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The Logic of Uneven Development, Imperialism and Society in Marx’s ‘Grundrisse’

The subject of this brief paper will concern the relation between pre-capitalist elements and more advanced elements of the capitalist mode of production, which can be categorized under the umbrella term uneven and combined development. To begin with, I will discuss Wainwright’s and Basso’s reading of Marx’s Grundrisse1 as an exposition of themes surrounding this term. I will attempt to derive an account concerning the relation between what Wainwright eloquently refers to as the ‘labour/capital dyad’ and the ‘colonized/imperial dyad’ as elements present within the process of uneven development. This will point to a thesis positing that the capitalist mode of production is a formation that inherently relies on colonial and imperial elements even at it highest stages of development—as a tendency to overcome its own spatial and temporal barriers. Concerning this point, a few questions will be raised regarding the logical or historical necessity of such developmental logic within capitalism. Lastly, the effects of primitive accumulation inherent in the ‘colonized/imperial dyad’ on communal ties will be discussed.

As a preliminary ground, it would be helpful to describe Marx’s conceptual treatment of Grundrisse. Basso emphasizes on a reading of Grundrisse that contextualizes the work as an attempt to delineate the mechanisms inherent within the capitalist system rather than formulating a history; it is an analytical project attempting to comprehend “the specific mechanisms of the capitalist system” rather than “delineating the general history of humanity” (Basso, p. 334). Basso argues that the elements inherent in the capitalist mode of production cannot be immediately applied onto other modes of production. This argument hinges on Marx’s statement that concerns abstract categories such as “labor”, which gain their validity only under specific concrete historic relations and manifestations (Marx 1857–8, p. 105). Thus, Marx’s concern in Grundrisse‌ is not to delineate contractions inherent in pre-capitalist structures, but rather, those that are present within the logic of developed capitalism, and only subsequently, retrospectively apply this analytical frame onto pre-capitalist structures. Although Marx does investigate certain contradictions within nomadic, feudal and pre-capitalist structures, these formations mostly relate to the capitalist mode of production as an analytical point of departure. Nevertheless, Basso claims that in the analytical comparison of capital relative to preceding social organizations, Marx does not necessarily delineate a linear logic of history in Grundrisse‌. Nor is there a necessary casual relationship between one mode of production developing into a more advanced form, such as for example, feudalism does not necessarily lead to the production of capitalism (Basso, p. 334). As Marx himself states:

It would therefore be unfeasible and wrong to let the economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were historically decisive. Their sequence is determined, rather, by their relation to one another in modern bourgeois society, which is precisely the opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or which corresponds to historical development. (Marx 1857–8, p. 107)

Although Marx can be credited for abstaining from framing the development of economic categories under a historically necessary logic in Grundrisse, the question concerning the logical and historical necessity for colonial and imperial elements as capital’s tendency to overcome its own barriers, suggests a separate matter of discussion. We might ask, if feudalism might not necessarily lead to the production of capitalism, does that automatically falsify the thesis that capital is logically and historicaly determined to rely on imperialism and colonialism?

Even if Basso deems Marx’s Grundrisse as an analytical rather than a historical work, while Wainwright cautions against a dialectical materialism premised on what he refers to as “Eurocentric stageism” (Wainwright, p. 379), one can nevertheless trace a logical tendency within capitalism that relies on primitive accumulation, colonialism and imperialism. Thus, the claim here posits that even the most advanced elements within a capitalist system tend to rely on pre-capitalist elements as a necessary requisite for maintaining and overcoming capital’s own barriers, contradictions and moments of crisis. This relationship between capitalist and pre-capitalist elements is referred to as uneven development. Wainwright points out that ‘uneven development’ is not a concept that Marx managed to elaborate, although it is certainly a Marxist concept (Wainwright, p. 372). Wainwright attempts to trace the concept of ‘uneven development’ throughout Marx’s Grundrisse to Capital and how “value unravels in capitalist social relations”, even if Marx mentions the term only once throughout the work2. While the ‘labour/capital dyad’ is the analytical starting point that Marx attempts to delineate more clearly in Grundrisse and Capital, the ‘colonized/imperial dyad’ consisting of imperialism and colonialism, such as that of Victorian capitalism of 19th century Britain, quite assuredly finds its direct and indirect influence on Marx’s Grundrisse. Later theorists who conceptualized this tendency of capitalism towards uneven development include Rossa Luxembourg, who points out how capitalism subsumes non-capitalist elements as its inherent tendency (Basso, p.339). However, Marx himself does not offer a definitive explanation of capitalism’s ‘uneven and combined development’; the concept itself was first posited by Leon Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution (1930), who explicates:

The development of historically backward nations leads necessarily to a peculiar combination of different stages in the historic process. Their development as a whole acquires a planless, complex, combined character (Trotsky, p. 3).

Given the “combined” character of capitalism which integrates elements of different stages of development, the question remains whether imperialism is a logical necessity, even for the highest stages of capitalism. To support this thesis, Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) most clearly demonstrates how even the most developed elements of capitalism, logically necessitate a coercive imperialist and colonialist expansion. Lenin’s contribution to Marx’s theory consists in the elaboration of financialized monopoly capital as a stage of capitalist development in its most acute contractions, which tend to be overcome through imperialism3. Thus, Trotsky’s conception of ‘uneven and combined development’ can be seen as a consequence of Lenin’s exposition concerning how, both historically and logically, even the highest stage of capitalism is determined to rely on ‘lower’ imperialist tendencies. This further explicates how uneven development inherently relies on a symbiotic relationship with imperial brutality even in the most highly advanced stages of capitalism such as that of financial monopoly capital. Lenin’s contribution in this area posits a historical logic of capitalism that inevitably leads to monopolized financial capital and its necessary cooption with various forms of colonial/imperial elements4.

Given that I attempted to argue how capitalism relies on a necessary logic that necessitates imperialism as a character of its own uneven development, it does not necessarily equate to positing a deterministic ‘stageist’ history. Rather, the tendency towards imperialism and uneven development is a derived logic traced in Marx’s analytical understanding of capitalism in Grundrisse. However, one cannot omit the historic tendency that can be derived within the logic of capital which posits capital that develops with some historic consistency5. Provided capitalism’s tendency to overcome its barriers, contradictions, and moments of crisis by means of imperialism, I will now attempt to trace how this overcoming of barriers occurs as a tendency inherent to uneven development and ways in which it effects society. As Marx writes, capitalism constantly attempts to limit itself by reducing everything to the value-form, yet at the same time, tends to overcome its own spatial, temporal and natural limits6. One of the ways in which these limits are overcome by capital, is through a dissolution of communal relations within pre-capitalist societies. Thus, Wainwright traces two necessary conditions for the mergence of capitalist relations:

  1. Exchange of ‘free’ labor and development the single individual.
  2. Emergence of labor-capital relation separating workers from the means of production. (Wainwright, p. 376)

Thus, the tendency inherent in the advancement of capitalism is the creation of “free workers” who are freed from their previous attachment to soil, raw material, necessaries of life and instruments of labor (Basso, p.340). This causes the dissolution of communal and collective social forms as a requisite for the emergence of self-propelling process of capital accumulation based on the advent of th ‘free’ individual. Foster refers to this as “the capitalist inversion” of previous communal and collective social formations; the prevalence of the value-form and indifference to the concrete quality of use-value, becomes possible through the “development of the productive power”, the dissolution of those communitarian bonds that limited the “full development of the individual” (Foster, p. 100-99) Marx explicitly distinguishes the difference between the single individual who develops more fully within pre-capitalist, and the developed ‘free individual’ who develops in relation to the value-form system:

In earlier stages of development the single individual seems to be developed more fully, because he has not yet worked out his relationships in their fullness, or erected them as independent social powers and relations opposite himself (Marx 1857–8, p. 162.)

This lies in contrast with the individual who as a political animal, individualize itself in relation to a society based on communal ties:

The human being is in the most literal sense a political animal, not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individualize itself only in the midst of society (Marx 1857–8, p. 84).

While the introduction of individual property comes into play, the existence of “hybrid-forms” of labor where individualized and communal forms of labor can exist alongside with each other (Wendling, p. 358). This hybrid relation therefore demonstrates how the ’free individual’ and the individual who develops ‘in the midst of society’ can be framed within the logic of uneven and combined development. As the introduction of the notion of individual arises in society as discussed by Basso, along with the introduction with of the institution of private property and the monogamous family relation that accompanies it, this plays a significant role in dissolving kinship-clan ties that are based on communal ownership of resources. The relationship to nature also goes through a change, by producing new needs, capital breaks the umbilical cord that used to link human to nature (Tomba, p. 394). The creation of luxuries which Marx refers to as ‘new (artificial) modes of processing natural objects to give them new use-values’ (Marx 1986, p. 336). Property becomes a constitutive element under the transformation of any given society:

The capitalist mode of production requires this separation and must slowly accomplish it historically before such a separation can be portrayed as a natural and normal fact, as the usual way of things. Prior to this separation, as Marx points out: ‘property means nothing more than man’s relating to his natural conditions of production as belonging to him, as his own, as presupposed along with his own being; his relating to them as natural presuppositions of himself, which constitute, as it were, only an extension of his body’(Wendling, p. 357).

Given the tendency of capitalism to inherently rely on a necessary logic of imperialism and colonialism as a way of overcoming its barriers, contradictions and moments of crisis, it also acts as a catalyst for the dissolution of communal ties and introduction of the ‘free’ individual. Thus, here lies the tendency of capital to expand its barriers through the dissolution of primitive societies while not necessarily allowing for the advancement of these very societies beyond a certain point—as an inherent feature of uneven development, imperialism and capitalism at its highest stages of development. Thus, violence and imperialism not only tends to expand its scope and influence but is also maintained where it has established its dominance through the forced dissolution of communal ties and the advent of the free individual. This perhaps could be translated onto today’s world, where developing countries in Africa and Asia become subject to expansion of national and multi-national capitals, not only exacerbating imperialist contradictions among many capitals, but also exacerbating the dominance of the value-form within all spheres of human life and to ever increasing limits.

Works Cited

Massimiliano Tomba, “Pre-Capitalist Forms of Production and Primitive Accumulation: Marx’s Historiography from the Grundrisse to Capital,” in In Marx’s Laboratory, ed. Bellofiore, Starosta, and Thomas, pp. 393–412

John Bellamy Foster, “Marx’s Grundrisse and the Ecological Contradictions of Capitalism,” in Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later, ed. Musto, pp. 93–106

Leon Trotsky, 1959 [1932], The History of the Russian Revolution, edited by Frederick Wilcox Dupee, New York: Doubleday.

Karl Marx, 1973 [1857–8], Grundrisse, translated by Martin Nicolaus, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Amy E. Wendling, “Second Nature: Gender in Marx’s Grundrisse,” in In Marx’s Laboratory, ed. Bellofiore, Starosta, and Thomas, pp. 347–370

Joel Wainwright, “Uneven Developments: From the Grundrisse to Capital, in In Marx’s Laboratory, ed. Bellofiore, Starosta, and Thomas, pp. 371–392

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916. [https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/]

  1. The Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Fundamentals of Political Economy Criticism) is a lengthy, unfinished manuscript by the German philosopher Karl Marx. The series of seven notebooks were rough-drafted by Marx, chiefly for purposes of self-clarification, during the winter of 1857-8. Left aside by Marx in 1858, it remained unpublished until 1939. 

  2. Wainwright discusses the roles of financial capital and the production process by mentioning Part Five of Capital Volume III and Lenin’s Development of Capitalism in Russia (Wainwright, p. 381). In Capital Volume I, Marx also mentions a passage that links to the idea of ‘uneven development’: “This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself … leading to] the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market […]. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital … grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” (Marx 1967, p. 763) 

  3. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916. 

  4. Tomba offers a less historically determined reading of the relation between pre-capitalist and capitalist modes of production: “There are brilliant pages where Marx works with a double scheme of interpretation. He articulates a kind of evolutionary history with a repetitive history, a history of invariants. He does this in order to understand the nature of the historical break represented by the capitalist mode of production, thus inquiring into precapitalist modes of production as an ‘otherness’ of capitalism. What results from this analysis is not the continuity, but rather, the radical discontinuity between precapitalist and capitalist forms.”(Tomba, p. 395). 

  5. Even if an explicated logic of capital’s tendency to overcome its barriers does not automatically necessitate a deterministic conception of history, it is at least possible to enumerate the possible tendencies that capital can undertake in overcoming its barriers, thus allowing for some historic explication. A perfect example is provided with Marx’s description of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in Capital Volume III while in Chapter XIV, he enumerates 6 counter-tendencies that allow for capital to overcome this very tendency of the rate of profit to fall: “i. Increasing Intensity Of Exploitation”, “ii. Depression Of Wages Below The Value Of Labour-Power”, “iii. Cheapening Of Elements Of Constant Capital”, “iv. Relative Over-Population”, “v. Foreign Trade”, and “vi. The Increase Of Stock Capital”. Thus, in explicating the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, one would read this as a necessary deterministic law of capital if one were not to consider its counter-tendencies. But in considering these counter-tendencies, one comes closer to knowing these as an inherent aspect of capital’s logic. Even if these counteracting tendencies do not allow for a determinate conception of historic development of capital, it does allow for conceiving the conditions of possibility for a certain historic development, grounded on an understanding of logical tendencies within of capital’s logic. 

  6. As Marx elaborates in the Grundrisse: “is the endless and limitless drive to go beyond its limiting barriers. Every boundary is and has to be a barrier for it. Else it would cease to be capital – money as self-reproductive. If ever it perceived a certain boundary not as a barrier, but became comfortable with it as a boundary, it would itself have declined from exchange value to use value, from the general [abstract] form of wealth to a specific, substantial mode of the same…. The quantitative boundary of the surplus value appears to it as a mere natural barrier, as a necessity which it constantly tries to violate and beyond which it constantly seeks to go.” (Marx 1857–8: 334–5)