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Reconstructing Marx’s Critique of Political Economy from His London Notebooks

Kohei Saito recently received a PhD in philosophy from Humboldt University, Berlin. He is a guest researcher at the MEGA section of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, helping to edit Marx’s notebooks on natural science.
Lucia Pradella, Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy: New Insights from Marx’s Writings (London: Routledge, 2015), 218 pages, $160, hardback.

In 2012, the second section of the new historical-critical edition of Marx and Engels’s complete writings, the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), was finally completed, and all the editions and manuscripts of Capital became available in order to trace Marx’s own theoretical development and Engels’s editorial works. The remaining three sections are, however, only halfway completed, and it will likely take at least another twenty years before all the work is finished. Yet even that goal will be difficult to reach, as the main editorial project, based at the Berlin-Brandenburger Akademie der Wissenschaften, is only financed through the end of this year. The team in Berlin is now applying for an extension of the project until 2030, which, though it now seems quite plausible, may not suffice for editing the remaining volumes. What is more, a great number of them are Marx’s journal fragments and excerpts, which have not yet been published in any language. In this sense, the distinct importance of continuing the MEGA project is the further publication of these unknown notebooks, which promise to reveal Marx’s unfinished undertaking, the critique of political economy.

It is therefore no coincidence that a new trend has emerged in the last few years of scholars studying Marx’s notebooks. Works like Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, Heather Brown’s Marx on Gender, and my own article on Liebig in Monthly Review have shown the underestimated theoretical dimensions of anti-colonialism, gender, and ecology in Marx’s thought.1

A new contribution by Lucia Pradella also illuminates the possibilities of Marx’s excerpts. Yet while previous works have tended to focus on the non-economic notebooks to widen our perspective on Marx’s critique of political economy, Pradella’s new book also deals with his economic writings from the beginning of the 1850s. Pradella’s work provides English-speaking readers with an overview of these journals, the little-known but significant London Notebooks. More importantly, she aims to avoid “succumbing to a now influential trend in MEGA studies in pursuit of a ‘new Marx'” (173). Using both the published and unpublished London Notebooks, Pradella, a lecturer in political economy at King’s College London, reconstructs Marx’s critique of globalization to show the remarkably consistent development of his political and economic views. Pradella also problematizes a widespread view, shared most notably by David Harvey and Samir Amin, that Marx’s Capital only deals with self-enclosed national economies, leaving it unable to analyze the uneven development of capitalism and prone to “Eurocentrism” (2–3). She claims that, on the contrary, the laws of capitalist development elaborated by Marx systematically include an analysis of imperialism and colonialism. Pradella not only helps contextualize Marx’s critique of political economy in the discursive constellations of his time, but also prepares her own theoretical basis for a critique of globalized capitalism today.

In chapter 1, “Globalization: Between Economics and Politics,” Pradella lays a foundation for understanding the singularity and meaning of Marx’s critique of political economy by tracing the main currents of classical economics in the works of Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and others. Notably, Pradella not only criticizes these classics’ naturalization of capitalist social relations and their concealment of class antagonism; she also points to their Eurocentrism, which assumes a linear and teleological conception of history that ascribes certain stages of development to all peoples and regards history itself as a natural civilizing process whose culmination is capitalism. Pradella provides a convincing account of how documents such as François Bernier’s travel report on Indian society had a strong influence on classical political economists, leading them to reproduce the openly colonial approach of their mercantilist predecessors in a new, more sophisticated form.

As Pradella argues in chapter 2, “Hegel, Imperialism and World History,” even Hegel was not able to fully overcome these theoretical limitations of classical political economy. She tells the rather surprising story that Hegel read Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi’s critique of political economy, Nouveaux principes d’économie politique, shortly after its publication and integrated it into his Philosophy of Right in 1819–1820, changing his tone towards civil society significantly (48).2 After reading Sismondi, Hegel was seriously confronted with the contradictions of civil society, and came to understand capitalism as a historically specific system. His concept of the “rabble” in civil society is nothing but the manifestation of these contradictions. According to Pradella, Hegel was, however, still strongly influenced by Eurocentrism, which “led him to adopt an openly colonial point of view in his analysis of pre-capitalist societies” (58).

History needed to wait for Marx for a truly critical analysis of imperialism and colonialism under an ever-expanding system of capitalism. In chapter 3, “Marx’s Critique from the State to Political Economy,” Pradella analyzes Marx’s various notebooks from the Kreuznach, Paris, and Manchester periods. It is here that Pradella calls into question the view that Marx dealt only with closed national economies, thus falling into Eurocentrism. For example, Marx’s draft article on Friedrich List’s The National System of Political Economy, written in March 1845, not only recognizes the problems of international relations and the development of new capitalist states as main components of the laws of the capitalist mode of production, but also takes into account different forms of development on Western Europe, all without imposing a determinist view of history (76–77). Furthermore, The German Ideology shows that Marx and Engels intended to analyze the interaction between various forms of exploitation and social organization, “thus excluding systematically unilinear approaches to history,” even if their focus remained on European historical changes (81). Although Pradella admits that during the revolutionary period of 1848, Marx and Engels did not deal with colonized countries in the Manifesto and described the Slavic people as “without history,” this is not due to Marx’s and Engels’s “Eurocentrism” but rather to “their excessive revolutionary optimism” (88).

In the most original part of the book, Pradella argues that the “real turning point” for Marx’s project is to be found in London (121). Marx overcame the nation-based approach of the classical economists, as he read various critiques of Ricardo’s quantity theory of money and Edward Wakefield’s work, which argued the necessity of colonial policy for securing the spheres of capital investment and migration. Examining important unpublished materials from the London Notebooks, such as Marx’s excerpts from John Millar’s Observations Concerning the Distinction of Ranks in Society and Thomas Stamford Raffles’s History of Java, Pradella also shows that Marx’s interest in non-Western societies led him to question the common notion of the universally patriarchal nature of the family, and to relativize Bernier’s view of Oriental despotism already at the beginning of 1850s. Marx’s deepened understanding of the social structure of Asian countries is reflected in his linking of anti-colonial movements with anti-capitalist struggles in Western Europe: in an 1853 article for the New York Daily Tribune, he exhorted the people of India “to throw off the British yoke altogether” (122).

In the final chapter, “Towards Capital,” Pradella reconstructs how Marx’s critique of political economy developed further through the Grundrisse and the 1861–63 Manuscripts, culminating in the first volume of Capital. She focuses here on Marx’s conceptual change. Marx’s original six-book plan of 1858 intended to treat “capital in general,” abstracted from market competition, and to treat “the state,” “foreign trade,” and “the world market” separately. However, his modification of the category of “capital” allowed him to include some of these other aspects in Capital, whose analysis presupposes the completely globalized system of the capitalist mode of production. One can thus find a more international approach, as Pradella points to the exploitation by the capitalist class in more developed countries. On an international level, capitalists enjoying higher productivity can attain surplus profits from the reduced cost of socially necessary labor, selling products at a higher international average price. The bourgeoisie in less developed countries, on the contrary, are compelled to cover this gap by increasing absolute surplus value through the extension of the working day, even more severely impoverishing the working class and strengthening the structure of exploitation (152). According to Pradella, this presupposition in Capital enables the study of different patterns of uneven and combined development within capitalism under “the absolute law of impoverishment of the working class” (172). She, like Marx, anticipates the emergence of an international working-class movement out of this to establish an alternative to capitalism.

Pradella’s work on Marx’s notebooks also sheds light on the former MEGA editorial group in Halle, East Germany, which is totally neglected today, even among German Marxists. Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that she does not mention Fred E. Schrader’s Restauration und Revolution, one of the most important works on the London Notebooks published in West Germany. This would have allowed for a much more vivid description of how much Marx had to struggle to determine the origin of “profit” in his critique of Wakefield and Ricardo in Notebook VIII, in which he counters their sole focus on the problem of “extra profits” through foreign trade, which presupposes the existence of “profits” as a an objective category. Certainly, Pradella rightly points out that Marx here “distinguished for the first time the value of the wage from the value produced by workers” (100). But as Schrader carefully demonstrates, Marx had great difficulty explaining this idea in Notebook VIII, and his discussions of “extra profits” in Notebook VIII are actually part of a failed attempt to explain the origin of “profits.”3 But Pradella fails to emphasize this point, and treats the category of “extra profit” only in order to show Marx’s consistent interest in international capitalist relations.

Finally, Pradella’s critique that Kevin Anderson “neglects” Marx’s excerpts (7) from the 1850s is not quite accurate, as Anderson’s Marx at the Margins does devote one section to Marx’s notes on Indonesia of 1853, which plays an important role in Anderson’s discussion. Anderson is indeed well aware of the fact that Marx’s London Notebooks paid attention to gender equality in Asian pre-capitalist societies, as well as to various debates on their land property, and he even explains how Marx used these notes in an article to criticize British domination of India.4 Anderson does not insist upon a theoretical “rupture” in favor of a “new Marx” by merely focusing on the later excerpts; his argument is more nuanced. Marx’s enormous number of excerpts document his very difficult endeavor of establishing his own critique of capitalism. Overall, Pradella sometimes seems to underestimate ambivalences in Marx’s writings for the sake of defending the theoretical consistency of his critique of political economy, starting with the London Notebooks.

Despite all this, Pradella’s book gives strong evidence that Marx’s notebooks are essential to understanding his critique of the capitalist mode of production in its totality. Her claims are worth examining in much greater detail, and for that reason it is all the more important to continue the MEGA project, and help guarantee wide access to Marx’s legacy.


  1. Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Heather Brown, Marx on Gender (Leiden: Brill, 2012); Kohei Saito, “The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture,” Monthly Review 66, no. 5 (October 2014): 25–46.
  2. There is apparently no direct reference to Sismondi in Hegel’s texts, and it is doubtful whether Pradella succeeds in grounding her claim. Hegel’s critique of the modern market in his Philosophy of Right seems to show continuation from his earlier critique elaborated in his Jena writings. G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952).
  3. Fred E. Schrader, Restauration und Revolution: Die Vorarbeiten zum “Kapital” von Karl Marx in seinen Studienheften 1850–1858 (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1980), 156.
  4. Anderson, Marx at the Margins, 24–28.
2015, Volume 67, Number 7 (December)
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