‘In Marx’s Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse’ reviewed by Chris O’Kane

Reviewed by Chris O’Kane

About the reviewer

Chris O’Kane (theresonlyonechrisokane@gmail.com) is an Associate at the Institute for the …


In Marx’s Laboratory: Critical Interpretations of the Grundrisse is the tenth book to come out of the International Symposium on Marxian Theory, a research group concerned with the problems of ‘the Hegelian roots of Marx’s method and the close interaction between value and money’ (2) in Marx’s mature critique of political economy. Whereas the previous works to come out of the ISMT focused on later formulations of Marx’s critique, the present volume is concerned with the Grundrisse, a series of Marx’s notebooks from 1857-8, which had an enormous influence on interpretations of Capital following their publication in the West in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In order to provide the volume with a wider range of perspectives, the collections editors also invited contributions from leading Marx scholars not affiliated with the ISMT.

As the editor’s introduction notes, the collection’s eighteen contributions share the premise that the Grundrisse are a laboratory in which Marx first experimented with ‘his dialectical investigation of the movement of capitalist social and economic forms’ (3). Moreover, as the introduction also notes, ‘despite the great variety of approaches’ the contributions ‘share a common ground in representing methodologically-minded readings of Marx’s critique of political economy, understood as a critical investigation of the historically-specific reified forms of social mediation of capitalist society’ (3). In addition, they also share the methodological premises of ‘re-reading’ Marx’s ‘project both in light of recent philological advances and also in terms of the capacity of such philologically-informed reading to contribute to our understanding of the contemporary capitalist mode of production’ (14). Finally, in contrast to many of the influential interpretations of the Grundrisse, which interpreted Capital from the perspective of the Grundrisse, many of the contributions share the ‘retrospective reading strategy’ (4) of interpreting the Grundrisse from the perspective of Capital. These commonalities are reflected in 18 wide-ranging essays on the Grundrisse, which the editors have divided into six parts, neatly delineating the different areas of Marx’s thought that the contributions examine. In what follows, I provide short accounts of these contributions and close with some reflections on the volume as a whole.

Part One, ‘Achievements and Limits of the Grundrisse’, consists in a series of comparisons between the methodology employed in the Grundrisse and Capital. Riccardo Bellofiore’sThe Grundrisse after Capital, or How to Re-read Marx Backwards’ argues that reading the Grundrisse from the perspective of Capital enables us to grasp the breakthroughs that occur in the Grundrisse; where Marx first grasps the division between the ‘natural’ and ‘historical’ in ‘pre-capitalist forms of production’ as well as the specific ‘universality’ of labour in capitalism. However, Bellofiore also argues that these notebooks are marred by the ambiguous ways that Marx uses the categories of labour and money. Bellofiore concludes by calling for the Grundrisse’s notions of crisis theory, its presentation of abstract labour, and its discussions of the struggle over living labour, to be read together with Capital. In ‘Method: from Grundrisse to Capital’, Juan Iñigo Carrera makes the case that Marx’s method is concerned with reproducing the concrete ‘by means of thought’ (61). Carrera argues that Capital marks an advance from the analytic method in the Grundrisse by uniting the method of presentation and mode of inquiry ‘in the development’ of the substance of value ‘into its necessary concrete forms’ (63). Roberto Fineschi’s, ‘The Four Level’s of Abstraction of Marx’s Concept of Capital’, utilizes MEGA2 (Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe 2) to assay Marx’s different plans for the critique of political economy. Fineschi argues that Marx’s subsequent plans mark improvements over the dialectical development of the Grundrisse; moving away from applying a Hegelian scheme to his theory of capital to one that unfolded capital’s ‘own inner dialectical logic’ (93) across four levels of abstraction from simple circulation to singularity.

Part Two concerns ‘Abstract Labour, Value and Money’. Chris Arthur’s ‘The Practical Truth of Abstract Labour’ integrates two ‘insights’ from Marx’s discussion of abstract labour in the Grundrisse ­– Marx’s comments that abstract labour possesses a historically-specific ‘practical truth’ and that it is ‘situated in the capital-relation – into Arthur’s project of a ‘systematic dialectic’ reconstruction of Capital. Arthur’s ensuing interpretation conceives of abstract labour as the ‘practical abstraction intrinsic to the capitalist mode of production and exchange’ (102) that is ‘rooted in the way the value-form imposes this abstraction on labour’ (120) in the unity of the process of production and circulation. Arthur’s contribution sets a new benchmark for value-form interpretations of abstract labour. In the aptly-named ‘Unavoidable Crises: Reflections on Backhaus and the development of Marx’s value-form theory in the Grundrisse, Patrick Murray offers some considerations on the pioneering work of Hans-Georg Backhaus. While Murray praises much of Backhaus’s work, he also defends Marx’s presentation of the dialectic of the value-form in Capital from several of Backhaus’s criticisms. Murray concludes by tying the development of the value-form in the Grundrisse to the aspects of Marx’s theory that view ‘recurrent crises’ as ‘precipitated by the value-form’(146).

‘The Concept of Capital’ is the subject matter of Part Three. Martha Campbell’s, ‘The Transformation of Money into Capital’ provides a philological comparison of the transition from simple circulation to capital in the Grundrisse, the Urtext and Capital Volume 1. In contrast to the logico-historical interpretations of simple commodity production, or the notion that Part One of Capital Volume 1 discusses ‘commodity-form production in general’, Campbell argues that Part One and Part Two are linked so that ‘capital is derived as the pre-supposition for commodity-circulation’(151). Howard Engelskirchen’s ‘The Concept of Capital in the Grundrisse’ argues that Marx’s Aristotelian-inflected theory of capital possesses similarities to the ‘real definition’ of a social kind in the philosophy of science. In addition, Engelskirchen argues that Bettelheim’s characterization of capital as the constituent of a ‘double separation’ applies to the idea of ‘Capital in General’ in the Grundrisse.

The Grundrisse’s ‘Fragment on Machines’ is the object of four different interpretations in Part Four. Michael Heinrich’s ‘The ‘Fragment on Machines: A Marxian Misconception in the Grundrisse and its Overcoming in Capital’ argues that the collapse theory Marx provides in this fragment rests on the ‘shortcomings’ in the theory of value in the Grundrisse and the ‘one-sided’ assumption Marx held that the crisis of the 1850s would lead to the collapse of capitalism. Heinrich then argues that the theory of value Marx developed in Capital links the ‘precise’ distinctions between concrete and abstract labour, constant and variable capital and the ‘comprehension of the capitalist production-process as a unity of the labour and valorisation process’ to the category of relative-surplus value (210). This leads Heinrich to conclude, convincingly, that the developments Marx had seen as leading inextricably to collapse in the Grundrisse are perceived in Capital as a ‘tendency immanent to all capitalist production’ that reach a ‘highpoint in machine-production’ (211). Moreover, since this type of production leads to the accumulation of relative-surplus value it is ‘not a tipping point that puts capitalist production into question’ (211). Tony Smith’s ‘The General Intellect in the Grundrisse and Beyond’, provides a trenchant criticism of Paolo Virno’s and Carlo Vercellone’s use of Marx’s idea of the general intellect in their respective social theories. Smith shows that both thinkers’ interpretations rest on a basic misunderstanding of Marx’s ‘fundamental’ distinction between value and wealth. Smith also argues that their social theories neglect the role that ‘free gifts’ and the general intellect have played throughout the history of capitalism. Guido Starosta’s ‘The System of Machinery and Determinations of Revolutionary Subjectivity in the Grundrisse and Capital’ provides a reading of ‘Marx’s exposition of the forms of the real subsumption of labour to capital … as constituting the dialectical presentation of the determinations of revolutionary subjectivity’ (233). Starosta contends that this dialectical presentation ‘must essentially consist in the synthetic unfolding of the contradictory movement between materiality and the capital-form up to its absolute limit, revealing the proletariat’s self-abolishing action as the necessary form in which the former content asserts itself’ (235). Since Capital provides a ‘truncated’ version of this presentation, with a ‘gap’ between the chapters on relative surplus-value and the ‘Historical Tendency of Capital Accumulation’, Starosta utilises several passages from the ‘Fragment of Machines’ to complete this systematic unfolding. George Caffentzis’s ‘From the Grundrisse to Capital and Beyond’ combines ‘Marxology’ with a semi-autobiographical history that traces how a reading of the increasing commensurability of wealth and labour time as an ‘essential preliminary’ (270) of the law of the rate of profit to fall influenced the journal Zerowork and the Wages for Housework Campaign. Caffentzis also traces parallels between the ‘techno-scepticism’ of contemporary anti-capitalist movements and Marx’s later interest in the Paris Commune and Russian obschina.

Part Five features contributions on the topics of ‘Competition, Cycles and Crises’. Fred Moseley’s ‘The Whole and the Parts. The Beginning of Marx’s theory of distribution of surplus-value in the Grundrisse’, which builds on his previous work, argues that certain passages in the Grundrisse show that Marx ‘was already very clear’ that his ‘subsequent analysis of the equalisation of profit rates (and the distribution of surplus-value in general) would be based on the premise that the total amount of surplus-value is determined prior to its distribution’ (288). In ‘Marx’s Grundrisse and the Monetary Business-Cycle’, Jan Toporowski highlights the importance financial innovation plays in Marx’s critique of political economy. Toporowski makes the pertinent case that for Marx ‘the financing needs of capitalist production induce financial innovation, which comes to have a dominant … role in relation to production’ allowing ‘credit-cycles to determine the nature and dynamics of capitalism’ (309). Geert Reuten and Peter D. Thomas’s ‘Crisis and the Rate of Profit in Marx’s Laboratory’ provides a philological study of the ‘tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ in successive drafts of Marx’s critique of political economy. This important contribution makes a convincing case that Marx’s views on the ‘tendency’ developed from a naturalistic philosophy of history that remained ‘indebted’ to classical political economy, and posited an inevitable breakdown in the telos of capitalism, to a theory that saw that the falling rate of profit was an operative expression of the contradictory and systematic functioning ‘of the capitalist mode of production as a potentially durable system’ (312). The authors also outline a number of promising areas of further research.

The final part of the collection contains four contributions on the theme of ‘Society and History in the Grundrisse’. Luca Basso’s chapter ‘Between Pre-Capitalist Forms and Capitalism: The Problem of Society in the Grundrisse (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy)’ argues that the Grundrisse’s historical comparisons between the autonomous individual ‘subjected to the objective power of money, and of society’ and pre-capitalist forms characterized by the ‘unity of land and community’ are used by Marx to identify what is historically-specific to capitalism. Amy Wendling’s fascinating ‘Second Nature: Gender in Marx’s Grundrisse’ contextualizes and reconstructs Marx’s conception of gender. On the basis of some of Marx’s notebooks from 1852 – forthcoming in MEGA2 but unfortunately not quoted in the article – Wendling argues that Marx’s later conception of gender ‘as an enormously complex, socially imbedded, yet transhistorical structure’ (355) supersedes two of the prevailing discourses on gender in his time. Re-reading the Grundrisse from this perspective, with particular focus on Marx’s notion of second nature, Wendling argues that Marx’s conception of gender also ‘foreshadows’ some of the debates in twentieth-century Marxist feminism. Joel Wainright’s ‘Uneven Developments: From the Grundrisse to Capital’, makes the case that Marx provides ‘elements’ of a theory of imperialism that sees uneven development ‘as an effect of four related processes’; original and on-going primitive accumulation, formal subsumption, ‘the displacement of diverse pre-capitalist formations, and colonialism’ (373). Wainright argues that the different emphasis on these elements in the Grundrisse and Capital reflect Marx’s ‘growing recognition’ of the ‘interconnections between Britain’s imperial brutality and the expansionary nature of capital’ (373). Massimiliano Tomba’s ‘Pre-Capitalistic Forms of Production and Primitive Accumulation. Marx’s Historiography form the Grundrisse to Capital’ argues that the Grundrisse provides a ‘double scheme of interpretation’ that ties an evolutionary history to a repetitive history of invariants in order to understand ‘the nature of the historical break represented by the capitalist mode of production’ (395). In Tomba’s view, Marx rethinks this developmental schema in Capital where he conceives of genesis, development and crisis in combination in the moments and temporalities of the world market.

In Marx’s Laboratory ably achieves the editor’s stated goal of ‘providing an in-depth critical engagement with the Grundrisse from a variety of different perspectives’ (3) – with a few qualifications. The variety of perspectives might have been broadened if the collection had included contributions from scholars who interpret Marx’s critique of political economy along ‘Traditional Marxist’ lines. Moreover, the critical engagements might have been more in-depth if the number of contributions that interpret the Grundrisse from the perspective of Capital had provided more engagement with work of scholars who re-read Capital from the perspective of the Grundrisse. (A case in point is the work of Moishe Postone, an influential contemporary Marx scholar, whose recent ‘Rethinking Capital in Light of the Grundrisse’ (Postone 2008) is not mentioned.) These minor points aside, the collection fills an important gap in the sparse English secondary literature on the Grundrisse, making a valuable contribution to contemporary Marxian studies. In so doing, In Marx’s Laboratory provides essential reading for those who are working on Marx’s critique of political economy, while also providing notable contributions to the exciting work currently going on that is re-evaluating Marx’s theory of value, his theory of crisis and his theory of gender.

9 February 2014


  • Postone, Moishe 2008 Rethinking Capital in Light of the Grundrisse Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later. Marcello Musto (ed.), (New York: Routledge)

One comment

  1. I’m pleased to see that a piece on Hans-Georg Backhaus is included in this collection. Many times I stayed with him in Frankfurt, witnessing his appetite for cake at breakfast. His work was an essential impulse for our work in the Sydney-Konstanz Project 1976-1984 (together with Marnie Hanlon, Lucia Kleiber and Mike Roth) on reconstructing the capital-analysis and extending it into the realm of the ‘bourgeois superstructure’ programmatically envisaged already in 1844. In these EPM Marx announces a series of brochures on the “critique of right, morality, politics, etc.” in which “one finds the connection of national economy with state, right, morality, bourgeois life, etc. only mentioned insofar as national economy itself mentions these objects ex professo”.

    In 1858 Marx has pruned this plan. He writes to Lassalle during writing a huge manuscript — Die Grundrisse – his plan for “a critique of economic categories or, if you like, the system of bourgeois economy critically presented. It is simultaneously presentation of the system and through the presentation a critique of it. … The whole is divided into 6 Books. 1) On Capital (contains some preliminary chapters) 2) On Landed Property 3) On Wage-Labour 4) On State 5) International Trade 6) World Market.” In Das Kapital, this plan is pruned even further.

    Backhaus’ work on the dialectical thinking-through of the value-form — the all-decisive, seminal starting-point of Marx’s system — showed (me, at least) that it had to be recast. Whereas Backhaus himself stuck with the beginning and its antinomies, I was impatient, and inspired to risk casting into the “superstructure” on the basis of our reconstruction of the capital-analysis along consistent value-form analytic lines, this work being published in 1984 in Copenhagen (available today online at my web-site). In my view, the phenomenon of value (not only the non-substantial, but referential, reified value in Marx’s critique of capitalism) remains THE key to understanding the phenomenality of sociality at all. Marx’s reference back to Aristotle’s treatment of _timae_ (value, esteem, estimation, honour) in Book V of the Eth. Nic. in his own explication of exchange-value opens a vista beyond the economic.

    “Unavoidable Crises” in capitalist economies, in my understanding, are breakdowns of mutual estimation in the social power-plays mediated by things (commodities, money, capital, land). Moves in these power-plays are unforeseeable and often entirely surprising. Since value is the ongoing outcome of power-plays, it can also melt and dissolve in certain, hitherto unforeseen, configurations of the game. By critiquing the so-called labour theory of value with its conception of a “value substance”, Backhaus, on my reading, points the way toward a fully fledged Social Ontology that draws on the entire Western tradition of ontological thinking, starting with Plato and Aristotle. This represents a broadening of horizons — including beyond Marx.

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