Marx's incompleteness and the systematization of Marxism

Ilya Repin, Tugboats of the Volga, 1894. (St Petersburg State Russian Museum)


Excerpt from the recently released book “Rethinking Marx and Marxisms”

Few men have shaken the world like Karl Marx. His death was immediately followed, with a speed rarely seen in history, the echo of fame. Very early on, Marx's name was on the lips of workers in Detroit and Chicago, as well as the first Indian socialists in Calcutta. His image was the background of the congress of the Bolsheviks in Moscow, shortly after the revolution. His thought inspired the programs and statutes of all the political and trade union organizations of the labor movement, from the whole of Europe to Shanghai. His ideas turned economics, politics, philosophy and history upside down.

Even so, despite the affirmation of his theories, transformed throughout the 1848th century into a dominant ideology and State doctrine by a significant part of humanity, and despite the enormous diffusion of his writings, until today his works have not received an integral and scientific edition. The main reason for this very particular condition resides in its character of incompleteness. Excluding the journalistic articles, published for fifteen years, between 1862-XNUMX – most of them destined to the New York Tribune, at the time one of the largest newspapers in the world –, the works published were relatively few, compared to the many that were only partially carried out and the impressive amount of research carried out. Emblematically, in 1881, when asked by Karl Kautsky about the possibility of publishing a complete edition of his works, Marx replied: “first of all, these works must be written”.

Marx left a much larger volume of unpublished manuscripts than published ones. Contrary to popular belief, his work is fragmentary, and one of the characteristics of The capital it is incompleteness. The extremely rigorous method and merciless self-criticism, which increased the difficulties to be overcome in order to carry out many of the works undertaken; the conditions of deep misery and permanently weakened state of health, which were imposed throughout his life; the inextinguishable passion for knowledge, which always led him to new studies, all of this precisely made incompleteness the faithful companion of all of Marx's production, as well as condemned its very existence. However, his relentless intellectual efforts proved brilliant and fruitful, full of extraordinary theoretical and political consequences, even if only a small part of the colossal plan of his work was completed.

After Marx's death, which occurred in 1883, Friedrich Engels was the first to dedicate himself to the extremely difficult undertaking, given the dispersion of the materials, the obscurity of the language and the illegibility of the spelling, of publishing his friend's legacy. His work focused on the reconstruction and selection of originals, the publication of unpublished or incomplete texts and, at the same time, the re-edition and translation of already known writings.

Although with exceptions, as in the case of the “Theses on Feuerbach”, published as an appendix in his Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy, And Gotha program critique, published in 1891, Engels privileged almost exclusively the editorial work of complementation of The capital, of which only Book I had been completed. This effort, which lasted more than a decade, took place with the just intention of producing a work “coherent and as complete as possible”. Thus, in the course of his editorial activity, from the selection of those texts that appeared not as final versions, but rather as real variants, and from the need to standardize the whole, Engels, instead of reconstructing the genesis and development of Books II and III of The capital, far removed from its definitive composition, published the finished volumes.

On the other hand, previously, Engels had already contributed directly, with his own writings, to generate a process of theoretical systematization. O Anti-Duhring, published in 1878 and which he defined as the “more or less coherent exposition of the dialectical method and the conception of the communist world defended by Marx and by me”, became the crucial reference in the formation of “Marxism” as a system and in the differentiation of this in relation to the eclectic socialism, predominant in that period. Even greater impact had From utopian socialism to scientific socialism, re-elaboration, for propagandistic purposes, of three chapters of the previous work which, published for the first time in 1880, had a similar fate to that of the Communist Manifesto. Although there was a clear distinction between this kind of vulgarization, carried out in open controversy with the simplistic shortcuts of encyclopedic syntheses, and that in which the later generation of German Social Democracy became a protagonist, Engels' use of the natural sciences paved the way for the evolutionary conception that, shortly afterwards, would also assert itself in the labor movement.

Despite being sometimes crossed by determinist temptations, Marx's indisputably critical and open thought fell under the blows of the cultural climate of Europe at the end of the XNUMXth century, permeated, as never before, by systematic conceptions, above all by Darwinism. To respond to this, the newly born Marxism, which so precociously becomes orthodox in the pages of the magazine Die Neue Zeit [The new time], directed by Kautsky, quickly assumed the same conformation. A decisive factor that contributed to the consolidation of this transformation of Marx's work has to do with the form of its diffusion. As demonstrated by the reduced print run of the editions of his texts at the time, summary brochures and very partial summaries were privileged. In addition, some of the works brought with them the effects of political instrumentalization. In fact, the first editions were reworked by the editors, a practice that, favored by the uncertainty about Marx's legacy, later became increasingly popular along with the censorship of some writings. The manual format, a remarkable vehicle for exporting Marx's thought to the world, certainly represented a very effective propaganda tool, but brought with it a change in the initial conception. The dissemination of his work, of a complex and incomplete nature, when faced with positivism and in order to respond better to the practical demands of the proletarian party, ultimately resulted in theoretical impoverishment and vulgarization of the original heritage.

It was from the development of these processes that a doctrine of evolutionary interpretation, schematic and elementary, bathed in economic determinism, took shape: the Marxism of the Second International period (1889-1914). Guided by a firm and naive conviction in the automatic progress of history and, therefore, in the ineluctable succession from socialism to capitalism, this doctrine proved incapable of understanding the true tendency of the present and, breaking the necessary link with revolutionary praxis, produced a kind of of fatalistic immobilization that became a factor of stability for the existing order. Thus, the deep distancing in relation to Marx was revealed, who already in his first work, written with Engels, had declared: “The History Do not do nothing […] it is certainly not 'History' that uses man as a means to reach their ends – as if it were a separate person –, because History is nothing but the activity of the man who pursues his goals”.

The collapse theory (Zusammenbruchstheorie), or the thesis of the imminent end of capitalist-bourgeois society, which had in the economic crisis of the Great Depression – which unfolded during the twenty years after 1873 – the most favorable context to express itself, was proclaimed as the most intrinsic essence of the scientific socialism. Marx's statements, aimed at outlining the dynamic principles of capitalism and, in general, at describing its tendency to develop, were transformed into universally valid historical laws, to which the course of events would be reduced, even in details.

The idea of ​​a dying capitalism, automatically destined for sunset, was also present in the theoretical framework of the first entirely “Marxist” platform of a political party, the Erfurt Program, of 1891, and in Kautsky's commentary on it, in which he states that “unbridled economic development leads to the bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production with a need for natural law. The creation of a new form of society in place of the current one is no longer just a desirable thing, but has become inevitable ”. This was the clearest and most significant representation of the intrinsic limits of Marxist elaboration at the time, as well as the abysmal distance between it and the one on which it was inspired.

Eduard Bernstein himself, who, conceiving socialism as a possibility and not as something inevitable, had marked a discontinuity with the dominant interpretations of that period, made an equally artificial reading of Marx. It did not distance itself in the least from those of its time and contributed to the diffusion, due to the vast resonance obtained by the Bernstein-Debate [The Bernstein debate], of an equally altered and instrumental image of Marx.

Russian Marxism, which over the course of the XNUMXth century played a fundamental role in disseminating Marx's thought, followed this trajectory of systematization and popularization, even with greater rigidity. For its most important pioneer, Georgi Plekhanov, in fact, “Marxism is a complete conception of the world”, marked by a simplistic monism based on which the superstructural transformations of society occur simultaneously with economic modifications. In Materialism and Empiriocriticism, 1909, Lenin defined materialism as “the recognition of the objective laws of nature and the approximately exact reflection of these laws in the head of man”. The will and conscience of mankind must "necessarily and inevitably" conform to the need of nature. Once again, the positivist approach prevails.

Therefore, despite the harsh ideological clash of those years, many of the theoretical elements characteristic of the deformation operated by the Second International passed to those that would mark the cultural matrix of the Third International. This continuity manifested itself even more clearly in The theory of historical materialism, published in 1921 by Nikolai Bukharin, according to which, “whether in nature or in society, phenomena are regulated by certain laws. The first task of science is to discover this regularity”. The success of this social determinism, entirely aimed at the development of the productive forces, generated a doctrine that states that “the variety of causes whose action is felt in society does not in fact contradict the existence of a single law of social evolution”.

Antonio Gramsci opposed this conception. For him, the posing of this problem as “a search for laws, for constant, regular, uniform lines, is linked to a need, conceived in a somewhat puerile and naive way, to peremptorily solve the practical problem of the predictability of historical events”. His solid rejection of restricting the philosophy of praxis Marxism to a crude sociology, to “reducing a conception of the world to a mechanical form that gives the impression of carrying the whole of history in one's pocket”, gained even more importance because it went beyond Bukharin's writing and aimed to condemn that much more general orientation that it would later prevail unchallenged in the Soviet Union.

With the establishment of Marxism-Leninism, the process of distortion of Marx's thought reached its definitive manifestation. Theory was withdrawn from the function of guiding action and became, instead, a justification a posteriori. The point of no return has been reached with the diamat (Dialekticeskij materialize – Dialectical materialism), “the world view of the Marxist-Leninist party”. Stalin's pamphlet, On dialectical materialism and historical materialism, from 1938, which had an extraordinary diffusion, established its essential characteristics: the phenomena of collective life are regulated by “necessary laws of social development”, “perfectly recognizable”; “the history of society presents itself as a necessary development of society, and the study of the history of society becomes a science”. This “means that the science of the history of society, notwithstanding all the complexity of the phenomena of social life, can become a science as exact as, for example, biology, capable of using the laws of the development of society in practice” and , therefore, the task of the party of the proletariat is to base its own activity on these laws. It is evident that the misunderstanding surrounding the concepts of “scientific” and “science” has reached its apex. The scientific character of the Marxist method, based on scrupulous and coherent theoretical criteria, was replaced by the way of proceeding from the natural sciences, which did not contemplate any contradiction. Finally, the superstition of the objectivity of historical laws was asserted, according to which these would operate, like those of nature, independently of the will of men.

Alongside this ideological catechism, the most rigid and intransigent dogmatism found fertile ground. Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy imposed an inflexible monism that did not fail to produce perverse effects even on Marx's writings. Undeniably, with the Soviet Revolution, Marxism experienced a significant moment of expansion and circulation in geographic areas and social classes in which it was, until then, absent. However, once again, the dissemination of texts, instead of referring directly to those of Marx, concerned party manuals, vade-mecums, Marxist anthologies on various topics. Furthermore, the censorship of some works, the dismemberment and manipulation of others, as well as the practice of extrapolation and astute editing of quotations, have become increasingly common. These texts, whose use corresponded to predetermined purposes, were given the same treatment that the thief Procruste reserved for his victims: if they were too long, they were amputated, if too short, extended.

In summary, the relationship between the dissemination and the schematization of a thought – and especially for a thought as critical as Marx's –, between its popularization and the requirement not to impoverish it theoretically, is undoubtedly a difficult task to carry out. Despite this, the fact remains that Marx has often been heavily misrepresented.

Bent to various sides according to contingencies and political needs, he was assimilated to them and, in their name, reviled. His theory, as critical as it was, was used as an exegesis of biblical verses. Thus were born the most unthinkable paradoxes. Unlike “prescribing recipes […] for the tavern menu of the future”, Marx, on the contrary, was illegitimately transformed into the father of a new social system. A strict critic and never satisfied with points of arrival, he became the source of the most obstinate doctrinalism. A staunch defender of the materialist conception of history, he was removed from his historical context more than any other author. Convinced that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves”, Marx was, on the contrary, caged in an ideology that saw the primacy of the political vanguards and the party as the driving force of class consciousness and the guide of the revolution. Proponent of the idea that the fundamental condition for the maturation of human skills was the reduction of the working day, he was assimilated to the productivist creed of Stakhanovism. A staunch supporter of the abolition of the State, he found himself identified as its bulwark. Interested, like few thinkers, in the free development of men's individualities, arguing against the bourgeois right that hides social disparities behind a mere legal equality that "the law would have to be not equal, but rather unequal", was associated with a conception that neutralized the richness of the collective dimension in undifferentiated recognition. Marx's original criticality was shaken by the systematization pushes of the followers that produced the distortion of his thought.

*Marcello Musto is professor of sociology at York University (Canada). Author, among other books, of The Old Marx: An Intellectual Biography of His Last Years (boitempo).


Marcello Musto. Rethinking Marx and Marxisms: A Guide to New Readings. Translation: Diego Silveira and others. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2022, 320 pages (

The A Terra é Redonda website exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.
Click here and find how

See this link for all articles


  • Reasons for the end of the strike at Federal Universitiesbenches 16/05/2024 By TADEU ALENCAR ARRAIS: The Federal Government's new proposal announced on May 15 deserves debate on whether or not to continue the strike
  • How to lie with statisticschair 51 18/05/2024 By AQUILES MELO: The numbers presented by the federal government to education employees on strike confuse more than they explain, thus demonstrating a lack of interest in resolving the problem
  • “Multipolarity” and the chronic decline of the WestJose Luis Fiori 17/05/2024 By JOSÉ LUÍS FIORI: The defense of multipolarity will increasingly be the banner of countries and peoples that are currently rising up against the global military imperium exercised by the West
  • The strike at universities and federal institutes does not…path time 17/05/2024 By GRAÇA DRUCK & LUIZ FILGUEIRAS: The left-wing and democratic forces need to get out of passivity, as if waiting for Lula and his government, as well as the STF, to resolve the political impasses
  • The Caramel horsecaramel horse 15/05/2024 By LEONARDO BOFF: We must admit that we have not respected the rights of nature and its intrinsic value, nor have we controlled our voracity to devastate it
  • The operational universityMarilena Chauí 2 13/05/2024 By MARILENA CHAUI: The operational university, in university terms, is the highest expression of neoliberalism
  • Environmental denialism and the flooding of Porto AlegrePorto Alegre airport flooded 14/05/2024 By CARLOS ATÍLIO TODESCHINI: Porto Alegre has the best flood protection system in Brazil. It is considered a “Dutch mini-system”. Why did this system fail in its function of preventing the city from being flooded?
  • Oza's handJoao_Carlos_Salles 14/05/2024 By JOÃO CARLOS SALLES: The duty of the Brazilian State and the contracted university
  • Fake freedom and the Marquis de SadeEugenio Bucci 18/05/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Fake freedom, sadistic freedom, which in essence is the denial of all freedom, is leading Brazil to total shipwreck
  • SUS, 36 years old – consolidation and uncertaintiesPaulo Capel Narvai 15/05/2024 By PAULO CAPEL NARVAI: SUS was not the “stillbirth” that many predicted. Almost four decades later, the SUS is institutionally consolidated and has developed a notable process of republican governance