The ‘Fragment on Machines’: A Marxian Misconception in the Grundrisse and its Overcoming in Capital - Michael Heinrich


Michael Heinrich writes that in the Grundrisse, Marx had not yet developed categories such as relative surplus value and concrete vs. abstract labor that would be developed in Capital.
Marx's notion of crisis also changed after 1857 and continued to change throughout the 1870s.
These developments in Marx's thinking overcomes conceptions Marx laid out earlier in the 'Fragment on Machines'.

This piece was published in 2013. A full PDF is included.

Taken from the collection In Marx's laboratory: critical interpretations of the Grundrisse. Full book on libcom here.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on March 29, 2024

The ‘Fragment on Machines’: A Marxian Misconception in the Grundrisse and its Overcoming in Capital

Michael Heinrich

The Grundrisse still belongs to the most beloved texts of Marx’s interpreters. Some authors argue that the so-called ‘Fragment on machines’ is a central document for a Marxian theory of capitalist ‘catastrophes’, a kind of ‘break-down theory’ of capitalism, or at least a description of a process in which a new mode of production emerges, inaugurated by capitalism itself but in contradiction with the logic of capital. In such considerations, the results of the ‘Fragment’ are taken for granted. However, the results of this ‘Fragment on machines’ derive, on the one hand, from a one-sided conception of crisis in Marx’s thinking since the early 1850s, and, on the other hand, from some shortcomings in the conception of basic categories in the Grundrisse. In the years after the Grundrisse, Marx overcame both misconceptions. In Capital Volume I, when dealing with the production of relative surplus-value, we can find an implicit critique of the ‘Fragment on machines’. Ignoring Marx’s theoretical development, as does Antonio Negri when he states that the Grundrisse should be read ‘for itself ’,1 one can easily neglect a discussion of this implicit self-critique of Marx. Reading the text for itself means accepting uncritically the results of the text. In order to discuss the Grundrisse productively today, we have to contextualise the text not only in the development of Marx’s thought. We also have to situate our reading of the Grundrisse in the development of the discussion about Marx in the twentieth century, because this development has shaped many of the ways in which the Grundrisse was and still is read.

1. The reception of the Grundrisse in the twentieth century

When we discuss the work of a significant author, we always do so in a determinate historical situation, which provides us with specific problems and reservations. Certain things appear to us to be obvious, while others seem to be questionable or superannuated. Some of these evaluations would have appeared very differently thirty or forty years earlier. In the case of Marx, furthermore, there is the fact that many texts that are today very important for the debate were not even published during his lifetime. His work has become accessible in its totality only slowly. Not only the respective historical context, but also the respective state of publication of his texts, influenced the direction and the course of many debates.

Even in the case of Capital, Marx could only publish the first volume. Engels published the second and third volumes after Marx’s death, with considerable editorial interventions. Only in the last years have Marx’s original manuscripts for these volumes been published in the context of the Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). Thus, it is only now, after more than 100 years, that we can identify Engels’s editorial interventions and discuss their conceptual and substantial relevance. At the beginning of the twentieth century, after Karl Kautsky published the Theories of Surplus-Value between 1905–1910, it appeared as if all of Marx’s critique of political economy was completely available, as the Theories were regarded as the fourth volume of Capital dealing with the history of the theory, which Marx had planned.2 In the reading that was then predominant, Marx was regarded as the great socialist economist, who had demonstrated the exploitation of the working class, the crises-prone nature of capitalism and the inevitable transition to socialism, first in the Communist Manifesto and then later, on a broader foundation, in Capital. Most Marxists celebrated these findings as the triumph of ‘scientific socialism’. Beginning in the 1920s, however, there was a strengthening of the critique of actual or supposed tendencies in Marx’s theory of ‘economism’, ‘determinism’ and, above all, ‘objectivism’. In this context, the publication of Marx’s early works, particularly the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, were like a bombshell. Here, apparently, the broad philosophical and socio-theoretical background of Marx’s economic analyses, his considerations of the ‘human essence’ and ‘alienation’ in capitalism, became clear. The objectivism that has previously been so roundly criticised, along with the lack of a theory of the subject, could, so it seemed at least, be overcome on these foundations.

This transformed reception was not a purely inner-theoretical phenomenon, but the result of a determinate political reading, which in different ways was deployed against the tendencies towards petrification and dogmatism of official party Marxism. Fascism and Stalinism, however, made it impossible for the discussion that began in the early 1930s to develop in a significant sense. This occurred only in the 1960s, when the conditions of the debate had substantially changed. Above all, the reception of Marx’s early writing had lost its almost automatically assured anti-dogmatic impulse. In the meantime, these texts had been integrated by the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy to a large extent. When, for example, Louis Althusser, in 1965, criticised Marx’s early writings as ‘ideological’ and introduced the specific form of scientificity of Capital, this was also a critique of this orthodoxy. However, his strongly argued position also earned him the accusation – precisely from the anti-orthodox side – of having banished the subject and social struggles from the theoretical discussion. The debates over the relation between ‘early’ (philosophical) and ‘late’ (economic-theoretical) Marx had multiplied, just as the political perspectives connected to the individual positions within these debates had. It was in this context that there really began for the first time a widespread reading of the Grundrisse – which enduringly influenced the terms and conditions of its interpretation.

The Grundrisse, which was first published in 1939–41 in Moscow, was accorded only sporadic interest during the war and in the immediate post-war period. Even when the text was reprinted in the GDR in 1953, the text did not initially have many readers. This changed with the publication in 1968 of Roman Rosdolsky’s commentary on the Grundrisse.3 The Grundrisse was then discussed widely not only in Germany, but, with the French translation of 1967 and the first English translation of 1973, the debate began in many other countries as well.

The Grundrisse appeared to be the magic-wand with which one could solve the problems in Marx’s theory that had been discussed up until then. The contraposition of a young philosophical Marx and a mature economic-theoretic Marx was seemingly lessened, but nevertheless found a mediating connecting link in the Grundrisse: this text made it clear that the mature Marx’s economic writings also were based upon a developed philosophical foundation. What was lacking in Capital seemed to be present in the Grundrisse.

While Marx dealt with methodological questions in Capital almost only in the prefaces and afterwords, this problematic was raised continuously in the course of the presentation in the Grundrisse. There is also a much clearer reference to Hegel’s philosophy in the Grundrisse. Something similar is the case with the question of subjectivity: much more strongly than in Capital, labour is conceptualised as the subjective counterpoint to capital. Additionally, the six-book plan that Marx envisaged as he wrote the Grundrisse (capital, landed property, wage-labour, state, international trade, world market) made clear that the intended object of investigation was much broader than that treated by Marx in Capital. Finally, the Grundrisse seemed to be a supplement to Capital, since here a series of themes were discussed that received no corresponding treatment in the presentation of Capital. The most well-known of these themes occurs in the Grundrisse under the heading of ‘Forms that precede capitalist production’ and in that ‘Fragment on machines’ that was discussed very early in Italian workerism.4 The Grundrisse thus seemed to offer something for everybody. Today, the discussion of Marx is not conceivable without the Grundrisse.5 Indeed, the Grundrisse are a fascinating work and reading them is a singular intellectual adventure. As if we were looking over his shoulder, we can observe Marx in the process of his analysis and the formation of his theory; the grasp of the material is much freer, and less regimented than in Capital. All too often, however, this understandable fascination leads to an uncritical enthusiasm.

2. The Grundrisse in the development of Marx’s theory

If the Grundrisse are posited simply as a supplement beside Marx’s Capital, then the inner-theoretical process of development of Marx’s critique of political economy and the transitory character of the Grundrisse are ignored. Let us recall very briefly this development. Following the Theses on Feuerbach and the German Ideology, Marx’s work in 1845–6 issued in a fundamental critique of any approach to economic theory centred on human species-being and alienation. Nevertheless, at that stage, Marx did not have very much that he could put in the place of these conceptions. Positively, the German Ideology offered above all a turn to the empirical. Again and again, Marx and Engels stressed there that ‘positive science’, the registration of the empirical state of affairs and relations, needed to take the place of philosophical speculation.

Against this background, Marx accepted the political economy of Ricardo and the class-theory of French historians as substantially correct descriptions of capitalist reality. In his engagement with Proudhon in the Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx continually praised Ricardo in the highest terms for the acuity of his analysis.6 In the Communist Manifesto, Marx referred without hesitation to the bourgeois class-analysis that can be found in French historians such as Guizot or Thierry in their analysis of the French Revolution. The only thing that he found in Ricardo to criticise at this point in time was his conception that capitalism was not an historically determinate mode of production, but rather an eternal, quasi-natural one.7 Something similar is the case for class-theory: Marx did not claim that he had discovered the existence of classes and the class-struggle, but rather that the class-struggle must ultimately lead to a classless society.8 In the second half of the 1840s, we find in Marx a critical deployment of the given bourgeois political economy and class-theory, but still no fundamental critique of the categories of political economy.

This critique was developed only after Marx’s forced emigration to London. Here, in the heart of the capitalist world-system in that period, and with the help of the enormous stock of books of the British Museum, Marx started his economic studies ‘again from the very beginning’, as he himself emphasised in the 1859 ‘Preface’ of Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.9 Only now did he begin to develop a critique of the categories as well. Initially, Marx criticised Ricardo’s theory of money and rent; as he progressed, the critique became increasingly fundamental. When Marx wrote the ‘Introduction’ in 1857 and thus began the Grundrisse, this was not only the beginning of a development of his critique of economics that would eventually lead to Capital. It was also, and above all, an inventory taking of what he had achieved in terms of theoretical insights in the previous years. The attempt to set down these insights in a coherent way, however, still entailed a daunting process of research, during which Marx came up against more than merely one theoretical lacuna.

When Marx began the Grundrisse, he already had a mass of material for his planned economic work, but was still far from a finished concept. The Grundrisse in fact has no genuine beginning: a critique of Daimon, a student of Proudhon who wanted to overcome capitalism by means of the monetary system, indiscernibly passes over into an engagement with the categorical foundations that are necessary for such a critique. Here, we can clearly see that Marx still had serious difficulties with the categories of value, money and exchange. A close reading of the ‘Chapter on money’ clearly shows that it is not yet a unitary attempt at presentation, but rather, a superimposition of numerous, continuously renewed attempts at presentation.10

That Marx, despite these unsolved problems, did not fall back into yet another research-process, was due to an external motive: the world-economic crisis that commenced in 1857. Marx had been impatiently waiting for years for such a crisis, anticipating that violent economic tremors and revolutionary revolts would follow in its wake. His book had been supposed to provide support for the revolutionary movement and now Marx feared that he would be too late.11

During his work on the Grundrisse, Marx made enormous advances in his knowledge. His analysis, however, also had significant deficiencies, which many enthusiastic readings do not seem to discern. Marx himself wrote that this manuscript is ‘a real hotchpotch, much of it intended for much later sections’.12 He did not merely mean the ordering of the material, the large number of digressions and intimations. The order of the presented categories is itself the bearer of a determinate yield of information: it shows the connection of these categories, the interconnection that exists between them. Categories like the commodity, money, capital, wage-labour, and so forth, are theoretical expressions of social relations in a developed capitalist society. These relations not only appear simultaneously; they mutually presuppose each other in social reality. Only theoretical analysis allows one to distinguish between simple and complex categories and to express the conceptual-theoretical connection between the categories.13 When the manuscript’s coherence breaks down, however, it is precisely this conceptual connection between the individual categories that is not yet clearly grasped. That means that there are still not insignificant deficiencies in the conceptual fixing of these categories.

We will discuss some of these deficiencies in the next section. The fact that Marx removed some of these deficiencies in the 1860s does not mean, however, that there might be a linear progressive development, a continuous refinement from the Grundrisse to Capital. Such an idea, however, guided the editors of the MEGA in the 1970s and 1980s, who characterised the Grundrisse, the Manuscripts of 1961–2 (MEGA II/3.1–3.6) and the Manuscripts of 1863–5 (MEGA II/4.1–4.2) as the ‘three drafts of Capital’, thus implying that Capital (by which was meant the three-volume work edited by Engels) was the goal towards which a developmental process moved, beginning precisely with the Grundrisse. Besides the improvement of the presentation and the overcoming of theoretical deficiencies, however, we can also observe an opposed tendency in this development. Marx himself spoke often of ‘popularisation’ of his presentation. A first popularisation can be observed in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859; a second attempt at popularisation consists in the second edition of Capital Volume I. These popularisations have their price: determinate conceptual contexts are sometimes obscured; other connections no longer appear in Capital, such as, for example, the transition from money to capital.14 Thus, Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt in particular have understood this development from the Grundrisse to Capital not as an improvement, let alone a refinement of the presentation, but rather, as a tale of decline away from an originally very strongly composed presentation.15

Both positions – the idea of a continuous refinement, as well as that of a constant theoretical regress – seem nevertheless to be inadequate. This is not only because both improvement as well as deterioration can be observed, but above all, because in this way we neglect that the path from the Grundrisse to Capital witnesses not only transformations of individual aspects, but also of the fundamental conceptual questions. The six-book plan as well as the concept of ‘capital in general’ – Marx develops both during his work on the Grundrisse, and redeploys them in the Manuscripts of 1861–3 – is given up. With Capital, for which the Manuscripts of 1863–5 are the first and not the third draft, Marx develops a new theoretical frame of reference, for which the distinction between individual capital and social total capital is decisive.16 Indeed, we have to distinguish between two different projects: ‘Critique of Political Economy’ in six books, for which two drafts exist (Grundrisse and the Manuscript of 1861–3); and Capital in four books with three drafts (Manuscripts of 1863–5, Manuscripts of 1866–71, including the first edition of Capital Volume I, and the Manuscripts of 1871–81).17

3. Marx’s Argument in the ‘Fragment on machines’ and its errors

At the beginning of the manuscript of the Grundrisse, Marx does not yet operate on the basis of developed value-theoretic considerations. Rather, he initially attempts to determine the status of money within commodity-circulation. In particular, he has still not clarified the distinction between abstract and concrete labour – a configuration that he describes in Capital as the ‘crucial point’ of the understanding of political economy, and in a letter to Engels of 8 January 1868, as ‘the whole secret of the critical conception’.18 The clear fixing of the distinction between abstract and concrete labour, with which Marx completely broke with Ricardo’s value-theory, occurred only in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).19 Indeed, Marx distinguishes also in the Grundrisse clearly between use-value and value (but not yet as clearly between exchange-value and value; he does this only in the second edition of Capital, Volume I). When he speaks of value-determining labour-time, it is a case, as in Smith and Ricardo, of merely a ‘labour sans phrase’, which does not prevent the determinations of abstract and concrete labour from being confused.20

The analysis of the capitalist production-process as a unity of labour- and valorisation-processes occurs only in preliminary hypotheses. Marx thus had difficulties to hold on to the form-determination of constant capital, so that he frequently went back to the question of how it is possible that labour can both add new value and also carry over the value of the utilised means of production onto the product.21 The back and forth of Marx’s attempt at explanation – now with ‘form’ and ‘substance’ of labour, now with ‘quality’ and ‘quantity’ of labour – is extensively analysed in a volume published by the Projektgruppe Entwicklung des Marxschen Systems (PEM).22

As Marx still had problems with the concept of constant capital, he saw the actual capitalist form-determination of the means of labour only in the category of capital fixe;23 that is, of a form-determination that contains the means of labour only in circulation. Thus, the much discussed ‘Fragment on machines’ occurs in the section on the capitalist circulation-process – although problems are treated that belong to the analysis of the capitalist production-process.

Marx initially maintains that the means of labour in the capitalist production-process ‘passes through a series of metamorphoses until it ends up as the machine or rather as an automatic system or machinery’.24 Here, the activity of the worker is also transformed. It ‘is determined and governed in every respect by the movement of the machinery, not vice versa’.25 This entire development, Marx argues: ‘is not a matter of chance for capital, but the historical transformation of the traditional means of labour, as handed down from the past, into a form adequate to capital. The accumulation of knowledge and skill, of the general productive forces of the social mind, is thus absorbed in capital as opposed to labour, and hence appears as a property of capital, more precisely, of fixed capital, to the extent that it enters into the production process as means of production in strict sense’.26

Shortly afterwards, Marx summarises thus:

Hence, the full development of capital only takes place – or capital has only posited the mode of production corresponding to it – when the means of labour is not merely formally determined as fixed capital but is superseded in its immediate form, and fixed capital confronts labour within the production process as machinery. The entire production process then appears no longer as subsumed under the immediate skill of the worker, but as technological application of science. Capital thus tends to impart a scientific character to production, and immediate labour is reduced to a mere moment of this process.27

In the nineteenth century, a contemporary observer could not fail to note that machinery had an increasing significance in capitalist production, that the application of science was increasing, and that the individual worker played an ever smaller role. The fact that Marx here notes these developments is no particular analytic achievement. Such an achievement could only consist in the ordering and explanation of this process.

Marx treats these developments as a process that capital necessarily produced; capital ‘posits the mode of production corresponding to it’. Why, however, is the employment of machinery and the increasingly scientific nature of production adequate for capital? Marx’s answer is vague: in the first cited passage, he argues that the ‘general productive forces of the social mind’ are ‘absorbed’ by capital; in the second citation, he emphasises that the scientific production-process is no longer ‘subsumed under the immediate skill of the worker’. In other words, on the basis of the capitalist appropriation of socially produced knowledge, the power of capital over labour increases, capital increasingly becomes independent from single workers and their skills. This increasing power is a positive effect for capital. The goal of capital, however, is the production of surplus-value. If we wish to show that the developments named by Marx represent the ‘mode of production corresponding’ to capital, we must refer to the production of surplus-value. In this citation, however, Marx is still a long way from this, since he does not have an adequate concept of the production of relative surplus-value. That means that he can deal with the increasing application of machinery and the growing scientific nature of production only as an empirically noticeable tendency, and claim that they are a development that is adequate for capital. He cannot yet, however, justify them as this adequate development.

Instead of providing such a justification, he emphasises an (apparent) contradiction taken from the empirical evidence: ‘In the same measure as labour time – the simple quantity of labour – is posited by capital as the sole determinant of value, immediate labour and its quantity disappear as the determining principle of production, of the creation of use values. It is reduced both quantitatively, in that its proportion declines, and qualitatively, it that it, though still indispensable, becomes a subaltern moment in comparison to general scientific work . . .’.28

Marx then immediately draws the following far-reaching conclusion: ‘Thus capital works to dissolve itself as the form which dominates production’.

This surprising result is not further justified at this stage. Instead, Marx deals with the problem of the way in which capital fixe contributes to the value of the produced product, in order to be able to oppose Lauderdale’s conception that capital fixe is a source of value that is independent from labour-time. Only a few pages later, he comes back to this contradiction. He holds that the presupposition of the capital-relation is ‘the sheer volume of immediate labour time, the quantity of labour employed, as the decisive factor in the production of wealth’.29

This presupposition, however, is undermined by the development of industry itself: ‘But in the degree, in which large-scale industry develops, the creation of real wealth becomes less dependent upon labour time and the quantity of labour employed than upon the power of agents set in motion during labour time’.30

However, if immediate labour-time plays an ever smaller role, what does the worker still do in the process of production?

Labour no longer appears so much as included in the production process, but rather man relates himself to that process as overseer and regulator . . . He stands besides the production process, rather than being its main agent.31

Here, it is no longer a case of ‘immediate labour performed by man himself ’, but rather, of the ‘appropriation of his own general productive power’,32 on the basis of which Marx then draws an extremely far-reading conclusion:

As soon as labour in its immediate form has ceased to be the great source of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and therefore exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the masses has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of a few has ceased to be the condition for the development of the general powers of the human mind. As a result, production based upon exchange value collapses . . .33

While these sentences are often cited, it is worthwhile to look more closely at whether and how Marx justifies them. Marx’s starting point is the empirically noticeable tendency that the use of machinery and the increasing scientific dimension of production steadily advance in the capitalist mode of production. This uncontroversial observation then serves him as the foundation of deductions that are based upon each other:

a) Marx sees ‘immediate labour’ increasingly disappearing from the production-process, from which should then follow
b) that immediate labour is no longer the great source of wealth; rather, this is increasingly constituted by science, or general social knowledge;
c) in this case, labour-time is no longer the ‘measure’ of wealth,
d) which should have the consequence that capitalist production (‘production based upon exchange-value’) collapses.

If we consider carefully these deductions in detail, we see that the lacking distinction between concrete useful labour, which produces use-values, and abstract human labour, which is represented in value, has decisive consequences:

Regarding a): Marx extrapolates limitlessly the empirical observation of the progressive deployment of machinery. It would, however, be necessary first to explain whether or not there really are no limits in the capitalist production-process for the replacement of ‘immediate labour’ by machines. If we consider only concrete useful labour, then there does indeed appear to be no limit for the increase in productivity by means of the increasing deployment of machinery (although the period of time in which this occurs remains an open question). We should bear in mind, however, that it is a case of a capitalist production-process, for there is certainly a limit to the employment of machinery. The machine used in a capitalist way is itself a value-object, which yields the average expenditure of value to the produced product (if a given machine produces 10 000 pieces before it is worn out, then the machine yields 1/10000 of its value to the individual product). As Marx discusses extensively in the second section of the fifteenth chapter of Capital Volume I, the employment of machinery in the capitalist production-process is only worthwhile if the production-costs of the product are reduced. And that only occurs when the value-yield of the machine to the product is lower than the reduction of costs that occurs due to the reduced expenditure of living labour. If the employment of machinery saves an hour in the production of a piece, then the capitalist saves the wage for this one hour. If the value-yield of the machine to the product is higher than the wage for an hour, then the capitalist will not employ the machine, since the machine may indeed make labour more productive, but nevertheless raise the production-costs. Only when the value-yield of the machine is less than the saved wage-costs is the machine employed.

Regarding b): It is unclear what Marx means, here, by ‘wealth’. If it is material wealth, namely the mass of use-values, then ‘immediate labour’ would never be the ‘great’ source of wealth, as, besides concrete-useful labour, the natural productive forces (like, for example, fertility of the land) and the productive forces created by humans would be equally great sources of wealth. However, if Marx means here the social form of wealth in capitalist societies, that is, the ‘value’ of the ‘immense accumulation of commodities’, then this value is the representation of abstract human labour, which has produced the commodities. Here, it is not important which part of this abstract human labour is an expression of the ‘immediate labour’ that was expended in the (last) production-process, and which part is an expression of the labour objectified in the machines, the value of which is carried over to the product. Even if an increasingly larger part of the product’s value is traced back to the value-transfer by the used machines, abstract labour remains the substance of value.

Regarding c): if, however, abstract labour remains the substance of value, then labour-time also remains the immanent measure of it, even if the ‘immediate labour time’ in production plays an increasingly reduced role. Immediate labour-time was at any rate never the measure of value: immediate labour-time is that quantity of concrete labour that is expended by an individual producer. However, the individual expenditure of concrete labour-time does not form value; rather, value is formed by that quantity of abstract human labour that results only from the average social relations.

Regarding d): if labour-time remains the (immanent) measure of value, then the argument given by Marx for his last deduction, the collapse of ‘production based upon exchange-value’, is no longer valid either. Indeed, with this last deduction, it remained completely unclear from the outset how the difficulties of measuring value (insofar as this is supposed to occur) should then lead immediately to the collapse of capitalist production.

Above all, the weakness of the last deduction is clear and it is amazing that Marx himself did not notice how weak the argument is. An explanation lies in the conception of crisis with which he operated before the drafting of the Grundrisse. The Communist Manifesto claimed that ‘the commercial crises [. . .] by their periodical return put on its trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society’.34 Some years later, Marx and Engels then claimed a close connection between crisis and revolution: ‘A new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, just as certain as this crisis’.35 That Marx, while composing the manuscript of the Grundrisse, saw in crisis not only the catalyst of a political process, but also the beginnings of an economic collapse, is clear from an early draft plan. There, he writes: ‘Crises. Dissolution of the mode of production and form of society based upon exchange value’.36

At the beginning of his work on the Grundrisse, Marx was convinced that the crisis would lead to the dissolution of the capitalist mode of production, and that in the course of its development this mode of production would finally ‘collapse’. Now, as the first great crisis of the world-market had begun that would lead to the ‘deluge’, he had only to sketch out the mechanism that formed the basis of this process.37

We know, however, that something very different occurred. Although the first genuine crisis of the world-market occurred in 1857–8, it was neither a catalyst of revolutionary unrest, nor did it announce the collapse of production based upon exchange-value. On the contrary: the crisis was quickly over and capitalist production emerged from it strengthened. Marx learnt this lesson thoroughly and never forgot it. When Danielson pressured him to finish Capital in the late 1870s, Marx replied to him that he couldn’t finish Capital before the current crisis reached its highpoint, because it showed entirely new phenomena that he still had to comprehend theoretically.38 Nothing is left of any ideas of collapse or even his fear during the composition of the Grundrisse that he would be ‘too late’ with his book.

4. Quesnay’s riddle and its solution

The phenomena that Marx analysed in the Grundrisse in relation to capital fixe appear in Capital Volume I in different places – as a component part of the investigation of the production of relative surplus-value, a category that was only present in a rudimentary form in the Grundrisse, but which is developed in Capital on the basis of a precise distinction between concrete useful labour and abstract human labour, and between constant and variable capital, as well as the comprehension of the capitalist production-process as a unity of the labour- and valorisation-process.

Developments of productive power are now not only empirically or factually included, but grasped as the systematic methods of the production of relative surplus-value, in which consists the fundamental possibility of an increase in productive power in the cooperation of the individual labour-powers, the division of labour (analysed paradigmatically in light of manufacture) and the employment of machinery (paradigmatically in ‘large-scale industry’). On all three levels, the social productive power of labour appears as the productive power of capital, and ‘the intellectual potentialities [geistige Potenzen] of the material process of production [appear to the workers] as the property of another and as a power which rules over him’.39 However, this is not the case in the same way on all three levels:

This process of separation starts in simple co-operation, where the capitalist represents to the individual workers the unity and the will of the whole body of social labour. It is developed in manufacture, which mutilates the worker, turning him into a fragment of himself. It is completed in large-scale industry, which makes science a potentiality for production which is distinct from labour and presses it into the service of capital.40

Marx then summarises in his analysis of machinery and large-scale industry in Chapter Fifteen:

Every kind of capitalist production, in so far as it is not only a labour process but also capital’s process of valorization, has this in common, but it is not the worker who employs the conditions of his work, but rather the reverse, the conditions of work employ the worker. However it is only with the coming of machinery that this inversion first acquires a technical and palpable reality. Owing to its conversion into an automaton, the instrument of labour confronts the worker during the labor process in the shape of capital, dead labour, which dominates and soaks up living labour-power. The separation of the intellectual faculties of the production process from manual labour and the transformation of such faculties into powers exercised by capital over labour, is, as we have already shown, finally completed by large-scale industry erected on the foundation of machinery. The special skill of each individual machine-operator, who has now been deprived of all significance, vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity in the face of science, the gigantic natural forces, and the mass of social labour embodied in the system of machinery . . .41

By analysing changes in the production-process in the context of the production of relative surplus-value (an increase in productive power leads to a reduction of the value of labour-power and thus the necessary labour-time, so that surplus labour-time correspondingly increases), Marx could not merely claim the necessity of this development, as in the Grundrisse, but also justify it. It also became clear to him that the separation of the intellectual potentialities of the production-process from the workers is a tendency that is immanent to all capitalist production. This process found a highpoint in machine-production, but not a tipping point that put capitalist production into question. That the detail-skills of the individual worker become minute beside the employment of science, and thus beside the ‘general intellect’, does not threaten value-production. This state of affairs, rather, alters the concept of the productive worker, as is rather parenthetically noted in Chapter Sixteen.

In Capital, Marx studies the same developments as those examined in the ‘Fragment on machines’. Nowhere, however, does he claim that (abstract) labour is no longer the substance of value, or that labour as a measure of value is placed in question – for good reason.

The value-dimension now comes into play on an entirely different level. In the treatment of the ‘concept of relative surplus-value’ in Chapter Twelve, Marx speaks of the ‘riddle’ with which one of the founders of political economy, Quesnay, had tormented his opponents and for which they owed him an answer: namely, the fact that, on the one hand, capitalists were only interested in exchange-value; but that, on the other hand, they constantly sought to lower the exchange-value of their products.42 Marx also could not provide an answer to this riddle in the Grundrisse. There, he had effectively named the contradiction nominated by Quesnay. But rather than resolving it, he had comprehended it as a contradiction of capital: ‘By striving to reduce labour time to a minimum, while, on the other hand, positing labour time as the sole measure and source of wealth, capital itself is a contradiction-in-process’.43

In the Grundrisse, Marx had ascribed to this ‘contradiction’ a potential to overthrow the capitalist mode of production. In Capital, against the background of the analysis of the production of relative surplus-value, this contradiction is resolved: the capitalist is not interested in the absolute value of the commodity, but rather, merely in surplus-value contained within it and able to be realised by means of sale. And ‘since the same process both cheapens commodities and augments the surplus-value contained in them, we have here the solution of the following riddle: why does the capitalist, whose sole concern is to produce exchange-value, continually strive to bring down the exchange-value of commodities?’44 The contradiction that had so astounded Marx in 1857–8 in the Grundrisse that he had immediately seen the collapse of all production based upon exchange-value, is reduced in Capital in 1867 to a riddle from the history of the theory, and one which has a simple solution. Those interpreters who have stopped at the Grundrisse have not accompanied Marx in these decisive theoretical advances.

Translated by Peter D. Thomas

  • 1Negri 1984, p. 15.
  • 2They are not: not only because, rather than the planned history of economic theory, only the history of one single category is given (with significant digressions into other fields), but also because the Theories, written in 1861–3, are not yet at the level of knowledge of Capital. Rather, they represent only a first (important) step in the development of this level of knowledge.
  • 3Rosdolsky 1977.
  • 4Cf. on this history Bellofiore and Tomba 2009.
  • 5On the international reception of the Grundrisse, cf. Musto 2008.
  • 6Cf., for example, Marx and Engels 1976, pp. 123–4.
  • 7Cf., for example, the letter to Annenkov of 28 December 1846 (Marx 1975–2005e, p. 100).
  • 8Cf. Marx’s letter to Weydemeyer of 5 March 1852 in Marx and Engels 1975–2005, pp. 62–5.
  • 9Marx 1859, p. 265.
  • 10Cf. PEM 1973.
  • 11Cf. His letter to Lassalle, 22 February 1858, in Marx and Engels 1983, p. 271.
  • 12Letter to Engels, 31 May 1858, in Marx and Engels 1983, p. 318.
  • 13This is the core of what Marx means by ‘dialectical presentation’. For a more extensive discussion cf. Heinrich 1999, pp. 171 ff.
  • 14Cf. Heinrich 1999, pp. 253 ff
  • 15Cf. Backhaus 1997, Reichelt 2008.
  • 16Cf. Heinrich 1989.
  • 17Cf. Heinrich 2009 and, especially for Marx’s work in the 1870s, Heinrich 2011.
  • 18Marx 1976a, p. 132; Marx 1987b, p. 514.
  • 19As Schrader (Schrader 1980, pp. 194 ff.) plausibly argues, the significance of this distinction first became clear to Marx as he made his excerpts from Franklin, which he most probably wrote in 1858–9 during his preparation for Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. However, with this, the development of Marx’s value-theory is not yet complete; only during his engagement with Samuel Bailey, in the Theories of Surplus Value, does the complete significance of the analysis of the value-form become clear to him, which was only briefly and unsatisfactorily treated in the Contribution.
  • 20 Marx himself emphasises that the analysis could not be left at ‘labour sans phrase’ in the previously cited letter to Engels (Marx 1987b, p. 514).
  • 21Marx 1975–2005a, pp. 179–91.
  • 22PEM 1978, pp. 113 ff
  • 23Marx 1975–2005c, p. 81.
  • 24Marx 1975–2005c, p. 82.
  • 25Marx 1975–2005c, p. 83.
  • 26Marx 1975–2005c, p. 84.
  • 27Marx 1975–2005c, p. 85.
  • 28Marx 1975–2005c, pp. 85–6.
  • 29Marx 1975–2005c, p. 90.
  • 30Ibid.
  • 31Marx 1975–2005c, p. 91.
  • 32Slightly later, Marx explains that ‘The development of fixed capital shows the degree to which society’s general science, KNOWLEDGE, has become an immediate productive force, and hence the degree to which the conditions of the social life process itself have been brought under the control of the GENERAL INTELECT and remoulded according to it’ (Marx 1975–2005c, p. 92). This is the only passage in which Marx speaks of the ‘GENERAL INTELECT’, which some authors quote with relish today.
  • 33Marx 1975–2005c, p. 91.
  • 34Marx and Engels 1976, p. 489.
  • 35Marx and Engels 1975–2005a, p. 510.
  • 36 Marx 1975–2005a, p. 195.
  • 37Marx and Engels 1983, p. 217.
  • 38Marx and Engels 1975–2005, Vol. 45, p. 354.
  • 39Marx 1976a, p. 482.
  • 40Ibid.
  • 41Marx 1976a, pp. 548–9.
  • 42Marx 1976a, p. 437.
  • 43Marx 1975–2005c, p. 91.
  • 44Marx 1976a, p. 437.