It was a surprising headline on the front page of the weekend edition of the Montréal daily Le Devoir, March 14-15: “À vos Marx... Prêts? Critiquez!” — On your Marx, Set?, Criticize!
“A specter is haunting the world: the specter of Marxism,” wrote reporter Stéphane Baillargeon (a much longer version was published in the newspaper’s internet edition). “A ghost that is renewed, revised, corrected, improved, but still impressively strong enough to criticize the world as it is.” One example: in Japan, a publisher has issued a comic-book version of Das Kapital that has become a best-seller.
More seriously, in France the prestigious Philosophie Magazine features a discussion of anti-capitalist thought in its most recent issue that highlights contributions of Marxists. And Actual Marx (Marx today) is the name of a magazine (published by the leading university press PUF), a collection of book titles, a seminar series, a research team, an on-line web site and publication and a network of international collaborators.
“In the Anglo-Saxon world,” writes Baillargeon, “the revival proceeds through historians like Robert Brenner, who has worked on the initial accumulation of capital in England, and the Canadian Ellen Meiksins Wood, whose work The Origins of Capitalism will be published in translation by Lux in a few weeks. Another Quebec publisher, Nota Bene, will soon publish a book entitled Marx philosophe.”
“There is a resurgence of studies on Marx at this time,” says Isabelle Garo, the French co-director of the Grande Édition Marx-Engels (GEME), which has just published the first volume of their complete works in French. A related article in the same edition of Le Devoir reports that about one third of the works of Marx and Engels has remained unpublished in French up to now — “much more if we include their voluminous reading notes”.
The GEME is based on the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), the German-language edition that is most authoritative. More than 50 volumes of this 114-volume series have already been published, with the last one scheduled for publication by 2025. The French edition has taken over the former Éditions sociales versions published by the French Communist Party (PCF), but Garo says all existing translations will be reviewed, revised and retranslated where necessary.
“The contemporary interpretations follow the shifts in concepts in the works, but also in the successive adaptations, banishing any idea of linear progress,” says Baillargeon, the reporter. “Ms. Garo gives the classic example of Aufhebung, a German word borrowed from the Hegelian dialectic.
“‘This term is especially interesting because it retains the polysemy in the works as a whole,’ she says. ‘From time to time, depending on the case, it means dépassement (overtaking); at other times it means abolition. It cannot be rendered in the same way at all times and neologisms must be avoided. So we are going to justify our choices at length in the notes, which will be found solely in the electronic edition.’”
Speaking of which, Garo says the collected Marx-Engels works in French will be published first in electronic form (part of it payable), later in a paper edition. Independently of the current revision-retranslation project, the existing PCF editions will be made available starting next year, with the new translations appearing as they are completed. And a bilingual German-French e-index will facilitate research in the electronic edition as a whole.
The very first volume of the new French edition of the works, the Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), “is of symbolic importance to us,” says Garo. “First, it was no longer available in bookstores. Second, it addresses some issues that are still essential: work, the State, law, the transition to communism. It is a text of political intervention that we situate in its context, the unification of the German workers movement.”
What particular Marxist or Marxian school will this major publishing project represent, asked the Le Devoir reporter. “None,” Garo says. “We are going to banish from the notes any appreciative or deprecatory comments.... It will be up to the reader to develop his or her own positions.
“This is a scientific undertaking supported by the context. We are beyond the sectarian quibbles, and there is a recovery of interest in the thinking of Marx and Engels. Our editorial team includes researchers from quite diverse political allegiances. There can be many possible readings, and many issues....”
In a third related article in the same edition of Le Devoir, entitled “What remains of Marxist thought in Quebec?”, the reporter alludes briefly to the widespread interest in Marxist ideas of many Quebec scholars from the 1960s to the mid-80s, when the existing “Marxist-Leninist” (Maoist) and Trotskyist groups collapsed. Since then “critical thinking, long the legacy of Marxism, has gone on to other things,” he says. He quotes Laval University student François L’Italien, who is currently writing a doctoral thesis on finance capitalism from a Marxist standpoint:
“This Marxism à la québécoise was linked to the context of the Quiet Revolution. In Parti Pris, for example, the influence of the thinking of the Marxists of decolonization like Franz Fanon seems clear. This discourse combined class logic with colonial logic.”
And it developed further in the 1970s, as in the radical manifestoes published by the major unions such as the documents of the CEQ, the teachers’ union: L’école au service de la classe dominante (1972) and École et lutte de classe au Québec (1974).
“What remains of all that?” asks Baillargeon. “Frankly, from the theoretical point of view, almost nothing, other than a few sparse papers from an autumn of ideas tinged in red and blue.”
However, he notes that two of the pro-independence parties are now led by former Maoists: Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Françoise David, and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe. Ironic indeed, although he doesn't say it: since neither of the Maoist groups they were associated with supported Quebec independence!
The collected works of Marx and Engels will no doubt attract an interested readership among the members and supporters of France’s New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), as well as among Francophone activists everywhere — including, let us hope, the membership and milieu of Quebec’s new left party, Québec solidaire, which is badly in need of the anticapitalist “stimulus” that only Marxism can provide.
-- Richard Fidler