Karl Marx: His Life and Thought
Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy
Karl Marx was a man of revelations. What he saw lurking in the shadows of modern society—the “specter of communism,” class struggle, surplus value—he sought to bring to the light of day. His belief that unveiling these secrets would provide the key to history seems reflected in his interpreters who look to hidden truths as the key to his history. That Marx left important works unfinished and unpublished has made revelation a large element in Marx studies. The now famous Paris manuscripts of 1844 disclosed a previously unknown (but not wholly unsuspected) Marx to a generation that found “alienation” closer to its experience than class struggle. “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice” (so Marx launched The Eighteenth Brumaire), and the drama of finding the real Marx in a hidden manuscript now seems about to repeat itself.
The new center of attention is the Grundrisse, the preliminary draft of his economic theory Marx set down in the dark winter hours of 1857-1858. Unpublished until 1939, and almost totally unknown before its second edition in 1953, Marx’s rough draft has now been lovingly translated into English by Martin Nicolaus. The new version supersedes an earlier volume of English selections by David McLellan, but McLellan himself has now published a full-scale biography of Marx, one purpose of which is to establish the Grundrisse as the keystone of Marx’s thought. Hence it is useful to consider the biography and the translation together.
McLellan offers his book as a “reasonably balanced picture” of Marx’s life, and in many ways it is one. For a book about such a complex and controversial man, it is remarkably fairminded and clam. Sympathetic yet critical, McLellan tells us what he admires about Marx, and what he regrets. His account of Marx’s life is learned, up-to-date, and accurate. Some old myths fall. Marx’s famous essay “On the Jewish Question,” although certainly insulting to his fellow Jews, was actually an argument in favor of extending full civic rights to them. The old claim that Marx had no practical experience of revolution dims as we learn of his real and effective participation in workers’ organizations during 1848. Marx’s economic situation during his years in London was often desperate, but his living standard was always fairly high, thanks to Engels’s more than generous contributions. Marx was a man of contradictions, sympathetic and kind at times, hostile and vituperative at others, passionately devoted to his wife and family, yet almost certainly the father of their lifelong housekeeper’s illegitimate son.
McLellan’s account of all this is clear and reliable, yet his book does not provide a really satisfying account of Marx’s life and thought. No over-all view of Marx the man ties it together. Instead of a conclusion making sense of the whole we get only an “epilogue” presenting contrasting assessments of Marx’s character by his contemporaries. McLellan clearly presents his view that the Grundrisse is central to Marx’s thought and that it must be linked with the alienation theory of 1844; Marx’s books and the periods of his life pass by in good order. But the organic connections between the supposedly central moments in Marx’s life and the rest never emerge. Some of McLellan’s judgments make one start. It is astonishing to be told that the last pages of the Paris manuscripts “degenerate into absolute obscurity”—certainly they do not.
McLellan’s image of Marx differs from some earlier ones. In place of the portrait, cherished by Engels and many early socialists, of Marx as the discoverer of scientific “laws of motion” governing modern social development there appears a more philosophic and speculative interpreter of experience, a seer, not a seeker of science. Marx, we are told, was impelled by a “central inspiration or vision.” It was “man’s nature” to create his own world and character by the cooperative shaping of his own environment. But under modern conditions “this nature has become alien to man” through the creation of an industrial world in which money and the cash nexus—not human will and foresight—rule modern life. From this perspective (laid out in the Paris manuscripts) Marx in the Grundrisse created a “vision of utopia,” resting on the notion of a “universal individual” whose many-sided personality reflected the control a unified socialist society would exercise over production. In contrast with Engels’s insistence that Marx brought socialism “from utopia to science,” McLellan puts him in a frankly utopian light.
Attractive as it may be, there are many problems with this conception. Can it be true that the “real” Marx resides in the works he did not try to publish—the Paris manuscripts and the Grundrisse—rather than in the ones he sought hard to bring out—The German Ideology and Capital? To place the Grundrisse at the center of Marx’s thought is to forget that Marx never intended his manuscript to be read as a separate book. He gave it no title; the one it goes under merely quotes a letter telling that he was at work on the “basic lines” of his economics. Seeking Marx where he did not wish to be found illuminates some features of his evolution that were once hidden, but it leaves us in the dark about what he considered most important in his work, the replacement of a utopian and “idealist” standpoint with a realistic and “materialist” one.
In discussing the Grundrisse McLellan concentrates on the visionary and humanistic parts, because “the Grundrisse is more interesting for the discussions that were not taken up again” in Capital. But he thereby omits all reference to what Marx considered his most significant theoretical achievement at the time, the law of the falling rate of profit. Given what Marx said about this law, it is difficult to see how one can attempt to discuss the Grundrisse without it. “This is in every respect the most important law of modern political economy,” he wrote, “and the most essential for understanding the most difficult relations. It is the most important law from the historical standpoint. It is a law which, despite its simplicity, has never before been grasped and, even less, consciously articulated.”
Marx’s discovery of this economic law provided one of his greatest moments of intellectual elation. Understanding the structure of Marx’s thinking in the Grundrisse depends on grasping the way the profit law was related to the basic analysis of commodities and value on the one hand, and to Marx’s vision of post-capitalist production on the other. Because he ignores these issues McLellan is unable to see that Marx responded to them differently in the Grundrisse and in Capital. Hence he misses one of the main opportunities the Grundrisse offers for casting new light on the drama of Marx’s life.
Marx’s economic theory depended on the observation that, under capitalism, labor was both a commodity exchanged in the market place and the source of the values of all commodities. This “labor theory of value” did not originate with Marx. On the contrary, so closely was the notion linked to classical economics as represented by Adam Smith and Ricardo that Marx in 1844 had identified it with his capitalist opponents and rejected it. Its emphasis on values as a constant element underlying capitalist exchange relations took attention away from the destructive anarchy Marx then saw as dominant in the capitalist system.
What allowed Marx to put the labor theory of value at the center of his own economics in 1857-1858 was an important refinement he added, the distinction between “abstract” and “concrete” labor. According to this principle, what created the value of commodities in the market place was not the “concrete” labor of the specific workers who produced them—carpenters, factory laborers, or critics—but the common quality that remained once all the specific attributes of particular workers were eliminated—human labor in the abstract. All commodities that were to be exchanged had in common only their being products of this “abstract” labor. The amount of such labor any product contained would determine the quantity of other items, similarly reckoned, for which it could be exchanged.
Individual workers created exchange value, but only in their capacity as participants in the overarching system of market relations, through which individual differences in the nature and quality of work were cancelled out. Value was “a purely social reality,” representing a certain part of the total productive potential of a given society. Any commodity could command an amount of value equal to the labor power required to replace it under existing technological and social conditions. (The “surface” expression of value, price, was not equivalent to value, but values were the source of prices, and at this point Marx chose to ignore the differences.)
It followed that labor itself had a value, equal to its replacement cost. This covered the necessities that kept the worker alive and able to reproduce himself, and might also reflect traditional living standards or the growing share claimed by workers in an expanding product (i.e., wages were not limited to bare subsistence). But the value of the labor the worker sold, calculated on this basis, was not the same as the value of the labor power the capitalist bought. Human labor could produce more than the cost of replacing itself (increasingly so as industry developed), and the employer lucky enough to buy it received the full value of its productive potential while paying only for its replacement cost. The labor of men in society, which Marx called “abstract labor,” had a greater value than “concrete labor,” the labor of particular workers. Under capitalism the entire difference went to the capitalist. Workers might be able to produce enough to sustain themselves in six hours, in which case the market value of their labor was six units; but if the normal working day was twelve hours then the capitalist received twice as much value-creating labor as he paid for. The extra six hours work Marx called “surplus labor,” and the value it produced was “surplus value.”
The law of the falling rate of profit rested on this definition of surplus value, combined with Marx’s distinction between “constant” and “variable” capital. Variable capital was that portion of the total capital which purchased labor; it was “variable” because the value it contributed to the final product exceeded the value of the labor it purchased by the amount of the surplus value. Constant capital was the portion devoted to machines and raw materials. In the production process these elements simply transferred the value they already contained to the final product, raw materials in proportion to the amount of them the product contained, machines in proportion to the fraction of their productive life devoted to a particular product.
Of course Marx recognized that more productive machines would increase the size of the final product and therefore its value, but this increase was only temporary. Capitalists bought increased efficiency at the cost of eventually cheapening the price of their products. As soon as their competitors adopted the new techniques the selling price of the products would fall, reflecting the smaller quantity of labor they actually embodied. Thus from the point of view of capitalist society as a whole, the capital invested in machines was “constant” in Marx’s sense.