The Grundrisse is a collection of notebooks Karl Marx wrote in 1857-58. As such, it forms a bridge between his philosophical writings that were heavily influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel from the 1840s and the critique of political economy culminating in the first volume of Capital in 1867. The Grundrisse, particularly its Introduction, is crucial for understanding the methodology of historical materialism that Marx uses to analyze and criticize the totality of social relationships across various periods of history. Marx wrote these notebooks at a furious pace in the midst of an international capitalist crisis. As described in a letter to Friedrich Engels in 1857, “I am working like mad all night and every night collating my economic studies so that I might get the outlines clear before the deluge.” It is an unpolished and highly fragmented text, but also a more open-ended one, which covers a wide range of topics and offers a firestorm of brilliant, if scattered, insights; it is more than simply a preparation for Capital. The Grundrisse has since become the basis for a number of reinterpretations of Marx’s thought by Antonio NegriMoishe PostoneMichael Lebowitz, and many contemporary Marxists.

Critique of contemporary political economy

The Grundrisse’s introduction begins with a critique of political economy and the presumptions of liberal individualism common at the time and still common today. Marx breaks with Adam Smith and David Ricardo over the myth of the “individual and isolated hunter and fisherman,” recalling the story of Robinson Crusoe on his imaginary island. Liberals in Marx’s time, much like the neoliberals of today, always begin their stories about economics and society with this imaginary individual and then project his existence back through history. In other words, Smith and Ricardo take the specific kind of human nature created by capitalism and inflate it into a universal human nature.

In contrast, Marx argues that the individual is always a product of history and society. When we look back in history, we find that individuals have always been interdependent parts of a greater social whole. The economist’s image of 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.” So whereas liberal (and today’s neoliberal) economists presume an opposition between the individual and society, Marx talks about social individuals. The image of an isolated individual constantly seeking to maximize his self-interest is an absurdity, but one that serves an ideological purpose: it makes capitalism seem natural and eternal, not what it really is: a product of history and thus subject to change.

As a revolutionary alternative to liberal political economy, Marx outlines his own method for analyzing capitalism as a “totality” of moments: production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. These key concepts–totality and moments–represent a fusion of Marx’s economic critique with the philosophical method he inherited from Hegel. The idea is that these “moments” of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption can only be understood in relation to one another, as an organic totality, whereas liberal political economy isolates and abstracts them as separate categories. For Smith and Ricardo, it was enough to empirically observe everyday economic transactions, abstract the core idea or essence of what was happening, and then make conclusions about the world by presenting all these ideas together. In particular, Smith, Ricardo and others treated the process of production as if it were “encased in natural laws,” leaving distribution as the sole issue to be settled by society. Marx argues that production is every bit as socially constructed as any of the other moments in the totality. In no sense is capitalist production a naturally occurring human phenomenon.

Contextualizing Marx

Marx’s more holistic view of these economic categories represents a fusion of his economic critique with the philosophical method he inherited from Hegel. But it would be incorrect to say that Marx merely appropriated the work of Hegel to criticize the political economists. As Marx mobilizes Hegel’s concepts to critique the political economists, he simultaneously calls into question Hegel’s entire philosophical system.

What was Hegel’s system? For our purposes, we can be very reductive and say that Hegel saw a nonphysical totality called “Spirit” as the subject of history. “Spirit” can roughly be understood as the collective mind of the human species as it develops in history. Hegel thought history advanced through the development of rationality in human societies, with new forms of rationality coming into tension with existing social and philosophical ideals. Thus, as new ideas arose from these contradictions in history, Spirit ascended to more developed and sophisticated forms. The total effect of this is a dynamic that suggests the development of personal and collective freedom corresponds to the arc of history.

Here we see why Marx can be so difficult to read: his work is tied up in multiple disciplines and discourses at once. Indeed, Marx has one foot in British political economy and another in the philosophical tradition of German Idealism. And it is the fusion of these two fields–and thus the transformation of both of them–that gives Marx a new way of looking at history. But of course, Marx does not do this for parochial, academic reasons. He does this to criticize the political programs of French Utopian Socialists for not understanding the real requirements and possibilities of a revolutionary project for universal emancipation from within a capitalist society.

Marx and Hegel

So what is Marx’s relationship to Hegel? This is a question that has been fiercely debated by Marxists for a long time. Rather than attempt to give a definite answer, let’s instead return to our discussion of classical political economy to see what preliminary conclusions we can draw.

A crucial point about Marx’s notion of organic totality is its complexity. In the economic sphere, there are moments of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. While these moments form an inseparable unity, they are not identical. This point is to say that they do not hold equal weight or causal significance within the totality. Finally, their relationships are characterized by conflict and contradiction within the capitalist system, rather than harmony.

So what is the difference between Marx and Hegel that we can see here? As Marx tells us, there is “nothing simpler for a Hegelian than to posit production and consumption as identical.” This problem of not seeing the difference between production and consumption is to “regard society as one single subject,” which for Marx, is “to look at it wrongly” or “speculatively.” For Marx, it is clear that once the moments of the totality are seen correctly, production has a predominant role. To be sure, the totality involves a process of “mutual interaction” such that production is both determined and determining, but Marx still emphasizes that it is more dominant than the other moments.

As we can see, the classical economists and Hegel commit a similar error: despite their claims to the contrary, their approaches are speculative, rather than scientific. Their understanding of the world fails to grasp the complexity of the social whole, and the irreparable contradictions created by capitalism, and therefore, can offer no viable prescriptions for how to organize human life in capitalist society.

This realization brings us to another important point that Marx makes: in capitalist society, appearances can be deceiving. Indeed, sometimes it seems like distribution is the determining moment, and production determined. What we see are the results of production in the form of the commodity (a packaged piece of beef) but the labor processes that produce that commodity are obscured and mystified (the work of slaughtering a cow). In other words, a key characteristic of the capitalist system is a natural obfuscation of its real, complex processes.

Political use and conclusion

So what’s the point of all this? How does Marx’s analysis inform the way we actually do politics? This question is a complicated one. If we follow Marx, the first thing we must recognize is that society cannot be thought of in abstract terms; society cannot be thought of as being composed of isolated, autonomous individuals. After all, the concept of “society” doesn’t tell us anything about the conditions in which people live or the determinant relationships between groups of people that structure the society. The notion of “society” just says that there are living people. For Marx, if we want to transform our society in a way that secures the best life for the most people, we must have a concrete understanding of the particular relationships people have to each other, and the particular relationships groups of people have to things.

Marx shows that the historically contingent capitalist mode of production is what produces the capitalist society that the classical economists suggest is natural and eternal. Thus, overturning the capitalist mode of production requires transforming the particular social relations that reproduce private property, the bourgeois state, and something integral to the production of commodities that Marx analyzes in Capital called the value-form. In other words, Marx helps us understand the condition of capitalism so we can recognize its symptoms and cure the disease by abolishing capitalism itself. For Marx, the revolutionary agent is the working class due to its unique position within the capitalist system: if the workers of the world unite, they would become the Trojan horse that topples the entire system.

Since capitalism is a system of determinate forces that emerge from peoples’ relationship to one another over time, it is very dynamic and adaptable. While the capitalism of Marx’s time is different from our own, we can study Marx’s method to analyze our complex moment in a scientific way. This method includes assessing Marx’s work and the rich revolutionary tradition that takes his name.

Armed with a concrete analysis of the current moment, we can unite with the other working and oppressed peoples of the world to free ourselves and all of humanity.