Karl MARX SPEAKS in this book, out of these letters, in fragments. We see an enormously erudite mind in action -- on the street, in the house, in a day-to-day struggle with deadly capitalism and its supporters, even with those calling themselves "Communists." What is heady about this is that Marx, the fundamental scientific socialist, philosopher and activist is shown facing real life under capitalism.
The Letters of Karl Marx, though truncated, offers us exposure to the man's sweep and depth. Some of the letters are study guides in themselves. Some are a workingman's deep lament to be so trapped by a primitive economic system.
But the 366 letters of Marx that his editor and publisher choose to print are also problematic in that we obviously do not have the full context of the correspondence. The editor, Saul Padover, says, "The criteria for the selection of the letters in this book were personality, biography and ideas. Purely political communications as well as technical economic discussions, have been omitted as ephemeral and without enduring qualities"!
Padover, apparently, has cut the deepest intellectual heart out of the correspondence: "The personal letters, however, a true reflection of Marx the man and the thinker, continue to have an abiding freshness and significance." You see what has happended. The editor-translator has tried to "deMarx" the collection by removing its real political significance and reducing it to "At Home With The Artist," slightly more interesting than Kirk Douglas playing Van Gogh or Richard Burton as Trotsky.
This selection from the 1,523 letters extant tends to reduce Marx just to the level of the radical scholar struggling to pay the rent and laying the hand hard and regular on Engels. Of course this should be known -- the grim life of poverty the ruling class sentences any revolutionary thinker to -- but the immense scope, historical impact and scientific importance of Marx's work are consequently limited and obscured.
In the end, The letters of Karl Marx merely shows us a harried radical given to outbursts of chauvinism both national and sexual, a little of which is tinged with "anti-Jewish" drollery, especially relating to Ferdinand LaSalle (even though Marx's father was a converted Jew), which is a little like Blacks calling other Blacks "nigger." With Padover the emphasis must be on personality, a People magazine profile approach to a collection of letters, rather than the collection of letters, rather than the collection a serious person would make, which would of necessity try to emphasize the development of Marx's thought and political works. Marx is not remembered for his arguments with butchers and bakers, or complaints about his health (though these things are of some interest secondarily), he is remembered for constructing a basic scientific Communist philosophy as a method of analysis and a means of action, in real life!
Dealing exclusively with Marx's private life rather than with his works is futile. However, the life-shaking, stompdown poverty undergone by this great revolutionary intellectual, as he tries to give working and oppressed people a fundamental weapon with which to struggle, is immensely humbling and, not so strangely, inspiring. The repeated loss of their children, the ravaging illness suffered by Marx and his wife, Jenny which grew more destructive as they aged, and against which Marx, unyielding and determined, goes on with his research and writing and political work -- all this makes one put in some useful perspective the hostile attacks and circumstances in one's own life.
For, even in this collection, Marx's brilliance cannot be covered completely. From the earliest letter to his father, in which we see the 19-year-old Marx's visionary and highly critical mind and fantastic learning, we are aware that we are in the presence of a stunning erudition and an irrepressible determination. We can also see that his is a life of struggle. He struggles with the various versions of utopian socialism that flooded Europe at the time -- with Feuerback, the young Hegelians, Proudhon, LaSalle. He struggles with the reactionary governments of Europe and we see the succession of his many exiles, as he is thrown out of one country after another not only because of his thought, but also because of his activism.
In The Letters there is some discussion included on the excruciating effort (even physical pain) that was necessary, for instance, to write Das Kapital. We glean something of Marx's incisive analysis of the American Civil War and his cogent analysis of the world international situation (during the time he was a correspondent for the New-York Daily Tribune). The revolution of 1848 in Germany and the 1871 Paris Commune -- the historically earthshaking first blow struck in proletarian uprising -- are also still in evidence. (These are what Lenin meant when he wrote about the protetariat separating from bourgeois democracy.) We even come to understand how Marx could "predict" the Commune. He says in letter 204 to Engles, "If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will find that I say that the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machinery from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is the prerequisite for every real peoples' revolution on the Continent." A prescription as true today as it was then. We also see how Marx then has to travel around Europe incognito because the bourgeoisie are so alarmed at the Commune and in terror of the Communist League (the secret organization Marx and Engels were in) and the First International (the international organization of communists that Marx headed).
But The Letters of Karl Marx never goes beyond the fragmented, personal and therefore superficial. For instance, Padover omits the letters from Engels, and Engels in all ways must be seen as the cofounder of scientific socialism. He is not jut Marx's Angel (Engel). But Marx's frequent plea for money and an occasional Engels' reply are about all we get of Engels.
Lenin once said of the Marx-Engels correspondence, "If one were to attempt to define in a single word the focus, so to speak, of the whole correspondence, the central point at which the whole body of ideas expressed and discussed converges -- that word would be dialectics."
But The Letters of Karl Marx is anything but dialectical. It is not wholesided but one-sided, and therefore it misses the essence of Marxism. This "collection" is merely a bourgeois comment on Marx, extremely unfortunate since it interferes with our understanding of Marx himself. One awaits then a collection in English of the Marx-Engels correspondence made by a Marxist, or at least by someone not committed to making Marx un-Marx-like.