Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels: Briefwechsel Januar 1858 bis August 1859. Marx/Engels Gesamtausgabe III/9

Reviewed by Gerd

Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels: Briefwechsel Januar 1858 bis August 1859. Marx/Engels Gesamtausgabe III/9. Edited by Vera Morozowa, Marina Uzar, Elena Vaščenko and Juergen Rojahn, in cooperation with Ursula Balzer, Internationale Marx-Engels-Stiftung Amsterdam (Akademie-Verlag, Berlin, 2003). [1301 pp.]

With the present volume, 11 volumes out of the 35 planned in the third section of the MEGA containing the Marx and Engels correspondence have seen the light of day; 6 other volumes are in preparation. This section has primarily been processed in Moscow, but since the late 1990s researchers outside Russia have also become involved in preparing the letter-volumes. The number of surviving letters varies a great deal between periods. For instance, vol. 7 covers the period from September 1853 to March 1856, a total of 31 months, whereas vol. 18 (not yet published) covers only July to November 1871, i.e. 5 months. This period, however, encompasses the aftermath of the Paris Commune and includes discussions in the International concerning a new structure and a new way forward.

The present volume is in an intermediary position. It contains a total of 311 letters distributed over the 20 months from January 1858 to August 1859. Of these, 115 were written by Karl Marx and his wife Jenny, and 45 by Engels. Letters exchanged between Marx and Engels account for the major share of the correspondence; 127 letters have survived. The second largest category is made up of letters from Engels’ parents to their son (33 letters), but only one of his to his mother has survived. Among the other extant letters, 16 are addressed to Ferdinand Lassalle, the ex-member of the Communist League and a friend of Marx, and 18 are from him. Some of these letters discuss the drama Sickingen and are important to Marxist literary criticism. The remainder of the letters are to/from many different people including Charles A. Dana, the editor of the New York Daily Tribune. Incidentally, Dana asked Marx to write the article on Hegel for the New American Cyclopedia (p. 524), but the project was never realized. In addition, information is provided about 106 letters to and from Marx and Engels which have not survived but whose former existence can be deduced from other extant letters. The total number of people involved in the correspondence is not less than 40.

The spring of 1857 saw the start of an economic recession throughout Europe, something which immediately caught the attention of Marx and Engels. They perceived this recession as a possible starting point for re-creating the organized socialist movement in whose funeral they had themselves taken part some years before. When the revolutionary movement of 1848/49 had suffered its final defeat, it had not been possible to keep alive the Communist League, which had been led by Marx and Engels during the course of the German revolution. On the contrary, a large number of League members had become impatient and had therefore struck a pseudo-revolutionary path. In two “Addresses of the Central Committee to the Communist League” (March and June 1850), Marx and Engels had drawn a number of conclusions from the revolutionary struggle. Later Marx had become convinced that the proletariat would have to undergo a revolutionary process of 15, 20, 50 years’ duration before it would again be ready to fight. In November 1852, consequently, Marx insisted on the dissolution of the League. 19 years later the Paris Commune was a fact of history.

At the beginning of the economic recession Marx thought that another revolutionary movement would be capable of arising. Obviously not without some cause: it was clear that the general political contradictions had to be intensified if any revolutionary movement was to be regenerated. However, he objected to the restablishment of the Communist League in any form; in his opinion time was not ripe for this. Lassalle and others warned Marx against getting his hopes up concerning any popular revolutionary upsurge. Such an upsurge was not forthcoming, and Marx was on the point of giving up. However, he did not give in to this “petit bourgeois pessimism,” and in the same letter had second thoughts (p. 73).

1858 saw the surfacing of the political conflicts between Napoleon III’s France allied to one of the Italian states on the one hand, and the Austrian Empire on the other. This led to feverish activities in emigrant circles in London – activities in which Marx, however, took no part. Instead he tried to analyze the implications of the new situation, to find out how communists could appropriately react and how they could possibly gain an influence among larger groups. The emigrant squabbles he considered to be barren.

In 1859, against the backdrop of the emerging crises on the Continent, Engels anonymously published a topical analysis entitled Po and Rhine. Together with Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, which was published later the same year, this was an attempt to introduce the new science developed by Marx and Engels. Each treated his own field: Marx’s contribution was the initial result of his criticism of existing economic science, while that of Engels was a dialectical analysis of the political situation, using military strategy as its point of departure. In Marx’s opinion Engels’s contribution documented the analytical capacity of communists examining a complex situation (p. 426). For a long time, Engels had studied military strategy and written prolifically about it (for the New American Cyclopedia), showing a level of insight that caused a quite a stir at the time. Marx and Engels were aware of this, and in their letters discussed both these publications and their impact.

The political conflict developed and war broke out between France/Italy and Austria in the summer of 1859. Who won the war would have no decisive impact on a potentially revolutionary movement. But the scope of warfare did, as did the question of which other states would become embroiled in the war. Marx in particular attached great importance to Prussia (p. 427f). He did not, however, forget about Russia, the stronghold of reaction, and perennially at tenterhooks to suppress any revolutionary movement. This time the conflict did not become sufficiently intense for such a development. France and Austria realized that a prolongation of the war would benefit neither of them, and concluded a peace treaty. Thus, the revolution was postponed indefinitely.

By then few communists were left, and they maintained more or less unstructured contacts. During previous years they had simply been forced to fight for survival and had barely had any energy left for a revolutionary effort. It would in any case have been wasted as will be seen from Joseph Weydemeyer’s untiring attempts to establish a communist organization in the United States (pp. 79, 170, 367f). Circumstances were not right and his attempts led nowhere.

Marx, however, had a certain influence through his articles in the New York Tribune, an important Liberal paper of the time, which published up to two weekly articles of his (several of them syndicated to other papers). This work was quite essential to him, partly because it secured a certain income, but especially because the paper provided him with a political outlet that he could take advantage of both vis-à-vis emigrant politicians in London and vis-à-vis party comrades and allies in the States. Engels wrote many of the articles on behalf of Marx, both for the Tribune and for the New American Cyclopedia, the first volume of which was published at this time. This is the pivotal point for many of the letters between Marx and Engels, and co-operation between the two friends was very close. It was a well-kept secret, that Engels supported him in this work. The first long series in 1851, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany,” was written by Engels alone, and in the first years of work for the Tribune Engels had to translate Marx’s endeavours into English.

Because of the enhanced activity level among the emigrants, various oppositional weeklies saw the light of day in London. Originally, Marx stayed aloof from all these efforts. Yet, at the same time he considered an independent periodical to be important. It looked as if the weekly Das Volk, which was associated with the German Workers’ Club in London, might develop into such a periodical (p. 430). Following the first four numbers, Marx thought that it was now financially sustainable. He raised a small amount among party comrades and joined the editorial board in June 1859. In July he also became its official editor, but only a few weeks later the periodical foundered, the last issue was published in August 1859. The number of communists was too low to keep the periodical afloat, and seemingly not many others wanted to subscribe to it. The debt incurred by the magazine encumbered Marx’s already strained financial situation for many months to come. But politically Marx thought it had been an advantage to have an independent means of communication for some weeks.  (Incidentally, it was here that he initiated his campaign against Karl Vogt, a former Liberal activist in the revolution 1848/49, whom he accused of being an agent of Napoleon III. The campaign took up most of his time in 1859/60, but provided him with an opportunity to resume contact with his old party friends.)

The letters collected in this volume provide an important insight into contemporary politics, especially into Marx’s situation and his attempts to break his political isolation—which he thought it important to do, but not at any price. The letters also allow us to see how he prepared his analyses, as methods for interpreting the situation. It seems slightly frustrating not to be able to read the concurrent articles in the newspapers to which he and Engels contributed as these have not yet been published in a MEGA context and are not easily accessible elsewhere (only the articles for the years before 1855 and for 1859-1860 have been published in section I of the MEGA). The introduction however expounds on some of these contributions.

This volume with its comprehensive historical notes is once again a major boon for the interested reader. The new material, including 92 previously unpublished letters, is only part of the story. Of particular value is that of the letters of Marx and Engels are here printed together with the letters addressed to them, and also with links to volumes in other sections of MEGA. The introduction, however, is much too long (ca. 90 pages). This is truly a big misunderstanding. Since 1990 when work on MEGA began to be carried out under new circumstances, it has never been the intention to supply some sort of authoritative interpretation of the texts. Today, MEGA aims at being an open, scholarly edition, so it seems obvious that the author of the introduction has mistaken his role: providing a concise account of the place of the present 311 letters in the lifework of Marx and Engels. Here, excessive space is taken up quoting from and repeating letters which one can read directly in this volume, and the huge level of detail does not provide transparency. Indexes of names and literature have been carefully prepared, and references to existing scholarly literature are extensive, but not adequate; in particular, literature in English seems to have been selected somewhat haphazardly, which is unsatisfactory as important contributions on Marxism and its development have, in recent years, been published in English.

Reviewed by Gerd Callesen