On his birthday, let’s celebrate old man Karl Marx
Shortly before his death, Marx asked his daughter Eleanor to remind Engels to “do something” with his unfinished manuscripts. As is known, during the twelve years that he survived Marx, Engels undertook the Herculean task of sending to print Volumes II and III of Capital city on which his friend had worked continuously from the mid-1860s to 1881, but failed to complete. Other texts written by Engels himself after Marx’s death in 1883 indirectly fulfilled his will and were strictly related to the inquiries he had made during the last years of his life. For example, the Origins of the family, private property and the state (1884) was called by its author “the execution of a bequest” and was inspired by Marx’s research in anthropology, in particular the passages which he copied, in 1881, from Lewis Henry Morgan’s Old company (1877) and by commentaries he added to the summaries of this book.
There is not only one common thread in the last years of Marx’s research. Some of his studies were simply the result of recent scientific discoveries that he wanted to keep abreast of, or political events that he felt were significant. Marx had learned before that the general level of emancipation in a society depended on the level of emancipation of women, but anthropological studies conducted in the 1880s gave him the opportunity to further analyze gender oppression. . Marx spent much less time on ecological questions than in the previous two decades, but on the other hand, he again immersed himself in historical themes. Between the fall of 1879 and the summer of 1880, he filled out a notebook entitled Notes on the history of India (664–1858), and between the fall of 1881 and the winter of 1882 he worked extensively on the so-called Chronological extracts, a 550-page annotated year-by-year chronology written in even smaller handwriting than usual. These included summaries of world events, from the first century BC to the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, summarizing their causes and salient features.
It is possible that Marx wanted to test whether his views were well founded in light of the major political, military, economic and technological developments of the past. In any case, it must be borne in mind that, when Marx undertook this work, he was well aware that his fragile state of health prevented him from making a last attempt to complete Volume II of Capital city. His hope was to make all the necessary corrections to prepare a third revised German edition of Volume I, but in the end he did not even have the strength to do so.
However, I wouldn’t say that the research he did in his later years was broader than usual. The breadth of his research is perhaps more evident at this time because it was not carried out in parallel with the writing of important preparatory books or manuscripts. But the several thousand pages of extracts made by Marx in eight languages, since he was a student at the university, of works of philosophy, art, history, religion, politics, law, literature, history, political economy, international relations, technology, mathematics, physiology, geology, mineralogy, agronomy, anthropology, chemistry and physics, testify to his perpetual thirst knowledge in a wide variety of disciplines. What may be surprising is that Marx could not give up this habit even when his physical strength diminished considerably. His intellectual curiosity and his self-critical spirit prevailed over a more targeted and “judicious” management of his work.
But these ideas about “what Marx should have done” are generally the fruit of the twisted wish of those who would have liked him to be an individual who only wrote Capital city – not even to defend himself from the political controversies in which he was involved. Even if he used to define himself as “a machine, condemned to devour books and then throw them, in a modified form, on the dung-heap of history”, Marx was a human being. His interest in mathematics and differential calculus, for example, began as an intellectual stimulus in his search for a method of social analysis, but has become a playful space, a refuge in times of great personal difficulty, “a occupation to maintain peace of mind ”, As he said to Engels.