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Chapter V

Chapter V. Research: The Grundrisse

The first two dozen pages of the Grundrisse, the notes and rough drafts of Marx’s economic studies which were later published within a more restricted scope in Capital, provide an extended treatment of Marx’s method. Valuable discussions of the following three issues can be found in this “Introduction,” which guided Marx’s economic research: (1) the centrality of commodity production, (2) the method of analyzing capitalist society, and (3) the relationship of transhistorically general to socio-historically specific concepts.

The important chapter of Marx’s Grundrisse entitled “Forms which Precede Capitalist Production. (Concerning the Process which Precedes the Formation of the Capitalist Relations of Original Accumulation)” elaborates upon several themes presented in the “Introduction.” The forty pages of this chapter contain the only extended consideration of pre-capitalist societies in the thousand pages of analysis, yet here Marx actually becomes repetitive. In the formulations of his reconstructive approach to history and in his historical characterization of the notion of property, so important are they to his concerns. Marx’s reconstruction of the history of property relations, understood in their relation to the prevailing mode or production provides a unity to Marx’s doctrines, presents the core of his historical materialism, and supplies the critical fulcrum for his critique of political economy.

Materialistic Conceptualizations for the Self-Interpretation of the World

Marx’s statement of the priority of the category of production within an economic analysis of bourgeois society is so straight-forward that it requires little comment. He begins his analysis of the general relations of production to distribution, exchange, and consumption by giving the traditional definitions of these terms as used by bourgeois economists (Smith, Ricardo, Mill, etc.):

The obvious notion: in production the members of society appropriate (create, shape) the products of nature in accord with human needs; distribution determines the proportion in which the individual shares in the product; exchange delivers the particular products into which the individual desires to convert the portion. which distribution has assigned to him; and finally, in consumption, the products become objects of gratification, of individual appropriation. . . . Thus production appears as the point of departure, consumption as the conclusion, distribution and exchange as the middle, which is, however, itself twofold, since distribution is determined by society and exchange by individuals.[1]

The four basic spheres of the capitalist economy are posited by bourgeois political economy as autonomous domains to be found in every economic system. Marx’s analysis is dialectical, negating the theoretical limitations involved in viewing these domains as autonomous by explicating their conceptual, structural and historical interdependence, finally arriving at production as in each case the historically determinant and determining essence behind the multiple appearances. Appealing to the traditional definitions just stated (e.g., consumption as appropriation of the object by the individual). Marx develops the relation of each domain to production in a strikingly Hegelian style. Concerning production and consumption, he thus argues:

Production is also immediately consumption. Twofold consumption subjective and objective: the individual not only develops his abilities in production, but also expands them, uses them up in the act of production, just as natural procreation is a consumption of life forces. Secondly: consumption of the means of production, which become worn out through use, and are partly (e.g., in combustion) dissolved into their elements again. Likewise, consumption of the raw material, which loses its natural form and composition by being used up. The act of production is therefore in all its moments an act of consumption. . . . The artistic object – like every other product – creates a public which is sensitive to art and enjoys beauty. Production thus not only creates an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object. . . . The important thing to recognize here is only that, whether production and consumption are viewed as the activity of one or of many individuals, they appear in any case as moments of one process, in which production is the real point of departure and hence also the predominant moment.[2]

In the case of production for immediate consumption, the economist’s “state of nature,” production is decisive. However, commodity production is by definition mediated by distribution. Marx therefore turns next to the relation of this latter sphere to production, in order to see what changes this added complication may introduce to the centrality of production:

An individual whose participation in production takes the form of wage labor will receive a share in the products, the results of production, in the form of wages. The structure of distribution is entirely determined by the structure of production. Distribution itself is a product of production, not only in its object, in that only the results of production can be distributed, but also in its form, in that the specific kind of participation in production determines the specific forms of distribution, i.e., the pattern of participation in distribution. It is altogether an illusion to posit land in production, ground rent in distribution, etc. . . . In the shallowest conception, distribution appears as the distribution of products, and hence as furthest removed from and quasi-independent of production. But before distribution can be distribution of products, it is (1) the distribution of the members of society among the different kinds of production. (Subsumption of the individuals under specific relations of production.) The distribution of products is evidently only a result of this distribution, which is comprised within the process of production itself and determines the structure of production. . . . The question of the relation between this production determining distribution, and production, belongs evidently within production itself. If it is said that, since production must begin with a certain distribution of the instruments of production, it follows that distribution at least in this sense precedes and forms the presupposition of production, then the reply must be that production does indeed have its determinants and preconditions which form its moments. At the very beginning these may appear as spontaneous, natural. But by the process of production itself they are transformed from natural into historic determinants, and if they appear to one epoch as natural presuppositions of production, they were its historic product for another.[3]

Working with an initially “ahistorical” concept of distribution, that is, a concept which had not previously been subjected to historical reflection, Marx points to its role in the historic process and shows how its form is determined by its socio-historical position. In capitalist society, for instance, distribution takes the form of wages and profit – a mode of distribution which is determined in its general form and specific contents by the relations of production, the social division of labor into alienated wage labor and private ownership of the means of production.

Exchange, one of whose phases is circulation, is itself simply an intermediary phase between production and distribution and consumption. As these latter domains are essentially determined by production in its broader sense, exchange is easily seen to stand in a similar relation to production:

Exchange appears as independent of and indifferent to production only in the final phase where the product is exchanged directly for consumption. But (1) there is no exchange without division of labor, whether the latter is spontaneous, natural, or already a product of historic development, (2) private property presupposes private production, (3) the intensity of exchange, as well as its extension and its manner, are determined by the development and structure of production. For example, exchange between town and country; exchange in the country, in the town, etc. Exchange in all its moments thus appears as either directly comprised in production or determined by it.[4]

Marx accordingly concludes this section of his “Introduction” with a statement of the priority of production:

A definite production thus determines a definite consumption, distribution and exchange as well as definite relations between these different moments. Admittedly, however, in its one-sided form, production is itself determined by the other moments.[5]

A number of comments are appropriate here:

(a) Marx’s conclusion about production is of extreme methodological import. An analysis of a given economic system must, according to the argument, begin in the realm of production, proceeding to an analysis of the remaining economic domains only on the basis of insights gained from an understanding of the mode of production (e.g. production of tribal value, of immediate use value, or, in capitalism, of commodities). Any other analytic approach cannot capture the uniqueness of the economic categories in the given structure because their specificity is founded in the specific mode of production. An analysis of capitalism which is interested in uncovering the differences from previous and from potentially future economic systems must begin with an analysis of commodity production.

(b) Marx has distinguished “specific” concepts from “general.” The definitions of production, distribution, exchange and consumption which Marx borrowed from traditional political economists as his starting point represent general concepts, presumed applicable to the description of any system of social institutions which responds to the human condition. Specific concepts, by contrast, state the difference between, for instance, feudal distribution (tribute, alms, etc.) and capitalist distribution (wages, rent, interest). Each of these specific concepts points back to the corresponding specific concept of production: feudal agricultural production or capitalist commodity production. (Cf. the following section.)

(c) All roads led to Rome in the Roman Empire and all approaches to the capitalist system lead inevitably to capitalist production, provided only that one perseveres. Of course, not all empires radiate out from as absolute a center as Rome, and not all social systems are as tightly integrated and dependent upon the realm of production as those with capitalist relations. Only in capitalist society does the distribution of goods follow from the role in production according to strict mathematical calculation (wages based upon labor time). Previously, hereditary ties, social hierarchy and a host of other non-rational considerations mediated the relationship of distribution to production. For the future, too, Marx hopes for a society in which there is a relative autonomy for each domain, so that each could respond to the criteria peculiar to it alone, escaping from restrictions imposed by the mode of production. The communist slogan, from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs,” formulates precisely the non-identity which transcends the inhuman limitations of capitalism. Marx’s argument for the centrality of production in economic relations is thus of special relevance to a theory of capitalist society, a social system which ruthlessly imposes economic categories on all realms of life. In rejecting the ahistorical character of economic concepts, Marx consciously situates his theory – inclusive of its philosophical foundations – in its historical setting. In capitalism, the productive sphere attains a clear priority. Economics rules all spheres of society. Labor as free labor becomes labor-as-such, “abstract labor.” Thereby production, as commodity production, becomes production-as-such, abstract production. Retrospectively, we can then view human labor as the universal source of creation. Similarly, production – always tautologically a precondition of social existence – can then retrospectively be viewed as the essential realm for the analysis of every society. Thereby, the dialectic of forces and relations of production – which is always part of social mediations but which has its paradigm instance in the industrial revolution where it constitutes the essence of the social development – can also be extended retrospectively throughout history. Capitalist social structures are a key to less developed ones in which forces other than production (religion, politics, etc.) may have obscured the role of production. The point of such retrospective views is primarily to shed light on capitalist structures in terms of their prehistory, rather than to understand previous societies on their own terms. Within this project the retrospective universality is undogmatic. (This argument will be substantiated in the final section of Chapter V in terms of Marx’s texts.)

Marx’s is an essentially dialectical and historical science. Despite important differences with them, Marx clearly chose Hegel and Darwin as partial models of scientific method. In his “Introduction” to the Grundrisse he both elaborates upon Hegel’s opposition of the form of research to that of presentation and uses the notion that “the anatomy of man is a key to the anatomy of the ape.”

Hegel’s distinction has been reviewed in terms of a discussion in Hegel’s History of Philosophy and related to Marx’s method elsewhere.[6] The distinction – foreshadowed at least by Kant in his own way in the contrast of the “regressive” approach of the Prolegomena or Foundations compared to the “synthetic” approach of the first and second Critiques – can also be seen at work in the relation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind to his Science of Logic.[7] One can, that is, view the Phenomenology as the record of a research which traces the development of mind quasi-historically from its beginnings in sense-perception to its culmination in absolute spirit. The Science of Logic starts then from Being as the (sublimated) conceptual representation of absolute spirit and proceeds to unfold this concept systematically to account for all categories of mind. Whereas the Phenomenology, so viewed, would illustrate the form of research, paralleling a more commonsensical or naturally historical progression, the Logic would illustrate the form of presentation, proceeding from a central concept and logically deriving the entire science from it. Rejecting Hegel’s emphasis on the realm of mind, Marx retains Hegel’s critique of empiricism, of the view that science consists in subsuming cases under classifications which have merely pragmatic significance. The point for Marx is to get at the essence of the matter (capitalism) by a process of research that begins with the obvious appearances, but then to present the matter systematically, comprehended in terms of its essence. We have already seen this notion of comprehension at work in the manuscript on alienated labor, where Marx criticized political economy for not grasping the essential connections between their concepts. Later, we shall see how Capital embodies Marx’s conception of a dialectical science of society. First, however, we must look at Marx’s development of this ideal.

Marx begins by criticizing the common-sense assumption that “it seems to be correct to start with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics with e.g., the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production.”[8] Marx rejects population as a concrete element, claiming that it is in fact an abstract notion, a representation which overlooks the essential features of population, such as class structure. Population cannot be used as the starting point for an interpretive theory of society, for its concreteness is merely apparent simplistic, hence false. The notion of population may, however, suggest itself as the starting point of an investigation leading to the interpretive essence: “If I were to begin with population, it would be a chaotic representation of the whole and through closer determination I would arrive analytically at increasingly simple concepts; from the represented concrete to thinner and thinner abstractions until I reached the simplest determinations.”[9] One must, that is, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, “transverse the icy wasteland of abstraction in order to arrive conclusively at concrete philosophizing.”[10]

The investigation of population in terms of classes and of these in terms of the factors which define them – wage labor, capital, commodities, surplus value, etc. – leads to concepts like exchange value, which are theoretical constructs abstracted from the social process. Using such conceptually simple terms, one can then analyze complex phenomena coherently and systematically. The research moves from appearance to essence, from the imaginary concrete to the abstractly simple, and then back again: “From there it would be necessary to make the journey again in the opposite direction until I had finally arrived once more at the population, but this time not as the chaotic representation of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and restrictions.”[11] The return journey is the systematic presentation. It moves from the “simple,” “abstract,” essential, theoretical concepts such as value back to the complex phenomena such as population – now replacing the seemingly concrete rational mass with a truly concrete totality, conceptually analyzed as, say, a system of classes, understood in terms of their positions in the process of production.

The image of the round-trip journey can help us follow Marx’s progress beyond bourgeois political economy, as he viewed it, recognizing, of course, that this attempt to apply the distinction of research and presentation is grossly simplistic and can hope only to be suggestive. The trip begins with “vulgar” political economy, those writings which accepted the necessary illusions projected by the capitalist system and propagated them to ideological ends. Based on the realm of exchange, these theories used the ideology of just exchange to claim that capitalism was natural, rational and the final stage of history. “Classical” political economy (Petty, Smith, Ricardo, etc.) made tremendous strides along the research route, reaching the insight into the centrality of production (labor) and formulating a labor theory of value. In his own economic studies, preserved primarily in the Grundrisse and the Theories of Surplus Value, Marx followed the progress of the classical theorists, clarifying metaphysical confusions, developing his own accounts of the commodity and surplus value and, above all, placing the whole in a radically historical context. Then in Capital, the explicitly scientific return trip, Marx started from the abstract simples, commodity and surplus value, to develop a systematic account of capitalism, beginning in Volume I with the essential realm of production.

The continuous dialectical motion of anticipation, research and presentation or of vague image, abstract concept and concrete articulation is, in the first approximation, very common. It involves tentatively constructing an interpretation of some subject matter while investigating it, later revising the interpretation in light of new findings. First impressions on meeting someone are an instance of projecting a personality structure onto a set of behavior, allowing for subsequent reinterpretation on the basis of increased familiarity. Heidegger has conceptualized this in connection with the problem of becoming familiar with Being in terms of pre-understanding, the fore-structure of understanding, the hermeneutic circle, and the relationship of Being and Time to his later works. If Heidegger were now to give a presentation as systematic as Being and Time of his research – the questioning of Being – many elements of his various studies would be present but false leads and faulty aspects would be suppressed as irrelevant (except insofar as their failures had an insightful necessity). So, too, in Marx’s case, many concepts and considerations of the early inquiries, critiques and self-clarifications appear in Capital – so much so that commentators often claim that Marx’s mature outlook or even his economic system were already worked out in the very early manuscripts. However, in the final presentation many of the accidental emphases stemming from Marx’s biography rather than from the nature of capitalism have been dropped, details filled in, insights deepened, concepts greatly developed, interconnections systematically drawn, and a coherence impressed upon the whole.

The process of theory-building allows the presentation to be appropriate to the object of the research and the abstract concept to be appropriate to the articulation of the concrete phenomenon. Although there is a unity of preconception, analysis and systematization, the mediating conceptual framework is not determined in advance. Marx began with the concepts which had already grown out of political economic research. As self-articulations of bourgeois society, these concepts were both suggestions for an appropriate conceptual scheme and symptoms of the self-mystifying power of commodity relations. Marx criticized the deviations of the concepts from the present economic reality and greatly developed their specificity, interconnections and content in the course of his own research. Not predetermined, the conceptual framework does not come only at the end of the research, through induction. The research cannot proceed without concepts, but is itself the process of searching for, testing and criticizing interpretive concepts. Only the concepts can determine what counts as a fact, as a concrete social phenomenon. Empirically observable and statistically calculable facts have already been mediated in reality by social forces and only their mediation by abstract concepts in reflection (theory, analysis) can uncover this, their essential character. Concepts and facts cannot be thought without each other. Each abstraction must be developed in the process of research, a process which can only thereby lead to a more complete, concrete grasp of its object. The systematic presentation then consists merely of a retrospective view of the research, organized in accordance with the results of the research. The dialectical unity of presentation and research assures that the interpretive system treats its object as unique, as socio-historically specific.

Because Marx resists imposing an a priori system upon his research, but develops his analytic terms out of the ‘thing itself” as it presents itself in the research, Marx’s method must be considered more hermeneutical than metaphysical. Hermeneutics, as the art of interpretation, characteristically comes to the fore when interpretation has become problematic, and this is certainly the case with Marx’s object. The fetishism of commodities has obscured the social relations definitive of bourgeois society, turning naive theories of society into socially necessary illusion: ideology. Marx’s task is thus typical for the hermeneute, namely to interpret the given as false or distorted solely on the basis of that given itself, without imposing an external interpretive scheme. The relationship of his research to his presentation is one aspect of Marx’s response to this task.

Research into bourgeois society as a whole should, if allowed to develop fully, eventually come upon the concepts of commodity, value, etc. regardless of its starting point. Scientific analysis of specific phenomena must, on the other hand, begin with the proper concepts to reach an understanding of the phenomena within the structure of society. The essential concepts depend on the form of society, on the form of production which stands at the center of society.

Marx’s position is thus strictly opposed to an ahistorical approach which seeks to deduce the character of the present from an absolute origin. He is opposed to the idealist goal of an unconditioned prima philosophia which proceeds from an indubitable truth like Descartes’ cogito sum or Hegel’s sense-certainty and immediate Being. The essence of the present is to be found in the present, not in some imaginary or even real past where that essence may have existed in some undeveloped and peripheral form.

For instance, nothing seems more natural than to begin with ground rent, with landed property, since this is bound up with the earth, the source of all production and of all being, and with the first form of production of all more or less settled societies – agriculture. But nothing would be more mistaken. In all forms of society there is a specific branch of production which determines the stature and influence of all the other branches, whose relations do this for the relations of all the other branches. There is a pervasive illumination in which all other colors are bathed and which modifies them in their specifics.[12]

In agricultural society, for instance, the crafts and industries which are present in a crude state adopt the characteristics of agricultural relations: the immediate relationship to specific human needs; organization of property, knowledge and roles along hereditary lines; and so forth. In capitalist society, the opposite takes place: even agriculture becomes a commodity industry.

Just as delimited analyses of particular social phenomena in the capitalist era must rely upon the central categories of capitalist production, so a presentation of the whole social system must begin with them. It would therefore be unfeasible and wrong to let the economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were historically decisive. Their sequence is determined, rather, by their relation to one another in modern bourgeois society, which is precisely the opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or which corresponds to historical development.[13]

The economic categories are thus interrelated in several ways: in terms of the existing social system, according to their historical development and in a natural or logical order. Darwin’s theory of the origin of man provides an analogy to this situation. Suppose one asked about man’s prehensile thumb. The naively historical analysis might point out that first fish developed protruding gills, then mammals acquired limbs with fingered hands and finally the primate family evolved the opposable thumb, which we have inherited. Someone with more awareness of epistemological issues could, like Marx, add a twist: “The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the higher development is already known.”[14] The claim that modern man’s thumb is the telos of the prehistoric gill is not based on religious faith, but on a perspective shared by the Hegelian owl of Minerva: the present. In taking human anatomy as the key to that of the ape – bourgeois economy as the key to the economy of antiquity – Marx’s historical approach is radically reconstructive, as opposed to naively constructive historiology. Marx carries out his reconstruction of pre-capitalist economic formations on the basis of his knowledge of their telos as now actualized in bourgeois society. (Cf. the section on Marx’s retrospective history of property relations.)

By deriving the succession of his categories from the relation they have in bourgeois society, Marx avoids the traditional dilemma of philosophy up to Hegel. Hegel, that is, had already made theory and history relative to each other in dialectical fashion, but for him this meant either filling the logical sequence of the categories with a wealth of historical material or else rationalizing (sublimating, abstracting) actual history into the shape of a sequence of forms. Marx’s radical unity of theory and history has no need for these imposed techniques. The critique of political economy, as the critical theory of bourgeois society, abolishes the duality of philosophy and historical analysis by discovering the entire history of the categories and forms of social existence in present society. Conversely, as critical, Marx’s theory rejects the facade of immediacy in given appearances by presenting their concrete historical genesis. It dissolves or “de-constructs” the mystifying process of reification and fetishization by inquiring after the social and historical conditions and presuppositions of present-day appearances and concepts. If Marx’s concepts are reflections of bourgeois society, they have also been critically transformed in the recognition that the conceptual mirror is systematically warped by the fetishism of commodities. Through this form of appropriation of the given categories – determined by socio-historically specific considerations already based on his theory – Marx avoids the ideological thrust of those theories which lack such a conscious unity of theory and practice.

Marx’s historical method of analysis had important consequences for his manner of forming concepts as well. Through the historical character of his conceptualizations, Marx avoided the problems created by the “vulgar” and the “classical” political economists due to their unreflected perspective on history. While Marx agrees that previous social forms are to be understood from the perspective of bourgeois society – viewing history as leading up to capitalism and using the economic concepts of capitalism as analytic tools – he insists that the differences between that which the concepts denoted then and now not be over-looked. It is, he thinks, quite impossible to use the present system as a key to preceding formations if one tries to do this:

in the manner of those economists who obliterate all historical differences and who see in all forms of society only bourgeois relations. If one is acquainted with ground rent, one can understand tribute, tithe, etc. But they do not have to be treated as identical. . . . Thus, although it is true that the categories of bourgeois economics possess a truth for all other forms of society, this has to be taken cum grano salis. They may contain them in a developed, stunted or caricatured, etc., form, but always with an essential difference.[15]

The general concept, rent, is valid for all or at least many social systems, but, on the other hand, the specific concept of bourgeois rent is essentially different from feudal rent (tithe) or classical rent (tribute). The common confusion among political economists between the generality and specificity of their concepts deserves extended consideration and the present text is perhaps the most explicit of Marx’s writings on this point. (Cf. the following section.)

Marx’s thought is historical in yet another way. In addition to viewing social phenomena as developments in a retrospectively historical manner and clarifying the socio-historical specificity of his concepts, Marx relates his work to the present state of society, to the strivings of social groups. Highly conscious of the fact that his theory is situated in the bourgeois era, Marx does not make a fetish of capitalism as though it were necessarily the final stage of historical progress. Clearly, his intent is quite the opposite, and the subjective intent is objectively embodied in the theory’s structure, providing its unity of theoretical and political practice. Further, the possibility of embedding his revolutionary intent in economic theory has its foundation in the reality of the class struggle:

 The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite special conditions able to criticize itself – leaving aside, of course, the historical periods which appear to themselves as times of decadence – it always conceives them one-sided.[16]

The important and intriguing “Afterword” (1873) to the second German edition of Capital clearly demonstrates how important the relationship of the social context (working class consciousness, academic theories and ideologies, economic crises) to Capital was for its author. Marx sees the revolutionary character of his dialectical method in the fact that it treats the present stage as not only the progressive culmination of the past, but also as a contradictory and repressive system which is, however, in the process of transcending itself towards the future:

In its rational form dialectics is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors because it includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid motion, and therefore takes into account its transitory nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and it is in its essence critical and revolutionary.[17]

Historically-specific Conceptualizations

Production is always production of a particular product, by a particular worker, with particular means in a particular social context; the concept of production must take this into account. Not one to pull his conceptual punches, Marx opens the “Introduction” to his critique of political economy in the Grundrisse with an immediate consideration of this aspect of his central category: production. His first line makes clear that he uses this term in an historically or socially specific sense; “material production” refers to productive forms specific to a particular historical period or to particular branches of production, not to production in general or general production: “The object before us is, to begin with, material production. Individuals producing in society – hence socially determined production of individuals – is, of course, the point of departure.”[18] The production which keeps society going is production within society, determined by the character of the particular society, carried out by agents acting in socially defined roles.

What of someone who today produces, say, pottery the way it has been produced by hand in the most varied societies? Firstly, it is undoubtedly done as a hobby or art form, outside the concerns of society and primarily for personal enjoyment and expression. Further, it most likely uses modern technology: chemically pure glazes or an electric kiln – especially if there is some hope of competing with factory-produced ceramics. And clearly the aesthetic sensibility at work will be in the end peculiarly modern (especially, again, if there is an appeal to a buying public), perhaps a reaction against the consequences of mass production.

Additionally, Marx argues, the very possibility of producing as an individual – developing a superfluous hobby outside of the socially efficient forms of production – is itself a product of history, of social and productive development to the point where workers have free time. Marx takes the novel about Robinson Crusoe, a totally eighteenth-century British gentleman parading as nature boy, as a typical example of the ideology of individualism. He points out that the individual, both as a category and as a mode of existence, is peculiarly bourgeois, a result of the historical developments leading to capitalism. Against the bourgeois projection of the concept of the individual back to the nomadic or tribal beginnings of history, Marx notes that the biological human entity was part of a social grouping or social formation out of which and on whose basis alone it could define itself individually. The argument extends Hegel’s dialectic of mutual recognition and anticipates Wittgenstein’s rejection of private languages, stressing that individualism is essentially (biologically and historically) social, not “natural”:

The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole; in a still quite natural way in the family and in the family expanded into the clan; then later in the various forms of communal society arising out of the antitheses and fusions of the clans. Only in the eighteenth century, in bourgeois society, do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social (from this standpoint, general) relations. The human being is in the most literal sense a zoon politikon, a political animal, not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society. Production by an isolated individual outside society – a rare exception which may well occur when a civilized person in whom the social forces are already dynamically present is cast by accident into the wilderness – is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to one another.[19]

Consequently, the two ahistorical approaches to defining production are equally unacceptable; the proper approach lies between the extremes. The idealist definition of production as the forming of the object by a subject with the aid of a mediating tool completely misses the particularity of object, subject and tool as belonging to an historical stage and a social system. The nominalist definition, on the other hand, misses the common element of instances of production within a given socio-historical context as well as obscuring the underlying fact that subject, object and tool are already results of historical and social processes. Production as the mediation of individual subject and natural object is itself as much mediated by society as are its two poles. Production takes place within one social context or another and is essentially defined by the society’s specifics. Even the rare cases of individuals producing outside the social norms (castaways, hermits, artists) are merely exceptions which prove the rule in that their deviations presuppose the norm.

The conclusion for a theory of capitalist society is that the concept of production must always be in terms of the specific concepts of production appropriate to specific societies, e.g., commodity production in bourgeois society. Marx draws this conclusion, excluding the notion of the conceptual priority of production-in-general:

Whenever we speak of production, then, we always have in mind production at a definite stage of social development – production by individuals in a society. It might therefore seem that, in order to speak of production at all we must either trace the various phases in the historical process of development or else declare beforehand that we are dealing with a specific historic epoch such as, e.g., modern bourgeois production, which is indeed our particular theme.[20]

Marx does leave room for the concept of production-in-general – neither socially nor historically specific – but his way of doing this shows why the particular concepts of production have a priority, rather than legitimating the liberal ideology which exploits general concepts as ahistorical. His characterization of the universal genus, similar to Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance, seems strikingly positivistic.

All periods of production have, however, certain common traits, common characteristics. Production in general is an abstraction, but a rational abstraction in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element and thus avoids repetition. . . . Some determinations belong to all epochs, others only to a few. The most modern epoch and the most ancient will share (some) determinations.[21]

Of course, Marx is by no means a positivist: he is merely choosing his level of abstraction on the basis of the nature of his subject matter, rejecting the extremes of ahistorical abstraction and positivistic data collection, but synthesizing what is valuable or critical in each of the approaches by developing his theory with abstractions which are filled with content: specific concepts. Categories like commodity production allow Marx to work out a dialectically scientific theory of the essential structure of the capitalist system, while simultaneously allowing him to distinguish what is necessary to the reproduction of mankind in its dialectic with nature and what is merely imposed. Such categories are crucial to practical philosophy, to transformative interpretation, to critical theory.

A general concept such as production in general, as Marx uses it, is different from the ahistorical concepts of bourgeois political economy in that it is the result of historical reflection, a synthesis of specific concepts of production or a summary of what is common to the specific concepts. In this form, general concepts play an important role in Marx’s theory – not on their own as metaphysical preconceptions, but in the contrast with their specific sub-concepts. Of course, this is strictly speaking true only in Capital, Marx’s developed and systematic presentation. In his early manuscripts, terms occasionally appear in an ahistorical form anticipating the general concepts which will subsequently result from historical analysis, a more highly developed systematic context and a more extensive critique. However, even these early occurrences are results of specific negation of idealistic or ideological outlooks in terms of social and historical considerations, and thus Marx’s usages are less ahistorical than they might appear.

Marx uses one of his favorite analogies, that of language to production, to point out the critical necessity of contrasting the specific with the general concept. He notes that although the most highly developed languages have laws and characteristics in common with the least developed languages, it is precisely their divergences from these general and common elements which determine their development.[22] Language, as a medium for interpersonal communication, has certain necessary elements which all languages have shared. But there is a second set of elements to be discovered in any actual language which are not necessary to the task of human communication and which may actually restrict the freedom of expression. Progress in the evolution of language, then, consists partially in rejecting these restrictive features.[23]

The analogy applies directly to the specific concepts of production, so that the socio-historically specific elements “must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity – which arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and the object, nature – their essential difference is not forgotten.”[24] The notion of “second nature” is helpful here; it refers to conditions or institutions which appear natural, necessary, inevitable, but which are in fact created by people, contingent, not necessary. Private property is, for instance, a legal institution which has become second nature to us, but which, Marx argues, was – in distinction to possession – absent from primitive societies and now acts as a chain upon us, keeping us from a better society in which it would disappear. The general concept of production, then, would state what is natural (necessary) to production in all ages and all social systems. The difference between the specific concept of bourgeois production and this general concept of production would define bourgeois second nature. The ideology of the capitalist era is largely based on the positing of second nature as natural, on assuming that the characteristics peculiar to the bourgeois age are eternal, rational and sacred. Only a social theory which distinguishes necessity from second nature and explores the possibilities for eliminating the latter can perform the critical function rather than one of blanket justification.

While the notion of necessity has here been introduced in an ahistorical manner, Marx’s notion of the general concept retains historical content; while the necessary nature of production can never be diverged from, Marx’s “production-in-general” merely has not yet been diverged from. Marx’s parenthetical remark that the generality can be understood by merely noting that production always involves humanity and nature, thus retaining a minimal invariant content, suggests an ahistorical side-glance at the necessary structure. But his remark has the character of a tautological aside and he does retain his historical definition of general concepts throughout. The ahistorical, almost tautological side-glance appears as a moment of abstraction from history within a discussion focused on history. Marx is well aware that neither the subject (the worker) nor the object (nature) of the production process remains invariant through the history of the modes or production. But the abstraction which allows us to identity the poles of production with the terms “humanity” and “nature” also allows us briefly to posit the unity of production-as-such – in order thereby to determine the historical differentia specifica of particular modes of production.

Marx’s revolutionary anticipations of a society without certain elements of bourgeois second nature do not, therefore, rest on speculation about the true nature or essence or human production as on a metaphysical first principle, but on an historical argument, namely that those institutions which are second nature to us now did not exist at certain periods in human history and therefore are not necessary to human life and may conceivably be eliminated in the future. This argument certainly does not in itself prove that alienated labor or private property will inevitably disappear or even that the benefits of capitalism could be maintained without the undesirable aspects of capitalist second nature. It is primarily an argument against the outlook of bourgeois political economy which took features peculiar to capitalism as unquestionably necessary for all societies. Marx’s thought is thus historical not only in the sense that his analytic standpoint is consciously rooted in the present, but also in that his hope for the future has its basis in unachieved potentials of the past and present.

General concepts are historical in another, more striking way than merely as summaries of historical instances. The supposedly ahistorical concepts of bourgeois political economy – production, labor, property, value, etc. – are, according to Marx, merely the sublimated expression of the respective specifically bourgeois concepts – commodity production, wage labor, private property, labor value, etc. These specific concepts are what Marx calls simple categories, as opposed to what is naively imagined to be concrete, like national population.

Simple categories are historically situated: they presuppose concrete historical developments for their very meaning. “For example, the simplest economic category, e.g., exchange value, presupposes population, a population moreover which produces in specific relations, as well as a distinct kind of family or community or state, etc. Exchange value cannot exist except as an abstract, one-sided relation within an already given, concrete, living whole.”[25] Marx’s materialism views the concrete social totality, which is the result of comprehending the imaginary concrete with abstract simple categories, as “a product of the working-up of observation and representation into concepts.”[26] A certain historical stage must already have been reached and perceived before the image of it could have been transformed into the categories which are appropriate to its comprehension. Theory does not approach a social formation with concepts created through unsituated contemplation: the theory of capitalism, down to its simplest and broadest categories, presupposes the historical development of capitalism: “Hence, in the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition.”[27]

The clearest example of the relation of a general to a specific category is that of labor. The attempt by Marx’s critics to saddle him with an ontology of labor or a metaphysics of homo faber relies upon ignoring the distinctions among the ideologically ahistorical, historically general and specifically bourgeois categories of labor. The particular category of bourgeois labor was formulated by Adam Smith, who “rejected every limiting specification of wealth – productive activity – not only manufacturing, or commercial, or agricultural labor, but one as well as the others, labor in general.”[28] The concept of labor-as-such, “abstract labor,” presupposed the social system which was in fact establishing itself in Adam Smith’s day. In capitalism all labor becomes equivalent, measured quantitatively by labor-time, regardless of qualitative differences. The bourgeois job and labor markets ironed out all differences between particular forms or labor or types of workers, transforming labors into labor as such. Smith’s concept expressed his perception of this social development. The fact that the particular type of labor is irrelevant both socially and conceptually “presupposes a highly developed totality of real kinds of labor, of which no single one is any longer predominant.”[29] Clearly, the concept of labor-as-such, without restrictions, can be applied to labor in all societies universally in retrospect. Thus, the particularly bourgeois category becomes simultaneously the general concept of labor.

Marx’s general concept of labor is, thereby, a consequence of the bourgeois society in which he was consciously situated, not the result of metaphysical dogma or an ontological faith. It would be a mistake to attribute here to Marx what he criticizes as ideological in others: the hypostatization of particular or even general categories into ahistorical, necessarily eternal concepts unrelated to the movement of history. Precisely with the concept of labor, Marx makes his points:

The example of labor shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations and possess their full validity only for and within those relations. Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allow insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still uncovered remnants are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it, etc.[30]

Abstract categories are products of historic relations. Further, their contradictory forms result from social disharmony: use value versus exchange value, private property versus social production, particular versus abstract labor, wages versus surplus values; the conceptual tensions reflect class conflicts. Both the actuality of abstract labor and its expression in the concept of labor-as-such are products of the development of the historic preconditions of commodity production, which requires the severing in reality as in consciousness of the ties of workers to their land, tools, etc. as their own property. The concept of labor-as-such, already used by Adam Smith, is the central category of Marx’s system, underlying his key analyses of the labor form of value, the antagonisms between labor and capital, the appropriation of surplus labor and the fetishism of the activity and conditions of labor in the products of labor. Marx’s path of abstraction from the population of capitalist societies to abstract labor follows the well-worn trail of historical developments. Similarly, Marx’s abstractions of production, value, etc. were in no way arbitrary, biased or metaphysical. They represented the conceptual appropriation of bourgeois social relations and they knew themselves as such in the sense that Marx’s methodology – his path of abstraction and concretion, the manifold and reflected unity of his theory and social practice, his approach to history, his formation of general and specific concepts – transformed its social and historical conditions into its content. Hence the anticipatory character of Marx’s abstractions in the early manuscripts: the process of abstraction at work in social research is itself guided by social theory. Only in Capital is the systematic circle complete in which the theory of bourgeois society justifies the abstractions which present the theory while within that theory the analysis of the fetishism of commodities explains the necessity of elaborating such a theory in the face of social mystifications.

A further point in the preceding quotation concerns the insight gained into pre-capitalist societies through the theory of capitalist society, that is the applicability of specifically bourgeois concepts to the interpretation of previous social formations. This trans-historical validity of many categories which are historically-specific to the present era – in that they were not fully developed and central in previous societies and hence were not prominent in the theoretical consciousness of those societies – is due to the fact that the central features of capitalist production, such as commodities, exchange, labor and money, were present in society in various forms. It is, of course especially useful to view pre-capitalist societies in terms of bourgeois categories when trying to understand them as stages in the prehistory of capitalism. But even more generally, the specific categories of bourgeois society give insight into previous societies in their sublimated form as general categories. But the insight isn’t the whole picture, and what we are calling sublimation does cause an essential transformation.

An economist might, for example, generalize and say that production always requires an instrument (at least the hand of the worker) and accumulated labor (at least the training of a skilled hand). Joining these with a loose notion of capital, he might argue: “Capital is, among other things, also an instrument of production, also past, objectified labor. Consequently capital is a general and external relation of nature: that is,” as Marx is quick to point out, “provided one omits just the specific quality which alone makes instrument of production and accumulated labor into capital.”[31]      The point is that although the specific bourgeois category forms the basis for a general concept, there are crucial differences that must not be ignored. Labor under capitalism may well be conspicuously general in producing without concern for the particulars of the job or of the worker, it may clearly be a process of transforming nature into a product in order to support itself, but it is also wage-labor which does not own the preconditions of its labor or the product and which creates exchange-value in return for monetary wages – these latter characteristics differentiating it from all previous forms of labor. The specific – and therefore also the general – categories presuppose the historic process and a study of this process can clarify what distinguishes the specific from the general, second nature from the natural. Political economists tend to ignore the historical dimension and therefore end up as apologists for a more efficient version or what already exists anyway. They present production as “encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, and at the same time bourgeois relations are clandestinely passed off as inviolable natural laws on which is founded society in abstracto.”[32]

The study of history often clears up the ideological illusions, not so much because of the details of the alternative view it may present, but merely in the fact that it uncovers the assumptions and maneuvers of the ahistorical approach. Marx uses historical knowledge to counter the claim that private property, for instance, is natural or necessary. He grants that production is always appropriation of nature, an individual taking possession, and thus property is (tautologically) a condition of production. But, he counters, “It is quite ridiculous to make a leap from this to a specific form of property, e.g., private property. (Which further and equally presupposes an antithetical form, non-property.) History shows, rather, common property (e.g., in India, among the Slavs, the early Celts, etc.) to be the (more) original form, and in the shape of communal property it continues to play a significant role for a long time.”[33] This argument and the historical analysis of private property are carried out in the section of the Grundrisse, to which we next turn.

To recapitulate: There are characteristics which are common to all stages of production and which are established by the mind as general characteristics; the so-called general preconditions of all production, however, are “nothing more than these abstract moments with which no real historical stage of production can be grasped.”[34]

Retrospective Interpretation of the History of Property Relations

Marx’s chapter on the “Forms which Precede Capitalist Production”[35] is divided into two sections: I) an historical reconstruction of the prerequisites for wage labor and II) an historical reconstruction of the prerequisites for capital. Schematically, that is, the economic system known as capitalism is defined by the relationship of wage-labor (embodied in the proletariat) to capital (embodied in the capitalist class), all other sectors having a secondary importance defined by their relation to the two primary classes and eventually dissolving into these classes with the progressive development and self-purification of the capitalist system, as Marx had already concluded in the 1844 Manuscripts.

Whereas the bulk of the Grundrisse is concerned with the conditions of capitalism, it is here the preconditions or presuppositions which are of interest. Marx had already drawn this distinction a few pages earlier in the Grundrisse in a section on primitive accumulation, with the example of the existence of cities. While a city can, as a city, reproduce its population, it cannot possibly have itself produced the founding population; they must have come from somewhere else. “While, e.g. the flight of feudal serfs to the cities is one of the historic (pre-) conditions and presuppositions of urbanism, it is not a condition, not a moment of the reality of developed cities, but it belongs to their past presuppositions, to the prerequisites of their formative process, which are suspended in their existence.”[36]            A “condition” of a city is, then, part of its permanent structure which insures its continued existence, whereas a “presupposition” is something that was required for the original creation of the city. A presupposition of wage labor is accordingly defined as an historical factor or development prior to capitalism which allowed for or contributed to the transformation of a large portion of the population into wage-laborers.

Marx opens his chapter by naming two such preconditions of wage-labor: “free-labor” and the separation or this “freed” labor from the ownership of the means and materials of labor:

If one of the presuppositions of wage labor, and one of the historic preconditions for capital, is free labor and the exchange of this free labor for money, in order to reproduce and to realize money, to consume the use value of labor not for individual consumption, but as use value for money – then another presupposition is the separation of free labor from the objective conditions of its realization, from the means of labor and the material for labor. Thus, above all, release of the worker from the soil as his natural workshop – hence dissolution of small, free landed property as well as of communal landownership resting on the oriental commune.[37]

Marx proceeds to trace through history the relationship of the laborer to the land, the instruments, the means of consumption prior to production, and the laborer’s own body. He follows these four relationships through tribal (“Oriental”), classical (Greek and Roman city-states), and feudal (“Germanic”) society, treating the transformations, weakening and gradual demise of these relationships as a necessary prerequisite of capitalism. Originally, the worker, as a tribal member, is related to the direct communal property of land as his own. The intermediary stages see various combinations of communal and petty land ownership, until finally the laborer must pay rent to a landowner for use of land. The laborer’s relationship to his instruments – even in the feudal guild system still retained along hereditary or craft lines – is finally dissolved with the factory system. The patriarchal systems also faded away, which had cared for the members of the tribe, extended family, estate or guild during the process of production. Finally, the system of slavery and serfhood came to an end, leaving free-labor separated from the means of production and waiting to be appropriated through the exchange of wages for labor time.

In understanding the economic formations which precede capitalism as moments in the socio-historical process which provided the preconditions of capitalist production, Marx is far from inventing a mythic justification for the present system by deducing it as the final stage in a conceptual development; on the other hand, he is not projecting the character of the present system back into pre-history. Rather, his concerns are based in the present, but he strives to show how the past was essentially different and then to outline the logic of the actual historical development which made capitalism possible and actual, it is a reconstruction in the sense that it starts out from the end of history (so far), seeking to understand that end as the result of an historical process and to understand history as leading up to the present.[38] The resultant view of the present in terms of its formative process (as historically mediated) stands critically opposed to the (ideological) view of the given as it immediately appears.

Marx’s historical analysis provides the handle for critically grasping the bourgeois ideology of “just exchange,” the view that wages which represent accumulated labor-time are exchanged for an equivalent amount of the worker’s living labor-time. Viewed from within the capitalist system, the presuppositions of the theory of just exchange may well seem obviously true; but considered in terms of the historical prerequisites of the entire system, new presuppositions are uncovered and the theory is shown to be false. Private property is not the result of the capitalist’s own labor, but is rather the result of removing the conditions of labor (land and tools) from the control of the worker. In this context, the theory of just exchange is seen to be ideology: socially necessary illusion which obscures the process of unjust appropriation.[39]

Bourgeois social theory ahistorically projects capitalist relations back to a “state of nature” in which, ironically, everyone belonged to the proletariat, i.e. embodied free-labor deprived of property in the conditions of production. Marx counters with a diametrically opposed reading of history, which he documents. His argument, which we will now try to follow, runs roughly as follows: At the dawn of human social history, as nomadic life came to an end and social formations evolved, agricultural production was carried out communally. Each member of the community shared in the ownership of the means of production, the communal land and the shared tools. Through the historical development which eventually culminated in capitalism, the relationship of the worker to the land he worked took on many forms, leading generally to a dissolution of the organic unity of the worker and owner. The conditions of production were gradually accumulated into the hands of a few (the capitalists), leaving the masses property-less and dependent upon others for work. The formation of the individual – a laborer stripped of defining ties to land and community, a numerical unity on the competitive job market – was an historical result and a precondition of capitalism, not a natural, a-temporal phenomenon a la Robinson Crusoe. The same process which transformed people in social settings into abstract, interchangeable individuals made the products of labor into abstract, arbitrarily exchangeable value, commodities. The relations of capitalist production, commodity relations, pervaded every aspect of social existence, through their two-fold character obscuring the nature of social reality.

The formation of a capitalist class, on the other hand, is likewise not the result of a natural, ahistorical merely quantitative inequality – that due to physiological or geographical differences some people have more wealth than others. Wealth can only count as capital in a social setting in which some people are property-less and others own sufficient property to provide others with materials of labor. The separation of workers from property as well as the development of industrial production skills are results of the historical process which precedes capitalism and their evolution is not to be explained in terms of capitalist relations as the theory of just exchange would have it. Marx is especially concerned with the transition from feudalism to capitalism because it is here that the capitalist first appears – taking advantage of the circumstances, rather than supporting the whole. The analysis is succinctly outlined by Marx:

What enables monetary wealth to turn into capital is on the one hand, that it finds free laborers, and on the other, it finds means of subsistence, materials, etc., which previously were in one form or another the property of the now objectless masses, and are also free and purchasable. However, the other condition of labor – a certain level of skill, the existence of the instrument as means of labor, etc. – is already available in this preparatory or first period of capital. This is partly the result of the urban guild system, partly of domestic industry, or such industry as exists as an accessory to agriculture. The historic process is not the product of capital, but its presupposition. By means of this process the capitalist then inserts himself as (historic) middleman between landed property, or property generally, and labor. History knows nothing of the congenial fantasies about capitalist and laborer forming an association etc.; nor is there a trace of them in the conceptual development of capital.[40]

Contract theories of social institutions perpetuate illusions about history and the place of capitalism in history. They explain communal, social and economic relations as decisions of rationally calculating individuals. For Marx, it is precisely rational calculation and the individual which must be accounted for as historical products of a process which began with naturally, spontaneously existing human communities and their attendant social institutions and economic arrangements. Surveying history with an eye to the uniqueness of capitalist relations, Marx finds two major phenomena common to the various pre-capitalist, pre-industrial forms of society: property in the conditions of one’s labor and existence as a member of a community. Having traced the evolution of society from the nomadic tribe through oriental despotism and classical city-states to the feudal Middle Ages, Marx stresses that:

The main point here is this: In all these forms – in which landed property and agriculture form the basis of the economic order, and where the economic aim is hence the production of use values, i.e. the reproduction of the individual within the specific relation of the community in which he is its basis – there is to be found: (1) Appropriation not through labor, but presupposed by labor; appropriation of the natural conditions of labor, of the earth as the original instrument of labor as well as its workshop and repository of raw materials. The individual relates simply to the objective conditions of labor as being his; . . . (2) but this relation to land and soil, to the earth, as the property of the laboring individual – who thus appears from the outset not merely as laboring individual, in this abstraction, but who has an objective mode of existence in his ownership of the land, an existence presupposed by his activity and not merely as a result of it, a presupposition of his activity just like his skin, his sense organs, which of course he also reproduces and develops, etc. in the life process, but which are nevertheless presuppositions of this process of his reproduction – is instantly mediated by the naturally arisen, spontaneous, more or less historically developed and modified presence of the individual as member of a community – his naturally arisen presence as member of a tribe, etc.[41]

This passage presents the basis for Marx’s analysis in his chapter, contrasting all pre-capitalist economic formations as a group to capitalist social relations. By viewing the transition from feudalism to capitalism – prepared for by all previous social history – as the great historical watershed, Marx stresses the uniqueness of capitalist relations, their socio-historical specificity, their unnaturalness.

Many important themes of Marx’s thought are related to this passage. Property is here defined in terms of the means of production and private property is seen as derivative of communal property. The bourgeois conception of the individual in abstraction from his social setting is taken as a result of social and intellectual history; its claim to a priori status is rejected. People have an objective existence in their community – as in their more or less historically developed language and body – which is the precondition of their labor, not first a result of objectification. The whole analysis reflects Marx’s radically historical approach as well as his driving concern with understanding capitalism as a moment in the flow of actual history. Accordingly, both the evolution and the reproduction of society are understood as integral facets of social production. This historical approach suggests a new formulation of the theory of alienation, one which clearly contrasts alienation in capitalist commodity production with the organic ties of the worker in pre-capitalist economies to the means and materials of his work, to the product as an immediate use value and to himself and his community. These important themes must now be developed.

History has teleological meaning – but only for us from our retro-perspective, not mystically in itself. The production of history has, according to Marx, been largely a byproduct of the reproduction of given situations through the production of use-value. Given any agricultural society, the goal of production in that society was self-perpetuation of the community through reproduction of the race and of everyday life. But the natural attempt to maintain the status quo, particularly in the more advanced social forms, can itself force change; the fates of wars of defense have resulted in the rise and fall of untold numbers of nations. One of Marx’s favorite examples is the timely one of population expansion. It is a common observation in anthropology that certain tribal structures can perpetuate themselves indefinitely and self-sufficiently given a constant population and no external interference. But suppose that the attempt to reproduce the population becomes too successful. Then the social relations, division of labor or form of production would be forced to change or die. The details of a society’s atemporal structure can thereby become central to the dialectic of its historical development.

For instance, where each individual is supposed to possess so many acres of land, the mere increase in population constitutes an obstacle. If this is to be overcome, colonization will develop and this necessitates wars of conquest. This leads to slavery, etc. Also, e.g., the enlargement of the ager publicus, and hence to the rise of the Patricians, who represent the community, etc. Thus the preservation of the old community implies the destruction of the conditions upon which it rests, and turns into its opposite.[42]

The conservative impulse can remain at the base of truly revolutionary developments – at least within agricultural society.

When the relations of production change in accordance with a modified mode of production, there is not merely a change in relations between unchanged people; people’s very natures are transformed. “The act of reproduction itself changes not only the objective conditions – e.g. transforming village into town, the wilderness into agricultural clearings, etc. – but the producers change with it, by the emergence of new qualities, by transforming and developing themselves in production, forming new powers and new conceptions. new modes of intercourse, new needs, and new language.”[43]

Language is an intriguing topic for Marx because of its totally historical and social character. Both a presupposition and a condition of history, language is in turn modified by new social development. A person’s language is both a prerequisite and an expression of his membership in a community: “As regards the individual, it is clear, e.g., that he relates even to language itself as his own only as the natural member of a human community. Language as the product of an individual is an absurdity. But so also is property.”[44] The point of Marx’s references to language is that property has the same characteristics which clearly belong to language. An isolated individual could farm a plot of land and possess tools – assuming he had been trained in farming and in the construction and use of tools – but we would not call the land and tools his property.

Property is a social (legal, interpersonal) relationship defined by the exclusion of other persons from certain rights. Originally, proprietary claims took place between tribes, neighboring communities who claimed areas of land or natural resources as their property to the exclusion of other tribes. The tribal members shared the fruits of such property, which they owned as members of the community. They may have possessed homes, clothing and such individually, but the land, tools, weapons, aqueducts, seeds and technical knowledge were communal property. In later social systems, such as the Roman Empire, communal property was privately possessed – to be a Roman citizen and to possess Roman land were synonymous – or some combination of private and public lands was established.

Property refers, as the word etymologically suggests, not only to what one (legally) owns, but to what is (essentially) one’s own, what is “proper” to oneself. Throughout precapitalist history, people were defined physically and mentally, objectively and subjectively, economically and socially by their membership in a community. Marx thus concludes, “Property therefore means belonging to a clan (community) (having one’s subjective/objective existence in it); and by means of the relation of this community to the land and soil, (relating) to the earth as the individual’s body, there occurs the relationship of the individual to the land and soil – for the earth is at the same time raw material, tool and fruit – as to a presupposition belonging to his individuality, as its modes of his presence. We reduce this property to the relation to the conditions production.[45]

If people are socially defined, then society in turn can be viewed in terms of the social relations which are primarily structured according to the mode of production of the producing subjects. The primary relationship is that of work: productive people relating to nature. Work is socially mediated – people produce as members of communities and the structure of the communities is reciprocally conditioned by the mode of production. Property, too, is an expression of the work relationship, always defined historically in relation to the prevailing mode of production. The first half of Marx’s historical considerations accordingly conclude that “property – in its Asiatic, Slavonic, ancient classical and Germanic forms – therefore originally signifies a relation of the working (producing) or self-reproducing subject to the conditions of his production or reproduction as his own. Hence, according to the conditions of this production, property will take different forms.”[46]

The result that Marx arrived at through analysis of capitalist relations in the Manuscripts – that property is historically-specifically defined, expressing the prevailing mode of production – is here reached through a study of pre-capitalist history. The new approach sheds fresh light. Not only is the illusory atemporal aura surrounding bourgeois private property discarded in showing the relation of private property to commodity production in particular, but in drawing this relationship, the unique character of private property is revealed. Bourgeois private property differs essentially from all pre-capitalist forms of property, which were variations on communal property. “Private” property is a privative form in that the worker no longer relates through the property institution to the conditions of his labor as his own. The opposition of labor to capital means precisely that the worker is not the owner of the objective basis of his existence – and conversely the owner of the conditions and product of labor is not the worker who transforms the one into the other. The split of the original worker/owner unity is a fundamental expression of the alienating character of capitalist relations.

Dealing with alienation in terms of the worker/owner division of labor underlying capitalism has advantages over the view in terms of the worker’s loss of his product, although the two approaches are in the end equivalent. It may, for instance, be less tempting to psychologize the worker’s frustration at self-objectification gone sour and keep the objective societal configuration in the fore.

Of primary significance is the clarity with which the historical character of alienation appears. Alienation as caused by a dichotomy between worker and owner is seen to be “unnatural,” i.e. unique to the bourgeois era and foreign to the simpler social forms. Accordingly, one can even recognize the relation of alienation to the destruction of the conservative values: sense of community, rootedness in the land, treasuring of tradition, pride in workmanship, etc. A closer study of alienation as an historical development, distinguishing losses which must be recouped from those which represent valuable progress and potential may suggest goals for a future society – one chosen more consciously and democratically than past social systems – and potentials for realizing them.

How then did capitalist alienation come about? Whence the split in the previous unity of worker and owner? If it is not true that there have always been some people with property in the means of production and other, property-less people who are therefore dependent on the first group for jobs, then how did the capitalists come to acquire a monopoly on property to the exclusion of the workers? The ideology would have it that the capitalists themselves created their property through diligent labor and accumulated their wealth through careful saving – in contrast to the allegedly lazy and wasteful masses. Marx vigorously rejects this view and argues that the so-called primitive accumulation of capital was actually a rearrangement or existing property. The redistribution and centralization of property – of the means, materials and conditions of production – was made possible by developments in the mode of production: urban craft production in the guilds, an international money system in merchant trade, technical changes in spinning and weaving, etc. Property, or wealth, which became the capitalist’s in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, had already existed and had merely become flexible enough to be redistributed through all manner of usury, trade, hoarding, politics, trickery and force.

Nothing can therefore be more ridiculous than to conceive the original formation of capital as if capital has stockpiled and created the objective conditions of production – food, raw materials, instruments – and then offered them to the dispossessed worker. What happened was rather that monetary wealth partly helped to dispossess the labor powers of the individuals capable of work from those conditions; and in part this process of divorce proceeded without it. . . . As to the formation of monetary wealth itself, before its transformation into capital: this belongs to the prehistory of the bourgeois economy.[47]

Spinning and weaving, Marx’s clearest illustration, was one of the first jobs to be transformed from the home into the factory. Traditionally, each family unit had its own spinning wheel and loom with which the family met its own clothing needs, as one of its many productive activities. After the transformation, certain individuals produced cloth to be sold as their sole productive activity, using the wages earned thereby to meet their own specific needs. Capital had neither invented nor manufactured the spinning wheel or loom; clothing had previously been produced and consumed. Capital neither created nor stockpiled the necessities of life which now had to be purchased. “The only change was,” Marx points out, “that these necessities were now thrown onto the exchange market – were separated from their direct connection with the mouths of the retainers etc. and transformed from use value into exchange values.”[48]

The change from a worker/owner unity to the distinction of property-less workers and non-productive owners meant a shift from concrete, immediate use-values to abstract, socially mediated exchange values. On the one hand, this shift away from use-values as such is a prerequisite of capitalist accumulation and deprivation: only so much use-value can be accumulated and still be meaningful, while no one can be deprived totally of use-values and continue to live. On the other hand, the shift is also a result of capitalism, or is reinforced by the spread of capitalist relations: someone who wants to buy commodities must earn money and one who earns money must meet his needs through the exchange of commodities. The totalizing character of capitalism is thus built into the nature of commodities, i.e., it is part of the dynamic of the social relations of commodity production.[49] The so-called primitive accumulation of capital is to be accounted for in terms of commodity production and its demands. Commodity production, based on monetary quantity, is qualitatively “free.” The conditions of production become a “free fund,” liberated from their ties to particular individuals or families. The individuals thereby deprived of their property simultaneously become potentially “free wage-laborers,” obliged to sell their labor. For Marx, “This much is evident: the same process which divorced a mass of individuals from their previous affirmative relations to the objective conditions of labor, negated these relations and thereby transformed these individuals into free laborers, is also the same process which freed these objective conditions of labor – land and soil, new material, necessaries of life, instruments of labor, money or all of these – potentially from their previous state of attachment to the individuals now separated from them.” Further, “Closer inspection will show that all these processes of dissolution mean the dissolution of production in which use-value predominates production for immediate use.” And finally, “Again, closer examination will also reveal that all the resolved relations were possible only with a definite degree of development of the material (and therefore also of the intellectual) productive forces.”[50] The four historical tendencies go hand in hand: (1) from owning-worker to free-labor or wage-laborer, (2) from worker’s property to private property, (3) from production of use-value to production of exchange value or commodity production, and (4) from agriculture to manufacture. Once these processes, which Marx sees as stretching in various patterns across the entire span of history, have completed their transformations, the scene is set for capitalist production, which has, indeed, already set in as part of the historical process.

The conjuncture of these four processes in Marx’s account indicate how, as already suggested above at the start of Chapter V, his reconstruction of the history of property relations, understood in their relation to the prevailing modes of production, provides a unity to Marx’s doctrines, presents the core of his historical materialism and supplies the critical fulcrum for his critique of political economy. The thematic unity underlying the altering styles or approaches of Marx’s various writings can he summed up in the term “commodity production,” a concept which is central to all his analyses of capitalism, whatever vocabulary or approach he may be using. Historical materialism means, for Marx, a primary concern for social mediations, a radically historical methodology and an eye on the prevailing mode of production as the primary determinant of an historical epoch. Arguing against non-historical theories of just exchange, the eternal nature of man and the productivity of the capitalist, Marx puts political economy on a philosophically critical and politically radical basis.

The raison d’etre of Marx’s historical approach and of his critical social theory in general makes a sudden appearance in the midst of his historical account – in a passage charged with excitement and pathos. The emotions are appropriate to the paradox which defines capitalism’s status in history: undreamed of potential repressed. The freedom implied by the phrase “free labor” was not wholly sarcastic. The feudal peasant is not freer than the wage-laborer even though he is not alienated and exploited in the same way. The peasant is chained to his plot of land and narrow occupation by the primitive mode of production as well as by corresponding sentiments. In comparison, the industrial worker has a universal potential: he could produce in practically any manner imaginable, thanks to the developments in production resulting from capitalism – if, that is, capitalism did not at the same time confine him within a physically and intellectually crippling division of labor and system of alienation. Capitalism, which made man the universal creator, reduced people to one-sided drudges.

Marx rejects the short-sighted criticism of capitalism which argues that now people work for money or live to work where they once worked for goods, for life. What is money? Marx asks, What is abstract value? – when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away – if not “the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc. created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of his own nature as well as those of so-called nature?”[51] In bourgeois political economics – and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds – this complete elaboration of what lies within man appears as a complete emptying-out, this universal objectification as total alienation, and the tearing down of all limited, one-sided aims as sacrifice of the (human) end-in-itself to an entirely external end. The origin of Marx’s definition of man as homo faber universalis in the Manuscripts – and of the anti-capitalist desires to achieve human creative potential today – can be traced to the economics of the era of capitalist production, which is immanently criticized for suppressing the possibilities it has developed. The introduction of abstract value and abstract (“free”) relations in general on a pervasive scale has abolished provincial limitations, creating “social value” which joins all aspects of life into a world-wide social totality. At the same time, however, it subordinates use-value to calculations of private exchange value (profit), rather than raising them to the level of “social use-values.” The alienation of historically produced human nature and the repression of attempts at human liberation are to be understood in terms of the two-faced progress represented by commodity relations. Far from basing itself on theological or Victorian faith in the necessary progress of humanity, Marx’s analysis incorporates an insight into the self-annihilation of progress to date. To trace this stunted dialectic of value in hopes of freeing it from the fetishism of commodities is the task of Capital.

[1] Karl Marx, “Introduction,” Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1973), p. 88f, emphasis added. Cf. Karl Marx, “Einleitung,” Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf) 1857-1858 (Frankfurt: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, photocopy of 1939, 1941 Moscow editions), S. 10f. The introduction was the only section of the Grundrisse published before 1939; An alternative, but inferior translation can be found as an appendix to Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: International, 1970), p. 188ff.

[2] Ibid., p. 90-94, S. 11-15.

[3] Ibid., p. 95-97, S. 16-19; emphasis added.

[4] Ibid., p. 99, S. 20.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Alfred Schmidt, Geschichte und Struktur (München: Hanser, 1971), S. 52ff.

[7] Cf. G. W. F. Hegel, “With what must science begin?” and “Introduction,” both in his Science of Logic.

[8] “Introduction,” Grundrisse, p. 100, S. 21.

[9] Ibid., p. 100, S. 21.

[10] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1966), S. 7.

[11] “Introduction,” Grundrisse, p. 100, S. 21.


[12] Ibid., p. 106f, S. 27.

[13] Ibid., p. 107, S. 28.

[14] Ibid., p. 105, S. 26.

[15] Ibid., p. 105f, S. 26.

[16] Ibid., p. 106, S. 26.

[17] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (New York: International, 1967), p. 20. Cf. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Bd. I (Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1971), S. 12.

[18] “Introduction,” Grundrisse, p. 83, S. 5.

[19] Ibid., p. 84, S. 6.

[20] Ibid., p. 85, S. 6f.

[21] Ibid., p. 85, S. 7.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Marx’s remarks on language have recently been developed by Apel and Habermas, whose theory of communicative competence tries to define those necessary features of language in order to distinguish them from the “systematic distortions” which may ideologically restrict the attempt to use communication to achieve emancipation from social relations of domination.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., p. 101, S. 22.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 102, S. 22.

[28] Ibid., p. 104, S. 24.

[29] Ibid., p. 104, S. 25.

[30] Ibid., p. 105, S. 25.

[31] Ibid., p. 86, S. 7.

[32] Ibid., p. 87, S. 8f.

[33] Ibid., p. 87f, S. 9.

[34] Ibid., p. 88, S. 10.

[35] Marx’s chapter on “Forms which precede capitalist production” is in the Grundrisse, p. 471-514, S. 375-415. An alternative, less literal translation is available in Karl Marx, Pre-capitalist Economic Formations (New York: International Publishers, 1969).

[36] “Forms,” Grundrisse, p. 459, S. 363.

[37] Ibid., p. 471, S. 375.

[38] The following comment opens the seventh of Benjamin’s “Theses on the philosophy of history,” which goes on to show how a non-Marxian, historicist attitude toward the past inevitably sides with the present ruling class. Cf. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 256:

To historians who wish to relive an era, Fustel de Coulanges recommends that they blot out everything they know about the later course of history. There is no better way of characterizing the method with which historical materialism has broken.

[39] Cf. Grundrisse, p. 509, S. 409.

[40] Ibid., p. 505, S. 404f.

[41] Ibid., p. 485, S. 384f.

[42] Ibid., p. 493f, S. 393.

[43] Ibid., p. 494, S. 394.

[44] Ibid., p. 490, S. 390.

[45] Ibid., p. 492, S. 392.

[46] Ibid., p. 495, S. 395.

[47] Ibid., p. 509, S. 408.

[48] Ibid., p. 507, S. 407.

[49] Cf. ibid., p. 511, S. 410f.

[50] Ibid., p. 502f, S. 402.

[51] Ibid., p. 488, S. 387.

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