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 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.

23 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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