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«Publishing Marx y Engels after 1989: the fate of the MEGA»: Jürgen Rojahn


After the events in the GDR in the fall of 1989 it became clear that the days of the the ruling party of the GDR, the SED, were numbered. At that time nobody expected the unification of the two German states to take place as soon as it did. However, at the end of 1989 it could be foreseen that things in the GDR would change fundamentally. Particularly, it was more than doubtful, whether the SED party institute, the Institute of Marxism-Leninism (IML) in Berlin, would continue to exist for much longer. Of course the possible disbanding of the IML as such was something one could get over. But those interested in the MEGA could not ignore the fact that, with regard to this project, the disbanding of the Berlin institute could have had fatal consequences. The IML in Berlin had published the MEGA in cooperation with the IML in Moscow. However, the main part of the work had been done B and financed B by the Berlin institute. It was pretty clear that the Moscow institute would not have been able B and probably would not even have been willing B to continue the work on the MEGA alone.

The International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam re ceived the first may-day calls from Berlin in late December 1989. Soon afterwards both the Berlin and Moscow IML asked the IISH formally to enter into talks on how discontinuation of the MEGA could be prevented.

A similar request was addressed to the Karl Marx House of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Trier, in what was then West Germany. Both the IISH and the Karl Marx House agreed at once. The first talks took place in Ams terdam in the second half of January 1990. One may ask why the two IML turned specifically to the IISH and the Karl Marx House and why the latter agreed to help so quickly. To explain the reasons I have to say a few words about scholarly editions such as the MEGA, the history of the Marx-Engels archives, and the attitude of the IISH and the Karl Marx House towards the MEGA during the preceding years.

Why Collect?

Collected works of certain writers have been published in Europe since the 17th and 18th centuries, when, together with the development of arts and literature, a reading public emerged. As most scholars know from their own experience, when some time has passed by, it is rather difficult to get hold of the books and articles of a given author. Usually they were published here and there, books are out of print, journals can be found only in some libraries, in some cases only very few copies have been preserved, some works may have been published anonymously, and so on. Thus, editions of collected works have been merely a means to make the most important works of a given author available to a broad public. As far as Marx and Engels are concerned, plans for the publication of a collection of their works already emerged during their lifetime.

Some writers have been considered to be of such an importance that, rather than only a collected works, the collection of their complete works was thought worthwhile. Obviously such projects are much more ambitious: to meet the claim to completeness a lot of research is required.

Over time the demands regarding the editing of the texts increased. The texts were to be edited in a correct form, that is, in accordance with the author’s own intentions. Thus, the printed text should be compared with the author’s manuscript if such a manuscript existed. However, what to do if there are several manuscript versions re presenting various stages of the author’s work or his various attempts at finding the most adequate expression of his ideas? Or if there were several editions of a given work during the author’s lifetime and if the author himself or herself made changes in later editions? Did his or her authentic intentions manifest themselves most clearly in the original, that is, the earliest version? Or should the author’s «last will» be regarded as decisive? Usually these problems are solved by informing the reader about differences between the various versions in a so called apparatus. Editions of this type, based on thorough research into the life and work of the given author, were called scholarly (wissenschaftliche) editions.

The development of scholarly editorship was also closely connected with the emergence of a critical approach to history. From the Renaissance on, historians increasingly subscribed to the idea that true historical knowledge can only be derived from a thorough analysis of the sources. Accordingly the historian was expected, on the one hand, to be critical with regard to the sources, and on the other hand, with regard to myths, legends and ideological misre presentations of the past.2 The high regard for sources manifested itself in a growing number of publications of documents. Such publications fulfill a double function. They, too, are meant to make the texts available to a broad public. But at the same time they are meant, as it were, to open these texts up. The first aim, at least today, could be attained by photocopies, microfilm or similar means. However, to many students these copies would be of little use. Many students would not be able to understand – or even read – the texts in question. Thus, the documents are reproduced in printed form. Nevertheless the editor is expected to give all information about the original, which might be relevant from any point of view. Further, he or she is expected to give additional information facilitating the understanding of the document, for instance some information about when, by whom and for what purpose it was produced, and explanatory notes, as needed. All this should serve both of the critical aims mentioned before. That is why editions of this type are sometimes, and particularly in Germany, called historicalcritical (historisch-kritisch).

Publishing Marx y Engels after 1989: the fate of the MEGA

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