On His Birthday, Let’s Celebrate the Old Man Karl Marx
So much of Marx’s late thought is contained in letters and notebooks. Should we accord these writings the same status as his more accomplished writings? When you argue that Marx’s writing is “essentially incomplete,” do you have something like this in mind?
Capital remained unfinished because of the grinding poverty in which Marx lived for two decades and because of his constant ill health connected to daily worries. Needless to say, the task he had set himself — to understand the capitalist mode of production in its ideal average and to describe its general tendencies of development — was extraordinarily difficult to achieve. But Capital was not the only project that remained incomplete. Marx’s merciless self-criticism increased the difficulties of more than one of his undertakings, and the large amount of time that he spent on many projects he wanted to publish was due to the extreme rigor to which he subjected all his thinking.
The large amount of time Marx spent on many projects he wanted to publish was due to the extreme rigor to which he subjected all his thinking.
When Marx was young, he was known among his university friends for his meticulousness. There are stories that depict him as somebody who refused to write a sentence if he was unable to prove it in ten different ways. This is why the most prolific young scholar in the Hegelian Left still published less than many of the others. Marx’s belief that his information was insufficient, and his judgments immature, prevented him from publishing writings that remained in the form of outlines or fragments. But this is also why his notes are extremely useful and should be considered an integral part of his oeuvre. Many of his ceaseless labors had extraordinary theoretical consequences for the future.
This does not mean that his incomplete texts can be given the same weight of those that were published. I would distinguish five types of writings: published works, their preparatory manuscripts, journalistic articles, letters, and notebooks of excerpts. But distinctions must also be made within these categories. Some of Marx’s published texts should not be regarded as his final word on the issues at hand. For example, the Manifesto of the Communist Party was considered by Engels and Marx as a historical document from their youth and not as the definitive text in which their main political conceptions were stated. Or it must be kept in mind that political propaganda writings and scientific writings are often not combinable.
Unfortunately, these kinds of errors are very frequent in the secondary literature on Marx. Not to mention the absence of the chronological dimension in many reconstructions of his thought. The texts from the 1840s cannot be quoted indiscriminately alongside those from the 1860s and 1870s, since they do not carry equal weight of scientific knowledge and political experience. Some manuscripts were written by Marx only for himself, while others were actual preparatory materials for books to be published. Some were revised and often updated by Marx, while others were abandoned by him without the possibility of updating them (in this category, there is Volume III of Capital). Some journalistic articles contain considerations that can be considered as a completion of Marx’s works. Others, however, were written quickly in order to raise money to pay the rent. Some letters include Marx’s authentic views on the issues discussed. Others contain only a softened version, because they were addressed to people outside Marx’s circle, with whom it was sometimes necessary to express himself diplomatically.
For all these reasons, it is clear that a good knowledge of Marx’s life is indispensable for a correct understanding of his ideas. Finally, there are the more than two hundred notebooks containing summaries (and sometimes commentaries) of all the most important books read by Marx during the long time span from 1838 to 1882. They are essential for an understanding of the genesis of his theory and of those elements he was unable to develop as he would have wished.
The ideas conceived by Marx during the last years of his life were collected mainly within these notebooks. They are certainly very difficult to read, but they give us access to a very precious treasure: not only the research Marx completed before his death, but also the questions he asked himself. Some of his doubts may be more useful to us today than some of his certainties.