Genesis and structure of Capital by Karl Marx

Edith Derdyk (Journal of Reviews)


Commentary on the book by Roman Rosdolsky.

It is rare for a Marxist work to be translated, sold, read and discussed 50 years after its first publication. But this is exactly what happened in Brazil with the book Genesis and structure of Capital by Karl Marx, by Roman Rosdolsky. And despite being a very erudite book, it is not only interesting as a historical document, but also as a very up-to-date guide to understanding Marx's work.

The rare biographical information available about the author makes us think that his life was not particularly happy: he was always the wrong man, in the wrong place. Born in the year 1898 in Galizia (a historical part of Poland) he adhered to socialism during the First World War. He was collaborating in the edition of the complete works of Marx and Engels in Moscow, when Stalin decided, in 1931, to put an end to this enterprise. He was in Poland when the Nazis invaded, who took him to a concentration camp, and then finally emigrated to the USA, where at that time life was not very easy for a Marxist scholar. In fact, he himself recalls the difficulty of finding texts to study.

In life he remained unknown and he died in 1967, just before the world rebirth of a heterodox intellectual Marxism that he would probably have liked. His book, to which he evidently devoted much time (20 years) of solitary meditation, was published in Germany in 1968 and later translated into many languages. He strongly influenced the theoretically more advanced part of the new left.

Rosdolsky's personal merit seems even greater for the fact that he could not rely on almost any Marxist work of the time, but arrived at his conclusions based only on reading Marx's texts.

In fact, your book is not even an interpretation, but a very adherent commentary on the text. Rosdolsky almost completely disappears behind his object of study; few Marxists were so close to Marx even in their combination of detailed and far-reaching analysis, a critique of political economy and philosophical and political aspiration.

Rosdolsky's book examines a large manuscript by Marx, written in 1857/58, the floorplans (Boitempo). First published in 1939, they initially had limited repercussions; were considered a simple draft or sketch of O capital and therefore, as such, inferior to the latter. Rosdolsky's book is the first organic commentary on the floorplans; their great merit is to show how much they owe to the Hegelian dialectic of form and content, especially when it comes to value. It is for this emphasis that Rosdolsky can be considered – even though he remains safely, in many respects, in traditional Marxism – a forerunner of those who today call into question merchandise, work, value and money, the State, the market and society. policy, etc.

We highlight some of your best reviews. He takes up a category ignored at the time, that of “abstract work” and underlines that “abstract work” is not identical with necessary work because it concerns only the quantitative side of the problem and not the qualitative side. Rosdolsky was not only one of the first to highlight the importance of value in Marx's elaboration, but he also summarized very well its role in the different levels of Marx's analysis.

His acute awareness of the dialectic between form and content led him to fully understand the “contradiction between the unlimited impulse to capital appreciation and the limited consumption power of capitalist society”. Here, explicitly distancing himself from traditional Marxism, he admits, therefore, the impossibility of making concrete use and abstract value coincide.

Unlike traditional Marxism, Rosdolsky does not see in the apparent contradictions of capitalist reality simple mystifications, but the expression of real contradictions. This is very important to understand that commodity fetishism is not a phenomenon that belongs only to the sphere of consciousness, but a real phenomenon.

Explicitly opposing the “manuals of Marxist economics”, Rosdolsky affirms the coincidence between commodity fetishism and the formation of money as they are “the two different aspects of one and the same reality: in commercial (mercantile) production, the capacity of commodity to be exchanged exists beside it, as an object […], as something distinct from it, [not immediately, not part of it, not inserted into it] identical with it; value must then become autonomous vis-à-vis commodities”. In other words, Rosdolsky rediscovers the fact that for Marx, the duplication of social reality constitutes the foundation of the logic of value.

Incredible for the time, before 1968, was also the fact of remembering that Marx did not write a “political economy” because this also constitutes a category of fetishism. The difference between the historical development and the logical development of capital, later presented in the 1970s by others as the latest discovery, had also already been highlighted by Rosdolsky.

Furthermore, he points out that primitive accumulation is an element that constitutes the capitalist relationship and, consequently, it is “contained in the concept of capital”; the XXIV chapter of The capital on primitive accumulation is therefore not just a historical digression, as Rosa Luxemburg herself believed, among others.

Rosdolsky almost never ventures into the terrain of the practical consequences of Marxist theory. But he discovered those aspects of Marx that today inspire attempts to break with the logic of value. Perhaps nowhere is Rosdolsky so topical as when he emphasizes – he was probably the first to do so – the importance of those pages of the floorplans which announce that capitalist development itself will destroy value – and therefore labor – as the basis of capitalist society. Today, many are those who seek those pages. He calls them, with justifiable passion, “reflections that, even though Marx wrote them more than a hundred years ago, can only be read with emotion today, because they contain one of the most daring visions of the human spirit”.

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy, and author, among other books, of Credit to death: The decomposition of capitalism and its criticisms (Hedra).


Roman Rosdolsky. Genesis and structure of Capital by Karl Marx. Rio de Janeiro, Counterpoint, 2001.

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