David Harvey takes on the Grundrisse


"David Harvey has done yeoman’s work [...] by explicating as simply and clearly as possible this preparatory text, in his typically sober and no-nonsense style.” – Sebastian Budgen (from his Letter from the Editor on the Verso Books blog)

In the introduction to his Companion, Harvey writes the following: 

“[...]there are passages in the Grundrisse where Marx throws all contextual caution and constraints to the winds and speculates, sometimes wildly, as to the true essence and qualities of capital as a transcendent power. His insights are brilliant, dramatic and often astonishing in their implications. These form, as a student once commented to me, the jewels that shine with such luster in the mud of all too often turgid analysis. Finding and toying with these jewels of incisive understanding is what makes the study of the Grundrisse so extraordinary and worthwhile as well as, dare I say it, fun.”

Please enjoy this excerpt – also from the author's introduction to A Companion To Marx’s Grundrisse – and take a moment to look over the other titles in the Essential David Harvey series below!

This Companion to Marx’s Grundrisse is another contribution to what I call, in retrospect, “The Marx Project.” I say “in retrospect” because it is only when I look back that I can see that I have been engaged on this project over many years. It did not begin with a conscious purpose or design: it just grew. The impulse behind the project, which began some two decades ago, has, however, remained both clear and constant. I felt a pressing need to communicate, as clearly and simply as possible, what it was that Marx had uncovered in his critique of classical political economy. I also wanted to explore how the insights gained thereby could usefully illuminate the sources of the economic, social, ecological and political troubles and dangers that were becoming more and more salient across the globe. Marx’s writings, I felt, were incisively relevant to understanding why capital not only was failing to meet human needs, but was also totally unable to stave off the dangers of environmental degradation. His works helped explain why capital was bound in the long run to fail on both counts. 

Most people, when confronted with Marx’s voluminous works on the critique of political economy, find them difficult, intimidating and confusing. As a result, there have arisen a variety of interpretations of his work by scholars and activists alike, coalescing in some instances into what appear to be factions or even whole schools of thought as to what the correct line is for elaborating on Marx’s theoretical contributions. Political parties of the left (particularly of a communist persuasion) have often shaped distinctive but somewhat rigid interpretations suited to their political situation and agendas. Marx, being the controversial figure that he is, has also attracted his share of personal vilification from opponents. Deliberate misrepresentations and false representations abound, along with more sophisticated and subtle attempts to undermine his views. All of this creates expectations and a climate of presumption and prejudgment that makes a simple and uncluttered reading of any of his texts virtually impossible.

My aim was and is to open a door into Marx’s thinking and to encourage as many people as possible to pass through it and take a closer look at the texts and make of them what they will. I have no interest in trying to impose my own particular interpretations on anyone. That is why I call my books on Marx “companions” rather than guides. I cannot, of course, open a path to an understanding of Marx’s thought without using my own experience and interests as crucial helpmates for interpretation. The fact that my main interest has been urbanization and uneven geographical development, at a variety of scales, clearly affects the way I evaluate Marx’s texts. I imagine myself, however, accompanying the reader on a long hike in which I point out this and that particular feature here and there, drawing upon my long experience of working with the text, and highlight moments of epiphany for me, linking ideas together, when possible, while always wondering and asking what it is that you, the reader, might make of it all. In teaching Marx over the last fifty years, I have been incredibly fortunate to teach it to all sorts of different groups and audiences. I have learned immensely from the very divergent ways in which people can make sense of what Marx is saying. This is, of course, a tribute to the rich complexity of the texts; that they can speak so directly to so many different people living in such radically different situations and coming from such radically different cultural and intellectual traditions.

The Grundrisse is, by far, the most interesting and the most difficult book by Marx to work with. It is a set of notes that Marx was frantically writing to himself at a rather frantic time. Marx, through-out his lifetime, employed different modes of writing depending upon his audience. These can be categorized into four types. There was, first, the writing style adopted in his journalism, in his contemporary commentaries and in his correspondence. It is plainspoken and colloquial, even as it takes on difficult matters with some conceptual grace. Some of his serious writings on political economy were prepared for publication, such as Volume I of Capital. There, he is greatly concerned to use a language which he thinks his audience will understand. That audience was the literate fraction of a working class, the majority of whom were illiterate. The literate fraction was self-taught, quite sophisticated and, being autodidacts, unlikely to be subject to the disciplinary tropes of formal education. So, while Capital may appear to us as a difficult book, some-what above the capacity of the average undergraduate in formal education to easily comprehend, this would not necessarily be true for the autodidact artisans that Marx was concerned to influence, primarily in Britain and France but also in the United States and beyond. My own hope in my Marx Project has been to recast Marx’s language in a way more accessible to contemporary student audiences along with the autodidacts (yes, they still exist) in the labor unions and social movements. The third kind of writing is more experimental. It is constructed as a voyage of discovery, where Marx will unfold an argument, sometimes deploying novel and even arcane concepts for anyone willing to follow. This is characteristic of the manuscripts out of which Engels constructed both Volumes II and III of Capital. The fourth kind of writing is Marx writing purely for himself, using whatever tools and ideas that he has in his head, prepared to unleash a stream of his own conscious-ness, to set down possibilities and potential interrelations that may or may not turn out to be important in his more considered studies. This last is the predominant style of the Grundrisse, and it is this that makes it such an exciting, frustrating, imaginative and sometimes boringly repetitive text to work with. Marx is, in short, just talking to himself. It is not sufficient to understand his language (which is distinctly his own). It is also important to understand his mode of thinking, which is, to put it mildly, somewhat elusive. But this is the form of writing that dominates in the Grundrisse.

– Excerpted from A Companion to Marx's Grundrisse by David Harvey

“An indispensable companion to the Grundrisse. Harvey's newest is as illuminating for experienced readers as it is helpful for those who are encountering Marx’s great text for the first time." – Nancy Fraser

“David Harvey provoked a revolution in his field and has inspired a generation of radical intellectuals. Read this book.” – Naomi Klein 

Rousing manifesto on the city and the commons from the acclaimed theorist.

An essential introduction to the field of historical geography.

“A unique and insightful theory of capital.” – Monthly Review