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New Left Review I/177, September-October 1989


Michael Löwy

‘The Poetry of the Past’: Marx and the French Revolution

Like so many German intellectuals of his generation, Marx was literally fascinated by the French Revolution: in his eyes it was quite simply the Revolution par excellence or, more precisely, ‘the most colossal revolution that history has ever known’. [1] K. Marx, The German Ideology, Marx–Engels Collected Works, vol. 5, London 1976, p. 193 We know that in 1844 he was intending to write a book on the French Revolution, beginning with the history of the Convention. From 1843 onwards, he had begun to consult works on the subject, to take notes and to research periodicals and document collections. He began with German works (Carl Friedrich Ernst Ludwig, Wilhelm Wachsmuth) but, as time went on, French works came to predominate in his reading—particularly the Mémoires of Levasseur, a member of the Convention, extracts from which fill several pages of Marx’s Paris notebooks of 1844. Apart from these notebooks (which Maximilien Rubel reproduces in Volume III of the Pléiade French edition of Marx’s works), the references cited in his articles and books (particularly during the years 1844–48) provide evidence of the vast bibliography consulted: Buchez and Roux’s L’Histoire parlementaire de la Révolution française, Louis Blanc’s Histoire de la Révolution française, the histories of Carlyle, Mignet, Thiers and Cabet and texts by Camille Desmoulins, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Marat, etc. A partial list of this bibliography can be found in Jean Bruhat’s article ‘Marx et la Révolution française’, published in the Annales Historiquesde la Révolution Française, April–June 1966.

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