Workers' Liberty #50/51  


Marx's Grundrisse and the "post-modern" era

Murray Kane reviews the relevance of Marx's Grundrisse to the "post-modern" era

In the latter part of 1857, at the height of the first generalised crisis of capitalism, Marx endeavoured to provide his first systematic exposition of the capitalist mode of production. The result was a series of notebooks, amounting to almost a thousand pages, in which, amid a rich diversity of problems and theses, the entire scheme of Capital Vol.1 took shape. The notebooks, now known as the Grundrisse, were published for the first time in 1939, but.not available outside the Eastern Bloc until 1953, and not fully translated into English until 1971. This article will discuss a series of themes from the text which I think allow us to comprehend the great positive significance of what is currently being experienced in the most advanced capitalist regions as an organisational and ideological fragmentation of the labour movement.

I begin with the contrast Marx makes between absolute and relative surplus value1. The distinction between these two modes comes to light for the first time in the Grundrisse (p. 407-11) and was to prove decisive for the structure of Capital Vol.1 ten years later. Absolute surplus value (ASV) expresses the expansion of capital as sheer quantitative growth. This mode of expanding capital depends upon a continual increase in the size of the labour force, both within a given region, by multiplying the points of production, and globally, through the export of capital, the proletarianisation of agricultural populations and the creation of new markets. With a working population of a given size, ASV can expand only through the brutal method of forcing workers to do the same labour faster or for longer hours.

Marx defines relative surplus value (RSV) as “production based on the increase and development of the productive forces”. Through the development of new technology in existing branches of production, the capitalist is able to reduce the proportion of the working day necessary for the reproduction of the worker, or in other words, to reduce the proportion of the working day required to pay the worker’s wages. It requires and causes continuous innovation in the forms of production and the creation of new forms of labour. Here, the differentiation of labour is not just a division of labour, but a qualitative transformation of the types of labour carried out, and a qualitative transformation of the items and modes of consumption corresponding to it. It is the development of a constantly expanding and more comprehensive system of different kinds of labour, different kinds of production, to which a constantly expanding and constantly enriched system of needs corresponds.

Older forms of industry are broken down and supplanted. This more advanced form of self-expansion of capital brings about the “differentiation of labour in an ever richer form”2; it is a force which “constantly increases the circle of qualitative differences within labour (hence of surplus labour), mak[ing] it more diverse, more internally differentiated.”3 Forms of labour become so numerous, and the specific skills required so narrow in application, that workers can move from one branch to another with ease, or as Marx puts it, with indifference.

“Indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant.... Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society — in the United States”.

If Marx could take this to be the case in the USA nearly 140 years ago, then it must be all the more applicable to advanced capitalist countries today. If we look at the logic of differentiation alone, the fragmentation of the contemporary labour movement can be inferred as a consequence of capitalist development. If the organisational form of the labour movement is based on given branches of production, then the growing complexity and inner differentiation of the latter must challenge and disrupt the unity of the former. There is an important clue here about what has happened to the left in the most developed regions, i.e., it has undergone fragmentation concurrently with the fragmentation of production. In general, the more developed the capital, the greater the diversification of the branches of production.

Simultaneously with this sheer diversification, work itself begins to lose its specialised quality, and becomes a matter of indifference to the worker. To remain combative, the labour movement under these conditions is forced to confront the constant challenge of re-emergence within the new forms of the labour-capital relation. It is possible that too much discussion about the problems of the left has centred on consideration of the politics of past movements against capital and particularly the mistakes and inadequacies of the politics of these movements. I would suggest that Marx’s approach in the Grundrisse, which provides a conspectus of the capitalist system in both its objective and subjective dimensions, offers a more fruitful way to view our contemporary problems, which may be summed up in the formulation “problems of differentiation and indifference”. I would suggest that this twofold dynamic provides a fundamental framework for understanding the negative development which we are presently experiencing as a “crisis” of the left and the decline of formerly powerful anti-capitalist identities in the most advanced capitalist regions. Industries which once employed vast sections of the workforce in Europe, the USA and Australia — coal, steel, textiles, ships, cars and machine tools, to take key examples — have fragmented internally, and now employ a much smaller percentage of the population than they did in the past. In their place has arisen a plethora of new industries and new forms of work, in which a diversified working class produces a plethora of new products aimed at a plethora of new points and modes of consumption. 150 years after Marx started writing these notebooks, the advanced capitalist countries are characterised by extremely high levels of differentiation and indifference. That the miners, wharfies, metal workers, construction workers still seem to be the most powerful sectors of the working class in Australia reflects a failure of politicisation in the new branches of production and the dominance of bourgeois ideas at fundamental levels in the workplace and in the unions that have developed to cover these workers.4

I have pointed to Marx’s explicit emphasis that this differentiation of the branches of production is not just an intensive division of labour, but the creation of new forms of labour; however, it is as yet difficult to see how this has any significance for the working class other than a negative one, i.e. that of breaking down predominant types of labour within which the solidarity of shared experience has facilitated distinctive forms of proletarian identity and class-consciousness. But that development is matched by a number of associated transformations brought about in the spheres of consumption and circulation. In what follows, I want to focus on a little-noted emphasis that recurs throughout the Grundrisse, on the way in which the self-expansion of capital by relative surplus value enriches the subjective basis for the transition to socialism. This is an emphasis which is largely suppressed in Marx’s polemical and strategic writings5 — the “civilising influence of capital” and the growing cultural wealth of the working class.

“Universally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control, are no product of nature, but of history. The degree and the universality of the development of wealth where this individuality becomes possible supposes production on the basis of exchange values as a prior condition whose universality produces not only the alienation of the individual from himself and from others, but also the universality and the comprehensiveness of his relations and capacities”6.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels criticise a range of other socialist currents for failing to look beyond the negative side of capitalism. They emphasise that capitalist development creates the conditions for socialism in two major ways.7 Firstly, at the economic level, it produces the vast means of production that could support a socialist society, while secondly, at the political level, it creates in the proletariat its “gravedigger”.

This is a well known theme. But taken as the framework for an exhaustive treatment of working class subjectivity it has grave limitations. In the Grundrisse, we find Marx describing the ways in which capital brings about a cultural transformation which is prefigurative of the socialist society not only at the economic and political level, but at the individual or psychological level. We will approach this notion first through consideration of the unique way in which Marx equates real wealth — social wealth — with the diversity and abundance of needs produced in capitalist society, and secondly, through a brief look at the way that the worker is “enriched” through involvement in the circulation and consumption of capital.

One of the most striking themes of the Grundrisse is what Marx calls “the civilising influence of capital”.8 What he means by this is that capitalism as a mode of production, and specifically once it is generating relative surplus value, transforms the working population intensively and qualitatively. It depends upon the continuous differentiation of production, and this in turn presupposes, or as Marx would say, “posits”, a continuous differentiation of consumption, or the constant creation of new use values and the needs for them. Capitalist society requires a working class to produce surplus value, but it requires also that the working class consume (or provide a “counter-value” to) the mass of new use values that it is driven to create. This leads to the radical and world-historic situation where the working population in capitalised regions develops an ever intensifying dependence on use-values for the enjoyment of which it must develop ever more sophisticated and cosmopolitan sensibilities. To give a simple example of what Marx means here one may look in the kitchen cupboard, the wardrobe and the TV guide in the average working-class household. In the cupboard we find five different forms of cereal, a dozen spices and food flavourings, ingredients and additives which have been produced in a score of locations. The actual or primary origin of many of these foodstuffs lies far beyond the country in which they are consumed. In the wardrobe we find linen, cotton, silk, wool, polyester, rayon and canvas. In the TV guide we find an incredible variety of representations of life-situations from all over the world. The average household is an environment saturated with use-values which a hundred years ago were either unknown, or considered luxury items9.

In the Grundrisse, Marx considers the worker not simply as the exploited and alienated direct producer of wealth, but as the subject of a new kind of wealth, of social wealth, which expresses itself not in the extent of inorganic means for the satisfaction of a limited set of pleasures and needs associated with a specific social function and status, but as a qualitative enrichment of personality. “...The discovery, creation and satisfaction of new needs arising from society itself; the cultivation of all the qualities of the social human being, production of the same in a form as rich as possible in needs, because rich in qualities and relations — production of this being as the most total and universal social product, for, in order to take gratification in a many-sided way, he must be capable of many pleasures, hence cultured to a high degree — is likewise a condition of production founded on capital.” And Marx asks: “When the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal exchange?” He continues: “The greater the extent to which historic needs — needs created by production itself, social needs — needs which are themselves the offspring of social production and intercourse, are posited as necessary, the higher the level to which real wealth has become developed. Regarded materially, wealth consists only in the manifold variety of needs.”10

It is of the utmost importance in the current period to recognise and develop Marx’s insight that wealth has its internal or psychological dimension as need. On this view, we are forced to confront the strange but crucial fact that the working class is wealthier now than at any previous point in its history, despite the fact that it appears politically weaker than ever before.11 From the perspective of the Grundrisse, we see the working class as creatively involved in the production and consumption of new use values. The quantitative limits set so rigorously by the capital-labour relation do not determine the inner structure of these new use values. The key process is the role that the worker plays as a counter-value12, a holder of capital, of exchange value in the circulation process. As Marx points out, the capitalist does everything to ensure that his own workers’ consumption is kept to a bare minimum, but “of course he would like the workers of other capitalists to be the greatest consumers possible of his own commodity.”13 To this end he “inspires them with new needs by constant chatter etc.”14 Although the money received for work is severely restricted quantitatively, it puts the worker in the unique position of being able to relate to and appropriate the totality of human culture in the form of the commodity. In one remarkable passage Marx discusses the significance of money as conferring upon the individual “a general power over society, over the whole world of gratifications, labours etc.”15 He goes on:

“It is exactly as if, for example, the chance discovery of a stone gave me mastery over all the sciences, regardless of my individuality. The possession of money places me in exactly the same relationship towards wealth (social) as the philosopher’s stone would towards all the sciences”.

The seemingly paradoxical idea that the materially impoverished and socially dominated working class undergoes a simultaneous enrichment both individually and as a class subject through the transformation of production and consumption, is clarified: “Since he exchanges his use value for the general form of wealth, he becomes co-participant in general wealth up to the limit of his equivalent — a quantitative limit which, of course, turns into a qualitative one, as in every exchange. But he is neither bound to particular objects, nor to a particular manner of satisfaction. The sphere of his consumption is not qualitatively restricted, only quantitatively. This distinguishes him from the slave, serf etc... the relative restriction on the sphere of the workers’ consumption (which is only quantitative, not qualitative, or rather, only qualitative as posited through the quantitative) gives them as consumers... an entirely different importance as agents of production from that which they possessed e.g. in antiquity or in the Middle Ages, or now possess in Asia”16.

Detailed attention to all of these processes would I think be of great use in opening up areas of working class culture that have generally been taken in a negative way, i.e. as external forces which inhibit the solidarity and potentially revolutionary nature of the working class. This brings me finally to the question of post-modernism. In the Grundrisse we find the capitalist system conceived as a self-reproducing and self-protecting Leviathan or “animated monster”17. Marx presents its substantial unity as an outer objective force system under or within which are created labyrinths of cultural development and interpenetration, levels of differentiation and indifference which make it an incubus of the social individual.18

The Leviathan creates relations of mutual dependence on a scale and intensity never before seen. Within these relations, which are largely unseen, or rather, a matter of indifference because of the enormity of the gulf separating the free individual from the massive objective form, we confront what Marx elsewhere discusses under the head of “the contradiction of bourgeois freedom”. Post-modernism is best understood through this dichotomy. Indifferent to the micro-processes of lived experience, but forcing constant differentiation and development within that experience, capitalism has created the polymorphous identities and hybrid phenomena of the current period, a period in which individualities, idiosyncrasies and modes of taking pleasure are developing in all directions. The imposition of the notion of individual freedom upon this phase gives us the post-modern. We live in a period in which hybridity of forms, pluralism, cultural relativism and the continuous subjective transgression of fixed standards, are being hailed or lamented as signifying a radically new and final phase of world history. But as Marx sagely comments about those who either give way to a cynical pragmatism or look back romantically to earlier and more wholesome forms of life as an alternative to forward-looking engagement with the spiritual alienation of the bourgeois epoch:

“It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness, which characterises the ‘new age’, history has come to a standstill.”19

If the desires, beliefs, habits and social interactions of the working class are diversifying to the extent discussed in this paper, and if the present period in the advanced regions is characterised by high levels of indifference towards work, the workplace, and other workers as workers (and not as friends, neighbours, sporting colleagues, drinking buddies or club members), then it is clearly fundamental that efforts are made to understand where the energies of individual workers and groups or types of workers are currently being invested. The regeneration of socialist politics ultimately hinges on the workplace, the point of production itself, becoming a source of interest to workers as a position of strategic power in the defence or extension of their interests and as the most important — because quotidian and ready-made — sphere of experience in which the repressed public dimension of the personality can operate. To bring the developments outlined in this article into organic connection with the hinge of the workplace is our problem today.

The point of production, the workplace, is a potential community within which individual workers have connection with the public as opposed to the private domain. It is both a potential community and a genuine source of strategic power. Its potential as a point of crystallisation of publicly-oriented identities is far greater than that offered by the streets and the city-square. Movements which come together in these environments struggle to develop to the point where they can be taken seriously as counter-hegemonic. They are important, but the workplace and the sites of training and education provide the key to the development of public identities capable of challenging the Leviathan. What we are experiencing as breakdown, decline, fragmentation and high individualism, poses serious questions about organising towards counter-hegemony and the socialist revolution. But it would be a mistake to think that because solidarity and class consciousness are fundamental to this, we need to adopt the view that the modern individual is alienated, suffers from false consciousness, and is going backwards or losing something essential in giving way to the myriad individuating tendencies produced by the fragmented work environment and the myriad forms of consumption. If we take Marx’s arguments in the Grundrisse seriously, we will find that we ourselves are trapped in a web of nostalgia if we see the current phase of history exclusively in terms of decline, loss and crisis for the socialist project rather than as a necessary structure of new challenges. We would do well to recognise with Marx that the longer capitalism persists and the further it extends and develops itself as a universal system, the further it proceeds towards producing the basis for a higher form of society. This is certainly not to say that socialism was impossible in Marx’s time or at any point subsequent. The emphasis I have made about the positive effects of capitalist development must always be qualified by the understanding that capitalism can be overcome by the sudden emergence of class consciousness and independent working-class revolt at any point in its life cycle. But it is important to realise that in these times of relative peace in the advanced capitalist countries, the capitalist system is playing host to the development of material and human forces that make it more vulnerable than ever before.

  1. Roman Rosdolsky (The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’ Tr. P. Burgess, Pluto Press, London, 1977. p.220-229) discusses the novelty of the distinction between relative and absolute surplus value, and in part VI offers an account of some of the cultural effects that the development of RSV produces.
  2. Gr.414
  3. Gr.408
  4. This is not to deny that the political experience of workers in older branches of production can play a vital role in the politicisation of new branches, but the perspectives of the older industrial unionism and politics, even in its most radical form as Bolshevism, must open out to look at the issues over which workers in far less politicised sections are moved. There must be a recognition that new forms of work have produced fragmentation within the old solidarity, and that workers are now largely indifferent towards each other as workers. The experience of the stronger and older traditions of the labour movement can play an important role in countering the indifference of other workers towards work itself. But this cannot mean simply foisting the old union politics onto the newer branches. Recognising the authenticity of new individualities is a basic requirement in this regard. We must note the paradoxical phenomenon whereby the diversification of new branches of production and an increasingly self-differentiated work force has been accompanied by the formation of broader and broader super-unions covering even more industries and sub-industries than ever before. An artificial and cumbersome response to the new demands. The above holds true for those involved in maintaining the values of the older socialist tendencies and the older unionism. It is tempting to defend the value of the old by isolating it and holding it up as the trans-historical political form of the workers movement, but it is not Marx’s approach.
  5. This type of analysis does not figure so prominently in Capital. Marx saw the Grundrisse as abstract, and was concerned to connect with the leadership of the workers’ movement in the International as he represented — popularised is not the right expression — his analyses in the far more detailed and concrete exposition of the first volume of Capital Vol.1, which required an enormous amount of additional research. It is possible then that though the method of Capital retains most of the central categories of the Grundrisse, and is more coherently organised, there remain emphases in the Grundrisse that politically speaking, were projected at phases of capitalist development that were far too far away to be worth thinking about in any further detail.
  6. Gr.160.
  7. Especially Section III, “Socialist and Communist Literature”.
  8. For the phrase itself see Gr. 160; 287; 410. For the related analysis that the growing richness of tastes, needs and abilities created inadvertently by the blind and culturally indifferent processes of capital formation constitute a central precondition for the transition to a socialist mode of production see Gr. 104; 160; 325; 409; 541.
  9. Gr.528.
  10. Gr.411, 488, 528.
  11. In the second conversation of Holz, H.H., Kofler, L., Abendroth, W., Conversations with Lukacs Ed. T. Pinkus Tr. D. Fernbach, Merlin Press, London 1974, we find Lukacs making some fascinating remarks about Marx’s theory of relative surplus value formation and its central importance in the comprehension of western culture from 1929 onwards.
  12. Gr.414
  13. Gr.421
  14. Gr.287
  15. Gr.222. cf. also Gr.421. For a full discussion of this side of money cf. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 pp127ff, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1977
  16. Gr.283.
  17. Gr.470
  18. Indifference is a crucial theme: indifference of capital to the form that consumption takes — “value excludes no use value” (Gr.541); indifference of capital to the labour of other capital (Gr.287); the indifference of producers and consumers to each other (Gr.160); the indifference of capitalists and workers to their own product — “crappy shit” (Gr.273); indifference of the worker towards work (Gr.104). A related thematic is that of the “autonomisation of the world market” (Gr.160) and the “autonomy” of the system as Leviathan or “animated monster”(Gr.470).
  19. Gr.161 The clause “which characterises the ‘new age’” appears in Rosdolsky ibid. 417, in what is otherwise Nicolaus’ translation.

    Back to the contents page for this issue of Workers' Liberty

    Back to the Workers' Liberty magazine index

    [ Home | Publications | Links ]