Between Vulgar Marxism and Marxology: The State as ‘the force of value’ in Alfred Sohn-Rethel

I gave the following paper at Goldsmiths yesterday. Since it was thought out and composed in the midst of applying to 60 odd jobs, I lacked the necessary time to think it out or refine it. Instead, I essentially presented a rough draft, which I wrote off the top of my head. I’d like to think that this is why the respondent laid into it, rightly pointing out, (perhaps excessively) the reductive shortcuts I took in the typology I present at the beginning, which he argued mischaracterized Marx’s theories of the state, The Communist Manifesto and the theories of the state possessed by the 1st generation of the Frankfurt school. Whilst I do not disagree with these criticisms,  I provide the paper, typos and all, because I hope it can still contribute to the conversation about the relationship between form-analysis, state theory and historic differentiation that I had hoped it would contribute to at the conference.

Between Vulgar Marxism and Marxology: The State as ‘the force of value’ in Alfred Sohn-Rethel

Critical theories of the state might be said to draw on three notions of the state in Marx. The first draws on the notion of alienation in the early Marx’s critique of Hegel’s doctrine of the state. The second draws on the Communist Manifesto and historical writings, such as the 18th Brumiaire, to conceive of the state as an institution that serves as the conscious instrument of the conspiratorial capitalist class. The third approach is taken from Capital and derives the institutional form of the state from the systematic dynamic of the capitalist social form. While this typology is simplified, I will use it as heuristic means of framing critical theories of the state formulated by the first generation of the Frankfurt School, as well as the Marxological traditions that draw on the Frankfurt school. These three theories can be seen in different theories of the state presented by critical theory. The first, which I will call the alienated theory of the state, can be seen, for instance, in the parts of Adorno’s writings that present a critique of the Hegelian state that resembles the early Marx, such as world history or late capitalism, where the state is conceived as ‘the hardened entity of a dynamic society.’; The second, which I will term the vulgar Marxist theory of the state, consists in the notion that a racket or a clique consciously runs the late capitalist state economy and can be seen in the writing of Pollack and to a lesser extent Adorno, Horkheimer and Nuemann. The third, which I will term the marxological theory of the state, can be seen in the neue marx lecture, particularly the state derivation debate.

If we follow other notable Marxian theorists of the state, such a Ellen Meiksins Wood and Heide Gerstenberger, and conceive of the task of a critical materialist theory of the state, or indeed a critical social theory of the state, as concerned with articulating how the state is constituted and functions as an institution that is integral to the historically specific structural imperatives of capitalist valorisation by virtue of the coercive measures it takes to implement different strategies of accumulation, then it is my contention that these theories are inadequate on their own.  This is because the alienated theory of the state falls prey to Althusser’s comment that ‘Alienation is merely a word, quite incapable of explaining itself’, let alone how the alienated entity of the state factors into the dynamic of capitalist accumulation. (noting that it is a hardened entity is insufficient) The second relies on a conspiratorial notion of the state as the instrument of a conscious capitalist class that does not act a social capital; i.e. it is not internally fractured and compelled by the law of value. (This may be why such a notion of state capitalism begs the question by arguing that these cliques and rackets have suspended the law of value.) The third, for all of its theoretical reliance on the historical specificity of the capitalist state, lacks any account of how this role is embodied in different conjunctures of accumulation. Instead, the ideal representation of the capitalist mode of production that Marx presents in Capital is seen as adequate to an analysis of differing regimes of accumulation provided a theory of the state is systematically derived from this ideal average. Consequently, these individual theories fail to formulate a satisfactory critical theory of the state.

I will argue that the account Alfred Sohn-Rethel gives of the state is the closest that frankfurt school critical theory comes to a robust critical theory of the state. In what follows, I argue that this is because Sohn-Rethel’s analysis of the nazi state — in providing an account of how a sector of german capital was compelled to enter into an agreement with the nazi party in order to utilize the institution of German state to implement and enforce the policies of a new regime of accumulation — draws on elements of the three approaches I outlined above. This makes ASR’s theory of the state superior to the other theories outlined, for it is somewhere between the vulgar Marxist, Marxological (and alienated) accounts of the state. Yet, as I want to argue, several theoretical and empirical problems prevent the economy and class structure of german fascism from uniting these elements, and in so doing leads Sohn-Rethel to argue that his interpretation of the state is specific to German fascism. In remedying these accounts, I hope to show how elements of his theory are relevant to both a theory of the capitalist form of the state and to the role of the state in our current conjuncture.


The Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism is an unusual book. First published in Germany in 1970, and then in England in 1978, the work is assembled from essays that ASR wrote over the course of thirty years odd years (from 1938 to 1978) that veer from an insider’s account of sectors of German capital’s economic policies, to history, to political economy. I focus on the latter in my summary of ASR’s account of the role of the Nazi state in the accumulation strategy that led to the German economies’ recovery from the Great Depression.

Sohn-Rethel argues that such an accumulation strategy arose in the context of an unprecedented economic crisis. In his analysis, the Great Depression represented a fundamental structural crisis of the liberal model of capitalism. This liberal model was based on the production of consumer goods and the valorisation of relative surplus value. He argues that the German economy recovered from this crisis by developing a different model of capitalism. In contrast to the production of consumer goods and the valorisation of surplus value; the fascist regime of accumulation consisted in the industrial production of armaments for the world market and the valorisation of absolute surplus value. In this type of valorisation, in opposition to the liberal model, the German Fascist state acted as the managerial apparatus of monopoly capital by implementing coercive labour policies that increased the valorisation of absolute surplus value.

As Sohn-Rethel explains in the chapter entitled, the dialectics of fascism, this meant that the:

“The state takes over the entrepreneurial, managerial function but capital remains, as ever, private. What is produced, how and by whom, with what profit margins and at what prices, all this is decreed by the state: the state determines imports and exports for each firm, the procurement and distribution of their raw materials; it calls a wage-freeze for the population as producers and a price-freeze for them as consumers; it decides what building, what textile production, what means of transport, what machine construction should be promoted or scrapped, what terms of credit the banks should assent to and which ones they should refuse, what promissory notes should be endorsed and which should be cancel led. But the profits and losses of all this are entered as private profits and private losses of capital although the proportion of consumption to accumulation of private profits is again decided by he state …

The terroristic power of the fascist party serves not only to eliminate political enemies. It is the suspension of bourgeois laws which is the hallmark of fascism and it is by this means that it finally guarantees that the state can wield its entrepreneurial function smoothly and can aid and abet monopoly capital in its state of peril …

The fascist regime emerged through the actions of private monopoly capital which had to re-group itself for this purpose.”

Sohn-Rethel’s account stresses that this outcome was the result of the internal struggle between different factions of capital with the faction that relied on relative surplus value and consumer goods – whom had been dominant leading up to the 1930s – loosing out to the faction of industrial capital; that the individual capitalists in these factions, as personifications of capital, were compelled to adopt such a strategic alliance with the Nazi party, which placed german capital in an internal antagonistic ‘ongoing polemic’ with the fuhrer prinzip leading to the political imprisonment of the bourgeoisie in its own fascist dictatorship.. And that the nazi state acted as the managerial apparatus of monopoly capital by imposing what he terms the ‘terroristic control of absolute surplus value production’ through legal means and the disciplining of the workforce – including the cartelization, the smashing of unions — to insure the valorisation of absolute surplus value.

This brief summary can now be compared to the critical theories of the state outlined earlier. I believe it can be seen that the theory of the state that ASR provides is superior in several ways; By providing an account of how a sector of german capital was compelled to enter into an agreement with the nazi party in order to utilize the institution of German state to implement and enforce policies that spurred valorisation, ASR does not reduce the state to an alienated entity, or treat it as the instrument of the conspiratorial collectively conscious capitalist class. Finally, he accounts for the historical specificity of the state capital relation in the transition from a regime of accumulation based on relative to absolute surplus value in which the state acts as the force of value by virtue of its terroristic control of absolute surplus value. In so doing his theory of the state can be said to have these advantages over the typology I presented earlier.


Yet, there are also a number of problems with Sohn-Rethel’s account. In what follows I focus on how its theoretical and historical insufficiencies prevent him from formulating a theory of the capitalist state, which I argue ultimately leads him to conflate aspects of the general character of the capitalist state with its historical instantiation in the Nazi state. (This means that ASR’s theory of the state fails to unite what I have termed the marxological accounts and the vulgar Marxist account, ultimately falling between them, rather than synthesizing them. Following my discussion of these problems, I try to remedy his account and synthesize them. )

Although space provides a more detailed discussion of this point, I will begin by pointing out that there is a strange lacuna between the Marxist theoretical apparatus and historical account of the German state that Sohn-Rethel draws on in The Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism and the theoretical interpretation of Marx and the historical account of modes of production he presents in Intellectual and Manual Labour. The concepts of the exchange abstraction and the division of head and hand, which are central to ASR’s account of the evolution of different mode of productions and to his account of periodizations of capitalism in Intellectual and Manual Labour, are oddly missing in his account of fascism; whilst the categories of the organic composition of capital, absolute and relative surplus value are lacking in Intellectual and Manual Labour. Moreover, a comparison between the account he gives of the role of the state in the German fascist economy and the accounts of ‘advanced capitalism’ he gives in IML, which also notedly does not provide an account of the state, are surprisingly absent.[1] This points to the fact that the account Sohn-Rethel provides of the state in The economy and Class Structure of German Fascism is only based on a partial account of capitalism which only utilizes a few Marxist categories and notably lacks a fully-fledged account of the capitalist state.[2] In addition, his account lacks any comparison between the Nazi state and other states. This leads to an account of the role of the nazi state in capitalist accumulation as sui generis.

I want to call sohn-rethel’s assumptions about the unique character of the fascist state into question on both a theoretical and an empirical level.

As I outlined above in my summary of Sohn-Rethel’s argument, he stipulates that the exigencies of the ‘Great Depression’ were responsible for the unique character of the nazi state. Whilst a fully-fledged theoretical definition of the capitalist state is lacking, ASR’s theoretical assumptions of what the capitalist state consists in can be deciphered from his most detailed theoretical account, which holds that the ‘economic catastrophe’ of the Great Depression meant that capitalism could only ‘survive in the paradoxical shape of the ‘corporate state’ in which ‘the contradiction between the social character of production and the private appropriation of capital assumes the form of a state-run economy on private account.’  It is only in this instance, according to sohn rethel, that ‘The state takes over the entrepreneurial, managerial function’ whilst ‘capital remains, as ever, private.’

What this account seems to imply is that the capitalism consists in a contradiction between social production and private appropriation and that the capitalist state, with the exception of the german fascist state, is not integral to this process.  I contend that the problematic aspects of Sohn-Rethel’s account stems from his assumption that there is a contradiction between the social character of production and private appropriation of capital or that the instances in which the state manages this appropriation on a private account are paradoxical and unique. Now, how or why the relationship between social production and private accumulation is contradictory is not entirely spelled out by ASR, but it seems to rely on what Postone has termed the traditional Marxist assumption that the development between social production and private appropriation lead to the public management of value rather than the negation of both the public and private[3] spheres as internally related moments of capital.

This is reflected in the philosophy of history that Sohn-Rethel presents in which this contradiction was not superseded by communism – as the public management of social production through the institute of the state — but displaced into fascism as a perverse form of communism in which the fascist party manages the state for private interests. Thus, ‘rather than socialism arising from the contradiction between the market system and private appropriation’, it was monopoly capital along lines of rationalized social production for the market’ that developed into the corporate state.

What this theoretical account of the state seems to miss is that the relationship between social labour, appropriation and the nazi state are not the sort of paradox or contradiction that came into being under certain circumstances stemming from an aborted historical unfolding that caused the capitalist state to take on a new character in the nazi state, but rather, that these relations are consistent with a general account of the capitalist state form. This is because whilst sohn-rethel’s comments register the division between the spheres of the public and the private; the economy and the state; they do not account for what the divisions presuppose and reproduce– primitive accumulation; how capitalism is constituted and reproduces itself by virtue of these divisions or the integral role the capitalist state plays in these processes. Rather, in many ways, ASR’s theoretical notion of the state – in which the nazi state is the exception – is neatly summarized by Bonfeld’s comments on the opposition many commentators made between neo-liberal capitalism and the return of the state following the outbreak of the ongoing social crisis.

The notion that the state has been ‘brought back in’ suggests a resurgent state, one that has regained some measure of control over the market. This view implies a conception of market and state as two distinct modes of social organization.

Instead, as Bonefeld argues, a theoretical account of the capitalist state needs to be conceived of as ‘the political form of bourgeois society’, which ‘belongs to the society from which it springs.’ Bonefeld neatly summarizes how this political form relates to the economic form: ‘the purpose of capital is to accumulate extracted surplus value, and the state is the political form of this purpose.’ Therefore, rather than ASR’s contention that the nazi’s state terroristic control of ASV is an exception resulting from the peculiar exegiencies of the great depression, it seems to me that any type of general theory of the capitalist state should not conceive of the state as an institution that only directly participates in strategies of accumulation in exceptional circumstances, but as a form, that as paradoxically internally related but also separate, exists for the purpose of enforcing and regulating these strategies.  EMW succinctly sums up this how this relationship is forged on separation but integrally related to the capitalist form of the state and thus to capitalists state in general:

“The ‘autonomy’ of the capitalist state is inextricably bound up with the juridical freedom and equality of the free, purely economic exchange between free expropriated producers and the private appropriators, who have absolute property in the means of production and therefore a new form of authority over the producers. This is the significance of the division of labour in which the two moments of capitalist exploitation – appropriation and coercion – are allocated separately to a private appropriating class and a specialised public-coercive institution, the state: on the one hand, the ‘relatively autonomous’ state has a monopoly of coercive force; on the other hand, that force sustains a private ‘economic’ power which invests capitalist property with an authority to organise production itself – an authority probably unprecedented in its degree of control over productive activity and the human-beings who engage in it.” (Wood reader p 20)

Thus, contra the theoretical aspects of sohn-rethel’s account, the role of the nazi state as the coercive and political form of capital should not be seen as an exception, but as a particular instantiation of the capitalist state.

This can be demonstrated on an empirical level by quickly comparing ASR’s account with the role of the state in the contemporary regime of accumulation. Whilst it is true that there is some variation from the states role in the german economy in terms of how it coerces and manages these regimes of accumulation, I believe that it can still be shown that its role as the force of value shares parallels with ASR’s analysis.

This can be seen by drawing on Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos, John Milios, Spyros Lapatsioras’s “A Political Economy of Contemporary Finance and its Crisis.”

The Althssuerian value-form account of modern capitalism that the authors present follows sohn-rethel in terms of conceiving of the state as the enforcer of a particular type of accumulation regime. In contrast to sohn-rethel’s account of industrial capital and the valorisation of ASV, they focus on financialization and the valorisation of relative surplus. In doing so they offer more a sophisticated use of Marxist categories, but they make a similarly reductive argument in terms of periodization and argue that capitalism moved from ASV to RSV in late 19th century.

The author’s analysis of finance provides an account of the role of financialization in valorisation and the means by which this type of valorisation is enforced. In the first instance they draw on Marx’s analysis of fictitious and interest-bearing capital to argue that finance is the most concrete form of capital. The contemporary instaniation of these forms, in various types of financialized sui generis commodities, are said to drive valorisation and social reproduction by serving as intermediary drivers of accumulation. In the second instance, finance is grasped as a complex technology for the organisation of capitalist power. Such a technology

“organizes capitalist power relations in line with a particular protoype … encompasses different inst, social procedures, analyses and reflections, calculations, tactics, and embedding patterns that allow for the exercise of this specific, albeit very complex, function that organizes the efficiency of capitalist power relations through the workings of financial markets.” 110.

Their analysis of this technology applies Foucault’s notion of governmentality to financialization; in other words the state, and the other institutions of the ISA, act as the managerial apparatus which disciplines, compels and enforces this regime of accumulation.

This demonstrates the parallels between sohn rethel’s account and Sotiropoulos, John Milios, Spyros Lapatsioras’s, showing that sohn-rethel’s insights on the role of the nazi state can be applied to other non-fascist types of capital. But at the same time it also seems to signal that many of these insights reflect the general character of the capitalist state as instantiated in the nazi state. Following ASR’s insight’s it then seems that a critical theory of the state must conceive of the state in terms of its utilisation as an instrument by strata of social capital to enact strategies of accumulation. But in contrast, to ASR’s this theory can be seen as part and parcel of the internal dynamic of the capitalist state form, as instantied in its enforcement of different policies and regimes of accumulation. Thus rather than formulating a critical theory of the state that falls between vulgar Marxism and marxology, perhaps such a critical theory of the state can synthesis these approaches.

[1] Indeed he only makes one reference to the german economy in iml without referring to the state: ‘It led to the big slump of the 19305 when both economies broke apart to such an extent that the capitalist system itself was threatened. Only Hitler-Germany’s whole-hearted adoption of

production of non-marketable goods and rearming for the Second World War helped world capitalism off the rock by the international arms race.’

[2] Thus, whilst Jappe and others have rightly pointed out that ASR’s account of abstraction lacks the crucial concept of abstract labour, the utilisation of categories from IML could still have given his account of fascism a more robust Marxian basis on which to draw. As it stands, their use in The economy and class structure of German Fascism are partial and somewhat reductive. For instance, the role of the world market in the crisis and in the German economies recovery is asserted, but it is only substantiated in a fragmentary fashion. In addition, the antithetical periodisation between a liberal capitalism consisting in a regime of accumulation relation on relative surplus value and fascist capitalism consisting in a regime of accumulation reliant upon absolute surplus value seems reductive. Moreover, the attribution of the nazi state with a specific role, that contrasts with the non-intervention of the liberal state, prevents the realization that such a role can more generally be seen as the function of the capitalist state.

[3] By “traditional Marxism” I do not mean a specific historical tendency in Marxism, such as orthodox Second International Marxism, for example, but, more generally, all analyses that understand capitalism essentially in terms of class relations structured by a market economy and private ownership of the means of production. Relations of domination are understood primarily in terms of class domination and exploitation. Within this general framework, capitalism is characterized by a growing structural contradiction between that society’s basic social relations (interpreted as private property and the market) and the forces of production (interpreted as the industrial mode of producing). The unfolding of this contradiction gives rise to the possibility of a new form of society, understood in terms of collective ownership of the means of production and economic planning in an industrialized context – that is, in terms of a just and consciously regulated mode of distribution adequate to industrial production. The latter is understood as a technical process that, although used by capitalists for their particularistic ends, is intrinsically independent of capitalism; it could be used for the benefit of all members of society.

About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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