Marx on political economy vs reversion to Romanticism

It has been said and may be said that this is precisely the beauty and the greatness of it: this spontaneous interconnection, this material and mental metabolism which is independent of the knowing and willing of individuals, and which presupposes their reciprocal independence and indifference. And, certainly, this objective connection is preferable to the lack of any connection, or to a merely local connection resting on blood ties, or on primeval, natural or master-servant relations. Equally certain is it that individuals cannot gain mastery over their own social interconnections before they have created them. But it is an insipid notion to conceive of this merely objective bond as a spontaneous, natural attribute inherent in individuals and inseparable from their nature (in antithesis to their conscious knowing and willing). This bond is their product. It is a historic product. It belongs to a specific phase of their development. The alien and independent character in which it presently exists vis-à-vis individuals proves only that the latter are still engaged in the creation of the conditions of their social life, and that they have not yet begun, on the basis of these conditions, to live it. It is the bond natural to individuals within specific and limited relations of production. Universally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal [gemeinschaftlich] relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control, are no product of nature, but of history. The degree and the universality of the development of wealth where this individuality becomes possible supposes production on the basis of exchange values as a prior condition, whose universality produces not only the alienation of the individual from himself and from others, but also the universality and the comprehensiveness of his relations and capacities. 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. It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness [22] as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end.)

22. This is directed against the doctrines of the Romantic reaction, as put forward by such people as Adam Müller (Die Elemente der Staatskunst, Berlin, 1809) and Thomas Carlyle (Chartism, London, 1840).

SOURCE: Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (1857-1861), translated by Martin Nicolaus, notes by Ben Fowkes. Penguin Books; New Left Review, 1973. HTML or PDF. This quote: Grundrisse: Notebook I – The Chapter on Money. (4) Contradiction between money as particular commodity and money as general commodity; pp. 92-93.

It has been said, and bears repeating, that the beauty and grandeur of the system is founded on this connection and on this material and spiritual interchange, which is spontaneous, independent of the knowledge and desires of the individual, and in fact requires their indifference to each other and mutual independence. Certainly this connection by means of things is to be preferred to a lack of connection, or a merely local association which is founded on a relationship consisting of blood ties, or one of supremacy or servitude; and it is just as certain that individuals cannot dominate their own social relationships until they have created them. But it is absurd to interpret these purely material relationships as natural relationships, inseparable from the nature of individuality (in contrast to reflected knowledge and desire) and inherent in it. These relationships are produced by individuals, produced historically. They belong to a definite phase of the development of the individual. The heterogeneity and independence in which these relationships still stand opposed to individuals, prove only that these individuals are still engaged in the production of the conditions of their social life, rather than that they began that life starting from those conditions. This is the natural and spontaneous interrelationship of individuals inside production relations that are determined and narrowly limited. Universally developed individuals, whose social relationships are subject, as their own communal relationships, to their own collective control, are the product not of nature but of history. The extent and universality of the development of capacities which make possible this sort of individuality, presupposes precisely production on the basis of exchange values. The universal nature of this production creates an alienation of the individual from himself and others, but also for the first time the general and universal nature of his relationships and capacities. At early stages of development the single individual appears to be more complete, since he has not yet elaborated the abundance of his relationships, and has not established them as powers and autonomous social relationships that are opposed to himself. It is as ridiculous to wish to return to that primitive abundance as it is to believe in the continuing necessity of its complete depletion. The bourgeois view has never got beyond opposition to this romantic outlook and thus will be accompanied by it, as a legitimate antithesis, right up to its blessed end.

SOURCE: Marx, Karl. The Grundrisse, edited and translated by David McLellan [partial translation] (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 70-71.

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Uploaded 9 June 2019
McLellan trans. added 5 March 2021

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