Contemporary Sociology. A journal of reviews

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

When Eric Hobsbawm in 1964 edited and introduced Jack Cohen’s translation of a 53- page fragment of Marx’s mighty Grundrisse in his Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations (International Publishers), even committed readers did not notice its importance to Marxology, just as they had failed to register N. I. Stone’s 1904 translation of the Grundrisse’s introduction (overseen by Karl Kautsky) as the vital clarification, the ‘‘missing link,’’ of Capital that it was later claimed to be.

How do we now know this? Because Marcello Musto (of Naples) persuaded Christopher Arthur (of Sussex, UK) to tell the improbable story of the Grundrisse’s career in English (pp. 249-56), just as he corralled 19 additional scholars to do the same for their countries (from Germany to Japan, from Cuba to Turkey). Musto consumed 1500 emails, many letters and phone calls, help from 200 specialists, and the patience of 31 authors to assemble this estimable volume, which all serious Marxologists will find compelling reading, and everyone outside this circle will not find at all. It is a work of wonderful scholarly madness, a labor of deep devotion to the memory of a great thinker and his single most misunderstood document, and Musto and his collaborators deserve far more credit than they will likely receive in the current ideological environment.

The story of Grundrisse (literally outline, sketch, floorplan) began to become widely evident to the anglophone Marxist world in March 1968, when the young American, Martin Nicolaus, youth of the 60s (now a lawyer in Oakland), announced he had dis- covered ‘‘The Unknown Marx’’ in the New Left Review, a British journal vigorously stud- ied in the United States at the time. He was persuaded by enthusiastic mates to translate all 830 pages of the Grundrisse into English, and the result was published by Penguin Books in 1973, to wide acclaim among the devoted Left—which at that time was large and vocal. A flurry of articles appeared within a few years. From the humanist left, the book was greeted as a great, Hegelian searchlight into Marx’s true, sociological portrait of capitalist dynamics, while the Althusserian structuralists discounted it as a mere warm-up to Capital, and too philo- sophically speculative to qualify as Marxist ‘‘science.’’ Later evaluations punctured exaggerations from both sides, but by that time, in the 80s, the bloom was off the Marx- ist rose, and reaction had set in, so that the whole debate seemed quaint and provincial. Musto and his colleagues—including Iring Fetscher, Moishe Postone, Terrell Carver, John Bellamy Foster, plus a forward by Hobsbawm—have breathed new life into the document, not so much by claiming that it can illuminate the current capitalist crisis, but by firmly locating Marx’s terrific labors of 1857-58 in their proper historical and conceptual context.

Published in:

Contemporary Sociology. A journal of reviews

Date Published

1 January, 2011