The publication of this small volumefootnote1 makes accessible for the first time in English a fundamental work for the understanding and development of outstanding Marxist problems.

It is an extract from the vast draft which Marx made in 1857–58 to clarify his own thoughts in preparation for the Critique of Political Economy and Capital and which was published as the Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf) only in 1939 and 1941 by the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow.

Hobsbawm’s introduction brings out clearly the characteristics of Marx’s sketch and its abstract schema, which is not strictly history, but attempts to reveal the profound content of history (‘What happened in history’, in Childe’s words). And this content is progress, a progress defined by the slow but persistent realization of the humanist ideal, the free development of human potentiality. This realization is not produced by humanity’s perpetual striving towards an abstractly conceived ‘ideal’, it is the necessary resultant of the development implied from the start in the nature of man, a social animal whose essential activity—work—exploits nature, controls it and finally transforms it. Man’s gradual emancipation, starting from the natural conditions of his existence, implies a process of individualization whose development Marx follows from its origins to the capitalist stage.

The major part of the introduction is devoted to the periods in history—or more precisely to the great economic-social formations (and modes of production)—which Marx distinguishes in humanity’s development. Hobsbawm’s analysis makes no attempt to cover the weaknesses and gaps in Marx’s and Engels’ thought whose later development he also analyses. Their qualities can be seen all the better for this. If Marxian thinking can prove a fertile base for research—and I believe the proof will become increasingly apparent—it is not by fetishizing or, because of some ideological necessity, canonizing the founders of a sect. It is because this thinking implies a fruitful method of posing the problem of historical evolution, a method which bourgeois historiography and sociology have, for ideological reasons, refused to pursue (while on many points drawing inspiration from it), and the ideological Marxist movement has ‘ossified’ and schematized. The proof of its fruitfulness lies in the fact that, despite these two types of distortion, it has inspired a more or less complete renewal of man’s vision of his history.

On the historical level the introduction provides an excellent analysis of the evolution of Marx’s and Engels’ ideas. It is certainly true that Marx’s growing interest in the primitive community after 1867 was essentially connected with the hopes founded on a revolution in Russia, and to his ever deepening disgust with the manifestations of capitalist society, particularly in the colonies. Hobsbawm notes the differences in Marx’s and Engels’ preoccupations, the latter being more orientated towards political and military factors, which conditioned his theories on the development and decline of feudalism. Marx’s thought, on the other hand, inclined towards vast generalizations which makes at once for its greater difficulty and its greater fruitfulness.

On the theoretical level, Hobsbawm’s critique is valuable in bringing out the major trends of Formations. Essentially, Marx sees pre-capitalist development in relation to capitalism. What interested him was the appearance in preceding formations of the conditions which make possible the emergence of a capitalist society. Pre-capitalist history is not, as in the vulgar Marxist vision, a succession of universal stages, of economic-social formations ruled by implacable laws which carry them ineluctably towards capitalism and thereby towards socialism and the end of history (or of ‘pre-history’, if one prefers). It starts from a primitive community with a structure imposed, essentially, by the conditions of existence of archaic humanity, but which nevertheless presents varied types. Some of these types carry an evolutionary potential within their particular structure because of their internal contradictions. It is in the course of this evolution over thousands of years that phenomena are produced which, converging in a given place (Europe), in a given time (16th century), in a given juncture, bring forth capitalist society. Between the point of departure and the point of arrival, there are other phenomena such as slavery and serfdom, particular modes of production (rather than economic-social formations in the strict sense) in which, here and there, socio-economic relations of domination are crystallized.

This at least is one interpretation of Marx’s text, and it affords, I believe, the means of escaping from a certain number of difficulties and false problems created by the dogmatism of the ideological Marxist movement. This is relevant in particular, I think, to the problem of the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ to which I shall be returning elsewhere.footnote2 Of course, the essential Marxist method in the search for the bases of the historical dynamic in the evolution of the relations of production can retain our confidence.