Interview: Marcello Musto

Marx in new light

Print edition : April 15, 2016

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 24/02/2016: Marcello Musto, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, York University, Canada, delivering a lecture at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS). Photo: Photo: V. Ganesan

Karl Marx. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Friedrich Engels.

Interview with Marcello Musto, professor of Sociological Theory at York University.

MARCELLO MUSTO, 39, teaches Sociological Theory at York University (Toronto). His books and articles have been published worldwide in 20 languages. Among his edited and co-authored volumes, reprinted in several editions, are Karl Marx’s ‘Grundrisse’: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later (2008 - Chinese translation, CRUP, 2012); Marx for Today (Chinese translation, CRUP, forthcoming 2016); and The International after 150 Years: Labour Versus Capital, Then and Now(2015), all published by Routledge. He has also edited the first anthology on the International Working Men’s Association ever realised in the English language, Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later (Bloomsbury 2014). Among his forthcoming books are the monographs Another Marx: An Essay in Intellectual Biography (Bloomsbury 2017); The Formation of Marx’s ‘Capital’ (Pluto, 2017); and the edited volume, The Marx Revival: Major Concepts and New Critiques (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

As part of his broad academic tour in India, he visited Chennai recently to deliver two talks and answered some questions from S.V. Rajadurai, well-known Tamil writer and social activist.

You are known for your work on Marx’s reception in the world. Let’s start this interview with a topic not very known to Indian readers of Marx and Marxism. Could you tell us the most important steps in the history of the publication of Marx and Engels’ complete editions?

The natural executor of the realisation of this opera omnia could not have been anyone other than the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, holder of the Nachlaß and whose members had the greatest linguistic and theoretical competencies. Nevertheless, political conflicts within social democracy not only impeded the publication of the imposing mass of unpublished works by Marx but caused the dispersal of his manuscripts, compromising any suggestion of a systematic edition. Unbelievably, the German party did not curate any, treating their literary legacy with the maximum negligence imaginable. None of its theoreticians drew up a list of the intellectual estate of the two founders. Nor did they dedicate themselves to collecting the correspondence, extensive but extremely dispersed, despite the fact that it was clearly a very useful source of clarification, if not a continuation, of their writings.

The first publication of the complete works, Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), occurred only in the 1920s, at the initiative of David Borisoviè Ryazanov, director of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. This undertaking also ran aground, however, owing to the turbulent events of the international workers’ movement, which often established obstacles rather than favoured the publication of their works. The Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union, which also affected the scholars working on the project, and the rise of Nazism in Germany, led to the early interruption of the publication.

The early works were only published in MEGA as late as 1927 for Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and 1932 for Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology. As had already occurred with the second and third books of Capital, they were published in editions in which they appeared as completed works, a choice that would later demonstrate itself to be the source of numerous interpretative misunderstandings. Later still, some of the important preparatory works for Capital, in 1933 the draft chapter 6 of Capital on the “Results of the Direct Production Process”, and between 1939 and 1941 Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, better known as the Grundrisse, were published in a print run that secured only a very limited circulation.

The first Russian edition of the collected works was also completed in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1947: the Soèinenija (Complete Works). In spite of the name, it only included a partial number of writings, but with 28 volumes (in 33 books) it constituted the most complete collection in quantitative terms of the two authors at the time. The second Soèinenija, then, appeared between 1955 and 1966 in 39 volumes (42 books). From 1956 to 1968 in the German Democratic Republic, at the initiative of the central committee of the SED, 41 volumes in 43 books of Marx Engels Werke (MEW) were published. Such an edition, however, far from complete, was weighed down by introductions and notes which, following the model of the Soviet edition, guided the reader according to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.

The project of a “second” MEGA, planned as the faithful reproduction with an extensive critical apparatus of all the writings of the two thinkers, was reborn during the 1960s. Nevertheless, these publications, begun in 1975, were also interrupted, this time following the events of 1989. In the 1990s, with the goal of continuing this edition, the Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis of Amsterdam and the Karl Marx Haus in Trier formed the Internationale Marx-Engels-Stiftung (IMES). After a difficult phase of reorganisation, in the course of which new editorial principles were approved, the publication of the so-called MEGA 2 commenced in 1998.

You have benefited immensely from MEGA 2 and have made significant contributions for understanding Karl Marx and his thought in a new light. Can you tell us about this project?

The reorganisation of the ongoing edition of Marx’s writings and the transfer of the MEGA² headquarters to the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften is one of the most significant examples of the renewed interest for Marx’s work in the academia today.

This project, in which scholars of various disciplinary competences from numerous countries participate, is articulated in four sections: the first includes all the works, articles, and drafts excluding Capital; the second includes Capital and its preliminary studies starting from 1857; the third is dedicated to the correspondence; while the fourth includes excerpts, annotations, and marginalia. Of the 114 planned volumes, more than 60 have already been published (more than 20 since recommencement in 1998), each of which consists of two books: the text plus the critical apparatus, which contains the indices and many additional notes.

The editorial acquisitions of MEGA² have produced important results in all the four sections. In the first, Werke, Artikel und Entwürfe, research was recommenced with the publication of many new volumes, in particular on Marx’s journalistic work. The research for the second section of MEGA², ‘Das Kapital’ und Vorarbeiten, has concentrated in recent years on the second and third book of Capital.

The third section of MEGA², Briefwechsel, contains the letters exchanged by Marx and Engels throughout their lives, as well as those between them and the numerous correspondents with whom they were in contact. The total number of the letters in this correspondence is enormous. More than 4,000 written by Marx and Engels (2,500 of which are between themselves) have been found, as well as 10,000 addressed to them by third parties, the large majority of which were unpublished before MEGA 2. Furthermore, there is firm evidence of the existence of another 6,000 letters, though these have not been preserved. Several new volumes have been edited which now allow us to re-read important phases of Marx’s intellectual biography through the letters of those with whom he was in contact.

The novelties of the historical critical edition are also noticeable in the fourth section, Exzerpte, Notizen, Marginalien. This contains Marx’s numerous summaries and study notes, which constitute a significant testimony to his mammoth work. From his university years, he adopted the life-long habit of compiling notebooks of extracts from the books he read, often breaking them up with the reflections which they prompted him to make. The Nachlaß of Marx contains approximately 200 notebooks of summaries. These are essential for the knowledge and comprehension of the genesis of his theory and of the parts of it that he didn’t have the chance to develop as he wished. The conserved extracts, which cover the long arch of time from 1838 until 1882, are written in eight languages—German, Ancient Greek, Latin, French, English, Italian, Spanish and Russian—and treat the widest range of disciplines. They were taken from texts of philosophy, art, religion, politics, law, literature, history, political economy, international relations, technology, mathematics, physiology, geology, mineralogy, agronomy, ethnology, chemistry, and physics, as well as newspaper and journal articles, parliamentary reports, statistics, reports, and publications of government offices—as amongst these are the famous “Blue Books”, in particular Reports of the inspectors of factories, which contained investigations of great importance for his studies. This immense mine of knowledge, in large part still unpublished, was the building site of Marx’s critical theory. The fourth section of MEGA 2, planned for 32 volumes, will provide access to it for the first time.


This is very interesting. Can you give us the example of one special volume you really find useful for the new research on Marx?

Well, I think I’d mention the volume IV/32. If Marx’s manuscripts, before being published, knew numerous ups and downs, the books owned by Marx and Engels suffered an even worse fate. After Engels’ death, the two libraries that contained their books with interesting marginalia and underlinings were ignored and in part dispersed and only subsequently reconstructed and catalogued with difficulty. The volume “Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, Die Bibliotheken von Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels” (IV/32) is in fact the fruit of 75 years of research. It consists of an index of 1,450 books in 2,100 volumes—or two-thirds of those owned by Marx and Engels —which includes notes of all the pages of each volume on which there are annotations. It is a publication in advance which will be integrated when MEGA 2 is completed by the index of books not available today (the total number of those that have been recovered is 2,100 books in 3,200 volumes), with indications of marginalia, present in 40,000 pages of 830 texts, and the publication of comments on readings taken in the margins of the volumes. As many who were in close contact with Marx have noted, he did not consider books as objects of luxury, but instruments of work. He treated them badly, folding the corners of pages, and underlining in them. “They are my slaves and have to obey my will,” he said of his books. On the other hand, he indulged in them with extreme devotion, to the point of defining himself as “a machine condemned to devour books in order to expel them, in a different form, on the dunghill of history”. To be able to know some of his readings—and one should nevertheless remember that his library gives only a partial cross-section of the tireless work that he conducted for decades in the British Museum in London—as well as his comments in relation to these, constitute a precious resource for the reconstruction of his research. It also helps to refute the false hagiographical Marxist-Leninist interpretation that has often represented his thought as the fruit of a sudden lightning strike and not, as it was in reality, as an elaboration full of theoretical elements derived from predecessors and contemporaries.

What in your opinion is the contribution of Engels for shaping and developing Marxism?

After Marx’s death in 1883, Friedrich Engels was the first to dedicate himself to the very difficult task —due to the dispersion of the material, obscurity of language and the illegibility of the handwriting—of editing his friend’s legacy. His work concentrated on reconstruction and selection from the original materials, on the publication of unedited or incomplete texts and, at the same time, on the republication and translation of writings already known.

Even if there were exceptions, such as the case of Theses on Feuerbach, edited in 1888 as an appendix to his Ludwig Feuerbach and End of classical German philosophy, and Critique of the Gotha Programme, which came out in 1891, Engels focussed almost exclusively on the editorial work for the completion of Capital, of which only the first volume was published before Marx’s death. This undertaking, lasting more than a decade, was pursued with the explicit intention of realising “a connected and as far as possible complete work” (Preface to Capital, vol. II).

Previously, however, Engels had already directly contributed to a process of theoretical systematisation with his own writings. Appearing in 1879, Anti-Dühring, defined by Engels as the “more or less connected exposition of the dialectical method and of the communist world outlook championed by Marx and myself”, became a crucial point of reference in the formation of “Marxism” as a system and its differentiation from the eclectic socialism widespread at the time. Evolution of Socialism from Utopia to Science had even more importance: it was a re-elaboration, for the purposes of popularisation, of three chapters of the previous work, published for the first time in 1880, and enjoyed a success comparable to that of Manifesto of the Communist Party.

Even if there was a clear difference between this type of popularisation, undertaken in open polemic with the simplistic short-cuts of the encyclopaedic syntheses, and that adopted by the next generation of the German Social Democracy (SPD), Engels’ recourse to the natural sciences sometimes opened the way to the evolutionistic conception of social Darwinism which, soon after, in particular with Kautsky, would also be affirmed in the workers’ movement.

Having in mind the forthcoming 150th anniversary of Marx’s “Capital”, what is the contribution of Engels for the publication of Marx’s masterpiece?

Many of the latest philological insights of the new historical-critical edition highlight a peculiar feature of Marx’s work: incompleteness. Marx left many more manuscripts than printed writings. This was also the case of Capital, whose entire publication, including all the preparatory works from 1857 onwards, has been brought to its accomplishment in the second section of MEGA 2 only in 2013.

After Marx’s death, Engels was the first to tackle the challenging enterprise—given the dispersion of the materials, the oddity of Marx’s language and the illegibility of his handwriting—of publishing the fragmentary Nachlaß of his friend. This series of difficulties is especially apparent in the third book of Capital, the only one to which Marx was unable, even roughly, to provide a definitive form. The intense editing activity on which Engels focussed his efforts in the period between 1885 and 1894 resulted in a transition from a very rough text, mainly comprising thoughts recorded in statu nascendi and preliminary notes, to an organic text.

If we, for example, consider Capital vol. III, Engels had to make determinative editorial decisions. The most recent philological acquisitions estimate that Engels’ editorial interventions in this text amount to circa 5,000, a quantity much greater than that which had been assumed up until now. The modifications consist in additions and cancellations of passages in the text, modifications of its structure, insertion of titles of paragraphs, substitutions of concepts, re-elaborations of some formulations of Marx, or translations of words adopted from other languages. The text given to the printers only emerged at the end of this work.

Marx’s manuscripts of Capital recently published by MEGA 2 depict, with unequivocal exactitude, the course traversed by them up to their published version and, throwing into sharp relief the number of interventions in the text—far greater than had till now been hypothesised; they allow us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of Engels in his role as editor.


But you have also blamed some Marxists for misinterpreting Marx. Is that correct?

Marx’s thought, indisputably critical and open, fell foul of the cultural climate in Europe at the end of the 19th century. As never before, it was a culture pervaded by the popularity of systematic conceptions—above all by Darwinism. In order to respond to it, the newly born Marxism, which had precociously become an orthodoxy in the pages of the review Die Neue Zeit under Kautsky’s editorship, rapidly conformed to this model.

A schematic doctrine took shape, an elementary evolutionistic interpretation soaked in economic determinism: the Marxism of the period of the Second International (1889–1914). Guided by a firm though naive conviction of the automatic forward progress of history, and therefore of the inevitable replacement of capitalism by socialism, it demonstrated itself to be incapable of comprehending actual developments, and, breaking the necessary link with revolutionary praxis, it produced a sort of fatalistic quietism that promoted stability for the existing order.

The theory of crisis [ Zusammenbruchstheorie] or the thesis of the impending end of bourgeois-capitalist society, which found its most favourable expression in the economic crisis of the great depression unfolding during the 20 years after 1873, was proclaimed as the fundamental essence of scientific socialism. Marx’s affirmations, aiming at the delineation of the dynamic principles of capitalism and, more generally, at describing the tendencies of development within them, were transformed into universally valid historical laws from which it was possible to deduce the course of events, even particular details.

The idea of a contradictory agonised capitalism, autonomously destined to break down, was also present in the theoretical framework of the first entirely “Marxist” platform of a political party, The Erfurt Programme of 1891 and in Kautsky’s commentary, which announced how “inexorable economic development leads to the bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production with the necessity of a law of nature. The creation of a new form of society in place of the current one is no longer something merely desirable but has become inevitable.” It was the clearest and most significant representation of the intrinsic limits of the conception of the time, as well as of its vast distance from the man who had been its inspiration.

Even Eduard Bernstein, who conceived of socialism as possibility and not as inevitability and hence signalled a discontinuity with the interpretations that were dominant in that period, read Marx in an equally artificial way, which didn’t differ at all from other readings of the time, and contributed to the diffusion of an image of him, by means of the wide resonance of the Bernstein-Debatte, that was equally false and instrumental.

In your writings, you have extended your critique also to Soviet Union and Russian Marxism. Is that true?

Russian Marxism, which in the course of the 20th century played a fundamental role in the popularisation of Marx’s thought, followed this trajectory of systematisation and vulgarisation with even greater rigidity.

Indeed, for its most important pioneer, Georgii Plekhanov, “Marxism is a complete conception of the world”, imbued with a simplistic monism on the base of which the superstructural transformations of society proceed simultaneously with economic modifications. Despite the harsh ideological conflicts of these years, many of the theoretical elements characteristic of the Second International were carried over into those that would mark the cultural matrix of the Third International. This continuity was clearly manifest in Theory of Historical Materialism published in 1921 by Nikolai Bukharin, according to which “in nature and society there is a definite regularity, a fixed natural law. The determination of this natural law is the first task of science.” The outcome of this social determinism, completely concentrated on the development of the productive forces, generated a doctrine according to which “the multiplicity of causes that make their action felt in society does not contradict in the least the existence of a single law of social evolution”.

With the construal of Marxism-Leninism, the process of corruption of Marx’s thought was given its most definitive manifestation. Deprived of its function as a guide to action, theory became its a posteriori justification. The point of no return was reached with ‘Diamat’ ( Dialekticeskij materializm), “the world outlook of the Marxist-Leninist party”. J.V. Stalin’s booklet of 1938, On Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism, which had a wide distribution, fixed the essential elements of this doctrine: the phenomena of collective life are regulated by “necessary laws of social development”, “perfectly recognisable”, and “the history of society appears as a necessary development of society, and the study of the history of society becomes a science”. That “means that the science of the history of society, despite all the complexity of the phenomena of social life, can become a science just as exact as, for example, biology, capable of utilising the laws of development of society in order to make use of them in practice” and that, consequently, the task of the party of the proletariat is to base its activity on these laws. It is evident how the misunderstanding of the concepts of the “scientific” and “science” reached its apex. The scientificity of Marx’s method, based on scrupulous and coherent theoretical criteria, was replaced by methodologies of the natural sciences in which contradiction was not involved. Finally, the superstition of the objectivity of historical laws, according to which these operate like laws of nature independently of men’s will, was affirmed.

Next to this ideological catechism, the most rigid and stringent dogmatism was able to find ample space. Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy imposed an inflexible monism that also produced perverse effects on the writings of Marx. Unquestionably, with the Russian revolution Marxism enjoyed a significant moment of expansion and circulation in geographical zones and social classes from which it had, until then, been excluded.

`Nevertheless, the circulation of the texts involved far more manuals of the party, handbooks and ‘Marxist’ anthologies on various arguments, than texts by Marx himself. Furthermore, while the censorship of some texts increased, others were dismembered and manipulated: for example, by practices of extrapolation into purposeful pointed assemblages of citations. The recourse to these was a result of preordained ends, and they were treated in the same way that the bandit Procrustes reserved for his victims: if they were too long, they were amputated, if too short, lengthened.

What are your conclusions, then?

In conclusion, the relation between the promulgation and the non-schematisation of thought, between its popularisation and the need not to impoverish it theoretically, is without doubt very difficult to realise, even more so the critical and deliberately non-systematic thought of Marx. At any rate, nothing worse could have happened to him.

Distorted by different perspectives into being a function of contingent political necessities, he was assimilated to these and reviled in their name. From being critical, his theory was utilised as Bible-like verses and out of these exegeses was born the most unthinkable paradox. Far from heeding his warning against “writing receipts […] for the cook-shops of the future”, he was transformed, instead, into the father of a new social system.

A very rigorous critic and never complacent with his conclusions, he became instead the source of the most obstinate doctrinarianism. A firm believer in a materialist conception of history, he was removed from his historical context more than any other author. From being certain that “the emancipation of the working class has to be the work of the workers themselves”, he was entrapped, on the contrary, in an ideology that saw the primacy of political avant-gardes and the party prevail in their role as proponents of class-consciousness and leaders of the revolution. An advocate of the idea that the fundamental condition for the maturation of human capacities was the reduction of the working day, he was assimilated to the productivist creed of Stakhanovism. Convinced of the need for the abolition of the state, he found himself identified with it as its bulwark. Interested like few other thinkers in the free development of the individuality of men, arguing against bourgeois right which hides social disparity behind mere legal equality, that “right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal”, he was accommodated into a conception that neutralised the richness of the collective dimension of social life into the indistinctness of homogenisation.

And what are your final thoughts about the usefulness of MEGA 2 for a new generation of scholars of Marx?

Thanks to the important new publications of MEGA 2, the Marx who emerges is in many respects different from the one presented by so many opponents and ostensible followers. It is not at all an “unknown Marx”, as some scholars argue exaggerating, but the stony-faced statue of Marx who pointed the way to the future with dogmatic certainty on the squares of Moscow and Beijing has given way to the image of a deeply self-critical thinker, who, feeling the need to devote energy to further study and checking of his own arguments, left a major part of his lifetime work unfinished.

Any future rigorous contribution to the research on Marx, in India as elsewhere in the world, will have to take into account the new textual acquisitions of MEGA 2.

From them emerges the richness of a problematic and polymorphous thought and of a horizon whose distance Marx Forschung (the research on Marx) has still so many paths to travel.

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