The Marxian notion of “real abstraction” has garnered a great deal of attention in leftist theoretical circles of late, with somewhat mixed results. It was first formulated and treated systematically by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, an economist associated with the Frankfurt School of social theory. Helmut Reichelt has pointed out, however, that the term was used prior in a couple instances by the German sociologist Georg Simmel (Reichelt, “Marx’s Critique of Economic Categories,” pg. 4). Notably, Simmel’s usage occurs in connection with the “abstract value” represented and measured by money, as that which converts qualitatively incommensurable items into quantitatively commensurable commodities. He writes that “not only the study of the economy [economics] but the economy itself is constituted by a real abstraction from the comprehensive reality of valuations” (Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, pg. 78).
With Sohn-Rethel, the exposition of the concept is much more thoroughgoing. According to the definition he provides in Intellectual and Manual Labor (1970), “real abstraction” refers solely to the social relationship of commodity exchange, or rather to their exchangeability as such. The exchange of commodities, and the abstract equivalence on which it is based, does not simply take place within the minds of those exchanging them. It occurs at the level of reality. Sohn-Rethel asserts that “real abstraction arises in exchange from the reciprocal relationship between two commodity-owners and it applies only to this interrelationship” (Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor, pg. 69).
Reichelt and others have noted the importance of the way this was framed by the critical theorist Theodor Adorno, one of Sohn-Rethel’s close friends and correspondents. He responded to charges of an overly “abstract” conceptualization of society by maintaining that this abstractness was not invented by sociologists, but rather belongs to the very constitution of social reality. Adorno explained:
The abstraction we are concerned with is not one that first came into being in the head of a sociological theoretician who then offered the somewhat flimsy definition of society which states that everything relates to everything else. The abstraction in question here is really the specific form of the exchange process itself, the underlying social fact through which socialization first comes about. If you want to exchange two objects and — as is implied by the concept of exchange — if you want to exchange them in terms of equivalents, and if neither party is to receive more than the other, then the parties must leave aside a certain aspect of the commodities…In developed societies…exchange takes place…through money as the equivalent form. Classical [bourgeois] political economy demonstrated, as did Marx in his turn, that the true unit which stands behind money as the equivalent form is the average necessary amount of social labor time, which is modified, of course, in keeping with the specific social relationships governing the exchange. In this exchange in terms of average social labor time the specific forms of the objects to be exchanged are necessarily disregarded instead, they are reduced to a universal unit. The abstraction, therefore, lies not in the thought of the sociologist, but in society itself. (Introduction to Sociology, pgs. 31-32)
Real abstraction does not refer to ideologies that arise on the basis of material exchange of goods, or the labor process that allows such exchange in the first place. Of course, Sohn-Rethel is interested in accounting for “the conversion of the real abstraction of exchange into the ideal abstraction of conceptual thought” (Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor, pg. 68). But this “conceptual abstraction” or “ideal abstraction” is clearly derivative, a mirroring of the abstraction at work in reality itself at the level of ideas. Continue reading