For the critique of political economy

Patrick Heron, 13, 1973.


Initial excerpt from the Presentation of the recently released new translation of Karl Marx's book

In mid-1858, Marx finally had in his hands the long manuscript that he had been preparing for several months and which summarized his many years of study on political economy. He had begun writing under the strong stimulus of the economic crisis of 1857, considered by him to be the first of truly global scope and character. The hope that its outbreak would encourage the working class to launch a revolutionary movement made Marx work “in a colossal way”[I] and accelerated to write the first version of his “critique of political economy” explaining the unavoidable contradictions of capitalism and deducing from them the crises and the possibility of the transition to socialism. As is known, this manuscript was published in its original state decades after the author's death under the title Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie.[ii]

For Marx, however, the manuscript was nothing more than an initial draft that should be well revised, corrected and supplemented before going to press. All the material would form the first of a set of six books in which he intended to develop his critique of bourgeois society.[iii] In turn, the manuscript itself would be divided into seven notebooks,[iv] of which the first would correspond to the “money chapter” and the other notebooks to the content of the much longer “capital chapter”. It was this first notebook that Marx saw published in June 1859, after intense revision work, under the title For the critique of political economy.

In fact, transposing the manuscript into book form was marked by difficulties.[v] The two most important are certainly those that refer to the fundamental problem of how to present the material in the first notebook, one of which appeared at the beginning and the other at the end of the presentation.[vi]

The first difficulty was, exactly, which category to start the analysis with. It emerged when Marx developed the point of view that had guided him in floorplans. There, he already knew that “to develop the concept of capital, it is necessary to start not from work, but from value, and, in fact, from the exchange value already developed in the movement of circulation. It is as impossible to pass directly from labor to capital as it is to pass directly from the various human races to the banker, or from nature to the steam engine.”6

Marx already knew that, despite being composed in its substance by work, capital is defined by the social forms it assumes in the process of self-constitution, that is, by the forms of “exchange value already developed in the movement of circulation”, especially the form Of money. The impossible leap referred to at the end of the passage cited above corresponds to the leap from substance – “human races” or “nature” – to social form – “banker” or “steam engine”.

Although the metabolism of production of use values ​​is also at the basis of capitalism, what differentiates this system from those that preceded it is the subordination of metabolism to metamorphosis, that is, from the exchange of matter between humans and nature to the exchange of form. social environment in which this occurs – merchandise and money, forms that capital takes on and which it successively abandons in the process of circulation of value.

Thus, from the perspective of floorplans, the analysis of capital as a form of social relationship should begin with the analysis of money, the general form adopted by capital, including in its relationship with work. It is as a buyer of labor power that the capitalist enters the scene, placing himself on an equal footing with the worker, who presents himself as a seller of labor power. It is in this contractual equality that the constitutive relationship of capital first presents itself, and only later, in the transition to the sphere of production itself, reveals itself as the opposite, as the social inequality established from the moment in which the capitalist strips the worker of the means of production. Before this reversal in social inequality, the distinctive form of the relationship between the two social classes is the salary, or rather, the monetary remuneration of the worker by the capitalist.

What became clear to Marx during the editing work was that the “money chapter” itself should begin with the deduction of the form of money itself.

Without a doubt, we floorplans There are several considerations about exchange value and its relationship with use value and even about the different forms of circulation of goods, with the introduction of the well-known expressions MDM and DMD. However, such considerations are always made within the discussion of money, and the initial topic “genesis and essence of money”, in addition to including quick digressions on related topics, soon leads to the study of precious metals and, finally, the topic on “ course of money”, which brings Marx’s first version to the sequence of the functions of money.

In this topic of the manuscript, there is a quick mention of a “chapter that should deal with exchange value as such”, which perhaps corresponds to the two brief pages whose writing Marx apparently suspended at the end of the floorplans. With the number “(1)” and the title “Value”,[vii] This text revisits the relationship between use value and exchange value, constitutive of the commodity form. More importantly, he formulates the sentence that would later open, with the necessary modifications, the book For the critique of political economy and, finally, The capital: “The first category in which bourgeois wealth appears is that of merchandise.”[viii]

Despite these indications from floorplans, the new beginning for the categorical presentation was only elaborated in the 1859 publication, when the “money chapter” appears after the chapter on merchandise. The important development that occurred between the two texts is clear in the theme and title of each: in For the critique of political economy, it is about the merchandise, and not the value, as in the topic just outlined that closes the Grundrisse. [ix]

The commodity is a form of value, but it also presents the dimension of use value in a tangible product capable of satisfying needs; it has a palpable character, therefore, and is present in the daily life of capitalist sociability, and cannot be considered, in any way, a mere abstraction. In fact, the commodity consists of the unit of value and use value; it is the simplest form of the opposition between these two dimensions, developed into the more complex forms that define the functions of money.

With this in mind, Marx divided the material into For the critique of political economy in two basic chapters, “the commodity” and “the money, or simple circulation”, which should inaugurate the “first book: on capital” and its unfolding in “section I: capital in general”, according to the publication plan of the six books mentioned above.

The alternative offered in the title of the second chapter of the book immediately draws attention: “money, or simple circulation”. She makes it clear that here money is not yet analyzed as a specific form of capital, but rather in the sphere that Marx called “simple circulation” of goods and represented by MDM. The relationship between the “simple” form and the more complex form, that of the circulation of capital itself, addressed in the second section of the “capital chapter” of floorplans, appears to be a problem.

Although “simple” circulation is not yet the circulation of forms of capital, it describes the situation of mercantile exchange absorbed and redefined by capitalist circulation. Remunerated by salary, the workforce buys the means of living they need to always return to work, in a movement that MDM adequately represents.

These are the terms of the second difficulty that Marx faced in editing the 1857-1858 manuscript: how to inscribe simple circulation into capitalist production; or, even, how to conclude the “money chapter” and, with that, finalize For the critique of political economy, and then move on to the “capital chapter”, which would be the theme of the following sections of the publication. In the manuscript, this transition occurs when, at the end of the sequence of its functions, money stops being a simple means of circulating goods and becomes an end in itself.

Marx then thought that he could deduce the concept of capital without inconvenience from the DMD formula, which inverts the meaning of MDM from simple circulation, as the qualitative identity between the initial pole and the final pole of DMD imposes the conclusion that the difference only it can be quantitative: between the first and last D there must be a greater value, a surplus value expressed by Marx in the line that adds to the last D, forming D'.

Although For the critique of political economy does not advance beyond the concept of “world money”, without moving on to money as a form of capital, Marx perceived a serious problem in this passage. Simply formulated as DM-D', the circulation of capital could very well represent the mere accumulation of commercial capital, including in its pre-capitalist form, that is, the process of buying to sell more expensively, which does not imply changing the conditions of production. same as the goods.

In other words, the DM-D' formula does not capture the specificity of capitalist production; it does not grasp its distinction in relation to historically previous forms that were combined with commercial capital. It was not enough, therefore, to invert the expressions and deduce industrial capital from the mere formal autonomy of money.

Perhaps this was the reason why Marx interrupted the editing of the floorplans and decided to return to his studies with the clear intention of re-elaborating the “capital chapter”. He dedicated himself intensely to this task between 1861 and 1863, and ended up writing a second manuscript, which includes, for example, the notebooks published after his death under the title Theories of surplus value.

In short, Marx would have realized that the transition from simple circulation to capital could not be just formal; rather, it had to expose the opposition between the legal equality constitutive of the circulation of labor power and the social inequality underlying the subsumption of labor to capital in the sphere of immediate production of commodities. It would be necessary to explain, already at this moment, the social condition of the workforce stripped of the means of production by capitalists.

In other words, the transition from the sphere of simple circulation to the sphere of commodity production should go beyond the formal aspect of presentation and incorporate the historical circumstance that underlies the concept of surplus value itself. Otherwise, Marx would fall into the error he predicted in his famous warning to the floorplans: “It will be necessary, later […] to correct the idealistic mode of presentation that produces the appearance that it is simply a question of conceptual determinations and the dialectics of these concepts”.[X]

By “idealist style”, Marx here designates a way of presenting concepts that reduces the presentation to a deductive chain in which one concept is defined based on another. Bringing this chain together with history would only be possible in Hegelian philosophy because in it, according to Marx, the logical-speculative unfolding of the concept is reproduced in the flow of events, an unacceptable proposition for the materialist conception at the basis of the critique of political economy.

However, during the writing of the floorplans, Marx advanced this criticism to the point of conceiving capitalism as an economic system in which, as seen above, the metabolism between human beings and nature is inscribed in purely social metamorphoses, that is, in the passages from one social form to another. Therefore, thinking of a precedence of form to substance or, in more or less Hegelian terms, of the logical to the real, would not be a complete idealist folly, but would correspond to a system, itself, folly.

Thus, if the transition from simple circulation to capitalist production must make explicit the historical condition of the dispossession of labor power, it must also resume and continue the guiding thread of the presentation of the forms of simple circulation and the functions of money. Only in the writing of The capital Marx managed to solve the problem posed by this double requirement. He does so in chapter 4 of the book, so important that it alone occupies the entire second section, strategically placed between the three chapters of the first section, dedicated to simple circulation, and the seven chapters of the third, dedicated to the production of surplus value. absolute.

This importance is also evident in the form of presentation, different from that observed in the rest of the book: in much of chapter 4 of The capital, Marx intentionally and repeatedly comes up against an aporia, namely, the impossibility of creating new value if the principle of exchange of equivalents is maintained, overcome only at the end of the chapter, when he explains the historical condition through which labor power becomes commodity and, moreover, the commodity whose use allows the creation of surplus value.

Although only exposed in The capital, this solution began to be outlined in For the critique of political economy. In fact, it already appears in the book's edition text, written between August and October 1858 and published after Marx's death with the title “Original text”.[xi] This interesting manuscript, now published by Boitempo together with For the critique of political economy, allows the reader to follow the exact moment in which Marx changes his mind regarding the function of money as a means of payment, redefining the relationship between simple circulation and the specific and more complex forms of capital.

The change occurred shortly after the writing of the floorplans, in which the payment method is seen as a rudimentary form of the credit system, and is therefore presented in the “capital chapter”. Marx then realized, however, that this function of money is the dialectical combination of the functions of measure of value and means of circulation. Therefore, in the “Original Text”, the means of payment starts to appear in the simple circulation of goods, transitioning to the determination of capital, but still within the forms of appropriation typical of the MDM logic, in which work and ownership of the means of payment production are not yet explicitly split.

Thus, Marx stops judging the function of the means of circulation of money to be the typical form of simple circulation, as in floorplans, and characterizes the sociability presided over by MDM in a more complex way, which involves relationships mediated by money that is only represented, promised, but not yet actually paid.

Marx develops this characterization in topic 5 of the second chapter of the “Original Text”, entitled “The appearance of the law of appropriation in simple circulation”. The discussion he makes there of the illusions created by the reduction of capitalist social forms to mere mercantile forms gives the reading of the “Original Text” a special importance, even more so due to the fact that Marx ended up not using the entire end of this edition manuscript in the definitive version of For the critique of political economy.[xii] Certain lapidary formulations about bourgeois sociability can only be read and analyzed in it.

In any case, what Marx incorporated into the book already represents a conception of simple circulation and its relationship with capitalist production that is considerably richer than that exposed in the floorplans. The change in the conception of the means of payment, for example, will be of great importance to later understand how the workforce is remunerated through wages. By including this function of money in the logic of MDM, Marx explains how the relationship between the capitalist and the worker maintains the appearance of the exchange of equivalents, now between a type of debtor, who will only pay the salary at the end of the month, after receiving the service he purchased, and a type of creditor, who lives on the promise of receiving the money owed for the work he sold.

The social inequality underlying the more complex situation characterized by the means of payment is still hidden, but the historical condition of dispossession from which the commodity of labor power arises will not need to be introduced as a factor totally external to simple circulation. On the contrary, its introduction allows the order of the categorical presentation to be maintained and even makes it essential to emphasize the opposition between one level of analysis and another, that is, to reveal the unequal reality beneath the egalitarian legal appearance.


*Jorge Grespan He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of Marx, an introduction (boitempo). []


Karl Marx. For the critique of political economy. Translation: Nélio Schneider. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2024, 268 pages. []


[I] Letter from Marx to Engels, December 18, 1857, in MEW, v. 29, p. 232.

[ii] At the same time as he was writing his critique of political economy, Marx collected material from magazines and newspapers of the time with the intention of publishing, in addition to the critical theoretical text, also a text analyzing the ongoing crisis. The quick end of the crisis, however, made Marx set aside these Krisenhefte. The miscellany of clippings from these newspapers and magazines interspersed with brief analyzes by Marx himself was only published in 2017, in volume 14 of Section IV of Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), with the title “Exzerpte, Zeitungsausschnitte um Notizen zur Weltwirtschaftskrise. November 1857 bis February 1858”. For the Brazilian edition of floorplans, see Karl Marx, Grundrisse: economic manuscripts of 1857-1858: sketches of the critique of political economy (trans. Mario Duayer and Nélio Schneider, São Paulo/Rio de Janeiro, Boitempo/UFRJ, 2011).

[iii] The plan of these six books is cited in several of Marx's writings at the time and is presented at the beginning of the preface to For the Critique of Political Economy. The books would be “capital, land ownership, wage labor, the State, foreign trade and the world market”.

[iv] The division into the seven notebooks appears in a provisional index written by Marx in June 1858. In a letter to Engels dated February 22, 1858, Marx explains that he intends to publish his text in notebooks because he has “neither the time nor the means to elaborate it with complete tranquility” (MEW, v. 29, p. 284).

[v] Initially, Marx believed that he could revise and publish the Grundrisse without difficulty, as he stated in a letter to Engels dated September 21, 1858: “I have nothing to do but stylize [stylize] what has already been written” (MEW, v. 29, p. 355).

[vi] Karl Marx, floorplans, cit., p. 200; MEGA II/1.1, p. 183.

[vii] The mention of the “chapter” that should deal with exchange value independently of the analysis of money appears at the beginning of the topic that deals with the last function of money in the version of floorplans, entitled “Money as a material representative of wealth” (Karl Marx, floorplans, cit., p. 149; MEGA II/1.1, p. 132). Apparently, the text that appears at the end of the entire manuscript, “Valor”, constitutes the writing of this promised chapter, with which the book itself would begin (Karl Marx, floorplans, cit., p. 757; MEGA II/1.2, p. 740).

[viii] Karl Marx, floorplans, cit., p. 756; MEGA II/1.1, p. 740. As a comparison, in For the Critique of Political Economy, from 1859, the opening sentence is: “At first sight, bourgeois wealth appears as an enormous collection of commodities, and the individual commodity as its elementary existence” (in this volume, p. 31; MEGA II/2, p. In The capital, in this case, it is: “The wealth of societies where the capitalist mode of production reigns appears as an 'enormous collection of commodities', and the individual commodity, in turn, appears as its elementary form” (Karl Marx, Capital: critique of political economy, Book I: The capital production process, trans. Rubens Enderle, São Paulo, Boitempo, 2013, p. 113; MEGA II/10, p. 37).

[ix] As Marx will later explain in Marginal glosses on Adolph Wagner's Treatise on Political Economy, “[…] neither ‘value’ nor ‘exchange value’ are subjects [Subjekt] for me, but rather the commodity”, in Karl Marx, Latest economic writings (trans. Hyury Pinheiro, São Paulo, Boitempo, 2020 , p. 43;

[X] Karl Marx, floorplans, cit., p. 100; MEGA II/1.1, p. 85.

[xi] In German, "urtext”. It was published by MEGA in 1980, as part of volume 2 of its second section. In this “Original Text”, what I called the second difficulty of the categorical presentation faced by Marx, namely, the transition from simple circulation to capital, appears in topic 6 of the second chapter, “Transition to capital”, and in the third chapter, incomplete , “Transformation of money into capital”, both of which were not used by Marx in the final draft of For the Critique of Political Economy.

[xii] As noted in the previous note, in addition to topic 5, topic 6 and the third chapter of the “Original Text” were also dispensed with by Marx in the final version of For the Critique of Political Economy. In the case of the latter, Marx probably definitely gave up on including them because he left the discussion of capital for later notebooks. In the case of topic 5, in a way, he ended up taking advantage of the material when he returned to the theme in the second chapter of book I of The capital, titled “The Exchange Process”.

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