Marx’s research notebooks and globalisation

Issue: 148

Fred Moseley

A review of Lucia Pradella, Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy: New Insights from Marx’s Writings (Routledge, 2014), £90

In this pioneering book Lucia Pradella examines Marx’s research notebooks that have been published for the first time in recent years in the monumental Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) collection (planned to be 110 volumes in all, 69 of which have been published). Marx’s research notebooks are Section IV of the MEGA (“Excerpts, Notes, and Marginal Notes”) which is planned to be 32 volumes, ten of which have been published so far. Pradella emphasises Volumes 2 to 11 of Section IV which cover the years from 1843 to 1853 (Volumes 5, 10 and 11 have not yet been published, but Pradella read them at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Berlin, where they are in preparation). She emphasises especially Volumes 7 to 11 of this section which were written from 1850 to 1853 and are called the London Notebooks. Pradella’s book is the first description in English of the contents of these early notebooks and opens the possibility for more in-depth study of the development of Marx’s thinking in the 1840s and early 1850s.

First a little background on the MEGA. There are three other sections of the MEGA besides Section IV comprising Marx’s notebooks: I. Works, Articles, and Drafts; II. Economic Manuscripts; and III. Letters. Section II (23 volumes) is especially important and includes all the drafts of Capital: Grundrisse (1857-8), A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), the Economic Manuscript of 1861-63, the Economic Manuscript of 1864-65, and the final published versions of Capital Volume 1 (this section has now been published in full). Some 50 of the 110 MEGA volumes have been translated into English in the Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW), published by Lawrence and Wishart in the UK and International Publishers in the US. The most important new material in English is the complete Manuscript of 1861-63, which includes the previously published Theories of Surplus-Value (about two thirds of the total in the middle of the manuscript), and also includes a second draft of Volume 1 of Capital in the beginning of the manuscript (MECW, Volume 30) and a first draft of parts of Volume 3 towards the end (MECW, Volume 33).

Unfortunately, there are several important volumes in Section II that are not included in the MECW, including Marx’s original manuscript for Volume 3 of Capital (Volume II/4.2), which Frederick Engels heavily edited to produce the Volume 3 that we know. Fortunately, that volume has recently been translated into English separately from the MECW and will be published by Brill.1 Unfortunately, none of the volumes in Section IV on Marx’s notebooks are included in the MECW.

Marx’s notebooks in Section IV shed new light on his intense and laborious research process. Throughout his adult life Marx wrote extensive notes and excerpts both on all the “theory” books that he was reading and on books about economic history and current economic conditions (especially later on about the economic crises of 1857 and 1867) (this was, of course, long before copy machines made such research easier). One striking example that I learned from Pradella’s book is that in from September 1846 to December 1847 Marx wrote excerpts and notes on a five-volume economic history of the world entitled (translated from German) Historical Description of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture of the Most Important Mercantile States that had been published between 1830 and 1845 by a little known German capitalist and amateur historian named Gustav von Gülich. Marx’s excerpts and notes have been published in the MEGA in Volume IV/6 and they come to over 900 pages! These notebooks were written soon after Marx and Engels had written The German Ideology in which they developed their world view of historical materialism and the materialist basis of society and history, and it appears from this volume that Marx was working hard to get up to speed on the economic history of the world.

Pradella’s book consists of six chapters: (1) “Globalisation: between economics and politics” (a review of classical political economy on the subject of globalisation); (2) “Hegel, imperialism, and world history” (with emphasis on Hegel’s Eurocentric view of history; (3) “Marx’s critique from the state to political economy (Marx’s notebooks in the 1840s); (4) “The London Notebooks, 1850-53”; (5) “Towards Capital” (from the Grundrisse to Capital); and (6) Conclusion. Chapter 4 on the London Notebooks is this readers favourite—the chapter I learned most from—and, I think, the most important. There is also a very interesting and helpful Appendix which presents a detailed index of the London Notebooks and the main books and other sources that Marx read and took notes on in these notebooks. The book also has a very thorough Index and an extensive Bibliography.

Pradella’s main focus for her study of these notebooks is the international, global nature of Marx’s theory. On the basis of these notebooks, she argues against the view2 that Marx’s theory begins with a national economy (ie of England) and only later incorporates international relations towards the end of his theory (in the last three books in Marx’s original six-book plan). She argues that these notebooks provide evidence that Marx developed his theory of capitalism at the global level from the beginning. One of her important arguments is that Marx’s critique of the quantity theory of money early in the London Notebooks was an important step in the development of his theory of value as a global theory. She argues that Marx concluded from this critique of the quantity theory that the starting point of his theory of value should not be money (as in the quantity theory) but should instead be commodities and the abstract sphere of circulation; and this abstract sphere of circulation applies not just to a national economy but to the global circulation of commodities on the world market.3 Later in the Contribution and in Capital Marx derived money from the circulation of commodities and one of the functions of money discussed is world money, which clearly indicates the international scale of Marx’s theory of value and money.

Pradella also interprets prices of production (into which the values of commodities are transformed once an average rate of profit is formed) in terms of the distribution of surplus value in the global economy. She argues that Marx assumed that there is a tendency (with limits) for the rate of profit to be equalised across all countries in the world capitalist economy, which implies according to the labour theory of value that there is a transfer of surplus value from countries with a lower than average composition of capital (eg periphery countries) to countries with a higher than average composition of capital (eg centre countries).4 She argues that this transfer of surplus value from poor countries to rich countries is a major cause of under-development.

Pradella also argues that these notebooks show that Marx incorporated important elements of the global economy into his theory of capital accumulation and crises, including foreign trade, foreign investment and colonial expansion. In particular, Marx studied how international trade might affect the rate of profit by providing cheaper raw materials, how it might overcome a problem of overproduction by providing markets and how international investment might provide an outlet for surplus capital in the centre countries. Marx also studied anti-colonial movements, especially in India and China, and concluded from these studies that these movements could aggravate crises in the centre countries that would increase the possibility of crises (and revolution) in these countries.

Furthermore, she argues that Marx’s study of colonialism and anti-colonial movements in the London Notebooks also changed his views on revolution. In the 1840s Marx’s views of revolution were fairly Eurocentric—that anti-capitalist revolutions would happen in the “advanced” countries and the less developed countries would play little or no role. Kevin Anderson has argued that Marx did not change his Eurocentric views of revolution until the late 1850s.5 But Pradella argues that Marx began to change his views in the early 1850s as a result of his studies in the London Notebooks. In particular, he discovered that much of rural India was organised as village communes, with a strong tradition of egalitarianism and democracy. These discoveries led him to revise his thinking about revolutions at this earlier date.

I am especially interested in Marx’s theory of money, and this subject is also discussed extensively in the London Notebooks and is emphasised by Pradella. Approximately two of the five volumes of the London Notebooks deal with monetary issues (money, banking, credit, currency, exchange rates, etc). I have already mentioned Marx’s critique of the quantity theory of money early in the notebooks, which included studies of the bullion controversy (during which David Ricardo popularised the quantity theory), Thomas Tooke and John Fullarton (leading critics of Ricardo’s monetary theory), the Bank Act of 1844 and other related topics. He also studied numerous books on banking. Marx was clearly working hard in these early years to master the details of the English banking system and to develop his own theory of money.

It is also interesting that Marx read during these years John Gray’s “labour money” proposal as a way to resolve the contradictions of capitalism, which had been published a few years before in Lectures on the Nature and Use of Money (1848). A few years later (1856) a similar proposal was presented by a follower of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Alfred Darimon, which provided the inspiration (along with the economic crisis of 1857) for Marx to start writing the Grundrisse.

My main criticism of Pradella’s book is that I think it misinterprets the levels of abstraction of capital in general and competition in Marx’s theory. This is not a major point for Pradella, but these levels of abstraction are the fundamental logical structure of Marx’s theory in the three volumes of Capital and thus it is important to understand them correctly. I have argued in several papers that the levels of abstraction of capital in general and competition in Marx’s theory correspond to the theory of the production of surplus value (capital in general in Volumes 1 and 2) and the theory of the distribution of surplus value (competition in Volume 3).6 The crucial quantitative premise of this logical method is that the total quantity of surplus value produced in the economy as a whole is determined first at the level of abstraction of capital in general, and is determined logically prior to the division of the total surplus value into individual parts (average profit, commercial profit, interest and rent) at the level of abstraction of competition.

I think Pradella would agree with this interpretation of this key quantitative premise in Marx’s theory because she seems to presume this logical relation between the production and distribution of surplus value in her discussion of the transfer of surplus value from periphery countries (where the surplus value is produced) to the centre countries (where the surplus value is appropriated) (discussed above). But she does not link up this understanding of the production and distribution of surplus value with the levels of abstraction of capital in general and competition. Instead she argues that the concept of capital in general is initially defined separately from competition and thus is an “empty generality”. But (she argues) later in the Manuscript of 1861-63 the concept of capital in general was expanded by Marx to include competition.7

I am not sure what Pradella means by “the concept of capital in general was expanded to include competition”, but if she means that the level of abstraction of capital in general was expanded to include competition, then I definitely disagree. The levels of abstraction of capital in general and competition must be kept separate because the production of surplus value must be theorised prior to its distribution. Capital in general in the Grundrisse is not an “empty generality”, but is instead a very substantial theory of the production of surplus value, which is a necessary first stage of Marx’s theory to the subsequent theory of the distribution of surplus value at the second stage.

The Manuscript of 1861-63 started out at the level of abstraction of capital in general (a second draft of Marx’s theory of the production of surplus value), but moved progressively (and somewhat fortuitously) into subjects that belong to competition (average profit, rent, interest, commercial profit) and developed for the first time his theory of the distribution of surplus value.8 So Marx’s change of plan at the end of the Manuscript of 1861-63 was not because he decided to expand his concept of capital in general to include these elements of competition, but rather because he had made so much progress in his theory of distribution in this manuscript that he made a practical decision to include this section of his theory in his projected Book III, rather than wait for a separate later volume (which might never happen). The basic logical structure of Marx’s theory did not change; he just filled out the section on competition faster than he had anticipated. So I hope Pradella will rethink her interpretation of capital in general and competition and link it up with her understanding of the production and distribution of surplus value in the world capitalist economy.

In sum, this is a very valuable book that should stimulate further research on Marx’s notebooks in Section IV of the MEGA, especially the London Notebooks. I learned a great deal from reading this book and I am sure other Marxian scholars would also. The translation of some of these very interesting and important notebooks should be top priority of English speaking Marxists.


1: Marx, 2016.

2: See, for example, Harvey, 2003.

3: Pradella, 2014, p98.

4: Pradella, 2014, p153. Enrique Dussel has presented a similar interpretation of the transfer of surplus value from the periphery to the centre due to unequal compositions of capital and the global equalisation of profit rates. He calls this international transfer of surplus value “the essence of dependency and underdevelopment”—Dussel, 2001, chapter 13.

5: Anderson, 2010.

6: Moseley, 2002, 2009, 2011.

7: Pradella, 2014, p145.

8: See Moseley, 2009, for an extensive discussion of this manuscript.


Anderson, Kevin, 2010, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago University Press).

Dussel, Enrique, 2001, Towards an Unknown Marx: A Commentary on the Manuscripts of 1861-63 (Routledge).

Harvey, David, 2003, The New Imperialism (Oxford University Press).

Marx, Karl, 2016 [1864-65], Marx’s Economic Manuscript of 1864-65, translated by Ben Fowkes (Brill).

Moseley, Fred, 2002, “Hostile Brothers: Marx’s Theory of the Distribution of Surplus-value in Volume 3 of Capital”, in Geert Reuten and Martha Campbell (eds), The Culmination of Capital: Essays on Volume Three of Marx’s Capital (Palgrave).

Moseley, Fred, 2009, “The Development of Marx’s Theory of the Distribution of Surplus-Value in the Manuscript of 1861-63”, in Riccardo Bellofiore and Roberto Fineschi (eds), Re-reading Marx: New Perspectives after the Critical Edition (Palgrave).

Moseley, Fred, 2011, “The Whole and the Parts: The Early Development of Marx’s Theory of the Distribution of Surplus-value in the Grundrisse”, Science and Society, volume 75, number 1.

Pradella, Lucia, 2014, Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy: New Insights from Marx’s Writings (Routledge).