Niccolò Serri is a PhD student in Economic and Social History at the University of Cambridge
A team based at the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam has completed the digitisation of the Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels papers collection. Despite the almost indecipherable hand-writing of the father of modern socialism, this is great news for researchers and the general public alike.
The collection includes the sole remaining handwritten page of the original Communist Manifesto (1848) and Marx’s own copy of the first edition of Das Kapital (1967), as well as a wealth of letters displaying the lively exchange between socialist leaders and intellectuals of the late XIX century.
This is not the first attempt to make the huge corpus of Marx and Engels writings accessible online. The Marxist Internet Archive (MIA), a web project created by Marxist volunteers from more than 30 countries, tried to transcribe the entirety of Marx/Engels Collected Works, including more than 800 letters and the correspondence with Jenny Von Westphalen, Marx’s wife. A copyright squabble with Lawrence & Wishart publishing over some translations to English halted the project.
The Marx-Engels papers have been kept at the IISH since 1938. The eventful history behind the preservation of this collection, overlapping with the international politics of the XXth century, makes their digital publication even more meaningful.
The Parteiarchiv, the official manuscript library of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), originally acquired the papers from Engels’s relatives in 1901. With the rise to power of the Nazi party in the early 1930s, the collection was smuggled out of the country and temporarily kept in Denmark. The difficult situation of the SPD leadership, in exile in Paris, forced the party to consider selling the precious documents. Needless to say, the most interested buyer was the Soviet Union, through the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow, that considered the acquisition of Marx and Engels papers as a way to further secure Soviet ideological primacy over Marxist doctrine. The head of the delegation negotiating with the SPD was no less that Nicolaj I. Bukharin, one of the Comintern’s top officials. Its untimely demise in 1937, at the beginning of Stalin’s Great Terror, led to a breakdown in the negotiations with Russia in favour of the Netherlands, where the IISH was finally able to acquire the collection in May 1938. The SPD hid the documents in Great Britain until the end of World War II, and shipped them off to Amsterdam at the end of the hostilities.
Now the collection is instantly and freely available to anyone here. The end of the three-year effort for the digitisation of Marx and Engels’s papers should be particularly welcomed at a time that has sparked new interests in the philosopher on part of scholars and protests movements alike.
The financial crisis and its long lasting effects on the socio-economic landscape of contemporary society have led to a rehabilitation of Marx’s core ideas, particularly on the cyclic nature of economic downturns and on the inherent contradictions of a market-based social system. The relentless pace at which inequality has grown in the past decades brought back to the fore the concept of “class” as a basic unit of sociological analysis, and “class conflict” as a device to read rising political polarization. As the era of Soviet authoritarianism draws further and further away, Marx’s critiques to capitalism as an unstable and exploitative system can be analysed with fresh eyes. It is also hugely appealing to a younger generation in search of new tools to read the shape-shifting nature of the world.
The universal access to Marx and Engels paper collection will foster this rediscovery, while keeping the works connected to the massive historiographical analysis and debates regarding Marxist theory. More interestingly, the direct access to the originals can promote an open-minded, more democratic light. Far too often, historical materialism has been hijacked by dogma, with Marx’s writings becoming the holy texts of a new political religion. In time, their interpretation became the prerogative of a caste of bureaucrats and intellectuals, whose convoluted language and obscure thinking has kept people from accessing the key intuitions of socialist pedagogy.
The digitisation of Marx and Engels’s papers will help temper this top-down approach to their philosophy, favouring a critical and unmediated engagement with their writings. For historians, it will be an important source to revisit Marx and some of the most puzzling of his work, such as the apparently inconsistent theory of the State and the rough-sketched relation between Class and Nation. The opportunity to remotely access the huge collection of the IISH will surely help shed a new light on these angles and open new pathways to Marxist theory and historiography.