Selected Letters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)
0111207237-Marx.jpg Karl Marx (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The year 1983 is the centenary of Karl Marx’s death. The anticipated spate of memorial volumes, international conferences, and obligatory pilgrimages to his grave in London’s Highgate Cemetery testify to the fact that the Marxist heritage is far from having exhausted itself. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) even contributed a series entitled “Karl Marx: The Legacy,” narrated by no less an éminence grise of nineteenth century historiography than Asa Briggs. A considerable controversy erupted over the series when David McLellan, perhaps the foremost British authority on Marx’s life and works, and among the principal advisers to the BBC in the early stages of the Marx project, withdrew his support and asked that his name be omitted from the series’ credits. McLellan vigorously protested what he believed was a bias against Marx and (so McLellan judged) against the facts. East and West alike, what one makes of Marx and the heritage he spawned is not a trivial matter.

The appearance of a selection and translation into English of Marx’s and Engels’ letters to each other promised to be an event of some importance. Numerous specialized collections of Marx’s letters are already available, including Saul K. Padover’s The Letters of Karl Marx (1979), but no substantial collection of the letters of the cofounders of historical materialism has appeared which supersedes the now nearly fifty-year-old Selected Correspondence (1936) in the translation of Dona Torr. Fritz J. Raddatz’s edition has the advantage over the Selected Correspondence (which was based on the older Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, 1927-1935) of having had access to the definitive edition of the Marx-Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1956-1968), which contains nine volumes of correspondence and will provide the basis for any future translation and edition of the letters. Selected Letters thus draws upon materials that would not have been available to the editors of Selected Correspondence. In addition, Raddatz has chosen to limit his selection to the letters exchanged between Marx and Engels, filling in some of the otherwise obscure details and references to other figures and other correspondence with editorial commentary and a substantial biographical index at the end of the volume. Raddatz’s edition might therefore have served a most useful function in making available to those not fluent in German a substantial new body of material dealing with one of the most influential collaborations of modern times. As it stands, however, the volume is disappointing.

In the first place, any prospective editor of a selection of Marx’s and Engels’ writings is obligated to pose the following question at the outset: What has been the historical importance of Marx and Engels? One could do worse than follow the lead of Lenin, who claimed that the particular value of the Marx-Engels correspondence was threefold: first, theoretical (it illuminates the science of historical materialism); second, historical (it presents crucial documents in the history of the international labor movement); and third, political (it provides a clear picture of Marx’s and Engels’ central role in the maturing and expanding of the labor movement). Fritz Raddatz chose a quite different set of principles in assembling the present collection. A symptomatic remark appears in his intertextual commentary, when he attempts to justify his choice of letters dealing with Marx’s and Engels’ involvement with émigré intellectuals and political radicals: “As the present book attempts to paint a picture of Marx’s and Engels’ lives from their letters, it is important that all aspects should be presented—their struggle, their work, their worries, but also the pleasures they took in play, gossip, minor malice and émigré squabbles.” The objectivity and candor asserted by Raddatz’s “all aspects” are deceptive.

Raddatz himself seems to have construed the cause of truth to entail primarily presenting Marx’s and Engels’ private foibles: Marx’s perpetual financial difficulties (with the constant refrain of requests to Engels to help alleviate them); Marx’s poor health (dealt with...

(The entire section is 1740 words.)

Selected Letters Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Choice. XIX, July/August, 1982, p. 1623.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLXV, November, 1982, p. 51.

Library Journal. CVII, March 1, 1982, p. 544.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, May 2, 1982, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, January 1, 1982, p. 40.

The Wall Street Journal. February 18, 1982, p. 28.