FROM 1843 right up to the end of his life, Karl Marx (1818-1883) dedicated himself to the project of a comprehensive critique of political economy.
Working on this with an iron determination for almost 40 years, he produced mountains of manuscripts and notes. However, only a fraction of all this came out while he was still alive.
The entirety of Marx’s and Engels’s work has only now become accessible — through the publishing of all their works (the Marx and Engels Collected Works, known in German as the MEGA or, Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe) of which to date 65 volumes of this mammoth encyclopedia have been produced.
In 2012 the second part of the MEGA was completed. This consists of 15 volumes (23 subvolumes) which combine Marx’s work Das Kapital in its original form inclusive of translations and all directly accompanying works beginning with the economic manuscripts, the Grundrisse, the foundations for the critique of political economy, from 1857-1858.
150 years ago today, September 11 1867, the renowned German publisher Otto Meissner in Hamburg published one of the most influential books of contemporary social science, the first volume of Marx’s main work Das Kapital (see MEGA II/5).
One thousand copies were printed. However, the printing of the 796 pages and the 1,023 accompanying footnotes of this comprehensive work was actually done in Leipzig, then the centre of German publishing.
The firm which printed this was that of the book-printing brothers Otto Alexander and Walther Wilhelm Wigand, based in Rossplatz 3b in Leipzig. The printing firm operated under the name of their father’s company Otto Wigands Buchdruckerei.
The production of this book was by no means free of tension and complications. In the middle of April 1867, Marx took the steamer John Bull from London to Hamburg so as to personally hand over the ready-printed manuscript to Otto Meissner and to discuss the various matters of publishing this work with him.
On April 24 he informed his close friend Engels in Manchester: “Meissner wanted to have everything ready in four to five weeks but couldn’t have it printed in Hamburg because neither the number of printers there nor their scholarliness were sufficient enough.
“He decided to have this done by Otto Wigand or more precisely by his sons. […] Eight days ago he sent the manuscript to Leipzig. He hopes I am staying on in order to revise the first two print sheets and at the same time to decide whether a quick print with me checking everything through once would be possible.”
The printing and correcting process of the first volume only lasted a few months. At least four compositors were working on this so that from the beginning of May up to the end of August the first 50 print sheets of the book with some 1.9 million characters could be placed by hand.
For every page the print layout weighed around 4kg; for the entire volume the total weight came to around 3.2 tons.
The book was “ordinary,” in other words without a cover, in a yellow envelope and priced at three thalers and 10 newgroschens. At the time, this was the equivalent of what a family of five needed to spend on food for a week. Nowadays, an original copy of the first edition of Das Kapital with the author’s autograph would cost around a million euros at an auction.
At this point, a small reminiscence of the background to the first English edition of this work, published in 1887 in London by Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey & Co under the title Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, should not be omitted (see MEGA II/9).
Since 1867 Marx and Engels took great pains in trying to arouse interest in this publication in Britain and the US by preparing an English edition.
However, all of this was held back due to the difficulty in finding a competent translator and a suitable publisher.
Also through the preparation of an improved second edition in 1872 (see MEGA II/6) and with the work on the French translation (1872-1875, see MEGA II/7), the work for an English translation was held back.
In the last year of his life, Marx tried to persuade his daughter Laura Lafargue to do an English translation. However, the death of his wife, then his daughter Jenny and subsequently his own on March 14 1883 stood in the way of this project.
An English edition of Das Kapital was becoming increasingly necessary as the Marxist analysis of political economy was appearing more and more in unauthorised, simplified or even incorrect translations on the part of bourgeois elements in the socialist movement in Britain.
In summer 1883, the lawyer Samuel Moore, who was a close friend of Marx and Engels, began work on a third German edition (1883, see MEGA II/8). This was accompanied by a an English translation. One year later, Moore was assisted by the partner of Marx’s daughter Eleanor, Edward Aveling.
In March 1886, they both completed their work on an English translation. At the beginning of January 1887, 500 copies of the text in two volumes, which had been thoroughly checked by Engels, were published. In the same year, a second print of the first edition, again with 500 copies, appeared.
The phenomena of today’s world seem far removed from the the times when Marx wrote his book. But globalisation, financial crashes, climate catastrophe, revolt against poverty, unstable growth — the multiple crises of the current capitalist world system seems endless.
Adequate reasons for Das Kapital to be always newly read. This book clearly exposes how the capitalist system works, criticises blank omissions in economic analysis and sharpens the language and concepts with which we can oppose the capitalist world in which we live — and ultimately that it can be overthrown.
For Marx, it’s not just about interpreting the world but to change it.
- Volker Kulow was born in 1960, studied history at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig in the GDR and gained his PhD in 1988. From 2001 to 2016 he was chairman of the Left Party in Leipzig.