The 25th of March, 1868
Is this the most important letter Marx ever wrote? James D White thinks it is. He could be right.
[London,] 25 March 1868
I wanted to write to you yesterday from the Museum, but I suddenly became so very unwell that I had to close the very interesting book I was reading. There was something like a black veil before my eyes. In addition, a frightful headache and chest constriction. So I crept home . The air and the light did me good, and at home I slept for some time. My state is such that I really should give up working and thinking entirely for some time; but that would be hard for me, even if I had the means to loaf.
Ad vocem Maurer: his books are extremely significant. Not only the primitive age but also the entire later development of the free imperial cities, of the estate owners possessing immunity, of public authority, and of the struggle between the free peasantry and serfdom, get an entirely new character.
The history of mankind is like palaeontology. Owing to a certain judicial blindness, even the best minds fail to see, on principle, what lies in front of their noses. Later, when the time has come, we are surprised that there are traces everywhere of what we failed to see. The first reaction to the French Revolution and the Enlightenment bound up with it was naturally to regard everything as mediaeval, romantic, and even people like Grimm are not free from this. The second reaction to it is to look beyond the Middle Ages into the primitive age of every people — and this corresponds to the socialist tendency, though these learned men have no idea that they are connected with it. And they are then surprised to find what is newest in what is oldest, and even egalitarians to a degree which would have made Proudhon shudder.
And we are all very much in the clutches of this judicial blindness: right in my own neighbourhood, on the Hunsrück, the old Germanic system survived until the last few years. I now remember my father talking about it to me from a lawyer’s point of view. Another proof: just as the geologists, even the best like Cuvier, have expounded certain faits in a completely distorted way, so philologists of the force of a Grimm, mistranslated the simplest Latin sentences because they were under the influence of Moser, etc. (who, I remember, was enchanted that ‘freedom’ never existed among the Germans, but that ‘Luft macht eigen [‘town air brings freedom, country air brings serfdom’]). E.g. the famous passage in Tacitus: ‘arva per annos mutant, et superest ager’, which means: they exchange the fields (arva) (by lot, hence also sortes in all later Leges Barbarorum), and there remains over communal land (ager in distinction to arva as ager publicus), Grimm and others translate: they till every year new fields, and there is still (untilled) land left over!
In the same way the passage: ‘colunt discreti ac diversi, [they till separately and scattered] is taken to prove that the Germans from the earliest times cultivated on individual farms like Westphalian squires. But the very same passage continues: ‘Vicos locant non in nostrum morem, connexis et cohaerentibus aedificii’s; suum quisque locum spatio circumdat’, [‘they do not lay out villages in our fashion, with adjacent buildings one next to the other; each surrounds his dwelling with a free space’] and such Germanic primitive villages, in the form described, still exist here and there in Denmark. Obviously Scandinavia must become as important for German jurisprudence and economics as for German mythology. Only by starting from there will we be able once again to decipher our past. Incidentally, even Grimm, etc., found in Caesar’s writings that the Germans always settled as kinship groups, and not as individuals: ‘gentibus cognationibusque, qui uno coierunt.’ [‘according to gentes and kinships, which settled together’ — Gaius Julius Caesar]
But what would Old Hegel say, were he to learn in the hereafter that the general [das Allgemeine] in German and Nordic means only the communal land, and that the particular, the special [das Sundre, Besondere] means only private property divided off from the communal land? Here are the logical categories coming damn well out of ‘our intercourse’ after all.
Very interesting is the book by Fraas (1847): Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit, eine Geschichte beider, namely as proving that climate and flora change in historical times. He is a Darwinist before Darwin, and admits even the species developing in historical times. But he is at the same time agronomist. He claims that with cultivation — depending on its degree — the ‘moisture’ so beloved by the peasants gets lost (hence also the plants migrate from south to north), and finally steppe formation occurs. The first effect of cultivation is useful, but finally devastating through deforestation, etc. This man is both a thoroughly learned philologist (he has written books in Greek) and a chemist, agronomist, etc. The conclusion is that cultivation — when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois he naturally does not reach this point) — leaves deserts behind it, Persia, Mesopotamia, etc., Greece. So once again an unconscious socialist tendency!
This Fraas is also interesting as a German case-study. First Dr. med., then inspector and teacher of chemistry and technology. At present head of Bavarian veterinary services, university professor, head of state agricultural experiments, etc. In his latest writings you see his advanced age, but he is still a dashing fellow. He has been around a lot in Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt! His history of agriculture is also important. He calls Fourier this ‘pious and humanist socialist’. On the Albanians, etc. ‘every sort of shameless lechery and rape’.
We must keep a close watch on the recent and very latest in agriculture. The physical school is pitted against the chemical.
Do not forget to send me back the letter of Kugelmann’s manufacturer.
Nothing pleases me better than to see you here.
Apropos. Edgar’s planter’s hat has been found again, and this time you can take it to Mrs Lizzy."
Got all that? Here's Sean Sayers explaining the use that White makes of the letter:
Marx had become increasingly aware that there were extensive survivals of pre-capitalist forms in capitalist societies. In a letter to Engels of 25 March 1868, of which White makes a lot, he says, `right in my own neighbourhood, on the Hunsrücken, the Germanic system survived up till the last few years'...Such survivals posed problems for the ideas of capitalist development which Marx was working on in the early 1860s in connection with the second volume of Capital. For the assumption which had guided Marx's thought in this period was the Hegelian one that historical development was a progressive process in the course of which earlier forms would be swept away.
According to the story that White tells, Marx's Russian studies, together with his anthropological investigations, led to a questioning of this view which resulted eventually in a crisis in Marx's thinking and a transformation of his whole approach to social and historical questions. Indeed, White maintains, they led to a veritable `turning point in Marx's conception of socialism' (358). Marx came to reconsider his hostility to romanticism. Towards the end of the 1860s he adopted the view that ancient communal social forms, such as had survived among the peasantry in Russia and other parts of Europe, could provide the basis for an ideal future socialist society.
I agree, to an extent at least, and I think that the issue is of more than historical interest, even in Aotearoa. I don't go along with White's very negative view of Lenin and his revolution, though. I think Lenin inherited rather than created a problem. Sayers has some wise words to this effect, near the end of his treatment of White's book:
Marx's words conflict. Right up to the end of his life, Marx's thoughts were in the process of development; they were unresolved on crucial matters, incomplete and contradictory. This is clear from the account that White himself gives. As White well shows, Marx's Russian studies were pointing in directions which seemed to conflict with the ideas of historical progress that had guided his previous work. How these apparent conflicts should be dealt with is a matter for interpretation, and different interpretations are possible. In any case, such questions of interpretation raise philosophical issues which cannot be resolved by poring over the words of Marx as though these have sacred authority...Marxism is not a dead doctrine unchangeably laid down by Marx.
You can roam amongst Marx's letters here.