Notes on Marx’s Theory of Productivism in the Grundrisse

Mark Jones markjones011 at
Sat Dec 14 17:16:21 MST 2002

Notes on Marx’s Theory of Productivism in the Grundrisse.


Towards the end of  the Grundrisse, Marx has a section called "Value"
(p881, Penguin 1973 edn). It begins:

  "This section to be brought forward".

It goes on:

"The first category in which bourgeois wealth presents itself is that of
the _commodity_."

There is a certain pathos about this. The Grundrisse was achieved out of a
heroic struggle by Marx. In the course of writing the work he had also to
deal with personal dramas, tragedies and terrible poverty. And it was never
meant for publication. It was not written for money or personal glory. It
came about through a dogged and relentless determination to leave no
theoretical or empirical stone unturned and to challenge every existing
idea in economics, including above all Marx’s own ideas. Nowhere was Marx’s
critical eye cast more pitilessly than on _his own _  preconceptions and
previous errors.

Speaking of the terrible personal circumstances surrounding this
intellectual heavy lifting, Marx wrote ironically to Engels that: "Never
has so much been written about money in general in such a total absence of
money in particular." Often he was unable to visit the British Museum
Reading Room because his only pair of shoes had been pawned to pay for
food. He lived in a single squalid room with his wife, a maid and numerous
children. These were the circumstances in which Karl Marx, an obscure,
impoverished German refugee living in the London Dickens was just then
describing in works like “Bleak House”, thought through the fundamentals of
an epoch-making theory, a theory which has had stupendous historical
consequences and whose course is by no means run yet.

After almost 900 printed pages, by means of an exhaustive and exhausting
survey of the whole existing literature of political economy and political
science, Marx had finally arrived at the analysis of “the Commodity”. This
was to become the starting point for his masterwork, Volume I of “Capital”
(first published almost a decade later, in 1867).

The opening words of Capital Vol. I are:

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production
prevails, presents itself as "an immense accumulation of commodities," its
unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with
the analysis of a commodity.”

No-one who read these lines for the first time, could have suspected what
an immense and life-consuming critical labour had already preceded them,
and what a weight of research, investigation and thought formed the massive
intellectual foundations of the great edifice of “Capital”.

The Grundrisse itself begins with a long philosophical and anthropological
discourse on what is meant by such elemental categories of economics as
Production and Consumption. The word "Grundrisse" means "Outline", and the
manuscript consists of 7 notebooks written by Marx in 1857-58. It was not
meant for publication. The Grundrisse is the laboratory wherein Marx
elaborated his mature thought. It is not a fully worked-out book; it is
work in progress and many formulations and theorems which are crucial to
Marx's masterwork, "Capital" are only prefigured in the Grundrisse and are
not always fully developed or thought through.  On the other hand, there is
a great deal of philosophy, social theory and speculation in the Grundrisse
which does not exist anywhere else in Marx's oeuvre.  That is partly why it
remains important. There are other reasons to do with the insight the
Grundrisse gives us into the process of formation of Marx’s ideas. Since
many of his theorems remain controversial not merely politically but within
the academic discipline of economics, understanding their genesis provides
important clues to such questions as Marx’s concept of the relationship of
values to prices, and to Marx’s own value theory, which radically differs
from the labour theory of value espoused by the classical political
economists (Adam Smith, David Ricardo and others).

In the Grundrisse we also find almost the only speculations by Marx about
what lies beyond capitalism, and what will happen under socialism or
communism. In Grundrisse, Marx categorically says that the postcapitalist
future cannot be based either on markets or on the direct measure of
labour-time. It is impossible to read out of Grundrisse a groundplan of
either market socialism or bureaucratic socialism, except as anti-utopias
which must also be overthrown. More: Marx clearly saw that ALL productivist
ideologies only perpetuate class society and exploitation. Any scheme for
socialism or communism which assumes a priori the need for a separation of
intellectual and manual labour, also entails the planning of production by
remote bureaucracies and the coexistence of an alienated and exploited
working class and a ruling elite which disposes of the surplus and enjoys
various privileges. Such schemes must be ruthlessly criticised and exposed
and must be rooted out of the workers' revolutionary movement.

Marx saw that the basis of all class society is in the primary division
between production and consumption. In nature acts of consumption and of
production are effectively identical. Only when societies historically
appear do acts of production become spatio-temporally separated from acts
of consumption. Marx’s radical attack on productivism is both historical
and theoretical. It begins with the presupposition that the separation of
production from consumption in both space and time is the key historical
development which provides for the emergence of social classes and of class

Marx argues that for pre-social humankind, on the other hand, consumption
and production are identical:

“Consumption is also immediately production, just as in nature the
consumption of the elements and chemical substances is the production of
the plant. It is clear that in taking in food, for example, which is a form
of consumption, the human being produces his own body. But this is also
true of every kind of consumption which in one way or another produces
human beings in some particular aspect. Consumptive production
. As soon as
consumption emerges from its initial state of natural crudity and immediacy
-- and, if it remained at that stage, this would be because production
itself had been arrested there -- it becomes itself mediated as a drive by
the object. (pp91-92 Penguin 1973 Edn)

Anthropologically-speaking, according to Marx it is wrong to speak of
production occurring within humankind (or any species) which is still
submerged within nature and which has not yet begun to differentiate itself
from nature. As natural beings, consumption and production are two faces of
the same process; consumption and production are in fact only attributes of
the same, identical metabolic process:

“The identities between consumption and production thus appear threefold:
(1) Immediate identity: Production is consumption, consumption is
production. Consumptive production. Productive consumption. The political
economists call both productive consumption. But then make a further
distinction. The first figures as reproduction, the second as productive
consumption. All investigations into the first concern productive or
unproductive labour; investigations into the second concern productive or
non-productive consumption.
(2) [In the sense] that one appears as a means for the other, is mediated
by the other: this is expressed as their mutual dependence; a movement
which relates them to one another, makes them appear indispensable to one
another, but still leaves them external to each other. Production creates
the material, as external object, for consumption; consumption creates the
need, as internal object, as aim, for production. Without production no
consumption; without consumption no production. [This identity] figures in
economics in many different forms.
(3) Not only is production immediately consumption and consumption
immediately production, not only is production a means for consumption and
consumption the aim of production, i.e. each supplies the other with its
” (p.93)

Arguing that the distinction between consumption and production first
appeared only when the human species evolved to the point when language,
labour and primary social forms (clan, gens, tribe etc) appeared did,  Marx
says that this space between consumption and production was precisely the
space in which society itself came into existence. From being submerged in
nature, the human species created a social universe distinct from nature
and with its own specific history. From the outset, this social world which
lies between the poles of consumption and production, was dominated by
classes and class struggle.

However, Marx thinks that even in a pre-social state, production must be
“The important thing to emphasize here is only that, whether production and
consumption are viewed as the activity of one or of many individuals, they
appear in any case as moments of one process, in which production is the
real point of departure and hence also the predominant moment. Consumption
as urgency, as need, is itself an intrinsic moment of productive activity.
But the latter is the point of departure for realization and hence also its
predominant moment; it is the act through which the whole process again
runs its course. The individual produces an object and, by consuming it,
returns to himself, but returns as a productive and self-reproducing
individual. Consumption thus appears as a moment of production.” (p94)
This seems intuitively obvious: nothing can be consumed unless there
already exists an entity to do the consuming. The moment of production is
logically and genetically prior to the moment of consumption. But it is
pointless to waste time on speculations about what happened before society
existed. It is an error to look “at humanity in the abstract”.  Marx says
there is “nothing simpler for a Hegelian than to posit production and
consumption as identical. And this has been done not only by socialist
belletrists but by prosaic economists themselves.” (p.93-94) But it is a
waste of time. All that matters is the real historical process of social
production and the main consideration here is that all social production
entails an element of alienation between the producer and the product:

“In society, however, the producer's relation to the product, once the
latter is finished, is an external one, and its return to the subject
depends on his relations to other individuals. He does not come into
possession of it directly. Nor is its immediate appropriation his purpose
when he produces in society.”  (p94)

 From here, Marx seeks to peel out all the social forms arising in
different historical modes of production. Thus the starting-point of
Grundrisse is not the Commodity (as in Capital I) but Production:

“The object before us, to begin with, material production.
Individuals producing in Society -- hence socially determined individual
production -- is, of course, the point of departure.” (p.83 Penguin 1973 edn)

(to be continued)

Mark Jones

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list