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Peter Binns

Marx: The Grundrisse

(March 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.67, March 1974, pp.23-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

MARX’S PUBLISHED works on theory can be divided into two groups-the early period in which he wrote the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, The German Ideology, The Communist Manifesto, etc., and the later period of Capital and Theories of Surplus Value. But there is a gap of more than 15 years between these periods with little published record of Marx’s theoretical development in it And yet we know that in those years he made fantastic progress in discovering the scientific roots and structure of bourgeois society. By the time volume 1 of Capital was published in 1867, Marx already knew about capitalism’s inherent tendencies to create crises of overproduction, monetary collapse and the destruction of capital, and he already knew that the motor force for these crises arose from the internal or defining characteristics of capitalism itself.

THE GRUNDRISSE was written by Marx in 1857/8, right in the middle of the gap which separates the early works with their emphasis on the inhumanity of capitalism, and the later works which demonstrate the scientific reasons why capitalism must create such abominations. It is a huge and rambling collection of seven notebooks, frequently repetitious and obscure, replete with thoughts that are unformed or erroneous; so it is not at all surprising that Marx never considered publishing it. Those parts which were eventually published by Marx (Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy and Capital, vol.1) underwent considerable transformations so that their method of presentation would be intelligible to at least a significant number of advanced workers. While this was useful in making Capital, for instance, more intelligible, it suffered the defect of cutting off Marx’s conclusions from the real historical Marx and especially from his method of approaching a theoretical problem as opposed to his way of presenting conclusions already worked out.

After Marx’s death, socialists were left only with his finished works. Most found it impossible to recreate for themselves the method by which he worked up his material. As capitalism developed into imperialism and monopoly capitalism at the turn of the century the problem became an urgent one: giant monopoly trusts and the growth of the capitalist state had effectively undermined the ‘free market’. Was this still capitalism? Some, like Bernstein, argued that these developments freed ‘capitalism’ from the laws of the market – that we could now reform it as we like. Others, like Kautsky, stuck their heads in the sand and refused even to recognise these developments adequately – in effect making Capital holy writ.

Only those who recreated the theoretical method of Marx for themselves, like Luxemburg, Lenin and (to a more limited extent) Trotsky, steered a path away from these errors. Even as late as 1915, upon discovering this method in embryo in Hegel, Lenin exclaimed that no-one (and that included himself hitherto) had understood Capital in the 50 years following its publication because ‘it is completely impossible to understand Marx’s Capital without having thoroughly studied the whole of Hegel’s Logic’. What a damning criticism of the collapse of the Social Democratic movement under the impact of imperialism! Living Marxist theory was so absent from the practice of the Second International, that the only way of preserving the spirit of Marxism and its dialectical method was to read Hegel – replete with all his pompous, mystifying and reactionary characteristics!

If for no other reason, we can at least be thankful now to have the Grundrisse, for in it Marx demonstrates his dialectical method better than anywhere else. In Lenin’s time the Grundrisse was unknown; if it had been he would surely have stressed its importance as against Hegel.

Abstractions or Revolutionary Theory

IN BOTH the Grundrisse and Capital, Marx devotes much attention to the classical economists. These people, Smith, Ricardo etc, while being ideologists for the rising bourgeoisie, nevertheless at the same time, developed economic science in certain fundamentally correct directions. Unlike later apologists for the capitalist status quo it was in their interests to fight prejudice, confusion and inertia rather than to augment them. For it was not until Smith and Ricardo were dead that the industrial bourgeoisie which they represented actually won political power and used it to institute free trade and to end aristocratic privilege. They needed cogent reasons to motivate the masses to bring their class to power unlike later apologists for the bourgeoisie whose only interest it was to confuse and dissipate the masses. In particular they needed to show that wealth derived from all forms of productive activity, rather than being, say, merely a ‘natural’ property of the land – only in this way could they legitimise their own activities as capitalists and at the same time deny such rights to the mere owners of landed property.

Hence the classical economists began to develop the view (even if in a half-hearted way), that value comes from labour. Not this labour or that labour, but labour in general. It was this insight which Marx seized hold of, and which he pressed to its logical conclusion. In so far as the capitalist simply appropriates the unpaid labour of others, he too is as much an unnecessary burden around the neck of the labouring classes as is the idle landlord. Naturally this conclusion was one that Smith and Ricardo were unwilling and unable to draw, and this distorts much of their theory. Where they go wrong is through assuming that ‘capital’ is like labour – a permanent factor in the process of production. But in fact only in bourgeois society is this predominantly the case. It is not so in ancient, oriental or feudal society, and it will not be true under socialism. Where these economists went wrong, therefore, was in mistaking the present surface appearance of things for something which must permanently underlie all societies.

Marx gives two kinds of reasons as to why this is mistaken. Firstly because the underlying forces in society may be such as to systematically distort or even invert their appearances (as with the fetishism of commodities which Marx deals with in chapter 4 of Capital, where the social relation between capitalists and workers appears as a thing, capital, rather than a mere relationship). Secondly the underlying forces may contain elements which tend to disrupt and totally transform what appears on the surface to be a ‘normal’ or tranquil society. Indeed this is predominantly the case in human history, and so to confine ourselves to the way society appears to be to those within it is to make a purely temporary historical phenomenon like capitalism seem eternal. That is why Marx says we must begin a scientific analysis of society not with what is apparently there, but with a set of abstractions which only then render the real world intelligible to us:

‘It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete ... However, on closer examination this proves false. (Genuine economic science on the other hand) ... ascended from the 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) ... is obviously the scientifically correct method.’ (pp.100-101)

Marx stresses the complete incompatibility of vulgar pseudo-science which accepts without question the surface appearance of things, with genuinely revolutionary theory which the working-class can use to blow apart capitalist social relationships. For if revolution is possible existing social relationships must contain contradictions, and this is something which it is impossible to see if we merely look at what is before our eyes. We need to understand the currents beneath the surface, to see how and why the fruit is ripe – and to formulate the way we are going to pick it. To assume that existing social relationships are already independently fixed rather than being the actual expression of antagonistic forces is thus to be a bad theorist and political reactionary at one and the same time.

But Marx deliberately suppressed these methodological remarks when he eventually published the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. His reasons were that the conclusions were too general. As a criticism of vulgar science the points stood, but they could not provide the basis of a universal method. A clue as to why Marx believed this can be found later on in the Grundrisse:

‘It will be necessary later, before this question is dropped, to correct the idealist manner of the presentation, which makes it seem as if it were merely a matter of conceptual determinations and of the dialectic of these concepts ...’ (p.151)

While vulgar science is in the wrong for failing to abstract where it ought to, this does not mean that an adequate beginning can be found merely through the process of abstraction. Exploitation in capitalist society is hidden in the process of the equal exchange of commodities at their values in the free market. You will not find it in the market place, but you will at the point of production, and especially in historically real class struggles. Henceforth Marx took these very concrete and palpable things as his real starting point.

The Revolutionary View of Society

PROBABLY the main reason why Marx played down abstraction and emphasised history, especially the history of working class struggles, is to be found in the view he had of society. For Marx revolutionary politics was not an optional extra gratuitously added on to a ‘neutral’ scientific analysis of capitalism, but an inseparable part of it. This meant that his conception of capitalist society was fundamentally different from those apologists who wanted capitalism to seem ‘natural or ‘necessary’. It is the dialectic, derived from Hegel, but with only its rational kernel extracted for use, that indicates the divide between Marxism and capitalist apologetics:

‘In (the dialectic’s) rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to bourgeoisdom and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historical developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and in its essence critical and revolutionary.’ (Capital, vol.1, Moscow 1961, p.20)

But the problem with Capital, as Lenin remarked, is that its dialectical structure is hidden from view most of the time, and it is here that the Grundrisse has most to contribute. The worker, says Marx, has to be understood both as an object and as a subject in the capitalist reproduction process. He is an object because capitalism changes, develops and grows in spite of his efforts, aims and purposes – it obeys economic laws not rational, conscious human needs. On the other hand, these laws only operate through the continued toil of workers at the point of production. In mass strikes, factory occupations, etc, they begin to break down. So the working class is not simply an object, a mere cog in a machine. It is both a cog and the motor, or to put it in Marx’s terms, both the objective product and the subjective source of capitalism. These are not two distinct things but just two aspects of one process – the development of capitalist society:

Separation of property from labour appears as the necessary law of this exchange between capital and labour ... Labour not as an object, but as activity ... labour is absolute poverty as object, on one side, and is, on the other side, the general possibility of wealth as subject and as activity ...’ (pp.295-6)

The workers’ productive activity only exists as a possible activity until it is set to work by and for capital. Capital is not so much a thing, therefore, as a social relationship between workers, their product and the means of production. Where capitalism has triumphed workers can only obtain their means of existence by working for capital. The production process produces commodities, but it also produces the surplus without which capitalism could not survive, and which is converted into still more capital. The workers’ productive activity thus builds up capital, the very social power that enslaves and exploits them in the first place. Thus capital is not a force that can exist in any form whatsoever without workers to provide its active motor force:

‘Labour is not only the use value which confronts capital, but, rather, it is the use value of capital itself ... when it is made into a real activity through contact with capital-it cannot do this by itself, since it is without object – then it becomes a really value-positing, productive activity’ (pp.297-8).

The workers’ activity thus provides the vital (or ‘subjective’) force animating the capitalist production process. But in doing so it transforms itself into capital, transferring its own vital powers to the impersonal agency of the laws of capitalist development. The agency for the development of capitalism is thus not the activity of the working class, but the needs and ends of capital itself. While the productive activity of the working class is the ultimate source of capitalism’s development, the agency of economic laws interposes itself between the process’s origin and conclusion.

‘Through the exchange with the worker, capital has appropriated labour itself, labour has become one of its moments, which now acts as a fructifying vitality upon its merely existent and hence dead objectivity ... capital itself becomes a process. Labour is the yeast thrown into it, which starts it fermenting ...’ (pp.197-8).

The dialectic has two features which make it necessary for revolutionary theory. Firstly it probes beneath the surface appearance of social phenomena, refuses to accept them as given, but instead indicates how they generate contradictions or self-destructive forces. Marx develops these in the Grundrisse when he discusses the absolute barriers to the capitalist production process and they are developed better and more fully in Capital and Theories of Surplus Value.

Secondly, (and this is what comes across so brilliantly and uniquely in the Grundrisse) the dialectic sees capitalism as a system, as an interconnected process. Bourgeois theorists on the other hand usually see bourgeois society as a collection of more or less autonomous parts. But Marx refuses to break up the development of capitalism into a set of independent parts, because it is the process as a whole which dominates and transforms the parts rather than vice-versa. Labour has no fixed qualities, it begins as the creative source and agent of production. But at the same time it can only become active through transforming itself into capital which takes over these activating and creative capacities. These are then used to dominate and enslave the worker. Capital, an alien and impersonal force which is fed by the continual sweat of the working class, appropriates the workers’ vitality and uses it to dominate every aspect of society and its history. So the process as a whole continually transforms one part into the other. While labour starts out as ‘fructifying vitality’ and capital as ‘merely existent and hence dead objectivity’, as the process continues this becomes reversed.

So it is incorrect to separate off the parts played by ‘fructifying vitality’ and ‘dead objectivity’ from the process as a whole. Anyone who fails to appreciate this is led to ask which of the two, the ‘vitalising’ or the ‘objective’, is the more important contributor to the development of history? Whichever way this is answered there’s not much room left for genuine revolutionary practice. If it is the objective conditions that count we may as well sit around and let them get on with it without bothering to struggle independently ourselves (This argument was used by ‘left wing’ Mensheviks in 1917). Alternatively if the objective conditions do not have a stranglehold on the development of history, the laws of capitalism cannot prevent us reforming existing society in any direction we choose, Why bother to build a revolutionary party based upon a real struggle against capitalist relations of production in the factory, if 350 philanthropists can do it much more comfortably from their parliamentary seats? Marx shows that the very question is false.

This message comes across more clearly in the Grundrisse than elsewhere in Marx’s writing. It forms the link between the early works which stress the impersonal, alien and inhuman characteristics of capitalism, with the later works Capital which stresses the laws of the development of capitalist society.

All this can be obtained equally from Capital, but only if one searches for it beneath the surface.

The Grundrisse as Master Plan

THE GRUNDRISSE is the original set of notes for what was intended to be a complete study of bourgeois society as a whole. Marx changed his ideas as to how this should be done several times, but the only work he actually completed was volume 1 of Capital – a quarter of a study that was originally conceived of as one sixth of the whole. He thus completed only one twenty-fourth of the master plan.

So we find some brilliant insights in the Grundrisse that are either not repeated in later works or which are incompletely developed – the chapter on money is a marvellous example of this. But as one would expect from a set of early and rough notes for Capital, there are a vast number of errors, gaps and obscurities too. Marx is unclear, for instance, about the distinction between the surplus product extracted from living labour power, and the appearance of this surplus in the form of profit He confuses the two on the question of productive and unproductive labour (pp.272-3), and again later on (pp.821-822) where he assumes that the behaviour of the individual capitalist is governed by his ability to extract a surplus rather than to make profits. Marx formulates all this rather better at the end of volume 1 of Theories of Surplus Value, but it is not until the end of the 1860s that he prepares the ground adequately for solving the question properly, in his very clear exposition of the equalization of the rate of profit in different branches of industry (Capital, vol.3). There he is forced to distinguish profit and surplus product rigourously. No doubt if he had had time to go over these passages they would have been amended accordingly.

Errors and obscurities like this in the Grundrisse were largely made good in Marx’s later writings, but there are enough of them to make the Grundrisse a slippery text at the best of times. Those looking for stimulation will find it in abundance in these difficult but fascinating pages. Those looking for enlightment ought to look to Capital and Theories of Surplus Value first.

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