A response to Georg Lukács
Under the Banner of
Marxism 10 (1924)
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.
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 Continue reading