Wang Xiaosheng, Studies in Marxism

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

Although the book is not a monograph, it contains a number of inspiring and informative essays about the life of Marx at the time of his writing the Grundrisse, about the social background of the book, and extensive information on the dissemination and reception of the Grundrisse throughout the world.

The papers collected in the book give readers clear and original interpretations of Marx‘s Grundrisse from different perspectives. The information about Marx‘s life at the time he was writing the Grundrisse is really helpful for understanding and further researching the book.

The topics of the essays collected in the book are diverse, but they can be divided into four groups. Group one: History, production and method in the 1857 ―Introduction (by Marcello Musto). This essay deals specifically with Marx‘s 1857 Introduction. It tries to clarify the method that Marx uses in the Grundrisse. Group two: The concept of value in modern economics: on the relationship between money and capital in the Grundrisse‘ (Joachim Bischoff and Christoph Lieber), The discovery of the category of surplus value (Enrique Dussel). This group deals with Marx‘s theory of value, especially surplus value. Group three, Marx‘s conception of alienation in the Grundrisse (by Terrell Carver), Rethinking Capital in the light of the Grundrisse (Moishe Postone). These two essays put the Grundrisse in the context of Marx‘s other works to clarify the differences and similarities. Group four, Historical materialism in “Forms which Precede Capitalist Production”‘ (Ellen Meiksins Wood), Marx‘s Grundrisse and the ecological contradictions of capitalism‘ (John Bellamy Foster) and Emancipated individuals in an emancipated society: Marx’s sketch of post-capitalist society in the Grundrisse (Iring Fetscher). These papers are mainly concerned with Marx‘s interpretation of the historical process and some of its problems.

The chief merit of the book for me is that nearly every essay in the book concerns one of the fiercely discussed questions in the understanding of Marx. The essays in this book try to answer these questions through the reading and interpretation of the Grundrisse. To my mind, although there are some details that need to be further discussed, the arguments are persuasive and well grounded. Here I would like to list some of these and raise some questions for further discussion.

The essays of Carver and Postone put the Grundrisse in the larger context of Marx‘s other texts in the hope of clarifying some of the thorny questions in understanding Marx‘s thought. And, interestingly they have the same orientation: Carver stresses that Marx never abandoned the idea of alienation and never ceased to use it as a method to analyse the crises of the capitalist system, although he uses the word alienation less and less. While Postone underlines that in understanding the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, Marx, both in the Grundrisse and in Capital, emphasizes the difference between value and real wealth. They both stress that we should understand Marx‘s Capital from the perspective of the Grundrisse. Of course their topics are quite different. It is a fact that in early Marx, alienation is one of the core concepts to analyse the conflicts that exist in capitalist society, but later he used this concept less and less.

What is the reason for Marx’s change? There are lots of explanations, such as that later Marx abandoned philosophical analysis and turned to economic analysis, since alienation is a Hegelian philosophical concept and not suitable for economic analyses. Carver claims that although later Marx especially in Capital seldom used the concept of alienation, he still insisted on the basic idea of alienation. He stresses that Marx‘s texts, such as the 1844 Manuscripts, the Grundrisse and Capital, are all more or less philosophical or economic, no one is more or less economic.

My question is: why does Marx use the concept of alienation less and less? Carver‘s answer is: the subtle alteration in concepts is due to the change of intellectual milieu, the structure and most particularly Marx‘s knowledge of relevant material in political economy and in historical and contemporary sources. I think his argument is sound and persuasive, but there are still things that need clarifying. For example, in 1844, Marx studied economics and Hegel‘s philosophy separately. He used the concept of alienation in economic analysis, but later he seldom mentioned Hegel and only used his concept in economic analysis. Does that means that later Marx‘s text is more economic and less philosophical, or even that it has no direct philosophical meaning?

Postone‘s argument is directly critical of traditional Marxism. For traditional Marxism, the basic conflict in capitalism is the contradiction between private ownership and the vast social production through the market. In his reading of the Grundrisse, Postone finds that Marx stressed that the basic conflict in capitalism is between value and real wealth. This idea gets its foundation in Marx’ Grundrisse, and Postone would like to rethink Capital in the light of the Grundrisse. Evidently, Postone has a methodological problem: why should we rethink Capital in the light of the Grundrisse, and not vice versa, since Capital volume 1 was constructed from the Grundrisse? This means that Marx thought that the ideas in Capital are a more accurate presentation of his views. This does not mean that the Grundrisse is a pile of useless paper, but it does require that the author should clearly give us the reason why this way of reading Marx is more suitable. As a reader I cannot find the answer in the book.

Musto’s clear interpretation is inspiring, and it clearly presents the four main points in Marx‘s Introduction‘ of 1857. Most of its analysis is well grounded and gives us a new perspective for understanding Marx. But it seems to me there is one problem concerning Marx‘s proposition that needs special attention, Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape (Musto, p. 20). Musto emphasizes that it was bourgeois society that provided the clues to understanding the economies of previous historical epochs. Ellen Wood has interpreted it differently (p. 90). She stresses that the proposition shows that Marx‘s objective is to emphasize the specificity of capitalism. She says that it is because of the specificity of capitalism that it can shed light on the earlier forms it replaced. Musto admits that different social forms have different economic structures, but we could alter the clues a bit and use them to analyse pre-capitalism. It seems to me that he implies that there is still something in common between these social forms. But, Ellen Wood emphasizes the difference more. So what is Marx‘s emphasis, difference or identity?

Group three deals with historical development before and after capitalism. Ellen Wood studied Forms Which Precede Capitalist Production‘ in the Grundrisse. In her analysis, she claims that For Karl Marx each system of social property relations is driven by its own internal principles and not by some impersonal transhistorical law of technological improvement or commercial expansion (p. 88). According to traditional Marxism, social relations are the core of the production relation, and the production relation is determined by the forces of production. In replacing this argument, Ellen Wood stresses that as the core relation of production, the social property relation has its own internal character, this relation is not determined by a transhistorical law of productive forces. In appearance, it seems that Ellen Wood avoids the flaw of traditional Marxism: human history is determined by the productive forces, and the productive forces have their own law, so history has its own law. But I think, what Ellen Wood does is only to replace the productive forces with social property relations, and the problem of whether Marxism is a kind of determinism is still unsolved.

Although in the historical development, there are lots of specific social property relations just as technological forms of relations between man and nature, perhaps some will say that there is improvement in these specific social property relations. Maybe this is not the fault of Ellen Wood but Marx. Because of the influence of Enlightenment philosophers, Marx did not get rid of this fault. I would like to ask whether in primitive society, there is a clear concept of property, whether they treated land as a kind of property. If there is no clear concept of property as we have in capitalist society, it seems to me that it is not reasonable to use the concept of property to analyse primitive society. It is quite interesting that Fetscher finds that Marx‘s post-capitalist society could build on the development of labour: from the automated factory to the overcoming of compulsory labour. Of course this is what Marx has pointed out. The problem is that for Marx the transformation from capitalist to post- capitalist society is driven by two factors: productive forces and social property relations.

Which factor is the most important? Fetscher does not answer this question, but it seems to me that he pays more attention to the productive forces. If there is no improvement of the productive forces, Marx’s post-capitalist society is unimaginable. But how about property relations? Is it necessary to change the property relation to have a post- capitalist society? It seems to me that Ellen Wood would find it difficult to answer this question as well.

Finally, I must say that the three articles about the background of Marx’s life when he wrote the Grundrisse are really helpful, and each has its own perspective. They help to understand the whole situation when Marx wrote his Grundrisse. The Foreword by Eric Hobsbawm gives us a brief overview of the status of the Grundrisse, its reception and its significance for us. Although Hobsbawm‘s preface is quite short, it also tells us the historical background of the publication and reception of the Grundrisse. This also reminds us that in the financial crisis, it is necessary for us to reread the Grundrisse.

Published in:

Studies in Marxism

Date Published

1 January, 2011


Wang Xiaosheng