In praise of Mega2

Submitted by AWL on 18 March, 2020 - 8:52 Author: Paul Hampton

The Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (Mega) is a project to publish a complete critical edition of the publications, manuscripts and correspondence of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The project is still incomplete after almost a century. However as more materials are published, we get a far deeper understanding of the origins and development of Marxism. For anyone interested in working class self-emancipation, the Mega should be an irreplaceable referent.

The Mega was conceived after the Russian revolution. The Bolsheviks wanted to make the theoretical legacy of Marx and Engels available to the revolutionary working-class movement. In 1921 David Rjazanov was appointed director of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. He prepared the first editions of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (known as Mega1). In 1927 the first of a planned 42 volumes appeared. Twelve volumes came out over the next six years.

In 1931, Rjazanov was arrested and Mega1 effectively terminated by Stalinism. The Stalinist states brought out editions of Marx and Engels’ writings in Russian, German and English editions. From the 1950s the East German state produced the Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW), while from 1975 the 50 volume English Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) was produced. These disseminated a huge quantity of Marx and Engels’ materials, but the scholarly apparatus was often marred by the dogmas of Stalinism.

The second Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (Mega2) was also conceived in East Germany during the late 1960s. The first volume appeared in 1975, with a further 39 volumes appearing before the collapse of the USSR and Eastern European Stalinism.

A new era began in 1990 when the Internationale Marx-Engels Stiftung (IMES) was established in Amsterdam. This network brought together the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW), the International Institute of Social History (IISG, Amsterdam), the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI, Moscow) and other bodies to coordinate the further production of volumes.

In 1998 the first ‘new’ volume was published. In total, 69 volumes have now come out and once completed, the collection will entail 114 volumes. Each has an elaborate apparatus and contextual annotation (in German). In 2008 Mega2 started its digital project along with researchers from Tohoku University in Japan.

Mega2 consists of four sections, with volumes published and total planned:

• Part I: Works, articles, drafts — 23/32
• Part II: Capital and the preliminary studies — 15/15
• Part III: Correspondence — 14/35
• Part IV: Excerpts, notes, marginalia — 15/32

I: Works, articles, drafts

The largest number of volumes so far cover Marx and Engels’ published works, articles and drafts. This includes much of their journalism throughout the 1850s. Marx and Engels contributed articles to 120 newspapers in total — most were originally published anonymously. A comprehensive survey of their journalism for the Mega2 has found a further 200 articles newly ascribed to them, to add to the materials already known.

There is some controversy about some of the volumes in this section. The so-called 1844 Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts are published as if they were an independent work. They were brought out separately from the excerpts (in Part IV), making it harder to understand the development of Marx’s thinking during this time. Similarly, The German Ideology, published in Mega2 in 2017, still collates the fragmentary manuscripts as if they were a finished ‘work’.

There is now an English translation of the original Feuerbach manuscript, produced by Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank, along with a separate commentary, which explains how the German Ideology book myth was created. Far from elaborating a philosophy of historical materialism, Marx and Engels were mostly settling accounts with some of their previously close contemporaries.

II: Capital

Part II of Mega2 (Capital and the related studies) was finally completed in 2013. Eight of the texts contain manuscripts published for the first time. Some sections of the Mega2 Capital are also accessible on Megadigital. They allow us to reconfigure our understanding of Marx’s primary work.

First, they show there is no definitive edition of Capital volume 1. Marx published three German editions in 1867, 1872 and in 1883. However he also produced a revised French edition in 1872-75. The first English edition (1887) was prepared by Engels. He also produced a fourth German edition.

Marx did not finish Capital volumes 2 and 3. Both were published by Engels. A comparison with Marx’s original drafts shows some small but significant changes. The manuscript used for Capital III has now been translated into English by Ben Fowkes (introduced by Fred Moseley), shedding more light on many debates. For example it is clear that the “tendency for the rate of profit to fall” is not the last word (or even the main aspect) of Marx’s incomplete crisis theory.

There is no volume 4 of Capital – or what has been known as Theories of Surplus Value. These were in fact part of the 1861-63 manuscripts, literature reviews interspersed with early drafts of his own thinking. These have previously been translated into English in MECW. Some of the drafts became part of Capital, others were discarded. Marx’s political economy remained unfinished and underdeveloped, far more ‘open’ than previously presented.

III: Correspondence

Marx and Engels exchanged letters with over 2,000 correspondents from all over Europe and the United States. They included other socialists and family members, publishers and friends, authorities and adversaries. Previous editions published and translated the letters of Marx and Engels themselves.

However Mega2 makes accessible (often for the first time) the letters that were written to Marx and Engels. This is a far better way to understand how they developed their thinking through interaction with others, rather than in splendid isolation. Such correspondence brings out a more rounded sense of Marx and Engels as individuals, as well as contextualising their politics in the time they lived.

IV: Excerpts, notes, marginalia

Probably the most exciting aspect of the Mega2 concerns the publication of Marx and Engels’ notebooks of excerpts. These demonstrate the range of philosophers, economists, activists and other thinkers that they learned from. The notebooks, with passages copied verbatim or summarised from the works of others (some long forgotten), spread across multiple languages and sometimes annotated with their own observations, shed new light on how Marxism developed.

Many of Marx’s early notebooks, made in Kreuznach (1843), Paris (1844) and Manchester (1845) are now available. They demonstrate the origins of his political economy in reading some of the classics of bourgeois thought, including Adam Smith and David Ricardo. This was synthesised with the work of contemporary revolutionary activists.

For example many will have heard Marx’s famous dictum in the Communist Manifesto (1848) that “workers have no country”. Less known is the quote Marx recorded in his notebooks (Mega2 IV/3: 427). Brissot de Warville, a French revolutionary and slavery abolitionist had written decades before that “there can be no virtue since three-quarters of the people have no property; for without property the people have no country”.

After his exile to London in 1849, Marx went to the British Museum and filled 24 notebooks, now known as the London Notebooks. These contain a substantial number of excerpts on agricultural chemistry, including Marx’s first usage of the concept of metabolism. This has inspired an ecological reading of Marx, vital for today’s climate activists.

Marx’s notebooks, known as Books of Crisis, show Marx grappling with the 1857 crisis as it unfolded, one of the first global economic crises in history. After 1868, Marx continued to study natural sciences seriously, intensively researching agroscience and even modifying his judgement about scientists such as Justus von Liebig and Carl Nikolaus Fraas. This is a fertile starting point for ecological Marxism.

During the last fifteen years of his life Marx produced one-third of his notebooks. Half of these deal with natural sciences. Others tackle anthropology and non-capitalist societies across the globe. All illustrate the inquisitive, expansive research Marx and Engels continued to explore until their deaths.

The continued publication of Mega2 volumes will shed new light on Marxism. Old questions and controversies can be revisited. New approaches and different vistas open up. Marxists seek to understand reality in order to change it. Understanding how Marx and Engels went about their work provides a method we can develop in today’s conditions.

• The Mega2 project is very well explained in Gerald Hubmann and Marcel van der Linden, Marx’s Capital: An Unfinishable Project? (2019)

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