The Past & Present Reading Group commenced 2022 by reading Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labour. In my view, engaging with the book meant a rare and valuable opportunity to stop and reflect on the link between epistemology and Marxist theorising, a theme that had been haunting the group since reading the works of Moishe Postone and Martha E. Giménez. To begin with, it should be noted that Sohn-Rethel has done us the favour of clearly delimiting his object of critique, namely “philosophical epistemology”, the dominant form of knowledge in modern capitalism. His goal, broadly speaking, is to debunk the purported stability and autonomy of this theory of science by disclosing its historical origins, which he carries out with the aid of the method of historical materialism. The result of this will be the articulation of the—by now not so unknown—concept of “real abstraction”: for Sohn-Rethel, the rise of exact science is found in an abstraction that takes place in the very act of exchange of commodities, a peculiar sort of abstraction that, moreover, evades people’s conscious decisions.
There is much to discuss about Sohn-Rethel’s novel idea of the real abstraction of exchange, but before moving in this direction I would like to refer to the content of the two sections of this post. First, most of the text is an attempt to summarise the central arguments of the book, highlighting the more theoretical ones. To do justice to the rich interventions and debates that occurred throughout the group’s sessions, however, in a second section I touch on those aspects of Sohn-Rethel’s thesis that could well be considered “controversial”, i.e. those where he resolutely departs from the tenets of Marx’s critique of political economy. By way of conclusion, I also contrast the less convincing observations of Sohn-Rethel with those that I perceive as decisive contributions to the critical theory of capitalism.
The real and ideal shape of second nature
According to Sohn-Rethel, capitalist social life is marked by a socialised form of thinking that is fundamentally abstract. This is a highly formal, mathematised body of knowledge, a configuration of categories shielded by a semblance of objectivity and pure logic. What underlies the formation of such knowledge, Sohn-Rethel says, is the Kantian theory of cognition, the system of epistemology characterised by a belief in the a priori necessity of the understanding, of non-empirical concepts. These kinds of concepts are “instruments of cognition”, which, if employed appropriately, can generate a knowledge of the natural world endowed with timeless validity. For Sohn-Rethel, then, what we are dealing with here is nothing more than the dichotomous structure of classical epistemology. Put differently, these are the intellectual foundations that support the sharp distinction between the knowing subject and the external object of inquiry, a division that, since Kant’s formulation of the “transcendental subject”, would reinforce static theoretical traditions such as empiricism or idealism.
Now, Sohn-Rethel’s intent is not only to grasp but, more importantly, to criticise the attributes of universal science, which implies going beyond the subject-object dualism. In this sense he repeatedly stresses that his critique corresponds, first and foremost, to the excavation of the actual social problem that the aforementioned science conceals, i.e., the exchange abstraction. This is certainly the basic insight of his book, and what reminds us that he does not see his project as a mere intellectual diversion or fabrication. In capitalism, Sohn-Rethel states, the activity of the transaction of commodities originates a “physicality in the abstract” completely separated from specific use and the consciousness of the individuals involved. This is, furthermore, a real abstraction that he considers constitutive of the capitalist “social synthesis”, the inner network of relations that covertly organises what goes on in quotidian life. Thus, from this first analysis an unambiguous diagnostic can be extracted: there is a worrying social phenomenon, the formation of a reified social being, that is constantly reproduced in the apparently harmless praxis of exchange. If we then were to compress what has been presented so far into a single idea, as Sohn-Rethel suggests at one point, we could speak of an abstract “second nature” formed by both
its socially synthetic reality in historical time and space and the ideal form of cognition through abstract concepts. The first aspect is crucial for our social existence under conditions of commodity production, the second is fundamental for our scientific knowledge through intellectual labour.
This amounts to the derivation of a specific form of subjectivity and science from a historically grounded form of social nexus, the interconnected ideal and real shape of capitalist second nature. In this way, Kant’s formula according to which “[t]here is no ground in theoretical reason from which to infer to the existence of another being” is revealed as a fetishistic “truth” rooted less in pre-given cognitive faculties than in dynamic practical interrelations. The division of head and hand, of intellectual and manual labour, has thus finally found its critical, methodological and, therefore, historical materialist explanation.
In what follows, I shall briefly address two key topics unfolded in the rest of the book. The first concerns Sohn-Rethel’s approach to money, while the second refers to his longer account of the historical evolution of naturalising, reifying thought. As Sohn-Rethel argues, the genesis of real abstraction can be detected in Greece as early as around 680 B.C. with the introduction of coinage, an event that he reads as a “sure sign of commodity production entering upon its stage of ‘full growth’”. His point, in short, is that the emergence of the exchange abstraction must be identified in the first historical expression of money, the privileged object that serves as the embodiment or “faithful representative”, as it were, of the capitalist synthesis. Interestingly, in this regard Sohn-Rethel pays attention to Parmenides, the Greek philosopher who first theorised the essence of reality as One, a “strictly homogeneous and uniform” substance incapable of “becoming or of perishing”. Just as with the totalising feature of money, the reality of Parmenides’s One is “of such a kind that it is inherently impossible to think that it is not”. It is on this basis, then, that Sohn-Rethel will finally declare Kant’s idealism to be an intellectual reflection, a fetishisation, of the abstracting social function of money.
Sohn-Rethel’s treatise comprises several other historical instances demonstrating the development of real abstraction along with its material consequences. Among them, I believe that the most illustrative are the inauguration of Greek geometry and the scientific revolution brought about by Galileo’s principle of inertial motion. One of the crucial inventions of ancient Greece, according to Sohn Rethel, was a new sort of geometric demonstration, a new practice through which any given space could be measured without having to rely primarily on the physicality of, say, stretching ropes. The tool for the acquisition of knowledge was now the ruler, with which combinations of lines were drawn that did not depend on any particular location, and whose size was “infinitely variable”. Thus, against the overt form of knowledge that arises from what the hand does with ropes, this formal, mathematical approximation to reality managed to impose itself as an “objective” geometrical postulate, despite being based on pure conceptuality. The Galilean proposal of inertial motion, on the other hand, provoked a much more pivotal intellectual advancement: it subsumed a hitherto manifest or empirical conception of inertia (a body at rest as experienced by the observer) under a logical assumption that relativised it forever in relation to movement. From this moment on, in other words, the states of motion and rest could be presupposed logically, under the concept of “uniform motion in a right line”. Here Sohn-Rethel quotes a telling phrase of Alexandre Koyré, who warns of the “paradoxical daring of [Galileo’s] decision to… substitute for the real, experienced world a world of geometry made real, and to explain the real by the impossible”. Not use or sensuousness, but strict necessity and predictability, is what defines Galileo’s comprehension of inertia, and ancient Greek geometry as well.
Wage labour and the locus of capitalist excess
For many in the reading group, myself included, Sohn-Rethel’s “conviction” that the commodity form “can be analysed as a phenomenon of its own, in separation from the economic issues” was, to put it lightly, problematic. “Where is the historical materialism in this analysis?” was one of the questions raised. One way (of several) to broach this matter is by drawing attention to certain key words of Marxist vocabulary that are almost completely absent from Sohn-Rethel’s book—e.g. compulsion, repetition, excess, among others. These terms are difficult to find in the text because, as we know from Marx’s critique of political economy, they belong to the sphere of production. That is to say, by focusing on the practice of exchange as the place, the locus, of abstraction, Sohn-Rethel uncritically abstracted himself from the primary mode of compulsion that Marx locates in the “circulation of money as capital”, which involves wage labour. To elaborate on this a bit further, let us recall one conclusive passage from Capital, where Marx declares that “[m]oney cannot become capital unless it is exchanged for labour-power… Wage-labour is then a necessary condition for the formation of capital and remains the essential prerequisite of capitalist production”. Unfortunately, Sohn-Rethel takes leave of the centrality of this Marxian claim when he designates exchange as such, rather than the practice that this exchange masks (the confrontation between capital and labour), as the starting point of his study.
Viewed thus, the concept of real abstraction, while admittedly powerful, is still firmly anchored at the level of capitalist appearances, caught in the harmonious presence of property and market relations. Though sophisticated, the concept still cannot reach the depths of the forms, so to speak. The perspective I am presenting here is, it should be mentioned, one that has been rigorously developed by some representatives of what is known as value-form Marxism. For them, the methodological presentation of the value forms constitutes the kernel of Marx’s critique. As Moishe Postone puts it, for example, Sohn-Rethel’s examination suffers from a kind of argumentative reversal. That is, although Sohn-Rethel acknowledges that there is a labour abstraction that occurs in capitalism, he does not relate it to the generation of alienated social relations but, instead, understands it positively, as a non-capitalist domain. Indeed, if we consider the book’s defence of Taylor’s method of “the scientific study of unit times [of expected work]” (in Part 3), then it is surely correct to say that Sohn-Rethel, surprisingly, takes the quantification of human labour as a cause for celebration, not lamentation. For him, the re-socialisation of quantified “labour in action” poses no contradiction in terms.
Yet, how can we make sense of this? How could Sohn-Rethel, a theorist of abstractions, ultimately fetishise the “commensuration of labour” and the “logic of production”? Does aiming for a conscious commensuration make any difference in this regard? As Elena Louisa Lange has already indicated in The Sage Handbook of Marxism, what most severely damages Sohn-Rethel’s methodological procedure is his historical-empirical standpoint towards commodity exchange, which led him to overestimate its importance in determining the social synthesis. Accordingly, he relegated labouring activity to the “underground” of social reality, to a position where it remains subordinated to the social nexus provided by exchange without, however, participating in this nexus’ constant reproduction. I agree with Lange, therefore, that Sohn-Rethel’s theoretical enterprise “lacks insight into the totality of production which already evades the problem horizon of capitalist self-perception”, a lack that I also see, for instance, in his clear-cut analytical separation of the abstractness of exchange from the consciousness of the exchanging actors. Nonetheless, one should also grant, I think, that by connecting quasi-autonomous forms of thought with practice and, more critically, with money, Sohn-Rethel urges us to reconsider issues that still go unnoticed in contemporary Marxist theory. By this I mean particularly the widespread tendency to methodologically isolate realms of “concrete” action and experience, where the use value of labour power is allegedly free from monetary mediation. A more immanent treatment of the notion of real abstraction that links it principally to labour rather than exchange would, in my opinion, lay the groundwork for a stronger critique of capitalist semblances. In this way, the analysis of the compulsions effected by capital accumulation would not only denounce the naturalisation of things and persons but, more significantly, would recognise that such naturalisation is continuously reasserted by persons themselves.
The set image is by Kurt Schwitters, Ohne Titel, Porträt Alfred Sohn-Rethel (1941).