The Current Importance of Marx, 150 Years after the Grundrisse

Conversation with Eric Hobsbawm

M. M. Professor Hobsbawm, two decades after 1989, when he was too hastily consigned to oblivion, Karl Marx has returned to the limelight.

Freed from the role of instrumentum regni to which he was assigned in the Soviet Union, and from the shackles of “Marxism-Leninism”, he has in the last few years not only received intellectual attention through new publication of his work, but also been the focus of more widespread interest. Indeed in 2003, the French magazine Nouvel Observateur dedicated a special issue to Karl Marx – le penseur du troisième millénaire? (Karl Marx – the thinker of the third millennium?). A year later, in Germany, in an opinion poll sponsored by the television company ZDF to establish who were the most important Germans of all time, more than 500,000 viewers voted for Marx; he came third in the general classification and first in the “current relevance” category. Then, in 2005, the weekly Der Spiegel portrayed him on the cover under the title Ein Gespenst kehrt zurück (A spectre is back), while listeners to the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time voted for Marx as their Greatest Philosopher.

1) In a recent public conversation with Jacques Attalì, you said that paradoxically “it is the capitalists more than others who have been rediscovering Marx”, and you talked of your astonishment when the businessman and liberal politician George Soros said to you “I’ve just been reading Marx and there is an awful lot in what he says”. Although weak and rather vague, what are the reasons for this revival? Is his work likely to be of interest only to specialists and intellectuals, being presented in university courses as a great classic of modern thought that should never be forgotten? Or could a new “demand for Marx” come in the future from the political side as well?

E. H. There is an undoubted revival of public interest in Marx in the capitalist world, though probably not as yet in the new East European members of the European Union. It was probably accelerated by the fact that the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Manifesto of the Communist Party coincided with a particularly dramatic international economic crisis in the midst of a period of ultra-rapid free market globalization.

Marx had predicted the nature of the early 21st century world economy a hundred and fifty years earlier, on the basis of his analysis of “bourgeois society”. It is not surprising that intelligent capitalists, especially in the globalized financial sector, were impressed by Marx, since they were necessarily more aware than others of the nature and instabilities of the capitalist economy in which they operated. Most of the intellectual Left no longer knew what to do with Marx. It had been demoralised by the collapse of the social-democratic project in most North Atlantic states in the 1980s and the mass conversion of national governments to free market ideology, as well as by the collapse of the political and economic systems that claimed to be inspired by Marx and Lenin. The so-called “new social movements” like feminism either had no logical connection with anti-capitalism (though as individuals their members might be aligned with it) or they challenged the belief in endless progress in human control over nature, which both capitalism and traditional socialism had shared. At the same time the “proletariat”, divided and diminished, ceased to be credible as Marx’s historical agent of social transformation. It is also the case that since 1968 the most prominent radical movements have preferred direct action not necessarily based on much reading and theoretical analysis.

Of course this does not mean that Marx will cease to be regarded as a great and classical thinker, although for political reasons, especially in countries like France and Italy with once powerful Communist parties, there has been a passionate intellectual offensive against Marx and Marxist analyses, which was probably at its height in the 1980s and 1990s. There are signs that it has now run its course.

2) M. M. Throughout his life Marx was a shrewd and tireless researcher, who sensed and analysed better than anyone else in his time the development of capitalism on a world scale. He understood that the birth of a globalized international economy was inherent in the capitalist mode of production and predicted that this process would generate not only the growth and prosperity flaunted by liberal theorists and politicians but also violent conflicts, economic crises and widespread social injustice. In the last decade we have seen the East Asian Financial Crisis, which started in the summer of 1997, the Argentinian economic crisis of 1999-2002 and, above all, the subprime mortgage crisis, which started in the United States in 2006 and has now become the biggest post-war financial crisis. Is it right to say, therefore, that the return of interest in Marx is also based on the crisis of capitalist society and on his enduring capacity to explain the profound contradictions of today’s world?

E. H. Whether the future politics of the Left will once again be inspired by Marx’s analysis, as the old socialist and communist movements were, will depend on what happens to world capitalism. But this applies not only to Marx but to the Left as a coherent political ideology and project. Since, as you say correctly, the return of interest in Marx is largely – I would say mainly – based on the current crisis of capitalist society, the outlook is more promising than it was in the 1990s. The present world financial crisis, which may well become a major economic depression in the USA, dramatises the failure of the theology of the uncontrolled global free market, and forces even the US government to consider taking public actions forgotten since the 1930s. Political pressures are already weakening the commitment of economic neo-liberal governments to uncontrolled, unlimited and unregulated globalization. In some cases (China) the vast inequalities and injustices caused by a wholesale transition to a free market economy already raise major problems for social stability and raise doubts even at the higher levels of government.

It is clear that any “return to Marx” will be essentially a return to Marx’s analysis of capitalism and its place in the historical evolution of humanity – including, above all, his analysis of the central instability of capitalist development, which proceeds through self-generated periodic economic crises, with political and social dimensions. No Marxist could believe for a moment that, as neo-liberal ideologists argued in 1989, liberal capitalism had established itself forever, that history had come to an end, or indeed that any system of human relations could ever be final and definitive.

3) M. M. Do you not think that if the political and intellectual forces of the international left, who are questioning themselves with regard to socialism in the new century, were to foreswear the ideas of Marx, they would lose a fundamental guide for the examination and transformation of today’s reality?

E. H.: No socialist can foreswear the ideas of Marx, since his belief that capitalism must be succeeded by another form of society is based not on hope or will but on a serious analysis of historical development, particularly in the capitalist era. His actual prediction that capitalism would be replaced by a socially managed or planned system still seems reasonable, though he certainly underestimated the market elements which would survive in any post-capitalist system(s). Since he deliberately abstained from speculation about the future, he cannot be made responsible for the specific ways in which “socialist” economies were organised under “really existing socialism”. As to the objectives of socialism, Marx was not the only thinker who wanted a society without exploitation and alienation, in which all human beings could fully realise their potentialities, but he expressed this aspiration more powerfully than anyone else, and his words retain the power to inspire.

However, Marx will not return as a political inspiration to the Left until it is understood that his writings should not be treated as political programmes, authoritative or otherwise, nor as descriptions of the actual situation of world capitalism today, but rather as guides to his way of understanding the nature of capitalist development. Nor can or should we forget that he did not achieve a coherent and fully thought out presentation of his ideas, in spite of attempts by Engels and others to construct a volume II and III of Capital out of Marx’s manuscripts. As the Grundrisse show, even a completed Capital would have formed only part of Marx’s own, perhaps excessively ambitious, original plan.

On the other hand, Marx will not return to the Left until the current tendency among radical activists to turn anti-capitalism into anti-globalism is abandoned. Globalisation exists, and, short of a collapse of human society, is irreversible. Indeed, Marx recognised it as a fact and, as an internationalist, welcomed it, in principle. What he criticised, and what we must criticize, was the kind of globalisation produced by capitalism.

4) M. M. One of Marx’s writings which has provoked the greatest interest amongst new readers and commentators is the Grundrisse. Written between 1857 and 1858, the Grundrisse is the first draft of Marx’s critique of political economy and, thus, also the initial preparatory work on Capital; it contains numerous reflections on matters that Marx did not develop elsewhere in his incomplete oeuvre. Why, in your opinion, are these manuscripts one of Marx’s writings which continue to provoke more debate than any other, in spite of the fact that he wrote them only to summarise the foundations of his critique of political economy? What is the reason for their persistent appeal?

E. H. In my view the Grundrisse have made so large an international impact on the Marxian intellectual scene for two connected reasons. They were virtually unpublished before the 1950s, and, as you say, contained a mass of reflections on matters that Marx did not develop elsewhere. They were not part of the largely dogmatised corpus of orthodox Marxism in the world of Soviet socialism, yet Soviet socialism could not simply dismiss them. They could therefore be used by Marxists who wanted to criticise orthodoxy or widen the scope of Marxist analysis by an appeal to a text which could not be accused of being heretical or anti-Marxist. Hence the editions of the 1970s and 1980s (well before the fall of the Berlin Wall) continued to provoke debate largely because in these manuscripts Marx raised important problems which were not considered in Capital, for instance, the questions raised in my preface to the volume of essays you collected [Karl Marx’s Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later, edited by M. Musto, London—New York: Routledge 2008; ].

5) M. M. In the preface to this book, written by various international experts to mark the 150th anniversary of its composition, you have written: “Perhaps this is the right moment to return to a study of the Grundrisse less constricted by the temporary considerations of leftwing politics between Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev”. Moreover, to underline the enormous value of this text, you stated that the Grundrisse “contains analyses and insights, for instance about technology, that take Marx’s treatment of capitalism far beyond the nineteenth century, into the era of a society where production no longer requires mass labour, of automation, the potential of leisure, and the transformations of alienation in such circumstances. It is the only text that goes some way beyond Marx’s own hints of the communist future in the German Ideology. In a few words, it has been rightly described as Marx’s thought at its richest.” Therefore, what might be the result of re-reading the Grundrisse today?

E. H. There are probably not more than a handful of editors and translators who have full knowledge of this large and notoriously difficult mass of texts. But a re-rereading, or rather reading, of them today could help us to rethink Marx: to distinguish what is general in Marx’s analysis of capitalism from what was specific to the situation of mid-nineteenth-century “bourgeois society”. We cannot predict what conclusions from this analysis are possible and likely, only that they will certainly not command unanimous agreement.

6) M. M. To finish, one final question. Why is it important today to read Marx?

E. H. To anyone interested in ideas, whether a university student or not, it is patently clear that Marx is and will remain one of the great philosophical minds and economic analysts of the nineteenth century, and, at his best, a master of passionate prose. It is also important to read Marx because the world in which we live today cannot be understood without the influence that the writings of this man had on the twentieth century. And finally, he should be read because, as he himself wrote, the world cannot be effectively changed unless it is understood – and Marx remains a superb guide to understanding the world and the problems we must confront.

Eric Hobsbawm is considered one of the greatest living historians. He is President of Birkbeck College (London University) and Professor Emeritus at the New School for Social Research (New York). Among his many writings are the trilogy about the “the long 19th century”: The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (1962); The Age of Capital: 1848-1874 (1975); The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (1987), and the book The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (1994).

Marcello Musto is editor of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, London-New York: Routledge 2008.

Book chapter

History, Production and Method in the ‘1857 Introduction’

In 1857 Marx was convinced that the financial crisis developing at international level had created the conditions for a new revolutionary period throughout Europe. He had been waiting for this moment ever since the popular insurrections of 1848, and now that it finally seemed to have come he did not want events to catch him unprepared. He therefore decided to resume his economic studies and to give them a finished form.

Where to begin? How to embark on the critique of political economy, that ambitious and demanding project which he had begun and interrupted several times before? This was the first question that Marx asked himself as he got down to work again. Two circumstances played a crucial role in determining the answer: he held the view that, despite the validity of certain theories, economic science still lacked a cognitive procedure with which to grasp and elucidate reality correctly; and he felt a need to establish the arguments and the order of exposition before he embarked on the task of composition. These considerations led him to go more deeply into problems of method and to formulate the guiding principles for his research. The upshot was one of the most extensively debated manuscripts in the whole of his oeuvre: the so-called ‘Introduction’ of 1857.

Marx’s intention was certainly not to write a sophisticated methodological treatise but to clarify for himself, before his readers, what orientation he should follow on the long and eventful critical journey that lay ahead. This was also necessary for the task of revising the huge mass of economic studies that he had accumulated since the mid-1840s. Thus, along with observations on the employment and articulation of theoretical categories, these pages contain a number of formulations essential to his thought that he found indispensable to summarize anew – especially those linked to his conception of history – as well as a quite unsystematic list of questions for which the solutions remained problematic.

This mix of requirements and purposes, the short period of composition (scarcely a week) and, above all, the provisional character of these notes make them extremely complex and controversial. Nevertheless, since it contains the most extensive and detailed pronouncement that Marx ever made on epistemological questions, the ‘Introduction’ is an important reference for the understanding of his thought and a key to the interpretation of the Grundrisse as a whole.

History and the social individual
In keeping with his style, Marx alternated in the ‘Introduction’ between exposition of his own ideas and criticism of his theoretical opponents. The text is divided into four sections:

(1) Production in general
(2) General relation between production, distribution, exchange and consumption
(3) The method of political economy
(4) Means (forces) of production and relations of production, relations of production and relations of circulation, etc.
(Marx 1973: 69)

The first section opens with a declaration of intent, immediately specifying the field of study and pointing to the historical criterion: ‘[t]he object before us, to begin with, material production. Individuals producing in society – hence socially determined individual production – is, of course, the point of departure.’ Marx’s polemical target was ‘the eighteenth-century Robinsonades’ (Marx 1973: 83), the myth of Robinson Crusoe (see Watt 1951: 112) as the paradigm of homo oeconomicus, or the projection of phenomena typical of the bourgeois era onto every other society that has existed since the earliest times. Such conceptions represented the social character of production as a constant in any labour process, not as a peculiarity of capitalist relations. In the same way, civil society [bürgerliche Gesellschaft] – whose emergence in the eighteenth century had created the conditions through which ‘the individual appears detached from the natural bonds etc. which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate’ – was portrayed as having always existed (Marx 1973: 83).

In reality, the isolated individual simply did not exist before the capitalist epoch. As Marx put it in another passage in the Grundrisse: ‘He originally appears as a species-being, tribal being, herd animal’ (Marx 1973: 496, trans. modified). This collective dimension is the condition for the appropriation of the earth, ‘the great workshop, the arsenal which furnishes both means and material of labour, as well as the seat, the base of the community [Basis des Gemeinwesens]’ (Marx 1973: 472). In the presence of these primal relations, the activity of human beings is directly linked to the earth; there is a ‘natural unity of labour with its material presuppositions’, and the individual lives in symbiosis with others like himself (Marx 1973: 471). Similarly, in all later economic forms based on agriculture where the aim is to create use-values and not yet exchange-values, the relationship of the individual to ‘the objective conditions of his labour is mediated through his presence as member of the commune’; he is always only one link in the chain (Marx 1973: 486). In this connection, Marx writes in the ‘Introduction’:

The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent [unselbstständig], as belonging to a greater whole: in a still quite natural way in the family and in the family expanded into the clan [Stamm]; then later in the various forms of communal society arising out of the antitheses and fusions of the clans. (Marx 1973: 84)

Similar considerations appear in Capital, vol. I. Here, in speaking of ‘the European Middle Ages, shrouded in darkness’, Marx argues that ‘instead of the independent man, we find everyone dependent, serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clergy. Personal dependence here characterizes the social relations of production just as much as it does the other spheres of life organized on the basis of that production’ (Marx 1996: 88). And, when he examined the genesis of product exchange, he recalled that it began with contacts among different families, tribes or communities, ‘for, in the beginning of civilization, it is not private individuals but families, tribes, etc., that meet on an independent footing’ (Marx 1996: 357). Thus, whether the horizon was the primal bond of consanguinity or the medieval nexus of lordship and vassalage, individuals lived amid ‘limited relations of production [bornirter Productionsverhältnisse]’, joined to one another by reciprocal ties (Marx 1973: 162).

The classical economists had inverted this reality, on the basis of what Marx regarded as fantasies with an inspiration in natural law. In particular, Adam Smith had described a primal condition where individuals not only existed but were capable of producing outside society. A division of labour within tribes of hunters and shepherds had supposedly achieved the specialization of trades: one person’s greater dexterity in fashioning bows and arrows, for example, or in building wooden huts, had made him a kind of armourer or carpenter, and the assurance of being able to exchange the unconsumed part of one’s labour product for the surplus of others ‘encourage[d] every man to apply himself to a particular occupation’ (Smith 1961: 19). David Ricardo was guilty of a similar anachronism when he conceived of the relationship between hunters and fishermen in the early stages of society as an exchange between owners of commodities on the basis of the labour-time objectified in them (see Ricardo 1973: 15, cf. Marx 1987a: 300).

In this way, Smith and Ricardo depicted a highly developed product of the society in which they lived – the isolated bourgeois individual – as if he were a spontaneous manifestation of nature. What emerged from the pages of their works was a mythological, timeless individual, one ‘posited by nature’, whose social relations were always the same and whose economic behaviour had a historyless anthropological character (Marx 1973: 83). According to Marx, the interpreters of each new historical epoch have regularly deluded themselves that the most distinctive features of their own age have been present since time immemorial.

Marx argued instead that ‘[p]roduction by an isolated individual outside society … is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other’ (Marx 1973: 84). And, against those who portrayed the isolated individual of the eighteenth century as the archetype of human nature, ‘not as a historical result but as history’s point of departure’, he maintained that such an individual emerged only with the most highly developed social relations (Marx 1973: 83). Marx did not entirely disagree that man was a ζώον πολιτικόν [zoon politikon], a social animal, but he insisted that he was ‘an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society’ (Marx 1973: 84). Thus, since civil society had arisen only with the modern world, the free wage-labourer of the capitalist epoch had appeared only after a long historical process. He was, in fact, ‘the product on one side of the dissolution of the feudal forms of society, on the other side of the new forces of production developed since the sixteenth century’ (Marx 1973: 83). If Marx felt the need to repeat a point he considered all too evident, it was only because works by Henry Charles Carey, Frédéric Bastiat and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had brought it up for discussion in the previous twenty years. After sketching the genesis of the capitalist individual and demonstrating that modern production conforms only to ‘a definitive stage of social development – production by social individuals’, Marx points to a second theoretical requirement: namely, to expose the mystification practised by economists with regard to the concept of ‘production in general’ [Production im Allgemeinem]. This is an abstraction, a category that does not exist at any concrete stage of reality. However, since ‘all epochs of production have certain common traits, common characteristics’ [gemeinsame Bestimmungen], Marx recognizes that ‘production in general is a rational abstraction in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element’, thereby saving pointless repetition for the scholar who undertakes to reproduce reality through thought (Marx 1973: 85).

So, abstraction acquired a positive function for Marx. It was no longer, as in his early critique of G.W.F. Hegel, synonymous with idealist philosophy and its substitution of itself for reality (see Marx 1975a: 180ff.), or, as he put it in 1847 in The Poverty of Philosophy, a metaphysics that transformed everything into logical categories (Marx 1976: 163). Now that his materialist conception of history (as it was later denominated) had been solidly elaborated, and now that his critical reflections were operating in a context profoundly different from that of the early 1840s, Marx was able to reconsider abstraction without the prejudices of his youth. Thus, unlike representatives of the ‘Historical School’, who in the same period were theorizing the impossibility of abstract laws with universal value, Marx in the Grundrisse recognized that abstraction could play a fruitful role in the cognitive process.

This was possible, however, only if theoretical analysis proved capable of distinguishing between definitions valid for all historical stages and those valid only for particular epochs, and of granting due importance to the latter in the understanding of reality. Although abstraction was useful in representing the broadest phenomena of production, it did not correctly represent its specific aspects, which were alone truly historical. If abstraction was not combined with the kind of determinations characteristic of any historical reality, then production changed from being a specific, differentiated phenomenon into a perpetually self-identical process, which concealed the ‘essential diversity’ [wesentliche Verschiedenheit] of the various forms in which it manifested itself. This was the error committed by economists who claimed to show ‘the eternity and harmoniousness of the existing social relations’ (Marx 1973: 85). In contrast to their procedure, Marx maintained that it was the specific features of each social-economic formation which made it possible to distinguish it from others, gave the impetus for its development and enabled scholars to understand the real historical changes (Korsch 1938: 78f.).

Although the definition of the general elements of production is ‘segmented many times over and split into different determinations’, some of which ‘belong to all epochs, others to only a few’, there are certainly, among its universal components, human labour and material provided by nature (Marx 1973: 85). For, without a producing subject and a worked-upon object, there could be no production at all. But the economists introduced a third general prerequisite of production: ‘a stock, previously accumulated, of the products of former labour’, that is, capital (Mill 1965: 55). The critique of this last element was essential for Marx, in order to reveal what he considered to be a fundamental limitation of the economists. It also seemed evident to him that no production was possible without an instrument of labour, if only the human hand, or without accumulated past labour, if only in the form of primitive man’s repetitive exercises. However, while agreeing that capital was past labour and an instrument of production, he did not, like Smith, Ricardo and John Stuart Mill, conclude that it had always existed.

The point is made in greater detail in another section of the Grundrisse, where the conception of capital as ‘eternal’ is seen as a way of treating it only as matter, without regard for its essential ‘formal determination’ (Formbestimmung). According to this,

capital would have existed in all forms of society, and is something altogether unhistorical. … The arm, and especially the hand, are then capital. Capital would be only a new name for a thing as old as the human race, since every form of labour, including the least developed, hunting, fishing, etc., presupposes that the product of prior labour is used as means for direct, living labour. … If, then, the specific form of capital is abstracted away, and only the content is emphasized, … of course nothing is easier than to demonstrate that capital is a necessary condition for all human production. The proof of this proceeds precisely by abstraction [Abstraktion] from the specific aspects which make it the moment of a specifically developed historical stage of human production [Moment einer besonders entwickelten historischen Stufe der menschlichen Production]. (Marx 1973: 257-8)

In these passages Marx refers to abstraction in the negative sense: to abstract is to leave out the real social conditions, to conceive of capital as a thing rather than a relation, and hence to advance an interpretation that is false. In the ‘Introduction’ Marx accepts the use of abstract categories, but only if analysis of the general aspect does not obliterate the particular aspect or blur the latter in the indistinctness of the former. If the error is made of ‘conceiving capital in its physical attribute only as instrument of production, while entirely ignoring the economic form [ökonomischen Form ] which makes the instrument of production into capital’ (Marx 1973: 591), one falls into the ‘crude inability to grasp the real distinctions’ and a belief that ‘there exists only one single economic relation which takes on different names’ (Marx 1973: 249). To ignore the differences expressed in the social relation means to abstract from the differentia specifica, that is the nodal point of everything. Thus, in the ‘Introduction’, Marx writes that ‘capital is a general [allgemeines], eternal relation of nature’, ‘that is, if I leave out just the specific quality which alone makes “instrument of production” and “stored-up labour” into capital’ (Marx 1973: 86).
In fact, Marx had already criticized the economists’ lack of historical sense in The Poverty of Philosophy:

Economists have a singular method of procedure. There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God. When the economists say that present-day relations – the relations of bourgeois production – are natural, they imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature. These relations therefore are themselves natural laws independent of the influence of time. They are eternal laws which must always govern society. Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any. (Marx 1976: 174)

For this to be plausible, economists depicted the historical circumstances prior to the birth of the capitalist mode of production as ‘results of its presence’ with its very own features (Marx 1973: 460). As Marx puts it in the Grundrisse:

The bourgeois economists who regard capital as an eternal and natural (not historical) form of production then attempt … to legitimize it again by formulating the conditions of its becoming as the conditions of its contemporary realization; i.e. presenting the moments in which the capitalist still appropriates as not-capitalist – because he is still becoming – as the very conditions in which he appropriates as capitalist.’ (Marx 1973: 460)

From a historical point of view, the profound difference between Marx and the classical economists is that, in his view, ‘capital did not begin the world from the beginning, but rather encountered production and products already present, before it subjugated them beneath its process’ (Marx 1973: 675). For ‘the new productive forces and relations of production do not develop out of nothing, nor drop from the sky, nor from the womb of the self-positing Idea; but from within and in antithesis to the existing development of production and the inherited, traditional relations of property’ (Marx 1973: 278). Similarly, the circumstance whereby producing subjects are separated from the means of production – which allows the capitalist to find propertyless workers capable of performing abstract labour (the necessary requirement for the exchange between capital and living labour) – is the result of a process that the economists cover with silence, which ‘forms the history of the origins of capital and wage labour’ (Marx 1973: 489).

A number of passages in the Grundrisse criticize the way in which economists portray historical as natural realities. It is self-evident to Marx, for example, that money is a product of history: ‘to be money is not a natural attribute of gold and silver’, but only a determination they first acquire at a precise moment of social development (Marx 1973: 239). The same is true of credit. According to Marx, lending and borrowing was a phenomenon common to many civilizations, as was usury, but they ‘no more constitute credit than working constitutes industrial labour or free wage labour. And credit as an essential, developed relation of production appears historically only in circulation based on capital’ (Marx 1973: 535). Prices and exchange also existed in ancient society, ‘but the increasing determination of the former by costs of production, as well as the increasing dominance of the latter over all relations of production, only develop fully … in bourgeois society, the society of free competition’; or ‘what Adam Smith, in the true eighteenth-century manner, puts in the prehistoric period, the period preceding history, is rather a product of history’ (Marx 1973: 156). Furthermore, just as he criticized the economists for their lack of historical sense, Marx mocked Proudhon and all the socialists who thought that labour productive of exchange value could exist without developing into wage labour, that exchange value could exist without turning into capital, or that there could be capital without capitalists (see Marx 1973: 248).

Marx’s chief aim in the opening pages of the ‘Introduction’ is therefore to assert the historical specificity of the capitalist mode of production: to demonstrate, as he would again affirm in Capital, vol. III, that it ‘is not an absolute mode of production’ but ‘merely historical, transitory’ (Marx 1998: 240). This viewpoint implies a different way of seeing many questions, including the labour process and its various characteristics. In the Grundrisse Marx wrote that ‘the bourgeois economists are so much cooped up within the notions belonging to a specific historic stage of social development that the necessity of the objectification of the powers of social labour appears to them as inseparable from the necessity of their alienation’ (Marx 1973: 832). Marx repeatedly took issue with this presentation of the specific forms of the capitalist mode of production as if they were constants of the production process as such. To portray wage labour not as a distinctive relation of a particular historical form of production but as a universal reality of man’s economic existence was to imply that exploitation and alienation had always existed and would always continue to exist.

Evasion of the specificity of capitalist production therefore had both epistemological and political consequences. On the one hand, it impeded understanding of the concrete historical levels of production; on the other hand, in defining present conditions as unchanged and unchangeable, it presented capitalist production as production in general and bourgeois social relations as natural human relations. Accordingly, Marx’s critique of the theories of economists had a twofold value. As well as underlining that a historical characterization was indispensable for an understanding of reality, it had the precise political aim of countering the dogma of the immutability of the capitalist mode of production. A demonstration of the historicity of the capitalist order would also be proof of its transitory character and of the possibility of its elimination.

An echo of the ideas contained in this first part of the ‘Introduction’ may be found in the closing pages of Capital, vol. III, where Marx writes that ‘identification of the social production process with the simple labour process’ is a ‘confusion’ (Marx 1998: 870). For,

to the extent that the labour process is solely a process between man and Nature, its simple elements remain common to all social forms of development. But each specific historical form of this process further develops its material foundations and social forms. Whenever a certain stage of maturity has been reached, the specific historical form is discarded and makes way for a higher one.
(Marx 1998: 870)

Capitalism is not the only stage in human history, nor is it the final one. Marx foresees that it will be succeeded by an organization of society based upon ‘communal production’ (gemeinschaftliche Production), in which the labour product is ‘from the beginning directly general’ (Marx 1973: 172).

Production as a totality
In the succeed pages of the ‘Introduction’, Marx passes to a deeper consideration of production and begins with the following definition: ‘All production is appropriation [Aneignung] of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society [bestimmten Gesellschaftsform]’ (Marx 1973: 87). There was no ‘production in general’ – since it was divided into agriculture, cattle-raising, manufacturing and other branches – but nor could it be considered as ‘only particular production’. Rather, it was ‘always a certain social body [Gesellschaftskörper], a social subject [gesellschaftliches Subject], active in a greater or sparser totality of branches of production’ (Marx 1973: 86).

Here again, Marx developed his arguments through a critical encounter with the main exponents of economic theory. Those who were his contemporaries had acquired the habit of prefacing their work with a section on the general conditions of production and the circumstances which, to a greater or lesser degree, advanced productivity in various societies. For Marx, however, such preliminaries set forth ‘flat tautologies’ (Marx 1973: 86) and, in the case of John Stuart Mill, were designed to present production ‘as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history’ and bourgeois relations as ‘inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded’ (Marx 1973: 87). According to Mill, ‘the laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths. … It is not so with the distribution of wealth. That is a matter of human institutions solely’ (Mill 1965: 199). Marx considered this a ‘crude tearing-apart of production and distribution and of their real relationship’ (Marx 1973: 87), since, as he put it elsewhere in the Grundrisse, ‘the “laws and conditions” of the production of wealth and the laws of the “distribution of wealth” are the same laws under different forms, and both change, undergo the same historic process; are as such only moments of a historic process’ (Marx 1973: 832).

After making these points, Marx proceeds in the second section of the ‘Introduction’ to examine the general relationship of production to distribution, exchange and consumption. This division of political economy had been made by James Mill, who had used these four categories as the headings for the four chapters comprising his book of 1821, Elements of Political Economy , and before him, in 1803, by Jean-Baptiste Say, who had divided his Traité d’économie politique into three books on the production, distribution and consumption of wealth.

Marx reconstructed the interconnection among the four rubrics in logical terms, in accordance with Hegel’s schema of universality – particularity – individuality: (see Hegel 1969: 666f.) ‘Production, distribution, exchange and distribution form a regular syllogism; production is the universality, distribution and exchange the particularity, and consumption the individuality in which the whole is joined together’. In other words, production was the starting-point of human activity, distribution and exchange were the twofold intermediary point – the former being the mediation operated by society, the latter by the individual – and consumption became the end point. However, as this was only a ‘shallow coherence’, Marx wished to analyse more deeply how the four spheres were correlated with one another (Marx 1973: 89).

His first object of investigation was the relationship between production and consumption, which he explained as one of immediate identity: ‘production is consumption’ and ‘consumption is production’. With the help of Spinoza’s principle of determinatio est negatio, he showed that production was also consumption, in so far as the productive act used up the powers of the individual as well as raw materials (see Spinoza 1955: 370). Indeed, the economists had already highlighted this aspect with their terms ‘productive consumption’ and differentiated this from ‘consumptive production’. The latter occurred only after the product was distributed, re-entering the sphere of reproduction, and constituting ‘consumption proper’. In productive consumption ‘the producer objectifies himself’, while in consumptive production ‘the object he created personifies itself’ (Marx 1973: 90-1).

Another characteristic of the identity of production and consumption was discernible in the reciprocal ‘mediating movement’ that developed between them. Consumption gives the product its ‘last finish’ and, by stimulating the propensity to produce, ‘creates the need for new production’ (Marx 1973: 91). In the same way, production furnishes not only the object for consumption, but also ‘a need for the material’. Once the stage of natural immediacy is left behind, need is generated by the object itself; ‘production not only creates an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object’ – that is, a consumer (Marx 1973: 92). So,

production produces consumption (1) by creating the material for it; (2) by determining the manner of consumption; and (3) by creating the products, initially posited by it as objects, in the form of a need felt by the consumer. It thus produces the object of consumption, the manner of consumption and the motive of consumption.
(Marx 1973: 92)

To recapitulate: there is a process of unmediated identity between production and consumption; these also mediate each other in turn, and create each other as they are realized. Nevertheless, Marx thought it a mistake to consider the two as identical – as Say and Proudhon did, for example. For, in the last analysis, ‘consumption as urgency, as need, is itself an intrinsic moment of productive activity’.

Marx then turns to analyse the relationship between production and distribution. Distribution, he writes, is the link between production and consumption, and ‘in accordance with social laws’ it determines what share of the products is due to the producers (Marx 1973: 94). The economists present it as a sphere autonomous from production, so that in their treatises the economic categories are always posed in a dual manner. Land, labour and capital figure in production as the agents of distribution, while in distribution, in the form of ground rent, wages and profit, they appear as sources of income. Marx opposes this split, which he judges illusory and mistaken, since the form of distribution ‘is not an arbitrary arrangement, which could be different; it is, rather, posited by the form of production itself’ (Marx 1973: 594). In the ‘Introduction’ he expresses his thinking as follows:

An individual who participates in production in the form of wage labour shares in the products, in the results of production, in the form of wages. The structure of distribution is completely determined by the structure of production. Distribution itself a product of production, not only in its object, in that only the results of production can be distributed, but also in its form, in that the specific kind of participation in production determines the specific forms of distribution, i.e. the pattern of participation in distribution. It is altogether an illusion to posit land in production, ground rent in distribution, etc.
(Marx 1973: 95)

Those who saw distribution as autonomous from production conceived of it as mere distribution of products. In reality, it included two important phenomena that were prior to production: distribution of the instruments of production and distribution of the members of society among various kinds of production, or what Marx defined as ‘subsumption of the individuals under specific relations of production’ (Marx 1973: 96). These two phenomena meant that in some historical cases – for example, when a conquering people subjects the vanquished to slave labour, or when a redivision of landed estates gives rise to a new type of production (see Marx 1973: 96) – ‘distribution is not structured and determined by production, but rather the opposite, production by distribution’ (Marx 1973: 96). The two were closely linked to each other, since, as Marx puts it elsewhere in the Grundrisse, ‘these modes of distribution are the relations of production themselves, but sub specie distributionis’ (Marx 1973: 832). Thus, in the words of the ‘Introduction’, ‘to examine production while disregarding this internal distribution within it is obviously an empty abstraction’.

The link between production and distribution, as conceived by Marx, sheds light not only on his aversion to the way in which John Stuart Mill rigidly separated the two but also on his appreciation of Ricardo for having posed the need ‘to grasp the specific social structure of modern production’ (Marx 1973: 96). The English economist did indeed hold that ‘to determine the laws which regulate this distribution is the principal problem in Political Economy’ (Ricardo 1973: 3), and therefore he made distribution one of his main objects of study, since ‘he conceived the forms of distribution as the most specific expression into which the agents of production of a given society are cast’ (Marx 1973: 96). For Marx, too, distribution was not reducible to the act through which the shares of the aggregate product were distributed among members of society; it was a decisive element of the entire productive cycle. Yet this conviction did not overturn his thesis that production was always the primary factor within the production process as a whole:

The question of the relation between this distribution and the production it determines belongs evidently within production itself. … [P]roduction does indeed have its determinants and preconditions, which form its moments. At the very beginning these may appear as spontaneous, natural. But by the process of production itself they are transformed from natural into historic determinants, and if they appear to one epoch as natural presuppositions of production, they were its historic product for another.
(Marx 1973: 97, trans. modified)

For Marx, then, although the distribution of the instruments of production and the members of society among the various productive branches ‘appears as a presupposition of the new period of production, it is … itself in turn a product of production, not only of historical production generally, but of the specific historic mode of production’ (Marx 1973: 98).

When Marx lastly examined the relationship between production and exchange, he also considered the latter to be part of the former. Not only was ‘the exchange of activities and abilities’ among the workforce, and of the raw materials necessary to prepare the finished product, an integral part of production; the exchange between dealers was also wholly determined by production and constituted a ‘producing activity’. Exchange becomes autonomous from production only in the phase where ‘the product is exchanged directly for consumption’. Even then, however, its intensity, scale and characteristic features are determined by the development and structure of production, so that ‘in all its moments … exchange appears as either directly comprised in production or determined by it’.

At the end of his analysis of the relationship of production to distribution, exchange and consumption, Marx draws two conclusions: (1) production should be considered as a totality; and (2) production as a particular branch within the totality predominates over the other elements. On the first point he writes: ‘The conclusion we reach is not that production, distribution, exchange and consumption are identical, but that they all form the members of a totality, distinctions within a unity’ (Marx 1973: 99). Employing the Hegelian concept of totality, Marx sharpened a theoretical instrument – more effective than the limited processes of abstraction used by the economists – one capable of showing, through the reciprocal action among parts of the totality, that the concrete was a differentiated unity (see Hall 2003: 127) of plural determinations and relations, and that the four separate rubrics of the economists were both arbitrary and unhelpful for an understanding of real economic relations. In Marx’s conception, however, the definition of production as an organic totality did not point to a structured, self-regulating whole within which uniformity was always guaranteed among its various branches. On the contrary, as he wrote in a section of the Grundrisse dealing with the same argument: the individual moments of production ‘may or may not find each other, balance each other, correspond to each other. The inner necessity of moments which belong together, and their indifferent, independent existence towards one another, are already a foundation of contradictions’. Marx argued that it was always necessary to analyse these contradictions in relation to capitalist production (not production in general), which was not at all ‘the absolute form for the development of the forces of production’, as the economists proclaimed, but had its ‘fundamental contradiction’ in overproduction (Marx 1973: 415).

Marx’s second conclusion made production the ‘predominant moment’ (übergreifende Moment) over the other parts of the ‘totality of production’ (Totalität der Production) (Marx 1973: 86). It was the ‘real point of departure’ (Ausgangspunkt) (Marx 1973: 94), from which ‘the process always returns to begin anew’, and so ‘a definite production determines a definite consumption, distribution and exchange as well as definite relations between these different moments’ (Marx 1973: 99). But such predominance did not cancel the importance of the other moments, nor their influence on production. The dimension of consumption, the transformations of distribution and the size of the sphere of exchange – or of the market – were all factors jointly defining and impacting on production.

Here again Marx’s insights had a value both theoretical and political. In opposition to other socialists of his time, who maintained that it was possible to revolutionize the prevailing relations of production by transforming the instrument of circulation, he argued that this clearly demonstrated their ‘misunderstanding’ of ‘the inner connections between the relations of production, of distribution and of circulation’ (Marx 1973: 122). For not only would a change in the form of money leave unaltered the relations of production and the other social relations determined by them; it would also turn out to be a nonsense, since circulation could change only together with a change in the relations of production. Marx was convinced that ‘the evil of bourgeois society is not to be remedied by “transforming” the banks or by founding a rational “money system”’, nor through bland palliatives such as the granting of free credit, nor through the chimera of turning workers into capitalists (Marx 1973: 134). The central question remained the overcoming of wage labour, and first and foremost that concerned production.

In search of method
At this point in his analysis, Marx addressed the major methodological issue: how to reproduce reality in thought? How to construct an abstract categorial model capable of comprehending and representing society? The third and most important section of his ‘Introduction’ is devoted to ‘the relationship between scientific presentation and the real movement’ (Marx 1973: 86). It is not a definitive account, however, but offers insufficiently developed ways of theorizing the problem and barely sketches out a number of points. Certain passages contain unclear assertions, which sometimes contradict one another, and more than once the adoption of a language influenced by Hegelian terminology adds ambiguities to the text. Marx was elaborating his method when he wrote these pages, and they display the traces and trajectories of his search.

Like other great thinkers before him, Marx started from the question of where to begin – or, in his case, what political economy should take as its analytic starting-point. The first hypothesis he examined was that of beginning ‘with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition’, ‘the foundation and subject of the entire social act of production’: the population (Marx 1973: 100). Marx considered that this path, taken by the founders of political economy, William Petty and Pierre de Boisguillebert, was inadequate and erroneous. To begin with such an indeterminate entity as the population would involve an overly generic image of the whole; it would be incapable of demonstrating the division into classes (bourgeoisie, landowners and proletariat), since these could be differentiated only through knowledge of their respective foundations: capital, land ownership and wage labour. With an empirical approach of that kind, concrete elements like the state would dissolve into abstract determinations such as division of labour, money or value.

Nevertheless, though judging this method inadequate for an interpretation of reality, in another part of the Grundrisse Marx recognized that it ‘had a historic value in the first tentative steps of political economy, when the forms still had to be laboriously peeled out of the material, and were, at the cost of great effort, fixed upon as a proper object of study’ (Marx 1973: 853).

No sooner had the eighteenth-century economists finished defining their abstract categories than ‘there began the economic systems, which ascended from simple relations, such as labour, division of labour, need, exchange value, to the level of the state, exchange between nations and the world market’. This procedure, employed by Smith and Ricardo in economics as well as Hegel in philosophy, may be summed up in the thesis that ‘the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought’; it was this that Marx described as the ‘scientifically correct method’ [wissenschaftlich richtige Methode]. With the right categories, it was possible ‘to retrace the journey until one finally arrives at population again, only this time not as the chaotic conception of the whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations’ (Marx 1973: 100-1). Hegel, in fact, had written in The Science of Logic that the first requisite for a synthetic and systematic science was to begin:

with the subject matter in the form of a universal. … The prius must be … something simple, something abstracted from the concrete, because in this form alone has the subject-matter the form of the self-related universal. … It is easier for cognition to grasp the abstract simple thought determination than the concrete subject matter, which is a manifold connection of such thought determinations and their relationships. … The universal is in and for itself the first moment of the Notion because it is the simple moment, and the particular is only subsequent to it because it is the mediated moment; and conversely the simple is the more universal, and the concrete … is that which already presupposes the transition from a first. (Hegel 1969: 800-1)

Yet, contrary to what certain commentators on the ‘Introduction’ have argued, Marx’s definition of the ‘scientifically correct method’ does not at all mean that it was the one he subsequently employed himself (Marx 1973: 101). First of all, he did not share the conviction of the economists that their logical reconstruction of the concrete at the level of ideas was a faithful reproduction of reality (see Dal Pra 1965: 461). The procedure synthetically presented in the ‘Introduction’ did, it is true, borrow various elements from Hegel’s method, but it also displayed radical differences. Like Hegel before him, Marx was convinced that ‘the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is the only way in which thought appropriates the concrete’, that the recomposition of reality in thought should start from the simplest and most general determinations. For both, moreover, the concrete was ‘the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse’; it appeared in thought as ‘a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure’, although for Marx it was always necessary to keep in mind that the concrete was ‘the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception’.

Beyond this common base, however, there was the difference that ‘Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought’, whereas for Marx ‘this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being’. In Hegelian idealism, Marx argues, ‘the movement of the categories appears as the real act of production … whose product is the world’; ‘conceptual thinking is the real human being’ and ‘the conceptual world as such is thus the only reality’, not only representing the real world in ideas but also operating as its constitutive process. For Marx, by contrast, the economic categories exist as ‘abstract relation[s] within an already given, concrete, living whole’ (Marx 1973: 101); they ‘express the forms of being, the determinations of existence’ [Daseinsformen, Existenzbestimmungen] (Marx 1973: 106). Exchange value, for instance, presupposes population and the fact that it produces within determinate relations. Marx emphasized several times, in opposition to Hegel, that ‘the concrete totality, [as] a totality of thoughts, [qua] concrete in thought, [is] in fact a product of thinking and comprehending’, but that it is ‘not in any way a product of the concept which thinks and generates itself’. For ‘the real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before. … Hence, in the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition’ (Marx 1973: 101-2).

In reality, however, Marx’s interpretation does not do justice to Hegel’s philosophy. A number of passages in the latter’s work show that, unlike the transcendental idealism of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and the objective idealism of Friedrich Schelling, his thought did not confuse the movement of knowledge with the order of nature, the subject with the object. Thus, in the second paragraph of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, he clearly writes:

[The] thinking study of things may serve, in a general way, as a description of philosophy. … the strictly human and thought-induced phenomena of consciousness do not originally appear in the form of a thought, but as a feeling, a perception, or mental image – all of which aspects must be distinguished from the form of thought proper.
(Hegel 1892: 4)

In the Philosophy of Right, too, in an addition to Paragraph 32 inserted by Eduard Gans in the second edition of 1827, some sentences not only confirm the error of Marx’s interpretation of Hegel but actually demonstrate the way in which they influenced his own reflections (see Jánoska – Bondeli – Kindle and Hofer 1994: 115-9).

[W]e cannot say that property existed [dagewesen] before the family, yet, in spite of that, property must be dealt with first. Consequently you might here raise the question why we do not begin at the highest point, i.e. with the concretely true. The answer is that it is precisely the truth in the form of a result that we are looking for, and for this purpose it is essential to start by grasping the abstract concept itself. What is actual, the shape in which the concept is embodied, is for us therefore the secondary thing and the sequel, even if it were itself first in the actual world. The development we are studying is that whereby the abstract forms reveal themselves not as self-subsistent but as false.
(Hegel 1952: 233)

In the ‘Introduction’, Marx goes on to ask whether the simple categories could exist before, and independently of, the more concrete ones. In the case of possession or property – the category with which Hegel had begun the Philosophy of Right – he maintained that it could not have existed before the emergence of ‘more concrete relations’ such as the family, and that it would be absurd to analyse ‘the individual savage’ as a property-owner. But the question was more complicated. For money existed ‘historically before capital existed, before banks existed, before wage labour existed’(Marx 1973: 102). It appeared before the development of more complex realities, thereby demonstrating that in some cases the sequence of logical categories follows the historical sequence – the more developed as well as the more recent (see Marx 1973: 247) – and ‘the path of abstract thought, rising from the simple to the combined, would correspond to the real historical process’ (Marx 1973: 102). In antiquity, however, money performed a dominant function only in trading nations. Hence it ‘makes a historic appearance in its full intensity only in the most developed conditions of society’; or, ‘although the simpler category may have existed historically before the more concrete, it can achieve its full (intensive and extensive) development precisely in a combined form of society’.

This conclusion applied even more to the category of labour. For, although it appeared with the first civilizing of human beings and seemed to be a very simple process, Marx underlined that, ‘when it is economically conceived …, “labour” is as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction’ (Marx 1973: 103). The exponents of bullionism and mercantilism had maintained that the source of wealth was lodged in money, and that it therefore had greater importance than labour. Subsequently, the Physiocrats argued that labour was the ultimate creator of wealth, but only in the form of agricultural labour. Smith’s work finally put an end to any ‘limiting specification of wealth-creating activity’, so that now labour was considered no longer in a particular form but as ‘labour as such’: ‘not only manufacturing, or commercial or agricultural labour, but one as well as the others’. In this way, the ‘abstract expression’ was discovered ‘for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings – in whatever form of society – play the role of producers’. As in the case of money, the category of ‘labour’ could be extracted only where there was ‘the richest possible concrete development’, in a society where ‘one thing appears as common to many, to all’. Thus, ‘indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant’.

In capitalist society, moreover, ‘labour in general’ is not only a category but ‘corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a mater of chance for them, hence of indifference’. The worker’s labour then loses the corporate, craft character that it had in the past and becomes ‘labour in general’, ‘labour sans phrase’ – ‘not only the category, labour, but labour in reality’(Marx 1973: 104). Wage labour ‘is not this or another labour, but labour pure and simple, abstract labour; absolutely indifferent to its particular specificity [Bestimmtheit], but capable of all specificities’ (Marx 1973: 296). In short, it is a question of ‘a purely mechanical activity, hence indifferent to its particular form’ (Marx 1973: 297).

At the end of his discussion of the relationship between the simplest and the most concrete categories, Marx concluded that in the most modern forms of bourgeois society – he had in mind the United States – the abstraction of the category ‘labour in general’ was becoming ‘true in practice’. Thus, ‘the simplest abstraction, … which modern economics places at the head of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society’ (Marx 1973 104-5). Or, as he reaffirmed elsewhere in the Grundrisse, the category ‘becomes real only with the development of a particular material mode of production and of a particular stage in the development of the industrial productive forces’ (Marx 1973: 297).

Indifference to the particular kind of labour is, however, a phenomenon common to a number of historical realities. In this case too, therefore, it was necessary to underline the distinctions: ‘There is a devil of a difference between barbarians who are fit by nature to be used for anything, and civilized people who apply themselves to everything.’ Once again relating the abstraction to real history, Marx found his thesis confirmed:

‘This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations. (Marx 1973: 105)

Having made this point, Marx turned to another crucial issue. In what order should he set out the categories in the work he was about to write? To the question as to whether the complex should furnish the instruments with which to understand the simple, or the other way round, he decisively opted for the first possibility.

Bourgeois society is the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allow insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanquished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered remnants are carried along with it. (Marx 1973: 105)

It is the present, then, which offers the indications for a reconstruction of the past. ‘Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape … [and] the intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species … can be understood only after the higher development is already known’ (Marx 1973: 105). This well-known statement should not, however, be read in evolutionist terms. Indeed, Marx explicitly criticized the conception of ‘so-called historical evolution’, based on the banality that ‘the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself’ (Marx 1973: 106). Unlike the theorists of evolutionism, who posited a naïvely progressive trajectory from the simplest to the most complex organisms, Marx chose to use an opposite, much more complex logical method and elaborated a conception of history marked by the succession of modes of production (ancient, Asiatic, feudal, capitalist), which was meant to explain the positions and functions that the categories assumed within those various modes (cf. Hall 2003: 133). It was bourgeois society, therefore, which provided the clues for an understanding of the economies of previous historical epochs – although, given the profound differences between societies, the clues should be treated with moderation. Marx emphatically repeated that this could not be done ‘in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society’ (Marx 1973: 105).

Although this argument is in line with those expressed in previous works, Marx here tackles differently the thorny question of the order to be assigned to the economic categories. He had already addressed it in The Poverty of Philosophy, where, in opposition to Proudhon’s wish to follow not ‘history in accordance with the order of events, but in accordance with the succession of ideas’ (Proudhon 1972: 184), he had criticized the idea of ‘constructing the world by the movement of thought’ (Marx 1976: 175). Thus in 1847, in his polemic with the logical-dialectical method employed by Proudhon and Hegel, Marx had preferred a rigorously historical sequence. But ten years later, in the ‘Introduction’, his position changed: he rejected the criterion of chronological succession for the scientific categories, in favour of a logical method with historical-empirical checks. Since the present helped one to understand the past, or the structure of man the structure of the ape, it was necessary to begin the analysis from the most mature stage, capitalist society, and more particularly from the element that predominated there over all others: capital. ‘Capital is the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society. It must form the starting-point as well as the finishing-point’ (Marx 1973: 107).’ And Marx concluded:

It would therefore be unfeasible and wrong to let the economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were historically decisive. Their sequence is determined, rather, by their relation to one another in modern bourgeois society, which is precisely the opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or which corresponds to historical development. The point is not the historic position of the economic relations in the succession of different forms of society. Even less is it their sequence ‘in the idea’ (Proudhon) (a muddy notion of historic movement). Rather, their order within modern bourgeois society. (Marx 1973: 107-8)

In essence, setting out the categories in a precise logical order and the working of real history do not coincide with each other – and moreover, as Marx wrote in the manuscripts for the third volume of Capital, ‘all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided’ (Marx 1998: 804).

Marx, then, arrived at his own synthesis by diverging from the empiricism of the early economists, which yielded a dissolution of concrete elements into abstract definitions; from the method of the classical economists, which reduced thought about reality to reality itself; from philosophical idealism – including, in Marx’s view, Hegel’s philosophy – which he accused of giving thought the capacity to produce the concrete; from gnoseological conceptions that rigidly counterposed forms of thought and objective reality; from historicism and its dissolution of the logical into the historical; and, finally, from his own conviction in The Poverty of Philosophy that he was essentially following ‘the march of history’ (Marx 1976: 172). His aversion to establishing a one-to-one correspondence between the concrete and thought led him to separate the two by recognizing the specificity of the latter and assigning to the former an existence independent of thought, so that the order of exposition of the categories differed from that which manifested itself in the relations of the real historical process (cf. Althusser and Balibar 1979: 47-8, 87). To avoid limiting the cognitive process to a mere repetition of the stages of what had happened in history, it was necessary to use a process of abstraction, and therefore categories that allowed for the interpretation of society in all its complexity. On the other hand, to be really useful for this purpose, abstraction had to be constantly compared with various historical realities, in such a way that the general logical determinations could be distinguished from the concrete historical relations. Marx’s conception of history thereby gained in efficacy and incisiveness: once a symmetry of logical order and actual historical order had been rejected, the historical became decisive for the understanding of reality, while the logical made it possible to conceive history as something other than a flat chronology of events. For Marx, it was not necessary to reconstruct the historical genesis of every economic relationship in order to understand society and then give an adequate description of it. As he put it in one passage of the Grundrisse:

our method indicates the points where historical investigation must enter in, or where bourgeois economy as a merely historical form of the production process points beyond itself to earlier historical modes of production. In order to develop the laws of bourgeois economy, therefore, it is not necessary to write the real history of the relations of production. But the correct observation and deduction of these laws, as having themselves become in history, always leads to primary equations … which point towards a past lying behind this system. These indications, together with a correct grasp of the present, then also offer the key to the understanding of the past …. This correct view likewise leads at the same time to the points at which there is an indication of the overcoming of the present form of production relations – and hence foreshadowings of the future, a movement of becoming. Just as, on one side, the pre-bourgeois phases appear as merely historical, i.e. superseded presuppositions, so do the contemporary conditions of production likewise appear as engaged in superseding themselves and hence in positing the historical presuppositions for a new society. (Marx 1973: 460-1, trans. modified)

The method developed by Marx had provided him with tools not only to understand the differences among all the modes in which production had manifested itself in history, but also to discern in the present the tendencies prefiguring a new mode of production and therefore confounding all those who had proclaimed the inalterability of capitalism. His own research, including in epistemology, never had an exclusively theoretical motive; it was always driven by the need to interpret the world in order to engage better in the political struggle.

In fact, Marx broke off the section on method with a sketch of the order in which he intended to write his ‘Economics’. It is the first of the many plans for his work that he drafted in the course of his life, one that goes back over his reflections in the preceding pages of the ‘Introduction’. Before he actually began to compose the Grundrisse, he had intended to deal with:

(1) the general, abstract determinations which obtain in more or less all forms of society [… ; then] (2) the categories which make up the inner structure of bourgeois society and on which the fundamental classes rest [:] capital, wage labour, landed property [;] (3) concentration of bourgeois society in the form of the state. Viewed in relation to itself [;] (4) the international relation of production. … International exchange [; and] (5) The world market and crises. (Marx 1973: 108)

Such at least was Marx’s schema in August 1857, which subsequently underwent so many changes.

The uneven relationship between material and intellectual production
The last section of the ‘Introduction’ comprises a brief and fragmentary list of eight arguments that Marx intended to deal with in his work, plus a few considerations on the relationship between Greek art and modern society. On the eight points, Marx’s main notes concern: his conviction that the characteristics of wage labour manifested themselves in the army even earlier than in bourgeois society; the idea of a dialectic between productive forces and relations of production; and what he calls the ‘uneven development’ (ungleiche Entwicklung) between relations of production and legal relations, particularly the derivation of the law of nascent bourgeois society from Roman private law. All this is by way of a memorandum, however, without any structure, and it provides only a vague idea of Marx’s thinking on these matters.

His reflections on art are somewhat more developed, focusing on the ‘uneven relationship [ungleiche Verhältniß] between material production and artistic development’ (Marx 1973: 109, trans. modified). Marx had already tackled the relationship between production and forms of consciousness in two early works. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 he had argued that ‘religion, family, state, law, morality, science, art, etc., are only particular modes of production, and fall under its general law’ (Marx 1975b: 297), and in The German Ideology he had declared:

The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men …. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men appear at this stage as the direct efflux (direkter Ausfluß) of their material behaviour. (Marx and Engels 1976: 36)

In the ‘Introduction’, however, far from affirming the kind of rigid parallelism that many ostensible Marxists later postulated, Marx stressed that there was no direct relationship between social-economic development and artistic production. Reworking certain ideas in The Historical View of the Literature of the South of Europe by Leonard Simonde de Sismondi, which he had read and excerpted in one of his 1852 notebooks, he now wrote: ‘In the case of the arts, it is well known that certain periods of their flowering are out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also to the material foundation (materiellen Grundlage), the skeletal structure … of its organization’. He also pointed out that certain art forms – the epic, for instance – ‘are possible only at an undeveloped stage of artistic development. If this is the case with the relation between different kinds of art within the realm of the arts, it is already less puzzling that it is the case in the relation of the entire realm to the general development of society’ (Marx 1973: 110). Greek art presupposed Greek mythology, that is, an ‘unconsciously artistic’ representation of social forms. But, in an advanced society such as that of the modern age, in which people conceive of nature rationally, not as an external power standing over and against them, mythology loses its raison d’être and the epic can no longer be repeated: ‘Is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press …? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry vanish’ (Marx 1973: 111)?

For Marx, then, art and intellectual production in general must be investigated in their relationship to the material conditions of society, but without drawing a rigid correspondence between the two spheres. Otherwise one would fall into Voltaire’s error (recalled by Marx in his economic manuscripts of 1861-3) of thinking that ‘because we are further ahead than the ancients in mechanics’ we should ‘be able to make an epic too’ (Marx 1989a: 182-3).

Having considered the artist as a creating subject, Marx turned to artistic production and the public that derives enjoyment from it. This presented the greatest difficulties of interpretation. The difficulty was ‘not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development’, but ‘that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model’. The real problem was to understand why the artistic creations of antiquity were still a source of enjoyment for modern men and women. According to Marx, the answer was that the Greek world represents ‘the historic childhood of humanity’, a period that exercises an ‘eternal charm’ as ‘a stage never to return’ (Marx 1973: 111). Hence the conclusion:

The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. [It] is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up … with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return (Marx 1973: 111)

The value of Marx’s statements on aesthetics in the ‘Introduction’ does not, however, lie in the sketchy and sometimes unconvincing solutions they offer, but rather in his anti-dogmatic approach as to how the forms of material production are related to intellectual creations and behaviour. His awareness of their ‘uneven development’ involved rejection of any schematic procedure that posited a uniform relationship among the various spheres of the social totality (Marx 1973: 109). Even the well-known thesis in the ‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, published two years after Marx wrote the ‘Introduction’ – ‘the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life’ (Marx 1987a: 263) – should not be interpreted in a determinist sense; it should be clearly distinguished from the narrow and predictable reading of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, in which the superstructural phenomena of society are merely a reflection of the material existence of human beings.

When Marx embarked on the Grundrisse, he intended to preface his ‘Economics’ with a section on his research methodology. The ‘Introduction’ was not composed simply for the purpose of self-clarification; it was supposed to contain, as in the writings of other economists, the author’s preliminary observations on his general subject. In June 1859, however, when Marx sent the first part of his studies for publication as A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he decided to omit the section setting forth his motivation:

A general introduction, which I had drafted, is omitted, since on further consideration it seems to me confusing to anticipate results which still have to be substantiated, and the reader who really wishes to follow me will have to decide to advance from the particular to the general’ (von dem Einzelnen zum Allgemeinen aufzusteigen) (Marx 1987: 261)

Hence, the guiding aim of 1857 – ‘rising from the abstract to the concrete’ (Marx 1973: 101) – changed in the text of 1859 to ‘to advance from the particular to the general’ (Marx 1987a: 261). The starting-point of the ‘Introduction’ – the most abstract and universal determinations – was replaced with a concrete and historically determined reality: the commodity, but, since the text of 1857 had remained unpublished, no explanation was given of the change. In fact, already in the last passage of the Grundrisse, after hundreds of pages in which he had scrupulously analysed the capitalist mode of production and the concepts of political economy, Marx asserted that ‘the first category in which bourgeois wealth presents itself is that of the commodity’ (Marx 1973: 881). He would devote to its investigation the first chapter both of the A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and of Capital, where the commodity is defined as the ‘elementary form’ (Marx 1996: 45, trans. modified) of capitalist society, the particular with whose analysis the research had to begin.

Instead of the planned introduction, Marx opened the work of 1859 with a brief ‘Preface’ in which he succinctly outlined his intellectual biography and the so-called materialist conception of history. Subsequently he no longer engaged in the discourse on method, except on very rare occasions and with a few swift observations. Certainly the most important of these was the 1873 ‘Postscript’ to the first volume of Capital, in which, having been roused by the reviews that accompanied its publication, he could not refrain from expressing himself about his method of investigation and revisiting some of the themes present in the ‘Introduction’. Another reason for this was the need he felt to assert the difference between method of exposition and method of investigation: whereas the former could start with the general, moving from the universal form to historically determined forms and hence – in a confirmation of the formulation of 1857 – ‘rising from the abstract to the concrete’, the latter had to start from the immediate reality and, as he put it in 1859, move ‘from the particular to the general’:

the method of presentation [Darstellungsweise] must differ in form from that of inquiry [Forschungsweise]. The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development, to trace out their inner connexion. Only after this work is done, can the actual movement be adequately described. (Marx 1996: 19)

In his work after the 1857 ‘Introduction’, then, Marx no longer wrote on questions of method in the open and problematizing way that had characterized that text but expressed his finished ideas on them without betraying the complex genesis through which they had been worked out (cf. Carver 1975: 135). For this reason, too, the pages of the ‘Introduction’ are extraordinarily important. In a close encounter with the ideas of some of the greatest economists and philosophers, Marx there reaffirms profound convictions and arrives at significant theoretical acquisitions. First of all, he insists again on the historical specificity of the capitalist mode of production and its social relations. Second, he considers production, distribution, exchange and consumption as a totality, in which production constitutes the element predominating over the other parts of the whole. Moreover, with regard to the reproduction of reality in thought, Marx does not resort to a merely historical method but makes use of abstraction, having come to recognize its value for the construction of the path of knowledge. Finally, he underlines the uneven relationship that obtains between the development of the relations of production and intellectual relations.

In the hundred years since they were first published, these reflections have made the ‘Introduction’ an indispensable theoretical text as well as a fascinating one from a literary point of view, for all serious interpreters and readers of Marx. This will surely be the case also for those who come anew to his work in future generations.

Translated from the Italian by Patrick Camiller

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Book chapter

Marx’s Life at the Time of the Grundrisse

The date with the revolution
In 1848 Europe was shaken by a succession of numerous popular insurrections inspired by the principles of political freedom and social justice. The weakness of a newly born workers’ movement, the bourgeoisie’s renunciation of these ideals, which it had initially shared, the violent military repression and the economic prosperity generated the defeat of the revolutionary uprisings everywhere, and the powers of reaction firmly regained the reins of state governments.

Marx supported the popular insurrections on the daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Organ der Demokratie, of which he was founder and chief editor. From the newspaper columns he carried out an intense activity of agitation, supporting the causes of the insurgents and urging the proletariat to promote ‘the social and republican revolution’ (Marx 1977: 178). In that period he lived between Brussels, Paris and Cologne, and travelled to Berlin, Vienna, Hamburg and many other German cities, establishing new connections to strengthen and develop unfolding struggles. Because of this relentless militant activity, he was issued expulsion orders first from Belgium, then from Prussia, and when the new French government under the Presidency of Louis Bonaparte demanded that he leave Paris, he decided to move to England. He arrived there in the summer of 1849, at the age of 31, to settle in London. Initially convinced that it would be a short stay, he ended up living there, stateless, for the rest of his life.

The first years of his English exile were characterised by the deepest poverty and ill health that contributed to the tragic loss of three of his children. Although Marx’s life was never easy, this period was certainly its worst stage. From December 1850 to September 1856 he lived with his family in a two-bedroom dwelling, at 28 Dean Street in Soho, one of the poorest and shabbiest neighborhoods of the city. The inheritance gained by his wife Jenny von Westphalen, with the death of her uncle and her mother, unexpectedly gave them a glimmer of hope and enabled him to settle his many debts, retrieve his clothes and personal objects from the pawnshop , and relocate to new premises.

In the autumn of 1856, Marx, his wife and their three daughters Jenny, Laura and Eleanor, with their loyal maid Helene Demuth – who was an integral part of the family – moved to the northern suburbs of London, at 9 Grafton Terrace, Kentish Town, where the rent was more affordable. The house, where they stayed until 1864, was built in a recently developed area bereft of beaten paths and connections to the centre, and enveloped in darkness at night. But they finally lived in a real house, the minimal requirement for the family to retain ‘at least a semblance of respectability’(Jenny Marx 1970: 223).

In the course of 1856 Marx completely neglected the study of political economy but the coming of an international financial crisis suddenly changed this situation. In a climate of deep uncertainty, which turned into wide-spread panic thus contributing to bankruptcies everywhere, Marx felt that the right time for action had come again and foreseeing the future development of the recession, he wrote to Friedrich Engels: ‘I don’t suppose we’ll be able to spend much longer here merely watching’ (Marx to Engels, 26 September 1856, Marx–Engels 1983: 70). Engels, already infused with great optimism, predicted a scenario for the future in this way: ‘This time there’ll be an unprecedented day of wrath; the whole of Europe’s industry in ruins,… all markets over-stocked, all the upper classes in the soup, complete bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie, war and disorder to the nth degree. I, too, believe that it will all come to pass in 1857’ (Engels to Marx, 26 September 1856, Marx–Engels 1983: 72).

By the end of a decade that had seen the reflux of the revolutionary movement, and in the course of which Marx and Engels were prevented from actively participating in the European political arena, the two started to exchange messages with renewed confidence in future prospects. The long-awaited date with the revolution now seemed much closer, and for Marx this pointed to one priority above all: resuming his ‘Economics’ and finishing it as soon as possible.

Fighting misery and diseases
In order to dedicate himself to work in this spirit Marx would have needed some tranquillity, but his personal situation was still extremely precarious and did not allow him any respite. Having employed all the resources at his disposal in the relocation to a new home, he was short of money again to pay the first month’s rent. So he reported to Engels, who lived and worked in Manchester at the time, all the troubles of his situation: ‘[I am] without prospects and with soaring family liabilities. I have no idea about what to do and in fact my situation is more desperate than it was five years ago. I thought that I had already tasted the quintessence of this shit, but no’ (Marx to Engels, 20 January 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 93). This statement deeply shocked Engels, who had been sure that after the move his friend would finallybe more settled, so in January 1857 he spent the money received from his father for Christmas to buy a horse and pursue his great passion: fox hunting. However, during this period and for his whole life, Engels never denied all of his support to Marx and his family, and, worried about this difficult juncture, he sent Marx £5 a month and urged him to count on him always in difficult times.

Engels’s role was certainly not limited to financial support. In the deep isolation Marx experienced during those years, but through the large correspondence exchanged between the two, Engels was the only point of reference with whom he could engage in intellectual debate: ‘more than anything I need your opinion’ (Marx to Engels, 2 April 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 303). Engels was the only friend to confide in at difficult times of despondency: ‘write soon because your letters are essential now to help me pluck up. The situation is dire’ (Marx to Engels, 18 March 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 106) Engels was also the companion with whom Marx shared the sarcasm solicited by events: ‘I envy people who can turn summersaults. It must be a great way of ridding the head of bourgeois anger and ordure’ (Marx to Engels, 23 January 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 99).

In fact uncertainty soon became more pressing. Marx’s only income, aside from the help granted by Engels, consisted of payments received from the New-York Tribune, the most widely circulated English language newspaper at the time. The agreement on his contributions, for which he received £2 per article, changed with the economic crisis that also had had repercussions on the American daily. Aside from the American traveller and writer Bayard Taylor, Marx was the only European correspondent not to be fired, but his participation was scaled down from two articles weekly to one, and – ‘although in times of prosperity they never gave me an extra penny’ (Marx to Weydemeyer, 1 February 1859, Marx–Engels 1983: 374) – his payments were halved. Marx humorously recounted the event: ‘There is a certain irony of fate in my being personally embroiled in these damned crises’ (Marx to Engels, 31 October 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 198).

However, to be able to witness the financial breakdown was an unparalleled entertainment: ‘Nice, too, that the capitalists, who so vociferously opposed the “right to work”, are now everywhere demanding “public support” from their governments and… hence advocating the “right to profit” at public expense’ (Marx to Engels, 8 December 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 214). Despite his state of anxiety, he announced to Engels that ‘though my own financial distress may be dire indeed, never, since 1849, have I felt so cosy as during this outbreak’ (Marx to Engels, 13 November 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 199).

The beginning of a new editorial project slightly eased the desperation. The editor of the New-York Tribune, Charles Dana, invited Marx to join the editorial committee for The New American Cyclopædia. Lack of money drove him to accept the offer, but he entrusted most of the work to Engels in order to dedicate more time to his research. In their division of labour between July 1857 and November 1860, Engels edited military entries – i.e. the majority of the ones commissioned – whilst Marx compiled several biographical sketches. Although the payment of $2 per page was very low, it was still an addition to his disastrous finances. For this reason Engels urged him to get as many entries from Dana as possible: ‘We can easily supply that amount of “unalloyed” erudition, so long as unalloyed Californian gold is substituted for it’ (Engels to Marx, 22 April 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 122).Marx followed the same principle in writing his articles: ‘to be as little concise as possible, so long as it is not insipid’ (Marx to Engels, 22 February 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 272).

Despite efforts, his financial situation did not improve at all. It actually became so unsustainable that, chased by creditors he compared to ‘hungry wolves’ (Marx to Engels, 8 December 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 214), and in the absence of coal for heating during the cold winter of that year, in January 1858 he wrote to Engels: ‘if these conditions persist, I would sooner be miles under the ground than go on vegetating this way. Always being a nuisance to others whilst, on top of that, being constantly tormented by personal trifles becomes unbearable in the long run’ (Marx to Engels, 28 January 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 255). In such circumstances he also had bitter words for the emotional sphere: ‘privately, I think, I lead the most agitated life imaginable. … For people of wide aspiration nothing is more stupid than to get married, thus letting oneself in for the the small miseries of domestic and private life’ (Marx to Engels, 22 February 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 273).

Poverty was not the only spectre haunting Marx. As with a major part of his troubled existence, he was also affected at the time by several diseases. In March 1857 the excessive labour done at night gave him an eye infection; in April he was hit by toothache; in May he suffered continuous liver complains for which he was ‘submerged in drugs’. Greatly enfeebled, he was incapacitated and unable to work for three weeks. He then reported to Engels: ‘in order that my time should not be entirely wasted I have, in the absence of better things, been mastering the Danish language’; however, ‘if the doctor’s promises are anything to go by, I have prospects of becoming a human being again by next week. Meanwhile I’m still as yellow as a quince and vastly more irritated’ (Marx to Engels, 22 May 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 132).

Shortly afterwards a much graver occurrence befell the Marx family. In early July Jenny gave birth to their last child, but the baby, born too weak, died immediately after. Bereaved once more, Marx confessed to Engels: ‘in itself, this is not a tragedy. But… the circumstances that caused it to happen were such to bring back heartrending memories [probably the death of Edgar (1847-55), the last child he lost]. It is impossible to discuss this issue in a letter’ (Marx to Engels, 8 July 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 143). Engels was highly affected by this statement and replied: ‘things must be really hard for you to write like this. You can accept the death of the little one stoically, but your wife will hardly be able to’ (Engels to Marx, 11 July 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 143).

The situation was further complicated by the fact that Engels fell ill and was seriously hit by a glandular fever, so he could not work for the whole summer. At that point, Marx was in real difficulties. Without his friend’s entries for the encyclopaedia, he needed to buy time, so he pretended to have sent a pile of manuscripts to New York, and that they had been lost in the post. Nonetheless, the pressure did not decrease. When the events surrounding the Indian Sepoy rebellion became more striking, the New-York Tribune expected an analysis from their expert, without knowing that the articles concerning military matters were in fact the work of Engels. Marx, forced by the circumstances to be temporarily in charge of the ‘military department’ (Marx to Engels, 14 January 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 249) , ventured to claim that the English needed to make a retreat by the beginning of the rainy season. He informed Engels of his choice in these words: ‘it is possible that I’ll look really bad but in any case with a little dialectics I will be able to get out of it. I have, of course, so formulated my words as to be right either way’ (Marx to Engels, 15 August 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 152). However, Marx did not underestimate this conflict and reflecting on its possible effects, he said: ‘in view of the drain of men and bullion which she will cost the English, India is now our best ally’ (Marx to Engels, 14 January 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 249).

Writing the Grundrisse
Poverty, health problems and all kind of privations — the Grundrisse was written in this tragic context. It was not the product of research by a well-to-do thinker protected by bourgeois tranquillity; on the contrary, it was the labour of an author who experienced hardship and found the energy to carry on only sustained by the belief that, given the advancing economic crisis, his work had become necessary for his times: ‘I am working like mad all through the nights at putting my economic studies together so that I may at least get the outlines (Grundrisse) clear before the deluge’ (Marx to Engels, 8 December 1857, Marx—Engels 1983: 217).

In the autumn of 1857, Engels was still evaluating events with optimism: ‘the American crash is superb and will last for a long time. … Commerce will again be going downhill for the next three or four years. Now we have a chance (Engels to Marx, 29 October 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 195). Thus he was encouraging Marx: ‘in 1848 we were saying: now our moment is coming, and in a certain sense it was, but this time it is coming completely and it is a case of life or death’ (Engels to Marx, 15 November 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 200). On the other hand, without harbouring any doubts about the imminence of the revolution, they both hoped that it would not erupt before the whole of Europe had been invested by the crisis, and so the auspices for the ‘year of strife’ were postponed to 1858 (Engels to Marx, 31 December 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 236).

As reported in a letter from Jenny von Westphalen to Conrad Schramm, a family friend, the general crisis had its positive effects on Marx: ‘you can imagine how high up the Moor is. He has recovered all his wonted facility and capacity for work, as well as the liveliness and buoyancy of spirit’ (Jenny Marx to Schramm, 8 December 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 566). In fact Marx began a period of intense intellectual activity, dividing his labours between the articles for the New-York Tribune, the work for The New American Cyclopædia, the unfinished project to write a pamphlet on the current crisis and, obviously, the Grundrisse. However, despite his renewed energies, all these undertakings proved excessive and Engels’s aid became once more indispensable. By the beginning of 1858, following his full recovery from the disease he had suffered, Marx asked him to return to work on the encyclopaedia entries:

sometimes it seems to me that if you could manage to do a few sections every couple of days, it could perhaps act as a check on your drunkenness that, from what I know of Manchester and at the present excited times, seem to me inevitable and far from good for you. … because I really need to finish off my other works, that are taking up all my time, even if the house should come falling on my head! (Marx to Engels, 5 January 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 238)

Engels accepted Marx’s energetic exhortation and reassured him that, after the holidays, he ‘experienced the need of a quieter and more active life’ (Engels to Marx, 6 January 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 239). Nonetheless, Marx’s greatest problem was still lack of time, and he repeatedly complained to his friend that ‘whenever I’m at the [British] Museum, there are so many things I need to look up that it’s closing time (now 4 o’clock) before I have so much as looked round. Then there’s the journey there. So much time lost’ (Marx to Engels, 1 February 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 258). Moreover, in addition to practical difficulties, there were theoretical ones: ‘I have been… so damnably held up by errors in calculation that, in despair, I have applied myself to a revision of algebra. Arithmetic has always been my enemy, but by making a detour via algebra, I shall quickly get back into the way of things’ (Marx to Engels, 11 January 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 244). Finally, his scrupulousness contributed to slowing the writing of the Grundrisse, as he demanded of himself that he keep on searching for new confirmations to test the validity of his theses. In February he explained the state of his research to Ferdinand Lassalle thus:

Now I want to tell you how my Economics is getting on. The work is written. I have in fact had the final text in hand for some months. But the thing is proceeding very slowly, because no sooner does one set about finally disposing of subjects that have been the main object of years of study, than they start revealing new aspects and demand to be thought out further.

In the same letter, Marx regretted once again the condition to which he was doomed. Being forced to spend a large part of the day on newspaper articles, he wrote: ‘I am not master of my time but rather its slave. Only the nights are left for my own work, which in turn is often disrupted by bilious attacks or recurrences of liver trouble’ (Marx to Lassalle, 22 February 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 268).

In fact, illness had violently befallen him again. In January 1858 he communicated to Engels that he had been in cure for three weeks: ‘I had exaggerated working at night – only keeping myself going with lemonades and a large quantity of tobacco’ (Marx to Engels, 14 January 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 247). In March, he was ‘very sickly again’ with his liver: ‘the prolonged work by night and, by day, the numerous petty discomforts resulting from the economical conditions of my domesticity have recently been cause of frequent relapses’ (Marx to Engels, 29 March 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 295). In April, he claimed again: ‘I’ve felt so ill with my bilious complaint this week, that I am incapable of thinking, reading, writing or, indeed, doing anything save the articles for the Tribune. These, of course, cannot be allowed to lapse since I must draw on the curs as soon as possible to avoid bankruptcy’ (Marx to Engels, 2 April 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 296).

At this stage of his life Marx had completely given up political organised and private relations: in letters to his few remaining friend he disclosed that ‘I live like a hermit’ (Marx to Lassalle, 21 December 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 225), and ‘I seldom see my few acquaintances nor, on the whole, is this any great loss’ (Marx to Schramm, 8 December 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 217). Aside from Engels’s continuous encouragement, the recession and its expansion world-wide also fed his hopes and goaded him into carrying on working: ‘take[n] all in all, the crisis has been burrowing away like a good old mole’ (Marx to Engels, 22 February 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 274). The correspondence with Engels documents the enthusiasm sparked in him by the progression of events. In January, having read the news from Paris in the Manchester Guardian, he exclaimed: ‘everything seems to be going better than expected’ (Marx to Engels, 23 January 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 252), and at the end of March, commenting on recent developments, he added: ‘in France the bedlam continues most satisfactorily. It is unlikely that conditions will be peaceful beyond the summer’ (Marx to Engels, 29 March 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 296). And whilst a few months earlier he had pessimistically stated that:

After what has happened over the last ten years, any thinking being’s contempt for the masses as for individuals must have increased to such a degree that ‘odi profanum vulgus et arceo’ has almost become an imposed maxim. Nonetheless, all these are themselves philistine states of mind, that will be swept away by the first storm (Marx to Lassalle, 22 February 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 268).

In May he claimed with some satisfaction that ‘on the whole the present moment of time is a pleasing one. History is apparently about to take again a new start, and the signs of dissolution everywhere are delightful for every mind not bent upon the conservation of things as they are’ (Marx to Lassalle, 31 May 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 323).

Similarly, Engels reported to Marx with great fervour that on the day of the execution of Felice Orsini, the Italian democrat who had tried to assassinate Napoleon III, a major working class protest took place in Paris: ‘at a time of great turmoil it is good to see such a roll-call take place and hear 100,000 men reply “present!”’ (Engels to Marx, 17 March 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 289–90). In view of possible revolutionary developments, he also studied the sizeable number of French troops and warned Marx that to win it would have been necessary to form secret societies in the army, or, as in 1848, for the bourgeoisie to stand against Bonaparte. Finally, he predicted that the secession of Hungary and Italy and the Slavic insurrections would have violently hit Austria, the old reactionary bastion, and that, in addition to this, a generalised counter attack would have spread the crisis to every large city and industrial district. In other words, he was certain that ‘after all, it’s going to be a hard struggle (Engels to Marx, 17 March 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 289). Led by his optimism Engels resumed his horse riding, this time with a further aim; as he wrote to Marx: ‘Yesterday, I took my horse over a bank and hedge five feet and several inches high: the highest I have ever jumped… when we go back to Germany we will certainly have a thing or two to show the Prussian cavalry. Those gentlemen will find it difficult to keep up with me’ (Engels to Marx, 11 February 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 265). The reply was of smug satisfaction: ‘I congratulate you upon your equestrian performances. But don’t take too many breakneck jumps, as there will be soon more important occasion for risking one’s neck. I don’t believe that cavalry is the speciality in which you will be of the greatest service to Germany’ (Marx to Engels, 14 February 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 266).

On the contrary, Marx’s life met with further complications. In March, Lassalle informed him that the editor Franz Duncker from Berlin had agreed to publish his work in instalments, but the good news paradoxically turned into another destabilising factor. A new cause of concern added to the others — anxiety — as recounted in the umpteenth medical bulletin addressed to Engels, this time written by Jenny von Westphalen:

His bile and liver are again in a state of rebellion. … The worsening of his condition is largely attributable to mental unrest and agitation which now, after the conclusion of the contract with the publishers are greater than ever and increasing daily, since he finds it utterly impossible to bring the work to a close (Jenny Marx to Engels, 9 April 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 569).

For the whole of April, Marx was hit by the most virulent bile pain he had ever suffered and could not work at all. He concentrated exclusively on the few articles for the New-York Tribune; these were indispensable for his survival, and he had to dictate them to his wife, who was fulfilling ‘the function of secretary’ (Marx to Engels, 23 April 1857, Marx–Engels 1983: 125). As soon as he was able to hold a pen again, he informed Engels that his silence was only due to his ‘inability to write’. Thiswas manifest ‘not only in the literary, but in the literal sense of the word’. He also claimed that ‘the persistent urge to get down to work coupled with the inability to do so contributed to aggravate the disease.’ His condition was still very bad:

I am not capable of working. If I write for a couple of hours, I have to lie down in pain for a couple of days. I expect, damn it, that this state of affairs will come to an end next week. It couldn’t have come at a worst time. Obviously during the winter I overdid my nocturnal labours. Hinc illae lacrimae’ (Marx to Engels, 29 April 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 309) .

Marx tried to fight his illness, but, after taking large amounts of medicines without drawing any benefit from them, he resigned himself to follow the doctor’s advice to change scene for a week and ‘refrain from all intellectual labour for a while’ (Marx to Lassalle, 31 May 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 321). So he decided to visit Engels, to whom he announced: ‘I’ve let my duty go hang’ (Marx to Engels, 1 May 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 312). Naturally, during his 20 days in Manchester, he carried on working: he wrote the ‘Chapter on Capital’ and the last pages of the Grundrisse.

Struggling against bourgeois society
Once back in London Marx should have edited the text in order to send it to the publishers, but, although he was already late, he still delayed its draft. His critical nature won over his practical needs again. As he informed Engels:

During my absence a book by Maclaren covering the entire history of currency came out in London, which, to judge by the excerpts in The Economist, is first-rate. The book isn’t in the library yet… . Obviously I must read it before writing mine. So I sent my wife to the publisher in the City, but to our dismay we discovered that it costs 9/6d, more than the whole of our fighting funds. Hence I would be most grateful if you could send me a mail order for that amount. There probably won’t be anything that’s new to me in the book, but after all the fuss The Economist has made about it, and the excerpts I myself have read, my theoretical conscience won’t allow me to proceed without having looked at it (Marx to Engels, 31 May 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 317).

This vignette is very telling. The ‘dangerousness’ of the reviews in The Economist for family peace; sending his wife Jenny to the City on a mission to deal with theoretical doubts’ the fact that his savings was not enough even to buy a book; the usual pleas to his friend in Manchester that required immediate attention: what can better describe the life of Marx in those years and particularly what his ‘theoretical conscience’ was capable of?

In addition to his complex temperament, ill health and poverty, his usual ‘enemies’, contributed to delay the completion of his work even further. His physical condition worsened again, as reported to Engels: ‘the disease from which I was suffering before leaving Manchester again became chronic, persisting throughout the summer, so that any kind of writing costs me a tremendous effort’ (Marx to Engels, 21 September 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 341). Moreover, those months were marked by unbearable economic concerns that forced him constantly to live with the ‘spectre of an inevitable final catastrophe’ (Marx to Engels, 15 July 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 328). Seized by desperation again, in July Marx sent a letter to Engels that really testifies to the extreme situation he was living in:

It behoves us to put our heads together to see if some way cannot be found out of the present situation, for it has become absolutely untenable. It has already resulted in my being completely disabled from doing any work, partly because I have to waste most of my best time running round in fruitless attempts to raise money, and partly because the strength of my abstraction — due rather, perhaps, to my being physically run down — is no longer a match for domestic miseries. My wife is a nervous wreck because of this misery… . Thus the whole business turns on the fact that what little comes in is never earmarked for the coming month, nor is it ever more than just sufficient to reduce debts… so that this misery is only postponed by four weeks which have to be got through in one way or another. … not even the auction of my household goods would suffice to satisfy the creditors in the vicinity and ensure an unhampered removal to some hidey-hole. The show of respectability which has so far been kept up has been the only means of avoiding a collapse. I for my part wouldn’t care a damn about living in Whitechapel [the neighbourhood in London where most of the working class lived at the time], provided I could again at last secure an hour’s peace in which to attend to my work. But in view of my wife’s condition just now such a metamorphosis might entail dangerous consequences, and it could hardly be suitable for growing girls. … I would not with my worst enemy to have to wade through the quagmire in which I’ve been trapped for the past eight weeks, fuming the while over the innumerable vexations that are ruining my intellect and destroying my capacity for work’ (Marx to Engels, Marx–Engels 15 July 1858, 1983: 328-31).

Yet despite his extremely destitute state, Marx did not let the precariousness of his situation triumph over him and, concerning his intention to complete his work, he commented to his friend Joseph Weydemeyer: ‘I must pursue my goal at all costs and not allow bourgeois society to turn me into a money-making machine’ (Marx to Weydemeyer, 1 February 1859, Marx–Engels 1983: 374).

Meanwhile, the economic crisis waned, and soon enough the market resumed its normal functioning. In fact, in August a disheartened Marx turned to Engels: ‘over the past few weeks the world has grown damned optimistic again’ (Marx to Engels, 13 August 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 338); and Engels, reflecting on the way the overproduction of commodities had been absorbed, asserted: ‘never before has such heavy flooding drained away so rapidly’ (Engels to Marx, 7 October 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 343). The certainty that the revolution was around the corner, which inspired them throughout the autumn of 1856 and encouraged Marx to write the Grundrisse, was now giving way to the most bitter disillusionment: ‘there is no war. Everything is bourgeois’ (Marx to Engels, 11 December 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 360). And whilst Engels raged against the ‘increasing embourgeoisement of the English proletariat’, a phenomenon that, in his opinion, was to lead the most exploitative country in the world to have a ‘bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie’ (Engels to Marx, 7 October 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 343), Marx held onto every even slightly significant event, until the end: ‘despite the optimistic turn taken by world trade […], it is some consolation at least that the revolution has begun in Russia, for I regard the convocation of ‘notables’ to Petersburg as such a beginning’. His hopes were also set on Germany: ‘in Prussia things are worse than they were in 1847’, as well as on the Czech bourgeoisie’s struggle for national independence: ‘exceptional movements are on foot amongst the Slavs, especially in Bohemia, which, though counter-revolutionary, yet provide ferment for the movement’. Finally, as if betrayed, he scathingly asserted: ‘It will do the French no harm to see that, even without them, the world moved’ (Marx to Engels, 8 October 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 345).

However, Marx had to resign himself to the evidence: the crisis had not provoked the social and political effects that he and Engels had forecast with so much certainty. Nonetheless, he was still firmly convinced that it was only a matter of time before the revolution in Europe erupted and that the issue, if any, was what world scenarios the economic change would have provoked. Thus he wrote to Engels, giving a sort of political evaluation of the most recent events and a reflection on future prospects:

We can’t deny that bourgeois society has for the second time experienced its sixteenth century, a sixteenth century which, I hope, will sound its death knell just as the first flattered it in its lifetime. The real task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, or at least of its general framework, and of the production based on the market. Since the world is round, it seems to me that the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process. The difficult question for us is this: on the continent the revolution is imminent and will immediately assume a socialist character. Will it not necessarily be crushed in this little corner of the earth, since the movement of bourgeois society is still in the ascendant over a far greater area?’ (Marx to Engels, 8 October 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 347).

These thoughts include two of the most significant of Marx’s predictions: a right one that led him to intuit, better than any of his contemporaries, the world scale of the development of capitalism; and a wrong one, linked to the belief in the inevitability of the proletarian revolution in Europe.

The letters to Engels contain Marx’s sharp criticism of all those who were his political adversariesin the progressive camp. Many were targeted alongside one of his favourites, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the main figure of the dominant form of socialism in France, whom Marx regarded as the ‘false brother’ communism needed to rid itself of (Marx to Weydemeyer, 1 February 1859, Marx–Engels 1983: 374). Marx often entertained a relationship of rivalry with Lassalle, for instance, and when he received Lassalle’s latest book Heraclitus, the dark philosopher, he termed it as a ‘very silly concoction’ (Marx to Engels, 1 February 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 258). In September 1858, Giuseppe Mazzini published his new manifesto in the journal Pensiero ed Azione [Thought and Action], but Marx, who had no doubts about him, asserted: ‘still the same old jackass’ (Marx to Engels, 8 October 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 346).Instead of analysing the reasons for the defeat of 1848-49, Mazzini ‘busies himself with advertising nostrums for the cure of… the political palsy’ of the revolutionary migration (Marx 1980: 37). He railed against Julius Fröbel, a member of the Frankfurt council in 1848-9 and typical representative of the German democrats, who had fled abroad and later distanced himself from political life: ‘once they have found their bread and cheese, all these scoundrels require is some blasé pretext to bid farewell to the struggle’ (Marx to Engels, 24 November 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 356). Finally, as ironic as ever, he derided the “revolutionary activity” of Karl Blind, one of the leaders of the German émigrés in London:

He gets a couple of acquaintances in Hamburg to send letters (written by himself) to English newspapers in which mention is made of the stir created by his anonymous pamphlets. Then his friends report on German newspapers what a fuss was made by the English ones. That, you see, is what being a man of action means (Marx to Engels, 2 November 1858, Marx–Engels 1983: 351).

Marx’s political engagement was of a different nature. Whilst never desisting from fighting against bourgeois society, he also kept his awareness of his main role in this struggle, which was that of developing a critique of the capitalist mode of production through a rigorous study of political economy and ongoing analysis of economic events. For this reason during the ‘lows’ of the class struggle, he decided to use his powers in the best possible way by keeping at a distance from the useless conspiracies and personal intrigues to which political competition was reduced at the time: ‘since the Cologne trial [the one against the communists of 1853], I have withdrawn completely into my study. My time was too precious to be wasted in fruitless endeavour and petty squabbles’ (Marx to Weydemeyer, 1 February 1859, Marx–Engels 1983: 374). As a matter of fact, despite the flood of troubles, Marx continued to work, and he published his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Part One in 1859, for which the Grundrisse had been the initial testing ground.

Marx ended the year 1858 similarly to previous ones, as his wife Jenny recounts: ‘1858 was neither a good nor a bad year for us; it was one where days went by, one completely like the next. Eating and drinking, writing articles, reading newspapers and going for walks: this was our whole life’ (Jenny Marx 1970: 224). Day after day, month after month, year after year, Marx kept working on his oeuvre for the rest of his life. He was guided in the burdensome labour of drafting the Grundrisse and many other voluminous manuscripts in preparation for Capital by his great determination and strength of personality, and also by the unshakeable certainty that his existence belonged to socialism, the movement for the emancipation of millions of women and men.

Horace (1994) Odes and Epodes, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Marx, Jenny (1970) ‘Umrisse eines bewegten Lebens’ in Mohr und General. Erinnerungen an Marx und Engels, Berlin: Dietz Verlag.
Marx, Karl (1977 [1848]) ‘The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution’ in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 8: Articles from ‘Neue Rheinische Zeitung’, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Marx, Karl–Engels, Friedrich (1980 [1858]) ‘Mazzini’s new manifesto’ in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 16: Letters 1858-60, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Marx, Karl–Engels, Frederich (1983) Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 40: Letters 1856–59, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Marx, Karl–Engels, Friedrich (2002) Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 49: Letters 1890–92, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Terence (2002) Andria, Bristol: Bristol Classical Press.

Book chapter

Dissemination and Reception of the Grundrisse in the World

I. 1858-1953: One hundred years of solitude
Having abandoned the Grundrisse in May 1858 to make room for work on the A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx used parts of it in composing this latter text but then almost never drew on it again. In fact, although it was his habit to invoke his own previous studies, even to transcribe whole passages from them, none of the preparatory manuscripts for Capital, with the exception of those of 1861-3, contains any reference to the Grundrisse. It lay among all the other drafts that he had no intention of bringing into service as he became absorbed in solving more specific problems than they had addressed.

There can be no certainty about the matter, but it is likely that not even Friedrich Engels read the Grundrisse. As is well known, Marx managed to complete only the first volume of Capital by the time of his death, and the unfinished manuscripts for the second and third volumes were selected and put together for publication by Engels. In the course of this activity, he must have examined dozens of notebooks containing preliminary drafts of Capital, and it is plausible to assume that, when he was putting some order into the mountain of papers, he leafed through the Grundrisse and concluded that it was a premature version of his friend’s work – prior even to the A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859 – and that it could therefore not be used for his purposes. Besides, Engels never mentioned the Grundrisse, either in his prefaces to the two volumes of Capital that he saw into print or in any of his own vast collection of letters.

After Engels’s death, a large part of Marx’s original texts were deposited in the archive of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in Berlin, where they were treated with the utmost neglect. Political conflicts within the Party hindered publication of the numerous important materials that Marx had left behind; indeed, they led to dispersal of the manuscripts and for a long time made it impossible to bring out a complete edition of his works. Nor did anyone take responsibility for an inventory of Marx’s intellectual bequest, with the result that the Grundrisse remained buried alongside his other papers.

The only part of it that came to light during this period was the ‘Introduction’, which Karl Kautsky published in 1903 in Die Neue Zeit (The New Times), together with a brief note that presented it as a ‘fragmentary draft’ dated 23 August 1857. Arguing that it was the introduction to Marx’s magnum opus, Kautsky gave it the title Einleitung zu einer Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy) and maintained that ‘despite its fragmentary character’ it ‘offered a large number of new viewpoints’ (Marx 1903: 710, n. 1). Considerable interest was indeed shown in the text: the first versions in other languages were in French (1903) and in English (1904), and it soon became more widely noticed after Kautsky published it in 1907 as an appendix to the A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. More and more translations followed – including into Russian (1922), Japanese (1926), Greek (1927), and Chinese (1930) – until it became one of the works most commented upon in the whole of Marx’s theoretical production.

While fortune smiled on the ‘Introduction’, however, the Grundrisse remained unknown for a long time. It is difficult to believe that Kautsky did not discover the whole manuscript along with the ‘Introduction’, but he never made any mention of it. And a little later, when he decided to publish some previously unknown writings of Marx between 1905 and 1910, he concentrated on a collection of material from 1861-3, to which he gave the title Theories of Surplus-Value.

The discovery of the Grundrisse came in 1923, thanks to David Ryazanov, director of the Marx-Engels Institute (MEI) in Moscow and organizer of the Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), the complete works of Marx and Engels. After examining the Nachlass in Berlin, he revealed the existence of the Grundrisse in a report to the Socialist Academy in Moscow on the literary estate of Marx and Engels:

I found among Marx’s papers another eight notebooks of economic studies. … The manuscript can be dated to the middle of the 1850s and contains the first draft of Marx’s work [Das Kapital], whose title he had not yet fixed at the time; it [also] represents the first version of hisA Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. [2] (Ryazanov 1925: 393-4).

‘In one of these notebooks,’ Ryazanov continues, ‘Kautsky found the ‘Introduction’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ – and he considers the preparatory manuscripts for Capital to be of ‘extraordinary interest for what they tell us about the history of Marx’s intellectual development and his characteristic method of work and research’ (Ryazanov 1925: 394).

Under an agreement for publication of the MEGA among the MEI, the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (which still had custody of the Marx-Engels Nachlass), the Grundrisse was photographed together with many other unpublished writings and began to be studied by specialists in Moscow. Between 1925 and 1927 Pavel Veller from the MEI catalogued all the preparatory materials for Capital , the first of which was the Grundrisse itself. By 1931 it had been completely deciphered and typed out, and in 1933 one part was published in Russian as the ‘Chapter on Money’, followed two years later by an edition in German. Finally, in 1936, the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute (MELI, successor to the MEI) acquired six of the eight notebooks of the Grundrisse, which made it possible to solve the remaining editorial problems.

In 1939, then, Marx’s last important manuscript – an extensive work from one of the most fertile periods of his life – appeared in Moscow under the title given it by Veller: Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf) 1857–1858. Two years later there followed an appendix ( Anhang) comprising Marx’s comments of 1850-1 on Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, his notes on Bastiat and Carey, his own table of contents for the Grundrisse, and the preparatory material (Urtext) for the 1859 Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. The MELI’s preface to the edition of 1939 highlighted its exceptional value: ‘the manuscript of 1857-1858, published in full for the first time in this volume, marked a decisive stage in Marx’s economic work’ (Marx-Engels-Lenin-Institut 1939: VII).

Although the editorial guidelines and the form of publication were similar, the Grundrisse was not included in the volumes of the MEGA but appeared in a separate edition. Furthermore, the proximity of the Second World War meant that the work remained virtually unknown: the three thousand copies soon became very rare, and only a few managed to cross the Soviet frontiers. The Grundrisse did not feature in the Sochinenya of 1928-1947, the first Russian edition of the works of Marx and Engels, and its first republication in German had to wait until 1953. While it is astonishing that a text such as the Grundrisse was published at all during the Stalin period, heretical as it surely was with regard to the then indisputable canons of diamat, Soviet-style ‘dialectical materialism’, we should also bear in mind that it was then the most important of Marx’s writings not to be circulating in Germany. Its eventual publication in East Berlin in 30,000 copies was part of the celebrations marking Karl Marx Jahr , the seventieth anniversary of its author’s death and the hundred and fiftieth of his birth. Written in 1857-8, the Grundrisse was only available to be read throughout the world from 1953 after a hundred years of solitude.

II. Five hundred thousand copies circulating in the world
Despite the resonance of this major new manuscript prior to Capital, and despite the theoretical value attributed to it, editions in other languages were slow to appear. Another extract, after the ‘Introduction’, was the first to generate interest: the‘Forms which Precede Capitalist Production’. It was translated into Russian in 1939, and then from Russian into Japanese in 1947-8. Subsequently, the separate German edition of this section and a translation into English helped to ensure a wide readership: the former, which appeared in 1952 as part of the Kleine Bücherei des Marxismus-Leninismus (Small Library of Marxism-Leninism), was the basis for Hungarian and Italian versions (1953 and 1954 respectively); while the latter, published in 1964, helped to spread it in Anglophone countries and, via translations in Argentina (1966) and Spain (1967), into the Spanish-speaking world. The editor of this English edition, Eric Hobsbawm, added a preface that helped to underline its importance: Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, he wrote, was Marx’s ‘most systematic attempt to grapple with the problem of historical evolution’, and ‘it can be said without hesitation that any Marxist historical discussion which does not take [it] into account … must be reconsidered in its light’ (Hobsbawm 1964: 10). More and more scholars around the world did indeed begin to concern themselves with this text, which appeared in many other countries and everywhere prompted major historical and theoretical discussions.

Translations of the Grundrisse as a whole began in the late 1950s; its dissemination was a slow yet inexorable process, which eventually permitted a more thorough, and in some respects different, appreciation of Marx’s oeuvre. The best interpreters of the Grundrisse tackled it in the original, but its wider study – both among scholars unable to read German and, above all, among political militants and university students – occurred only after its publication in various national languages.

The first to appear were in the East: in Japan (1958–65) and China (1962–78). A Russian edition came out in the Soviet Union only in 1968–9, as a supplement to the second, enlarged edition of the Sochineniya (1955–66). Its previous exclusion from this was all the more serious because it had resulted in a similar absence from the Marx-Engels Werke (MEW) of 1956–68, which reproduced the Soviet selection of texts. The MEW – the most widely used edition of the works of Marx and Engels, as well as the source for translations into most other languages – was thus deprived of the Grundrisse until its eventual publication as a supplement in 1983.

The Grundrisse also began to circulate in Western Europe in the late 1960s. The first translation appeared in France (1967-8), but it was of inferior quality and had to be replaced by a more faithful one in 1980. An Italian version followed between 1968 and 1970, the initiative significantly coming, as in France, from a publishing house independent of the Communist Party.

The text was published in Spanish in the 1970s. If one excludes the version of 1970-1 published in Cuba, which was of little value as it was done from the French version, and whose circulation remained confined within the limits of that country, the first proper Spanish translation was accomplished in Argentina between 1971 and 1976. There followed another three done conjointly in Spain, Argentina and Mexico, making Spanish the language with the largest number of translations of the Grundrisse.

The English translation was preceded in 1971 by a selection of extracts, whose editor, David McLellan, raised readers’ expectations of the text: ‘The Grundrisse is much more than a rough draft of Capital’ (McLellan 1971: 2); indeed, more than any other work, it ‘contains a synthesis of the various strands of Marx’s thought. … In a sense, none of Marx’s works is complete, but the completest of them is the Grundrisse’ (McLellan 1971: 14-15). The complete translation finally arrived in 1973, a full twenty years after the original edition in German. Its translator, Martin Nicolaus, wrote in a foreword: ‘Besides their great biographical and historical value, they [the Grundrisse] add much new material, and stand as the only outline of Marx’s full political-economic project. … The Grundrisse challenges and puts to the test every serious intepretation of Marx yet conceived’ (Nicolaus 1973: 7).

The 1970s were also the crucial decade for translations in Eastern Europe. For, once the green light had been given in the Soviet Union, there was no longer any obstacle to its appearance in the ‘satellite’ countries: Hungary (1972), Czechoslovakia (1971-7 in Czech, 1974-5 in Slovak) and Romania (1972-4), as well as in Yugoslavia (1979). During the same period, two contrasting Danish editions were put on sale more or less simultaneously: one by the publishing house linked to the Communist Party (1974-8), the other by a publisher close to the New Left (1975-7). In the 1980s the Grundrisse was also translated in Iran (1985-7), where it constituted the first rigorous edition in Persian of any of Marx’s works, and in a number of further European countries. The Slovenian edition dates from 1985, and the Polish and Finnish from 1986 (the latter with Soviet support).

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of what was known as ‘actually existing socialism’, which in reality had been a blatant negation of Marx’s thought, there was a lull in the publication of Marx’s writings. Nevertheless, even in the years when the silence surrounding its author was broken only by people consigning it with absolute certainty to oblivion, the Grundrisse continued to be translated into other languages. Editions in Greece (1989-92), Turkey (1999-2003), South Korea (2000) and Brazil (scheduled for 2008) make it Marx’s work with the largest number of new translations in the last two decades.

All in all, the Grundrisse has been translated in its entirety into 22 languages, [3] in a total of 32 different versions. Not including partial editions, it has been printed in more than 500,000 copies [4] – a figure that would greatly surprise the man who wrote it only to summarize, with the greatest of haste, the economic studies he had undertaken up to that point.

III. Readers and interpreters
The history of the reception of the Grundrisse, as well as of its dissemination, is marked by quite a late start. The decisive reason for this, apart from the twists and turns associated with its rediscovery, is certainly the complexity of the fragmentary and roughly sketched manuscript itself, so difficult to interpret and to render in other languages. In this connection, the authoritative scholar Roman Rosdolsky has noted

In 1948, when I first had the good fortune to see one of the then very rare copies …, it was clear from the outset that this was a work which was of fundamental importance for Marxist theory. However, its unusual form and to some extent obscure manner of expression made it far from suitable for reaching a wide circle of readers. (Rosdolsky 1977: xi)

These considerations led Rosdolsky to attempt a clear exposition and critical examination of the text: the result, his Zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Marxschen ‘Kapital’. Der Rohentwurf des ‘Kapital’ 1857-58 (The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’), which appeared in German in 1968, is the first and still the principal monograph devoted to the Grundrisse. Translated into many languages, it encouraged the publication and circulation of Marx’s work and has had a considerable influence on all its subsequent interpreters.

Nineteen sixty-eight was a significant year for the Grundrisse. In addition to Rosdolsky’s book, the first essay on it in English appeared in the March-April issue of New Left Review: Martin Nicolaus’s ‘The Unknown Marx’, which had the merit of making the Grundrisse more widely known and underlining the need for a full translation. Meanwhile, in Germany and Italy, the Grundrisse won over some of the leading actors in the student revolt, who were excited by the radical and explosive content as they worked their way through its pages. The fascination was irresistible especially among those in the New Left who were committed to overturn the interpretation of Marx provided by Marxism-Leninism.

On the other hand, the times were changing in the East too. After an initial period in which the Grundrisse was almost completely ignored, or regarded with diffidence, Vitalii Vygodskii’s introductory study – Istoriya odnogo velikogo otkrytiya Karla Marksa (The Story of a Great Discovery: How Marx Wrote ‘Capital’), published in Russia in 1965 and the German Democratic Republic in 1967 – took a sharply different tack. He defined it as a ‘work of genius’, which ‘takes us into Marx’s “creative laboratory” and enables us to follow step by step the process in which Marx worked out his economic theory’, and to which it was therefore necessary to give due heed (Vygodski 1974: 44).

In the space of just a few years the Grundrisse became a key text for many influential Marxists. Apart from those already mentioned, the scholars who especially concerned themselves with it were: Walter Tuchscheerer in the German Democratic Republic, Alfred Schmidt in the Federal Republic of Germany, members of the Budapest School in Hungary, Lucien Sève in France, Kiyoaki Hirata in Japan, Gajo Petrović in Yugoslavia, Antonio Negri in Italy, Adam Schaff in Poland and Allen Oakley in Australia. In general, it became a work with which any serious student of Marx had to come to grips. With various nuances, the interpreters of the Grundrisse divided between those who considered it an autonomous work conceptually complete in itself and those who saw it as an early manuscript that merely paved the way for Capital. The ideological background to discussions of the Grundrisse – the core of the dispute was the legitimacy or illegitimacy of approaches to Marx, with their huge political repercussions – favoured the development of inadequate and what seem today ludicrous interpretations. For some of the most zealous commentators on the Grundrisse even argued that it was theoretically superior to Capital, despite the additional ten years of intense research that went into the composition of the latter. Similarly, among the main detractors of the Grundrisse, there were some who claimed that, despite the important sections for our understanding of Marx’s relationship with Hegel and despite the significant passages on alienation, it did not add anything to what was already known about Marx.

Not only were there opposing readings of the Grundrisse, there were also non-readings of it – the most striking and representative example being that of Louis Althusser. Even as he attempted to make Marx’s supposed silences speak and to read Capital in such a way as to ‘make visible whatever invisible survivals there are in it’ (Althusser and Balibar 1979: 32), he permitted himself to overlook the conspicuous mass of hundreds of written pages of the Grundrisse and to effect a (later hotly debated) division of Marx’s thought into the works of his youth and the works of his maturity, without taking cognizance of the content and significance of the manuscripts of 1857-8. [5]

From the mid-1970s on, however, the Grundrisse won an ever larger number of readers and interpreters. Two extensive commentaries appeared, one in Japanese in 1974 (Morita, Kiriro and Toshio Yamada 1974), the other in German in 1978 (Projektgruppe Entwicklung des Marxschen Systems 1978), but many other authors also wrote about it. A number of scholars saw it as a text of special importance for one of the most widely debated issues concerning Marx’s thought: his intellectual debt to Hegel. Others were fascinated by the almost prophetic statements in the fragments on machinery and automation, and in Japan too the Grundrisse was read as a highly topical text for our understanding of modernity. In the 1980s the first detailed studies began to appear in China, where the work was used to throw light on the genesis of Capital, while in the Soviet Union a collective volume was published entirely on the Grundrisse (Vv. Aa. 1987).

In recent years, the enduring capacity of Marx’s works to explain (while also criticizing) the capitalist mode of production has prompted a revival of interest on the part of many international scholars (see Musto 2007). If this revival lasts and if it is accompanied by a new demand for Marx in the field of politics, the Grundrisse will certainly once more prove to be one of his writings capable of attracting major attention.

Meanwhile, in the hope that ‘Marx’s theory will be a living source of knowledge and the political practice which this knowledge directs’ (Rosdolsky 1977: xiv), the story presented here of the global dissemination and reception of the Grundrisse is intended as a modest recognition of its author and as an attempt to reconstruct a still unwritten chapter in the history of Marxism.

Appendix: Chronological table of translations of the Grundrisse

1939-41 First German edition
1953 Second German edition
1958-65 Japanese translation
1962-78 Chinese translation
1967-8 French translation
1968-9 Russian translation
1968-70 Italian translation
1970-1 Spanish translation
1971-7 Czech translation
1972 Hungarian translation
1972-4 Romanian translation
1973 English translation
1974-5 Slovak translation
1974-8 Danish translation
1979 Serbian/Serbo–Croatian translation
1985 Slovenian translation
1985-7 Persian translation
1986 Polish translation
1986 Finnish translation
1989-92 Greek translation
1999-2003 Turkish translation
2000 Korean translation
2010 Portuguese translation

1. This article is an abridged version of the text Dissemination and reception of Grundrisse in the world. Introduction contained in the collected volume Karl Marx’s Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later, edited by Marcello Musto, London/New York: Routledge 2008 (paperback 2010).
2. The Russian version of this report was published in 1923.
3. See the chronological table of translations in Appendix 1. To the full translations mentioned above should be added the selections in Swedish (Karl Marx, Grunddragen i kritiken av den politiska ekonomin, Stockholm: Zenit/R&S, 1971) and Macedonian (Karl Marx,Osnovi na kritikata na političkata ekonomija (grub nafrlok): 1857-1858, Skopje: Komunist, 1989), as well as the translations of the Introduction and The Forms which precede Capitalist Production into a large number of languages, from Vietnamese to Norwegian, Arabic to Dutch, Hebrew to Bulgarian.
4. The total has been calculated by adding together the print-runs ascertained during research in the countries in question.
5. See Lucien Sève, Penser avec Marx aujourd’hui, Paris: La Dispute, 2004, who recalls how ‘with the exception of texts such as the Introduction […] Althusser never read the Grundrisse, in the real sense of the word reading’ (p. 29). Adapting Gaston Bachelard’s term ‘epistemological break’ (coupure épistémologique), which Althusser had himself borrowed and used, Sève speaks of an ‘artificial bibliographical break(coupure bibliographique) that led to the most mistaken views of its genesis and thus of its consistency with Marx’s mature thought’ (p. 30).

Althusser, Louis and Balibar, Étienne (1979) Reading Capital, London: Verso.
Hobsbawm, Eric J. (1964) ‘Introduction’, in KarlMarx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, London: Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 9-65.
Marx, Karl (1903) ‘Einleitung zu einer Kritik der politischen Ökonomie’, Die Neue Zeit, Year 21, vol. 1: 710–18, 741–5, and 772–81.
Marx-Engels-Lenin-Institut (1939), ‘Vorwort’ (Foreword), in Karl Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf) 1857–1858, Moscow: Verlag für Fremdsprachige Literatur, pp. VII-XVI.
McLellan, David (1971) Marx’s Grundrisse, London: Macmillan.
Morita, Kiriro and Toshio, Yamada, (1974) Komentaru keizaigakuhihan’yoko (Commentaries on the Grundrisse), Tokyo: Nihonhyoronsha.
Musto, Marcello (2007) ‘The Rediscovery of Karl Marx’, International Review of Social History, 52/3: 477-98.
Nicolaus, Martin (1973) ‘Foreword’, in Marx, Karl Grundrisse, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, pp. 7-63.
Projektgruppe Entwicklung des Marxschen Systems (1978) Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf). Kommentar (Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy. Rough Draft. Commentary), Hamburg: VSA.
Rosdolsky, Roman (1977) The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’, vol. 1, London: Pluto Press.
Ryazanov, David (1925) ‘Neueste Mitteilungen über den literarischen Nachlaß von Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels’ (Latest reports on the literary bequest of Karl
Marx and Friedrich Engels), Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, Year 11: 385-400.
Sève, Lucien (2004) Penser avec Marx aujourd’hui, Paris: La Dispute.
Vv. Aa. (1987) Pervonachal’ny variant ‘Kapitala’. Ekonomicheskie rukopisi K. Marksa 1857–1858 godov (The first version of Capital, K. Marx’s Economic Manuscripts of 1857–1858), Moscow: Politizdat.
Vygodskii, Vitalii (1974) The Story of a Great Discovery: How Marx Wrote ‘Capital’, Tunbridge Wells: Abacus Press.

Journal Articles

The Rediscovery of Karl Marx

Few men have shaken the world like Karl Marx. His death, almost unnoticed, was followed by echoes of fame in such a short period of time that few comparisons could be found in history. His name was soon on the lips of the workers of Detroit and Chicago, as on those of the first Indian socialists in Calcutta. His image formed the background of the congress of the Bolsheviks in Moscow after the revolution. His thought inspired the programmes and statutes of all the political and union organizations of the workers’s movement, from the whole of Europe to Shanghai.

His ideas have changed philosophy, history and economics irreversibly. Yet despite the affirmation of his theories, turned into dominant ideologies and state doctrines for a considerable part of humankind in the twentieth century, and the widespread dissemination of his writings, he is still deprived of an unabridged and scientific edition of his works to date. Of the greatest thinkers of humanity, this fate befell exclusively upon him.

The main reason for this peculiar situation lies in the largely incomplete character of Marx’s oeuvre. With the exception of the newspaper articles he wrote between 1848 and 1862, most of which featured in the New-York Tribune, one of the most important newspapers in the world at the time, the works published were relatively few when compared to the amount of works he only partially completed and the imposing extent of research he undertook. Indicatively, in 1881, one of the last years of his life, when asked by Karl Kautsky about the possibility of a complete edition of his works, Marx said: “First of all, they would need to be written”.1

Marx left many more manuscripts than the ones he published. Contrary to what is commonly believed his oeuvre was fragmentary, at times contradictory, and these aspects are evidence of one of its peculiar characteristics: incompleteness. The excessively rigorous method and merciless self-criticism, which made it impossible for him to carry to the end many of the works he began; the conditions of profound poverty and the permanent state of ill health, that tormented him throughout his entire life; his inextinguishable passion for knowledge, not altered by the passing of the years, leading him time and again to new studies; and, finally, the awareness he attained in his later years of the difficulty of confining the complexity of history within a theoretical project, made incompleteness the faithful companion and damnation of his whole intellectual production and his life itself.

Other than a small part, the colossal plan of his work was not completed. His incessant intellectual endeavours ended in a literary failure. For all of that, they are not, however, less genial, or any less a fertile ground with extraordinary intellectual implications.2 Nevertheless, despite the fragmentary status of the Nachlass of Marx and his intrinsic aversion to the erection of a subsequent social doctrine, the unfinished work was subverted and a new system, ‘Marxism’, was emerged.

Marx and Marxism: incompleteness versus systematization
After Marx’s death, in 1883, Friedrich Engels was the first to dedicate himself to the very difficult task – due to the dispersion of the material, obscurity of language and the illegibility of the handwriting – of editing his friend’s legacy. His work concentrated on reconstruction and selection from the original materials, on the publication of unedited or incomplete texts and, at the same time, on the republications and translation of writings already known.

Even if there were exceptions, such as the case of the Theses on Feuerbach, edited in 1888 as an appendix to his Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of classical German philosophy, and the Critique of the Gotha Programme, which came out in 1891, Engels focused almost exclusively on the editorial work for the completion of Capital, of which only the first volume was published before Marx’s death. This undertaking, lasting more than a decade, was pursued with the explicit intention of realising “a connected and as far as possible complete work”. 3 Thus, in the course of his editorial activity, based on a selection of texts that were far from final versions, and actually genuinly different variants; and on the need to make the whole uniform, Engels more than reconstructing the genesis and development of the second and third books of Capital, which were far from their definitive version – instead – sent finished volumes to the publishers.

Previously, however, Engels had already directly contributed to a process of theoretical systematization with his own writings. Appearing in 1879, Anti-Dühring, defined by Engels as the “more or less connected exposition of the dialectical method and of the communist world outlook championed by Marx and myself”,4 became a crucial point of reference in the formation of ‘Marxism’ as a system and its differentiation from the eclectic socialism widespread at the time. Evolution of Socialism from Utopia to Science had even more importance: it was a re-elaboration, for the purposes of popularization, of three chapters of the previous work, published for the first time in 1880, and enjoyed a success comparable to that of the Manifesto of the Communist Party.

Even if there was a clear difference between this type of popularization, undertaken in open polemic with the simplistic short-cuts of the encyclopaedic syntheses, and that adopted by the next generation of German social democracy, Engels’s recourse to the natural sciences opened the way to the evolutionistic conception of social Darwinism which, soon after, would also be affirmed in the workers’s movement.

Marx’s thought, indisputably critical and open, even if sometimes marked by deterministic temptations, fell afoul of the cultural climate in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Like never before, it was a culture pervaded by the popularity of systematic conceptions; above all by Darwinism. In order to respond to it, the newly born Marxism, that had precociously become an orthodoxy in the pages of the review Die Neue Zeit under Kautsky’s editorship, rapidly conformed to this model.

A decisive factor that helped to consolidate this transformation of Marx’s work into a system can be traced in the modalities that accompanied its diffusion. Booklets of synthesis and very partial compendia were privileged, as demonstrated by the reduced press runs of the editions of his texts at this time. Furthermore, some of his works bore marks of the effects of political instrumentalizations, and the first editions of his writings were published with revisions by the editors. This practice, resulting from the uncertainty of Marx’s legacy, was then increasingly combined with the censorship of some of his writings. The form of a manual, an important means for the export of Marx’s thought throughout the world, certainly represented a very efficacious instrument of propaganda, but it also led to considerable alterations in his initial conception. The circulation of his complex and incomplete work in its encounter with positivism in order to respond to the practical needs of the proletarian party, translated it into a theoretically impoverished and vulgarized version of the original material,5 rendering it barely recognisable in the end and transforming it from Kritik into Weltanschauung.

From the development of these processes a schematic doctrine took shape, an elementary evolutionistic interpretation soaked in economic determinism: the Marxism of the period of the Second International (1889-1914). Guided by a firm though naive conviction in the automatic forward progress of history, and therefore of the inevitable replacement of capitalism by socialism, it demonstrated itself to be incapable of comprehending actual developments, and, breaking the necessary link with revolutionary praxis, it produced a sort of fatalistic quietism that promoted stability for the existing order. 6 In this way this doctrine demonstrated itself to be very distant from Marx, who had already declared in his first work that “history does nothing […] ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims”.7

The theory of crisis [Zusammenbruchstheorie] or the thesis of the impending end of bourgeois-capitalist society, which found its most favourable expression in the economic crisis of the great depression unfolding during the twenty years after 1873, was proclaimed as the fundamental essence of scientific socialism. Marx’s affirmations, aiming at the delineation of the dynamic principles of capitalism and, more generally, at describing the tendencies of development within them,8 were transformed into universally valid historical laws from which it was possible to deduce the course of events, even particular details.

The idea of a contradictory agonized capitalism, autonomously destined to breakdown, was also present in the theoretical framework of the first entirely ‘Marxist’ platform of a political party, The Eurfurt Programme of 1891 and in Kautsky’s commentary, which announced how “inexorable economic development leads to the bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production with the necessity of a law of nature. The creation of a new form of society in place of the current one is no longer something merely desirable but has become inevitable”.9 It was the clearest and most significant representation of the intrinsic limits of the conception of the time, as well as of its vast distance from the man who had been its inspiration.

Even Eduard Bernstein, who conceived of socialism as possibility and not as inevitability and hence signalled a discontinuity with the interpretations that were dominant in that period, read Marx in an equally artificial way, which didn’t differ at all from other readings of the time, and contributed to the diffusion of an image of him, by means of the wide resonance of the Bernstein-Debatte, that was equally false and instrumental.

Russian Marxism, which in the course of the twentieth century played a fundamental role in the popularization of Marx’s thought, followed this trajectory of systematization and vulgarization with even greater rigidity. Indeed, for its most important pioneer, Georgii Plekhanov, “Marxism is a complete conception of the world”,10 imbued with a simplistic monism on the base of which the superstructural transformations of society proceed simultaneously with economic modifications. In Materialism and Empirico-Criticism of 1909, V.I. Lenin defined materialism as the “recognition of the objective laws of nature, and of the approximately faithful reflex of this law in the head of the individual.”11 The will and conscience of humanity have to adjust themselves “inevitably and necessarily”12 to the necessity of nature. Yet again, the positivistic paradigm had triumphed.

Despite the harsh ideological conflicts of these years, many of the theoretical elements characteristic of the Second International were carried over into those that would mark the cultural matrix of the Third International. This continuity was clearly manifest in the Theory of Historical Materialism published in 1921 by Nikolai Bukharin, according to which “in nature and society there is a definite regularity, a fixed natural law. The determination of this natural law is the first task of science”.13 The outcome of this social determinism, completely concentrated on the development of the productive forces, generated a doctrine according to which “the multiplicity of causes that make their action felt in society does not contradict in the least the existence of a single law of social evolution”.14

Opposing this conception was Antonio Gramsci, for whom “the positioning of the problem like a research into laws, of constant, regular and uniform lines, is linked to a need, conceived in a puerile and naive way, to resolve peremptorily the practical problem of the predictability of historical events”. 15 His clear refusal to reduce Marx’s philosophy of praxis to a crude sociology, to “reducing a conception of the world to a mechanical formula which gives the impression of holding all of history in its pocket”,16 was even more important because it went beyond Bukharin’s text and aimed to condemn that more general orientation that would later predominate, in an unprecedented manner, in the Soviet Union.

With the construal of Marxism-Leninism, the process of corruption of Marx’s thought was given its most definitive manifestation. Deprived of its function as a guide to action, theory became its a posteriori justification. The point of no return was reached with ‘Diamat’ (Dialekticeskij materializm), “the world outlook of the Marxist-Leninist party”.17 J.V. Stalin’s booklet of 1938, On Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism, which had a wide distribution, fixed the essential elements of this doctrine: the phenomena of collective life are regulated by “necessary laws of social development”, “perfectly recognisable”, and “the history of society appears as a necessary development of society, and the study of the history of society becomes a science”.

That “means that the science of the history of society, despite all the complexity of the phenomena of social life, can become a science just as exact as, for example, biology, capable of utilising the laws of development of society in order to make use of them in practice”18 and that, consequently, the task of the party of the proletariat is to base its activity on these laws. It is evident how the misunderstanding of the concepts of the ‘scientific’ and ‘science’ reached its apex. The scientificity of Marx’s method, based on scrupulous and coherent theoretical criteria, was replaced by methodologies of the natural sciences in which contradiction was not involved. Finally, the superstition of the objectivity of historical laws, according to which these operate like laws of nature independently of men’s will, was affirmed.

Next to this ideological catechism, the most rigid and stringent dogmatism was able to find ample space. Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy imposed an inflexible monism that also produced perverse effects on the writings of Marx. Unquestionably, with the Soviet revolution Marxism enjoyed a significant moment of expansion and circulation in geographical zones and social classes from which it had, until then, been excluded. Nevertheless, once again, the circulation of the texts involved far more manuals of the party, handbooks and ‘Marxist’ anthologies on various arguments, than texts by Marx himself.

Furthermore, while the censorship of some texts increased, others were dismembered and manipulated: for example, by practices of extrapolation into purposeful pointed assemblages of citations. The recourse to these was a result of preordained ends, and they were treated in the same way that the bandit Procustus reserved for his victims: if they were too long, they were amputated, if too short, lengthened.

In conclusion, the relation between the promulgation and the non-schematization of a thought, between its popularization and the need not to impoverish it theoretically, is without doubt very difficult to realize, even more so the critical and deliberately non-systematic thought of Marx. At any rate, nothing worse could have happened to him.

Distorted by different perspectives into being a function of contingent political necessities, he was assimilated to these and reviled in their name. From being critical, his theory was utilized as bible-like verses and out of these exegeses was born the most unthinkable paradox. Far from heeding his warning against “writing receipts […] for the cook-shops of the future”,19 he was transformed, instead, into the illegitimate father of a new social system. A very rigorous critic and never complacent with his conclusions, he became instead the source of the most obstinate doctrinarianism.

A firm believer in a materialist conception of history, he was removed from his historical context more than any other author. From being certain that “the emancipation of the working class has to be the work of the workers themselves”,20 he was entrapped, on the contrary, in an ideology that saw the primacy of political avant-gardes and the party prevail in their role as proponents of class consciousness and leaders of the revolution. An advocate of the idea that the fundamental condition for the maturation of human capacities was the reduction of the working day, he was assimilated to the productivist creed of Stakhanovism. Convinced of the need for the abolition of the State, he found himself identified with it as its bulwark.

Interested like few other thinkers in the free development of the individuality of men, arguing against bourgeois right which hides social disparity behind mere legal equality, that “right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal”,21 he was accommodated into a conception that neutralized the richness of the collective dimension of social life in the indistincness of homogenization. The original incompleteness of Marx’s critical work was subjected to the pressure of the systematization of epigones who produced, inexorably, the denaturing of his thought until it was obliterated and turned into its manifest negation.

The odyssey of the publication of the works of Marx and Engels
“Were the writings of Marx and Engels […] ever read in their entirety by anybody outside of the group of close friends and disciples […] of the authors themselves?” asked Antonio Labriola in 1897, regarding what was then known of their works. His conclusions were unequivocal: “reading all the writings of the founders of scientific socialism seems to have been up until now a privilege of initiates”; “historical materialism” had been propagated “by means of an infinity of equivocations, of misunderstandings, of grotesque alterations, of strange disguises and unfounded inventions”.22 In effect, as was later demonstrated by historiographical research, the conviction that Marx and Engels had really been read was the fruit of a hagiographical myth. 23 On the contrary, many of their texts were rare or difficult to find even in the original language.

The proposal of the Italian scholar to give life to “a complete and critical edition of all the writings of Marx and Engels” was an unavoidable necessity. For Labriola, what was needed was neither the compilation of anthologies, nor the drawing up of a testamentum juxta canonem receptum. Rather “all the political and scientific activity, all the literary production, even if occasional, of the two founders of critical socialism, needs to be placed at the disposal of readers […] because they speak directly to whoever has the desire to read them”.24 More than a century after his wish, this project has still not been realized.

Aside these prevalently philological evaluations, Labriola proposed others of a theoretical character, of surprising far-sightedness in relation to the period in which he lived. He considered all the incomplete writings and works of Marx and Engels as “the fragments of a science and of a politics that is in continuous becoming”. In order to avoid seeking in them “that which there is not, and that should not be there”, or “a type of vulgate or precepts for the interpretation of history of any time and place”, they could be completely understood only if they were placed in the moment and the context of their genesis. On the other hand, those who “don’t understand thought and knowledge as a work in progress”, or “the doctrinarians and the conceited of every type, who need idols of the mind, the artificers of classical systems valid for eternity, the compilers of manuals and encyclopaedias, vainly seek in Marxism that which it has never thought to offer to anybody”:25 that is, a summarized, faithful solution to the problems of history.

The natural executor of the realization of this opera omnia could not have been anyone other than the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, holder of the Nachlaß and whose members had the greatest linguistic and theoretical competencies. Nevertheless, political conflicts within social democracy not only impeded the publication of the imposing mass of unpublished works by Marx, but caused the dispersal of his manuscripts, compromising any suggestion of a systematic edition.26 Unbelievably, the German party did not curate any, treating their literary legacy with the maximum negligence imaginable.27 None of its theoreticians drew up a list of the intellectual estate of the two founders. Nor did they dedicate themselves to collecting the correspondence, extensive but extremely disperded, despite the fact that it was clearly a very useful source of clarification, if not even a continuation, of their writings.

The first publication of the complete works, the Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), occurred only in the 1920s, at the initiative of David Borisovič Ryazanov, director of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. This undertaking also ran aground however, due to the turbulent events of the international workers’s movement, which often established obstacles rather than favoured the publication of their works. The Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union, which also affected the scholars working on the project, and the rise of Nazism in Germany, led to the early interruption of the publication. 28 Such was the contradictory production of an inflexible ideology that drew its inspiration from an author whose works were still in part unexplored. The affirmation of Marxism and its crystallization into a dogmatic corpus preceded an acknowledgement of the texts that it would have been necessary to read in order to understand the formation and evolution of Marx’s thought.29

The early works, in fact, were only published in the MEGA as late as 1927 of the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and 1932 for the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology. As had already occurred with the second and third book of Capital, they were published in editions in which they appeared as completed works; a choice that would later demonstrate itself to be the source of numerous interpretative misunderstandings. Later still, some of the important preparatory works for Capital, in 1933 the draft chapter 6 of Capital on the ‘Results of the Direct Production Process’, and between 1939 and 1941 the Outline of the Critique of Political Economy, better known as the Grundrisse, were published in a printing run that secured only a very limited circulation. Furthermore, these unpublished writings, like those that followed, when they were not concealed for fear that they could erode the dominant ideological canon, were accompanied by an interpretation functional to political needs that, in the best of hypotheses, made predictable adjustments to predetermined interpretations and never gave rise to a serious comprehensive revaluation of Marx’s work.

The first Russian edition of the collected works was also completed in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1947: the Sočinenija (Complete Works). In spite of the name, it only included a partial number of writings, but, with 28 volumes (in 33 books) it constituted the most complete collection in quantitative terms of the two authors at the time. The second Sočinenija, then, appeared between 1955 and 1966 in 39 volumes (42 books). From 1956 to 1968 in the German Democratic Republic, at the initiative of the central committee of the SED, 41 volumes in 43 books of the Marx Engels Werke (MEW) were published. Such an edition, however, far from complete,30 was weighed down by introductions and notes which, following the model of the Soviet edition, guided the reader according to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.

The project of a ‘second’ MEGA, planned as the faithful reproduction with an extensive critical apparatus of all the writings of the two thinkers, was reborn during the 1960s. Nevertheless, these publications, begun in 1975, were also interrupted, this time following the events of 1989. In 1990, with the goal of continuing this edition, the Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis of Amsterdam and the Karl Marx Haus in Trier formed the Internationale Marx-Engels-Stiftung (IMES). After a difficult phase of reorganization, in the course of which new editorial principles were approved and the publishing house Akademie Verlag took the place of Dietz Verlag, the publication of the so-called MEGA² commenced in 1998.

MEGA²: the rediscovery of a misunderstood author
Contrary to the forecasts that predicted his definitive fall into oblivion, in the last few years Marx has returned to the attention of international scholars. The value of his thought has been reasserted by many and his writings are being dusted off the shelves of the libraries of Europe, the United States and Japan. One of the most significant examples of this rediscovery is precisely the continuation of MEGA².

The complete project, in which scholars of various disciplinary competences from numerous countries participate, is articulated in four sections: the first includes all the works, articles and drafts excluding Capital; the second includes Capital and its preliminary studies starting from 1857; the third is dedicated to the correspondence; while the fourth includes excerpts, annotations and marginalia. Of the 114 planned volumes, 53 have already been published (13 since recommencement in 1998), each of which consists of two books: the text plus the critical apparatus, which contains the indices and many additional notes. 31 This undertaking has a great importance when considered that a major part of the manuscripts of Marx, of his voluminous correspondence and the immense mountain of excerpts and annotations that were customary for him to make while he read, have never been published.

The editorial acquisitions of the MEGA² have produced important results in all of the four sections. In the first, Werke, Artikel und Entwürfe, research was recommenced with the publication of two new volumes. The first, ‘Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, Werke, Artikel, Entwürfe. Januar bis Dezember 1855’,32 includes 200 articles and drafts written by the two authors in 1855 for the New-York Tribune and the Neue Oder-Zeitung of Breslau. Alongside the complex of better known writings connected with politics and European diplomacy, reflections on the international economic conjuncture and the Crimean war, research has made it possible to add 21 other texts previously not attributed because they were published anonymously in the American newspaper. The second, ‘Friedrich Engels, Werke, Artikel, Entwürfe. Oktober 1886 bis Februar 1891’, 33 on the other hand, presents part of the work of the late Engels.

The volume alternates between projects and notes. Among these is the manuscript Rolle der Gewalt in der Geschichte, without the interventions of Bernstein who edited its first edition, addresses to the organizations of the workers’s movement, and prefaces for the republication of already published writings and articles. Among the latter, of particular interest are Die auswärtige Politik des russischen Zarentums, the history of two centuries of external Russian politics that appeared in Die Neue Zeit but was subsequently prohibited by Stalin in 1934, and Juristen-Sozialismus, written together with Kautsky, whose paternity of the individual parts has been reconstructed for the first time.

Furthermore, of considerable interest is the first number of the Marx-Engels-Jahrbuch, the new series published by the IMES, entirely dedicated to The German Ideology.34 This book, anticipating vol. I/5 of the MEGA², includes the pages of Marx and Engels that correspond to the manuscripts ‘I. Feuerbach’ and ‘II. Sankt Bruno’. The seven manuscripts that survived the “gnawing criticism of the mice”35 are collected as independent texts and chronologically ordered. From this edition it can be deduced, with clarity, the non-unitary character of the work. New and definite grounds, therefore, are given to scientific research for tracing the theoretical elaboration of Marx with reliability. The German Ideology, considered up until now as the exhaustive exposition of Marx’s materialist conception, now restored to its original fragmentariness.

The research for the second section of the MEGA², ‘Das Kapital’ und Vorarbeiten, has concentrated in recent years on the second and the third book of Capital. The volume ‘Karl Marx, Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Zweites Buch. Redaktionsmanuskript von Friedrich Engels 1884/1885’36 includes the text of the second book, compiled by Engels on the basis of seven manuscripts of varying size written by Marx between 1865 and 1881. Engels had in fact received many different versions of the second book from Marx, but no indications to refer to in order to select the one to be published. Instead, he found himself with material of

“careless style full of colloquialisms, often containing coarsely humorous expressions and phrases interspersed with English and French technical terms or with whole sentences and even pages of English. Thoughts were jotted down as they developed in the brain of the author. […] At conclusions of chapters, in the author’s anxiety to get to the next, there would often be only a few disjointed sentences to mark the further development here left incomplete”. 37

Thus Engels had to make determinative editorial decisions. The most recent philological acquisitions estimate that Engels’s editorial interventions in this text amount to circa five thousand: a quantity much greater than that which had been assumed up until now. The modifications consist in additions and cancellations of passages in the text, modifications of its structure, insertion of titles of paragraphs, substitutions of concepts, re-elaborations of some formulations of Marx or translations of words adopted from other languages. The text given to the printers only emerged at the end of this work. This volume, therefore, allows us to reconstruct the entire process of selection, composition and correction of Marx’s manuscripts and to establish where Engels had made his most significant modifications and where he was able, instead, to respect faithfully the manuscripts of Marx – which, to repeat it once more, did not in fact represent the final resting place of his research.

The publication of the third book of Capital, ‘Karl Marx, Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Dritter Band’, 38 the only volume to which Marx did not manage, not even approximately, to give a definitive form, involved even more complex editorial interventions. In his preface, Engels underlines how this text was

“a first extremely incomplete draft. The beginnings of the various parts were, as a rule, pretty carefully done and even stylistically polished. But the further one went, the more sketchy and incomplete was the manuscript, the more excursions it contained into arising side-issues whose proper place in the argument was left for later decision”.39

Thus, Engels’s intense editorial work, for which he spent the better part of his energy in the long period between 1885 and 1894, produced the transition from a very provisional text, composed of thoughts “recorded in statu nascendi”40 and preliminary notes, to another, unitary text, from which the semblance of a concluded and systematic economic theory arose.

This becomes amply apparent from the volume ‘Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, Manuskripte und redaktionelle Texte zum dritten Buch des Kapitals’. 41 It contains the last six manuscripts of Marx regarding the third book of Capital, written between 1871 and 1882. The most important of these is the long section on ‘The relation between the rate of surplus value and the rate of profit developed mathematically’ of 1875, as well as the texts added by Engels during his work as editor. The latter demonstrate with unequivocal exactness the path taken to the published version. A further confirmation of the merit of the book in hand is the fact that 45 of the 51 texts in this volume are here published for the first time. The completion of the second section, now approaching, will finally allow a sure critical evaluation of the state of the originals left by Marx and on the value and the limits of Engels’s editorial work.

The third section of the MEGA², Briefwechsel, contains the letters between Marx and Engels throughout their lives, as well as those between them and the numerous correspondents with whom they were in contact. The total number of the letters in this correspondence is enormous. More than 4,000 written by Marx and Engels (2,500 of which are between themselves) have been found, as well as 10,000 addressed to them by third parties, a large majority of which were unpublished before the MEGA². Furthermore, there is firm evidence of the existence of another 6,000 letters, though these have not been preserved. Four new volumes have been edited which now allow us to re-read important phases of Marx’s intellectual biography through the letters of those with whom he was in contact.

The background to the letters collected in ‘Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, Briefwechsel Januar 1858 bis August 1859’42is the economic recession of 1857. It rekindled in Marx the hope of an upturn of the revolutionary movement, after the decade of retreat that opened with the defeat of 1848: “the crisis has been burrowing away like the good old mole”.43 This expectation moved him to a renewed vigour in intellectual production and prompted him to delineate the fundamental outlines of his economic theory “before the déluge”,44 hoped for but yet again unrealized. Precisely in this period, Marx writes the last notebooks of his Grundrisse and decides to publish his work in pamphlets. The first of these, published in June 1859, was entitled A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

On the personal level, this phase was marked by “deep-rooted misery”:45 “I don’t think that anybody has ever written on ‘money’ with such a lack of money”.46 Marx struggled desperately in order to ensure that the precarity of his position didn’t stop him from finishing his ‘Economics’ and declared: “I have to pursue my goal at all costs and not allow bourgeois society to transform me into a money-making machine”.47 Nevertheless, the second pamphlet didn’t ever see the light of day and the next publication of economics had to wait until 1867, the year in which he sent the first volume of Capital to the printers.

The volumes ‘Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, Briefwechsel September 1859 bis Mai 1860’48 and ‘Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels,Briefwechsel Juni 1860 bis Dezember 1861’49 contain the correspondence related to the tortuous business of the publication of Herr Vogt and the heated controversy that there was between him and Marx. In 1859, Karl Vogt accused Marx of having instigated a conspiracy against him, as well as being the head of a band that lived by blackmailing those who had participated in the risings of 1848. Thus, in order to protect his own reputation, Marx felt that he was obliged to defend himself. That occurred also by means of a vigorous exchange of letters sent to militants with whom he had had political relations during and after 1848, for the purpose of obtaining from them all possible documents on Vogt. The result was a polemical pamphlet of 200 pages: Herr Vogt. The refutation of the accusations took up Marx’s time for a whole year and forced him to completely interrupt his economic studies.

Furthermore, although he had expected to cause a sensation, the German press didn’t pay any attention at all to his book. Private matters in this period fared no better. Next to discouraging problems of a financial nature – at the end of 1861 Marx said “if this [year] turns out to be the same as the one just past, for my part, I would rather prefer the inferno”50 – there were also invariably those of ill health; the latter caused by the former. For some weeks, for example, he had to stop working: “the only occupation with which I can conserve the necessary tranquillity of soul is mathematics”;51 one of the great intellectual passions of his life. Again, at the beginning of 1861, his condition was aggravated by an inflammation of the liver and he wrote to Engels: “I’m suffering like Job, though not as God-fearing”.52

Ravenous for reading he took refuge once again in culture: “in order to mitigate the profound bad mood caused by the situation, uncertain in every sense, I am reading Thucydides. At least these ancients always remain new”.53 At any rate, in August of 1861, he took up his work again with diligence. Up until June 1863, he filled 23 notebooks of 1472 pages in quarto size, which included the Theories of Surplus Value. The first five of these, which concern the transformation of money into capital, were ignored for over 100 years and were published only in 1973 in Russian and in 1976 in the original language.

The principle theme of ‘Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, Briefwechsel Oktober 1864 bis Dezember 1865’54 is Marx’s political activity within the International Working Men’s Association, founded in London on 28 September, 1864. The letters document Marx’s actions in the initial period of the life of the organization during which he rapidly gained the leading role, and his attempt to combine these public duties, which he took up once again as a primary concern after 16 years, with scientific work. Among the questions that were debated was the function of trade union organization, the importance of which he emphasized while, at the same time, lining up against Lassalle and his proposal to form cooperatives financed by the Prussian State, “the working class is revolutionary or it isn’t anything”;55 the polemic against the Owenite John Weston, which resulted in the cycle of papers collected posthumously in 1898 with the name of Value, Price and Profit; considerations on the civil war in the United States; the pamphlet by Engels on The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers’ Party.

The novelties of the historical critical edition are also noticeable in the fourth section, Exzerpte, Notizen, Marginalien. This contains Marx’s numerous summaries and study notes, which constitute a significant testimony to his mammoth work. From his university years, he adopted the life-long habit of compiling notebooks of extracts from the books he read, often breaking them up with the reflections which they prompted him to make. The Nachlaß of Marx contains approximately two hundred notebooks of summaries. These are essential for the knowledge and comprehension of the genesis of his theory and of the parts of it that he didn’t have the chance to develop as he wished.

The conserved extracts, which cover the long arch of time from 1838 until 1882, are written in eight languages – German, Ancient Greek, Latin, French, English, Italian, Spanish and Russian – and treat the widest range of disciplines. They were taken from texts of philosophy, art, religion, politics, law, literature, history, political economy, international relations, technology, mathematics, physiology, geology, mineralogy, agronomy, ethnology, chemistry and physics, as well as newspaper and journal articles, parliamentary reports, statistics, reports, and publications of government offices – as amongst these are the famous ‘Blue Books’, in particular the Reports of the inspectors of factories, which contained investigations of great importance for his studies.

This immense mine of knowledge, in large part still unpublished, was the building site of Marx’s critical theory. The fourth section of MEGA², planned for 32 volumes, will provide access to it for the first time. Four volumes have recently been published. ‘Karl Marx, Exzerpte und Notizen Sommer 1844 bis Anfang 1847’56 contains eight notebooks of extracts, compiled by Marx between the summer of 1844 and December 1845. The first two belong to his stay in Paris and came just after the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. The other six were written the following year in Brussels, where he went after having been expelled from Paris, and in England, where he stayed during July and August. In these notebooks are the traces of Marx’s encounter with political economy and the process of formation of his first elaborations of economy theory.

This emerges clearly from the extracts of manuals of political economy of Storch and Rossi, like those taken from Boisguillebert, Lauderdale, Sismondi and, in relation to machinery and the techniques of manufacture, from Baggage and Ure. Comparing these notebooks with the writings of the period, published and non-published, the incontrovertible influence of these readings on the development of his ideas is evident. The totality of these notes, with the historical reconstruction of their maturating, shows the itinerary and the complexity of his critical thought during this intense period of work. The text, furthermore, also contains the celebrated Theses on Feuerbach.

The volume ‘Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, Exzerpte und Notizen September 1853 bis Januar 1855’57contains nine extensive notebooks of extracts, compiled by Marx essentially during 1854. They were written in the same period in which he published an important series of articles in the New-York Tribune: those on ‘Lord Palmerston’ between October and December 1853, and reflections on ‘Revolutionary Spain’ between July and December 1854, while the texts on the Crimean war – almost all of them written by Engels – came out until 1856. Four of these notebooks contain annotations on the history of diplomacy taken, principally, from texts of the historians Famin and Francis, of the lawyer and German diplomat von Martens, of the Tory politician Urquhart, as well as from ‘Correspondence relative to the affairs of the Levant’ and ‘Hansard’s parliamentary debates’.

The other five, taken from Chateaubriand, from the Spanish writer de Jovellanos, from the Spanish general San Miguel, from his fellow countryman de Marliani and many other authors are, instead, exclusively dedicated to Spain and demonstrate the intensity with which Marx examined its social and political history and culture. Furthermore, the notes from Essai sur l’histoire de la formation et des progrès du Tiers État of Augustin Thierry arouse particular interest. All of these notes are of very important because they reveal the sources Marx drew upon and allow us to understand the way in which he utilized these readings for the writing of his articles. The volume contains, finally, a series of extracts on military history by Engels.

Marx’s great interest in the natural sciences, almost completely unknown, appears in the volume ‘Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, Naturwissenschaftliche Exzerpte und Notizen. Mitte 1877 bis Anfang 1883’.58 This volume presents the notes on organic and inorganic chemistry from the period 1877-1883, which allow us to discover a further aspect of his work. This is all the more important because these researches help to discredit the false legend, recounted by a large number of his biographies, which portray him as an author who had given up on his own studies during the last decade of his life and had completely satisfied his intellectual curiosity.

The published notes contain chemical compositions, extracts from books of the chemists Meyer, Roscoe, Schorlemmer and also notes of physics, physiology and geology – disciplines that witnessed the flourishing of important scientific developments during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, regarding which Marx always wanted to keep himself informed. These studies constitute one of the least explored fields of research on Marx and since they are not directly connected with the execution of the work on Capital, they pose unanswered questions regarding the reasons for this interest. Completing this volume, there are also extracts on analogous related themes written by Engels in the same period.

If Marx’s manuscripts, before being published, have known numerous ups and downs, the books owned by Marx and Engels suffered an even worse fate. After Engels’s death, the two libraries that contained their books with interesting marginalia and underlining were ignored and in part dispersed and, only subsequently, reconstructed and catalogued with difficulty. The volume ‘Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, Die Bibliotheken von Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels’59 is in fact the fruit of seventy five years of research. It consists of an index of 1,450 books, in 2,100 volumes – or two-thirds of those owned by Marx and Engels – which includes notes of all the pages of each volume on which there are annotations.

It is a publication in advance which will be integrated when the MEGA² is completed by the index of books not available today (the total number of those that have been recovered is 2,100 books in 3,200 volumes), with indications of marginalia, present in 40,000 pages of 830 texts, and the publication of comments on readings taken in the margins of the volumes. As many who were in close contact with Marx have noted, he did not consider books as objects of luxury, but instruments of work. He treated them badly, folding the corners of pages, and underlining in them. “They are my slaves and have to obey my will”60 he said of his books.

On the other hand, he indulged in them with extreme devotion, to the point of defining himself as “a machine condemned to devour books in order to expel them, in a different form, on the dunghill of history”.61 To be able to know some of his readings – and one should nevertheless remember that his library gives only a partial cross-section of the tireless work that he conducted for decades in the British Museum in London – as well as his comments in relation to these, constitutes a precious resource for the reconstruction of his research. It also helps to refute the false hagiographical Marxist-Leninist interpretation that has often represented his thought as the fruit of a sudden lightning strike and not, as it was in reality, as an elaboration full of theoretical elements derived from predecessors and contemporaries.

Finally, one would have to ask: what new Marx emerges from the new historical-critical edition? Certainly, a Marx different from that accepted for a long time by many followers and opponents. The tortuous process of the dissemination of his writings and the absence of an integral edition of them, together with their fundamental incompleteness, the villainous work of the epigones, the tendentious readings and the more numerous failures to read him, are the fundamental causes of a great paradox: Karl Marx is a misunderstood author, the victim of a profound and often reiterated incomprehension.62

Rather than the stony profile of the statue that was found in many squares of the illiberal regimes of Eastern Europe, representing him showing the way to the future with a dogmatic certainty, today one can now recognize an author that left a large part of his writings incomplete in order to dedicate himself, right up until his death, to further studies that would verify the validity of his theses. From the rediscovery of his work re-emerges the richness of a problematic and polymorphic thought and of a horizon whose distance the Marx Forschung has still so many paths to travel.

Marx, that ‘dead dog’
Due to theoretical conflicts or political events, interest in Marx’s work has never been consistent and, from the beginning, it has experienced indisputable moments of decline. From the ‘crisis of Marxism’ to the dissolution of the Second International, from the discussions about the limits of the theory of surplus value to the tragedy of Soviet communism, criticisms of the ideas of Marx always seemed to go beyond its conceptual horizon. There has always been, however, a ‘return to Marx’. A new need to keep referring to his work develops and from the critique of political economy to the formulations on alienation or the brilliant pages of political polemics, continues to exercize an irresistible fascination on followers and opponents. Nevertheless, at the end of the century, having been unanimously declared its disappearance, all of a sudden Marx reappeared on the stage of history.

Liberated from the abhorrent function of instrumentum regni, to which it had been consigned in the past and from the chains of Marxism-Leninism from which it is certainly separate, Marx’s work has been redeployed to fresh fields of knowledge and is being read again all over the world. The full unfolding of his precious theoretical legacy, taken away from presumptuous proprietors and constricting modes of use, has become possible once again. However, if Marx isn’t identifiable with the carved Sphinx of the grey ‘real socialism’ of the twentieth century, it would be equally mistaken to believe that his theoretical and political legacy could be confined to a past that doesn’t have anything more to give to current conflicts, to circumscribe his thought to a mummified classic that has no relevance today, or to confine it to merely academic specialism.

The return of interest in Marx goes well beyond the confines of restricted circles of scholars as does the significant philological research, dedicated to demonstrating the diversity of it in respect to the large number of his interpreters. The rediscovery of Marx is based on his persistent capacity to explain the present: he remains an indispensable instrument for understanding it and being able to transform it.

Faced with the crisis of capitalist society and the profound contradictions that traverse it, there is a return to question that author set aside, too quickly, after 1989. Thus, Jacques Derrida’s affirmation, that “it will always be an error not to read, re-read and discuss Marx,63 which only a few years ago seemed to be an isolated provocation, has found increasing approval. From the end of the 1990s, newspapers, periodicals, television and radio broadcasts continually discuss Marx as being the most relevant thinker for our times.64 In 1998, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of its publication,

The Manifesto of the Communist Party was printed in dozens of new editions in every corner of the planet and was celebrated not only as the most read political text in history, but also as the most prescient forecast of the tendencies of capitalism.65 Furthermore, the literature dealing with Marx, effectively disappeared 15 years ago, shows signs of revival in many countries and, next to the flourishing of new studies,66 there are many booklets emerging in different languages with titles such as Why read Marx today? An analogous consensus is enjoyed by the journals open to contributions discussing Marx and various Marxisms,67 just as there are now international conferences, university courses and seminars dedicated to this author. Finally, even if timidly and in often confused forms – from Latin America to Europe, passing through the alternative globalization movement – a new demand for Marx is also being registered in political terms.

What remains of Marx today; how useful his thought is to the struggle for freedom of the human race; what part of his work is most fertile for stimulating the critique of our times; how can one go ‘beyond Marx, with Marx’, are some of the questions that receive answers that are anything but unanimous. If the contemporary Marx renaissance has a certainty, it consists precisely in the discontinuity in respect to the past that was characterized by monolithic orthodoxies that have dominated and profoundly conditioned the interpretation of this philosopher. Even though marked by evident limits and the risk of syncretism, a season has arrived that is characterized by many Marxs, and indeed, after the age of dogmatisms, it could not have happened in any other way. The task of responding to these problems is therefore up to the research, theoretical and practical, of a new generation of scholars and political activists.

Among the Marxs that remain indispensable, at least two can be indicated. One is the critic of the capitalist mode of production. The analytical, perceptive and tireless researcher who intuited and analysed this development on a global scale and described bourgeois society better than any other. That is the thinker who refused to conceive of capitalism and the regime of private property as immutable scenarios intrinsic to human nature and who still offers crucial suggestions to those who want to realize alternatives to neo-liberal economic, social and political organizations. The other Marx to whom great attention should be paid, is the theoretician of socialism: the author who repudiated the idea of state socialism, already propagated at the time by Lassalle and Rodbertus; the thinker who understood socialism as the possible transformation of productive relations and not as a mass of bland palliatives for the problems of society.
Without Marx we will be condemned to a critical aphasia and it seems that the cause of human emancipation needs to continue to use him. His ‘spectre’ is destined to haunt the world and shake humanity for a good while to come.

1. Karl Kautsky, Mein Erster Aufenthalt in London, in Benedikt Kautsky (ed.), Friedrich Engels’ Briefwechsel mit Karl Kautsky, Danubia Verlag, Wien (1955), p. 32
2. Cf. Maximilien Rubel, Marx critique du marxisme, Paris, Payot 2000, pp. 439-40
3. Friedrich Engels, Vorwort to Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Zweiter Band, Marx Engels Werke, Band 24, Dietz Verlag, Berlin (1963), p. 7
4. Friedrich Engels, ‘Vorworte zu den drei Auflagen’ of Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, MEGA² I/27, Dietz Verlag, Berlin (1988), p. 492
5. Cf. Franco Andreucci, La diffusione e la volgarizzazione del marxismo, in Eric J. Hobsbawm et al. (eds), Storia del marxismo, vol. 2, Einaudi, Turin (1979), p. 15
6. Cf. Erich Matthias, Kautsky und der Kautskyanismus, in Marxismusstudien II, Tübingen, Mohr, (1957), p. 197
7. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, Die heilige Familie, Marx Engels Werke, Band 2, Dietz Verlag, Berlin (1962), p. 98
8. Cf. Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, Monthly Review Press, New York and London (1942), p. 19 and p. 191
9. Karl Kautsky, Das Erfurter Programm, in seinem grundsätzlichen Teil erläutert, Verlag J.H.W. Dietz Nachf. GmbH, Hannover (1964), p. 131f
10. Gheorghi V. Plekhanov, Fundamental Problems of Marxism, Martin Lawrence Ltd, London (n.d.) pp. 3-4
11. Vladimir Ilic Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, in V.I. Lenin, Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow (1972) vol. 14, p. 153
12. Ibid ., p. 187
13. Nikolai I. Bukharin, Theory of Historical Materialism, International Publishers, Moscow (1921), p. 18
14. Bukharin, Theory of, p. 248
15. Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere, Valentino Gerratana (ed.), Einaudi, Turin (1975), p. 1403
16. Ibid. , p. 1428
17. Josef V. Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Lawrence & Wishart, London (1941), p. 5
18. Ibid. , pp. 13-15
19. Karl Marx, Nachwort to Das Kapital, Erster Band, MEGA2 II/6, Dietz Verlag, Berlin (1987), p. 704
20. Karl Marx, Provisional Rules of the International Working Men’s Association, MEGA2 I/20, Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2003), p. 13
21. Karl Marx, Kritik des Gothaer Programms, Marx Engels Werke, Band 19, Dietz Verlag, Berlin (1962), p. 21
22. Antonio Labriola, Discorrendo di socialismo e filosofia, Scritti filosofici e politici, Franco Sbarberi (ed.), Einaudi, Turin (1973), pp. 667-69
23. Marx’s biographers Boris Nikolaevskij and Otto Maenchen-Helfen correctly affirm, in the Foreword to their book, that “of the thousands of socialists, maybe only one has read an economic work of Marx; of the thousands of anti-Marxists, not even one has read Marx”. Cf. Karl Marx. Eine Biographie, Dietz, Berlin, (1976), p. VII
24. Labriola, Discorrendo, p. 672
25. Ibid. , pp. 673-677
26. Cf. Maximilien Rubel, Bibliographie des œuvres de Karl Marx, Rivière, Paris (1956), p. 27
27. Cf. David Ryazanov, ‘Neueste Mitteilungen über den literarischen Nachlaß von Karl Marx und Friedrich Engels’, in Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, Hirschfeld, Leipzig (1925), see in particular pp. 385-386
28. Ryazanov was dismissed and condemned to deportation in 1931 and the publications were interrupted in 1935. Of the 42 volumes originally planned, only 12 (in 13 books) were printed. Cf. Marx and Engels, Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe. Werke, Schriften, Briefe, under the direction of the Marx-Engels-Institut (from 1933 Marx-Engels-Lenin-Institut of Moscow) David Ryazanov (ed.) (from 1932 Vladimir Adoratskij), Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Moskau-Leningrad, Moskau, Marx-Engels-Verlag, 1927-1935
29. Cf. Rubel, Marx critique, p. 81
30. The publications did not include, for instance, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of I844or the Grundrisse, which were added later. Nonetheless, many analogous editions in other languages were based on the MEW. A reprint of this edition started in 2006
31. Detailed information on the MEGA2 is available at
32. MEGA² I/14, H.-J. Bochinski and M. Hundt (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2001)
33. MEGA² I/31, R. Merkel-Melis (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2002)
34. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and Joseph Weydemeyer,Die deutsche Ideologie. Artikel, Druckvorlagen, Entwürfe, Reinschriftenfragmente und Notizen zu‚ I. Feuerbach’ und‚ II. Sankt Bruno’, in Marx-Engels-Jahrbuch 2003, Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2004)
35. Karl Marx, Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Erstes Hefte, MEGA² II/2, Dietz Verlag, Berlin (1980) p. 102
36. MEGA² II/12, I. Omura, K. Hayasaka, R. Hecker, A. Miyakawa, S. Ohno, S. Shibata and R. Yatuyanagi (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2005)
37. Engels, Vorwort to Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Zweiter Band, p. 7
38. MEGA² II/15, R. Roth, E. Kopf and C.E. Vollgraf (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2004)
39. Friedrich Engels, Vorwort to Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Dritter Band, MEGA² II/15, p. 6
40. Ibidem , p. 7
41. MEGA² II/14, C.E. Vollgraf and R. Roth (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2003)
42. MEGA² III/9, V. Morozova, M. Uzar, E. Vashchenko and J. Rojahn (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2003)
43. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 22 February 1858, Ibid., p. 75
44. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 8 December 1857, MEGA² III/8, Dietz Verlag, Berlin (1990), p. 210
45. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 16 April 1859, MEGA² III/9, p. 386
46. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 21 January 1859, Ibid., p. 277
47. Karl Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer, 1 February 1859, Ibid., p. 292
48. MEGA² III/10, G. Golovina, T. Gioeva, J. Vasin and R. Dlubek (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2000)
49. MEGA² III/11, R. Dlubek and V. Morozova (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2005)
50. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 27 December 1861, Ibid., p. 636
51. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 23 November 1860, Ibid.., p. 229
52. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 18 January 1861, Ibid., p. 319
53. Karl Marx to Ferdinand Lassalle, 29 May 1861, Ibid., p. 481
54. MEGA² III/13, S. Gavril’chenko, I. Osobova, O. Koroleva and R. Dlubek (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2002)
55. Karl Marx to Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, 13 February 1865, Ibid., p. 236
56. MEGA² IV/3, G. Bagaturija, L. Čurbanov, O. Koroleva and L. Vasina (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (1998)
57. MEGA² IV/12, M. Neuhaus and C. Reichel (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (2007)
58. MEGA² IV/31, A. Griese, F. Fessen, P. Jäckel and G. Pawelzig, Akademie Verlag (eds), Berlin (1999)
59. MEGA² IV/32, H. P. Harstick, R. Sperl and H. Strauß (eds), Akademie Verlag, Berlin (1999)
60. Paul Lafargue, ‘Karl Marx. Persönliche Erinnerungen’, in Vv. Aa., Erinnerungen an Karl Marx, Dietz Verlag, Berlin (1953), p. 152
61. Karl Marx to Laura and Paul Lafargue, 11 April 1868, Marx Engels Werke, Band 32, Dietz Verlag, Berlin (1965), p. 545
62. Next to the ‘Marxist’ misunderstanding outlined here so far , the ‘anti-Marxist’ misunderstanding of liberals and conservatives should also be noted, which is just as profound because full of prejudiced hostility
63. Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx, Galilée, Paris (1993), p. 35
64. The first article in this direction that had a certain resonance was John Cassidy’s, ‘The return of Karl Marx’, published in The New Yorker, 20 October 1997, pp. 248-259. Then it was the turn of the BBC, who conferred on Marx the crown of the greatest thinker of the millennium. A few years later, the weekly Nouvel Observateur was dedicated to the theme ‘Karl Marx – le penseur du troisième millénaire?’, Nouvel Observateur, 1 October 2003. Soon after, Germany paid its tribute to the man once forced into exile for 40 years: in 2004, more than 500,000 viewers of the national television station ZDF voted Marx the third most important German personality of all time (he was first, instead, in the category of ‘contemporary relevance’) and during the last political elections, the famous magazine Der Spiegel carried his image on the cover, giving the victory sign, under the title Ein Gespenst kehrt zurück (A spectre is back); Der Spiegel, 22 August 2005. Completing this curious collection, there was the poll conducted in 2005 by the radio station BBC4, which gave Marx the prize of the philosopher most admired by the English listeners
65. In particolar, see Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Introduction’ to Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Verso, London (1998)
66. It would be impossible here to enlist the numerous books published in the course of the past few years; but those that had the most public and critical acclaim will be mentioned. Two new and best selling biographies – Francis Wheen, Karl Marx, Fourth Estate, London (1999) and Jacques Attali,Karl Marx ou l’esprit du monde, Fayard, Paris (2005) – drew much attention to the life of the thinker from Trier. Moishe Poistone’s text Time, Labour and Social Domination – Cambridge University Press, Cambridge – was unfittingly published in 1993 and since then reprinted several times; like this text, Terrell Carver’s The Postmodern Marx, Manchester University Press, Manchester (1998) and Michael A. Lebowitz’s Beyond Capital, Palgrave, London (2003, 2nd edn), were also marked by an innovative overall interpretation of Marx’s thought. On the other hand, on his early writings a recent work is worth mentioning, that is David Leopold’sThe Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics, and Human Flourishing, CUP, Cambridge (2007). In addition, John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology, Monthly Review Press, New York (2000), and Paul Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics, Brill, Boston (2006) are noteworthy for having approached Marx to the environmental question. Finally, as evidence of the widespread interest in the world, a mention goes to the English translation of the main works on this topic by the Latin American thinker Enrique Dussel, Towards an unknown Marx, Routledge, London (2001), that of several studies from Japan collected by Hiroshi Uchida in Marx for the 21st century, Routledge, London (2006), as well as the theoretical development of a new generation of Chinese researchers that is increasingly familiar with Western languages and further away from the tradition of dogmatic Marxism
67. Among the most important journals are Monthly Review, Science & Society, Historical Materialism and Rethinking Marxism in the Anglophone world; Das Argument and the Marx-Engels-Jahrbuch in Germany; Actuel Marx in France; Critica Marxista in Italy and Herramienta in Argentina