Real abstraction: On the use and abuse of an idea

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 product[s] of human reflection. This was the kind of explanation favoured 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 sociohistorical 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’re 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.

22 thoughts on “Real abstraction: On the use and abuse of an idea

  1. Ross, why are you continuing to propagate ideas from traditional philosophy — that there are such ‘things’ as ‘abstractions’?

    It is quite easy to show that if there were any ‘abstract general ideas/concepts’ then, ironically, language would not only lose its capacity to express generality (which is what we had been told was the point of inventing these fabulous beasts of boss-class lore — i.e., to express the general), it would destroy its capacity to say anything at all.

    You can find the proof, here:

    Don’t you think it’s high time you took Marx’s advice, Ross: “‘leave philosophy aside'”, “leap out of it and devote oneself like an ordinary man to the study of actuality”?

    We certainly don’t need these mythical ‘abstractions’ to make Historical Materialism work.

    • Like Marx, I openly proclaim myself “the pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel].”

      Marx’s entire argument in Capital makes no sense unless one accepts the existence of “abstract, homogeneous labor-time” as the measure of value in bourgeois society.

  2. Can you recommend a book that gives a comprehensive, accessible overview of the different strands of Marxist thought to date? I would ‘google it’ but I’d appreciate your expertise so I don’t waste time. I suppose a critical history from Hegel onwards would be ideal but one that has discrete chapters on Lucacs, Althusser, Benjamin etc up to Marx in a postmodern context and the possibilities beyond.

    • It’s hard to think of one book that encapsulates all the different strains. Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism book is probably the most comprehensive, but it’s an anti-Marxist screed that really doesn’t do much justice to any of the figures it talks about. Alfred Schmidt’s book on Hegelian Marxism vs. structuralist Marxism is a good overview, if a bit technical (not for beginners). Hate to say it but Perry Anderson’s Western Marxism is still pretty comprehensive. Do you think you’d be interested in the major sectarian/party groupings affiliated with Marxism as well (Trotskyism, Maoism, left communism)? Or mainly its more intellectual exponents?

      • Primarily the theorisers but a really good overview of groupings etc would be good. Don’t suppose there’d be one that links them all, that would truly be a massive undertaking. I’ve realised that actually have Anderson’s book, just a long time since I read it, perhaps I’ll dust it off. It’s more that one wishes to ‘keep up’ as one gets older: I’d hate to miss out on any radical new developments. It would also be nice to be as fluent as Rosa and yourself!

    • 1) Not chapter-length treatments but have you used A Dictionary of Marxist Thought? Please note that the title is a misnomer as it’s an encyclopaedia. Edited by Tom Bottomore et al., the 1991 edition is an expansion of the 1983 original.

      Haven’t seen it uploaded to the net, nor a collation of the articles that have been. But this is a list of the main categories it covers:

      2) On abstractness being real, rather than nominal (as in the case, say, of a philosopher’s conjecture), you might find useful this offered explanation:

      Believing in & promoting the idea of real abstractions can sometimes be a lil more than engaging in a thought-experiment: it can get you murdered – which is what happened to this author, Isaak Rubin. Life can be harsh. Would being a philosopher have saved him? Almost certainly not.

      • Thanks for that Jara, but the article to which you linked just rehashes the tired and failed story of lore; it certainly doesn’t deal with the fatal flaws I have highlighted in the mythical ‘process of abstraction’.

        Of course, promoting an ‘abstraction’ above its lowly ‘nominal’ pay grade, by means of an horrific title, ‘real abstraction’, is no more effective than would be the pinning of one on the Tooth Fairy — as in ‘the real Tooth Fairy’.

        Verbal tricks like this might work (or not) for St Anselm, but genuine materialists aren’t so easily fooled.

  3. Simmel sees a subject-object dualism which corresponds to the soul and the world (or the self and the world). But there is also a third realm, which he gets from Lotze’s Platonism, and that is the world of forms which conveys value – moral value – upon being. The tragedy of bourgeois society that of the soul stuck in the opposition between the ideal forms and the reality. The Kantian moral law is reinstated on Platonist terms, but with the primacy of practical over pure reason.
    In the conflict between historical life and the forms, one such form, money, is a means of objectification in the sphere of economic value. Unlike Marx, Simmel sees fetishism in capitalism as only a particular case of the more general tragedy of the primacy of the culture of things over the culture of persons. So, for Simmel, the commodity does not totalise capitalist society. Simmel’s own clarification of his relationship to Marxism is quoted in Michael Lowy’s book, Georg Lukacs: From Romanticism to Bolshevism: what is attempted by Simmel is
    “… to construct a new storey beneath historical materialism such that the explanatory value of the incorporation of economic life into the cause of intellectual culture is preserved, while these economic forms themselves are recognised as the result of more profound valuations and currents of psychological or even metaphysical preconditions.” (p45; see also In Gillian Rose,Dialect of Nihilism)).
    Simmel, in purporting to explicate the contradiction between life and its forms – ie the life lived within the forces of production and the forms of relations of production. He tries to transform Marx’s theory of value into a geltungslogik in which autonomous validity , as an objectifying force, is both tragic and liberating.

  4. Ross:

    “Like Marx, I openly proclaim myself ‘the pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel].'”

    Unfortunately, you quoted only part of what Marx said; here is the full passage;

    “I criticised the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic nearly thirty years ago, at a time when is was still the fashion. But just when I was working on the first volume of Capital, the ill-humoured, arrogant and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles began to take pleasure in treating Hegel in the same way as the good Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza in Lessing’s time, namely as a ‘dead dog’. I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even, here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to him.”

    Notice, he put this praise for Hegel in the past tense. There is nothing to suggest he still thought this of Hegel; in fact, the opposite is the case. The *very best* he could do was to ‘coquette’ with a few jargonised Hegelian expressions in ‘Das Kapital’. Hardly a ringing endorsement, I’d say.

    Even worse, Marx added the only summary of ‘the dialectic method’ he endorsed and published in his entire life. I quoted it in an earlier post; here is only part of it:

    “After a quotation from the preface to my ‘Criticism of Political Economy,’ Berlin, 1859, pp. IV-VII, where I discuss the materialistic basis of my method, the writer goes on:

    ‘The one thing which is of moment to Marx, is to find the law of the phenomena with whose investigation he is concerned; and not only is that law of moment to him, which governs these phenomena, in so far as they have a definite form and mutual connexion within a given historical period. Of still greater moment to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e., of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connexions into a different one. This law once discovered, he investigates in detail the effects in which it manifests itself in social life….’

    “Whilst the writer pictures what he takes to be actually my method, in this striking and [as far as concerns my own application of it] generous way, what else is he picturing but the dialectic method?”

    As I have pointed out to you before, but you prefer the failed Engels-Plekhanov-Lenin tradition of reading Hegel *into* ‘Das Kapital’ to Marx’s own words. So, here it is again:

    In the above passage, not one single Hegelian concept is to be found — no “contradictions”, no change of “quantity into quality”, no “negation of the negation”, no “unity and identity of opposites”, no “interconnected Totality”, no “universal change” –, and yet Marx calls this the “dialectic method”, and says of it that it is “my method”.

    So, Marx’s “method” has had Hegel completely excised –, except for the odd phrase or two, “here and there”, with which he merely “coquetted”.

    To put Hegel back on his feet is to see how empty his head really is.

    But, hey, you stick with the 140+ years of failed theory/practice, Ross.

    • “I criticised the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic nearly thirty years ago, at a time when is was still the fashion. But just when I was working on the first volume of Capital, the ill-humoured, arrogant and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles began to take pleasure in treating Hegel in the same way as the good Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza in Lessing’s time, namely as a ‘dead dog’. I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even, here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to him.” [Marx, 2nd preface to Capital]

      RL: “Notice, he put this praise for Hegel in the past tense. There is nothing to suggest he still thought this of Hegel; in fact, the opposite is the case. The *very best* he could do was to ‘coquette’ with a few jargonised Hegelian expressions in ‘Das Kapital’. Hardly a ringing endorsement, I’d say.”

      Blatantly dishonest distortion of the text, Rosa. In the quote you provide above, it’s clear Marx is emphasizing his more positive mature appraisal of Hegel in contrast to his earlier philosophical criticisms of Hegel’s “mystificatory side”. Marx says he declared himself Hegel’s student, not during the earlier period, but “when [he] was working on the first volume of Capital”. For this reason, Marx continues, he “therefore coquetted with [Hegel’s] mode of expression”. Why else would Marx would bother “coquetting” with Hegel’s mode of expression at all, especially in the important chapter on value? And why would Hegel’s status as a “dead dog” cause Marx to avow himself the former’s pupil or make suggestive allusions to his work?

  5. Ross:

    “Marx’s entire argument in Capital makes no sense unless one accepts the existence of ‘abstract, homogeneous labor-time’ as the measure of value in bourgeois society.”

    You obviously have a very restrictive and naïve view of the nature of scientific language.

    That is quite apart from the fact that, as I have shown, if there were any of these mythical ‘abstractions’, language itself would fall apart, and nothing Marx ever wrote — in ‘Das Kapital’, or anywhere else for that matter –, and nothing you have ever written, would make sense.

    Of course, if you can show where my argument goes wrong, don’t be shy. [You can find a link to it in my first post on this page.]

    But, burying your head in the non-dialectical sands is no option.

  6. Here it is again:

    Susannah, in addition to the books Ross mentioned you might find the following of some use:

    David McLellan ‘Marxism After Marx’.

    Alex Callinicos ‘Marxism and Philosophy’.

    Tom Bottomore, ‘A Dictionary of Marxist Thought’

    • Brilliant, thanks Rosa. Have just realised the book on ‘Western Marxism’ that I have is not the Anderson one but a New Left Review compilation. Have ordered the Anderson one and will add these to the list. Thanks everyone for being willing to advise a slightly rusty old radical.

  7. Yes, I appreciate that, Ross, but WP allows other links to my site, like the one in my OP — it just didn’t like the direct link to my opening page. I posted that so that Susannah could contact me if she needed any more assistance, since my e-mail address is to be found on that page.

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