Letters on “Capital”

Alberto da Veiga Guignard, Glória do Artista, 1933. Photographic reproduction Pedro Oswaldo Cruz.


Read an excerpt from the “Presentation” of the newly edited book of letters from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

“In the method of analysis, something did me a great service [...]: I went back to leafing through the Logic of Hegel” (Marx, 16/01/1858).

“What all these gentlemen lack is dialectics. […] What to do? – if, for them, Hegel did not exist” (Engels, 27/10/1890).

The correspondence between Marx and Engels – be it the total number of letters exchanged between the two over the course of almost 40 years of a unique friendship and theoretical-political partnership, or those they sent to and received from third parties – constitutes an indisputably extraordinary textual collection. . At the beginning of the 4st century, it is estimated that they wrote around 2500 letters, of which some 10 were exchanged with each other, and that they would have received XNUMX missives from others.

Still at the end of the 1895th century, after the death of Engels (1840), the movement began to make epistolary documents (but not only) of Marx and Engels public – the initial step fell to Marx’s youngest daughter, the militant Eleanor Marx, in fact his literary executor (alongside Engels). The movement was encouraged by the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party and ended up becoming a collective task of the organization. In the specific case of the letters by Marx and Engels, a first institutional-partisan effort to publicize them was conducted by August Bebel (1913-1850) and Eduard Bernstein (1932-1913): the two organized the volumes, published in September 1386 , which gathered 1844 letters, written between 1883 and XNUMX.

A solitary Vladimir I. Lenin (1870-1924), at that time exiled in Switzerland, attentively examined the four volumes and, in December 1913/early 1914 (the year in which he would dedicate himself to studying the science of logic, by Hegel), while criticizing the editorial criteria adopted by Bebel and Bernstein, largely extracted several of the Marx-Engelsian letters and pronounced a lapidary judgment on their content: “If one tried to define the focus in a single word, so to speak, of all this correspondence, the central point to which the entire body of ideas expressed and discussed converges – the word would be dialectic. The application of the materialist dialectic to the reconfiguration of the whole of Political Economy, from its foundations, its application to history, the natural sciences, philosophy and working-class politics and tactics – this was what most interested Marx and the Engels. With this they contributed with what was most essential and new, constituting the masterful advance they offered to the history of revolutionary thought”.

The reader who browses the pages of this volume will be able to examine some of the texts whose relevance led the man who would be the great leader of the October Revolution to express himself so accurately.


Precisely in the aftermath of the October Revolution, conditions were created for the idea of ​​collecting the entire Marx-Engelsian literary collection and offering it to the public light – involving what were previously unpublished texts, including his correspondence, but also recovering the materials already released – gained the status of a careful project. Such conditions were propitiated by the support of the young Soviet State (with Lenin at the head), which offered the means for the organization, in January 1921, of the Marx-Engels Institute (later, sometimes renamed), under the direction of Davod Riazanov ( 1870-1938). This qualified revolutionary intellectual, at the head of a group of researchers, planned and began to implement what should be the complete works of Marx and Engels (the collection Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, known as MEGA).

The project initially led by Riazánov, then directed by VV Adoratsky (1878-1945), was not completed, interrupted when the Nazi aggression (1941) against the Soviet Union. But the research carried out at the institute created in 1921 somehow continued: Soviet specialists worked, between 1928 and 1946, to offer the first Russian edition of what would be the Complete works [Sochineniya] of Marx and Engels; despite the general title and what was then materialized in the project (28 volumes in 33 volumes), the incompleteness of the material published in this period of time was evident. In any case, in those years the epistolary collection of Marx and Engels grew, which came out of the novelty.

It was only with the documentation gathered, first in the volumes of Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels Werke (German edition known by the acronym MEW, 39 volumes + 2 supplements, published by each Dietz, Berlin, between 1956 and 1968), and later in those of Marx-Engels Collected Works (Collected Works of Marx and Engels, known by the acronym MECW – 50 volumes edited, between 1975 and 2005, by Lawrence & Wishart/London and International Publishers/New York) –, only then did the epistolary legacy of Marx and Engels brought to light gained greater dimension, but, even so, without being, in the in its entirety, available for public examination.

The fact is that, since the mid-1940s, in Europe and the Americas (and also in the East), collections and selections, the most varied, of letters from the two revolutionaries have come to light. It is not possible, on this occasion, to minimally list such collections, but it should be noted that interest in the epistolary exchange of Marx and Engels remains alive today.

It should be noted that this correspondence only acquires its effective significance when properly contextualized – both within the framework of the biography of its signatories and in the precise historical context in which its pieces were written. Written in different languages ​​(especially German, English and French, often mixing them in the same missive), the letters collected here are typical of a private correspondence, properly private, understandably leaked without formal concerns, in a colloquial tone (sometimes meaning- even in vulgar terms) and, inevitably and frequently, expressing opinions and judgments that the heat of the moment eventually made wrong and even momentary and passing moods. It is evident that these adjective aspects matter when it comes to signatories whose theoretical-intellectual and political stature achieved lasting worldwide relevance – and Marx and Engels embody, like few others, letter writers with such characteristics. But such aspects do not cease to be adjectives.

Significant are some general traits that are always present and reiterated in what, in fact, is most objective and expressive in the correspondence between Marx and Engels – and that contribute to compose the profile of the two comrades of ideas and struggles. Let us highlight five of these traits (whose visibility, in this volume, will surely be verified by the attentive reader):

– the lively reference to the cultural heritage from Antiquity (Greco-Roman), enriched and re-dimensioned with the Renaissance (there, of course, including the Reformation) and updated with the Enlightenment, whose contents Marx and Engels dominated with extreme security;

– the exhaustive and critical domain of the theoretical, cultural and scientific manifestations that were contemporary to them in the most different fields of knowledge (History, Philosophy, Political Economy, Art/Literature, Sciences and Technologies…), proving – beyond any eruditeness/ encyclopedism – the accumulation and processing of an impressive universe of information;

– the acute awareness of the permanent need for research to formulate/prove any judgment about reality, conceiving its knowledge as historically conditioned, therefore, subject to expansion, rectification and revision;

– the systematic investigation of relations – of autonomy and dependence – between the various forms of knowledge developed historically (Philosophy, Art, Science, etc.) and the specific economic, social and political supports that underpin them;

– the explicit rejection of explanatory/understanding modalities of historical-social life based on analytical reductionism, leading to simplistic and schematic solutions.

However, without minimizing what is found in these (and even in other) traits of the Marx-Engelsian correspondence that is already made public, what seems essential to us for the scholar who examines it today must be sought in its passages that are refer strictly and directly to the motivations of the signatories' most important political initiatives and, very especially, to the development of their theoretical project.

Justifies this prioritization, in the face of what we already know from the biographies of Marx and Engels, an elementary reason: in both cases, we have objective criteria to documentally assess the results of what is registered in the correspondence as intentionality – that is to say: we have today there are many more factual and textual elements than those contained in the letters of Marx and Engels to judge the connections between their intentions and what actually came to pass.

Let us point out that these last observations are relevant to what interests us most in presenting this edition of the Letters on “Capital”. Both in 1948, the date of their first collection in one volume, and in 1954, when a wider German edition was produced and from the mid-1960s onwards, with its expanded publicity (their editions were published successively in specific volumes in French, Spanish, Italian and English), at least the three books d'The capital were already in the public domain. Until then, letters such as those collected in this volume were practically the only significant autographic material that could contribute to clarify the genesis and elaboration of the magnum opus marxian.

Now, we currently have not only complete editions ofThe capital – and other works related to it –, but still preparatory materials for the great and unfinished work. Currently, therefore, the scholar ofThe capital you have at your disposal a textual set that provides you with better conditions to follow and understand the development of the theoretical-analytical process which, object of the Marx-Engelsian correspondence summarized here, is then presented globally formatted. Thus, the scholar can examine the content of the correspondence and assess it considering what objectively resulted from it.

Now, at the end of the second decade of the XNUMXst century, in the light of materials related to The capital already known, the letters gathered in this volume can (and should) be appreciated in a new, more rigorous and better reasoned way, which was beyond the reach of the main scholars who analyzed them until the seventh and eighth decades of the last century. We think, however, that, subjected to the contemporary critical filter, they still retain a very special importance.

* Jose Paulo Netto He is Professor Emeritus at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Author, among other books, of Karl Marx – a biography (Boitempo).


Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels. Letters on “Capital”. Translation: Leila Escorsim. Technical review and presentation: José Paulo Netto. Editing: Miguel Yoshida. São Paulo, Popular Expression, 2020, 480 pages.


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