How did the dictionary come into being?

The genesis of the Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus (Historical Critical Dictionary of Marxism) was international. It was developed alongside the German translation of the Dictionnaire critique du marxismewhich was published by Georges Labica (1930-2009) and Gérard Bensussan (*1948) in the early 1980s in France in response to the “Crisis of Marxism” which had set in at the end of the 1970s (1982, 2nd extended edn., 1985). The goal of the Dictionnaire was to leave behind the “dogmatic” “art of definition” which Labica associated with Rosenthal’s and Judin’s Kleines Philosophisches Wörterbuch and with the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. The idea was to interrogate each term as if it were a “defendant”, whom “one could not give credence to simply on the basis of what he said of himself” (Dictionnaire [3rd edn., 1999], VI et sq.).

The German translation of the Dictionnaire critique du marxisme

The Dictionnaire is composed of the work of more than 70 authors who dedicated themselves to fleshing out central concepts of Marxism. As Wolfgang Fritz Haug, who initiated and published the German translation, wrote in 1983 in the preface to the first volume, the Dictionnaire represented “something as new as it was urgently needed”, and a translation would strengthen the “scientific” and “generally accessible” character of the project, in addition to making it possible to gain a “historical and critical relationship to the concepts and discourses and the institutions and practices connected with them” (Haug, KWM I, 5-7). The historical-critical approach was also meant to aid in overcoming the divisions that had been standing in the way of a necessary renewal of Marxism. The intention was “to establish a field of differences that need not always erupt into hostile antagonisms. On this field, the different expressions and tendencies of Marxism remain in contact with each other”. (7)

The eighth and final volume of the German translation was finished in 1989. The preface to the first volume of the Kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus (Critical Dictionary of Marxism; KWM) states that the dictionary ushers in the beginnings of “a future international encyclopaedia of Marxism” (9). To compliment these beginnings, as early as 1983 there were plans to expand the translation of the Dictionnaire with supplementary volumes in German. An exchange with scholars from some twenty European, Latin American and African countries resulted in a compiled keyword list that planned 800 new lemmas in addition to those contained in the KWM. This plan also included contributions from Chinese and Soviet authors. In line with the aims of the KWM, the articles contained in the New Dictionary were not intended to provide mere definitions of concepts. Rather, as the editorial team to the new project wrote in the Guidelines for writing the articles, the goal was to embed these concepts in the struggles and contradictions of their time as well as elaborate their historical problems.

The Historical Critical Dictionary of Marxism emerges

Under the influence of the Soviet perestroika, the project was conceived as part of an incipient functional shift in the political-theoretical lexicon of Marxism and as reconstruction of its theoretical culture. “The New Dictionary of Marxism inscribes itself in the renewal of Marxism, which is now seen to be urgently necessary in the USSR as well, and will also have Soviet collaborators.” (KWM VIII, pref.) The vision for the project changed once again, however, to account for the collapse of European socialisms which began in 1989, the disappearance of the old institutions and practices, and the widespread delegitimisation of Marxist discourses. New fields of crisis and critique and social movements which were connected to them appeared in the transition to a high-tech mode of production and everyday life: these concerned the intensification of ecological problems, changes in the nature of international warfare, in living and working relations, and in gender relations. The number of entries to be edited grew to over 1200 keywords. Instead of the supplementary volumes, the Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus (Historical Critical Dictionary of Marxism; HKWM) was created and has been published since 1994.

Although the HKWM shares the historical-critical aims of its predecessor, there are a number of noteworthy differences compared to the 1520 pages of the Critical Dictionary of Marxism that were eventually translated. While Labica, Bensussan and the authors they enlisted limited themselves to terms that can be attributed to various currents of Marxist theory and which rarely fill more than five pages per article, the HKWM also includes non-Marxist keywords that have acquired a relevance for social history and history of science and which prompt Marxist analysis. Not only does the HKWM include entries such as the dual character of labourunited front, and extra profit, but also child labourclimate, and Keynesianism, which range from 3 to 40 columns in length. On the other hand, for Marxist feminists such as Frigga Haug, Kornelia Hauser and Brita Rang, the project of expanding the KWM represented the possibility of holding a more intensive discussion concerning feminist issues within Marxism. Their willingness to work on the project was premised on their demand to include additional keywords from discussions outside the German speaking context. As a result, the new dictionary initiative culminated in a far-reaching Marxist lexicon project.