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Nine protagonists and an origin story

By April 25, 2023No Comments

My work on The Invention of Marxism began with a trip to the library. Taking on a new translation project means immersing myself a new scholarly world, and getting to know the field is one of the first tasks. What have other historians written on the subject, and what kinds of language do they use?

Perusing the stacks at my university library, I encountered rows of mid-twentieth-century books with titles like A History of Marxism and Marxism in the Modern World, but significantly fewer works after the early 1990s. Scholarly interest in Marxism seemed to have crumbled alongside the Berlin Wall itself. As author Christina Morina notes: “Today, more than three decades after the end of the Cold War, the history of Marxism has become a niche academic field.” Indeed, recent work on Marx has too often been “driven by utopian longing, or by a desire to come to terms with the communist past—motives that are legitimate, to be sure, but that tend to obscure rather than foster historical understanding.” (xiv-xv)

It seems that a post–Cold War origin story of one of the world’s most powerful (and destructive) transnational movements is long past due. And so, quite appropriately, Morina pulls the study of Marxism down from the theoretical heavens. She focuses on the historical time and place that the worldview first emerged—namely, Germany, Austria, France, and Russia between 1870 and 1900—and on the remarkable circle of young protagonists who interpreted and popularized Marx’s work. The result is not merely a brilliant intellectual history of how a worldview was invented; it is simultaneously a group biography of nine eclectic, ambitious, “and often doctrinaire activists who were adamantly convinced that they personally could solve the world’s problems.” (xxii)

Some of these historical figures were familiar to me (Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin); others, less so (Jules Guesde, Jean Jaurès, Georgi Plekhanov, Peter Struve). Morina brings them all to life, showing how their formative paths of socialization and early political experiences led to their engagement as the very first Marxist intellectuals. She introduces their youthful poetry, correspondence, and other writings, and she retraces their first encounters with workers’ movements and the Social Question. Untangling historical evidence from subsequent political myth, she creates a vivid and clear-eyed portrait of these protagonists’ early years, before they became the legends we recall today.

A final remark about this translation: This is the first time I’ve worked with an author who is not “merely” fluent in English, but who has already written and published widely in English. An important aspect of my work as translator was therefore collaborating with Christina Morina and rendering her words so that they matched her own voice in English. I’m happy to report that the translation process was collaborative in the best possible way.