Grundrisse, Part 1


This series is meant, first and foremost, for myself in order to gain a better understanding of different texts I am working through. It is also meant to create easily digestible chunks of material on these texts for those who are interested, but likely will not take the time to read the texts themselves. That is completely fair. While there is certainly something to be said about really grappling with a difficult work to gain an understanding of it, many of us have so much to do in our everyday lives that a slog through some dense economic texts is rather negligible on our radars. What appears to be lacking as a complement to this though, is an abundance of accessible material related to these texts and the concepts they contain. I would like to add my contribution to filling that void here. My current plan is to work through Marx’s Grundrisse and then the three main volumes of Capital. I would also love to cover Hegel and other tangential thinkers and will do so if time permits. 

. . .

As the title here notes, this article will deal with the introduction to the Grundrisse. “What in the hell is the Grundrisse,” you might ask, and I wouldn’t fault you for asking. “The Grundrisse” is the easier way of referring to Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, or in English, Fundamentals of Political Economy Criticism. This was an unpublished manuscript written by Karl Marx between 1857 and 1858 which more or less outlines the foundations from which he will work out the three volumes of Capital. Now, the first volume was the only one which ended up being published in Marx’s lifetime: the rest — including an unfinished manuscript for a fourth volume — were published posthumously.

The Grundrisse is a difficult text, but working through it can really help to bring further clarity to the concepts Marx will explore in later works. The introduction describes Marx’s understanding of the proper method of political economy. We should note here that political economy differs from our general conception of the study of economics in that it is an interdisciplinary approach — incorporating history, sociology, anthropology, etc. — which seeks to understand the relationships between production, individuals, governments, and public policy. Marx first seeks to deconstruct the largely fictitious narrative espoused by the classical economists¹ in order to show us why a different method for political economy is absolutely necessary. He does so by making 2 key points:

  1. The economy is an integrated social network, not a collection of isolated individuals
  2. Distribution, exchange, and consumption are interdependent components of the production process

Let’s break these assertions down to get a better understanding of them and why they are important.

1. The economy is an integrated social network, not a collection of isolated individuals

“Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation.”²

Karl Marx, The German Ideology

Marx has a bone to pick with the classical economists. For him, they have been popularizing a version of the foundations of our economic system that is largely not based on reality. It looks more like the fictional world of Robinson Crusoe who, marooned on an island, starts hunting and fishing, and building his own shelter etc… It’s the classic economic origin story I’m sure we’ve all heard involving two or more isolated individuals creating their own means for survival and trading with each other to obtain any remaining necessities. The sentiment “I’ll give you 3 cows for for 90lbs of wheat” gets extrapolated out until we discover that having some type of universal commodity might better help facilitate all of these exchanges and what do you know? Hello money! 

Now, at first glance, this depiction of economic society might not sound that off base. The problem with this story though, is that this type of economy has rarely existed in human history, and never as a direct origin to a capitalist economy. This story is what many anthropologists sometimes refer to as “the myth of barter.” David Graeber highlights this in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years. In an article in The Atlantic, Graeber states that, “In most of the cases we know about, [barter] takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around.” In this same article Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey states that, “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money … All available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”³ Look, I get it, my world was shaken too the first time I learned about the barter myth, and I don’t fault you if you don’t believe me, but if you do your due diligence from here its not hard to see that there is a general consensus on this. And if that’s not enough, try finding any hard historical evidence for barter as anything but a minor, scant, and fleeting economic configuration.*

So, why in the hell are introductory economics classes still teaching this version of historical events, despite other disciplines flatly rejecting it? Well, as we’ll discover, this fictitious narrative is actually a bit of a load-bearing wall in the theoretical house of cards that the classical economists have built. How did these classical economists get it so wrong? Marx’s answer is that it’s the classic tale of what historians call “presentism,” or, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.” There are several assumptions that are made about our past based upon our present. For example: since exchange is so integral to capitalist society, it must have been integral in the economic configurations leading up to it, or since we have private property now, it or some variation of it must have been the dominant form of property before capitalism as well.

Marx makes a keen observation regarding these assumptions. He states that, “Only in the eighteenth century, in ‘civil society,’ do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means to his private purposes, as external necessity.”⁴ What exactly does he mean by this? Here Marx is making a critical observation about just how interdependent we’ve actually become in the modern age. For the majority of human history each individual’s role in fulfilling society’s needs was well understood by them and the rest of society. In today’s world, that might not be as obvious to us. For example: if someone asks you where your lunch meal came from, for most people the full answer will be impossibly complicated. You might say, “well it came from a nearby bodega.” Well, which one? Where do they source their lunch meals, and where do all of those individual ingredients come from, and so on and so on? The complicated matters regarding the origins of every ingredient of every portion of our food, its packaging, and other materials used in its production are largely unknown to most people due to our extreme social interdependence. In today’s world we have in fact become so interdependent that it no longer really registers with us. So, the great irony is that what appears on a surface level as isolated individuals exchanging with each other to fulfill one another’s needs — I need money to buy food so I exchange my labor for money — is actually a massive mesh of relationships.

So, what Marx is arguing for here is a more holistic and scientific view of economic society; one that takes account of how capitalism has actually developed historically — which he will delve into later on in the text — , and which seeks to describe it in motion. For example: a biologist could describe in detail particular biological functions within a single animal, but these individual functions could not really tell us about that animal as a whole unless they were described in connection with each other, and their frequently shifting activity and environment were accounted for.

Marx is not only concerned that the classical economists’ lack of understanding regarding capitalism’s economic origins are shoddy, but that the problems caused by these assumptions have trickled down into simpler economic concepts such as production. This brings us to our next point.

2. Distribution, exchange, and consumption are interdependent components of the production process

When Marx talks about production it is important to understand that he’s not just talking about current technologies and materials, or which specific commodities are being produced, but also the specific social structure that surrounds and maintains it.⁵ For him it would be a mistake to talk about production in the abstract, separated from its context: production is always its particulars. Here again the classical economists get the story wrong. Marx claims that their analyses of the historical development of production and of distribution take two different paths. For distribution, it appears that the form has changed greatly from society to society throughout history. However, when it comes to production, it has apparently always been shaped by property and its enforcement by law. Marx again suspects a bit of historical projection here by the classical economists, and he points out that this assumption about production is a dangerous one because, consciously or unconsciously, it promotes the idea that distribution, exchange, and consumption are simply the results of some natural laws.⁶ Not only is this historically inaccurate, its logic doesn’t really add up either.

Marx has two points to make here:

  1. Property cannot be a precondition of production, because production itself is the creation of property.
  2. Distribution is not arbitrary. Its many changes throughout history are due to changes in production itself.

Let’s dive into these a bit further. According to Marx, production is also an appropriation of something, and therefore the creation of property. In other words, in production, some entity or another takes ownership over materials, natural resources, etc. and with them makes a product. Whether this created property is public, personal, or private makes no difference at the moment. The point is that if production creates property, property cannot be the precursor to production. Marx asserts that in economic reality the structure of production –or mode of production in his terms– in a given society itself determines how property is distributed, exchanged, and consumed.

Let’s take distribution–how commodities are distributed in a society–for example: the existence of wages in distribution implies that wage labor already exists within production. Wages are not simply a pervasive method of distribution because it was universally agreed upon by a population, but because production is already structured in a way in which wages are assumed. In Marx’s words, “the specific kind of participation in production determines the specific forms of distribution.”⁷ What particular characteristics of a mode of production create the conditions for wage labor? Well, first, the vast majority of the population of that particular society would not have any share of ownership in the land, machinery, structures, etc. –the means of production–that would allow them to live off of their own personal or collective production. Second, most of the products created within that society would be owned and sold privately; that is, regardless of who helped in making a finished good, the owner of the means of production that produced it will control its exchange and have ownership of the commodity that it is exchanged for. And finally, the division of labor in that society must be so acute that workers will need money to purchase most of the products that they need to live.

Marx also points out that the classical economists generally assume land is a factor in production, and that its counterpart in distribution is ground rent. But we can’t simply assume that land as an input in production generally leads to the appearance of ground rent. Land has to take a specific form in production for this to be the case, and this is the form of private property. Again, production must be structured in such a way that the majority of the means of production are owned by private persons and not by the community at large. It is important to note here that Marx distinguishes private property from personal property as various types of property whose primary purpose is to generate capital or wealth for its owner. It is also important to note that capital is not wealth. Capital is defined as money and other assets which are assumed to be available for development or investment: money or assets which recreate themselves.

Marx really wants to make it clear that distribution is shaped by the structure of production because it sheds light on the fact that it’s not some natural law which causes one person to grow up impoverished and another to grow up wealthy, but a specific structure of production; one that can be changed.

Now, it might be easy to assume that once things are distributed, exchange operates in its own independent realm apart from production. How does production affect the simple act of individuals exchanging with each other for mutual benefit? Well, to disclude production in this analysis would be a grave misstep. Marx believes that, just like distribution, exchange is formed by, dependent upon, and saturated with elements of the production process, and he gives three pieces of evidence for this assertion.

First, the acuteness of the division of labor in production determines how interdependent we are as a society, and therefore how much we will rely on exchange to make finished goods. Second, commodities produced on and through private property will be exchanged privately. Finally, the structure of production determines what types of commodities will be produced and exchanged. For example: if most products are produced and exchanged privately, what will generally be produced in a society are commodities that will bring the highest returns to the owners of the means of production. This is why we rarely see the public interest taken into account–to a larger extent than is needed to not appear completely at odds with society as a whole–in production for the market, and how issues like climate change have become such impending disasters.

Our last phase in the production circuit to analyze is consumption, and as you’ve probably guessed, this is also shaped by production. Production ultimately shapes the habits and behaviors of consumers by creating the types of products available for consumption. Cars have shaped infrastructure and urban planning in cities across the globe, smartphones have become extensions of the human brain, and sugar additives have led to a major health crisis in the Unites States among other things. As Marx says, Production not only supplies a material for the need, but also a need for the material.”8 Production isn’t just a distant and passive process, it shapes you.

So what does this analysis mean for us today? Marx wants to remind us that, “mutual interaction takes place between the different moments [of production]. This is the case with any organic whole.”9 This summarizes what this investigation into production is all about. The production process is an organic whole in which production plays a key role. All of the individual moments interact with each other, but are primarily shaped by the structure of production. This insight is key because if we want to change society for the better, to eradicate inequality, mitigate the effect of climate change, and to eliminate unnecessary precariousness in the lives of our fellow humans, we need to understand that the primary way to do this is by fundamentally altering the structure of production.

In the following post I will wrap up the introduction to the Grundrisse by discussing Marx’s vision for the most effective method of political economy. If we want to gain further insight into capitalism and how it works, and how we can change it, we will need to develop new ways of thinking that can help us analyze it critically.

. . .

  1. Adam Smith is generally known as the father of classical political economy. When Marx talks about classical economists he is more or less speaking of the abundance of economists who more or less follow in Smith’s footsteps. David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus are also important figures who furthered classical economic theory.
  2. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. Lawrence & Wishart, 1965.
  3. Strauss, Ilana E. “The Myth of the Barter Economy.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 Nov. 2016,
  4. “Introduction.” Grundrisse, by Karl Marx, Penguin Books, 1993, pp. 84.
  5. “Lastly, production also is not only a particular production. Rather, it is always a certain social body, a social subject, which is active in a greater or sparser totality of branches of production.” Ibid. p. 86
  6. “The aim is rather to present production … as distinct from distribution etc., as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded.” Ibid. p. 87
  7. Ibid. p. 95
  8. Ibid p. 92
  9. Ibid p. 100

*For more on the myth of barter, see Yves Smith’s post on the blog Naked Capitalism here.

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