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The challenge of publishing a major edition of Marx and Engels in French: The "GEME" project

Translated Monday 28 April 2008, by Patrick Bolland

The philosopher Isabelle Garo (1) presents an overview of this major publishing venture, drawing on many participants and aiming to make available to the public at large the complete works of Marx and Engels. (interview by Lucien Degoy)

The project has been put on hold, reconsidered, rescheduled; faced with all the obstacles; there was even a question of abandoning it altogether. But the conviction to go ahead and sheer perseverance has borne fruit and on 16 April 2008, at the Sorbonne (2), the creators of the “Grande Édition de Marx et d’Engels” (or GEME) presented the first volume of what is to become an extensive publishing endeavour over the next 15 years.

The aim? To publish and to re-translate a whole oeuvre – including correspondence, notes and newspaper articles – that is almost impossible to find, or has never published, in French. In the next three years, together with the printed volumes, the whole Marx & Engels collection of “Editions sociales” since the 1950s, which are now no longer available, will become available on the Internet. A titanic effort, scientifically rigorous, of obvious philosophical and political importance.

HUMA: You seem to have set yourselves a challenge of Pharaonic proportions. Do you really think that there is a public out there that will follow you, given the relatively minor role of the works of Marx and Engels in French publishing today?

ISABELLE GARO: Pharaonic, certainly, if you think of the volume of writing of Marx and Engels. We are using as our source the German reference publications, the “MEGA” (Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe), which contains 120 volumes, 49 of which have been published up to today. Our goal is not to publish everything; we will be leaving aside some rough drafts and variants, notes written in margins, some of the Marx-Engels correspondence – after making the full inventory, of course. We have estimated that there still remain some 90 million characters, a considerable amount, pharaonic as you say! But it’s not just a question of embalming Marx and Engels in some publishing mausoleum.

The aim is to make their work accessible, both to the public at large and to researchers. One cannot help being struck by this lacuna in French published works, much behind other European publishing efforts. If you want to buy today the three volumes of “Das Capital” in French, it’s a real struggle. Texts as fundamental as the 1957-58 Manuscripts (Die Grundrisse) are no longer available. The best collection today is the one published by the “Éditions sociales”, particularly when it was run by Lucien Sève from 1970 to 1982, which has unfortunately ceased production, and who is the source of our present project. We also have to acknowledge the translations of particularly Jean-Pierre Lefèbvre, Gilbert Badia (who died in 2004), Jean Mortier and, before them, by Émile Bottigelli.

But this barely includes two-thirds of the complete writings, relatively inaccessible and almost completely absent in the bookshops today. So there is an urgency to reviving the translation of the works that have not been published in French, to revise the existing translations, to renew the critical perspective, so that we can propose a complete collection that is truly coherent and rigorous. While awaiting new translations, we will be republishing some of those that already exist, as well volumes of selections of thematic texts. All this should make the writings of Marx and Engels more visible in the future.

Huma: There has been talk, in the last few years of a certain “return” to Marx, while this takes many different forms. Yet, we cannot return 30 or 40 years into the past. Reading and studying Marx or Engels at university has become the exception. Are you hoping to change this?

Isabelle Garo: Since the 1970s, the situation has of course changed. And not necessarily for the worse if we consider how Marx and Engels have been received. It is since the 1970s that marxism, or rather marxisms, whether rooted in universities or elsewhere, are relevant to grasping the political and ideological times, which are undergoing a concerted institutional “witch-hunt”. The result is widespread and long-lasting ignorance of the tradition emanating from Marx and marxism, despite a rich history of acceptance of Marx in France since the 19th century. But it’s not just an academic tradition: the current revival of interest, which has continued to grow in the last few years, the numerous publications, even fragmentary and disparate, the re-use of the categories of “social classes”, of exploitation, of communism, just to mention these few, reflect a new climate, which is germinal to the GEME project.

In return, we hope that a major corpus of works will be read or re-read, relevant to the survival of capitalism and how it can be displaced! But I would add that, whatever one thinks of or does with these works and the analyses they propose, their careful reading is as essential as ever if we are go beyond the “quotable quotes” and second-hand citations. Thanks to a few partnerships with university faculties, the University of Paris I and Dijon to start with, we hope to encourage young researchers, instructors and students and we have already found this to be happening.

Huma: You are intending not only to revise but also to re-translate a large number of texts – this is one aspect of your project. Why is this question of translation so central to your project?

Isabelle Garo: Yes, rigour and the fluidity of translations are very important to us. From this perspective, the quality of existing translation varies greatly. We need to make them more homogenous, to integrate them into an overall editorial project and let readers follow clearly the genesis, the development but also the constant re-working of concepts in an opus that is in no way monolithic. Such translation is a pre-condition for critical reading of the texts, so interpretation can be based firmly on what was actually written, so we can dispense with, for instance, the casual disappearance of some term or other written by Marx and avoid attributing to him those which he did not propose. To achieve this, it’s obvious that the problems to be faced are numerous and complex: the texts must at the same time remain readable, avoiding neologisms, but they must also give us as precisely as possible in French a vocabulary charged with its historical context. Just one example: the term “Aufhebung” borrowed from Hegel but redefined by Marx, the translation of which has raised and continues to raise numerous debates.

Huma: This work on the concepts requires a reading that intersects transversally the works as they evolved and, at the same time, you consider that one must respect the chronological order of the writings. How can the two objectives be reconciled?

Isabelle Garo: Precisely, in the case I just mentioned, involving “heavy” concepts posing translation problems, our translation choices will be justified by the critical analysis that we will be developing for each work, particularly using the facilities made possible by the electronic version, available on the Web and allowing researchers to use the links to notes or critical comments. It is here that our double perspective, a print version and an electronic version, provides a huge advantage. By avoiding making the text heavier, it will still provide all the information readers need, in a user-friendly way, a precise retrieval of subject-matter, of concepts used, of authors cited, and proper nouns – and this will be throughout the works. Moreover, the electronic version frees us from having to publish in chronological order and we will be working simultaneously on the three sections of GEME project: the works, articles and drafts; Das Capital in its various forms; and the correspondence.

Parallel to this, we shall be publishing in large format and paperback aimed at reaching more readers. As of 2010, there will also be all the translations of which “Éditions sociales” has the copyright which will be made available to readers in the Internet.

Huma:You have gathered university faculty from very different disciplines and you want to draw together very different currents of thinking in this project. How are you going to be able to reconcile the divergent interpretations or readings of the texts? Do you want to draw into this “great edition” work that is being done by other researchers, either on an individual basis or in working groups?

Iabelle Garo: Given our objectives we are working with and want to work collegially in the future with the most specialists possible, working as a team and in an open way. In this spirit, we are expanding our partnerships with individual researchers, but also with all the publishing, university, and institutional structures, taken very broadly – who are interested in this project. We have received a positive response wherever we have turned and the list our partners and collaborators is in no way finalized, rather the contrary: it keeps opening up, particularly more recently. As for the translation work itself, this is done through translation seminars which include German linguists, but also philosophers, historians, economists … enabling us to find solutions and at the same time to develop a critical reading of which I have been talking.

We exclude, however, any commentaries of evaluative remarks. It is precisely to break with a tradition that superposes on the text other interpretations, “official” or otherwise, and the projects’ interpretation of a written work which must, as much as possible, be presented in its own terms to readers, whoever they are and whatever they wish to read. Once the principle has been adopted, one can wager that the question of the current relevance of the work of Marx promises to have a fine future.


(1) Isabelle Garo teaches at Lille and has written “Marx, une critique de la philosophie » (éd. Le Seuil, 2000, coll. Points-Essais)

(2) This was held on 15 Avril, at the Université Paris-I Sorbonne, amphithéâtre Lefebvre

(3) Members of the panel : Jean Salem, professor at Université Paris-I; Isabelle Garo, president of the GEME project; Serge Wolikow, professor at the University of Bourgogne, president of the network of the Maisons des Sciences de l’Homme (MSH); Michael Krätke, representant MEGA (Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe), professor at the University of Amsterdam, and Robert Hue, senator and president of Gabriel-Péri Foundation

(4) “Aufhebung” (surpassing, abolition, conservation) often translated into English as sublation or out/up-lifting)

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