyptian forces under Ahmad Urabi (1841-1911) and troops from the United Kingdom. It concluded with the battle of Tell al-Kebir (13 September 1882), which ended the so-called Urabi revolt that had begun in 1879 and enabled the British to establish a protectorate over Egypt.
23. Karl Marx, IISH Amsterdam, Marx-Engels Papers, B 168, 11-18. See David Smith (2021), whose comments on these notes bring out their relevance for us today.


马克思主义哲学国际前沿讲坛”系列讲座第二讲 (Talk)

Book chapter

Introduction: The Making and the Dissemination of Le Capital

Capital: An Unfinished Masterpiece
In February 1867, after several years of hard work, Marx was finally able to give Engels the long-awaited news that Volume I of his masterpiece was finished. Marx went to Hamburg to deliver the manuscript and, in agreement with his editor Otto Meissner, it was decided that Capital would appear in 3 volumes. The first of them – ‘The Process of Production of Capital’ – was put on sale on 14 September. A few months before that date, Marx had written to his friend Johann Philipp Becker that the publication of his book was, ‘without question, the most terrible missile that has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie (landowners included)’ (Marx to Becker, 17 April 1867, Marx and Engels 1987: 358).

Following the final modifications, the table of contents was as follows:

1. Commodity and money
2. The transformation of money into capital
3. The production of absolute surplus value
4. The production of relative surplus value
5. Further research on the production of absolute and relative surplus value
6. The process of accumulation of capital
Appendix to Part 1, 1: The form of value.
(Marx 1983: 9-10)

Despite the long labour of composition before 1867, the structure of Capital would be considerably expanded over the coming years, and various further modifications would be made to the text. Volume I therefore continued to absorb significant energies on Marx’s part even after its publication.

In October 1867, Marx returned to Capital, Volume II. But this brought a recurrence of his health issues: liver pains, insomnia and carbuncles (see Musto 2018). The new year began much as the old one had ended and at times he was even unable to attend to his correspondence. As soon as he could return to work, he took a great interest in questions of history, agriculture and ecology, compiling notebooks of extracts from works by various authors. Particularly important for him were the Introduction to the Constitutive History of the German Mark, Farm, Village, Town and Public Authority (1854), by the political theorist and legal historian Georg Ludwig von Maurer, and three German works by Karl Fraas: Climate and the Vegetable World throughout the Ages, a History of Both (1847), A History of Agriculture (1852) and The Nature of Agriculture (1857).

While affording Marx a little energy for these new scientific studies, the state of his health continued its ups and downs. Anyway, he was able to put together a group of preparatory manuscripts on the relationship between surplus value and rate of profit, the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to decline, and the metamorphoses of capital – which occupied him until the end of 1868 (See Musto 2019: 26-7).

The next year, however, the carbuncles flared up with exhausting regularity and his liver took another turn for the worse. Despite his plan to finish Volume II by September 1869, which had once seemed realistic, his continuing misfortunes over the following years prevented him from ever completing the second part of his magnum opus.

There were, of course, also theoretical reasons for the delay. From Autumn 1868 to Spring 1869, determined to get on top of the latest developments in capitalism, Marx compiled copious excerpts from texts on the finance and money markets that appeared in The Money Market Review, The Economist and similar publications. His ever-growing interest in developments on the other side of the Atlantic drove him to seek out the most up-to-date information. He wrote to his friend Sigfrid Meyer that ‘it would be of great value […] if [he] could dig up some anti-bourgeois material about landownership and agrarian relations in the United States’. He explained that, ‘since [he would] be dealing with rent in [his] 2nd volume, material against H. Carey’s “harmonies” would be especially welcome’ (Marx to Meyer, 4 July 1868, Marx and Engels 1988: 61). Moreover, in Autumn 1869, having become aware of recent literature on socio-economic changes in Russia, he decided to learn Russian so that he could study it for himself. He pursued this new interest with his usual rigour.

The Search for the Definitive Version of Volume I and Le Capital
After many more interruptions and a period of intense political activity for the International Working Men’s Association, following the birth of the Paris Commune, Marx turned to work on a new edition of Capital, Volume I. Dissatisfied with the way in which he had expounded the theory of value, he spent December 1871 and January 1872 rewriting the 1867 appendix (See Musto 2018: 167-8). This led him to address again the first chapter itself, resulting in the manuscript known as ‘Additions and Changes to Capital, Volume I’ (Marx 1983: 1-55). During the revision of the 1867 edition, Marx inserted a number of additions and clarifications and also refined the structure of the entire book. Some of these changes concerned surplus value, the difference between constant capital and variable capital, and the use of machinery and technology. He also expanded the new edition from six chapters to seven books containing 25 chapters, themselves subdivided into more detailed sections. The new edition came out in 1872, with a print run of three thousand copies.

The year 1872 was a year of fundamental importance for the dissemination of Capital, since April saw the appearance of the Russian translation – the first in a long series (Musto and Amini, forthcoming 2023). Begun by German Lopatin and completed by the economist Nikolai Danielson, it was regarded by Marx as ‘masterly’ (Marx to Davidson, 28 May 1872, Marx and Engels 1989: 385).

In this year, too, the publication of the French edition of Capital got under way. Entrusted to Joseph Roy, who had previously translated some of Ludwig Feuerbach’s texts, it was scheduled to appear in batches with the French publisher Maurice Lachâtre, between 1872 and 1875. Marx agreed that it would be good to bring out a ‘cheap popular edition’ (Marx to Lafargue, 18 December 1871, Marx and Engels 1989: 283). ‘I applaud your idea of publishing the translation […] in periodic instalments’, he wrote. ‘In this form the work will be more accessible to the working class and for me that consideration outweighs any other.’ 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” (Letter 4 in Part IV of this volume; also Marx to Lachâtre, 18 March 1872, Marx and Engels 1989: 344).

In the end, Marx had to spend much more time on the translation than he had planned for the proof correction. As he wrote to 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’ (Marx to Danielson, 28 May 1872, Marx and Engels 1989: 385). Earlier that month, his daughter Jenny had told Kugelmann that her father was ‘obliged to make numberless corrections’, rewriting ‘not only whole sentences but entire pages’ (Jenny Marx to Kugelmann, 3 May 1872, Marx and Engels 1989: 578) – and a month later she added that the translation was so ‘imperfect’ that he had been ‘obliged to rewrite the greater part of the first chapter’ (Jenny Marx to Kugelmann, 27 June 1872, Marx and Engels 1989: 582). 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’ (Engels to Kugelmann, 1 July 1873, Marx and Engels 1989: 515).

In revising the translation, moreover, Marx decided to introduce some additions and modifications. These mostly concerned the section on the process of capital accumulation, but also some specific points such as the distinction between ‘concentration’ and ‘centralization’ of capital. In the postscript to Le Capital, he did not hesitate to attach to it ‘a scientific value independent of the original’ (Marx 1996: 24). It was no accident that in 1877, when an English edition already seemed a possibility, Marx wrote to Sorge that a translator ‘must without fail […] compare the 2nd German edition with the French edition, in which [he had] included a good deal of new matter and greatly improved [his] presentation of much else’ (Marx to Sorge, 27 September 1877, Marx and Engels 1991: 276). In a letter of November 1878, in which he 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 – principally in the first chapter – to simplify [aplatir] the matter’ (Marx to Danielson, 15 November 1878, Marx and Engels 1991: 343). For this reason, he felt it necessary to clarify later in the month that the chapters ‘Commodities and Money’ and ‘The Transformation of Money into Capital’ should be ‘translated exclusively from the German text’ (Marx to Danielson, 28 November 1878, Marx and Engels 1991: 346).

The drafts of Capital, Volume II, which were left in anything but a definitive state, present a number of theoretical problems. The manuscripts of Capital, Volume III have a highly fragmentary character, and Marx never managed to update them in a way that reflected the progress of his research. It should also be borne in mind that he was unable to complete a revision of Capital, Volume I that included the changes and additions he intended to improve his book. In fact, neither the French edition of 1872-75 nor the German edition of 1881 can be considered the definitive version that Marx would have liked it to be.

Marx through Le Capital
Following its original appearance in German in 1867, Capital was published in its entirety in only three more editions during Marx’s lifetime. All of them came out, at least in part, in 1872: the Russian translation in the month of March, the revised second German edition – in nine parts – between Spring of that year and January 1873, and the series of 44 instalments of the French translation, from September 1872 to May 1875.

The appearance of Le Capital, translated by Joseph Roy and revised by Marx himself, had considerable importance for the diffusion of his work around the world. It was used for the translation of many extracts into various languages – the first in English and Spanish, for example – as well as for compendia such as the one put together in 1879 by the Italian anarchist Carlo Cafiero, which received Marx’s approval and achieved a wide circulation. More generally, Le Capital represented the first gateway to Marx’s work for readers in various countries. The first Italian translation – published in instalments between 1882 and 1884 and then as a book in 1886 – was made directly from the French edition, as was the translation that appeared in another Mediterranean country (Greece) in 1927. In the case of Spanish, Le Capital made it possible to bring out some partial editions and two complete translations: one in Madrid, in 1967, and one in Buenos Aires, in 1973. 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 many countries in Latin America more rapidly. Much the same was true for Portuguese-speaking countries. In Portugal itself, Capital circulated only through the small number of copies available in French, until an abridged version appeared in Portuguese shortly before the fall of the Salazar dictatorship. In general, political activists and researchers in both Portugal and Brazil found it easier to approach Marx’s work via the French translation than in the original. The few copies that found their way into Portuguese-speaking African countries were also in that language.

Colonialism also partly shaped the mechanisms whereby Capital became available in the Arab world. While in Egypt and Iraq it was English that featured most in the spread of European culture, the French edition played a more prominent role elsewhere, especially in Algeria, which in the 1960s was a significant center for the circulation of Marxist ideas in the Maghreb, as well as in the Levant, where two full Arabic translations of Capital appeared in Syria and Lebanon, in 1956 and 1970 respectively. Moreover, between 1966 and 1970, a serialized Farsi edition was produced in exile, in the German Democratic Republic.

The great significance of Le Capital stretched to other parts of Asia. The first Vietnamese translation of Volume I, published between 1959 and 1960, was based on the Roy edition. The highly rigorous studies of Marx in Japan in the second half of the twentieth century enabled a Japanese translation of Capital to appear there in 1979, preceded by two anastatic reprints of the French edition in 1967 and 1976. As to China, a Mandarin translation first came out in 1983 – in a series of publications to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Marx’s death.

Thus, as well as being often consulted by translators around the world and checked against the fourth German edition – published by Engels in 1890 –, Le Capital has until now served as the basis for complete translations into eight languages, to which we should add numerous partial editions in various countries (Marcello Musto and Babak Amini forthcoming 2023). One hundred and fifty years since its first publication, it continues to be a source of stimulating debate among people interested in Marx’s work.

In a letter to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, the last general secretary of the International Working Men’s Association, Marx himself remarked that with Le Capital he had ‘consumed so much of [his] time that [he would] not again collaborate in any way on a translation’ (Marx to Sorge, 27 September 1877, Marx and Engels 1991: 276). The toil and trouble that he put into producing the best possible French version were remarkable indeed. But we can certainly say they were well rewarded.


1. Still unpublished, these notes are included in the IISH notebooks, Marx-Engels Papers, B 108, B 109, B 113 and B 114.
2. In early 1870 Marx’s wife told Engels that, ‘instead of looking after himself, [he had begun] to study Russian hammer and tongs, went out seldom, ate infrequently, and only showed a carbuncle under his arm when it was already very swollen and had hardened’ (Jenny Marx to Engels, 17 January 1870, Marx and Engels 1988: 551). Engels hastened to write to his friend, trying to persuade him that ‘in the interests of the Volume II’ he needed ‘a change of life-style’; otherwise, if there was ‘constant repetition of such suspensions’, he would never finish the book (Engels to Marx, 19 January 1870, Marx and Engels 1988: 408). The prediction was spot on.
3. In 1867 Marx had divided Capital, Volume I, into chapters. In 1872 these became sections, each with much more detailed subdivisions.
4. For a list of the additions and modifications in the French translation that were not included in the third and fourth German editions, see Marx 1983: 732-83.
5. The editorial work that Engels undertook after his friend’s death to prepare the unfinished parts of Capital for publication was extremely complex. The various manuscripts, drafts and fragments of volumes II and III, written between 1864 and 1881, correspond to approximately 2,350 pages of the MEGA2. Engels successfully published Volume II, in 1885, and Volume III, in 1894. However, it must be borne in mind that these two volumes emerged from the reconstruction of incomplete texts, often consisting of heterogeneous material. They were written in more than one period in time and thus include different, and sometimes contradictory, versions of Marx’s ideas.
6. See, for example, Marx to Danielson, 13 December 1881: ‘In the first instance I must first be restored to health, and in the second I want to finish off the 2nd vol. […] as soon as possible. […] I will arrange with my editor that I shall make for the 3d edition only the fewest possible alterations and additions. […] When these 1,000 copies forming the 3d edition are sold, then I may change the book in the way I should have done at present under different circumstances’ (Marx and Engels 1993: 161).
7. See the section ‘The Early Dissemination of Capital in Europe’ in Musto 2020: 77-85.

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