Marx’s 1872-75 French Edition of Capital: Critiquing Engels to Get at Marx’s Last version on Its 150th Anniversary

Rodrigo Maiolini Rebello Pinho

Summary: On the historic importance of Marx’s French edition of Capital, and the need to cut through Engel’s disparagement of this edition. Based on a presentation to the July 2022 Convention of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization – Editors

A historical analysis of the “crucial, famous, irreversible French edition, 1872” 


 A very brief note on the formation of Capital

 First, it is important to recall that at the beginning of the 1840s, Marx wrote a critique of Hegel’s philosophy and also had to deal, as a journalist, with the material interests of life. Because of these two factors, he discovered that the anatomy of society lay in its political economy. Therefore, he planned to elaborate and finish a critique of Political Economy very quickly, having even made a contract with a publisher. He thought he could write it in months. However, the first part of this work, an introduction, did not appear until 1859, while the first volume of Capital was published only in 1867.


About the Three Volumes of the work 

As is well known, Capital, volume I (on the development of capitalist production) was the only one of the Volumes of the work published during Marx’s lifetime.

The second and third Volumes (on the circulation process of capital and on the global process of capital, respectively) were published by Engels after Marx’s death in 1883. There is also a so-called Volume IV, dealing with the history of Political Economy as a theory, but this one was published after Engels’s death.


On the Editions of Volume I Published by Marx and Engels

Below is a chronological summary, with some observations of historical and theoretical interest, covering the 16 years between the first edition of the work in 1867 and Marx’s death in 1883:

– 1st German edition, 1867, with only one thousand copies printed and which was, according to the French researcher Maximilien Rubel, expensive at the time (3.5 thalers- about what a worker earned in one week). It took five years to sell out;

– 1st Russian edition, March 1872, three thousand copies printed, with one thousand sold within two months. Interestingly, the censors did not censor the work, based on the idea that it was too philosophical, that no worker would understand it; therefore, they only vetoed publishing Marx’s portrait.

– 2nd German edition, initially published in nine installments from July 1872 through March 1873, and then as a book in May 1873, with a print run of three thousand copies;

– 1st French edition, first published in 44 installments, with eight pages each, sold in sets of five, from August 1872 through May 1875, and then as a single work with a print run of ten thousand copies, the largest up until then. (cf. Rubel, 1968, pp. 102 and 106). As Raya Dunayevskaya (one of the first to expose, after Marx, the scientific value of the French edition, along with M. Rubel, and, then, followed by Kevin B. Anderson) referred at one point to the “crucial, famous, irreversible French edition, 1872.”

Thus, the French edition was the last published edition of Capital that Marx worked on with his own hands.

Subsequent to the French edition are the German 3rd and 4th editions, which were edited and published by Engels after Marx’s death. The 4th edition is generally the edition that serves as the basis for the translations that are made to this day, especially because Engels presented it as “the most definitive possible.”


The Opposed Stances of Marx and Engels Toward the French Edition

 Marx and Engels had fundamentally different positions regarding the French edition, especially concerning its scientific value and, consequently, its future employment as the basis for future translations and editions.


  1. The negative view of Engels:


As we shall see from the following excerpts, quoted chronologically in order to show their continuity, Engels’s negative view is evidently deep-rooted.

Firstly, in a letter in February 1868 (2/2/1868), when Marx was having trouble finding a translator from German to French, Engels wrote to him the following:

“It is really your fault; if you write strictly dialectically for German science, then afterward, when it comes to the translations, particularly the French, you fall into evil hands. (Marx and Engels, 2010a, V. 42, p. 534).”

And did Marx, the author, say something directly to Engels in this debate? Yes, he did. An exchange of letters between him and Marx helps clarify this disagreement between the author, Marx, and the future editor, Engels. In November 1873, after reading a proof of a chapter of the French text, Engels told Marx the following:

“Dear Moor, […] Yesterday I read the chapter on factory legislation in the French translation. With all due respect for the skill with which this chapter has been transformed into elegant French, I still felt sorry for what had been lost of the beautiful chapter. Its vigor and vitality and life had gone to the devil. The opportunity for an ordinary writer to express himself with a certain elegance has been bought by the castration of language. It is becoming more and more impossible to think originally in the straitjacket of modern French. Everything striking or vital is removed, if only by the need, which has become essential almost everywhere, to bow to the dictates of pedantic formal logic and change around sentences. I would consider it a big mistake to take the French version as a model for the English translation. In English, the power of expression in the original need not be attenuated; whatever must inevitably be sacrificed in the genuinely dialectical passages can be compensated for in others by the greater energy and brevity of the English language.” (Marx and Engels, 2010a, v. 44, pp. 540-541

A few days later, Marx very concisely objected:

DEAR FRED, […] Now that you are taking a look at the French translation of Capital, I would be grateful if you could persevere with it. I think you will find that some passages are superior to the German. (Marx and Engels, 2010a, v. 44, p. 543)

Did Engels change his mind after that? No. We can see this in a letter to Sorge, written on June 29, 1883, a few months after Marx’s death. As Engels was working on the third edition of Capital, he mentioned the following:

“The 3rd edition of Capital is causing me a tremendous amount of work. We have a copy in which Marx follows the French edition in indicating the amendments and additions to be made, but all the detailed work is still to be done. I got as far as ‘Accumulation’, but here it is a case of almost complete revision of the entire theoretical section. Beyond that, there is the responsibility. To some extent, the French translation lacks the depth of the German text; Marx would never have written in German that way.” (Marx and Engels, 2010a, Vol. 47, p. 42)

This is why in the Preface to the 3rd edition, Engels said that he had to replace the “plain French” with a “terse German” because, says he, that is what Marx would have done.

The negative opinion that Engels had of the French edition is also very clear in the Preface to the first edition in English of 1886:

“the French text was referred to in most of the difficult passages, as an indication of what the author himself was willing to sacrifice wherever something of the total importance of the original had to be sacrificed in the interpretation.”

So it is not surprising that, on June 7, 1893, Engels suggested the following regarding an Italian translation:

“The translation of the French edition alone would not be perfect, since the Italian is more suited to the philosophical style of the author” (Marx and Engels, 2010a, V. 50, p. 151)

Before getting into Marx’s observations, I want to summarize the improper treatment of the French translation that Engels carried out, and for that purpose I will quote Kevin B. Anderson:

“The most generous thing that could be said of Engels as editor of Volume I of Capital is that he left us an incomplete edition, which he presented as the definitive one. However, in the Preface to the fourth German edition of 1890, he writes that he had set down ‘in the closest possible final form both the text and the footnotes’ […] Yet Engels left out Marx’s preface [autographe] and postface [Avis au lecteur] to the French edition [… ] A stronger criticism of Engels could, however, be made on the notion that Marx wanted the French edition to be the standard for subsequent editions and translations, at least after the sixth chapter” (Anderson, 2010, p. 176) “Getting a complete text of volume one of Capital is part of a much larger problem: separating Marx’s work from that of the post-Marx Marxists, starting with Engels[13] (Anderson, 1997, p. 136).”


Marx’s Judgement

Let us now move on to see how Marx viewed the French edition, especially its scientific value and its role as the basis for future translations.

Crucially, Marx had thought it important to publish the work in French, ever since the first German edition was being published in 1867. Nevertheless, he took a long time to find a publisher — Maurice Lachâtre — and a translator — Joseph Roy.

The arrangement to publish the French edition was more or less the following: Marx sent the original text to Roy, in Bordeaux, who translated it and returned it to Marx, in London; Marx then revised the translation and sent it to Lachâtre’s office in Paris. A proof was then printed and sent to Marx and to Lachâtre, the latter initially in San Sebastian, Spain, for corrections. They returned the corrected proof so that a second proof could be created, which was sent to both of them. This was repeated until there were no more corrections, and Marx approved the publication of the installment (see, for example, Lachâtre in Bouffard et al., p. 78).

In the beginning, Marx appreciated the translation, but later he saw that it was “too literal”, which is the only critique that Marx ever made of the translation. Therefore, it was the fact that the translation was too literal that made Marx rewrite most of it, which is something he stated many times. For instance, on May 28, 1872, Marx wrote to his Russian translator, Nikolai Danielson:

“Although the French edition—(the translation is by Mr Roy, the translator of Feuerbach)—has been prepared by a great expert in both languages, he has often translated too literally. I have therefore found myself compelled to re-write whole passages in French, to make them palatable to the French public. It will be all the easier later on to translate the book from French into English and the Romance languages [so Portuguese, Italian, Spanish]. (Marx and Engels, 2010a, V. 44, p. 385, emphasis mine).

He also stated it in a letter responding to Lachâtre, who was complaining of Marx’s delays:

“It is not, as you appear to imagine, merely a question of details and of minor corrections of style; rather I had, indeed am still having, to do virtually the whole thing over again. Once condemned to this thankless task I added here and there some important new developments, which will give the French edition—as I shall incidentally point out in the Afterword — a value not possessed by the German original (July/23/74 – Marx and Engels, 2010a. V. 45, p. 25–26)”.

Furthermore, as Marx had already announced, he proceeded not randomly but in a planned manner. This was reaffirmed at the end of the book, in the Note to the Reader in which he stated:

“Mr J. Roy set himself the task of producing a version that would be as exact and even literal as possible, and has scrupulously fulfilled it. But his very scrupulousness has compelled me to modify his text, with a view to rendering it more intelligible to the reader. These alterations, introduced from day to day, as the book was published in parts, were not made with equal care and were bound to result in a lack of harmony in style. Having once undertaken this work of revision, I was led to apply it also to the basic original text (the second German edition), to simplify some arguments, to complete others, to give additional historical or statistical material, to add critical suggestions, etc. Hence, whatever the literary defects of this French edition may be, it possesses a scientific value independent of the original and should be consulted even by readers familiar with German […]

Karl Marx

London, April 28 1875” (Marx, 1982, p. 105)

Marx’s publisher, Maurice Lachâtre, wanted Marx to take this Note out of the text, but it was maintained, which corroborates the value of the French edition.

The evidence of the scientific value of the French edition and its role as the basis for future editions, in Marx’s judgment, can also be found in the Afterword to the second German edition of January 24, 1873:

“I find now, on revising the French translation which is appearing in Paris, that several parts of the German original stand in need of a rather thorough re-working, while other parts require rather heavy stylistic editing, and still others require the painstaking elimination of occasional slips. But there was no time for that. For I was informed only in the autumn of 1871, when in the midst of other urgent work, that the book was sold out and the printing of the second edition was to begin in January 1872 (Marx, 1982, pp. 94-95, emphasis mine)

Also, after the French edition was published, Marx maintained his favorable viewpoint.

In a letter of March 7, 1877, Marx drew Engels’s attention to two passages in Le Capital (the French edition) that discuss important points: the ideas of productive labor and how to view physiocrats. He cited the passages in the French edition with the following justification:

“I quote them from the French edition because they are less vague here than in the German original” (Marx and Engels, 2010a, V. 45, p. 208).

He even added that, in prefaces to future translations, it should be noted that:

“[the French edition] came out later and was revised by me” (Marx and Engels, 2010a, V. 45, p. 276 and 283, dated 9/27/1877 and 10/19/1877).

Before concluding, I would like to corroborate my argument with the testimony of Maurice Lachâtre. He wrote the following statement after discussing it with Marx, and it was published in the French edition:


Your book “LE CAPITAL” has attracted so much sympathy among the working classes in GERMANY that it is natural that a French publisher would have the idea of giving his country a translation of this masterful work.

RUSSIA preceded FRANCE, it is true, in publishing this important work; but our country will be fortunate enough to have a translation based on the manuscript of the second German edition, even before its appearance in GERMANY, and revised by the author.

FRANCE will be able to claim that it made the greatest contribution to the introduction of others to your doctrines, because it will be our text that will be used for all the translations of the book in ENGLAND, ITALY, SPAIN, and AMERICA, everywhere men of progress meet, eager to learn and keen to spread the principles that must govern modern societies in the old and the new world.

The method of publication that we have chosen, installments costing TEN CENTIMES, will have the advantage of allowing a greater number of our friends to obtain your book, the poor who can only pay for science with an obol; your goal will be achieved: to make your work accessible to all.

As for your fear of seeing the readers stop because of the dryness of the economic topics treated in the first chapters, the future will show us if it was justified.

We must hope that those who subscribe to your work, whose main objective is to study economic doctrines, will not give up reading because of the application of your analytical methods; everyone will understand that the first chapters of a book on political economy must be devoted to abstract reasoning, the necessary preliminary to the burning questions that fascinate the mind, and that one can only arrive gradually at the solution of the social problems treated in the following chapters; I am convinced that all readers will want to follow you until the conclusion of your magnificent theories.

Please accept, dear professor, the assurance of my highest regard.

MAURICE LACHATRE (Lachâtre in Marx, 1872–1875, p. 8) »



When comparing the points of view of Marx, the author, and Engels, the editor, it is easy to see that the French edition did not have the same significance for Engels that it had for Marx. While Engels had a negative opinion of the French edition and used it mainly as a reference of the extent to which the author was willing to go when he had to sacrifice the original meaning in translation, Marx — whose words should be given a weight that corresponds to the authority of the sole author — judged it favorably, attested to its independent scientific value, and maintained that it should be used as a basis for later translations. It is the reason why I am currently co-translating the whole French edition of Capital into Portuguese for the Brazilian public. On the other hand, there is a forthcoming English translation, published by Princeton, that will not rely much on the French edition.

I would just like to end with a statement by Engels, one with which we shall all agree. He said that Marx “weighed every word” that he wrote (5/22/1883- Marx and Engels, 2010a, V. 47, p. 26), that his writing showed the “unparalleled conscientiousness and strict self-criticism with which he endeavored to elaborate his great economic discoveries to the point of utmost completion before he published them.” (Engels in Marx and Engels, 2010a, V. 36, p. 6). And, as a final observation, if he is correct in that matter, it is, nevertheless, important to emphasize the need to separate Marx from Engels. Although they were close friends and collaborators, they are not a single entity, but different individuals with different, and sometimes opposed, thoughts. To bring this essay to an end, we could mention two of these, their opposed stances on the French edition and indications that Engels viewed German as superior to French as a language of philosophical expression.



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