The appearance of this volume should be a cause for celebration for all English-speaking socialists. It represents the completion of a Herculean 30-year effort to translate and publish virtually everything that Marx and Engels ever wrote. Few people are going to have the time and energy to read through all or even most of the 50 volumes (those of us who got them one by one as they came out are probably privileged in this respect). But the volumes will be found in many libraries and provide a fantastic source for anyone interested in seeing – and learning from – how the founders of Marxism dealt with the massive range of political, economic, social and historical questions that arose in their lifetimes.
In them you can find treats like Marx’s notebooks for Capital (in addition to the well known Grundrisse), his writings on the Indian Mutiny (which disprove ignorant talk of him suffering from ‘Orientalism’), his day by day analysis of developments in the American Civil War (for a New York newspaper) or the drafts for his pamphlet The Civil War in France, where he undertakes a pioneering analysis of the growth of the state bureaucracy. And here too you can find much to dispel the old image of Engels as somehow no more than a mechanical, hack populariser of Marx’s ideas (an attitude encouraged by Engels’ own modesty), with things like his rough draft for The Communist Manifesto, his Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany (long ascribed to Marx) or his series of newspaper articles on the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
This volume contains the letters Engels wrote in the last three years of his life. It is a fascinating read – serious observations on the latest political developments and possible ways of developing theoretical ideas, alongside tittle-tattle, gossip, complaints about the weather and even laundry lists. They provide a living commentary on political and social developments of the day but also humanise the writer in a way no biography could ever manage.
Some of the questions Engels had to deal with are still problems for us today. So many of his letters are concerned with the problem of building up socialist forces in a period which is not yet revolutionary (although, ever the optimist, Engels often expected the revolutionary wave that eventually came two decades later to start within a year or two). For him, as for us, a central problem was how socialist ideas were to break out of a left wing ghetto inhabited by a handful of committed workers and intellectuals in each locality. So again and again he berates the only British organisation that was even half-Marxist, the Social Democratic Federation, for its sectarian bickering and abstention from wider movements and struggles.
He places his hopes in the movements in Germany and, to a lesser extent, France and Austria, where Marxists had succeeded in giving expression to the feelings of broad layers of workers and, through this, winning seats in parliament and making an impact on national politics. He hoped that his handful of collaborators in Britain, especially Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, would be able to develop a similar influence through the newly formed Independent Labour Party, despite its very non-revolutionary stance.
This did not mean that Engels had in any sense abandoned his own belief in the necessity of revolution. He protested strongly when editors of the German party paper Vorwärts, supposedly in order to avoid prosecution, cut out revolutionary language from his introduction to Marx’s Class Struggle in France (so enabling commentators for years after to claim he had himself stopped being a revolutionary).
Not that Engels was right in all of his arguments. He continues to base his view of international events very much on an analysis which was right in the 1840s but no longer so half a century later – that Russia was the greatest threat to the progressive forces across Europe. It was a misanalysis that was to be used 20 years after his death to justify support for imperialist war.
There are also odd bits of sheer silliness, of the sort you would find if the Special Branch were to publish transcripts of our private phone calls. But these pale into insignificance compared with the incisive analysis and comment – for instance, on the socialist attitude to prostitution (still relevant today), his prediction that the development of capitalism in Russia will involve ‘fearful sufferings and convulsions’, or his warning to French socialists not to believe that their bourgeois republic was somehow qualitatively better for the working class than a constitutional monarchy.
Like the previous volumes, this is a treasure chest for socialists, even if sometimes you have to pick through a fair amount of assorted jumble to find the valuable items.
Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 50
International Publishers £45
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