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books A Companion to Marx’s Grundrisse

Reviewer Tetler assesses Harvey's commentary on Marx's famous and influential early work.

A Companion to Marx’s Grundrisse
David Harvey
ISBN: 978180429098

When it comes to the critique of capitalist society over the last half century, few thinkers can rival David Harvey’s influence and originality. Set in a broadly Marxist framework, and bringing his geographical background to bear, Harvey has consistently pushed forward into new territory, integrating questions of space and place into his attempts to theorise the contradictory dynamics of capital accumulation. More recently, to bring the contemporary relevance of Marx’s work to a wider audience, Harvey has turned his attention to dealing directly with the critique of political economy. Regarded ‘in retrospect’ as his ‘Marx Project’ (vii), A Companion to Marx’s Grundrisse is the latest instalment in this series, the aim of which ‘is to open a door into Marx’s thinking and to encourage as many people as possible to pass through it and take a closer look at the texts and make of them what they will’ (viii). At a time when a critical social theory based upon a sound reading of Marx’s critique of political economy is sorely needed in order to counter the multiple social and ecological problems arising as a consequence of capital’s crisis-ridden development, Harvey’s aim here is laudable. Moreover, the turning of Harvey’s attention to the Grundrisse is especially welcome given that he has long regarded it as a key text for the inspiration of many his own theoretical innovations.

The importance of the Grundrisse for the revival of a critical Marxist tradition that blossomed in the wake of the de-Stalinisation period is hard to overestimate. It has been of particular influence, for instance, in the development of Italian Operaismo. Little-known and rarely read until the late 1960s – when it was rescued from obscurity by the publication of Roman Rosdolsky’s The Making of Marx’s Capital – it is now recognised as a vital text for investigating the development of Marx’s thought. This is particularly true in regard to the problem of method in the critique of political economy. Begun in 1857 in an effort to get to grips with the financial crisis then unfolding, the Grundrisse – a long, meandering, unpublished manuscript – is the place where Marx really begins to make headway against the conceptual limits of classical political economy and the utopian socialism that built upon it. As such, it can be taken as a sort of open theoretical workbench, the place where Marx hammers out and refines his conceptual apparatus.

The notion that the Grundrisse gives privileged access to the essence of Marx’s method means that there is a wide and varied secondary literature dealing with this aspect of it. The Companion’s commitment to a direct dialogue with Marx necessarily treats much of this with silence. This is a shame because Harvey’s appreciation of the nuances of Marx’s method is one of the weaker parts of the book, and it could have benefited from dealing with some of the more considered accounts of the Grundrisse’s method – in particular, those that have addressed the Hegelian heritage from within the value-form approach. This is especially so given that Harvey himself readily admits he is ‘not equipped, by intellect or temperament, to wrestle with the complexity of the Hegelian influence and the extensive philosophical explorations of Marx’s language and method’ (xi).

Meant as aid and encouragement to one’s own reading of the Grundrisse, The Companion takes the text in a linear fashion. As such, Harvey starts with a consideration of Marx’s ‘Introduction’, and key points about the purpose and method of his critique of capital. Briefly considered, Harvey proposes that the Grundrisse’s main concern is ‘to grasp the nature of capital as a totality’, and his reading of Marx’s method is very much predicated on how he regards this picture of the totality as forming: ‘[Marx’s] method is to start with basic concrete abstractions, build in the rational abstractions that arise within a given mode of production (such as value theory) and gradually pin together a picture of the totality in motion and formation’ (9). Unfortunately, this general method, whereby a totality is formed out of bringing together its component parts, is not specific enough to capture the particular method that underpins Marx’s critique of capitalist society. This is because, while Harvey recognises that ‘the idea of totality undoubtedly derives from Hegel’, his commentary fails to appreciate that even as Marx ‘reworks it and revolutionizes it’ (xvi) he does so through appropriating the dialectical method of categorial derivation found in Hegel’s Logic.

As indicated in correspondence with Engels, it was while working on the Grundrisse itself that Marx recognised that the method found in Hegel’s Logic would be ideally suited for his purpose of presenting value, money, and capital as fetish forms of social relations. Both accounts of Marx’s critique of political economy that he subsequently worked on and published in his own lifetime, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and Capital, Volume I (1867), demonstrate this method in action. Rather than build up a picture of the totality through bringing together its component parts, as Harvey has it, Marx’s method, like Hegel’s, unfolds the conceptual totality from out of its most abstract element in a process of categorial derivation. Marx’s dialectical presentation demonstrates that the forms of economic objectivity in which the social relation between capital and labour manifest themselves – commodity, value, money, capital – necessarily presuppose one another, they hang together. As such, the suspension of capital requires the suspension of money, value and most importantly labour, their constitutive essence. Harvey’s failure to appreciate this point can be seen in his claim that Marx, ‘does not take the question of socialist money seriously enough’ (48). The implications of not fully grasping Marx’s method are significant. Harvey continues to the traditional Marxist notion of ‘the emancipated laborer’ (430) as the standpoint for a critical theory of capital. Yet, what constitutes capital – the working class and its labour – cannot provide a standpoint from which to transcend that relation. Harvey’s version of socialism would humanise the economy of labour and its social forms for the benefit of those who labour rather than abolish its necessity.

This fundamental issue aside, a stroll through the Grundrisse in the company of Harvey is often a delight, and he is on the whole well able to bring out and direct our attention to Marx’s many and varied insights. Often, as Harvey says, these are parts of his thinking that Marx never returned to develop systematically, so that they continue to provide possible roads for contemporary thought to travel down. The Grundrisse has certainly been an inspiration for Harvey in this way. As such, The Companion contains many extended diversions upon elements of Marx’s text that Harvey himself has developed in scope well beyond the original. These are often accompanied by well-chosen examples taken from contemporary capitalism that show the extent to which ‘the Grundrisse is … a prescient text … relevant to our world today’ (413).

To take only three of the best examples: firstly, Harvey makes much of Marx’s exposition of the contrasting circuits of fixed and circulating capitals. As Harvey notes, the ‘Grundrisse is … the one place in all of Marx’s writings where fixed capital gets a thorough going-over’ (340). These passages have provided Harvey with many of his own key insights into the dysfunctional workings of the capitalist economy, and he here (as elsewhere) links them to patterns of debt, devaluation, and crisis formation, as well as showing how they have proved ‘inspirational’ for his ‘interest in the role of urbanization in relation to capital accumulation’ (297). Another point of interest focused on is ‘the small-scale circulation of labor power’ (284-94), which Harvey uses to ‘venture well beyond Marx’s text and speculate freely on the subjective and political consequences of the circulation of labor capacity’ (286). Indicating the influence that Marxist feminism and social reproduction theory has had upon him, Harvey proposes five separate phases in the flow of labour-power as it moves inside and outside of production. As the seller of a commodity; as a worker under the command of capital; as a receiver of a money wage; as purchaser of commodities; and as embedded within community and familial relations, workers play several contrasting roles through the various stages of the capital relation, and so ‘must, perforce, relate to these different experiential worlds and the fragmentations they express’ (291). For Harvey, this complicates the traditional Marxist focus on working class subjectivity at the point of production as the privileged standpoint from which to extrapolate a class conscious opposition to capitalism. It also presents him with another opportunity to point towards the importance of grasping capital as a totality, this time as a means for workers to ‘hone their class consciousness around an understanding of that totality’ (294).

A third example is that given by consideration of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall to which Harvey dedicates most of a further chapter (363-84). Harvey maintains that Marx’s understanding of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is more complicated than it is often presented as, especially in theories of automatic breakdown. Harvey carefully parses Marx comment that … ‘this is in every respect the most important law of modern political economy’ by pointing out that ‘Marx is just as concerned in his initial statement with the gross (or mass of) profit as he is with the falling rate’ (368). As Harvey goes on to say, the law would be better understood as ‘that of the falling rate and rising mass of profit’ because in general ‘although the rate of profit falls, the mass of profit can and does increase’ (369). Harvey’s reformulation, in effect, takes the various countertendencies that Marx elaborated more fully in Capital into account. Interpreted this way the law operates not as a simplistic device for demonstrating the inexorable decline of capital, but more as a means for recognising its always contradictory, self-expansive dynamics. Harvey points out a number of contemporary features that are better understood in the terms of his own reading of his law than than the more simplified version: ‘for example, the problems of environmental degradation and climate change; the production of the world market (globalization); speedup in turnover times; increasing financialization; rising social inequalities; and the massive increase in the global proletariat since 1980’ (370).

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The Companion then is as much about Harvey, and Harveyian themes mediated by Marx, as it is about what Marx himself has written. Yet it is precisely this which gives the book its real interest. This is so because one of Harvey’s clear aims is to make the Grundrisse speak to contemporary developments and problems in capitalist society, and he is best placed to do this when concentrating on exactly those themes that have made his own contributions stand out over the years. For those looking for the original source and inspiration of many of Harvey’s key themes, The Companion makes it clear just how impactful the Grundrisse has been on his thinking. From his early through to his late work, Harvey has dipped into the rich text of the Grundrisse and used it to go beyond Marx to frame the patterns and shapes that capital, as the governing principle of modern society, has wrought upon the earth, while spelling out the often deleterious costs to its human hosts. The many ways in which The Companion is able to connect the themes of the Grundrisse to contemporary issues is a testament to this. To this extent the book will be much read and appreciated.

As to whether it is the best guide to the Grundrisse itself, there are certainly other works out there that can and should be considered alongside it. One reason for this is that Harvey’s claim that ‘it is hard to dispute that [the Grundrisse] is by far the most sophisticated and in-depth presentation of Marx’s critical political economy available to this day’ (413) is in fact much disputed. This claim shows it is not only consideration of the secondary literature on the Grundrisse that is generally absent from Harvey’s text but that, more importantly, so is Capital (as are the draft manuscripts from the early 1860s that separate the two). As Rosdolsky made clear long ago, any reading of the Grundrisse needs to take into account the far more sophisticated and conceptually refined exposition of Marx’s critique of political economy that is to be found within the pages of Capital. Yet, Harvey’s Companion does little to situate the Grundrisse within the context of the ongoing development of Marx’s critique. As a final consideration, The Companion will no doubt serve its intention of bringing a new audience to Marx’s text, which is important, because, as Harvey himself will surely agree, no commentary on the Grundrisse is any substitute for getting to grips with the thing itself.