Joel Wainwright, Human Geography

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

The sesquicentennial of Marx’s Grundrisse  (1973 [1857]) brought renewed attention to this extraordinary and confounding text, comprised of the notebooks in which Marx took his first steps toward Capital (1867).

In his Foreword to this collection, Eric Hobsbawm describes the Grundrisse as “an enormously difficult text in every respect” (p. xxiii), and to make matters more complex, Marx’s notebooks have been subject to a peculiar publication history.

They were only discovered in 1923, and the first complete edition in any language (the original German) was stifled until 1953 by Stalinist control of Marx’s oeuvre. Thus the secondary literature on the Grundrisse developed late and remains considerably weaker than that concerning the Communist Manifesto or Capital.1 To be sure, there are a few excellent studies of the Grundrisse , yet the best of them – works like Rosdolsky’s The Making of Marx’s Capital (1968); Negri’s lectures on the notebooks, published asMarx beyond Marx (1979); Dussel’s ‘comentario’ (1985); and Uchida’s painstaking examination of the Grundrisse alongside Hegel’s Logic (1988) – are either unavailable in English or no less difficult than Marx’s own notes. I suspect that many Anglophone geographers who have picked up the Grundrisse (in one of the two English versions prepared by different translators) have met with considerable frustration and gone looking for help.

We are therefore fortunate for this terrific collection, edited by Marcello Musto, and its publication as an affordable paperback in Routledge’s “frontiers in political economy” series. This is not a mixed-bag, edited collection organized around a mushy theme by second-rate editors. It is an outstanding work, comprised of 32 chapters, written by 31 authoritative contributors; and since some of the chapters drew upon other specialists (as I explain below), in total over 200 people were involved in its creation. The resulting product has no ‘deadwood’ and provides the best introductory guide to the Grundrisse now available in English.4, Number 3, 2011

The book is organized in three sections. Part I offers eight excellent, interpretive essays on different concepts in the Grundrisse: Musto on its history and method; Bischoff and Lieber on value theory; Carver on alienation; Dussel on surplus value; Wood on the ‘forms which precede capitalist production’; Foster on ecological contradiction; Fetscher on emancipation; and Postone on the text’s relationship to Capital. Those who know the literature on Marx will immediately recognize that these are experts, well matched to the core themes that they examine. I find little to critique in them. Arguably this section is missing a stand-alone chapter on Marx’s lengthy discussion of money in the Grundrisse, but this is dealt with in a chapter in Part II (the shortest of the three) which examines Marx at the time of writing the Grundrisse. Some of the book’s essays (Dussel’s and Musto’s) have been previously published in other languages. Also, readers may be put off by the fact that some authors – Foster and Postone in particular – refer so frequently to their books that these chapters essentially summarize arguments made elsewhere. But their chapters are still useful since they allow students of Marx to gain insights about the Grundrisse from specialists without having to slog through all the research monographs.

Part III offers a chronological, country- by-country description of the translation and publication of the Grundrisse. This is fascinating material for Marxist geographers since it describes the uneven, spatio-temporal diffusion of one text by Marx. In all, the Grundrisse has been translated in its entirely into 22 languages (in 32 different versions), and printed in ~500,000 copies—numbers that, as Musto wryly notes, would have “greatly surprised the man who write it only to summarize, with the greatest of haste, the economic studies he had undertaken up to that point” (p 183).

Unexpected twists appear from the map of the dissemination of the Grundrisse. For instance (Geographers might wonder how the material
for this section was compiled. In a remarkable display of scholarly perseverance, Musto exchanged ~1,500 emails with scholars and activists all around the world. In addition to its other qualities, section III demonstrates the value and possibilities of large-scale collaborative philological research) the first language into which it was translated and published in full was Japanese. Fifty-seven thousand copies were printed in Japan in 1958-65, a decade before the text was first available in English (1973). Anglophone Marxists will be humbled by the relative paucity of first-rate original material on the Grundrisse in English (see pp 249-256). Based on reading the country-by-country reviews, I get the impression that the most intensive original research on the Grundrisse in recent years has been taking place in East Asia, particularly China (with some coordination by the Chinese Research Society on Capital, a non-governmental organization), South Korea, and Japan.

Although Marx was an anti-disciplinary thinker par excellence, there are notable disciplinary biases in the composition of the 31 contributors to this volume. Most teach political theory, economics, political economy, or history. There are no geographers. This raises a question. Compared to political science, economics, and history, it seems that a relatively large proportion of human geographers today profess to be Marxists. Why then are so few geographers represented in the leading Marxist journals and scholarly volumes? Perhaps this is only a scale effect – there are, after all, far fewer geographers than economists, historians, and political scientists – but perhaps it suggests something about the state of Marxist geography. For some reason
the breadth of Marxian work in our discipline is not resulting in sustained publishing on Marx and Marxism.

This edited volume reflects the fact that we are in a period of renewed, intensive scholarship on Marx. Hobsbawm’s subtle compliment to the book in his Foreword – he calls it “a successful attempt both to display some of the riches of Grundrisse and to place its … fortunes in their international setting” (p. xxiii) – understates its achievements. Make sure that your library bought a copy, and check it out.

Published in:

Human Geography

Date Published

1 January, 2011


Joel Wainwright