Selected Letters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1740

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.

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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 in excruciating detail—down to the anatomical location of Marx’s carbuncles); and Marx’s and Engles’ contempt for other émigrés and other leaders of the international working-class movement (the ill-starred Ferdinand Lassalle has an entire section devoted to him, in which all the nastiness, venality, and obtuse misunderstanding that plagued Marx’s and Engles’ relationships with him are made abundantly clear). None of this information comes as a surprise, even to the general reader, let alone the specialist. It is commonly known that Engels supported Marx financially throughout the latter’s life, that Marx suffered from carbuncles (which doubtless were painful and inconvenienced his work—the reader needs neither a medical degree nor the copious detail of Raddatz’s selection to know this), and that Marx and Engels could be high-handed and ruthless in dealing with their political opponents. Yet these banalities are presented as if they were great revelations.

To see how completely inadequate Raddatz’s editorial principles are, one need only compare some points of convergence between his volume and the Selected Correspondence to see what a different (and more historically useful) picture of Marx and Engels emerges from the earlier volume. For example, there is the letter from Engels to Marx of December 3, 1851, containing Engels’ impressions on the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon. The text in both volumes is the same, except for minor differences in translation, but Raddatz’s spare commentary points out only that Marx seems to have borrowed some of Engels’ phrases in writing the famous opening paragraphs of Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte (1852; The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1926). Selected Correspondence, on the other hand, follows the text of the letter with a long note explaining the importance of the events and of Marx’s and Engels’ analysis. The editors quote from subsequent writings by Engels (including Dialectics of Nature, 1940) in which the questions raised in the letter are commented on further. The effect of reading these pages in Selected Correspondence is an appreciation of the importance of Engels’ contributions to the emergence of historical materialism. From Selected Letters, one gains no sense of history at all, neither of the events about which Marx and Engels wrote, nor of the history of the theoretical development of Marxism. What one does glimpse, if only fleetingly, in these early pages of Selected Letters, is evidence of the intellectual stature and originality of the young Engels, although, once more, this theme is a familiar one in the scholarship on Marx and Engels. Steven Marcus’ popular and widely available Engels, Manchester and the English Working Class (1974) put the myth of Engels’ intellectual mediocrity to rest nearly a decade ago.

Another instance of the inadequacy of Raddatz’s editing is provided by the texts of two of Marx’s letters dealing with Lassalle. The former letter presents gossip about Lassalle gleaned from Gustav Levy, who visited Marx with the ostensible purpose of transmitting just this gossip—or so one surmises from the edited version presented by Raddatz. If one consults the Selected Correspondence, however, the letter proceeds to reveal the other, arguably primary, purpose of Levy’s visit: to communicate to Marx information about the German working class, including its state of political organization and its economic and social condition. One obtains the impression from the Raddatz text that Marx’s and Engels’ contempt for Lassalle was merely personal. In fact, they were much more concerned about his political position and the adverse effect it would (and, as subsequent history showed, did) have on the revolutionary potential of the German working class. In the second letter, which relates Marx’s harsh assessment of Lassalle’s book on Heraclitus, only the invective is included. In Selected Correspondence, the text of the same letter explains Lassalle’s residual Hegelianism and the difference between applying a preexisting logical system to a set of phenomena (as Lassalle did in categorizing the work of Heraclitus according to Hegelian principles) and developing a system dialectically (as Marx was to do in his critique of political economy). The importance of this letter, with its theoretical statement about Marx’s conception of science, is completely lost in Raddatz’s edition.

The absence of any sense of the theoretical significance of the Marx-Engels correspondence is the most serious lacuna in Selected Letters. Reading through Raddatz’s selection, one misses this dimension entirely. For example, the long, extremely detailed letter from Marx to Engels written on April 2, 1858, in which Marx’s theoretical position at this critical time (he was compiling the results of his economic research for the work Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomic, 1859; A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1904) is succinctly set forth. This letter is simply omitted from Selected Letters. Altogether, the rich theoretical materials available from the letters of 1858-1868, as published in Selected Correspondence, merit scarcely a mention in Selected Letters. If Raddatz’s purpose had been to redress the balance of opinion concerning Engels, he ought surely to have included the later letters to Marx dealing with Engels’ mature theoretical speculations (including the projected “Dialectics of Nature”) and political analyses described in Selected Correspondence.

In the end, it is difficult not to interpret Raddatz’s aim in selection as a fairly crude attempt to mock and defame Marx and Engels and thereby to discredit to a degree the heritage of Marxism. Just as Asa Briggs, in the BBC series referred to earlier, stood at the Berlin Wall and said, “This is perhaps the most lasting legacy of Marx,” so Fritz Raddatz’s edition of the Marx-Engels correspondence points to the often not very flattering humanity of Marx and Engels, as if to say: “Marx and Engels—theoreticians of the first order? Leaders of the most important revolutionary movement in modern times? Historians of rare genius? Surely not the men who lived as these two did.” The debunking is unlikely to affect seriously the genuinely important scholarship and criticism on Marxism that is being done in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless, it would be unfortunate (and a great intellectual disservice) if Raddatz’s selection were to remain the principal access for the general reader to the Marx-Engels correspondence. In the absence of a more adequate edition, readers not already familiar with the history of Marxism would do better to read the Selected Correspondence in Dona Torr’s perfectly acceptable translation. There, he will encounter Marx and Engels more usefully, for there is more to be gleaned from their correspondence than an intimate acquaintance with Marx’s carbuncles.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36

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.

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