Alex Marshall, Critique. Journal of Socialist Theory

Blessed with an elegant introduction by Eric Hobsbawm, this substantial collection of essays to commemorate the anniversary of the writing of Karl Marx’s groundbreaking 1857–58 notebooks on political economy—the core from which Capital subsequently emerged—represents a highly interesting and ambitious project.

The collection itself is divided into three sections: critical interpretations of the text, three chapters on Marx’s own life at the time of writing of the Grundrisse, and 21 short expositions on the text’s reception upon publication in a variety of countries across the globe, ranging from Brazil, Portugal and South Korea, to Japan, China, Poland and Iran. Of these three sections, the first and second are by far the most interesting and satisfactory, whilst the two-page summaries that comprise the bulk of the third section add relatively little of analytical weight, though being not entirely devoid of interest for tracking the time lag in the work’s global dissemination (the Grundrisse was published in Portuguese only in 2008, whilst a Korean edition was released in South Korea only in 2000, and a Farsi text in Iran only in 1985–87).

The relationship of the Grundrisse to the three volumes of Capital continues to form the centre of most analysis; particularly as the Grundrisse itself sketches out a wider field of study than Capital itself ever ended up managing to cover. The delayed publication of the notebooks themselves (first published in German in 1939–41, in a now-rare Soviet edition, then republished in the GDR in 1953) meant that the Grundrisse ended up forming a keystone text in Western re-analysis of Marxism during the 1960s and 1970s, when the publication of the majority of Marx’s earlier writings for the first time was leading to a more general wave of reassessment of his legacy and true intent. This ‘first wave’ of exposure produced the 1973 English translation of the Grundrisse still available as a Penguin Classic today. Though Marx used the seven notebooks of the Grundrisse to organise his thoughts, and clearly never foresaw them becoming an independent publication (the work itself, as Marcello Musto notes in the second section of this volume, being written amidst circumstances of the utmost personal misery, and impoverishment), most commentators, including this volume’s contributors, have predominantly sought to re-interpret the unfinished Capital in light of the broader field of insight offered by the preliminary notes of the Grundrisse.

Marcello Musto opens the book by providing a stimulating overview of perhaps the single most complex and controversial part of the Grundrisse, namely the ‘Introduction’, which contains ‘the most extensive and detailed pronouncement that Marx ever made on epistemological questions’ (p. 3). This provides a useful reminder that Marx’s profound critique of political economy, and that which continues to distinguish him most clearly from even contemporary political economists, relates to his view of capital as historically contingent, rather than a natural and eternal form; a view that thereby continues to render him an effective antidote to the kind of vulgarised analysis which has informed even the most recent financial crisis.11For example: Samuel Brittan, ‘A Catechism for a System That Endures’, The Financial Times, 30 April 2009.View all notes This opening chapter also makes an extremely useful accompanying text for beginning to read the Grundrisse itself. Joachim Bischoff and Christoph Lieber go on to provide a stimulating study of the relationship between money and capital in the Grundrisse, whilst Terrell Carver delves into the difficult concept of ‘alienation’. Taking on David McLellan’s argument that alienation is ‘fundamental’ to the Grundrisse, Carver argues that the text represents a transition between the philosophical interpretation of the concept that suffuses theEconomic and Political Manuscripts and the later writing style of Capital, but also dismisses the idea that the difference in tone might carry deeper implications, or reflect ‘tendentious dichotomies between philosophy and science’ (p. 61)—stark dismissal of the very debates that once generated such passion in Marxist scholarship in the late 20th century (Althusser vs. Marcuse and Bloch, for example).

Continuing the explanatory theme unveiled in Musto’s opening chapter, Enrique Dussel revisits Marx’s exposition of surplus value as labour time, re-entering that ‘river of ideas where Marx slowly constructs his categories with all its ebbs and flows’ (p. 68). E.M. Wood meanwhile boldly takes up the earlier work of Eric Hobsbawm to re-examine historical materialism, pointing to errors in Marx and Engel’s typology of pre-capitalist modes of production in the light of subsequent archaeological evidence, but convincingly defending the enduring achievement of Marx’s liberation of history from Enlightenment conceptions of unilinear development, due to his very personal emphasis on the specificity of every mode of production ‘and of capitalism in particular’ (p. 91). John Bellamy Foster provides an ecological interpretation of the Grundrisse, whilst Iring Fetscher deals with one of the most harshly criticized areas of Marxist thought—Marx’s own vision of a post-capitalist society, and of labour evolving to become ‘self-realization’. Moishe Postone then provides a potentially controversial, but thoroughly satisfying, conclusion to the analytical essays contained in part one, by re-analysing Capital in the light of the Grundrisse, arguing that Marx’s notion of the structural contradiction in capitalism should not be assumed to correspond directly to class conflict.

This is an unusually well thought through and carefully edited set of essays, which avoids the pitfalls of most works of this type by being both consistently stimulating and provocative, as well as always clearly focused. The provision of biographical material on Marx himself, complemented by photographs of Marx and actual pages from the 1857–58 notebooks themselves, also makes this a handsome companion volume to the Grundrisse for both scholar and student alike, one which both communities could repeatedly turn and consult for years to come with much mutual benefit.


[1] For example: Samuel Brittan, ‘A Catechism for a System That Endures’, The Financial Times, 30 April 2009.

Journal Articles

Marx is Back

From the new edition of his works emerges a misunderstood author of great topicality for the critique of the present.
Contrary to the forecasts that predicted his definitive fall into oblivion, in the last few years Marx has returned to the attention of international scholars. His continuing ability to explain today’s world confirms the validity of his theory and more and more often his texts are revisited in Europe, the United States and Japan. The most significant illustration of this rediscovery is the resumption of the publication of his works. In fact, despite the enormous diffusion of Marx’s thought in the twentieth century, there is still no unabridged and scientific edition of his works to date. Of the greatest thinkers of humanity this fate fell exclusively to him.

To understand how this was possible, one needs to consider the varied vicissitudes of the working class movement that too often obstructed rather than facilitated the publication of his texts. After Marx and Engels died, conflicts within the German Social Democratic Party led to great negligence of the authors’ literary heritage. The first attempt to publish their complete works, the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), was made in the Soviet Union only in the 1920s but in the early 1930s the Stalinist purges, that also hit the main scholars engaged in the project, and the advent of Nazism in Germany abruptly interrupted the works on this edition. In 1975 the next attempt to reproduce the whole of the thinkers’ writings, the so-called MEGA², began but was suspended too, this time as a result of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In 1990, the International Marx-Engels Foundation (Imes) was created with the aim of completing this edition, bringing together scholars from three different continents. The project is extremely important, especially because a large amount of Marxian manuscripts still remains unpublished, and such cyclopean undertaking will be used as the basis for all new translations of Marx’s and Engels’s works in all languages. The MEGA² is composed of the following four sections: all of their works; their correspondence; Capital and its several drafts; and over two hundred notebooks on the most varied topics in eight languages, the building site of Marx’s development. To date 53 of the planned 114 volumes have been published, 13 of which came out after the project was resumed in 1998. Each volume comprises two large tomes: one for the text, the other for apparatus criticus (for more information, visit

What sort of Marx arises out of this new historical and critical edition? Definitely a different one from that depicted by his enemies and followers for a long time. However paradoxical it may seem, Karl Marx is a misunderstood author. The epigones’ systematic treatment of his critical theory, the theoretical impoverishment that accompanied its dissemination, the manipulation and censorship of his writings and their utilisation for reasons instrumental to the dictates of politics, have contributed to making him the victim of a deep and repeated misjudgement. The rediscovery of his work demonstrates the difference between Marx and ‘Marxism’, between the wealth of a problematic and polymorphous framework still to be explored, and a doctrine that altered its original conception to the extent of becoming its manifest negation. Those statues with stony profiles, that stood in the public squares of many illiberal regimes of Eastern Europe and depicted Marx as a prophet with dogmatic certainties about the future, can now be substituted by the image of an author who, until his death, left a large part of his writings uncompleted so as to dedicate himself to further research to verify the strength of his theses.

There are two examples of this: one is the fragmentary character that was restored to The German Ideology in its latest edition, evidence of the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ interpretative falsification that had turned these manuscripts into an exhaustive exposition of ‘historical materialism’ (an expression Marx never used). Far from being confinable to epitaphs, Marx’s concept of history needs to be retraced in the totality of his oeuvre. The other example is the publication of the second and third book of Capital, which brought to light over five thousand editorial interventions by Engels and demonstrated that, far from espousing a conclusive economic theory, these were by and large provisional notes under development. The imminent completion of the publication of all of the original works left to us by Marx is finally going to permit a reliable assessment.

What has already been ascertained is the value of Marx’s relentless intellectual efforts. However uncompleted, they are still the genial efforts and present us with a wealth of piercing analyses of the contemporary world. Faced with the current contradictions and crisis of capitalist society, in these volumes we go back to interrogating the same Marx whom we too hastily put aside after 1989. Having cleared the terrain of the self-professed custodians of his thought, it is hoped that this time we will hear it from the man himself.