The importance of Marx, 150 years after the Grundrisse

A conversation between Eric Hobsbawm and Marcello Musto. Posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the permission of Marcello Musto.

September, 16 2008 -- Eric Hobsbawm is considered one of the greatest living historians. He is president of Birkbeck College, London, and professor emeritus at the New School for Social Research. 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.

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 program In Our Time voted for Marx as their ``greatest philosopher''

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 globalisation.

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 globalised 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.

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 globalised international economy was inherent in thecapitalist 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 neoliberal governments to uncontrolled, unlimited and unregulated globalisation. 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 neoliberal 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.

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 wouldbe 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 programs, 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 criticise, was the kind of globalisation produced by capitalism.

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;].

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 todaycould 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.

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.

[This article first appeared at It has been posted with permission.]

* * *

About Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of political economy 150 years later

Edited by Marcello Musto

Price: $130.00

Add to Cart
  • ISBN: 978-0-415-43749-3
  • Binding: Hardback
  • Published by: Routledge
  • Publication Date: 25th July 2008
  • Pages: 320

About the Book

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. Despite its editorial vicissitudes and late publication, Grundrisse contains numerous reflections on matters that Marx did not develop elsewhere in his oeuvre and is therefore extremely important for an overall interpretation of his thought.

In this collection, various international experts in the field, analysing the Grundrisse on the 150th anniversary of its composition, present a Marx in many ways radically different from the one who figures in the dominant currents of twentieth-century Marxism. The book demonstrates the relevance of the Grundrisse to an understanding of Capital and of Marx’s theoretical project as a whole, which, as is well known, remained uncompleted. It also highlights the continuing explanatory power of Marxian categories for contemporary society and its present contradictions.

With contributions from such scholars as Eric Hobsbawm and Terrell Carver, and covering subject areas such as political economy, philosophy and Marxism, this book is likely to become required reading for serious scholars of Marx across the world.


"This volume promises to be required reading for all serious students of Marx" Simon Clarke (University of Warwick, UK)

Table of Contents

1. Prologue

2. Foreword, Eric Hobsbawn

Part I. Grundrisse: Critical Interpretations

3. History, Production and Method in the 1857 'Introduction' to the Grundrisse, Marcello Musto

4. The Concept of Value in Modern Economy. On the Relationship between Money and Capital in 'Grundrisse', Joachim Bischoff and Christoph Lieber

5. Marx Conception of Alienation in 'Grundrisse', Terrell Carver

6. The Discovery of the Category of Surplus value, Enrique Dussel

7. Historical Materialism in 'Forms which precede Capitalist Production', Ellen Meiksins Wood

8. Marx's 'Grundrisse' and the Ecological Contradictions of Capitalism, John Bellamy Foster

9. Emancipated Individuals in an Emancipated Society. Marx's Sketch of Post-Capitalist Society in the 'Grundrisse', Iring Fetscher

10. Rethinking 'Capital' in Light of the 'Grundrisse', Moishe Postone

Part II. Marx at the time of Grundrisse

11. Marx's life at the time of the 'Grundrisse'. Biographical notes on 1857-8, Marcello Musto

12. The First World Economic Crisis: Marx as an Economic Journalist, Michael R. Kratke

13. Marx's 'Books of Crisis' of 1857-8, Michael R. Kratke

Part III. Dissemination and reception of Grundrisse in the world

14. Dissemination and Reception of the 'Grundrisse' in the world. Introduction, Marcello Musto

15. Germany and Austria and Switzerland, Ernst Theodor Mohl

16. Russia and Soviet Union, Lyudmila L. Vasina

17. Japan, Hiroshi Uchida

18. China, Zhongpu Zhang

19. France, Andre Tosel

20. Italy, Mario Tronti

21. Cuba and Argentina and Spain and Mexico, Pedro Ribas and Rafael Pla

22. Czechoslovakia, Stanislav Hubik

23. Hungary, Ferenc L. Lendvai

24. Romania, Gheorghe Stoica

25. USA and Britain and Australia and Canada, Christopher J. Arthur

26. Denmark, Birger Linde

27. Yugoslavia, Lino Veljak

28. Iran, Kamran Nayeri

29. Poland, Holger Politt

30. Finland, Vesa Oittinen

31. Greece, John Milios

32. Turkey, E. Ahmet Tonak

33. South Korea, Hogyun Kim

34. Brazil and Portugal, Jose Paulo Netto

About the Author

Marcello Musto is a Researcher at the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’, in Naples, Italy.…
The Spectator
Face it: Marx was partly right about capitalism
Rowan Williams
Wednesday, 24th September 2008

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, says that the financial
world needs fresh scrutiny and regulation. In our attitude to the
market, we run the risk of idolatry

Readers of Anthony Trollope will remember how thoughtless and greedy
young men in the Victorian professions can be lured into ruin by
accepting ‘accommodation bills’ from their shifty acquaintances. They
make themselves liable for the debts of others; and only too late do
they discover that they are trapped in a web of financial mechanics that
forces them to pay hugely inflated sums for obligations or services they
have had nothing to do with. Their own individual credit-worthiness,
their own circumstances, even their own personal choices are all
irrelevant: the debt has acquired a life of its own, quite independent
of any real transaction they are involved in.

A prescient student of Trollope would have seen that he is identifying
an endemic feature of the world of borrowing and lending. A lender takes
a calculated risk in offering the use of their money to someone else,
and rates of interests express the recognition of this — and the rewards
that may be secured for taking such a risk. But it is not too difficult
to see how the notional gain involved here can be used as security
against a further risk. And so the transaction moves further and further
from the original transaction with its realistic assessment of levels of
risk within the context of measurable standards of credit-worthiness.
Any face-to-face element, any direct calculation of what and who is
reasonably worth trusting (which assumes some common frame of
reference), fades away. Like Trollope’s hapless young clerics and
feckless young landowners, individuals find that their own personal
financial decisions and calculations have nothing to do with what is
happening to their resources, in a process for which a debt is simply
someone else’s wholly disposable asset.

It is a sort of one-syllable nursery parable of what the last couple of
weeks have illustrated in the world of global finance and, of course, a
reminder that what we have been witnessing is not just the product of a
couple of irresponsible decades.

Trading the debts of others without accountability has been the motor of
astronomical financial gain for many in recent years. Primitively, a
loan transaction is something which enables someone to do what they
might not otherwise be able to do — start a business, buy a house.
Lenders identify what would count as reasonable security in the present
and the future (present assets, future income) and decide accordingly.

But inevitably in complex and large-scale transactions, one person’s
debt becomes part of the security which the lender can offer to another
potential customer. And a particularly significant line is crossed when
the borrowing and lending are no longer to do with any kind of equipping
someone to do something specific, but exclusively about enabling profit
— sometimes, as with the now banned practice of short-selling, by
effectively betting on the failure of a partner in the transaction.

This crisis exposes the element of basic unreality in the situation —
the truth that almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by equally
unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete
outcome beyond profit for traders. But while we are getting used to this
sudden vision of the Emperor’s New Clothes, there are one or two
questions that, in government as in society at large, we at last have a
chance to ask. Some of these are elementary and practical. Given that
the risk to social stability overall in these processes has been shown
to be so enormous, it is no use pretending that the financial world can
maintain indefinitely the degree of exemption from scrutiny and
regulation that it has got used to. To grant that without a basis of
some common prosperity and stability, no speculative market can long
survive is not to argue for rigid Soviet-style centralised direction.
Insecure or failed states may provide a brief and golden opportunity for
profiteering, but cannot sustain reliable institutions.

Without a background of social stability everyone will eventually
suffer, including even the most resourceful, bold and ingenious of
speculators. The question is not how to choose between total control and
total deregulation, but how to identify the points and practices where
social risk becomes unacceptably high. The banning of short-selling is
an example of just such a judgment. Governments should not lose their
nerve as they look to identify a few more targets.

Behind all this, though, is the deeper moral issue. We find ourselves
talking about capital or the market almost as if they were individuals,
with purposes and strategies, making choices, deliberating reasonably
about how to achieve aims. We lose sight of the fact that they are
things that we make. They are sets of practices, habits, agreements
which have arisen through a mixture of choice and chance. Once we get
used to speaking about any of them as if they had a life independent of
actual human practices and relations, we fall into any number of
destructive errors. We expect an abstraction called ‘the market’ to
produce the common good or to regulate its potential excesses by a sort
of natural innate prudence, like a physical organism or ecosystem. We
appeal to ‘business’ to acquire public responsibility and moral vision.
And so we lose sight of the fact that the market is not like a huge
individual consciousness, that business is a practice carried on by
persons who have to make decisions about priorities — not a machine
governed by inexorable laws.

And this is part of the same mindset that turns the specific,
goal-related transactions of borrowing and lending into a process
producing pseudo-things, paper assets — but pseudo-things that (when
matters do not go well) cause real and crippling damage to actual
persons and institutions. The biggest challenge in the present crisis is
whether we can recover some sense of the connection between money and
material reality — the production of specific things, the achievement of
recognisably human goals that have something to do with a shared sense
of what is good for the human community in the widest sense.

Of course business is not philanthropy, securing profit is a legitimate
(if not a morally supreme) motivation for people, and the definition of
what’s good for the human community can be pretty widely drawn. It’s
true as well that, in some circumstances, loosening up a financial
regime to allow for entrepreneurs and innovators to create wealth is
necessary to draw whole populations out of poverty. But it is a sort of
fundamentalism to say that this alone will secure stable and just
outcomes everywhere.

Fundamentalism is a religious word, not inappropriate to the nature of
the problem. Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled
capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and
agency to things that had no life in themselves; he was right about
that, if about little else. And ascribing independent reality to what
you have in fact made yourself is a perfect definition of what the
Jewish and Christian Scriptures call idolatry. What the present
anxieties and disasters should be teaching us is to ‘keep ourselves from
idols’, in the biblical phrase. The mythologies and abstractions, the
pseudo-objects of much modern financial culture, are in urgent need of
their own Dawkins or Hitchens. We need to be reacquainted with our own
capacity to choose — which means acquiring some skills in discerning
true faith from false, and re-learning some of the inescapable
face-to-face dimensions of human trust.

Booklovers turn to Karl Marx as financial crisis bites in Germany

* Kate Connolly in Berlin
* Wednesday October 15 2008 12.19 BST

Karl Marx is back. That, at least, is the verdict of publishers and bookshops in Germany who say that his works are flying off the shelves.

The rise in his popularity has of course, been put down to the current economic crisis. "Marx is in fashion again," said Jörn Schütrumpf, manager of the Berlin publishing house Karl- Dietz which publishes the works of Marx and Engels in German. "We're seeing a very distinct increase in demand for his books, a demand which we expect to rise even more steeply before the year's end."

Most popular is the first volume of his signature work, Das Kapital. According to Schütrumpf, readers are typically "those of a young academic generation, who have come to recognise that the neoliberal promises of happiness have not proved to be true."

Bookshops around the country are reporting similar findings, saying that sales are up by 300%. (Though the fact that they are not prepared to quote actual figures suggests the sales were never that high).

Literature comes and goes and it is nice to see that trends are not always driven by slick marketing campaigns. Just as Rudyard Kipling would have been delighted that his poem The Gods of the Copybook Headings which contains the apt lines: "Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew." is modish once more, so Marx would have reveled in the idea that an economic crisis had reignited interest in his works. (Not, you understand, because of the increased royalties that would be coming his way over the next few months were he still alive.)

Increasing numbers of Germans appear ready to out themselves as Marx fans in a time when it is fashionable to repeat the philosopher's belief that excessive capitalism with all its greed finally ends up destroying itself. When Oskar Lafontaine, the head of Germany's rising left-wing party Die Linke, said he would include Marxist theory in the party's manifesto, in the outline of his plans to partially nationalise the nation's finance and energy sectors, he was labeled as a "mad leftie" who had "lost the plot" by the tabloid Bild. But even Germany's finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, who must have had some sleepless nights over the past few weeks, has now declared himself something of a fan. "Generally one has to admit that certain parts of Marx's theory are really not so bad," he cautiously told Der Spiegel.

"These days Marx is on a winning streak in the charm stakes," Ralf Dorschel commented in the Hamburger Abendblatt.

But for those not quite ready to immerse themselves in Marxist theory, Marx's correspondence to Friedrich Engels at the time of an earlier US economic crisis makes more entertaining reading. "The American Crash is a delight to behold and it's far from over," he wrote in 1857, confidently predicting the imminent and complete collapse of Wall Street.…

(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own).

By Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Capitalism as we used to know it is on its deathbed. And those who predicted that the old brand, the unfettered, American-promoted system, was a danger to the world, are being vindicated. They include Karl Marx, whose thinking on banks seems oddly contemporary these days.…

Karl Marx's guide to the end of capitalism: a primer
by Stuart Jeffries

Sales of Marx's Capital are reportedly soaring as the world realises that this was where he prophesied how capitalism will destroy itself. So it's time for a Capital primer, time to talk fetishism (yay!) of commodities (d'oh!).

1. Commodities. A chair is a commodity - not because you can sit on it, but because it was produced by humans to be traded. Each commodity has a use value, measured by its usefulness in satisfying needs and wants.

2. Exchange value. How, you'll be asking, can one measure the difference in value between, say, a 80GB iPod, and a new copy of Capital? It's the exchange value, stupid. This is measured by the amount of labour that goes into making each commodity - such is the Marxist labour theory of value, and the source of what Marx called the fetishism of commodities.

3. Literary value. As Francis Wheen stresses in his biography of Marx, Capital is partly a racy gothic novel, a Frankenstein-like tale of how we created a monster from which we are alienated and which, by means of class struggle, we will slay.

4. Capital. This is money used to buy more money. Like God, capital
seems mystical and immutable, but is really only a function of social relationships (Rowan Williams, a Marx fan, disagrees with the God bit). Capitalists think capital has magical significance. Socialist revolution will disabuse them of that.

5. Exploitation. Commodity sales increase the amount of exchange-value owned by capitalists, yielding profit and thus helping them accumulate capital. How? You accumulate capital by the creation of surplus value, which is unpaid labour appropriated by employers.

6. Crises. Capitalists aren't especially interested in accumulating
commodities (once you've got a hot tub for your Lear jet, it's hard to decide what else to spend it on) and the incessant drive to amass capital causes crises. The over-expansion of credit by greedy
capitalists recently resulted in more goods being sold than can be
bought from income and savings. The result? Widespread debts, straitened circumstances (think coarse toilet paper) and happy days for repo men (boo!).

7. Profit. This falls when capitalism exhausts its capacity for growth. Also, as technology improves and productivity rises, more goods are produced, which are worth less.

8. The end. Whether such crises will destroy capitalism is uncertain. Marx thought they would but he wasn't convincing about when. It will, though, end. Some time. Maybe before Christmas.


One Hundred and Fifty Years of Marx's Grundrisse: Incomplete, Complex and Prophetic
By Marcello Musto

In 1857 -- as 150 years later, with the crisis triggered by 'subprime' loans -- the United States was the theatre for the outbreak of a great international economic crisis, the first in history.  The events aroused huge excitement in one of their most attentive observers: Karl Marx.

After 1848 Marx had repeatedly argued that a new revolution would occur only in the wake of such a crisis.   And when it arrived he made the decision, tormented though he was by poverty and health problems, to resume the intense studies he had begun in 1850 in the «British Museum» with a view to  a critique of political economy.  The result of these labours was eight large notebooks that he filled between August 1857 and May 1858: the Grundrisse, the first draft of Capital.

1858-1953: One Hundred Years of Solitude

It then became one more of Marx's many unfinished works, probably unread even by Friedrich Engels.  After Engels's death, the manuscripts were entrusted to the archives of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), where they were treated with great neglect; the only section that came to light in this period was the 'Introduction', which Karl Kautsky published in 1903.  This extract -- the most detailed pronouncement that Marx ever made on methodological issues -- attracted considerable interest and was soon translated into a number of languages.  It is among the works of Marx on which most has subsequently been written.

While fortune smiled on the 'Introduction', however, the Grundrisse remained unknown for a long time.  Its existence was made public only in 1923, when David Ryazanov, director of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, found it among Marx's literary bequest in Berlin.  It was photographed on the spot, and a team of experts back in Moscow deciphered its contents and converted it to a typewritten form.  When it was finally published in Moscow (in two volumes, in 1939 and 1941), it became the last of Marx's major manuscripts to see the light of day.  Yet the circumstances of the Second World War meant that this went virtually unnoticed at the time; the three thousand copies soon became very hard to find, and only a few managed to cross the Soviet frontiers.  It had to wait until 1953 before it was finally republished in East Berlin, in a print run of thirty thousand.  Written in 1857-8, it only then became available to read all over the world -- after a hundred years of solitude.

Five Hundred Thousand Copies Circulating in the World

It was another extract, after the 'Introduction', which first generated widespread interest in the Grundrisse: namely, the 'Forms Which Precede Capitalist Production'.  This was translated into various languages in the 1950s, and Eric Hobsbawm, the editor of the English edition, added a preface that helped to underline its importance: it was, he wrote, 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'.

The dissemination of the Grundrisse as a whole was a slow yet inexorable process, which eventually permitted a more thorough, and in some respects different, appreciation of Marx's oeuvre.  The first versions in other languages appeared in Japan (1958-65) and China (1962-78), while an edition in Russian came out only in 1968-9.

In the late 1960s the Grundrisse also began to circulate in Western Europe.  The first translations here were in France (1967-8) and Italy (1968-70), the initiative in both cases significantly coming from a publisher independent of the Communist Party.  Separate Spanish editions came out in Cuba (1970-1) and Argentina (1971-6), and later also in Mexico and Spain.   A full English translation arrived only in 1973, with a preface by its translator, Martin Nicolaus, that presented it as 'the only outline of Marx's full political-economic project, which puts to the test every serious interpretation of Marx yet conceived'.

The 1970s were also the crucial decade for East European languages: Czechoslovakia (1971-7 in Czech, 1974-5 in Slovak), Hungary (1972), Romania (1972-4) and Yugoslavia (1979).  Editions appeared in Denmark (1974-8) and Iran (1985-7), while the Slovenian version dates from 1985, and the Polish and Finnish from 1986.  After 1989 and the end of 'actually existing socialism', the Grundrisse continued its journey to other parts of the world: Greece (1989-92), Turkey (1999-2003), South Korea (2000) and Brazil (forthcoming 2009), so that today it has been published in full in 22 languages and in a total of more than 500,000 copies.  These figures 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.

Readers and Interpreters

Roman Rosdolsky's Making of Marx's Capital, published in German in 1968, was the first monograph devoted to the Grundrisse.  In the same year, Marx's text 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.

But the times were changing in the East too.  After an initial period in which the Grundrisse was regarded rather warily, the authoritative Russian scholar Vitalii Vygodskii defined it as a 'work of genius' requiring close attention.  In the space of just a few years, it thus became a fundamental text with which any serious student of Marx had to come to grips.

With various nuances, 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 had 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.  Some of the most zealous commentators even argued that the Grundrisse was theoretically superior to Capital, despite the additional ten years of intense research that went into the composition of the latter.  Similarly, some of the main detractors claimed that, despite the important sections for our understanding of Marx's relationship with Hegel and despite the significant passages on alienation, the Grundrisse did not add anything to what was already known about Marx.  Not only were there opposing readings, there were also non-readings -- the most striking and representative example being that of Louis Althusser, who drew his hotly debated division between Marx's early and mature works without taking cognizance of the Grundrisse.

From the mid-1970s on, however, the Grundrisse won an ever larger number of readers and interpreters.  Various researchers saw it as the key text for one of the most widely debated issues concerning Marx's work: his intellectual debt to Hegel.  Others were fascinated by his prophetic statements in the fragments on machinery and automation.

Today, 150 years after its composition (see the volume Karl Marx's Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later), the Grundrisse demonstrates Marx's enduring capacity to explain the capitalist mode of production.  Its insightful analysis of the great historical role of capitalism, or of the creation of an ever more cosmopolitan society than the one that preceded it, goes together with a critique of the obstacles and internal contradictions that capitalism places in the way of a more complete development of society and the individual.  The Grundrisse is also exceptionally valuable for the many observations, such as those on communist society, which Marx was never able to develop elsewhere in his incomplete oeuvre.  It seems highly likely that new generations approaching Marx's work will experience for themselves the fascination of these manuscripts.  They are certainly indispensable today for anyone who wishes seriously to consider the fate of the Left and the transformation of the world around us.

Marcello Musto is editor of Karl Marx's Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later  (London/New York: Routledge, 2008).  This article is extracted from this book.  See, also, "The Importance of Marx, 150 Years after the Grundrisse," a conversation between Marcello Musto and Eric Hobsbawm

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE : Les leçons toujours actuelles de Karl Marx l’oublié

By Lucien Degoy

Karl Marx and the Lessons of "Capital" Are Back

Translated mardi 13 janvier 2009, par Isabelle Metral

Whether as a philosopher, economist, and anthropologist, the author of “Capital” and the persistent relevance of his analyses are justified by the major crisis which now defies the premises of global capitalism.

« If Marx imposes himself as one of the “unsurpassable” thinkers of our time, the reason is also, and mostly, that he was the first to detect the dynamics intrinsic to capitalism. ». These are not the words of some obscure, antediluvian follower of Marx, but the pronouncement of Alain Minc, the businessman, essayist and counsellor who has the ear of the French President, in an interview recently published in Le Magazine Littéraire [1]. The review, which made so bold as to devote thirty pages to Marx’s works, wonders about what it calls « the reasons for a rebirth ».

As the British historian Eric Hobsbawn himself humorously observes, « It is the capitalists, more than the others, who are re-discovering Marx »”– like George Soros, another financier and pro-market politician who recently confided to him : « I am reading Marx just now ; there are quite a few interesting things in what he said ! »

That Marx, who has long been dead and buried, is now back in favour may seem paradoxical. But is it so very strange ? « It is not surprising that intelligent capitalists, especially in the field of global finance, should have been impressed by Marx, », Hobsbawn observes, « since they have necessarily been more keenly aware than the others of the nature and instability of the capitalist economy in which they operated. » [2]. Naturally, these capitalists should not be expected to give up the system that crowned them and that gives them a hold on the whole of society : they are not going to become converts to socialism any time soon. That is not in their interest – far from it – they most certainly (George Soros among them) still entertain the notion that they may turn the present crisis to to their own advantage and increase their profits, since the crisis whets their appetite for speculation even as it increases the risks…

That’s the law of the system, the domination of the bourgeoisie that Marx and Engel depicted in The Communist Manifesto in 1848, long before his main work Capital (1867), as a period marked off from all previous periods by « a continuous upheaval of production », « a social system in a complete state of permanent commotion », « restlessness » and « perpetual insecurity ».

Can Marx help us see our way through the crisis ?

As economist Jean-Marie Harribey observes, the fact is « that one might draw up an impressive list of publications at the service of capitalistic interests that draw upon Marx’s critique of capitalism to try and find their way through the erratic movements of their own system ». Thus, Harribey further notes, from The Financial Times to The Wall Street Journal through The Economist and the London Daily Telegraph which declared that « October 13, 2008 shall remain in history as the day when the British capitalist system admitted to having failed », commentators are forced to concede that the sacrosanct « law of the market has proved incapable of guaranteeing a sound equilibrium, stability, prosperity or equity » and that, all in all, Marx had been fairly perspicacious.

« It is urgent to re-discover his thought, which is too often reduced to a few famous quotations », insists journalist Patrice Bolton, who coordinated the Marx dossier for Le Magazine Littéraire. It is once more a recourse for decrypting a globalization « that multiplies job losses and sends inequalities between countries rocketing, as well as inequalities between social classes within each country. » Not forgetting the succession of speculative bubbles that result in the impoverishment of a growing portion of the population.

In such a context, beyond the historical differences that make it illusory to transpose the situation directly from one century to the next, Karl Marx is enjoying a second youth. But « which Marx », the review asks, is it « the economist, the sociologist, the philosopher, or the political activist » ? But must we really choose ? What if it was precisely the diversity of those « hats », their superimposition and connections that made for the high topicality of his perspicacious, unclassifiable works today ?

Marx indeed attempted to decrypt the movement of history, the economy, production, value, capital, labour force, money, commodity, consumption, credit, social relations, class struggle, but also the exploitation, alienation, individualization, the possibility of emancipation and of transcending dominations as so many moments in a global movement, in a series of constantly evolving contradictions that make it possible to characterize precisely the singularity, the specificity of a mode of production at any particular time in human history. This approach to contradictions makes it possible to understand why global finance capital is now pushing the logic of profitability to a paroxysm, and why capitalism, as communist economist Paul Boccara [3] shows, is « exponential capitalism », a system that sets money above everything else in order to make more money to the detriment of people’s lives – an irreversible system, which cannot be expected to go back to « old time capitalism ».

In an article published by le Monde diplomatique [4], the philosopher Lucien Sève himself notes that « if the crisis broke out in the credit sphere, its devastating power had been building up in the sphere of production owing to the increasingly unequal distribution of surplus value between capital and labour ». And he goes on to remind us of Mark’s illuminating insight (in Capital, Book I) that : « All the means that are aimed at developing production are conversely as many means of domination and exploitation of the producer », or again (…) that « the accumulation of riches at one pole » has a reverse side which is « the proportional accumulation of destitution » at the other pole, from which, Sève further observes, « the premises of violent trading and banking crises will originate ».

The crisis being systemic, it can only repeat itself and get worse. That is why putting the origin of the crisis down to the excessive volatility of sophisticated financial products is of little avail. To « moralize » capitalism, to restore it to « greater transparency », as proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy, are slogans that are all just for show if the very logic of the system is left untouched, namely the dictatorship of finance, the search for maximum profit. « Faced with a system whose blatant incapacity to regulate itself has such an inordinate cost for us, our aim right now must be to transcend capitalism, and set out on the long march towards a new social organization where human beings, through novel forms of association, will all together control their own social power which has gone berserk », Lucien Sève insists. There lies yet another timely lesson still to be learned from Karl Marx, albeit out of the depths of philosophical oblivion... ______________________________________________________


[1] N° 479, October 2008.

[2] The interview was published by the Centre helvétique d’études marxistes(Swiss centre for Marxist studies) on Occtober 17, 2008.

[3] l’Humanité, October 16.

[4] December 2008.