Alex Marshall, Critique. Journal of Socialist Theory

Review of Karl Marx's Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later

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.

Published in:

Critique. Journal of Socialist Theory

Date Published

21 April, 2010


Alex Marshall