Comparing Two Editions of Marx-Engels Collected Works

Amy E.

This article compares the standard English edition of the collected works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW), with the international collected works project, the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA).  The MECW is nearly complete.  Begun in 1975, its 50th and final volume will appear in 2004.  By contrast, the MEGA is an ongoing project, only half complete.

The two editions were also designed for different purposes.  A reader’s edition, the MECW has three sections: the published works, Capital and texts leading up to it, and the collected letters of Marx and Engels themselves.  At the back of each volume, the editors of the MECW have appended a selection of supplementary materials, drafts and pertinent notes.

By contrast, the MEGA is an historical-critical edition of much greater length and detail, differing from the MECW not only in editorial aims, but also in scope.   The beginning three sections of the MEGA are divided in the same manner as the MECW: the polished texts and associated manuscripts (I); followed by Capital and the drafts and manuscripts leading up to it (II); followed by correspondence (III).  However, the MEGA also includes an extensive fourth section of material not in MECW: Marx and Engels’s reading excerpts and notes, many of which are thus being published for the first time (MEGA IV).

Still under the constraints of Stalinist publishing norms, the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow and Berlin began publishing the MEGA in 1975.  In 1990, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the International Marx-Engels Foundation (IMES) refounded the project with a set of different political and editorial commitments.  This ongoing MEGA project is the second attempt at a historical-critical edition of the collected works of Marx and Engels.  For the history of the first MEGA, see the essays collected in David Borisovic Rjazanov und die erste MEGA (Argument Verlag 1997). The IMES retained the name MEGA in order to show its linkage with the spirit of Riazanov’s unfinished project.  Sometimes scholars append a superscript “2” to the MEGA notation in order to distinguish the second series from Riazonov’s, which spanned the years 1927-35.  The 1990 plan called for 170 total volumes.  The number was subsequently reduced to 114 volumes, of which 49 are currently complete.

As with other historical-critical editions influenced by the German intellectual tradition, completeness or near completeness of the extant texts is only part of the goal of MEGA.  Editors also offer extensive contextualization of these texts, the content of which I will turn to in greater detail below.   As a part of this contextualization, editors include texts that Marx and Engels did not write, but to which they made substantial editorial contributions, such as those of fellow socialists Joseph Weydemeyer and Wilhelm Liebknecht.  The enlarged correspondence (MEGA III) contains not only those letters that Marx and Engels themselves composed, but also those approximately 10,000 that were sent to them: among them those of Left Hegelian Bruno Bauer, utopian socialist Moses Hess, and founder of the German Social Democratic Party Ferdinand Lassalle.

The MEGA goes far beyond what a casual reader needs.  Mainly it is a research tool for scholars and specialists.  It reproduces the divisions Marx and Engels left in their manuscripts.  An example unique to the edition is the draft of the 1844 manuscripts (MEGA II, Vol. 2, pp. 189-322).  Here Marx ran three texts alongside one another in order to display visually the simultaneous developments in wages, profit, and ground rent.  The MEGA presents the texts of Marx and Engels in draft form.  That is, the authors’ textual insertions appear according to the order in which the authors hit upon the ideas, and not according to controversial editorial estimations of where the inserted passages ultimately should go.  By contrast, the MECW simply inserts such additions in the text itself as they appeared in the final versions, always with a note indicating the move.  The MEGA thus assumes some familiarity with the texts on the part of a reader who is interested in the details of the order and manner of their composition.

In the MEGA, an “Apparat” volume of commentary accompanies each volume of text.  The Apparat volumes include indices to the volume in question by both name and subject.  Editors supply a publication history and commentary for each text in the main volume.  An explanatory section reveals the thematic links between the text in question and other pertinent documents, especially correspondence, and explains any historical or literary references.  Finally, all possible variations in the original manuscripts, down to the substitutions of commas for colons, are noted.  Philosophically interesting examples of variations not noted in the MECW’s more succinct editorial work include the substitutions of “materialism” for “realism”, of “empirical” for “actual”, and of “actual” for “true” in Marx’s Contributions to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (MEGA I, Vol. 2, Pgs. 49, 65, 66; noted in Apparat Pgs. 595-597).  In many cases, the Apparats even exceed the length of the volumes to which they are appended!

The MEGA is not a German-language edition of the collected works.  Instead, it presents both the primary and supplementary texts in their multiple original languages, with a high degree of precision.  Marx and Engels began their careers in Prussia but ended up in England via Belgium and France.  This means that both thinkers were literate in German, French, and English, and, in the case of Marx, the classical languages as well.  The excerpts also contain evidence of some, though less, understanding of Spanish and Italian texts.

In the excerpts in MEGA IV, Marx and Engels’s multilingu alism is constantly apparent. Marx’s notes and commentaries from the 1870s on Edouard Hospitalier include the following trilingual assessment of the potentials of electricity: “einen electrische Strom, der hat une certaine tension or force electro-motrice” (MEGA IV, Vol. 31, p. 467), and the following excerpt from William Thomson’s 1867 treatise on natural philosophy defining kinematics as “nach Ampère’s Vorschlag the purely geometrical science of motion in the abstract” (ibid., p. 478).  Marx’s own linguistic and national transitions can be traced in other ways from the MEGA IV, which reprints Marx’s notes on the texts he himself was reading and studying.  For example, in the 1850s he switches from using Garnier’s 1802 French translation of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and begins using the English. However, German is the language of the MEGA’s editorial markings and historical essays.1

Multi-lingual authors produced the MEGA, and multi-lingual readers are assumed.  Nonetheless, all four sections of the MEGA include substantial primary material in English.  Composed in English, Marx and Engels’s newspaper articles for the American and British presses are among this material.  From 1851 to 1862, Marx and Engels served among the European correspondents for the New York Daily Tribune, and, usually via the Tribune, for other periodicals in the United States, including Putnam’s Monthly.  During this period, Marx and Engels made weekly and sometimes even more frequent contributions to the Tribune and to the German language paper Neue-Oder Zeitung.

The volume of published journalism from 1855 appeared in 2001(MEGA I, Vol. 14), revealing many new things about this period in Marx and Engels’s writing that were not included in the MECW.  For example, the Tribune’s editors substantially altered the sense of the article “The Tribune and the War” before printing it on February 3, 1855.  The MEGA devotes an appendix to the Tribune’s various makeovers of Marx and Engels’s prose.  Some of Engels’s more detailed reports from the Crimean war have also been edited out of the MECW’s presentation of the texts from 1855, as has a translation of the “Zustand der Armeen” contribution to the Neue-Oder Zeitung.  But the essays in the MEGA Apparat volume confirm the correctness of these editorial choices. The “Zustand der Armeen” took its origins from the article “War that looms in Europe” that Engels composed for the Tribune, which is already fully presented in the MECW.  The MECW editors have simply avoided reproducing repetitive translations of material that Engels himself was presenting in two languages.  On the other hand, by presenting both works in full, the MEGA brings to light the details of the co-evolution of the articles for the two newspapers.  The MEGA’s multilingual presentation also makes it visually easy to distinguish which articles were originally for which paper.  Both the MECW and the properly German edition of the collected works, the Marx-Engels Werke (MEW), obscure this, since the articles are ordered by date, with half of them, in each case, presented in translation.

Similarly, the Moore-Aveling 1887 English translation of Volume One of Capital, the translation supervised by Engels, is included in the MEGA II.  The MECW’s editors also reproduce this translation, which is considered the standard one.

The section of the MEGA that contains this translation, the MEGA II, will be the first part of the MEGA to reach completion. The MEGA II contains Marx’s manuscripts and outlines for Capital, followed by the multiple versions of the work itself.  These manuscripts include the famous Grundrisse (1857-58) and the published parts I and II of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, followed by the six-part manuscript of part III, which the MEGA divides into different volumes according to Marx’s original schema (1861-63), followed by the three volumes of manuscripts from 1863-67.  (The paucity of literature on the texts that make up the Critique of Political Economy is unfortunate, since the texts really show the bridging between the Grundrisse and Capital.)  All of the German editions of Capital are included in the MEGA II, including the 1890 Hamburg edition that appeared after the 1887 English translation.  Engels put together the 1890 edition after Marx’s death in 1883, incorporating many changes from the previous editions.  The French edition of 1872-75 is also in the MEGA II series.  In the French edition, Marx substantially reorganized the chapters and parts into which the text was divided.  The series currently breaks off just after the 1890 edition of Volume One, although an extensively annotated text of Volume Three—including 1) a more complete version of Marx's mathematical notes on the rate of profit than has been previously published, and 2) a full account of Engel's editorial workappeared in 2003 (MEGA II, Vol. 14).  The intervening drafts and text of Volume Two of Capital and texts for Volume Three (MEGA II, Vols. 11-13 and 15) are nearly complete and will appear within the next two years.

MECW’s slender ten volumes on this period of Marx’s work simply do not reflect the breadth of this history.  The manuscripts from the years 1857 to 1863 are reproduced, followed by Volumes One, Two, and Three of Capital. The MECW’s somewhat clunky translation of the Grundrisse makes the manuscript, already difficult to read, still more so.  To its credit, the translation does follow the text set out in the MEGA edition of the Grundrisse.  However, those reading in English translation are still better served by Martin Nicolaus’s rendering (London: Penguin, 1973).

Scholars of the development of Marx’s magnum opus are very well served by the MEGA’s expanded presentation of Capital, including its own volume of the English text.  The editors of the MEGA make the developments in the text very easy to track.  The new divisions Marx introduced into the French edition were reproduced in the 1887 English translation.  The editors of the MECW should have noted this in their presentation of Volume One of Capital, since it is an indispensable fact for those who are seeking parallel passages in any of the German editions.  Marx’s sixty-page addition to the French text, reproduced by Engels only in the 1890 edition, is not in the MECW (on which see Kevin Anderson, “Uncovering Marx’s Yet Unpublished Writings,” reprinted in M eikle and Allison 20002).  The MEGA’s rather simple editorial device of printing the part- and chapter-titles in the heading of each page makes it easier to keep track of where you are in the text, a device not duplicated in the MECW presentation.  Finally, the MECW’s topical index to Capital as a whole is also at the end of Volume Three, causing at least one reviewer to think it was lacking, since the name index is presented at the end of each volume.

The English correspondence in MEGA III includes the letters between Marx and his British publishers, various letters from Jenny Marx, and the letters from Tribune editor Charles Anderson Dana.  Dana writes Marx in September 1855, to send him Ripley’s history of the Mexican war.  In October 1857, faced with financial troubles consequent to the approaching Civil War, Dana writes to limit Marx to only one contribution per week, having had to cut all of the paper’s European correspondents except for Marx and Baynard Taylor (MEGA III, Vol. 7, p. 476 and Vol. 8, p. 496).  The correspondence documenting Marx and Engels’s contact with the International Working Men’s Association has also just appeared last year (MEGA III, Vol. 11).

The recently published excerpts in MEGA IV include Marx’s notes on chemistry (1999, Vol. 31) and the reconstruction of Marx and Engels’s own personal libraries (1999, Vol. 32).  Among the materials that have not been prioritized are Marx’s studies on women and paternity from August of 1852.   No one is currently at work on these studies, which address the history of women and the effects of modern life on what we might today call the fundamentals of sexual difference.  Hopefully these studies will be fully included (as planned) in Volume 11.  It bodes well that scholars in Berlin are currently working on Volumes 10 and 12.

The volumes of the MEGA are emerging piecemeal because of the series’s complicated publication history.3 The volumes containing the famous co-written pieces The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto are not yet published, though scholars at the Karl Marx House in Trier, Germany are busily preparing both texts and their historical-critical appendages.  By contrast, the relatively minor late political writings of Engels, composed while he was editing Volume Three of Capital (1886-91), appeared in 2002 (MEGA  I, Vol. 31).  Thus in its current state, the MEGA must still be supplemented with the Marx Engels Werke for influential texts in the original language.  Scholars will have an abundance of new tools when these pivotal works finally do emerge in the new edition.  In this regard, the MECW makes up in completion what it lacks in detail.

The original plans for the MECW included additional global index volumes that would treat the series as a whole.  But Lawrence & Wishart in London, the current publishers of the MECW, predict that their press will be unable to complete these volumes.  While the indices that accompany each individual volume of the MECW are comprehensive, the series would be easier to navigate as a whole if the global index volumes were printed. In addition, the new articles and letters that have emerged in conjunction with the MEGA and were not included in the MECW¾but were within the scope of its original editorial aims¾could be included in the index volumes.

The indices themselves would have to be carefully and judiciously prepared.  Topical registers are especially problematic, since these give prominence to some ideas and concepts and can therefore bias a reading.  Concern over this possibility caused the MEGA’s editorial board to adopt strict guidelines regarding the topical registers attached to some of the individual volumes.  The editors also cut the global indices for the MEGA as a whole when the project was reduced in scope to 114 volumes.  Lack of funds is the reason most often cited for the elimination of the index volumes.  But it is also clear that, in the face of a limited budget, editors chose to prioritize full original texts over summary work of any kind.  The question of global indices also remains somewhat abstract for the editors of the MEGA at this stage of the project, with not yet half of the planned volumes complete.

Both the MECW and the MEGA were begun prior to 1989 and bear the ideological marks of this, especially in the editorial comments that attend the primary texts of the early years.  For example, the MECW’s introductory discussion of The Communist Manifesto claims that in it Marx and Engels supply a full justification for the proletarian party vanguard (MECW 1976, Vol. 6., p. xx).4 Hindsight and a sound historical understanding of the pressures that produced such claims make such hermeneutical leaps fairly easy to spot.  However, readers of both editions should be on the lookout for them. Changed political conditions separate a volume produced in 1976 from one produced in 1991, and again from one produced in 2000.

In 1994, the IMES founded a journal attached to the MEGA, the MEGA-Studien.  Inprinciple, the MEGA-Studien accepts submissions in German, English and French, but the preponderance of the articles it has printed to date have been in German.  In addition to presenting theoretical and historical work that draws on the MEGA volumes, the journal also carries reviews of volumes as they are added to the series, as well as updates about the status of the project as a whole.  This has been replaced since 2004 by a new yearbook, the Marx-Engels-Jahrbuch.

The publication history of Marx and Engels’s texts is itself bizarre, subject to more than a scholar’s usual share of political vicissitudes.  Because of this, the bulk of their original manuscripts are neither in Berlin nor in Moscow, but at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, along with the records of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and other records that had to be saved from destruction in the 1920s and 1930s.

In the past, a lack of interest in or even disdain for the works of Marx and Engels in English-language scholarship, coupled with the forced study of a highly selected and edited portion of their texts in Eastern Bloc countries, was one of the lingering consequences of twentieth-century politics. In the United States, this has prevented us from seeing the pervasive influence Marx and Engels have had on epistemology, ethics, existentialism, critical race theory, environmentalism, feminist theory, and history, not to mention in the foundations of all of the social and political sciences.  This blindness was coupled with the lack of historical rigor in many authors who did draw on these two thinkers.  Often this lack of rigor was no fault of the authors, who were working with degraded or incomplete texts and who deserve credit for their attempts to reckon with Marx and Engels in a political context that was very hostile.  Still, contemporary thinkers in the United States are suffering from the long-term ideological consequences of such hostility: the disappearance of the thinkers themselves and their legacy under the weight of accumulated political baggage.

Thankfully, this is changing in both Britain and the United States.  In Britain, especially since 1989, a growing number of scholars have begun to look at these texts again.  As I mentioned above, Scott Meikle of Glasgow has collected essays on Marx for the International Library of Critical Essays on the History of Philosophy.Terrell Carver has retranslated Marx’s famous Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (In Marx: Later Political Writings, Cambridge 1996).  And in 1994, the Political Studies Association of Great Britain founded the journal Studies in Marxism.  For more detail than I was able to provide above, I refer the reader to Chris Arthur’s very capable reviews of the MECW presentation of Volumes One and Two of Capital in Studies in Marxism (1996, 1998).

In the United States there are also exceptions to the superficial treatment of Marx and Engels, especially from those in the critical theory tradition.  Since the middle of the twentieth century, this tradition has been giving scholars in the United States access by proxy to the themes at issue in Marx and Engels.  Especially good is Moishe Postone of the University of Chicago, who gives a specific scholarly reading of Marx’s Grundrisse manuscript as he develops the more general theses of Time, Labor, and Social Domination (Cambridge 1993).  Postone was, however, educated in Germany.

The International Marx-Engels Foundation (IMES) includes scholars at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, and the Karl Marx House in Trier.  The MEGA is an international endeavor that has worked to protect the texts and continue their study and publication in a space free from coercive political and national constraints.  The teams at work on the volumes are also international and include scholars in Berlin, Trier, Aix-en-Provence, Amsterdam, Toulouse, Copenhagen, Japan, Marburg, Frankfurt, Venice and Erfurt.  Currently, there is only one team in the United States, Kevin Anderson of Chicago and David Smith of Lawrence, Kansas, who, in conjunction with a team in Moscow and Jürgen Rojahn in Amsterdam, are currently at work on the excerpts and notes from 1879-81.  Rojahn is the former secretary of the IMES, and in an article called “Publishing Marx and Engels after 1989: the Fate of the MEGA,” he writes that additional scholarly contributions to the MEGA project from Britain and the United States would be especially welcomed (1998).5

*I am grateful to the International Dissertation Field Research Fellowship Program, sponsored by the Social Science Research Council in partnership with the American Council of Learned Societies with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for their support.  I am also indebted to a J. William Fulbright Scholarship.


1. Certain minor, distinctively continental editorial errors mark elements of the MEGA’s presentation of English texts.  The main words of the titles to English books are capitalized inconsistently.

2. Meikle, Scott, Ed. and Robert E. Allison.   2000.  Marx (The International Library of Critical Essays on the History of Philosophy).  Dartmouth: Ashgate.

3. On which, see Hecker, Rolf.  1998.  “The MEGA Project: An Edition Between a Scientific Claim and the Dogmas of Marxism-Leninism,” Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory (Glasgow), No. 30/31, p. 193.

4. For a fuller account, see Anderson, Kevin.  1998. “Uncovering Marx's Yet Unpublished Writings,” Critique, No. 30/31, p. 182f (or in Meikle & Allison, 2000).

5. For an electronic version of Rojahn’s full article in English, along with information on the IMES and the current status of the MEGA project by volume, visit the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam or its website,