Here is Frank Engster’s contribution to our recent HM panel: “Reading Capital after 1968: The commodity form, value and crisis in the Neue Marx-Lektüre and Althusserian Marxism.”
The Critique of the Commodity-form in Lukács, Adorno, and Sohn-Rethel
My talk will look at a central, and perhaps, the central theme in the “New Marx-Reading” in Germany after ’68, namely, the commodity-formed mediation of society. I will present a critique of the commodity-form through its three perhaps most important critics that motivated and prepared these new reading, at least in the German-speaking world: George Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and Alfred-Sohn-Rethel.
The first, George Lukács, is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Western Marxism who prepared also the way for the development of Critical Theory, even though he himself is not part of that tradition. Lukács—at least the young Lukács, who is our focus here—marks the transition between Marxism-Leninism on the one hand and Western Marxism on the other.
The second critic, Theodor W. Adorno, is, along with Max Horkheimer, the central figure of Critical Theory.
Finally the third, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, from a systematic point of view, occupies a kind of intermediate position between Lukács and Adorno. He neither belonged to Marxism-Leninism nor to Critical Theory, and he remained an outsider in his professional life.
All three are unified in that they, along with Marx but in contrast to traditional Marxism, link the critique of capitalist society not to the category of labor but to its commodity-formed mediation, alienation, and reification. All three aim for an immanent critique of capitalist society; immanent for the reason alone that the critique targets the form of mediation of society, and this form is linked to both the constitution of social objectivity and to a corresponding subjectivity.
However, each gets there in a different way. Lukács aims more at a revolutionary overcoming of capitalism. In the so-called “reification essay” in his famous work „History and Class-Consciousness“ he even conceptualizes the critique of the commodity-form as a revolutionary leap. Adorno takes a radical departure from such theories of revolution and instead establishes a purely negative critique. And finally Sohn-Rethel arrives at a middle-ground, which is also an outsider’s position, when he creates a „materialist theory of knowledge“ with the aid of the commodity-form.
Let us know look at each on their own, beginning with Lukács.
In what is probably the best-known essay collection of Marxism, History and Class-Consciousness, published in 1923, Lukács developed a legendary critique of the commodity-form. According to Lukács, for the first time in the history of humankind, labor, due to its commodity-formed reification and alienation, can be become reflexive, and this only through the self-consciousness of the commodity labor-power.
We must pay close attention to the ambivalence within his critique of the commodity-form, as well as the reification and alienation which he criticizes in this form. The ambivalence is that the proletariat, precisely because of the reification and precisely because of the alienation of its own labor, can reflect on this labor like it does on an object. The proletariat can thus recognize within itself the essence of mediation between subject and object and can hence make it an object of appropriation oriented towards practical application by the collective social whole.
So the commodity-formed alienation and reification is not easily condemned by Lukács, for it is also the condition for a “revolutionary leap”. The leap is based in the fact that the critique of the commodity-form is not a purely conceptual critique. Lukács’ critique shows instead that the commodity labor-power – when it recognizes its own reification and alienation – becomes self-aware and puts it into practice. Into practice, because in that moment when the commodity labor-power returns through its self-consciousness in a subjective way to treat its own productive-power as an object – and also when it does this with its own alienation – then, through this self-knowledge, it both recognizes capitalism theoretically and criticizes it – and it can, at the same time, practically overcome it.
This turn into practice is possible only from the standpoint of the proletariat, because the bourgeois class remains contemplative and impractical towards labor and productive power, since they live off the application and exploitation of other people’s labor. The working class, in contrast, can recognize its own labor as the practical essence of social mediation and make it the object of appropriation. It can recognize itself as the alienated essence of society and grasp at the same time in an existential way the standpoint of the – I quote – “identical subject-object of history” and stake its own existence on the realization of nothing less than the idea of communism. Consequently, the idea of communism is then, to bring this to a conclusion, that labor, through its subject: the proletariat, arrives at a consciousness and can be realized in society as a whole.
Adorno starts his critique from the failure of such a revolutionary oriented critique of capitalism. Yes: he also wants the abolition of capitalism, but he can no longer justify it in a positive way, at least not in any systematic-logical sense. On the contrary, he criticizes this systematic-logical way, arguing that the commodity-formed mediation produces no critical knowledge, let alone a revolutionary subject or revolutionary practice. The commodity-formed mediation entails instead an immanence that ensures that the social contradictions are one-dimensional and that no emancipatory dynamic can emerge from within them. This departure from the emphatic expectations of the commodity-formed mediation and contradictions of society logically results in a critique that remains negative. The critique now leaves behind the untruth of the identifying mediation of subject and object through the commodity-form and exchange-value. It clings to the necessity of overcoming the commodity-form, but this overcoming now also concerns the forms of knowledge, rationality and objectivity that result from the commodity-formed mediation and which Adorno thematizes as – I quote – the “Logic of Exchange,” the “Exchange principle”, and “Identification through exchange-value.” For this radical negation of an equally comprehensive logic of identification through the commodity-form and exchange, Adorno calls only for that which in itself is not calculated, and which is referred to, primarily, as the – I quote – “non-identical.”
As previously mentioned, Sohn-Rethel takes an intermediate position between Lukács’ revolutionary interpretation of the commodity form and Adorno’s pessimistic rejection of it. Sohn-Rethel’s critique of the commodity-form turns on the idea of “Real Abstraction”, which according to him must be executed in exchange so that things as abstract values are made commensurable. This real, practically executed abstraction should, on the one hand, be functional for the synthesis of society, and hence for the exchange and for the constitution of social objectivity through the value of commodities. This same real abstraction should, on the other hand, also be in operation in the abstract forms of thought and be functional for the subjective synthesis that the mind renders. In brief, Sohn-Rethel wants to establish – – I quote – “a unity of commodity form and thought form”, that is, a “materialist theory of knowledge.” In fact, he even says that the abstract forms of thought of contemporary natural science have their origin in the real process of abstraction. The commodity-formed synthesis of things constitutes in an unconscious-practical mode the social objectivity; this same logic also operates in a rational synthesis and constitutes the subjective mode of objectivity, not only the objectivity of society, but the objectivity of our knowledge of nature as well.
So let’s compare these three quite different critiques of the commodity form: an emphatically-revolutionary one by Lukács; a negative-pessimistic one by Adorno; and a kind of compromise between the two by Sohn-Rethel. For all three, the commodity-formed mediation is crucial for the immanent critique of society. For all three, immanent critique means placing the critique within the commodity-formed mediation in order to drive the blind-unconscious mediation as such into a representation. This same immanent critique should also bring to consciousness what can either abolish the commodity-formed mediation (the Proletariat in Lukács) or what cannot be calculated (the non-identical in Adorno). Or it should recover the disappearing social genesis of our thinking and guide us to a materialist theory of knowledge (the unity of commodity-form and thought-form in Sohn-Rethel).
However, there is one big problem with all three critics of the value form, which I’d like to point out in conclusion. The problem also points out what, in my opinion, is the critical core of the “Neue Marx Lektüre” in Germany which brought about a change in how to read the value-form analysis and perhaps a new paradigm of interpretation.
The problem is that Lucáks, Adorno and Sohn-Rethel all regard the analyses as a direct change of commodities. Therefore, they are focused on a real abstraction and the rationality that results from this logic of exchange. Marx, however, does not show the exchange of commodities, neither as an exchange in history nor as an empirical direct exchange. On the contrary, he shows that such an exchange fails. And he also presents the solution: commodities are commodities and can be exchanged, because they are always and right from the beginning related to money. Money does not follow from exchange: it is the logical presupposition.
This necessity to develop money, commodity and value as a unit or a speculative identity is the starting point of the new reading of the “Neue Marx Lektüre” that in Germany started in the first generation with Hans-Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt and Hans-Jürgen Krahl. It is a straight logical reading which was oriented to Hegel, took place within the context of the critical theory and is now known as the “phase of the reconstruction of the critic of the political economy”.
I would like to add that we must read the value-form analysis not only as the logical genesis of money, but that we must also reconstruct money as the measure of value – and not as a means of exchange (as nearly all of the interpretations still do, including the second generation of the “Neue Marx Lektüre” like Michael Heinrich). Otherwise we are still stuck in the logic of an exchange instead of understanding that money realizes in the value of a commodity the productive power of labour and capital. Marx’ analysis of the value-form is something totally different than an analysis of an exchange of goods. Instead it shows the constitution of a pure quantitative relation, as is already obvious in the first, simple value-form “x commodity A = y commodity B” : Here, with “x” and “y”, we do not have two commodities ready to exchange, but already a quantitative relation, and for this relation a measure is already decisive. And for this quantitative relation not the exchange is decisive, but the relation of labour and capital, realized with money as in a measuring process.
With this reference to the measure I want to conclude my talk on the regrettably incessant blind spot in the value-form critique of Lukács, Adorno and Sohn-Rethel as well as of the new reading of those that followed.