Editorial Comment

Danny Goldstick

It ought to have been mentioned here before this, but the year 2004 marked a milestone for Marx-Engels studies in the English-speaking world with the publication of the 658-page fiftieth and last volume in the English-language Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, begun over thirty years earlier as a Moscow-London-New York collaborative project. Over those years this international co-operative effort was not without its strains, but it soldiered on throughout, in spite of unexpected developments like the banning of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the management buy-out of the London publisher Lawrence and Wishart.

Some of the material published was in fact written by Marx and Engels in the English language originally. A further sizable fraction had previously been translated. But over half was being put into English for the first time. And even the existing translations could not be just reissued unrevised. As anybody who has ever had anything to do with it knows, translation is one of the black arts. Experts will not ever stop debating what is the best way to render a given phrase.

It isn't that issues of translation here give rise to disagreements over what Marx and Engels' basic ideas were, for the most part. But differences in translation can make a difference still.

A widely used English version of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, for example, says that "the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to establish democracy" – meaning, rule by the toiling majority of the people. Instead of the phrase "to establish democracy", Volume 6 of the Collected Works has "to win the battle of democracy" (page 504). The explanation is that in the original German Marx used a word derived from the verb "erkämpfen", to gain by fighting.

All of the Collected Works volumes contain quite a few pages of explanatory footnotes. Volumes 28 through 37 are devoted just to Capital and related economic writings by Marx, of which only the first volume of Capital (Volume 35 of the Collected Works) saw its way into print during Marx's own lifetime. Volumes 1 through 27 are filled with other writings by Marx and Engels, and Volumes 38 through 50 are reserved for the very interesting letters which they wrote, especially to each other. Economics, philosophy, politics and personalities – all get discussed in those letters. The two friends are not afraid to express disagreements with each other – as scientists do – with the object of strengthening through discussion their joint grasp of reality.

The last four volumes, dating from the period between Marx's death in 1883 and Engels' passing in 1895, are for letters written just by Engels, of course. Not everybody knows that during a visit to the United States Engels took a quick trip through Canada in September 1888, crossing over at Niagara Falls and proceeding through Toronto, Kingston and Montreal before returning to New York. By this country as it was in 1888 Engels was not at all impressed, it is fair to say:

"The transition from the States to Canada is a curious one. First of all you imagine yourself back in Europe and then you feel you're in a land that is positively retrogressing and going to rack and ruin. Here you can see how essential the Americans' feverish spirit of speculation is to the rapid development of a new country (given capitalist production as its basis). In ten years this sleepy Canada will be ripe for annexation – by which time the farmers in Manitoba, etc., will be demanding it themselves." (Volume 48, page 213)

Most of us reading these words, written from Montreal on September 10, 1888, will be glad Engels turned out to be wrong about that. But how do any of us feel about our casual comments getting scrutinized a century or so from now? People's letters have long been an invaluable resource for historians; however, since the advent of the telephone and now the Internet, many have worried that little of this kind of material will be available in the future. The problem, as far as it exists, is less, of course, for those on the receiving end of either "electronic surveillance" or more old-fashioned intelligence gathering, at the taxpayers' expense.

One eye-opening afternoon early in 1962 I had an interesting look at the contents of the Communist Party of Canada's Toronto filing cabinets, which had been seized just as they were in connection with the 1931 prosecution of "Tim Buck et al" under section 98 of the criminal code (subsequently repealed under popular pressure). The entire files, still tied up with red tape, had later been moved from the office of the Ontario Attorney General to the Provincial Archives. As a fellow student doing a history M.A. commented to me at the time, these papers did show that the CPC was certainly the most internally democratic of all the Canadian political parties at the beginning of the thirties.

In the ensuing criminal trial of 1931, which led to the conviction and Penitentiary imprisonment of Tim Buck and seven others, the presiding judge formally addressed the jury and said: "Here the evidence would appear to indicate, if you accept it, that this Communist party divides the people of Canada into two classes. … In a democratic country … is it a just, proper and lawful thing to set one of these classes against the other?"

This certainly reminds us of the effort being made in Europe today to vilify and criminalize the very idea of communism for "inciting class hatred". And parallel charges are often made against Islam. The contemporary accusers, of course, are all other-cheek-turning Christians!

To criticize the domination of Canada by a class of people really doesn't necessarily mean that the members of that class are all hateful individuals personally – though a number of individual capitalists certainly are, and the capitalist system certainly is. To contest and ultimately break the power of the capitalist class in Canada, that is our sworn objective. Without their power, the capitalists will cease by degrees to form a class at all. Only when all danger of capitalist restoration has permanently passed will the workers' militant class consciousness cease to be essential for real democracy. If democracy means the rule of the majority over the minority, our society will from then on be a post-democratic one.