‘Re-reading Marx: New Perspectives after the Critical Edition’ reviewed by Nick Gray

and (eds)
Re-reading Marx: New Perspectives after the Critical Edition

Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2009. 239pp., £65.00 hb
ISBN 9780230202115

Reviewed by Nick Gray

About the reviewer

Nick Gray is studying for a DPhil on Marx’s theory of reification at the University of Sussex …


Re-reading Marx: New Perspectives after the Critical Edition brings together a number of prominent contemporary Marx scholars and is the result of a conference in Bergamo, Italy 2006, organised by the International Symposium on Marxian Theory. Each of the contributions seeks to reassess the Marxian project of critique of political economy, either in the light of the publication of the new historical and critical edition of the works of Marx and Engels (MEGA-2) or drawing on the debates in German Marx scholarship from the late 1960s up to the present day. The volume draws together important philological insights into the Marxian corpus, but perhaps more importantly it represents a new framing of the debate over the content and character of the mature Marxian critical project itself, with the advantage that the contributors to this debate are now able to draw on all of Marx’s original manuscripts themselves rather than having to rely on material edited and published by Engels after Marx’s death. As the editors of Re-reading Marx, Riccardo Bellofiore and Roberto Fineschi point out, the publication of the Critical Edition means that “it is now possible to read Marx according to Marx” (1).

However one theme that emerges from several of the contributions is that readings of Marx are never neutral. In his chapter, “From History of Capital to History in Capital”, Massimiliano Tomba makes the point thus: “one cannot read Marx without Marxism and its interpretative sedimentations. Not even philology is neutral” (195). The editors of Re-reading Marx outline in their introduction to the volume the shifting political history of the two MEGA projects; the first ill-fated attempt led by Rjazanov to produce a critical edition was hardly free from Stalinist interference and the Soviet regime’s need to uphold the official doctrine of Marxism-Leninism. Rjazanov’s project was revived after Stalin’s death and subsequently went through several incarnations with the participation of various Institutes, East and West; however it wasn’t until after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc by 1991 that it was decided to pursue the ongoing publishing project based on philological criteria free from former ideological influences. Tomba is highly critical, however, of the supposed neutrality of the Critical Edition: “The contemporary attempt to place [Marx’s text] in the glass case of philology, to restore it in its objectivity of economic and social science, is itself a piece of that class struggle: the reaction against the political content of Marx’s analyses, in order to produce a depoliticized Marx, without the class struggle” (195). Michael Heinrich arguably both agrees and disagrees with Tomba in his cogently argued chapter “Reconstruction or Deconstruction? Methodological Controversies about Value and Capital and New Insights from the Critical Edition”. While he is full of praise for the editorial work and the quality of MEGA-2, Heinrich invokes Foucault to argue that the interpretation or engagement with Marx’s texts “is an open process which takes place repeatedly. It is not a passive perception of given textual entities because no text is unambiguous, but rather an active process of construction depending on changing political and discursive conditions” (77). Heinrich gives an account of the debates in West Germany and the so-called “neue Marx Lektüre” (“new Marx reading”) in the late 1960s and early 1970s at a time of social ferment (he also details parallel discussions occurring in Marxian scholarship in East Germany). It was no coincidence that the traditional interpretation of the Marxian oeuvre by “orthodox” or “traditional” Marxism was brought into question at that time. Many of the perspectives offered in Re-reading Marx share something of the character and direction of the new critical engagement with Marx of the German debates of that period (also documented by Roberto Fineschi in his chapter “Dialectic of the Commodity and its Exposition: The German Debate in the 1970s – A Personal Survey”). Indeed many, but not all, of the contributors, including the two editors, are participants in the International Symposium on Marxian Theory (ISMT), in which much weight has been put on value-form theory (particularly on the internal unity between the theory of money and the theory of value), on understandings of the forms of value as historically specific social forms, and on the logical or systematic dialectical development of Marxian categories. Before Re-reading Marx, the ISMT has also been behind the publication of three collections of critical assessments, many of them with explicit reference to the manuscripts published in the Critical Edition, on each of the three volumes of Marx’s Capital (Arthur and Reuten, 1998; Campbell and Reuten, 2002; Bellofiore and Taylor, 2004).

Heinrich’s close reading of the materials newly made available in the Critical Edition, however, leave him somewhat sceptical vis-à-vis attempts to reconstruct Marx, or to “reveal the hidden logic, the covered inner coherence of his work” (74). Heinrich has devoted much research to demonstrating the incompleteness of the mature Marxian project, and indeed disputes the common assertion (advanced elsewhere by Michael Krätke, and by Patrick Murray in his contribution “The Place of the Results in Capital”) that Marx’s working manuscripts from 1857-58 onwards can all be said to form part of a single project (i.e., of the mature Marxian critique of political economy, in which all the various manuscripts are considered drafts of the finally published Capital). Heinrich emphasises the discontinuities and the changed scope of the various manuscripts, drawing a distinction between the earlier project of a 6-book ‘Critique of Political Economy’ (encompassing the 1857 Introduction, the Grundrisse, the Urtext, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and the Economic Manuscript of 1861-63 including ‘Theories of Surplus-Value’) and the later project, reduced in scope, of a 4-book ‘Capital’, in which Heinrich identifies three drafts (starting with the Economic Manuscript of 1863-65 and encompassing later reworkings of books I-III right up to the last years of Marx’s life). Of particular significance is the extent to which Marx intended to rework even the published first volume of Capital. Rolf Hecker (“New Perspectives Opened by the Publication of Marx’s Manuscripts of Capital, Vol. II”), Regina Roth (“Karl Marx’s Original Manuscripts in the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA): Another View on Capital”) and Geert Reuten (“Marx’s General Rate of Profit Transformation: Methodological and Theoretical Obstacles. An Appraisal Based on the 1864-65 Manuscript of Das Kapital III”) concur with Heinrich about the “work-in-progress” nature of Marx’s mature writings (25, 31), and also about the extent of Engels’ editorial interventions in compiling the published second and third volumes of Capital from Marx’s various manuscripts (19-22, 25, 41-46, 229). The contributions by Hecker, Roth and Heinrich detail the indices and other scientific apparatus in the Critical Edition which allow cross-referencing between Marx’s various manuscripts and the final versions produced by Engels. The editorial work carried out by Engels is generally not criticised by these commentators, apart from his misleading comments as to the extent of his interventions – Hecker cites Engels’ preface to the first edition of Capital, Vol. II in which the latter claims that “the bulk of the material was not finally polished, in point of language, although in substance it was for the greater part fully worked out” (18, 25). There is a strong consensus between Hecker, Roth and Heinrich that Engels heavily underplays the extent to which Marx’s manuscripts are open-ended and leave many theoretical problems unresolved. Engels’ attempt to make good on his friend’s death-bed request that he “make something” of the unpublished manuscripts (41) resulted in the publication of what seemed like a coherent, final version of a definitive text, and which has been treated as such by ‘orthodox’ Marxism. Heinrich casts doubt on the viability of any attempt to reconstruct Marx on the basis of a presumed “coherent inner kernel” of the Marxian critical project (96); this would be tantamount to “chasing a phantom” (77). The publication of the Critical Edition serves in his opinion rather to “deconstruct” prevailing conceptions of the integrity of the Marxian corpus. Heinrich is no outright Marx-sceptic, however; arguably he is merely bending the stick back against dogmatic readings of Marx, which have uncritically elevated the published writings of Marx and Engels to the status of a canon. Any attempt to come to terms with the Marxian critical project is in fact necessarily a “constructive task” (96).

Several of the later chapters in Re-reading Marx (notably Fred Moseley, “The Development of Marx’s Theory of the Distribution of Surplus-Value in the Manuscripts of 1861-63”; Christopher Arthur, “The Possessive Spirit of Capital: Subsumption/Inversion/Contradiction”; Riccardo Bellofiore, “A Ghost Turning into a Vampire: The Concept of Capital and Living Labour”; and Reuten’s chapter) offer various such attempts – whether they are cast as reconstructions or new constructions – to develop the critical project outlined by Marx. None of the authors would dispute that the Marxian critique of capital is, as Bellofiore puts it, “unfinished business” (180); however each of them would presumably take issue with Heinrich’s contention that there is no “hidden logic” or “covered inner coherence” to be revealed (à la Backhaus or Reichelt) in Marx’s work, and indeed this is something of a fault-line which runs through the collection.

Moseley contends contra Heinrich that Marx retains in his later manuscripts (i.e. after 1863) the category of capital in general (even though nominally the category is apparently dropped). For Moseley capital in general is a level of abstraction corresponding to the production of surplus-value, and it is contrasted with the level of abstraction of competition, corresponding to the distribution of surplus-value. Marx switches between these levels of abstraction in his manuscripts (and in the version of the third volume of Capital published by Engels) as a result of his decision to bring forward his treatment of competition and the distribution of surplus-value. Murray, Arthur, Bellofiore and Reuten all base their reconstructions of Marx on the understanding that the Marxian critique of capital is structured according to a systematic dialectic (or even that the object of critique is itself objectively structured in this way). Roberto Finelli, too, in his chapter “The Limits and Uncertainties of Historical Materialism: An Appraisal Based on the Text of Grundrisse (Notebooks III, IV and V)” defends a Hegelian Marxist conception of the “totalitarian function of the presupposition-posit circle” which characterises capital and the “totalitarian aspect of the economy” which separates the capitalist epoch from previous ones (107). Murray situates “The Results of the Immediate Production Process” (from the 1863-63 draft) as a conceptual bridge between the first and second volumes of Capital in Marx’s systematic dialectical exposition, where the previous point of departure, the generalised commodity form of wealth, is now grasped as the necessary result of the capitalist production process, and forms a new point of departure for the examination of the circulation process of capital in Volume II. Murray’s argument is a persuasive rebuttal of those who suggest that Marx deliberately discarded the ‘Results’ as superfluous or out of place in the exposition. An important dimension to the discussion in the ‘Results’ is the treatment of formal and real subsumption of labour under capital. Like Murray, Arthur explicitly deals with the question of where these categories should occur in the “architectonic of the presentation of capital” (154). In his proposed reconstruction, and drawing on the 1861-63 and 1863-64 Manuscripts, Arthur suggests that subsumption should be theorised at “different levels of concretion” (154), namely at the beginning of the treatment of the valorisation process, under the rubric of formal subsumption (the subsumption of the labour process under the drive for valorisation). Then, at a higher level of concretion, the real subsumption of labour under capital should be thematised in tandem with the exposition of the impulse towards relative surplus-value extraction; and finally as result of the development of the capitalist production process, capital, by “(embodying) itself in the factory regime”, determines itself as self-producing, as a ‘Subjekt’ (154). Tony Smith, in his contribution: “The Chapters on Machinery in the 1861-63 Manuscripts”, covers some of the same ground, with subtle differences in his understanding of the nature of the mystification involved in capital’s “ontological claims” in its appropriation of the powers of social labour as powers of capital. Bellofiore’s proposed reconstruction of the Marxian dialectic of capital is to some extent a departure from Marx: Bellofiore argues for a “macro-monetary reconstruction of the abstract labour theory of value” (188) as a “sound monetary theory of exploitation” (178), in which money is “essentially non-commodity money” and seen first as “bank finance to production” (184). In developing such a theory of “monetary ante-validation” (184), Bellofiore sees himself as going beyond or against Marx in order to salvage the Marxian critical project (as already reconstructed by Rubin and Napoleoni). Reuten, for his part, uses all the powers of a sleuth in his attempt to reconstruct Marx’s theory of the general rate of profit transformation (corresponding to part two of Capital, Volume III) from the 1864-65 Manuscript, and points to a way in which Marx might have been minded to overcome the theoretical obstacles he encountered (since known as “the Transformation Problem”). It is clear from Reuten’s exposition that Marx had in no way definitively settled on a solution, and indeed in any case a major dimension to the problem is in the relation that Marx intended between the three books of Capital (which we know as the three published volumes of Capital). Reuten contrasts a “method of concretion” with a “method of completion” (215) as two ways of interpreting Volume I categories from the perspective of those of the manuscript for Volume III. The problem of reconstruction here is exacerbated when we consider, as indicated by Heinrich, that Marx had written in correspondence shortly before his death of his intention to fundamentally rework Volume I; any reconstructive attempt must also deal with the problem of non-contemporaneity between the various manuscripts for the different books of Capital.

Re-reading Marx offers an impressive array of scholarship, philological, exegetical and reconstructive, into the manuscripts made available by the publication of the Critical Edition. The contributions are heterogeneous and occasionally in tension with each other; taken together, however, they make good on the editors’ (and the ISMT’s) intent to contribute to the process of facilitating a mutual understanding and interpenetration between the debates in Marx scholarship – the new Marx readings and reconstructions – occurring in the different languages (notably German, Italian and English).

4 January 2011


  • Arthur, Christopher J. and Reuten, Geert (eds.) 1998 The Circulation of Capital: Essays on Volume II of Marx’s ‘Capital (London: Macmillan/New York: St Martin’s Press).
  • Bellofiore, Riccardo and Taylor, Nicola (eds.) 2004 The Constitution of Capital: Essays on Volume I of Marx’s ‘Capital (Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan).
  • Campbell, Martha and Reuten, Geert (eds.) 2002 The Culmination of Capital: Essays on Volume III of Marx’s ‘Capital (Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan).


  1. As a rare Anglophone, I was intensively involved in those debates in Germany in the 1970s on a “new reading of Marx” — the Sydney-Konstanz Project 1976-1984 published extensively in English, Italian, Danish and German on the subject. I have never been approached by the ISMT, presumably because, in the words of the London Endnotes group, I am “overly extreme”. The only genuine radical? The SydKon Project aimed at a reconstruction and extension of Marx’s systematic theory, as precipitated in my 1984 book (available as an e-book from my web site).

    Heinrich is dead right to point out that the scope of Marx’s project shrank during the progress of his work. What is crucial to point out to all those (too) close readers of Marx, however, is that the original project as announced already in 1844 in Ec-Phil. MSS. encompasses not only “national economy” but also “right, morality, bourgeois life, etc.” which Marx intends to treat in a series of brochures on the “critique of right, morality, politics, etc.” Today’s debate on systematic dialectics has not caught up even with the young Marx.

    Even the advanced, systematic value-form Marxists today, caught in self-inflicted, politically motivated, tunnel vision, remain focused on the critique of capital through a kind of economic theory. Any radical thinker today needs to step back from Marx to Hegel, and then step back from Hegel to the metaphysical tradition starting with Plato and Aristotle, and then start there from the roots in recasting the value-form from ARISTOTLE Eth. Nic. V in a way that is not unreflectively beholden to traditional metaphysical categories such as (value-) substance. See my 2008 Social Ontology for details, second extended 2011 edition out soon online.


  2. Michael, thanks, yes, I think that is right, which is precisely why I have moved in to the study of Ernst Bloch, with his emphasis on the Aristotelian/Hegelian basis of Marxism.

  3. This appears to be a very interesting collection and it looks like it may provoke a most interesting discussion. I will limit my participation until I have read the book but I could not help but notice that none of the contributors seems to have given any attention to Kozo Uno’s Keizai genron 1950-52, 1964, translated into English as Principles of Political Economy in 1980 by Thomas T. Sekine or, indeed, to Sekine’s Dialectic of Capital 2 vol. 1984 (A new edition will be published shortly) and An Outline of the Dialectic of Capital (2 vol. 1997). It seems to me that a very strong case could be made that the Uno-Sekine reconstruction of Capital I-III is the most rigorously dialectical and imposing defence of Marxian value theory to date. Although Uno chose to avoid discussion of the correspondences between the dialectic of capital and Hegel’s metaphysical dialectic, Sekine traced these correspondences in considerable detail in his Dialectic of Capital and has given the subject attention in a number articles published in three languages over the past 35 years so it would seem to have been a serious oversight for contributors to have entirely neglected mention of the Uno-Sekine contribution, though, as I say, I have not yet read the book so this observation may prove to be off the mark. In any case, I look forward to reading the book.

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