Marx’s Grundrisse: some key points


Karl Marx

Karl Marx’s Grundrisse is a collection of preparatory notebooks, laying out some of the themes which he was to explore in his great work Capital. It is not an easy read, but it helped that I have read some Marxist economics already, including Capital. Many of the ideas were therefore familiar.

Here are a few of the ideas which Marx explores in this book, with occasional comments from me:

  • Capital can take a number of forms. It can be a social relation; it can be self-expanding value. This goes beyond the way neo-classical or even classical economists would define it. For them, it is either capital goods for investment such as machines, the finance required for their purchase, or their ownership.
  • Marx’s philosophy of dialectical materialism means that words such as capital have a fluidity of meaning. He learned dialectics from his study of the German philosopher Hegel, although he rejected the latter’s idealism in favour of materialism.
  • The role of use value (value in use) and exchange value (value in exchange or for sale) and the relationship between them is vital to Marx’s analysis of the commodity.
  • One of the key aspects of capitalism is the generalised production of commodities for sale.
  • Under capitalism, commodities are sold at their exchange value (price), but they would not be sold if they did not also have use value, which is obtained in their consumption.
  • The labour theory of value is the basis of Marx’s analysis of capitalism.
  • Workers are paid a wage by the capitalist. Without access to the means of production, they are forced to sell their labour power in order to earn a living.
  • The wage is the exchange value of the worker, the value of labour power. The capitalist, who has purchased the labour power, will receive the use value of the worker, which is labour, the ability of the worker to produce a value greater than the wage. The difference between the total produced value and the wage is known as surplus value.
  • Only labour produces surplus value. I have criticised this in previous posts, drawing on the work of post-Keynesians Joan Robinson and Steve Keen. The latter has suggested that all commodities in the production process, both labour and means of production, can produce a surplus. This undermines the labour theory of value.
  • As capitalism develops, human needs for commodities multiply. This can be clearly observed throughout the history of consumption under capitalist production.
  • Capitalism is different from earlier modes of production such as feudalism in that the production of commodities is for sale, in order to realise their exchange value, rather than their use value, although the latter is a necessary property of all commodities.
  • Capital tends to break through all the barriers to its own expansion.
  • Capital tends to reduce the proportion of ‘necessary labour’ to ‘surplus labour’ as it expands. Necessary labour is that required by the worker to produce the value of his wage; the latter is the output in excess of this, surplus value. If this is correct, it means that the expansion of capital has inherent limits. However, if means of production can produce surplus value, this is not necessarily the case.
  • In contrast to monetarism and the quantity theory of money, Marx suggests that prices and output determine the money supply, rather than the reverse.
This is only a brief selection of the interesting ideas in what is an 800 page book. Marx restates the labour theory of value ad infinitum in the Grundrisse, so one can be in no doubt that he thought it was key to his analysis. However it remains controversial, as mentioned above.
He also included a number of passages in which he speculated about the socialist or communist society which he thought would follow capitalism. His hope was that this new mode of production would allow all individuals to flourish and reach their full potential in life. It seems that he was mistaken, but I do think that under capitalism, there is plenty of room for improvement! To paraphrase Winston Churchill: capitalism is the worst form of society apart from all the others that have been tried.

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