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The dissemination and reception of the `Grundrisse' -- a contribution to the history of Marxism

Karl Marx’s Grundrisse.

[The following article is a chapter from Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of political economy 150 years later, edited by Marcello Musto. Published by Routledge, the paperback edition is just out. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission. Marcello Musto teaches at the Department of Political Science at York University, Toronto Canada. Fpr more details about the book and how to order, click HERE.

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By Marcello Musto[1]

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, Karl 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’ 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 SPD 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 August 23, 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 1861-63, 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 organiser 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 his A 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 Marx-Engels Institute, 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 Marx-Engels Institute 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 Marx-Engels Institute) 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 1850-51 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 Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute’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 3000 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 70th anniversary of its author’s death and the 150th of his birth.

Written in 1857-58, the Grundrisse was only available to be read throughout the world from 1953 after a hundred years of solitude.

II. 500,000 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 1947-48. 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 1968-69, 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 (1967-68), 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 1970-71 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 20 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 (1971-77 in Czech, 1974-75 in Slovak) and Romania (1972-74), 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 (1974-78), the other by a publisher close to the New Left (1975-77).

In the 1980s the Grundrisse was also translated in Iran (1985-87), 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 (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 summarise, 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’ “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 [Stalinist] 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 10 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 cognisance of the content and significance of the manuscripts of 1857-58.[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 criticising) 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


First German edition


Second German edition


Japanese translation


Chinese translation


French translation


Russian translation


Italian translation


Spanish translation


Czech translation


Hungarian translation


Romanian translation


English translation


Slovak translation


Danish translation


Serbian/Serbo--Croatian translation


Slovenian translation


Persian translation


Polish translation


Finnish translation


Greek translation


Turkish translation


Korean translation


Portuguese translation


Althusser, Louis and Balibar, Étienne (1979) Reading Capital, London: Verso.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. (1964) “Introduction”, in Karl Marx, 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.


[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).

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