David Riazanov and the tragic fate of Isaak Rubin

Re­portedly, the Rus­si­an re­volu­tion­ary and pi­on­eer­ing Marx­o­lo­gist Dav­id Riazan­ov once in­sul­ted Stal­in to his face at a party meet­ing held dur­ing the mid-1920s. At the time, the ma­jor top­ic of de­bate was over the feas­ib­il­ity of so­cial­ism ab­sent a re­volu­tion in the West. In the years that fol­lowed Oc­to­ber 1917 the fledgling So­viet re­gime had sur­vived bru­tal win­ters, food short­ages, and an in­ter­na­tion­al block­ade while fight­ing off a bloody do­mest­ic coun­ter­re­volu­tion staged by dis­par­ate ele­ments of the old re­gime (the Whites) with the sup­port of for­eign powers (the Al­lied In­ter­ven­tion). The civil war was over, but re­volu­tion had else­where stalled out as the USSR’s bor­ders sta­bil­ized: the European pro­let­ari­at failed to over­throw the crisis-rid­den bour­geois gov­ern­ments of France, Ger­many, Eng­land, Aus­tria, and a host of oth­er na­tions. Now the ques­tion on every­one’s mind where the Bolshev­iks should go from there. Could so­cial­ism could be es­tab­lished in one (re­l­at­ively back­wards) na­tion?

Bukhar­in was the chief ar­chi­tect of the pro­gram for those who af­firmed that it could. His days as a left com­mun­ist be­hind him, Nikolai Ivan­ovich had mean­while suc­cumbed to prag­mat­ism and un­ima­gin­at­ive Real­politik. Mar­ket re­forms put in place by Len­in un­der the New Eco­nom­ic Policy after 1921 were to be con­tin­ued, and the trans­ition to “a high­er stage of com­mun­ist so­ci­ety” delayed, but its achieve­ment no longer de­pended on the spread of world re­volu­tion. Eager to make a name for him­self as a lead­ing the­or­eti­cian, Stal­in in­ter­jec­ted with some com­ments of his own. “Stop it, Koba,” Riazan­ov acerbically replied. “You’re mak­ing a fool of your­self. We all know the­ory isn’t ex­actly your strong suit.” Little won­der, then, that Stal­in would later want Riazan­ov’s head on a plat­ter; he’d in­flic­ted a deep nar­ciss­ist­ic wound. For as Trot­sky would later point out, in a two-part art­icle mock­ing “Stal­in as a The­or­eti­cian,” noth­ing was more im­port­ant to the Gen­er­al Sec­ret­ary than to be re­garded as well-versed in the sci­ence of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

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The theory of “reification”

A re­sponse to Georg Lukács

Izrail’ Vain­shtein
Un­der the Ban­ner of
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.

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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 Continue reading

The metropolis, money, and abstraction

What follows is an extract, some preliminary research, from an essay I’m working on with Sammy Medina. It’s in very rough form, and over-footnoted. Much of it will have to be cut. But I still felt like I had to go through everything step by step to make sure that each stage of the argument holds up. Once that’s done I’m hoping I’ll find shortcuts for how to say it with greater brevity.

The modern metropolis, both in its historical origins and present-day existence, is the site of capitalist accumulation par excellence. As the German sociologist Georg Simmel put it in his celebrated 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” “[t]he metropolis has always been the seat of the money economy.”1 Money played a vital role, after all, in shifting the political center of gravity away from the countryside toward the city. Despite the numerous titles and privileges enjoyed by clergymen and noblemen, the townsmen had one mighty weapon in their struggle against feudalism: money.2 By removing the primacy of land tenure (i.e., the manorial system of fiefs and hereditary estates), it eroded the basis of traditional bonds of dependence. “Long before the ramparts of the old baronial castles were breached by the new artillery, they had already been undermined by money,” wrote Friedrich Engels in 1884. “In fact, gunpowder could be described as an executor of the judgment rendered by money.”3

With the increased availability of minted coins in Europe — starting in the twelfth century with the discovery of silver deposits in Thuringia,4 but especially following the influx of precious metals from the New World after 14935 — commodity circulation took place on an expanded scale.6 For merchants and moneylenders living in the cities, the pervasiveness of pecuniary transactions allowed them to leverage their position at the crucible of exchange against the landed aristocracy in the surrounding territories.7 The feudal lords relied on the towns both for their finished wares as well as the occasional loan, and thus fell prey to price gouging and crippling debt. Hard currency thereby helped bring about the decline of feudalism alongside the rise of the revolutionary bourgeoisie.

Cities today invariably reflect this influence. Not simply owing to their past function as the breeding-ground of modern capitalism, but because of their ongoing inundation by the money form of capital as well. Practically every facet of urban life is organized according to synchronized rhythms of exchange.8 Here money acts as a sort of perpetuum mobile, facilitating the circulation of commodities throughout the city and its environs.9 At the same time, however, it accelerates the tempo of daily interactions, since “a change in monetary circumstances brings about a change in the pace of life,” as Simmel observed.10 Whether a town was from the outset a center of trade or a seedbed of industry,11 money eventually permeates its entire infrastructure. Replacing medieval relations rooted in so-called “natural economy,”12 it soon becomes integral to the comings and goings of the whole populace.13

The move away from economies based on barter and the gift, where precise equivalence of exchange is either impossible or besides the point, toward economies based on money and credit acquires an almost world-historical significance in this light.14 Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the unique character of a money economy. Continue reading

Alienation, reification, and the fetish form: Traces of the Hegelian legacy in Marx and Marxism

Everyone remembers Althusser’s numerous objections to the overemphasis placed on the concept of “alienation” amongst Marxists, and in general the fascination with the young, “humanistic” Marx at the expense of the old, “scientific” Marx. What is less often remembered, however, is that even many who stressed the Hegelian underpinnings of Marxism had grown tired of the all the talk of “alienation” by the 1960s. In his Introduction to Sociology lecture series delivered in 1961, no less a dialectician than Theodor Adorno remarked:

One hears much talk about the concept of alienation — so much that I myself have put a kind of moratorium on it, as I believe that the emphasis it places on a spiritual feeling of strangeness and isolation conceals something that is really founded on material conditions. (Introduction to Sociology, pg. 3).

Since the word “alienation” is used ad nauseum today, I try to dispense with it as far as I can. Nevertheless, it does impinge on the subject under discussion, and I shall mention it at least as a general heading for what I mean. We live within a totality which binds people together only by virtue of their alienation from each other. (Ibid., pg. 43)

Clearly, Adorno is not objecting to the concept of alienation as such, but rather a pernicious effect resulting from its overuse. Two years later, he linked this tendentious usage of the young Marx’s terminology to a rekindled communitarianism enchanted by the memory of “community” [Gemeinschaft] and distraught over the reality of “society” [Gesellschaft]. In one of his lectures on History and Freedom (1963), he maintained:

Infected by an irrational cult of community, the term “alienation” has recently become fashionable in both East and West, thanks to the veneration of the young Marx at the expense of the old one, and thanks to the regression of objective dialectics to anthropology. This term takes an ambivalent view of a repressive society; it is as ambivalent as genuine suffering under the rule of alienation itself. (History and Freedom, pg. 265)

As has already been mentioned above, the French Marxist Louis Althusser was likewise exhausted with the jargon of “alienation” being bandied about in the universities. Unlike Adorno, however, this led him to reject the entire philosophical apparatus of the young Marx root and branch. Furthermore, adopting the rather hazy distinction made by the humanist Marxists — he had in mind here Jean-Paul Sartre, Erich Fromm, and Roger Garaudy rather than Raya Dunayevskaya — Althusser posited a decisive, unequivocal “epistemic break” between the young Marx and the old Marx supposedly taking place around 1845. (Though, for the curious, Dunayevskaya had this to say about Althusser: “Althusser really goes backward. Compared to him, [Eduard] Bernstein was practically a revolutionary. Althusser wants to ‘drive Hegel back into the night’.”)

George Tooker, Lunch

Rejecting the earlier category of “alienation,” Althusser now railed against the theory of “reification” proposed by Marxist Hegelians influenced by Georg Lukács and Isaak Rubin during the 1920s. Continue reading

Isaak Rubin

Marx and “Wertkritik”

A video and panel description 

Image: Photograph of Isaak
Rubin with his wife


A panel held on April 6, 2013, at the 2013 Platypus International Convention at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Originally posted on Platypus’ media website.



Perhaps one of the most influential developments in Marxist thought coming from Germany in the last decades has been the emergence of value critique. Building on Marx’s later economical works, value critics stress the importance of abolishing value (the abstract side of the commodity), pointing out problems in traditional Marxism’s emphasis on the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The German value critical journal Krisis has famously attacked what they believed was a social democratic fetishization of labor in their 1999 Manifesto Against Labor. Such notions have drawn criticism from more “orthodox” Marxists who miss the role of the political in value critique and the possibility of immanent transformation through engaging the realities of capitalist societies. Did the later Marx abandon his political convictions that he expressed in the “Manifesto”? What about his later political writings, such as his “Critique of the Gotha Program” in which he outlines the different phases of early communism? Is Marxism a scientific project as claims from value critics indicate? Was Marx trying to develop of a “science of value” in his later works? What can value critique teach us after the defeat of the Left in 20th century? Did traditional Marxism necessarily have to lead to the defeat of the Left?

PLEASE NOTE: Due to technical errors, the last fifteen minutes of the video are cut off. The audio version is complete, however.


  • Elmar Flatschart (EXIT)
  • Jamie Merchant (Permanent Crisis)
  • Alan Milchman (Internationalist Perspective)

Podcast: Play in new window | Download

Three models of “resistance”


Image: Ferdinand Schmutzer,
Portrait of Sigmund Freud (1926)

2. The “resistance” of humanity to its own self-conscious transformation

Go to Three models of “resistance” — Introduction
Go to Three models of “resistance” — 1. The “resistance” of the world to humanity’s conscious attempts to transform it

The second major historical conceptualization of “resistance” examined in this essay comes by way of psychoanalysis directly, rather than through the indirect affinity between Freud’s reality principle and Dilthey’s account of the reality of the external world.  Indeed, Freudian analysis largely hinges on the various forms of resistance the analyst encounters in trying to disembed layers of repressed experience buried in the patient’s unconscious: “[The] opposition…during psychoanalytic treatment…against our effort to transform what is unconscious into what is conscious…is what we perceive as resistance.  We…[name the] pathogenic process demonstrated by this resistance…repression.”[36]

Here the operative concept is the “resistance” — whether conscious or unconscious — of the subject (and more specifically the ego)[37] to the task of working through its own past, which has been systematically repressed.  Once again, this resistance expresses an extreme conservatism.  In part, the subject avoids revisiting its own history because it finds many of its experiences traumatic and disturbing.  But the patient is not simply afraid of its past.  It is also afraid of its future.  The subject is gripped by a primitive urge for self-preservation, and balks at the prospect that it might potentially become something other than what it already is.  Having fallen in love with the symptoms of its own unfreedom, the analysand stubbornly resists the idea of living without them.

This notion of “resistance,” I submit, corresponds to the work of figures like Karl Korsch, Georg Lukács, and above all Wilhelm Reich early in their careers.  Each of these thinkers sought to digest the legacy of the international workers’ movement in the aftermath of its defeat between 1917 and 1923.  Following the spectacular series of capitulations, conciliations, schisms, and betrayals that shook the Second International in the decades leading up to World War I, all three authors came to the conclusion that the greatest obstacle to the proletariat’s emancipation was the proletariat itself — or more precisely, its inability to “work through” its own reified forms of consciousness.  For the emancipation of the working class was to be self-emancipation.  The “resistance” thus encountered was no longer that of the world maintaining itself against the actions of humanity.  In this case, the “resistance” was instead that of humanity in preserving its present condition of unfreedom against the challenge of fulfilling its destiny. Continue reading