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“From The ‘Grundrisse’ to ‘Capital’: Multilinear Themes”: Kevin B. Anderson

In the Grundrisse (1857-58), Marx sketches a multilinear theory of history. This marks an important turn in his thought. These themes are taken up again and developed further in Capital, Vol. I (1872-75), but as a theorization of contemporary possibilities rather than past history.

Some Barriers to Marx within Radical Thought

When Marx’s name comes up nowadays, it is often said in progressive and radical circles that while Marx had some good analysis of the economic structure of capitalism, his overall theorization of society is no model for radical thought today, because it was fundamentally Eurocentric, unilinear, and determinist. This attitude has played no small part in dissuading many 21st century thinkers and activists from a serious engagement in Marx’s thought. This article offers arguments from within Marx’s writings to challenge this attitude, in order to encourage both a deeper engagement with the whole of Marx’s work and a critique of his critics, especially those on the left like Deleuze, Foucault, and Edward Said. In so doing, I will also challenge orthodox or post-Marx Marxism, both on its deterministic succession of historical stages and on its failure to acknowledge differences between Marx and Engels. Without peeling away some of these issues, it is hard to grasp Marx, let alone appreciate the fullness of his critique of capital or his notion of a new society.

At the outset, I want to mention two problematic views that I do not share. (1) Some orthodox Marxists, especially in India, have argued that Marx dabbled with the idea of an Asiatic mode of production in the Grundrisse, but in Capital returned to his earlier single model of development in which there was a progression from slavery to feudalism to capitalism. This view does not hold up when one looks at the whole of Marx’s work. (2) Others, basing themselves on the Marx’s last writings on Russian communal villages as a source of revolution, have argued that (what they consider to be) Marx’s deterministic perspectives in Capital gave way in his last writings to a more open, multilinear approach.

I will, however, be adapting Bertell Ollman’s notion in Dialectical Investigations (1993) that Marx reads history backwards, i. e., views premodern societies through the lens of modern capitalism. I will do this for Marx himself, reading the Grundrisse and Capital through the later writings of 1877-82, especially the Ethnological Notebooks and the letters on Russia. I will be doing so in order to grasp better the trajectory of Marx’s theoretical enterprise.

Much ink has been spilled in recent decades concerning the issues of unilinearism (grand narrative) and ethnocentrism in social and political theory generally, and with regard to Marx in particular. With Marx, much of the debate has revolved around his articles on India during the early 1850s and the Communist Manifesto (1848). Both of these sets of writings evidence an implicitly unilinear model of social development in which England was the most advanced society of the day, with others necessarily following that society, willingly or unwillingly, into the capitalist future. Edward Said, Jean-François Lyotard, Robert Tucker, and other critics of Marx have made this case since the 1970s. Moreover, Marx’s early descriptions of India (a society without history) or China (barbarian) evidenced a certain ethnocentrism. In Marx’s less-discussed later writings on these issues — and even to some extent in those of 1856-59 on China and India — he is often seen to have overcome some of these problems. This change of position can be seen most clearly in his 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich or the 1882 preface to the Communist Manifesto, where he suggests a multilinear pathway of development for non-capitalist societies. Here I will look briefly at Marx’s two most important critiques of political economy, the Grundrisse and Capital, in light of these concerns.

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