When he assessed his intellectual career in 1859, Karl Marx condemned to deserved obscurity all of his previous works but four. The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) first set forth the decisive points of his scientific views, although in polemical form, he wrote; and he implied that the same description applied to the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), a Speech on Free Trade of the same year, and an unfinished series of newspaper articles entitled Wage-Labour and Capital, published in 1849. He made no mention of the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), The Holy Family and the Theses on Feuerbach (1845), and he referred to the manuscript of The German Ideology (1846) without naming its title as a work which he and Engels gladly abandoned to the mice.footnote1Three years before his death, when he received inquiries regarding the eventual publication of his complete works, he is reported to have answered dryly, ‘They would first have to be written.’footnote2

Marx, then, viewed most of the early works which have so aroused the enthusiasm of contemporary interpreters with scepticism bordering on rejection, and was painfully conscious toward the end of his life that the works which he had presented or was ready to present to the public were mere fragments.

Only once in his life did he speak with a tone of achievement and a sense of accomplishment about one of his works. Only once did he announce that he had written something which not only encompassed the whole of his views, but also presented them in a scientific manner. That occasion was in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), a work which also remained merely a fragment, due to difficulties with its publisher. Only two chapters of the Critique reached the public, but their content, while of importance, hardly justified the claims implicitly made for them in their Preface. The Preface outlines a whole world-view, a set of scientific doctrines which explains the movement of history in its sociological, political and economic dimensions, and demonstrates how and why the present organization of society must collapse from the strain of its internal conflicts, to be replaced by a higher order of civilization. The published chapters, however, demonstrate no such breadth, nor is the ultimate emergence of a new order clearly derivable from their content. They deal, rather, with fairly technical economic questions, and promise a long, arduous road with no clearly visible goal. What, then, was Marx talking about in the Preface? Was he making claims for theories he had not yet constructed, for ideas he had not yet written down?

Until 1939, this question remained largely a mystery. The bold generalizations made in the Preface could be traced back to equally bold but equally general statements in The Poverty of Philosophy and in the Manifesto; the volumes of Capital contain some echoes, again polemical and general. But it was difficult, if not impossible, to derive from the extant portions of Capital the answers to the most important question which the Preface announces as theoretically solved, namely the question of how and why the capitalist social order will break down. Thus Rosa Luxemburg wrote her Accumulation of Capital (1912) precisely for the purpose of filling this most important gap in Marx’s unfinished writings,footnote3 thereby throwing gasoline on a fiery intra-party dispute which still flickers today. Why the manuscript on the basis of which Marx wrote the Preface of 1859 remained buried until the outbreak of World War Two remains a mystery still; but in any case, in 1939 the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow brought out of its files and published an enormous volume containing Marx’s economic manuscripts from the years 1857–58. A second volume followed two years later; and in 1953 the Dietz publishing house in Berlin republished the two volumes in one. Entitled by the editors Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Okonomie (Rohentwurf)—Fundamental Traits of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft)—and published together with important extracts from Marx’s notebooks of 1850–51, this work at long last permits an examination of the material of which the generalizations in the Preface are the distillate.footnote4

The Grundrisse has not been ignored since its publication, but neither has it been appreciated for its full importance. Assessed initially as interesting material for a reconstruction of the genesis of Capital, the work long vegetated in the Marxologists’ underground.footnote5 Eric Hobsbawm introduced a fraction of it, chiefly the historical passages, as PreCapitalist Economic Formations in 1965.footnote6 Of late, isolated excerpts have appeared in the works of André Gorz and Herbert Marcuse.footnote7 Together, these seem to have sharpened the appetite of a growing body of intellectuals, in the amorphous New Left especially, for a closer look at this hitherto unknown but obviously important work. A French translation of the first part of the whole has finally appeared this year, but readers who remain imprisoned within the English language will have to wait.footnote8 No definite plans for an English translation have been made public.

All the same, the work is of epochal significance. The fruits of 15 years of economic research, the best years of Marx’s life, are contained in these pages. Marx considered it not only a work which overthrew the central doctrines of all previous political economy, but also the first truly scientific statement of the revolutionary cause.footnote9 Although he could not know it at the time, it was to be the only work in which his theory of capitalism from the origins to the breakdown was sketched out in its entirety. However obscure and fractured, the Grundrisse may be said to be the only truly complete work on political economy that Marx ever wrote.

The Grundrisse is a summit at the end of a long and difficult climb. Marx had published the first of what he considered his scientific works, the Poverty of Philosophy, a decade before; and he did not publish the first volume of Capital unit a decade after. To understand the significance of the Grundrisse, it will be necessary to survey briefly the economic writings which preceded it.