John Hoffman, Science and Society

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

Each day brings speculation as to whether the economic crisis sweeping the globe will plunge society into the depths of a depression comparable to that of 1929-31. It is ironic that, since the collapse of the Communist Party states almost 20 years ago, Marxism has been largely cast aside and yet today we face an economic crisis of epic proportions.

All this makes the publication of a volume on the Grundrisse extremely
timely. As Eric Hobsbawm (who did much to popularize parts of the Grundrisse) comments in his foreword, this volume appears at a time when the world appears to demonstrate the perspicacity of Marx’s insight into the capitalist system (xxiii).
The Grundrisse was unknown to Marxists for over half a century after
 Marx’s death (xx). The original German edition was published in 1939 – 41

The Grundrisse provides a guide to the full range of the treatise of which Capital is only a fraction. It is the only text which deals with the communist future. Hobsbawm endorses the description that this is “Marx’s thought at
its richest” (xxiii)
This collection marks the 150th anniversary of its composition.

Marx’s “Introduction” (the part of the Grundrisse is better known than the rest) is justly famed for its stress upon the individual as a social being and for its exposition
of abstraction, both in its negative and positive senses. Capitalism, Marx
stresses is historically specific: it is not natural or eternal. Marcello Musto examines Marx’s famous method of moving from the abstract to the concrete (17): the historical, he comments, is decisive for the understanding
of reality, while the logical makes it possible to conceive history as something other than a flat chronology of events (21).Terrell Carver addresses the 
debate about alienation (remember Althusser and his attack on humanism), while Ellen Meiksins Wood talks about the problems posed by more recent scholarship for Marx’s discussion of the “forms which precede capitalist production” (77).

John Bellamy Foster convincingly shows how the Grundrisse
is full of acknowledgements of nature’s limits (96), and Moishe Postone
argues that the Grundrisse could provide a point of departure for “a reinvigorated critical analysis,” given the weaknesses of post-Marxist discourses
like postmodernism and poststructuralism (121).

Musto depicts graphically the grim social circumstances in which the
 Grundrisse written, with poverty, disease and childhood deaths afficating
 the Marx household (153). The book was spurred on by the world economic
 crisis of 1857-8 which started with a banking crisis in New York. Michael R. Kratke looks at Marx’s unpublished notebooks on the crisis (171). It is likely
 that Engels himself had never read the Grundrisse: it was discovered by Ryazanov of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow in 1923.

1. Few of the 3,000 copies published in 1939 crossed the Soviet frontiers.
 Martin Nicolaus declared in his translation in 1973 that the work “challenges and puts to the test every serious interpretation of Marx yet conceived” (183). He also argued that it was the only text to give a complete account of Marx’s theory, providing (unlike Capital) a theory of breakdown (250).
 The book contains detailed accounts of the reception of the Grundrisse in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Russia and the Soviet Union, Japan, China, France, Italy, Cuba, Argentina, Spain and Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Britain, the USA, Australia and Canada, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Iran. Poland, Finland, Greece, Turkey. South Korea, Brazil and Portugal. 
Not all the commentaries are entirely reliable. For example, Horoschi
Uchida argues that the Grundrisse overcame “determinist misconceptions of his [Marx’s] theory” (213), and one could well object to the use of the term “determinism” to mean a mechanistic rather than a dialectical approach. But in general, this is a very worthwhile book – full of astute comments that help to refresh and revive Marxist theory in difficult days.

Published in:

Science and Society

Date Published

1 January, 2009


John Hoffman