1 History, production and method in the 1857 ‘Introduction’
In 1857 Marx was convinced that the financial crisis developing at international level had created the conditions for a new revolutionary period throughout Europe. He had been waiting for this moment ever since the popular insurrections of 1848, and now that it finally seemed to have come he did not want events to catch him unprepared. He therefore decided to resume his economic studies and to give them a finished form.
Where to begin? How to embark on the critique of political economy, that ambitious and demanding project which he had begun and interrupted several times before? This was the first question that Marx asked himself as he got down to work again. Two circumstances played a crucial role in determining the answer: he held the view that, despite the validity of certain theories, economic science still lacked a cognitive procedure with which to grasp and elucidate reality correctly;1 and he felt a need to establish the arguments and the order of exposition before he embarked on the task of composition. These considerations led him to go more deeply into problems of method and to formulate the guiding principles for his research. The upshot was one of the most extensively debated manuscripts in the whole of his oeuvre: the so-called ‘Introduction’ of 1857.
Marx’s intention was certainly not to write a sophisticated methodological treatise but to clarify for himself, before his readers, what orientation he should follow on the long and eventful critical journey that lay ahead. This was also necessary for the task of revising the huge mass of economic studies that he had accumulated since the mid-1840s. Thus, along with observations on the employment and articulation of theoretical categories, these pages contain a number of formulations essential to his thought that he found indispensable to summarize anew—especially those linked to his conception of history—as well as a quite unsystematic list of questions for which the solutions remained problematic.
This mix of requirements and purposes, the short period of composition (scarcely a week) and, above all, the provisional character of these notes make them extremely complex and controversial. Nevertheless, since it contains the most extensive and detailed pronouncement that Marx ever made on epistemological questions, the ‘Introduction’ is an important reference for the understanding of his thought2 and a key to the interpretation of the Grundrisse as a whole.
History and the social individual
In keeping with his style, Marx alternated in the ‘Introduction’ between exposition of his own ideas and criticism of his theoretical opponents. The text is divided into four sections:
- Production in general
- General relation between production, distribution, exchange and consumption
- The method of political economy
- Means (forces) of production and relations of production, relations of production and relations of circulation, etc.
- (Marx 1973: 69)
The first section opens with a declaration of intent, immediately specifying the field of study and pointing to the historical criterion: ‘the object before us, to begin with, material production. Individuals producing in society—hence socially determined individual production—is, of course, the point of departure.’ Marx’s polemical target was ‘the eighteenth-century Robinsonades’ (Marx 1973: 83), the myth of Robinson Crusoe (see Watt 1951: 112) as the paradigm of homo oeconomicus, or the projection of phenomena typical of the bourgeois era onto every other society that has existed since the earliest times. Such conceptions represented the social character of production as a constant in any labour process, not as a peculiarity of capitalist relations. In the same way, civil society [bürgerliche Gesells chaft]—whose emergence in the eighteenth century had created the conditions through which ‘the individual appears detached from the natural bonds, etc. which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate’—was portrayed as having always existed (Marx 1973: 83).
In reality, the isolated individual simply did not exist before the capitalist epoch. As Marx put it in another passage in the Grundrisse: ‘He originally appears as a species-being, tribal being, herd animal’ (Marx 1973: 496, trans, modified). This collective dimension is the condition for the appropriation of the earth, ‘the great workshop, the arsenal which furnishes both means and material of labour, as well as the seat, the base of the community [Basis des Gemeinwesens]’ (Marx 1973: 472). In the presence of these primal relations, the activity of human beings is directly linked to the earth; there is a ‘natural unity of labour with its material presuppositions’, and the individual lives in symbiosis with others like himself (Marx 1973: 471). Similarly, in all later economic forms based on agriculture where the aim is to create use-values and not yet exchange-values,3 the relationship of the individual to ‘the objective conditions of his labour is mediated through his presence as member of the commune’; he is always only one link in the chain (Marx 1973: 486). In this connection, Marx writes in the ‘Introduction’: The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent [unselbstständig], as belonging to a greater whole: in a still quite natural way in the family and in the family expanded into the clan [Stamm]; then later in the various forms of communal society arising out of the antitheses and fusions of the clans.4
(Marx 1973: 84)
Similar considerations appear in Capital, vol. I. Here, in speaking of ‘the European Middle Ages, shrouded in darkness’, Marx argues that:
instead of the independent man, we find everyone dependent, serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clergy. Personal dependence here characterizes the social relations of production just as much as it does the other spheres of life organized on the basis of that production.
(Marx 1996: 88)
And, when he examined the genesis of product exchange, he recalled that it began with contacts among different families, tribes or communities, ‘for, in the beginning of civilization, it is not private individuals but families, tribes, etc., that meet on an independent footing’ (Marx 1996: 357). Thus, whether the horizon was the primal bond of consanguinity or the medieval nexus of lordship and vassalage, individuals lived amid ‘limited relations of production [bornirter Productionsverhältnisse]’, joined to one another by reciprocal ties (Marx 1973: 162).5
The classical economists had inverted this reality, on the basis of what Marx regarded as fantasies with an inspiration in natural law. In particular, Adam Smith had described a primal condition where individuals not only existed but were capable of producing outside society. A division of labour within tribes of hunters and shepherds had supposedly achieved the specialization of trades: one person’s greater dexterity in fashioning bows and arrows, for example, or in building wooden huts, had made him a kind of armourer or carpenter, and the assurance of being able to exchange the unconsumed part of one’s labour product for the surplus of others ‘encourage[d] every man to apply himself to a particular occupation’ (Smith 1961: 19). David Ricardo was guilty of a similar anachronism when he conceived of the relationship between hunters and fishermen in the early stages of society as an exchange between owners of commodities on the basis of the labour-time objectified in them (see Ricardo 1973: 15, cf. Marx 1987a:300).
In this way, Smith and Ricardo depicted a highly developed product of the society in which they lived—the isolated bourgeois individual—as if he were a spontaneous manifestation of nature. What emerged from the pages of their works was a mythological, timeless individual, one ‘posited by nature’, whose social relations were always the same and whose economic behaviour had a historyless anthropological character (Marx 1973: 83). According to Marx, the interpreters of each new historical epoch have regularly deluded themselves that the most distinctive features of their own age have been present since time immemorial.6 Marx argued instead that ‘production by an isolated individual outside society…is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other’ (Marx 1973: 84).7 And, against those who portrayed the isolated individual of the eighteenth century as the archetype of human nature, ‘not as a historical result but as history’s point of departure’, he maintained that such an individual emerged only with the most highly developed social relations (Marx 1973: 83). Marx did not entirely disagree that man was a ζώov πoλıτıκóv [zoon politikon], a social animal, but he insisted that he was ‘an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society’ (Marx 1973: 84). Thus, since civil society had arisen only with the modern world, the free wage-labourer of the capitalist epoch had appeared only after a long historical process. He was, in fact, ‘the product on one side of the dissolution of the feudal forms of society, on the other side of the new forces of production developed since the sixteenth century’ (Marx 1973: 83). If Marx felt the need to repeat a point he considered all too evident, it was only because works by Henry Charles Carey, Frédéric Bastiat and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had brought it up for discussion in the previous 20 years.8 After sketching the genesis of the capitalist individual and demonstrating that modern production conforms only to ‘a definitive stage of social development—production by social individuals’, Marx points to a second theoretical requirement: namely, to expose the mystification practised by economists with regard to the concept of ‘production in general’ [Production im Allgemeinem]. This is an abstraction, a category that does not exist at any concrete stage of reality. However, since ‘all epochs of production have certain common traits, common characteristics’ [gemeinsame Bestimmungen], Marx recognizes that ‘production in general is a rational abstraction in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element’, thereby saving pointless repetition for the scholar who undertakes to reproduce reality through thought (Marx 1973: 85). So, abstraction acquired a positive function for Marx. It was no longer, as in his early critique of G. W. F. Hegel, synonymous with idealist philosophy and its substitution of itself for reality (see Marx 1975a:180ff.), or, as he put it in 1847 in The Poverty of Philosophy, a metaphysics that transformed everything into logical categories (Marx 1976: 163). Now that his materialist conception of history (as it was later denominated) had been solidly elaborated, and now that his critical reflections were operating in a context profoundly different from that of the early 1840s, Marx was able to reconsider abstraction without the prejudices of his youth. Thus, unlike representatives of the ‘Historical School’, who in the same period were theorizing the impossibility of abstract laws with universal value,9 Marx in the Grundrisse recognized that abstraction could play a fruitful role in the cognitive process.10 This was possible, however, only if theoretical analysis proved capable of distinguishing between definitions valid for all historical stages and those valid only for particular epochs, and of granting due importance to the latter in the understanding of reality. Although abstraction was useful in representing the broadest phenomena of production, it did not correctly represent its specific aspects, which were alone truly historical.11 If abstraction was not combined with the kind of determinations characteristic of any historical reality, then production changed from being a specific, differentiated phenomenon into a perpetually self-identical process, which concealed the ‘essential diversity’ [wesentliche Verschiedenheit] of the various forms in which it manifested itself. This was the error committed by economists who claimed to show ‘the eternity and harmoniousness of the existing social relations’ (Marx 1973: 85). In contrast to their procedure, Marx maintained that it was the specific features of each social-economic formation which made it possible to distinguish it from others, gave the impetus for its development and enabled scholars to understand the real historical changes (Korsch 1938: 78f.). Although the definition of the general elements of production is ‘segmented many times over and split into different determinations’, some of which ‘belong to all epochs, others to only a few’, there are certainly, among its universal components, human labour and material provided by nature (Marx 1973: 85). For, without a producing subject and a worked-upon object, there could be no production at all. But the economists introduced a third general prerequisite of production: ‘a stock, previously accumulated, of the products of former labour’, that is, capital (Mill 1965: 55).12 The critique of this last element was essential for Marx, in order to reveal what he considered to be a fundamental limitation of the economists. It also seemed evident to him that no production was possible without an instrument of labour, if only the human hand, or without accumulated past labour, if only in the form of primitive man’s repetitive exercises. However, while agreeing that capital was past labour and an instrument of production, he did not, like Smith, Ricardo and John Stuart Mill, conclude that it had always existed.
The point is made in greater detail in another section of the Grundrisse, where the conception of capital as ‘eternal’ is seen as a way of treating it only as matter, without regard for its essential ‘formal determination’ (Formbestimmung). According to this,
capital would have existed in all forms of society, and is something altogether unhistorical…. The arm, and especially the hand, are then capital. Capital would be only a new name for a thing as old as the human race, since every form of labour, including the least developed, hunting, fishing, etc., presupposes that the product of prior labour is used as means for direct, living labour…. If, then, the specific form of capital is abstracted away, and only the content is emphasized…of course nothing is easier than to demonstrate that capital is a necessary condition for all human production. The proof of this proceeds precisely b...