Fred Moseley, Review of Radical Political Economics

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

This book is an important addition to the scholarship on Marx’s Grundrisse, on the 150th anniversary of its writing. The book consists of three parts: critical interpretations, Marx’s life at the time of the Grundrisse (including his writings on the economic crisis of 1857-58), and the dissemination and reception of the Grundrisse around the world.

Part I consists of eight chapters by a distinguished group of Marxian scholars. Chapter 1 is by the editor Marcello Musto (“History, production, and method in the 1857 ‘Introduction’”) and argues that the “Introduction” to the Grundrisse is probably the most important text on that Marx ever wrote on his logical method (and Musto tells us that Marx wrote it in only a week). Musto discusses each of the four parts of the Introduction, and draws the following important conclusions about Marx’s method: First, the categories of a theory of capitalism should be in terms of its historically specific aspects (commodities, money, capital, surplus-value, etc.) rather than general characteristics that capitalism shares with all other modes of production (use-values, useful labor, means of production, etc.). Second, the different moments of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption should be considered as an interrelated totality, in which production is the dominant element over the other parts of the whole. Third, the order of the categories should be determined by their function within capitalist society, not by their historical order of existence (most importantly, capital should come before landed property). Musto also argues that the method discussed in Part 3 of starting from the most abstract and universal determinations and “rising from the abstract to the concrete” was later rejected by Marx when he chose to start his theory instead with the commodity, a concrete and historically determined reality.

Chapter 2 by Joachim Bischoff and Christoph Lieber (“The concept of value in modern economy: on the relationship between money and capital in the Grundrisse”) also emphasizes the historical specificity of Marx’s concepts: “Marx’s fundamental thesis is that the central categories grounding an understanding of capital … can be elaborated only on the basis of a determinate level of development of capitalist society.” (37) Bischoff and Lieber focus on Marx’s discovery while writing the Grundrisse that the starting point of his theory of capitalism. Marx began the Grundrisse with an analysis of money, but in the course of writing the “Chapter on Money” and the rest of the Grundrisse, he realized that money is not the appropriate starting point because money is not the “elementary form of bourgeois wealth”. Money is itself derivative of commodities. Therefore, the starting point of Marx’s theory is the commodity, the “cell form of bourgeois wealth”. From this starting point, it is possible to derive the category of money and from money the concept of capital. Similarly, Marx first analyzed simple circulation in the Grundrisse in terms of individual commodity owners, but then he realized that simple circulation should be analyzed as the surface appearance of capitalism. Marx did not articulate this new starting point in the chapter on money, but he did clearly articulate it at the very end of the Grundrisse in a short fragment entitled “The Commodity”.

Chapter 3 by Terrell Carver (“Marx’s conception of alienation in the Grundrisse) addresses the question of whether Marx changed his views on alienation – from an initial emphasis in his early works to much less emphasis and perhaps rejection in his later works (as some have argued). Carver puts this argument to the test with respect to the Grundrisse, and concludes that it provides no evidence that Marx changed his views on alienation (understood to mean that human powers are projected onto objects and these objects come to dominate people). Carver argues that the same theme is present in the Grundrisse, although not in the same language. The change of language is due to the fact that the Grundrisse is a different genre of work from the early writings (writing for publication, rather than exploratory notebooks) and a different audience (political economists, rather than Young Hegelians). Carver argues that the Grundrisse also adds an important dynamic element to the concept of alienation – capitalism’s tendency toward technological change and the growth of objectified labor relative to living labor, and the increasing domination of the latter by the former.

Chapter 4 by Enrique Dussel (“The discovery of the category of surplus-value”) is perhaps my favorite chapter in the book, because I think the discovery of the theory of surplus-value (and hence the explanation of exploitation in capitalism) is the most important achievement of the Grundrisse. Dussel argues that Marx had an intuitive grasp of the explanation of surplus-value in his early manuscripts, but he worked it out for the first time in rigorous detail in the Grundrisse, beginning early in the “Chapter on Capital” (more precisely, Dussel locates Marx’s “moment of clarity” beginning around p. 321, Penguin edition). Marx also developed and elaborated for the first time the following important concepts related to his theory of surplus-value: the division of the working day into necessary labor and surplus labor; the distinction between absolute surplus-value and relative surplus-value, and the decisive importance of the latter for capitalism; the distinction between constant capital and variable capital (the latter being the source of surplus-value); and the distinction between preexisting value transferred from the means of production and new value produced by living labor. These concepts are of course well known today, but it is exciting to review Marx’s discovery of these all-important concepts while writing the Grundrisse.

Chapter 5 by Ellen Meiksins Wood (“Historical materialism in ‘Forms which Precede Capitalist Production’”) revisits this important section in the Grundrisse (the first excerpt from the Grundrisse to be published in English in 1964, with an introduction by Eric Hobsbaum, who also wrote the Forward to this volume). Wood argues that the historical sequence of different modes of production which Marx suggested in 1857 has been largely discredited by subsequent research, but that does not mean this historical materialism is wrong. Rather, historical materialism does not need to provide such a theory of historical sequence. The strength of historical materialism lies elsewhere – in its emphasis that the development of each mode of production is driven by its own historically specific property relations and its own internal principles, not by transhistorical laws (such as technological determinism). Wood emphasizes that historical materialism focuses not only on class divisions, but also on the progressive separation of labor from the conditions of labor.

Chapter 6 by John Bellamy Foster (“Marx’s Grundrisse and the ecological contradictions of capitalism”) argues that recent research has shown that an ecological critique of capitalism was embedded in all of Marx’s works from the early works to his latest writings. This ecological theme is evidenced by his materialist conception of nature and history, his theory of alienation (including the alienation of nature), his understanding of labor and the production process as the metabolic relation between humanity and nature, and his co-evolutionary approach to society-nature relations. Foster argues that in the Grundrisse this ecological dimension of Marx’s work can be seen in the following themes: the attempt to construct a materialist critique encompassing both production in general and its specifically capitalism form, the articulation of a theory of human needs, the analysis of pre-capitalist economic formations, the analysis of external barriers to capital, the critique of Malthus’s theory of population.

Chapter 7 by Iring Fetscher (“Emancipated individuals in an emancipated society: Marx’s sketch of post-capitalist society in the Grundrisse”) focuses on those passages in the Grundrisse in which Marx discusses post-capitalist society, which are some of Marx’s most extensive writings on this subject, although still only sketches. Fetscher emphasizes that Marx’s vision of socialism included the “emancipation from compulsory labor”, which would make free time available to all for their full development as human beings, made possible by the tremendous development of the productivity of labor in capitalism. However, Marx does not discuss at all in the Grundrisse how this new society could be brought about and who the revolutionary subjects would be. Fetscher suggests that is our task to further develop this exciting vision of emancipated labor in a post-capitalist society and to attempt to make this vision an attractive motivation for revolution for a majority of the population in capitalist society.

Chapter 8 by Moishe Postone (“Rethinking Capital in light of the Grundrisse”) examines in detail an 3 page section in the Grundrisse entitled “Contradiction between the foundation of bourgeois production (value as measure) and its development” (pp. 704-06). Postone argues that this important section provides strong evidence that the categories of Marx’s theory are intended to be historically specific, not general transhistorical categories. For example, the commodity with which Marx began his theory is specifically a commodity in capitalist society, not a general product; and the concept of value refers only to capitalist society, and not to all societies (including not to a post-capitalist society). Postone also argues that the dynamics of capitalist development (technological change and relative surplus-value, runaway growth, etc.) are also historically specific and are not transhistorical laws that apply to all societies. Postone concludes: “… the Grundrisse allows us to see that Marx’s critique in Capital extends far beyond the traditional critique of bourgeois relations of distribution (the market and private property). It not only entails a critique of exploitation and the unequal distribution of wealth and power, although it of course includes such a critique. Rather, it grasps modern industrial society itself as capitalist, and critically analyzes capitalism primarily in terms of abstract structures of domination, the increasing fragmentation of individual labor and individual existence, and a blind runaway developmental logic. This approach reconceptualizes a post-capitalist society in terms of “the overcoming of the proletariat … that is, in terms of a transformation of the general structure of labour and time.” (p. 135) Postone’s vision of a post-capitalist society is similar to Fetcher’s in the previous chapter.

All these chapters are interesting and very high quality, as one would expect from this distinguished group of authors. These chapters are not an easy read, but then neither is the Grundrisse, and in both cases the effort is worth it. The major shortcoming in my view is that there is very little engagement with the existing literature on the Grundrisse, not even with Rosdolsky (the “great pioneer explicator” of the Grundrisse, as Hobsbaum describes him in his Foreward) and his critics. Part III (discussed below) clearly shows the influence of Rosdolsky, but this is not reflected in the interpretative Part I (with the exception of Carver, who has a long and appreciative paragraph on Rosdolsky). I also wish there had been more discussion of how the Grundrisse sheds light on the logical structure of the three volumes of Capital, beyond the emphasis on historical specificity and the commodity as starting point. In particular, what role does the distinction between capital in general and competition, which is emphasized in the Grundrisse, play in Capital?

Part II (“Marx at the time of the Grundrisse”) consists of three chapters, one by Musto on Marx’s life circumstances while writing the Grundrisse, and two chapters by Michael Krätke on Marx’s writings as a journalist and his analysis of the economic crisis of 1857-58. Musto’s chapter describes Marx’s very precarious economic circumstances, heavily dependent on Engels, constantly on the verge of running out of money, and always trying to stay one step ahead of the creditors. He was also afflicted by a variety of physical ailments (liver problem, eye infection, toothaches) and was at times incapacitated and unable to work for weeks at a time (during which he studied the Dutch language to occupy himself!). In July 1857, a baby died in birth, which was heartbreaking (two years after their 8 year old son Edgar had died). I myself find it almost impossible to imagine how such a monumental work such as the Grundrisse (very sophisticated and completely original) could be written in such extremely difficult personal circumstances (given my own comfortable circumstances and limited accomplishments). Re-reading the Grundrisse from this perspective boggles the mind.

The two chapters by Krätke on the economic crisis of 1857-58 were especially interesting to me, both because of my interest in crisis theory and the current crisis and because this material was entirely new to me. Chapter 10 (“The first world economic crisis: Marx as an economic journalist”) discusses Marx’s newspaper articles on the crisis as a journalist for the New York Tribune. Marx had worked for the Tribune since 1851, writing about two articles a week, many of which were published as leading articles. The Tribune was growing rapidly and had become the largest English speaking newspaper in the world, so Marx was actually one of the leading and most widely read economic journalists of his time (a surprise to me). Because of the crisis, Marx work load was cut back to one article a week. Marx wrote more than a dozen articles on the crisis, and ten of them were published (eight as leading articles) between November 1857 and March 1858 (in addition to rereading Hegel on the side!). The first and last articles are on the crisis in France, five deal with Britain, and the rest with elsewhere in Europe. (These articles are published in the new (50-volume) Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 15.) In these articles, Marx discussed the monetary crisis and the suspension of the Bank Act of 1844 (which Marx predicted shortly before it happened in November 1857), the industrial crisis and spreading bankruptcies, and especially the unprecedented global nature of this crisis [!]. In the aftermath of the crisis, Marx wrote two longer articles, trying to spell out its lessons for a theory of capitalism, in which he emphasized that this crisis, like all other capitalist crises, was not an “accident”, but was instead due to the inherent “laws of crisis” of capitalist economies.

During these months while working on the Grundrisse, Marx was also taking extensive notes on the development of the crisis in different countries. Krätke’s second chapter is about these notebooks. He describes them as “voluminous notebooks, with copious material” on the crisis, “full-scale empirical research on the ongoing crisis”. One notebook was on England, one on Germany, and the other on France. Krätke describes the contents of each of these notebooks in detail; he reveals that Marx also planned (along with Engels) to write a pamphlet on the crisis, using these materials from the notebooks, but that never happened (too bad!). In spite of all this parallel work on the crisis, the crisis is explicitly mentioned only twice in the Grundrisse. I guess this is not surprising, since the Grundrisse is the very beginning of Marx’s original “six book plan” and “world market and crisis” was projected to be the sixth and final book. But the crisis certainly provided the inspiration to write the Grundrisse. Krätke puts it bluntly: “Without the world crisis of 1857-58, Marx probably would not have written the Grundrisse.”

Part III presents an exhaustive description of all the editions of the Grundrisse and the secondary literature on the Grundrisse, all over the world (with a chapter for each country, sometimes in small common language groups). The Grundrisse was published for the first time in German in 1939 and again in 1953. In this Cold War period, translations into other languages were slow to appear. The first to appear were in the East: in Japan (1958-65) and in China (1962-78). A Russian edition was published in 1968-69. French, Italian, and Spanish translations were published in the late 1960s. Nicolaus’ English translation finally appeared in 1973. There were more translations into Eastern European languages in the 1970s, and more recently into Farsi, Greek, Turkish, Korean, and Portuguese. All in all, 22 languages. Each chapter is written by a native of the country, which must have required a tremendous about of editorial work.

There was considerable interest in the Grundrisse in the 1970s, but that interest has waned considerably since then (as it has for Marxian theory in general). However, Hobsbaum suggests in his Foreward to this volume that the current economic crisis appears to demonstrate the perspicacity of Marx’s theory, and thus it is a good time to return to a study of the Grundrisse (and Marx’s other works), and that this volume makes a valuable contribution toward that effort. I concur. This book should be of interest to all Marxian scholars.

Published in:

Review of Radical Political Economics

Date Published

1 January, 2011


Fred Moseley