Only one book by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels can be found in the office of Professor Harald Bluhm. A contradiction? After all, since 2008 he has been working on the “Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe”, an extensive editing project that will culminate in more than 110 volumes. “A large portion of the MEGA can be digitally accessed on the Internet, other volumes are available in my office in Berlin,” explains the professor of political theory and history of ideas at the University of Halle. He is on the road a lot these days as the MEGA’s project manager and as a researcher who himself studied the class concept of Marx as part of his doctorate. “Marx still influences the thinking of many people today,” says Bluhm. Since the financial crises in the 2000s, his theories and works have again received a lot of attention.
“Anyone who wants to seriously understand Marx needs to consult the MEGA. It is the world’s first, unique, international and ideology-free edition project on Marx and Engels. It is the gold standard of Marx research,” Bluhm is convinced. The core principles of the edition include absolute completeness, original language, a strictly chronological arrangement of the texts, a text structure that faithfully reproduces the original while retaining orthography and punctuation, as well as an exhaustive account of the text genesis of the manuscript and print versions. There are also comprehensive explanations of the text indexing.
The major project is divided into four sections: “The first section contains all the works, writings, articles and speeches by Marx and Engels, including the surviving preliminary drafts, later revisions and translations,” explains Bluhm. It does not include “Das Kapital” – the most famous book of Marx and Engels –, its extensive manuscripts or its various editions which are dealt with in the second section. All of the correspondence to and from Marx and Engels is summarised in the third section. The complete body of excerpts and notebooks will be processed in the fourth and final section of the MEGA. Teams of scientists in Germany, Russia, France, the Netherlands, the USA and Japan are working together on indexing and completing the MEGA, which is set for 2032. The work is very laborious, as Harald Bluhm can attest to: “Marx’s handwriting is difficult to decipher. There are even wine stains on some pages of the manuscript.” But it’s worth the effort: Over 62 volumes have been published so far, which are used by researchers from all over the world. The MEGA also forms the basis of almost all international editions of Marx.
How did Marx work?
According to Bluhm, the last section, which contains all the excerpts and notebooks of Marx, is especially illuminating for researchers. “His excerpts enable you to peer over Marx's shoulder while he works. He had excerpted and commented on texts since his student days. He searched for revealing quotations by his adversaries. He also kept a meticulous record of quotations, ticking them off as he used them to make sure he didn’t repeat himself.” Another detail becomes clear in the excerpts. Karl Marx not only edited an enormous body of texts, he was well-read in a variety of topics: from economics to philosophy, mathematics, geology, electrical engineering and chemistry. “Marx wanted to be a universal scholar,” states Bluhm, adding: “Marx didn’t publish anything after the mid-1870s. If we want to draw conclusions about his thinking, we have to take a close look at his excerpts and letters.” Apropos letters: As a 19th-century citizen, Marx maintained intensive correspondence around the world. Many letters deal with the organisation of the international labour movement or with political, personal, literary and social matters. “The letters reveal a writer who is interested in many things, who expresses himself very openly in his dealings with his partner Engels, but otherwise likes to be tactical,” says Bluhm.
There isn’t only one Marx
Their meticulous and systematic way of working enables the MEGA staff to clear up some of the fiction surrounding Marx. “Marx must not be considered as an author who pursued a strict programme from the outset. As a social scientist, he studied mountains of data, material, and theories that have repeatedly forced him to change his positions.” Even “Das Kapital” is not a uniform work: “Marx altered his draft five times: First everything was focused on England, later on the USA. He even relativizes the falling profit rate, initially a key principle of his theory.” Of the three volumes that make up the work today, Marx only completed the first. The other two were finalised and published by Engels after Marx’s death. “The two volumes are based on manuscripts that Marx wrote before the first volume.” The section in the MEGA on “Das Kapital” comprises 15 volumes with more than 20,000 pages, documenting each intermediate step and each modification.
These countless manuscripts and revisions lead Bluhm to conclude that Marx failed in his self-imposed task of creating a holistic and critical representation of the capitalist mode of production - the real goal of “Das Kapital”. But they also show something else. “Marx was an empirical scientist through and through, who constantly checked himself and also revised himself in the face of the many developments of the bourgeois world.” The first modern sociology of knowledge emerged with Marx, which demands that the interests in knowledge be reflected and uncovered by the researchers.
In the current ‘Year of Marx’ there is a flood of publications and activities in honour of the great intellectual. Some of them are based on the work and findings of the MEGA. Others can only be described as peculiar: For example, the city of Trier, where Marx was born, sells ‘0 euro bills’ with a portrait of Marx on them for three euros. Capitalism in its purest form. “Marx, who had been expecting communism since the mid-19th century, had no idea of the developments of the 20th century and of our capitalist system today,” says Bluhm. Nevertheless, Marx had many basic insights, for example on crises, conflicts and capitalism, which have remained valid to this day. And it is worth taking a look at the original in order to understand them accurately.
The history of the MEGA
Only 30 years after Marx's death there were attempts in Russia to publish a complete edition of his work. The first volumes of this MEGA precursor appeared in the 1920s. Work on them was completely halted a short time later. It was not until the 1960s that the project resumed its pace in the GDR, opposed by high-level party members who had great reservations about a historically critical edition. This characteristic, however, ensured that the project received support from the very beginning by the International Institute for Social History (ISSH) in Amsterdam. The edition nevertheless remained a party affair. The volume’s introduction and the commentaries were ideologically tinged; in some cases this also applied to the presentation of the text.
After the reunification of Germany and an intensive assessment, it was agreed that the project should continue. In 1990, the International Marx Angels Foundation was founded in Amsterdam under the umbrella of the ISSH. Since 1992, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities has continued the undertaking in the form of an academy project.