Antonio Negri, Rethinking Marxism. A journal of economics, culture and society

Review of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Critical Economy

I began working on the Grundrisse in the 1960s. When I started, I had already been a Communist for years, but I was not yet a Marxist. I’d worked a lot on Kant, Hegel, neo-Kantianism, Weber, Lukács, and then finally, as I was approaching thirty in the early 1960s, I began reading Capital. I had already read through the going interpretations of the young Marx.

With existential humanism in the air, I had read and discussed his Early Writings (Frühe Schriften; in France, Italy, and Germany, you can’t imagine what intense emotions this “discovery” brought about in the climate of a certain humanist existentialism!). These writings provoked the same ambivalent, if not equivocal, impressions I had received when I studied Sartrean Marxism. As a result I had no difficulty grasping a certain justification in the “epistemological break” that Althusser had proclaimed. While this “break” was, for me, neither prominent nor decisive from a philological point of view, it was so from the point of view of the political hermeneutics and “situated” polemics (just as in a battlefield [Kampfplatz]) of revolutionary thought in that era of the last stirrings of dialectical Hegelianism in both the East and West. Marxist materialism seemed to become “whole” by having passed through this break—an antihumanist rupture, since the illusions of bourgeois humanism would have been at that point definitively cast off and, most important,because Hegelian dialectics was effectively being set aside. For those of us who were educated in Hegelianism and aware of the infinite variations of the “unhappy consciousness,” this transition was necessary: it was an introduction to revolutionary militancy.

Still, reading Capital turned out to be quite difficult for me. I certainly wasn’t reading it with the eyes of a philologist, or those of an academic, or even those of an educated “Marxist.” Instead, I was reading Capital as a militant communist who wanted to take hold of a subversive research method and program for action. Marx and Capital had to help me organize factory workers—not just to understand the contradictions and the crises of capital but also to transform these understandings into opportunities for struggle in the factories and in society. When, after Capital, I began to read the Grundrisse, I promptly recognized its unexpected yet longed-for new power (potenza). This text introduced me to a genealogical process. I had already begun to do conricerca with factory workers to understand the conditions for class struggle.1 With the Grundrisse I was able to better understand that doing “worker research” was also to apply Marx—his method—and to rediscover Marx, to reinvent him. Given the fact that the Grundrisse was still unknown half a century after Marx’s death, I too asked myself, as Eric Hobsbawm asked, how many more people would have become Marxists, and what different kinds of Marxists they would have become, if they had been able to read the Grundrisse alongside Capital. Given our approach to reading Marx as food for thought for political work, it was impossible for us to separate the Grundrisse not only from Capital but also from its role as a means of political action.

Hobsbawm (1965, 10) once described the Grundrisse as “a sort of private intellectual shorthand, which is sometimes impenetrable.” I think this view is entirely wrong. Granted, there are some incomplete pages and, at times, simply outlines, but it’s incorrect to conclude that the text, or even part of it, is incomprehensible—all but! It is certainly a difficult text, but there are key points that are not at all difficult to grasp and that keep its discursive flow on track. We will return to these points shortly. It is nonetheless true that, even if considered in a less dramatic manner, the Grundrisse represents a great turning point in the ongoing readings and rereadings of Marxist thought, and it has imposed another series of divisions in its interpretation. Some consider the Grundrisse a text of delirium, written in the wake of the tremendous shock wrought by the first global crisis of capitalism—in any case, an inspired document frustrated by the political failure that followed. Some, instead, consider the Grundrisse a new interpretive key for dialectical materialism of the more official and orthodox type. And then others maintain that the Grundrisse was entirely homologous with Capital. I myself think that, viewed in a more realistic and politically appropriate way, the Grundrisse should be read—placed within the historical context of the evolution of Marxian thought—not so much (or not only) as a genealogy of Capital but most of all as the source of a method and as the invention of a revolutionary politics. Althusser shouldn’t object at this point if, posing the question of the Grundrisse in these terms and at the same time letting go of Hegel’s charming fairy tales of a dialectical teleology, we return to “one Marx.” In the Grundrisse we should therefore read the outlines of a process constitutive of the class struggle. In the heart of Frankfurt’s 1968, Hans Jürgen Krahl understood this perfectly.

From this perspective the Grundrisse is a plan for the revolution that “living labor” constructs from within the structure of capitalist production. The Grundrisse is a “theoretical practice” that at once assumes the revolt of “living labor” during the crisis— considering this crisis as a revolutionary opportunity—and also, as Enrique Dussel rightly underscores, it is a motor that generates the categories for an analysis of capitalist development. Basically, in the Grundrisse (as the men of ’68 saw with verisimilitude) one can detect a dynamic center of Marxian thought, both its logical history and its revolutionary project. From this point of view, the Grundrisse has been an absolutely central pillar of the critique of any avant-garde delegation of knowledge and tasks, of Theory; of a critique of every conception of “revolution from above” imposed on the movement of the real; and it has been, rather, an affirmation of “revolution from below” as the potential for an autonomous constituent force of communism. Only the proletariat can build a plan of action.

In Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Critical Economy 150 Years Later, a volume of essays edited by Marcello Musto to mark that anniversary, the contents are opportunely divided into three parts. In the first we find critical readings that highlight the Grundrisse’s most important concepts (the theory of value and surplus value, alienation and emancipation, principles of historical materialism, etc.). In the second section are studies of Marx’s life as a journalist and analyst of the first global economic crisis in 1857–85. In the third we find readings on the extraordinary reception—a dissemination, really—of the Grundrisse throughout the world. The work here is rigorous and thorough.

We ought to underscore some aspects of Musto’s reading of Marx’s relationship to the crisis—the “marvelous crisis that we predicted,” as Marx put it. Earlier, Sergio Bologna (1974) had already given us an unbeatable depiction of the era surrounding this crisis. Two elements stand out in Musto’s return to this question. First is the insistence on the fact that Marx’s analysis does not simply chronicle the critical event; rather, his analysis grasps its categorical aspects, the immanent theoretical apparatus (dispositivo; in this case, an apparatus that unearths the connections between money and crisis, quantity and production, production and exploitation). The second element is that, precisely because the monetary crisis is so deeply immanent to the social one (in the form of class relations), each crisis should be considered as a singular case (as highlighting the particular determination of the class struggle that subtends it), and each critical reproduction of capital should be considered according to criteria of discontinuity.

The years 1857–8, a crisis of overproduction—for sure; but every other crisis is not homologous with this one and is determined instead by the actual conditions of the class relations in which it evolves. Quantities and limits, causality and chance are not abstract norms but objects of research (on struggles, and on the conditions of the class struggle) that are to be discovered anew with each crisis. Marx’s method here is shaped by differences, unequal relationships, and fluid correspondences. There is a strong antideterminism in the Grundrisse from its opening pages, in its approach to the crisis and in its invention and first experimentation with method. This seems to me the notable contribution of Musto’s volume.

We are thus confronted with a method of discontinuity, a plural universe to discover. This definition is incredibly important, as it beckons us to research the continuity of research itself, to carry it out as experimentation. Forschung, Darstellung, yes, but then Forschung again, and neue Darstellung—when we say Forschung we mean to excavate experience from within, always ready to find something new therein. The critical (better, subversive) method constructs a missile of multiple stages, and every stage carries us further away and puts us in the conditions to construct more intense and farther-reaching concepts. In this way, advancing research from within capitalist development, life becomes ever more invested by the productive process, and this method enables researchers to extend their findings much further than the genetic determinations of research itself could—and arrive, today, at an analysis of the resulting biopolitical and ecological consequences flowing out of capitalist development, as we can see in an interesting contribution by J. B. Foster. Precisely because of this, both analysis and projects become ever conceptually richer—and Marxism is an open book.

Marcello Musto cites an example that is, undoubtedly, very effective; it concerns the category of the “commons.” Considering the extreme difference between the commons as “dependence” between individuals (in tribes, families, etc.) at the beginnings of civilization and the commons in advanced capitalism, where the independence of the individual is imbricated in the social dependence expressed in the division of labor—well then, if (and only if) we think of crisis as a motor of ontological transformation, Marx’s method, formed in a moment of crisis, becomes capable of “flight” and therefore (as Deleuze claimed) of determinate abstractions.

As we were saying, and as Musto’s edited volume clearly illustrates, a few principal lines of inquiry pursued in the Grundrisse highlight its character as a “communist” political work. The fundamental point is that money is given as immediate value. This is how Marx starts. Differently from Capital, he begins not with the commodity but with money; he begins, then, not with use value par excellence (i.e., “living labor”) but with the capitalist exploitation of it; he begins not with money as only the measure of exploitation but with money as an overdetermined rule of the antagonism produced by exploitation; not with money as an exclusive expression of value but with the socialization of capital as the presupposition of money.

Class struggle underlies the whole process, and the relationship of exploitation represents the content of the monetary equivalent and the sign of its crisis: the crisis in fact allows us to grasp this foundation (which is nothing other than the social relation of capital). Capital is therefore, from the outset, unsaddled from its power. “It is absolutely necessary that forcibly separated elements which essentially belong together manifest themselves by way of forcible eruption as the separation of things which belong together in essence. The unity is brought about by force. As soon as the antagonistic split leads to eruptions, the economists point to the essential unity and abstract from the alienation” (Marx 1973, 150).

We cannot but agree with Terrell Carver when, in his article “Marx’s Conception of Alienation in the Grundrisse,” he both very elegantly establishes the connection between the various linguistic forms that (orbiting around the fundamental concept of “alienation”) represent the “split” produced by exploita- tion and then outlines the critical economic-political structure that such a split signals—hence the antagonistic mechanism that organizes the elementary unit of this relationship.2 In this light, too, we ought to appreciate the argument in Joachim Bischoff and Christoph Lieber’s chapter, “The Concept of Value in Modern Economy: On the Relationship between Money and Capital in Grundrisse.” Here, the antagonistic mechanism of surplus value—the law of value as a law of exploitation—acts as a plural and dynamic structure both of the productive reassembly of the process of capitalist accumulation and of the order over the antagonisms that rise up within it. A dynamic structure—because it is only within capitalism that power relations work progressively, confounding, in a mystifying way, exploitation with the production of wealth. As for exchange value, it is not simply a sign of circulation but the motor of production; and the bourgeois forms of the resolution of class conflict represent an ontologically consistent universe— all this while eschewing every catastrophist conception, every pretense of self- destruction, or simply from the perspective of a loss of value as necessary to capitalism. Also and on the other hand, it is a plural structure: the law of value in fact works also as a fundamental instrument in regulating competition. Marx is quite far from any illusion that the market functions in ideal terms. No, the market exists (and today, I would add, the function of financial capital amply demonstrates this); what does not exist, however, are the monsters that are regularly reinvented and proposed time and again to generate powerlessness among workers—for example, a monopolistic state capitalism which commands and restricts everything, or a social capital that continuously reassembles and subsumes within a totalitarian form every singular process of accumulation. Capital is not a Leviathan but a “social relation,” subordinated to the class struggle. In the law of value, therefore, exchanges and equivalences, conflicts and progressions are always articulated, in plural and antagonistic ways. This is the antagonism that defines the law of value—and this is shown by the functioning of the law not as a model of measurement but as a never-closed relation between the power of the accumulation of capital and the productive power of living labor.

In Musto’s volume, Moishe Postone’s essay “Rethinking Capital in Light of the Grundrisse” is the most explicit attempt to confer an innovative character on the Grundrisse that renders Marx’s teachings relevant to an analysis of the present. Postone carries out a well-known attack on “traditional Marxism”; he claims that traditional Marxism produces a critique of capital from the standpoint of labor; he proposes that, instead, we see Marx’s critical journey as being about the contradictory relation between forms of social life and forms of wealth, which proceed, change, and adapt together. Postone sees the Grundrisse’s “The Fragment on Machines” as key to his argument: the law of value as labor time indeed falters in the technological transformation that arises from the mode of production of “large-scale industry” (the last mode of production Marx knew). The hierarchy between manual labor and intellectual labor, and the productive and valorizing quality of these figures of the labor force, are steadily overturned over the course of technological change, and the law of value winds up being used as an ideological weapon in the political management of capital by the bourgeoisie. And so on, and so on. The point is that, in these polemics against traditional Marxism, it seems as though we are listening to a recitation of part of the Bible of postworkerism, the analytical part. The same is true when Postone analyzes the categories Marx uses in the Grundrisse and insists on considering them historically or tendentially.

Postone’s position becomes more dubious when—accentuating the “two-sided- ness” of Marxian categories (that of labor power as either variable capital or as a class is exemplary)—he claims that there is no structural (revolutionary?) solution to the historical determination of the “real subsumption” of society by capital. Already at the end of the 1950s, Raniero Panzieri and Mario Tronti underscored this situation, denouncing it as a “methodological spell” (a dualistic, negative dialectical method) and a consequent “blocking of research.” If everything were absorbed by capital, how could we define revolutionary determination, how does the “essential difference” of class emerge? Postone responds that the only conclusion of this logical development consists in the final catastrophe (but also, paradoxically, the realization) of capitalist development: there follows the extinction of the proletariat. It is unfortunately necessary to point out that, with this, Postone’s contribution to the revelation of the novelties of the Grundrisse is also extinguished—the encounter with the theses of workerism withers in the renewed horizon, sometimes pessimistic and at other times utopian, of the Frankfurt school! What characterizes this point of view? The tirelessly reiterated conviction that the structural contradictions of capital cannot be reduced to class struggles. We are no longer dealing here with “traditional Marxism” but with, purely and quite simply, a philosophy of social democracy. In this, we lose the most important element of Marxism in the Grundrisse—its ontological determina- tion, which is always expressed by new forms of class subjectivity. Beyond any technological determinism, and precisely in the name of the forms of life that analysis occasionally takes up over the course of research, the transformative power (potenza) of the class struggle reemerges. The Marxist futurism of the Grundrisse teaches us that the new quality of revolutionary subjectivity is revealed in the real subsumption of society by capital: general intellect, insofar as it is part of capital, on the one hand; and on the other, multitude (that is, the cooperative ensemble of socially productive singularities) as a class that breaks the “blocking” of revolutionary action—herein lies, transformed, the two-sided ontology of labor power.

Once the analytical condition set in place by the Grundrisse has been effected in the present state of the real subsumption of society, it is in fact impossible to think of a dislocation of the analysis, of its leaping forward, that is not attached to a power (forza), to a subject that so leaps. Only in this way can there be an end to that dialectic which, as Althusser correctly saw, castrated the revolutionary project. The Grundrisse teaches us that only a political class subjectivity, not as an element external to the development of capitalism but as a force that moves “within and against” capital, can allow us to read the class struggle in opposition to money- capital-crisis in the present.

Translated by Rhiannon Noel Welch.

Published in:

Rethinking Marxism. A journal of economics, culture and society

Date Published

7 July, 2014


Antonio Negri