Orphan Texts: Marxist Marginalia

This is the first in an occasional series of bits of sources and writing that I quite like that no longer fit into the book or an article. This is a orphan text in two ways: not only does this not really fit into my work on Marx (I’m not sure it ever really did) but – as is common with marginalia that one comes across randomly – I don’t really know enough about the author of these marginal notes to really do him justice. But I LIKE Brain. I like his grumpiness with Dietzgen, his doggedness and his refusal to give up hope of socialism while repeatedly noting its non-arrival. And I like the idea of this book as a memorial to that stubbornness. So this is for Vic Brain, who is too important to shoehorn into an argument where he doesn’t belong. Let’s just enjoy his marginalia as a fragment of a life.

The inscriptions contained in W. Brain’s copy of Joseph Dietzgen’s The Positive Outcome of Philosophy range in date from 1940 to 1993. Dietzgen (1828-1888) was a German tanner who, independently of Marx and Engels, had also developed a philosophy of dialectical materialism, and his work was enormously popular amongst working-class Marxist autodidacts in early twentieth-century Britain.[1] Dietzgen was often read in conjunction with Marx because his work was presented, particularly in labour college classes, as extending the principles of Marx’s approach to economics into the realm of epistemology.

Brain’s copy of The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, originally published by Kerr & Co. in 1906, had at some point been imported into Britain from Chicago.[2] We know that this was once W. Brain’s copy because this name is written in the front of the book several times, along with some text in Welsh (which can be roughly translated as “This book belongs to …”), a date (1940) and various addresses in Llanelli and the Swansea suburb of Fforestfach, both in South Wales.[3] These addresses, along with an obituary in the Socialist Party of Great Britain newsletter, the Socialist Standard, birth records and information that can be gleaned from some of Brain’s marginalia, make it possible to identify Brain as William T.V. Brain, known by his comrades in the Swansea Branch of the Socialist Party of Great Britain as “Vic.”[4] Brain was born in Swansea in 1914 and died in December 2009. According to his obituary, he had been a member of the CPGB “in the early years of the Cold War period” but joined the SPGB in 1952 and remained a member until his death.[5] The description of Vic Brain in his obituary strongly resonates with his inscriptions in his copy of the Positive Outcome of Philosophy. A keen watercolourist who had trained as an art teacher fairly late in life, in his notes he took Dietzgen to task several times on points concerning artistic expression. Of all of Brain’s characteristics listed in the article, however, the one that is echoed most in his marginalia is his persistent asking of “the perennial question – when would we get socialism.”[6]

While notes in a single book can only be considered a fragmentary glimpse of one particular reading experience, Brain’s copy of The Positive Outcome of Philosophy reveals a deep and long-lasting engagement not only with the text but the book itself, which was extensively written on in multiple differently-coloured inks, though always in the same handwriting. On the title page, under the author’s name, it is noted that Dietzgen had been a “tanner and leather worker,” a working man who used his hands as well as a philosopher. A manuscript index added at the back of the book, alongside extensive marginalia scattered throughout and loose scraps of notes inserted at several points, indicates that Brain was particularly interested in Dietzgen’s attitude towards truth, religion and the concept of the “human soul.” These notes were often questioning in their nature. For instance, on one occasion, Brain underlined Dietzgen’s statement that “[t]he understanding of man is limited” and “[t]he human intellect is thus degraded to the position of a substitute of some ‘higher’ intellect which is not discovered, but must be ‘believed’.”[7] Next to this passage, Brain added a note in the margin, in capital letters (the marginalia in this book largely being in lower-case):


In other notes, Brain hinted that socialism itself was not immune from being considered a “faith,” and highlighted a paragraph in which the “comforting Logic of Dietzgen” was “embodied.”[9] Elsewhere, on a note inserted into the book on slips on paper, Brain wrote that “TRUTH ITSELF cannot be wholly conceived by the human brain, only in parts. Therefore what we possess is the ever-active striving for truth.”[10]


We might speculate that Brain’s careful and critical study of Dietzgen itself formed part of an “ever-active striving for truth.” For over fifty years, Brain continued to re-read this book and to make notes in it. On one page of the introduction (see image above), a line is underlined in black pen: “Capitalism is now approaching its decline. Socialism is near.” Next to it, an asterisk draws attention to a hand-written annotation at the foot of the page:

It is now 1986. Over the years I have re-read this book several times. During the 84 years that have elapsed since this statement was made some gains have been won but CAPITALISM IS STILL VIRILE and Socialism has NOT ARRIVED. (W. Brain 1986)

(again 1993).[11]

Brain’s book is full of critical comments on Dietzgen’s text. Yet, this melancholic note also recorded the long passage of time in which the book had been a physical presence in Brain’s life and home. We can conclude from its notes that this book was a prized one: re-opened, re-read, thought about deeply and marked for use.

[1] W. Brain’s copy of Joseph Dietzgen, The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, trans. Ernest Untermann (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1906). Copy in the possession of the present author.

For more detail on Dietzgen see Tony Burns, “Joseph Dietzgen and the History of Marxism,” Science and Society, 66.2 (2002), pp. 202-27; Adam Buick, “Joseph Dietzgen,” Radical Philosophy, 10 (1975), 3-7; On the reading of Dietzgen by British workers, see Jonathan Rèe, Proletarian Philosophers  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984); Stuart Macintyre, A Proletarian Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 127-46; Catherine Feely, “From Dialectics to Dancing: Reading, Writing and the Experience of Everyday Life in the Diaries of Frank P. Forster,” History Workshop Journal, 69 (2010), 90-110.

[2] See Allen Ruff, We Called Each Other Comrade: Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Jason D. Martinek, Socialism and Print Culture in America, 1897-1920 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012).

[3] The bookseller who sold the book to the present author in 2007 claimed that Brain was a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain but did not elaborate further. Further investigations uncovered an obituary for ‘Vic’ Brain in the SPGB’s Socialist Standard (April 2010) and this account was compared with information from Brain’s marginalia, as indicated in the text, to satisfy the author that this book had belonged to ‘Vic’ Brain.

[4] Howard Moss, “Obituary: Vic Brain,” Socialist Standard (April 2010). Available online at http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2010s/2010/no-1268-april-2010/obituary-vic-brain [Accessed 27 August 2013].

[5] Moss, “Obituary: Vic Brain”.

[6] Moss, “Obituary: Vic Brain”.

[7] Brain’s copy of Dietzgen, Positive Outcome of Philosophy, 344-345.

[8] Brain’s copy of Dietzgen, Positive Outcome of Philosophy, 344-345. Punctuation and spelling of the original note is retained.

[9] Brain’s copy of Dietzgen, Positive Outcome of Philosophy, 242.

[10] Loose slip of handwritten notes inserted between 430-431 of Brain’s copy of Dietzgen, The Positive Outcome of Philosophy.

[11] Brain’s copy of Dietzgen, Positive Outcome of Philosophy, 11.

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2 Responses to Orphan Texts: Marxist Marginalia

  1. Thanks for not saying anything sarky about socialism not arriving. If Vic had lived this long, I’m not sure “virile” would be the word to describe 2017 capitalism! If you ever have to dispose of Vic’s book, it would find a happy home in the SPGB archive.

    • cathfeely says:

      I would never be sarcastic about that; the lowest form of wit and, anyway, I share his hopes. Historians too often slip into patronising mode; I try not to be one of them. Re: virile, I very much agree! You will certainly be my first port of call if I ever part with it.

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