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.
For example, Sohn-Rethel explains the concepts of modern natural science as based upon ideal abstractions of measurability and quantifiability applied to nature, which themselves derive rather from a society in which a premium is already placed upon the measurability and quantifiability of labor. “While the concepts of natural science are thought abstractions,” writes Sohn-Rethel, “the economic concept of value is a real one” (Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor, pg. 20). Even then, however, not every social ideology reflects this specific reality. Natural science is certainly one of the spheres of thought that Sohn-Rethel seeks to explain with recourse to the reality of abstraction, considering its fundamental concepts to be idealizations of this reality. Other ideologies certainly can be traced to social and material conditions, but not necessarily to the condition of real abstraction.
Alberto Toscano, a Marxian theorist and translator of Badiou, offers exhaustive summary of prominent Marxist accounts of abstraction in his article “The Open Secret of Real Abstraction.” Toscano rehearses these positions with his usual competence, but his aims remain purely exegetical. On the whole, he presents a fairly serviceable account. In his own theoretical work, however, Toscano’s deployment of the concept of real abstraction is rather curious. He invokes the concept in his study of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, looking to understand “religion [itself] as a real abstraction” (Toscano, Fanaticism, pg. 186). Clearly, if one is operating under the definition of “real abstraction” offered above, religion cannot be considered a real abstraction since this refers only to exchange.Sometimes Toscano comes a bit closer to the mark, as in his passing remarks regarding “Marx’s methodological revolution, his formulation of a historical-materialist study of social, cultural, and intellectual abstractions [correct] on the basis of the real abstractions of the value-form, money, and abstract labor” (Toscano, Fanaticism, pg. 190). Here the real abstraction belongs to exchange value, money, and abstract labor, and not to their ideal reflections in ideology. But just a few pages prior, Toscano states that
Whether we are dealing with money or with religion, the crucial error is to treat real abstractions as mere “arbitrary products” of human reflection. This was the kind of explanation favored by the eighteenth century: in this way the Enlightenment endeavored…to remove the appearance of strangeness from the mysterious shapes assumed by human relations whose origins they were unable to decipher.” The strangeness of religion cannot be dispelled by ascribing it to clerical conspiracies or psychological delusions, to be cured through mere pedagogy. (Toscano, Fanaticism, pg. 184)
Going from this, it appears that Toscano groups religion together with money as a form of “real abstraction.” Money expresses real abstraction in a material manner by measuring the value contained in commodities, but religion does nothing remotely of the sort. To be sure, Toscano is right to insist that religion is not an “arbitrary product of human reflection.” No ideology is purely arbitrary and irrational, but is rather based in and rationally explicable through material conditions. In other words, the irrationality of religion is of an objective sort, rooted in material conditions that cannot be explained away as mere fantasy or superstition, but which must instead be revolutionized or materially rooted out. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the sociohistoric basis on which an ideology arises is necessarily that of real abstraction.
This error can be dispelled fairly simply, fortunately. Since “real abstraction” refers exclusively to the objective reality of commodity exchange, one can only really speak of ideological reflections of real abstraction wherever commodity exchange has generally taken hold. Ideal or conceptual abstractions based on real abstraction properly exist only in societies dominated by the relation of exchange. Most will agree that capitalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back only a few centuries as a truly global (or globalizing) mode of production. Religion, by contrast, has existed for millennia, since the dawn of human history at least. How could religion be an idealization of real abstraction, much less a form of real abstraction itself, in societies where commodity exchange was not a pervasive reality? Toscano’s account of religion as a “real abstraction” becomes incoherent as soon as one concedes these facts.
Perhaps there is some much more expansive notion of “real abstraction” developed by Finelli or the other theorists Toscano leans on in Fanaticism. But if Sohn-Rethel’s conception is the one he’s working from, his argument doesn’t really work.