The theory of “reification”

A re­sponse to Georg Lukács

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Izrail’ Vain­shtein
Un­der the Ban­ner of
Marx­ism
10 (1924)
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The philo­soph­ic­al ex­plan­a­tions present among people claim­ing to be Marx­ists mani­fest a haphaz­ard­ness of spec­u­lat­ive philo­soph­iz­ing that must meet their nemes­is in the philo­sophy of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

The his­tory of hu­man thought, from the dia­lect­ic­al stand­point, is least of all a ground for con­struct­ing hy­po­theses, con­coct­ing du­bi­ous con­cepts that bear on their face the im­print of tra­di­tion­al philo­soph­ic­al striv­ings. True and deep thought, thought that opens a new epoch in his­tory, of­ten be­comes a pole of at­trac­tion for philo­soph­iz­ing per­sons whose con­cep­tu­al fancy seizes upon such thought only to cov­er it over with their own ques­tion­able designs. Such a ques­tion­able design is the the­ory of re­ific­a­tion of Georg Lukács.1

Marx, as is known, dis­closed the fet­ish char­ac­ter of the com­mod­ity. He showed that value is not a fet­ish in­vis­ibly resid­ing in the com­mod­ity, but a pro­duc­tion re­la­tion in a so­ci­ety based on in­di­vidu­al ex­change between com­mod­ity pro­du­cers. The struc­ture of com­mod­ity so­ci­ety in gen­er­al, and cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety in par­tic­u­lar, is such that a thing be­comes a point of in­ter­sec­tion in a nex­us of in­ter­link­ing labors. The com­mod­ity es­tab­lishes links in such a so­ci­ety, where there is no planned reg­u­lat­ory con­trol over pro­duc­tion and where a thing, dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cer that made it, des­cends on to the mar­ket as a com­mod­ity unit, obed­i­ent to the spe­cif­ic laws of cir­cu­la­tion: “The labor of the private in­di­vidu­al mani­fests it­self as an ele­ment of the total labor of so­ci­ety only through the re­la­tions which the act of ex­change es­tab­lishes between the products, and, through their me­di­ation, between the pro­du­cers.”2 A thing is dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cers be­cause they them­selves are dis­con­nec­ted from each oth­er. The over­com­ing of this sep­ar­a­tion is car­ried out in com­mod­ity cir­cu­la­tion, through which things es­tab­lish so­cial ties. To un­der­stand the con­scious­ness of such a so­ci­ety and its con­stitutive classes (a means in the struggle) it is ne­ces­sary to go bey­ond the lim­its of thing­hood and to ad­dress the liv­ing con­crete act­ors in struggle. Things do not struggle amongst them­selves. If the so­cial con­scious­ness is a crit­ic­al factor in this mu­tu­al his­tor­ic­al rivalry, then, of course, it is ne­ces­sary to un­der­stand it in terms of so­cial class in­terest, which only finds ex­pres­sion in liv­ing agents of the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess. The geni­us of Marx’s dis­clos­ure con­sisted in re­veal­ing be­hind re­la­tions of things the re­la­tions of people and, con­versely, in es­tab­lish­ing the ne­ces­sity of the re­ific­a­tion of pro­duc­tion re­la­tions in a com­mod­ity so­ci­ety. Lukács, pro­ceed­ing from the fact of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism — which Marx so bril­liantly dis­sec­ted hav­ing seen be­hind this oc­cult idol hu­man re­la­tions — at­tempts to con­struct an en­tire “mon­ist­ic” the­ory of re­ific­a­tion in whose im­age and like­ness all phe­nom­ena of this so­ci­ety are for­mu­lated, in­clud­ing con­scious­ness. However, Lukács’s con­struc­tion stands in sharp con­tra­dic­tion to the sense of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

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First of all, when Marx speaks about cap­it­al “as auto­mat­ic gen­er­a­tion”3 in which all traces of its ori­gin dis­ap­pear, he in this case does not at all de­scribe, as Lukács thinks, “the in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness to­ward re­ific­a­tion.”4 Rather, Marx is speak­ing about the re­frac­tion of de­term­in­ate forms of so­cial re­la­tions, op­er­at­ing as re­la­tions of things in the con­scious­ness of bour­geois the­ory and rep­res­ent­a­tion. Polit­ic­al eco­nomy is the sci­ence of re­la­tions between people rep­res­en­ted as re­la­tions between things. The cap­it­al­ist eco­nomy is a com­mod­ity eco­nomy, the single cell of which — the private busi­ness en­ter­prise — is man­aged by form­ally in­de­pend­ent com­mod­ity pro­du­cers, between whom an in­dir­ect link is es­tab­lished in the pro­cess of ex­change. Speak­ing about com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism and all its modi­fic­a­tions in cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, Marx least of all psy­cho­lo­gizes. He is de­scrib­ing an in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness, but he spe­cifies it in re­la­tion to the pro­duct­ive re­la­tions of people char­ac­ter­ist­ic of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety. Ru­bin is com­pletely right to say that the the­ory of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism could be bet­ter called “a gen­er­al the­ory of the pro­duc­tion re­la­tions of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”5

In Lukács we read that, “just as the eco­nom­ic the­ory of cap­it­al­ism re­mains stuck fast in its self-cre­ated im­me­di­acy, the same thing hap­pens to bour­geois at­tempts to com­pre­hend the ideo­lo­gic­al phe­nomen­on of re­ific­a­tion.”6

But what is this im­me­di­acy cre­ated by cap­it­al­ist eco­nom­ic the­ory that pre­cludes an un­der­stand­ing of the ideo­lo­gic­al phe­nomen­on of re­ific­a­tion? It must be said that thus to per­ceive in com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism an im­me­di­acy cre­ated by cap­it­al­ist eco­nom­ic the­ory is ut­terly in­com­pat­ible with a dia­lect­ic­al un­der­stand­ing of so­cial phe­nom­ena. Com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism, of course, is not a sim­pli­fic­a­tion cre­ated by cap­it­al­ist eco­nom­ic the­ory, but a form in­her­ent to a so­ci­ety in which people are con­nec­ted by means of things. Cap­it­al­ist eco­nom­ic the­ory in its vari­ous stages re­flects the vari­ous stages [in the his­tor­ic­al de­vel­op­ment] of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety. Con­sequently, to ex­pound in these cases [of over a cen­tury and half of bour­geois polit­ic­al eco­nomy] that some kind of haphaz­ardly cre­ated “im­me­di­acy” pre­vents an un­der­stand­ing of the ideo­lo­gic­al phe­nomen­on of re­ific­a­tion is com­pletely un­ten­able.

“Even those thinkers,” Lukács con­tin­ues, “who have no de­sire to deny or ob­scure its ex­ist­ence and who are more or less clear in their own minds about its hu­manly de­struct­ive con­sequences re­main on the sur­face and make no at­tempt to ad­vance bey­ond its ob­ject­ively most de­riv­at­ive forms, the forms fur­thest from the real life-pro­cess of cap­it­al­ism, i.e., the most ex­tern­al and vacu­ous forms, to the ba­sic phe­nomen­on of re­ific­a­tion it­self.” But how are we to take this claim that the­or­ists of cap­it­al­ist eco­nomy are, “clear in their own minds about [re­ific­a­tion’s] hu­manly de­struct­ive con­sequences?”7

De­struct­ive for whom? Which con­sequences? Ac­cord­ing to Lukács, the the­or­ists of cap­it­al­ist eco­nomy go no fur­ther than de­scrip­tion. Their at­tempts to ques­tion deeply are con­strained by the form of re­ific­a­tion’s mani­fest­a­tion. In real­ity it is not quite so. Bour­geois polit­ic­al eco­nom­ists do not only de­scribe, but also ex­plain. And the fact of the mat­ter is that if at bot­tom these ex­plan­a­tions fail to tran­scend cer­tain de­term­ined lim­its, this lim­it­a­tion ought to be sought not on the ground of re­ific­a­tion, but on that of ant­ag­on­ist­ic so­ci­ety. This is what prompts these the­or­ists to con­vert even “hu­manly de­struct­ive con­sequences” in­to etern­al be­ne­fits and a re­deem­ing core of so­cial well-be­ing.

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Take, for ex­ample, clas­sic­al eco­nomy’s highest rep­res­ent­at­ive, Dav­id Ri­cardo. In what lies his es­sen­tial dif­fer­ence from Marx? Why didn’t Ri­cardo ap­pre­hend the es­sence of the “phe­nomen­on of re­ific­a­tion”? For Ri­cardo, as is known, changes in the mag­nitude of value de­pend on changes of the pro­ductiv­ity of labor. Labor, for Ri­cardo too, is the sub­stance of the value of a com­mod­ity. Yet the value of a com­mod­ity, as pro­duct­ive labor, is for Ri­cardo not a so­cial cat­egory, but an etern­al form of so­cial pro­duc­tion per se. “Polit­ic­al Eco­nomy has in­deed,” Marx says, “ana­lyzed, however in­com­pletely, value and its mag­nitude, however in­com­pletely, and has un­covered the con­tent con­cealed with­in these forms. But it has nev­er once asked the ques­tion why this con­tent has as­sumed that par­tic­u­lar form, that is to say, why labor is ex­pressed in value, and why the meas­ure­ment of labor by its dur­a­tion is ex­pressed in the mag­nitude of the value of the product.”8 Clas­sic­al eco­nomy stud­ied the pro­cess of pro­duc­tion in its ma­ter­i­al-tech­nic­al basis, but it failed ut­terly to re­gard it from the stand­point of so­cial ant­ag­on­ism.

The eco­nom­ic cat­egor­ies of Marx — the cat­egor­ies of value, money, cap­it­al dis­sec­ted by the scalpel of the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od — already speak not only of re­la­tions of pro­duc­tion in gen­er­al (this hap­pens also in the clas­sics), but also of the de­term­in­ate form of re­la­tion that ob­tains between cap­it­al­ists and work­ers. The is­sue, con­sequently, is not only the re­ified char­ac­ter of pro­duc­tion re­la­tions, but the de­term­in­ate so­cial-ant­ag­on­ist­ic form they ac­quire only at a giv­en stage of de­vel­op­ment of the pro­duct­ive forces. Not the re­ified char­ac­ter of pro­duct­ive re­la­tions in cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, but the in­terest of the rul­ing class, con­sti­tutes the first premise of the eco­nom­ic thought of its the­or­ists. This is what de­term­ines the view­point of Ri­cardo, ac­cord­ing to whom cap­it­al is “ac­cu­mu­lated labor.” That is, he can only see in cap­it­al a “means of pro­duc­tion” in which no so­cial-class op­pos­i­tion ex­ists. Pre­cisely class in­terest pre­vents bour­geois the­ory to over­come its fet­ish­ist view­point, to ap­pre­hend the phe­nomen­on of re­ific­a­tion and thus to stand on the ground of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism, the out­look of the work­ing class.

But even po­ten­tial ap­pre­hen­sion by bour­geois the­ory in the point of re­ific­a­tion still does not guar­an­tee it against ideo­lo­gic­al and fet­ish­ist il­lu­sions, if the whole class in­terest sup­presses and fet­ters its the­or­et­ic­al pur­view. If cap­it­al is not an auto­mat­ic fet­ish, not money hatch­ing money, still it is value cre­at­ing sur­plus value, i.e., a so­cial re­la­tion of ex­ploit­a­tion and op­pres­sion res­ult­ing from the rul­ing class’ own­er­ship of ac­cu­mu­lated labor, i.e., the means of pro­duc­tion. Per­cep­tion of this so­cial form­a­tion is already the over­com­ing of the class view­point of the bour­geois­ie and any type of ideo­lo­gic­al and so­cial il­lu­sions: This nat­ur­ally can­not take place in bour­geois the­ory as such. The mys­tery of any so­cial con­struc­tion should be sought in the re­la­tion of the own­ers of the means of pro­duc­tion to the dir­ect pro­du­cers. The the­or­ists of the bour­geois­ie, as well as all pos­sible sorts of the­or­et­ic­al op­por­tunism, dir­ect their ef­forts to ideo­lo­gic­al dis­tor­tion and the blunt­ing of class con­flict. This leads in turn to “ideo­lo­giz­a­tion” of the giv­en so­cial re­la­tions, ob­scur­ing their dia­lect­ic­al nature. Per­cep­tion of this dia­lect­ic­al nature is im­possible without treat­ing the spe­cif­ic type of pro­duct­ive re­la­tions that ob­tains between people. This alone sheds light on all the phe­nom­ena of the giv­en so­ci­ety, re­ific­a­tion as well as ideal­iz­a­tion. Marx ap­pre­hen­ded the ideo­lo­gic­al nature of re­ific­a­tion, dis­clos­ing the so­cial back­ground of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism, when he came to ex­am­ine the pro­cess of his­tory dia­lect­ic­ally. Then, in­stead of mute thing­hood, a drama of so­cial struggle un­fol­ded. True, pro­duc­tion re­la­tions in com­mod­ity so­ci­ety in gen­er­al, and cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety in par­tic­u­lar, op­er­ate as re­la­tions of things. However, not these re­la­tions between things, but pre­cisely the re­la­tions between people led by eco­nom­ic in­terests are what il­lu­min­ate the fun­da­ment­al prob­lems of a giv­en form of so­cial life in its di­verse so­cial and ideo­lo­gic­al rami­fic­a­tions.

In the be­gin­ning was the deed. When Plekhan­ov de­scribed dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism as the philo­sophy of ac­tion, he ac­tu­ally only re­prised Marx’s own view that he ap­plied in the as­sess­ment of Feuerbach’s ma­ter­i­al­ism in con­tra­dis­tinc­tion to his emer­ging dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

The chief de­fect of all hitherto ex­ist­ing ma­ter­i­al­ism — that of Feuerbach in­cluded — is that the thing, real­ity, sen­su­ous­ness, is con­ceived only in the form of the ob­ject or of con­tem­pla­tion, but not as hu­man sen­su­ous activ­ity, prac­tice, not sub­ject­ively. Hence, in con­tra­dis­tinc­tion to ma­ter­i­al­ism, the act­ive side was de­veloped ab­stractly by ideal­ism — which, of course, does not know real, sen­su­ous activ­ity as such. Feuerbach wants sen­su­ous ob­jects, really dis­tinct from the thought ob­jects, but he does not con­ceive hu­man activ­ity it­self as ob­ject­ive activ­ity.9

The fact is that his­tor­ic­al reg­u­lar­ity is not brought about out­side this sub­ject­ive activ­ity, but in the pro­cess of such activ­ity, which seizes, per­meates, and il­lu­min­ates ob­jectiv­ity, which in con­sequence of this activ­ity loses its mys­tic­al oc­cult char­ac­ter and ac­quir­ing a hu­man physiognomy. The prob­lem of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety for Marx is the prob­lem of pro­duc­tion re­la­tions between cap­it­al­ists and work­ers hav­ing taken re­ified form. But the meth­od­o­lo­gic­al ori­gin­al­ity of Marx con­sists in the so­ci­olo­gic­al over­com­ing of this sup­posed ob­jectiv­ity, ex­pressed in the dis­clos­ure of this ma­ter­i­al fet­ish.

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We have already seen that a fun­da­ment­al dif­fer­ence between Marx’s dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism and the ma­ter­i­al­ism of Feuerbach is that Marx con­siders real­ity not only in the form of ob­jects, but also in the form of con­crete hu­man ac­tion, i.e., sub­ject­ively. Len­in, the bril­liant mas­ter in the field of re­volu­tion­ary activ­ity, showed that re­volu­tion can­not hap­pen if to the ob­ject­ive pre­requis­ites of re­volu­tion are not ad­ded sub­ject­ive pre­requis­ites, namely an aptitude of the re­volu­tion­ary class for re­volu­tion­ary mass ac­tion. Op­por­tun­ist ob­ject­iv­ism al­ways prefers to con­fine it­self to “ob­ject­ive con­di­tions,” grant­ing them the un­di­vided ini­ti­at­ive in the do­main of re­volu­tion­ary ac­tion, pro­ceed­ing by way of such ob­ject­iv­ism to simply, polit­ic­ally tak­ing the path of least res­ist­ance.

As a the­ory of re­volu­tion­ary ac­tion, dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism con­tra­dicts any the­ory of re­ific­a­tion that seeks the mys­tery of all struc­tures of hu­man con­scious­ness in “things,” in “ghostly ob­jectiv­ity.” Such a view com­pletely ig­nores the sub­ject­ive di­men­sion op­er­at­ive in ac­tu­al class con­flict. “In the suc­ces­sion of the eco­nom­ic cat­egor­ies as in any oth­er his­tor­ic­al so­cial sci­ence,” Marx says, “it must not be for­got­ten that their sub­ject — here, mod­ern bour­geois so­ci­ety — is al­ways what is giv­en, in the head as well as in real­ity, and that these cat­egor­ies there­fore ex­press the forms of be­ing, the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of ex­ist­ence, and of­ten only in­di­vidu­al sides of this spe­cif­ic so­ci­ety, this sub­ject.”10 The so­cial, and not the re­ified ex­ist­ence of people de­term­ines their con­scious­ness. The ma­ter­i­al­ist the­ory of his­tory in so­cial re­la­tions seeks to ex­plain phe­nom­ena, tak­ing place in the giv­en so­cial whole.

Of course inas­much as re­la­tions of people take the form of re­la­tions of things, the re­ified char­ac­ter of so­cial re­la­tions in­ev­it­ably im­parts to so­ci­ety a cer­tain cast, com­pared, e.g., with a so­ci­ety in which people con­nect dir­ectly in the pro­cess of pro­duc­tion, rather than through the me­di­ation of things. “The bour­geois­ie,” Marx says,

has re­solved per­son­al worth in­to ex­change value, and in place of the num­ber­less in­de­feas­ible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, un­con­scion­able free­dom — Free Trade. In one word, for ex­ploit­a­tion, veiled by re­li­gious and polit­ic­al il­lu­sions, it has sub­sti­tuted na­ked, shame­less, dir­ect, bru­tal ex­ploit­a­tion. The bour­geois­ie has stripped of its halo every oc­cu­pa­tion hitherto honored and looked up to with rev­er­ent awe. It has con­ver­ted the phys­i­cian, the law­yer, the priest, the poet, the man of sci­ence, in­to its paid wage laborers.11

Uni­ver­sal ex­change has formed, ac­cord­ing to Marx, a new or­der such that even those things, “which till then had been com­mu­nic­ated, but nev­er ex­changed; giv­en, but nev­er sold; ac­quired, but nev­er bought — vir­tue, love, con­vic­tion, know­ledge, con­science, etc. — when everything, in short, passed in­to com­merce.”12 That is how Marx de­scribed with clas­sic­al clar­ity the gen­er­al per­va­sion of ex­change value through all phe­nom­ena of the so­cial and ideo­lo­gic­al or­der. But at the same time we must not lose sight of the fact that Marx calls this uni­ver­sal re­ific­a­tion a na­ked, shame­less, dir­ect and bru­tal ex­ploit­a­tion. Marx con­siders the phe­nomen­on of re­ific­a­tion not as autonom­ous and de­tached, as some sort of key to all the phe­nom­ena of giv­en so­ci­ety, but as a dir­ect ex­pres­sion of so­cial ant­ag­on­ism it­self op­er­at­ing through the fet­ish ap­pear­ances of the com­mod­ity form of labor. In Lukács this so­cial mo­ment is com­pletely ob­scured by the mo­ment of thing­hood. “The journ­al­ists’ lack of con­vic­tions,” says Lukács, “the pros­ti­tu­tion of their ex­per­i­ences and be­liefs is com­pre­hens­ible only as the cul­min­at­ing point of cap­it­al­ist re­ific­a­tion.” About what sort of journ­al­ists does Lukács speak? Of course, not about the pro­let­ari­an, but about the bour­geois journ­al­ists. But pros­ti­tu­tion of their tal­ents is char­ac­ter­ist­ic for the “gradu­ated flun­keys of the bour­geois­ie.” It is char­ac­ter­ist­ic, in oth­er words, as an in­stru­ment of class struggle. The pros­ti­tu­tion by journ­al­ists of their ex­per­i­ences should be con­sidered not at all as the cul­min­at­ing point of cap­it­al­ist re­ific­a­tion, but as one of the forms of struggle of the cap­it­al­ist class, a struggle, of course, which is not a struggle for truth, but a struggle for power, dis­dain­ing neither hy­po­crisy nor pros­ti­tu­tion.

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“There is no such thing as ab­stract truth, truth is al­ways con­crete.”13 The geni­us of Marx, who al­ways em­ployed the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od, con­sisted in dis­clos­ing the con­crete mo­ments that lie hid­den be­neath a re­ified shell. Cap­it­al for Marx is not a thing, not ac­cu­mu­lated labor, a so­cial form, which the means of pro­duc­tion take on the basis of wage labor. In this way, un­deter­mined thing­hood is boiled down to so­cial de­term­in­acy, which is that cent­ral prob­lem the solu­tion of which in­volves the in­ev­it­able dis­clos­ure of all the prob­lems of the giv­en so­ci­ety. Marx al­ways de­man­ded con­crete­ness. This was clearly ex­pressed in his ba­sic the­or­et­ic­al de­mand that in the meth­od of polit­ic­al eco­nomy, “the sub­ject, so­ci­ety, must al­ways be kept in mind as the pre­sup­pos­i­tion.”14 Thus, for in­stance, Marx re­proaches Hegel for start­ing the Philo­sophy of Right with own­er­ship, as the simplest leg­al re­la­tion of the sub­ject. “No own­er­ship ex­ists, however, be­fore the fam­ily or the re­la­tions of mas­ter and ser­vant are evolved, and these are much more con­crete re­la­tions.”15 There­fore it would be more cor­rect to say that there ex­ist fam­il­ies and tribes which have as of yet only pos­ses­sions, but not prop­erty. “Al­though the sim­pler cat­egory may have ex­is­ted his­tor­ic­ally be­fore the more con­crete,” Marx says, “it can achieve its full (in­tens­ive and ex­tens­ive) de­vel­op­ment pre­cisely in a com­bined form of so­ci­ety, while the more con­crete cat­egory was more fully de­veloped in a less de­veloped form of so­ci­ety.”16 De­term­in­a­tion of the or­gan­iz­a­tion of pro­duc­tion, the mys­tery of which is dis­closed in the own­ers of the means of pro­duc­tion’s re­la­tion to the dir­ect pro­du­cers, con­sti­tutes the es­sence of all so­cial struc­tures. When things flow­ing in their usu­al chan­nel ad­vance re­ific­a­tion, as “mod­el of all the ob­ject­ive forms of bour­geois so­ci­ety to­geth­er with all the sub­ject­ive forms cor­res­pond­ing to them,”17 it means such an ab­sorp­tion of the sub­ject­ive by the ob­ject­ive. This is rad­ic­ally con­tra­dicted by dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism, the philo­sophy of ac­tion.

Cit­ing the words of En­gels — that in a mod­ern state, “law must not only cor­res­pond to the gen­er­al eco­nom­ic situ­ation and be its ex­pres­sion, but must be an ex­pres­sion which is con­sist­ent in it­self and which does not, ow­ing to in­ner con­tra­dic­tions, look glar­ingly in­con­sist­ent. And in or­der to achieve this, the faith­ful re­flec­tion of eco­nom­ic con­di­tions is more and more in­fringed upon”18 — Lukács re­marks, “It is hardly ne­ces­sary to sup­ple­ment this with ex­amples of the in­breed­ing and the in­ter­de­part­ment­al con­flicts of the civil ser­vice (con­sider the in­de­pend­ence of the mil­it­ary ap­par­at­us from the civil ad­min­is­tra­tion), or of the aca­dem­ic fac­ulties, etc.”19 This in­ter­pret­a­tion is not quite true. En­gels ac­tu­ally wants to say that law, as an ideo­lo­gic­al in­stru­ment of the rul­ing class of cap­it­al­ists, has still as its task to ob­scure and blunt the sharp edges of this dom­in­a­tion, that it strives to hide its class nature and to ap­pear as above class con­sid­er­a­tions. The law ap­pears uni­ver­sal ir­re­spect­ive of all such in­terests. The dis­tor­ted re­flec­tion of eco­nom­ic re­la­tions by bour­geois law is, “all the more [dis­tor­ted] the more rarely it hap­pens that a code of law is the sharp, un­mit­ig­ated, unadul­ter­ated ex­pres­sion of the dom­in­a­tion of one class.”20 It seems clear, then, that for En­gels the is­sue is about class law, which strives to crown it­self with the flower of etern­ity, mask­ing the signs of its own class char­ac­ter. All the (if one can put it like this) crotchets and dis­tor­tions of the law En­gels links closely to its class char­ac­ter. But how does it stand in Lukács? Such a dis­tan­cing of law from its eco­nom­ic basis char­ac­ter­izes for Lukács a struggle between civil ser­vices, between fac­ulties.

If we care­fully look at his “mon­ist­ic” the­ory, one very in­ter­est­ing fact emerges, namely the ana­logy with cer­tain fea­tures of the out­look of Bog­dan­ov. Take the role played in Lukács by spe­cial­iz­a­tion: Spe­cial­iz­a­tion for Bog­dan­ov con­sti­tutes the root of the prim­al fall, the fatal source of present and emer­ging dis­son­ances the over­com­ing of which by uni­ver­sal or­gan­iz­a­tion is it­self tan­tamount to the real­iz­a­tion of a high­er so­cial har­mony. Point­ing to ra­tion­al­iz­a­tion of in­di­vidu­al func­tions in cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, tak­ing place along with the ir­ra­tion­al­ity and prob­lem­at­ic “reg­u­lar­ity” of the whole, Lukács says:

This has the ef­fect of mak­ing these par­tial func­tions autonom­ous and so they tend to de­vel­op through their own mo­mentum and in ac­cord­ance with their own spe­cial laws in­de­pend­ently of the oth­er par­tial func­tions of so­ci­ety (or that part of the so­ci­ety to which they be­long).

As the di­vi­sion of labor be­comes more pro­nounced and more ra­tion­al, this tend­ency nat­ur­ally in­creases in pro­por­tion. For the more highly de­veloped it is, the more power­ful be­come the claims to status and the pro­fes­sion­al in­terests of the ‘spe­cial­ists’ who are the liv­ing em­bod­i­ments of such tend­en­cies. And this cent­ri­fu­gal move­ment is not con­fined to as­pects of a par­tic­u­lar sec­tor. It is even more in evid­ence when we con­sider the great spheres of activ­ity cre­ated by the di­vi­sion of labor.21

The lo­gic of spe­cial­iz­a­tion thus fig­ures in Lukács as a frac­tur­ing force thanks to which so­ci­ety’s self-present­a­tion ob­scures its very to­tal­ity. Real­ity is par­ti­tioned in­to frag­ments and sci­ence is turned in­to a sys­tem for which, “the world ly­ing bey­ond its con­fines, and in par­tic­u­lar its own ma­ter­i­al base which it is its task to un­der­stand, its own con­crete un­der­ly­ing real­ity lies, meth­od­o­lo­gic­ally and in prin­ciple, bey­ond its grasp.”22 This same lo­gic of spe­cial­iz­a­tion leads to a “struggle of two coiled springs,” i.e., an ob­scur­ing of the real so­cial class struggle, cap­able alone of dis­clos­ing any type of ir­ra­tion­al­it­ies, wheth­er mani­fes­ted in the an­archy of so­cial pro­duc­tion or in some sort of ideo­lo­gic­al vari­ation, as in the philo­soph­ic­al sys­tem of a Spen­gler. Pre­cisely class re­la­tions — as the spring of so­cial pro­gress, as the dia­lectic of the so­cial pro­cess — pre­vent bour­geois the­or­ists to ad­opt the dia­lect­ic­al view­point. In this way Lukács’s dia­lect­ic­al meth­od­o­logy gives way to “a meth­od­o­logy of re­ific­a­tion.” Lukács writes:

It has of­ten been poin­ted out in these pages and else­where, that the prob­lem that forms the ul­ti­mate bar­ri­er to the eco­nom­ic thought of the bour­geois­ie is the crisis. If now, in the full aware­ness of our own one-sided­ness, we con­sider this ques­tion from a purely meth­od­o­lo­gic­al point of view, we see that it is the very suc­cess with which the eco­nomy is totally ra­tion­al­ized and trans­formed in­to an ab­stract and math­em­at­ic­ally ori­ent­ated sys­tem of form­al ‘laws’ that cre­ates the meth­od­o­lo­gic­al bar­ri­er to un­der­stand­ing the phe­nomen­on of crisis.23

It will not be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, if I say, that Lukács him­self resides on the plane of form­al­ism, which oc­cludes from him the real nature of things. The fact is that the meth­od­o­lo­gic­al bar­ri­er to un­der­stand­ing the prob­lem of crisis is cre­ated for bour­geois eco­nom­ists not at all by eco­nom­ic ra­tion­al­ity, be­cause eco­nom­ics as a sci­ence is an ap­plic­a­tion of the ra­tion­al meth­od to em­pir­ic­al facts, but by hatred of the ra­tion­al ker­nel of dia­lectics, the ap­plic­a­tion of which, for in­stance, to the prob­lem of crisis, touches upon the most dan­ger­ous and deadly sores of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.

En­gels, con­sidered crises from the dia­lect­ic­al view­point, in­dic­at­ing that they emerge from the very nature of cap­it­al­ist pro­duc­tion and com­pet­i­tion: “In the present un­reg­u­lated pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of the means of sub­sist­ence, which is car­ried on not dir­ectly for the sake of sup­ply­ing needs, but for profit, in the sys­tem un­der which every one works for him­self to en­rich him­self, dis­turb­ances in­ev­it­ably arise at every mo­ment.”24 He went fur­ther, not­ing that since the be­gin­ning of the last cen­tury crises set in every 5-7 years. Every time the event was fraught with the greatest poverty for work­ers and gen­er­al re­volu­tion­ary ex­cit­a­tion. Every crisis, con­sequently, is a great danger for the en­tire ex­ist­ing or­der. The dia­lect­ic­al in­ter­pret­a­tion of the prob­lem of crisis is con­nec­ted in En­gels, on the one side, with the ob­served de­term­ined sys­tem of the dis­tri­bu­tion of products, the cap­it­al­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, and, on the oth­er side, it closely con­nects its neg­at­ive ef­fect with that class that suf­fers from it dir­ectly, oc­ca­sion­ing in it a re­volu­tion­ary com­mo­tion that threatens the en­tire ex­ist­ing or­der. It is com­pletely clear that bour­geois the­or­ists’ in­ter­pret­a­tion of crises will meth­od­o­lo­gic­ally avoid those mo­ments that point to the re­volu­tion­ary class over­throw of their so­cial found­a­tion, cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety. For them the dis­pro­por­tion­al­ity between pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion which speaks to the so­cial class op­pos­i­tion of labor and cap­it­al gives way to the­or­et­ic­al ef­forts to find the source of crises in a dis­pro­por­tion­al­ity between ele­ments solely of pro­duc­tion it­self. It is com­pletely clear that in this case the de­term­in­ant for bour­geois the­ory is not ra­tion­al­ity, but, on the con­trary, the so­cial re­la­tions that de­term­ine its meth­od­o­logy. Marx­ism leads to dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions.

Lukács evid­ently feels that something is wrong in his own type of in­ter­pret­a­tion, at­trib­ut­ing to ra­tion­al­iz­a­tion the de­cis­ive force for so­cial phe­nom­ena, which al­lows only for this sav­ing clause — “the in­com­pre­hens­ib­il­ity and ir­ra­tion­al­ity of crises is in­deed a con­sequence of the class situ­ation and in­terests of the bour­geois­ie but it fol­lows equally from their ap­proach to eco­nom­ics.”25 But such a sep­ar­a­tion by Lukács between ap­par­ently in­tern­al con­tent and form does not save the situ­ation but makes it, on the con­trary, still more shaky and doubt­ful. In or­der to sub­stan­ti­ate the meth­od­o­lo­gic­al in­ev­it­ab­il­ity of such in­com­pre­hens­ib­il­ity of the crisis prob­lem for bour­geois the­or­ists, Lukács re­calls the the­ory of Tugan-Baran­ovsky, in which the lat­ter, giv­ing an ana­lys­is of his­tor­ic­al crises over nearly a cen­tury-long peri­od, tries to ex­clude the fact of con­sump­tion and to found an eco­nom­ics purely fo­cused on pro­duc­tion. But it is com­pletely clear that re­gard­ing crises purely in terms of pro­duc­tion and dis­reg­ard­ing con­sump­tion, the bour­geois the­or­ist ob­scures the most ele­ment­al so­cial char­ac­ter­ist­ic of crises — that they are re­bel­lions of the pro­duct­ive forces against the ex­ist­ing mode of pro­duc­tion — ad­du­cing in­stead that ab­surd con­tra­dic­tion, “the mean­ing of which is that pro­du­cers have noth­ing to con­sume, be­cause cus­tom­ers are want­ing.”26 I re­peat, it is not eco­nom­ic ra­tion­al­ity that causes the ir­ra­tion­al­ity and in­com­pre­hens­ib­il­ity of crises for bour­geois the­ory, but a cer­tain class trend pre­de­ter­mines for it those lim­its bey­ond which it is not per­mit­ted to ven­ture.

This, however, raises the fol­low­ing ques­tion: Sup­pose the fatal and in­sur­mount­able obstacle to the com­pre­hen­sion of the fun­da­ment­al nature of so­cial phe­nom­ena lies for bour­geois the­ory in the form­al-the­or­et­ic­al meth­od. In that case, after all, there ex­ists a so-called in­tu­it­ive school (Bergson, James, etc.), which gnost­ic­ally rebels against the op­press­ive claims of ra­tion­al­ism, ad­van­cing in­tu­ition as the most com­pet­ent or­gan of know­ledge cap­able by means of feel­ing to ap­pre­hend the very vis­cera of life. Does then not the philo­sophy of Bergson ap­pear in the role of sa­vior, res­cuing cog­ni­tion from its para­lyz­ing form­al­ism? Why may not il­lu­min­a­tion be de­rived from there? Cer­tainly, Lukács’s con­struc­tion leads lo­gic­ally to sim­il­ar con­clu­sions as those drawn by Bergson and James. Is not Bergson’s ir­ra­tion­al in­tu­ition­ism it­self in­voked to ap­pre­hend the very phe­nomen­on of re­ific­a­tion? Here’s Lukács:

[Philo­sophy] may rad­ic­ally ques­tion the value of form­al know­ledge for a “liv­ing life” (see ir­ra­tion­al­ist philo­sophies from Ham­a­nn to Bergson). But these epis­od­ic trends lie to one side of the main philo­soph­ic­al tra­di­tion. The lat­ter ac­know­ledges as giv­en and ne­ces­sary the res­ults and achieve­ments of the spe­cial sci­ences and as­signs to philo­sophy the task of ex­hib­it­ing and jus­ti­fy­ing the grounds for re­gard­ing as val­id the con­cepts so con­struc­ted.27

Lukács thus dis­tin­guishes between the main and epis­od­ic trends in philo­sophy, so that the vi­tal­ist trend ap­pears to him epis­od­ic in com­par­is­on to the main ra­tion­al­ist trend, which, for its part, is hope­lessly re­moved from all pos­sib­il­ity of grasp­ing the phe­nomen­on of re­ific­a­tion. However, it is baff­ling how one can re­gard as epis­od­ic the in­tu­ition­ist dir­ec­tion in philo­sophy that gnost­ic­ally jus­ti­fies all sorts of re­li­gious folly that runs counter to the ba­sic evid­ence of sci­entif­ic think­ing. Such think­ing is em­in­ently suit­able for bour­geois the­ory and the cap­it­al­ist class. Is it, for in­stance, merely an epis­od­ic­ally ir­ra­tion­al­ist as­pir­a­tion in James that drives him to his apo­theosis of re­li­gious feel­ing, his glor­i­fic­a­tion of re­li­gious con­trasts as re­fin­ing and deep­en­ing the world, such that, “[the world] is all the rich­er for hav­ing a dev­il in it, so long as there is also archangel Mi­chael to keep his foot upon his neck.”28 Such ideo­lo­gic­al phrase-mak­ing is in fact far from epis­od­ic in the dec­ad­ent philo­sophy of the bour­geois­ie, whose the­or­ists strive to hoist aloft the ban­ner of sci­entif­ic cler­ic­al­ism, hound­ing ideo­lo­gic­al class struggle out of hear­ing on grounds of bad taste. In this paltry man­ner they at­tempt to de­fend them­selves against any re­volu­tion­ary shock to good con­science. “In fact, it can­not be an ac­ci­dent,” Len­in ex­claims, “that the small school of em­pirio-cri­ti­cists is ac­claimed by the Eng­lish spir­itu­al­ists, like Ward, by the French neo-cri­ti­cists, who praise Mach for his at­tack on ma­ter­i­al­ism, and by the Ger­man im­man­ent­ists.”29

When it thus ap­pears that arch-bour­geois philo­soph­ers ad­opt an ir­ra­tion­al­ist pos­ture in their striv­ings to over­come ra­tion­al­ist form­al­ism, then Lukács’s true po­s­i­tion is at odds with his con­ten­tion that, “a rad­ic­al change in out­look is not feas­ible on the soil of bour­geois so­ci­ety.” If one takes such a view­point, then the vi­tal­ist philo­sophy of Bergson, however “epis­od­ic,” nev­er­the­less ap­pears to be such a rad­ic­al change of the form­al­ist view­point. After all, it makes a claim to ap­pre­hend the es­sence of things. In­deed, it ad­vances this es­sence as a com­mend­able ob­ject of gnostic ef­fort, den­ig­rat­ing by con­trast the form­al-ra­tion­al­ist achieve­ments of the in­tel­lect that touch only re­la­tions… a rather sad res­ult. |P

Notes


1 Vain­shtein here is re­fer­ring to a trans­la­tion of the first part of Lukács’s three-part es­say “Die Verding­lichung und das Bewußtsein des Pro­let­ari­ats” [“Re­ific­a­tion and the Con­scious­ness of the Pro­let­ari­at”] that ap­peared in Rus­si­an in Vest­nik Socialističeskoj Aka­demii 4 (1923), 186-222. A Rus­si­an trans­la­tion of the rest of “Re­ific­a­tion and the Con­scious­ness of the Pro­let­ari­at” ap­peared in the fol­low­ing is­sues, num­bers 5 and 6, of Vest­nik Socialističeskoj Aka­demii. It is un­clear wheth­er at the time of writ­ing Vain­shtein was un­fa­mil­i­ar with the second and third parts of the es­say or, if he was, wheth­er their later ap­pear­ance in Rus­si­an altered his views on Lukács’s en­ter­prise. Lukács’s es­say, of course, had first ap­peared as the cent­ral con­tri­bu­tion to his 1923 volume, Geschichte und Klassenbewußtsein [His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness], which he would even­tu­ally re­pu­di­ate. For Lukács’s own 1925 de­fense of the book, see his A De­fense of His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness: Tail­ism and the Dia­lectic, trans. by Es­th­er Leslie (Lon­don: Verso, 2000). It is un­clear wheth­er Lukács was aware of Vain­shtein’s Rus­si­an re­view. His 1925 De­fense is dir­ec­ted against re­sponses to his book by Ab­ram De­bor­in and Laszlo Ru­das, both of which ap­peared in 1924 in the journ­al Arbeit­er­l­it­er­at­ur pub­lished in Vi­enna.
2 Karl Marx, Cap­it­al: A Cri­tique of Polit­ic­al Eco­nomy, Vol. 1, trans. by Ben Fowkes (Lon­don: Pen­guin Books, 1976), 165.
3 The ref­er­ence here is to the gen­er­al for­mula for cap­it­al: “The in­de­pend­ent form, i.e., the mon­et­ary-form, which the value of com­mod­it­ies as­sumes in simple cir­cu­la­tion, does noth­ing but me­di­ate the ex­change of com­mod­it­ies, and it van­ishes in the fi­nal res­ult of the move­ment. On the oth­er hand, in the cir­cu­la­tion M-C-M, both the money and the com­mod­ity func­tion only as dif­fer­ent modes of ex­ist­ence of value it­self, the money as its gen­er­al mode of ex­ist­ence, the com­mod­ity as its par­tic­u­lar, or, so to say, dis­guised mode. It is con­stantly chan­ging from one form in­to the oth­er, without be­com­ing lost in this move­ment; it thus be­comes trans­formed in­to an auto­mat­ic sub­ject…As the dom­in­ant sub­ject of this pro­cess, in which it al­tern­ately as­sumes and loses the form of money and the form of com­mod­it­ies, but pre­serves and ex­pands it­self through all these changes, value re­quires above all an in­de­pend­ent form by means of which its iden­tity with it­self may be as­ser­ted [Marx, Cap­it­al, 255 em­phas­is ad­ded]. The older Eng­lish trans­la­tion puts it this way, “[cap­it­al] as­sumes an auto­mat­ic­ally act­ive char­ac­ter.”
4 It seems that Vain­shtein is re­fer­ring to here to Lukács’s state­ment that, “Just as the cap­it­al­ist sys­tem con­tinu­ously pro­duces and re­pro­duces it­self eco­nom­ic­ally on high­er and high­er levels, the struc­ture of re­ific­a­tion pro­gress­ively sinks more deeply, more fate­fully and more defin­it­ively in­to the con­scious­ness of man” [His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, trans. by Rod­ney Liv­ing­stone (Cam­bridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972), 93].
5 Ap­pear­ing in the same year as Lukács’s text, Isaak Ru­bin had main­tained that while, as Bog­dan­ov and Kaut­sky had main­tained, “[Marx’s] the­ory of fet­ish­ism dis­pels from men’s minds the il­lu­sion, the gran­di­ose de­lu­sion of brought about by the ap­pear­ance of phe­nom­ena in the com­mod­ity eco­nomy… [nev­er­the­less] “this in­ter­pret­a­tion, though gen­er­ally ac­cep­ted in Marx­ist lit­er­at­ure, does not nearly ex­haust the rich con­tent of the the­ory of fet­ish­ism de­veloped by Marx. Marx did not only show that hu­man re­la­tions were veiled by re­la­tions between things, but rather that in the com­mod­ity eco­nomy so­cial pro­duc­tion re­la­tions in­ev­it­ably took the form of things and could not be ex­pressed ex­cept through things…. [On this read­ing] the the­ory of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism is trans­formed in­to a gen­er­al the­ory of pro­duc­tion re­la­tions of the com­mod­ity eco­nomy [I. I. Ru­bin, Es­says on Marx’s The­ory of Value, Third Edi­tion, trans­lated by Miloš Samardžija and Fredy Per­l­man (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1973), 2].
…The way that Vain­shtein con­trasts Ru­bin with Lukács so strongly here is un­usu­al. Typ­ic­ally, the two are viewed as sim­il­ar in their read­ings of Marx.
6 Lukács, His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, 94.
7 Ibid.
8 Marx, Cap­it­al, 173-4.
9 Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in the Marx-En­gels Reader, Second Edi­tion, ed. by Robert C. Tuck­er (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978), 143. Em­phas­is in ori­gin­al.
10 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Found­a­tions of the Cri­tique of Polit­ic­al Eco­nomy, trans. by Mar­tin Nic­olaus (Lon­don: Pen­guin Books, 1973), 106. Note that while the Grundrisse in its en­tirety was not pub­lished un­til 1939, this pas­sage is taken from the “In­tro­duc­tion” which had been pub­lished in the SPD’s house the­or­et­ic­al journ­al, Die Neue Zeit, in 1903. Thus was the text avail­able to Vain­shtein in 1924.
11 The ref­er­ence here of course is to Marx and En­gels’s “Com­mun­ist Mani­festo,” in Marx-En­gels Read­er, 475-476.
12 Karl Marx, Poverty of Philo­sophy (New York: In­ter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1992), 27.
13 V. I. Len­in, One Step For­ward, Two Steps Back, in The Len­in An­tho­logy, ed. by Robert C. Tuck­er (New York: W. W. Norton & Com­pany, 1975), 117.
14. Marx, Grundrisse, 102.
15
Ibid.
16 Ibid., 103.
17 Lukács, His­tory, 83.
18 Friedrich En­gels to Con­rad Schmidt, 10/27/1890, in The Se­lec­ted Cor­res­pond­ence of Karl Marx and Friedrick En­gels, 1846-1895, trans. by Dona Torr (New York, In­ter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1942), 481.
19 Lukács, His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, 103.
20 En­gels to Schmidt, 10/27/1890, in Se­lec­ted Cor­res­pond­ence, 481.
21 Lukács, His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, 103.
22 Ibid., 104.
23 Ibid., 105.
24 Friedrich En­gels, The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land (Ox­ford: Ox­ford Uni­versity Press, 1993), 93-4.
25 Lukács, His­tory, 105.
26 Friedrich En­gels, So­cial­ism: Uto­pi­an and Sci­entif­ic, trans. by Ed­ward Avel­ing (New York: In­ter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1975), 71.
27 Lukács, His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, 110.
28 Wil­li­am James, The Vari­et­ies of Re­li­gious Ex­per­i­ence, a Study in Hu­man Nature: Be­ing the Gif­ford Lec­tures on Nat­ur­al Re­li­gion De­livered at Ed­in­burgh in 1901-2 (Lon­don: Long­mans, Green, and Co., 1902), 50.
29 V. I. Len­in, Ma­ter­i­al­ism and Em­pirio-Cri­ti­cism (Mo­scow: For­eign Lan­guages Pub­lish­ing House, 1972), 414.

3 thoughts on “The theory of “reification”

  1. Thanks for this, Ross, since it confirms (yet again) that you DM-fans totally ignore Marx when he said:

    “Feuerbach’s great achievement is…. The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned….” [1844 Manuscripts.]

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