NEWS & LETTERS, September-October 2005

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya

The dialectic of Marx’s Grundrisse


One of Karl Marx’s most important works is the GRUNDRISSE (or rough draft), his initial draft of his greatest theoretical work, CAPITAL. It was written in 1857-58. The work remained virtually unknown until it was first  published in German in 1932. It was not until 1973 that the first English-language edition appeared, translated by Martin Nicolaus and published by Vintage Press. In light of our year-long focus on re-examining Marx’s critique of capital as part of developing a philosophically grounded alternative to capitalism, we publish excerpts of Dunayevskaya’s critique of Nicolaus’ lengthy introduction to the first English translation. Written in 1973, the full text can be found in THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, no. 12435. It is edited for publication. All excerpted material is indicated by ellipses (....); material added by the editors is in brackets. All headlines are the editor's. Pages references are to Karl Marx’s GRUNDRISSE (New York: Vintage, 1973).

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[Although Marx’s] GRUNDRISSE has finally been translated into English, the edition is burdened by so fantastic a foreword by its translator, Martin Nicolaus, that we must all over again divert from Marx to his interpreters....

By stating that his foreword is "fantastic" I do not mean it departs in any fundamental way from established Marxism, which, with reformism, began by demanding the removal of the "Hegelian dialectic scaffolding" of Marx’s works. And I certainly do not mean that "orthodoxy" rested with Stalin who threw out "the negation of the negation" from the "dialectic laws," much less with Mao who perverted contradiction from the elemental class struggle to "principal" and "subordinate" [contradictions] forever changing places in a "bloc of four classes"...

I mean that the pull of pragmatism, state-capitalism, and the administrative mentality that characterize our age are so overwhelming that all the years put into the translation, the recognition that "the GRUNDRISSE challenges and puts to the test every serious interpretation of Marx yet conceived" (p. 7), and the subjective wish to be revolutionary, are still no shield from the OBJECTIVE pull of a state-capitalist age once your ears are not close to the ground so that you see all the elemental forces from PRACTICE UNITING with the self-determination of the philosophy of liberation.


From the very first page, first paragraph, Nicolaus announces that these 1857-58 Notebooks ... "display the key elements in Marx’s development and "OVERTHROW" of the Hegelian philosophy" (p. 7, my emphasis). With this as his ground, how could the translator possibly learn anything from its 893 pages?...

The next 15 pages of the Foreword are devoted to background plus a few pages that try to summarize the first chapter on Money and the first section on capital. All are devoted to the translator’s view of "the structure of the argument" (p. 23) only to conclude: "All that follows in the remaining 400 pages of the GRUNDRISSE is built on the basic elements here outlined."

Having thus cavalierly virtually dismissed half of the book (he will later return to it in bits and pieces) he is off on his own. It is here, then, that we have to search for his method and aim and originality of contribution.

Quoting Marx on the difference between a method of presentation and a method of inquiry, which Nicolaus translates as "METHOD OF WORKING," he concludes that this is THE unique feature of the GRUNDRISSE. Directly after this he once again quotes Marx, this time from his letter to Engels of January 16, 1858 on the fact that Marx did indeed find Hegel’s LOGIC of great service "in the method of working."

Unfortunately, Nicolaus has no comprehension whatever, either of this sentence or the one he quotes from Lenin that it is "impossible completely to understand Marx’s CAPITAL, especially chapter one, without having thoroughly studied the whole of Hegel’s LOGIC."

Far from basing himself on either, Nicolaus is on his way to construct something altogether different. First, he brings in a character from Brecht’s dramas who states that, though Hegel could have been "one of the greatest humorists among philosophers, like Socrates...he sold himself to the state." He concludes: "That is to say, Hegel’s philosophy was at once dialectical, subversive, as was Socrates’, and idealist, mystical like a priest’s" (p. 27). So satisfied is he with that red herring of old that he reiterates: "It left Hegel towards the end a philosopher-pope bestowing benedictions, as popes must, on the temporal emperor." As for the dialectic, he returns us to the origin of the words in "Greek, dia, meaning split in two, opposed, clashing; and ‘logos,’ reason; hence ‘to reason by splitting in two'."

But just as we are about to think he is finally, more or less, on the right track (though it is in Greece at the time of Socrates rather than in Germany at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleon), he develops neither contradiction nor self-motion but jumps at once to Begriff (concept)... [He argues that] Hegel’s very unique [category of] "moment" is taken from Newton, from mechanics, and not from history’s self-movement.

While this flies in the face of Marx’s critique of the dialectic as rooted in history, self-development, and the self-making of labor, Nicolaus stresses how "profoundly contrary to Hegel’s method" is Marx’s. (Nicolaus here limits himself to the concreteness of Marx’s concept of time especially on the question of production, which is, of course, crucial, but we will see later that what he leaves out, in turn, is THE WHOLE of Marxism: SUBJECT, self-development, MASSES AS REASON AND NOT JUST AS LABOR TIME.)


Nicolaus is altogether too busy denying the "idealist side of [Hegel’s] philosophy" that [supposedly] "denied the REALITY of what the senses perceive." (p. 27) Not a word about Marx’s...discovery [of] second negativity, the creativity. So rooted in the revolutionary period [was second negativity] that Hegel HAD to "throw a mystical veil" over that REALITY. It is at reality where Marx did transcend Hegel--and so did the historic period of 1848 as against 1789--but, again, it was the Subject, the proletariat, that made the Great Divide between Hegel the bourgeois philosopher and Marx who had discovered a new continent of thought.

That was not merely materialism versus idealism but the UNITY of the two in "the new Humanism," and that carried through into Vol. III of CAPITAL as "Human power is its own end."

So preoccupied is Nicolaus with contrasting materialism to idealism (though he himself will later--p. 34--need to admit that if it were only a question of "standing Hegel right side up" then that "was accomplished in the early 1840’s by BOTH Feuerbach and Marx") that he forgets the true uniqueness of Marx and repeats outworn revisionisms about "Hegelian language." He tells us that "before CAPITAL found its way into print Marx discarded most of this lexicon as baggage which had served for its journey but outlasted its day" (pp. 32-33).

Then what "service" did Hegel render Marx? Nicolaus’s answer is indeed the most petty-bourgeois intellectualistic idealism yet heard: "The usefulness of Hegel lay in providing guidelines for what to do in order to grasp a moving, developing totality with the mind" (p. 33).

Now if it is nothing less than "guidelines" that Hegel provided and if he also provided "a grip on the entire realm of the ‘independent objective Mind’ which Hegel had sent floating into the heavens," what exactly was NEW in Marx’s discovery? Where was that proletariat Marx held on to as THE Subject for the transformation of society, the shaper of history, the mass that is a product of history but also "makes" it? Nicolaus can’t seem to get further than "standing [Hegel] right side up" and "removing the mystical shell from the rational core"...

The result is self-paralysis, blindness to that crucial chapter one of CAPITAL which Lenin called attention to as requiring the WHOLE of LOGIC but which Nicolaus reduces to zero, stating: "it would be a misreading of Lenin’s intent to argue that...This is a project for a long term in prison" (pp. 60-61)...


Moreover, and above all, WHAT exactly is chapter one and its 1873-75 rewriting by Marx of its section "The Fetishism of Commodities"? WHY did Marx ask readers of the German edition to read the French edition FOLLOWING THE PARIS COMMUNE? Nothing, NOTHING WHATEVER, is greater proof of the re-creation of the dialectic on the basis of this elemental outpouring and the self-development of Marx’s Begriff of the Commodity.

In "NOTHING WHATEVER" I include all the great dialectical development in the GRUNDRISSE, even its Hegelian-Marxian "absolute movement of becoming." For the most mature, most creative genius learned from the Parisian masses that that perverse form, a commodity, the value-form of a product of labor, can never be stripped of its fetishism except by "FREELY ASSOCIATED labor."

So Marx’s beginning, as against Hegel’s in the SCIENCE OF LOGIC, was not only concrete, tangible as against the abstract universal of Being, but it was also the not-concrete, not-tangible bourgeois fetish which reduced labor itself to the commodity, labor-power.

And this was not only production exploitation vs. market equality, but that Absolute, the specifically capitalistic stage of production, whose Notion had to be split into two: bourgeois reification vs. freely associated labor showing it is all relations of production that must be uprooted and recreated on altogether other foundations....

No, dear Nicolaus, all your praise of Lenin’s PHILOSOPHIC NOTEBOOKS means nothing, nothing at all, once you consign anyone who wishes to study Hegel’s LOGIC to fully comprehend CAPITAL to "a long term in prison" ...

Nicolaus stops before he reaches the crucial section (pp. 471-514) of the GRUNDRISSE on "Pre-Capitalist Formations." Clearly, the section was neither merely economics nor even "merely" historic, that is to say, history as past instead of as present AND FUTURE. The dialectic in that historic period had all the elements of a new role for the peasantry, a new role for so-called "Oriental despotism," a more comprehensive view of becoming.

It is only WHEN an actual revolution occurred in China [in 1949] and that country became the first to translate the section on Pre-Capitalist Formations that all established Communist regimes were compelled to grapple with what Marx had written in 1857-58.

Insofar as the question of "backwardness" is concerned, Marx reiterated that in an altogether new form in the very last year of his life, 1882-83. Put in a different way, he now said that "backward" Russia might, AHEAD of the "advanced" countries, have a social revolution. He showed the same type of attitude in his relationship to the "Automaton."

Nicolaus does mention that section more often than the one on Oriental society. But again, his hostility to Hegel--and being stuck in the mud of our age’s administrative mentality--limited his perception of that section as if it were only against the "New Left’s" view that engineers will, with automation, invent machines that will replace the proletariat, etc.

In actuality it is the multidimensionality that Marx was analyzing. He saw the limitations of both the Hegelian dialectic sans Subject AND his own economics, great as it was, sans the MASSES IN MOTION. In the 1850s this is what made him discard all, start anew, and include both the U.S. Civil War and the Paris Commune [in CAPITAL]. Both the struggle for shortening the working day and the new Black dimension releasing labor led to his restructuring of GRUNDRISSE as CAPITAL.

The NEW in the GRUNDRISSE even now, is not merely "method of working," great as that is. It is the CONTINUITY of the affinity of the Marxian and Hegelian dialectic. From the MOMENT OF MARX'S BREAK with bourgeois society, 1843, all the way through the GRUNDRISSE and his total break with vulgar materialists (not merely as utopians or Proudhonists but as Lassalleans) to CAPITAL and the First International, Marx’s self-development is in no sense a break from the young Marx that discovered a new continent of thought.

Any who question, as Nicolaus does, whether "it is any longer necessary to read Hegel’s LOGIC in order to completely understand CAPITAL" when the GRUNDRISSE is finally available AND then claim that the GRUNDRISSE is just to see a mind at work, are indeed the worst kind of petty-bourgeois "idealists."

They are completely dead to the whole of the past two decades when FROM BELOW, from the East German Revolt in 1953 on to Paris AND Beijing, 1968, as well as from "above" (the self-determination of the Idea finally catching up with self-determination of nations) "new passions and new forces" have arisen. This movement surely has passed by the progeny of the Stalins, Maos, not to mention the Trotskyists and all who thought they can catch theory "en route." The task for us, however, has just begun.

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