Reification, Crisis and Critical Social Theory

Here is the work in progress I will be presenting at the CSETPW tomorrow:

The Rationalization of Isolated Activity and the irrational Whole: Lukács ,Reification and Critical Social Theory[1]


In March of 2005, Axel Honneth gave the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at UC Berkeley on the topic of “Reification and Recognition: A New Look at an Old Idea.” These lectures formed the basis of his influential book, Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea, which was released in 2008, the same year as the collapse of Lehman Brothers. While such a coincidence would seem to signify that the old idea of reification is unfortunately still alive and well, Honneth’s work and its ensuing scholarly reception in contemporary critical theory would seem to prove otherwise since there is simply no consideration of the ensuing global financial crisis that was rapidly unfolding at the time.[2] This is likewise the case for a series of edited collections and journal articles that followed Honneth in re-considering and revising the theory of reification for issues such as radical democracy, technology.[3] Unfortunately, this is also indicative of contemporary critical theory in general, which has demonstrated a general lack of engagement with the crisis or with theories of crisis.[4]

This is surprising for at least four reasons. As Lukács notes in his 1967 preface, History and Class Consciousness is ‘representative’ of the ‘great crisis’ it was composed in.[5] Moreover, although the theory of reification is often criticised for its methodological simplicity and its socio-theoretical one-dimensionality, it is often missed that this theory also views socio-economic crises as inherent to capitalist society. In addition, Critical Theory was originally formulated in response to a crisis. Moreover, the idea of critical theory, as formulated by Horkheimer in “Traditional and Critical Theory”, follows the theory of reification on a methodological and socio-theoretical level in viewing crises as the inherent outcome of a society constituted by the exchange of commodities. In Horkheimer’s words, ‘the critical theory of society begins with the idea of the simple exchange of commodities’ and ‘the bour­geois society built on exchange necessarily leads to capitalism with its army of industrial reserves and its crises’ making a theory of crisis an integral aspect of the critical theory of society.[6]

In what follows I move towards providing contemporary critical theory with a theory of crisis by re-examining the account of crisis provided in Lukács ’ theory of reification. Although I follow Honneth in viewing the theory of reification as methodologically inconsistent and socio-theoretically one-dimensional, I do not attribute these problems to a Marxist economistic basis or to the abandonment of this economism in the ensuing analysis of reified society. Instead, as I argue, these problems are inherent to Lukács ’ peculiar theoretical interpretation of Marx, which synthesizes certain Marxian categories with Hegelian ones in order to conceive of Marxism as a method for understanding social and cultural reality as a totality that is marred by an insufficient account of how the dynamics of capitalism form such a socio-cultural totality. As I further argue, contra Honneth, this theoretical interpretation of Marx forms the basis for Lukács ’ theory of reification, which does not depart from Lukács ’ Marxian basis to explore other aspects of reified life, but generalizes his peculiar account of the commodity (which amalgamates aspects of Marx, Hegel, Weber and Simmel) to these social and cultural entities, in order to impute the coming to consciousness of the proletariat and its realization as the subject-object of history.

Yet as I also show, Lukács ’ interpretation of Marx and his theory of reification do possess a theory of crisis that conceives of crises inherent and re-ocurring results of the reified divisions of capitalist society.   In order to demonstrate this I provide an exegesis of this theory and show that Lukács viewed crises as ‘necessary and inevitable’ aspects of a ‘definitive form of production’ characterized by the class relation, the social division of labour and the separation of production and circulation. However, since this conception of crisis is tied Lukács ’ theoretical interpretation of Marx and a theory of reification that in the end points to on a philosophy of history, rather than an account of social dynamics, it is insufficient in its own right. This leads me to identify ways it can be strengthened by drawing on the aspects of Marx’s critique of political economy that conceive of crises as inherent and re-occuring outcomes of the historically specific capitalist social form.

I proceed as follows — in Part One I provide a short overview of Lukács ’ interpretation of Marx. In Part Two I turn to the Reification essay where I show how this theoretical interpretation of Marx forms the basis for Lukács ’ theory of reification, which I argue is as a whole methodologically inconsistent and socio-theoretically one-dimensional due to such an interpretation of Marx. In Part Three I focus on the conception of crisis that Lukács provides in this essay. I show that he views crisis as inherent to capitalism due to very same conditions that Lukács attributes to reification. Yet, as a result of Lukács ’ theoretical interpretation of Marx and the trajectory of the reification essay, such a theory lacks a fully-fledged account of why and how these crises occur. This leads me to part four where I provide an exposition of Marx’s account of why and how crises are inherent to the capitalist social form. I conclude by aligning Lukács ’s comments on crisis with these aspects of Marx’s theory of crisis and providing some thoughts as to how such a theory can relate to Horkheimer’s articulation of exchange, crisis and critical theory and it’s relevance for today.



Lukács’ most extensive explication of his theoretical conception of Marxism in History and Class Consciousnesscan be found in the essay titled ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’ This essay shows that Lukács understands Marxism as the method that understands capitalist social reality.

This can first be seen in his statement that ‘Orthodox Marxism’ refers ‘exclusively to method’ and in his support for ‘the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth.’[7] As these statements indicate, Lukács’ fusion of Marx and Hegel is central to this conception of Marxism. At the heart of this fusion lies the use of the Hegelian categories of dialectics and totality to conceive of capitalism as a dialectical socio-cultural totality. This is apparent in Lukács’ interpretation of Marxist theory as the method that provides knowledge of the historical evolution of society and of capitalism as a totality. Marxist theory does this through the dialectical method: ‘the function of theory is also to understand its own basis, i.e. dialectical method.’[8] For Lukács, ‘This point is absolutely crucial.’[9]

The reason that this point is crucial is because Lukács conceives of the dialectical method as being constructive of history and capitalist social totality. He refers to this in Hegelian terminology as the ‘dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process.’[10] This means that the dialectical method grasps historical development. As a consequence, Lukács grasps capitalism’s operation through a Hegelian prism as a dialectical totality that consists in the objectified separation between subject and object.

The interplay between the dialectical method and the category of totality is the means, according to Lukács, through which reality can be grasped. Like dialectics, totality serves a dual purpose in Lukács’s thought. Since he asserts that the social- cultural-economic entity of capitalism functions as a totality, the methodological category of totality provides knowledge of capitalism. Totality and the dialectical method thus combine to provide a true knowledge of historical evolution and the dialectical function of capitalist totality.[11] For Lukács, totality is thus ‘the only method capable of understanding and reproducing reality. Concrete totality is, therefore, the category that governs reality.’

Consequently, the categories that Marx uses in his critique of political economy, and the social theory presented therein, are articulated in a way that relies on these notions of a dialectical totality and privileges understanding that capitalism is a socio-cultural totality over an explication of how this totality was formed or how it reproduces itself. This means that Lukács ’ theoretical interpretation of Marx consists in a partial use of Marxian terminology, which does not provide a full account of the social dynamic of capitalist valorization. Instead, the methodological and social theoretical aspects of Lukács ’ theoretical interpretation of Marx rely on his utilization of these Hegelian categories, which presupposes a fully-fledged account of social dynamics that Lukács does not provide. This can be seen in the following, which is premised on the notion that ‘the dialectical method and its concept of totality can be seen to provide real knowledge of what goes on in society’:[12]


At every stage of social evolution each economic category reveals a definite relation between men….As ‘pure’ economic categories they are involved in constant interaction with each other, and that enables  us to understand any given historical cross-section through the evolution of society. But since they have arisen out of human relations and since they function in’ the process of the transformation of human relations, the actual process of social evolution becomes visible in their reciprocal  relationship with the reality underlying their activity. That is to say, the production and reproduction of a particular economic totality, which science hopes to understand, is necessarily transformed into the process of production and reproduction of a particular social totality[13]


Lukács ’ theoretical interpretation of Marx thus holds that Marxism is the method for understanding social reality. However, Lukács ’ account of this understanding makes partial use of Marxian categories, in the end relying on Hegelian categories to offer a limited explication of the dynamic of this social reality as a totality. To see how this notion of Marxism is deployed in Lukács theory of reification, it time to turn to Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat.




As Honneth notes ‘the concept of reification constituted a leitmotiv of social and cultural critique developed at a time of crisis.’[14] Lukács ’ theory of reification owes its distinctiveness and its influence due to the manner in which it conceived of this leitmotiv. In a bold theoretical move that revolutionized the Weberian, Simmelian and Neo-Kantian social and cultural criticism of his time, as well as the ‘Worldview Marxism’ of the 2nd International, Lukács ’ theory rooted the social and cultural dimensions of reification in his peculiar interpretation of the commodity-form.

Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of such a bold move, that the resulting theory of reification is ambivalent and suffers from a number of methodological and socio-theoretical problems. As Honneth points out, the ‘categorical means’ of his methodology are ‘insufficient’.[15] Moreover, the social theory, qua reified culture and society, is one-dimensional insofar as it ‘subsumes’ a number of diverse objective and subjective cultural phenomena under the concept of reification. Finally, as many have pointed out, Lukács ’ account of the overcoming of reification through the proletariat’s realizing itself as the subject-object of history provides a theological solution to this social theory that is also roundly criticized in the secondary literature.[16]

Honneth’s strategy for revitalizing reification is to argue that Lukács ’ methodological ambivalences arise from the number of ways by which this social theory is substantiated. He relies on a strictly economic conception of Marx’s theory of value to argue that ‘Although’ Lukács ‘at first directs his gaze almost exclusively at the phenomena described by Marx as being indicative of “commodity fetishism,”[17] he begins after a few pages to emancipate himself from a narrow focus on the economic sphere by extending the concept of reification and its various associated forms of coercion to cover the entirety of capitalist social life.’[18] In Honneth’s view this means that ‘It isn’t clear from the text how this social generalization theoretically occurs, because Lukács seems to oscillate between alternative strategies of explanation.’[19]

But this ignores the point made above about the peculiar form of Lukács ’ interpretation of Marx. In contrast to Honneth’s analysis, Lukács ’ theory cannot simply be said to move from a Marxist analysis of the economic sphere to the non-economic social and cultural elements of Lukács ’ theory. This is because, as has been shown, Lukács ’ interpretation of Marx is not simply economic but even on the level of his account of Marxist theory fuses Marx with Hegel and conceives of Marxism as a theory of social and cultural totality. In addition, as is well known, the reification essay includes elements of Weber and Simmel’s cultural theory. But what Honneth’s misses is that these elements are incorporated into Lukács ’ eclectic conception of Marxism.

This point is well made on a general level by Ingo Elbe, who notes that Lukács is utilizing a peculiar, synthetic and simplified account of Marx’s theory of value. As Elbe notes, contra Honneth, His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, avoids a recon­struc­tion of Marx’s the­ory of cap­i­tal­ism, Instead of an analy­sis of Marx’s dialec­tic of the form of value up to the form of cap­i­tal ….. one finds merely an analo­giz­ing com­bi­na­tion of a value the­ory reduced to the “quan­ti­fy­ing” value-form (due to an ori­en­ta­tion towards Simmel’s cul­tural cri­tique of money) and a diag­no­sis, ori­ented towards Max Weber, of the formal-rational ten­dency of the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of the labor process and mod­ern law’.[20]

As I have argued at greater length elsewhere this conception of Marxism also forms the methodological and socio-theoretical basis of Lukács ’ theory of reification on a very specific level. This is evident in the very first paragraph of the Reification essay where Lukács states that Marx’s mature work proceeds from an analysis of the commodity to ‘set out to portray capitalist society in its totality and to lay bare its fundamental nature.’[21]

Lukács proceeds to follow this characterization in order to substantiate his theory of reification by providing a unique definition of the commodity-form that incorporates the Hegelian, Simmelian and Weberian elements of Lukács ’ social and cultural theory into his Marxism:


The essence of commodity-form [translation amended] has often been pointed out. Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all- embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.


Such a definition is subsequently reflected in the Reification essay in the ensuing (1) Hegelian- Marxian conception of reification as the autonomous thingified false objectivity of ‘phantom objectivity’; (2) the Simmelian and Weberian conception of reification as autonomy, which is premised on a formal rationality that cannot grasp its own content; (3) Lukács ’ account of the fundamental nature of reification as construed on understanding that a social relation between people takes on the character of a thing, which thereby veils the social relations that constitute it, rather than demonstrating how these social relations are reproduced by virtue of these thingified relations. Thus the ambivalences and oscillations which Honneth perceptively notes occur in the course of Lukács account of reification are already there from the beginning within his Marxism.

They appear within the course of the Reification essay because of how they are linked to the theories’ categorical methodological insufficiencies and it’s one-dimensional social theory. Put simply this definition of the commodity-form is the categorical aspect of Lukács ’ methodology, which generalizes these properties to a wide array of phenomena that consequently renders society one-dimensional.Lukács ’ justifies this mode of theorising with several bold methodological statements. The commodity-form provides the categorical bases for his theory because it is ‘the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects’. Consequently, ‘the structure of commodity-relations … yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them’[22] providing the grounds from which to generalize these properties.

Lukács ’ ensuing depiction of the objective and subjective aspects of reified socio-cultural totality unfold in three parts and can only be summarized here in a most schematic manner. Part One provides an account of the material aspects of reification pertaining of the objectified relation of the object to the subject in the factory, the state, bureaucracy, marriage, journalism etc and the corresponding subjectivities of instrumental reason, detachment and passivity. Part Two provides an account of how Bourgeois reason is likewise reified by the objectified relation of the subject to this object. Part Three discloses how the proletariat as the subject/object possesses a privileged epistemological standpoint that can understand that these diverse types of reification are all part of a totality which they constitute and in so doing recognize that their historical role is to seize this totality and thus reunite subject and object.

Honneth and others are thus certainly perceptive in noting the methodological socio-theroetical insufficiencies of Lukács ’ theory of reification. Yet as I have shown they do not stem from either the Marxist economic basis of Lukács ’ theory or from his departure from this theory, but from the insufficiencies and peculiarities that characterize his interpretation of Marx. In the Reification essay such an interpretation incorporates Weberian and Simmelian elements into his definition of the commodity-form and his corresponding account of reification generalizes these properties in a one-dimensional account of society. Moreover, following from Lukács ’ account of the orthodox Marxist method, the emphasis in his explication of the diverse elements of reification is to understand that they form a totality, not to offer an account of the dynamics of such a totality. Yet there are also moments when Lukács ’ theory is not entirely one-dimensional where it also makes allusions to the internal social dynamics of such a totality. They can be seen in his account of crisis.


In this account, Lukács conceives of crises as inherent to capitalism. This is first evident in Lukács ’ two references to crises in ‘What Is Orthodox Marxism?’ where Lukács ’ criticizes Ricardo and Sismondi for their failure to grasp capitalism as a totality, which makes them each incapable of realizing that crises are intrinsic to this totality. In these remarks Lukács also provides hints of how he conceives of crises in a Marxian vein as ‘necessary and inevitable’ outcomes of capitalist totality due to the double separation of the class relation and of production from circulation.

The former is provided in a comment on Ricardo, who in Lukács ’ view, denies the “necessity of expanding the market along with the expansion of production and the growth of capital”, …. (unconsciously of course), to avoid the necessity of admitting that crises are inevitable. ‘ This causes Ricardo to miss that ‘crises are the most striking illustration of the antagonisms in capitalist ‘production.’[23] The latter, in Lukács ’ criticism of Sismondi’s treatment – of the question of crisis’ which ‘ultimately … failed because, for all his incisive criticism of capitalism, he remained imprisoned in capitalist notions of the objective and so necessarily thought of production and distribution as two independent processes, “not realizing that the relations of distribution are only the relations of production sub alia specia”.[24]

This notion of crisis is given further explication in the Reification essay where Lukács ’ explanation of the historical development of reification pertains to the crises that are intrinsic to reified society. Lukács holds that the pervasive and structural properties of the commodity-form are the historically-specific ‘problem of … modern capitalism’. This is due to ‘the growth of the modern process of labour, of the isolated, free labourer and the division of labour.’[25] So that ‘labour, abstract, equal, comparable labour, measurable with increasing precision according to the time socially necessary for its accomplishment, the labour of the capitalist division of labour existing both as the presupposition and the product of capitalist production, is born only in the course of the development of the capitalist system.’[26] Consequently, ‘a man’s own activity, his own labour becomes something objective and independent of him, something that controls him by virtue of an autonomy alien to man.’[27] Objectively ‘a world of objects and relations between things springs into being (the world of commodities and their movements on the market).’[28] Subjectively, ‘the laws governing these objects are indeed gradually discovered by man, but even so they confront him as invisible forces that generate their own power.’[29]

I have shown the main trajectory of the argument that proceeds from these bases and the ensuing one-dimensional social theory. But it is often missed that Lukács undermines this one-dimensional picture, and indeed returns to the socio-economic dimensions of his theory at one point when he turns to his comments on crises. Indeed, in some ways it might also be said that Lukács himself overlooks these comments as he later posits the proletariat as the means of overcoming reification on the basis of a philosophy of history, rather than the system-immanent one that could have followed from this account of crisis. Lukács counters this one-dimensional picture by stating that while ‘This rationalisation of the world appears to be complete’ and ‘seems to penetrate the very depths of man’s physical and psychic nature’ ‘It is limited … by its own formalism. ‘ Rather than a unitary account, ‘the rationalisation of isolated aspects of life’ result ‘in the creations of formal laws’.

It is here that Lukács account of crisis appears.[30] ‘On closer examination the structure of a crisis is seen to be no more than a heightening of the degree and intensity of the daily life of bourgeois society.’[31] Returning to his utilization of second nature — which elsewhere describe the autonomous properties of reification the naturalization of the appearance capitalist society — Lukács further notes the contingent and precarious dynamic of these autonomous properties ‘In its unthinking, mundane reality that life seems firmly held together by ‘natural laws’; yet it can experience a sudden dislocation because the bonds uniting its various elements and partial systems are a chance affair even at their most normal.’ Consequently, this contingency is inherent to capitalist second nature –‘It is for this reason that Engels is able to define the ‘natural laws’ of capitalist society as the laws of chance.’

In order to provide an account of how and why this is the case, Lukács refers back to his preceding analysis to argue that the historically-specific conditions that form the basis for his periodiastion of reified society — the growth of the modern process of labour, of the isolated, free labourer and the division of labour.’ – are also responsible for crises which are consequently an intrinsic aspect of capitalist society:


            this kind of connection can be discovered even in purely economic phenomena. Thus Marx points out- and the cases referred to here are intended only as an indication of the methodological factors involved not as a substantive treatment of the problems themselves-that “the conditions of direct exploitation [of the labourer], and those of realising  surplus- value, are not identical. They diverge not only in place and time, but       also logically.” Thus there exists “an accidental rather than a necessary connection between the total amount of social labour applied to a social article’; and “the volume whereby society seeks to-satisfy the want  gratified by the article in question. These are no more than random instances.It is evident that the whole structure of capitalist production rests on the interaction between a necessity subject to strict laws in all isolated phenomena and the relative irrationality of the total process…… The capitalist process of             rationalisation based on private economic calculation requires that every             manifestation of life shall exhibit this very interaction between details which are             subject to laws and a totality ruled by chance. It presupposes a society so structured. It produces and reproduces this structure in so far as it takes  possession of society 100-101




            This irrationality, this-highly problematic-‘systematisation’ of the whole which diverges qualitatively and in principle from the laws regulating the  parts, is more than just a postulate, a pre- supposition essential to the workings of a capitalist economy. It is at the same time the product of the capitalist division of labour. It has already been pointed out that the division of labour disrupts every organically unified process of work and life and breaks it down into its components. This enables the artificially isolated partial functions to be performed in the most rational manner by ‘specialists’ who  are specially adapted mentally and physically for the purpose. 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). In such times we can see how the  immediate continuity between two partial systems is disrupted and their          independence from and adventitious connection with each other is suddenly forced into the consciousness of everyone. 102-103


Crises, in Lukács view, are thus inherent to the theory of reification. They stem from the very same historically-specific conditions that reify society: the capitalist division of labour characterized by the separation of producers from the mode of production and of production from the sphere of circulation. These separations mean that the ‘true structure of society appears rather in the independent, rationalised and formal partial laws whose links with each other are of necessity purely formal (i.e. their formal interdependence can be formally systematised), while as far as concrete realities are concerned they can only establish fortuitous connections.’[32] Crises thus occur by virtue of these separations in the ensuing disjuncture between ‘the rationalization of isolated activity and the irrational whole which can experience a ‘sudden dislocation because the bonds uniting its various elements and partial systems are a chance affair event at their most normal.’[33] Such an account of crises extends Lukács ’ discussion of crises in ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’ as intrinsic to capitalist totality. It is also indicative of his peculiar interpretation of Marxist theory and its elaboration in the methodological and socio-theoretical aspects of his theory of reification as this account of crisis combines certain Marxian motifs with an account of socio-cultural totality hampered by a partial account of the dynamic of such a totality and the crises it triggers. For here it is not clear what it is that drives this overarching process, to what the ends the rationalization of isolated activity are oriented or why a sudden dislocation might occur. In addition, the remainder of the Reification essay, returns to Lukács one-dimensional generalization and its conclusion falls back on a philosophy of history to overcome reification rather than a system immanent account of crises.

However, such an account is gestured at elsewhere in History and Class Consciousness. In this instance, crises are once again presupposed by the separation of producer from the means of production and production from the sphere of circulation. Moreover they refer to the process of valorization that ensues, as premised on the dislocation between ‘the rationalization of isolated activity and the irrational whole’, and lead an account of crises which is neither one of overproduction or underconsumption. In this passage, Lukács states that crises are ‘always determined by the “antagonistic conditions of distribution” by the contradiction between the river of capital which flows on “in proportion to the impetus it already possesses” and “the narrow basis on which the conditions of consumption rest” i.e. by the objective economic existence of the proletariat.’[34] The proletariat ‘is, then, at one and the same time the product of the permanent crisis in capitalism and the instrument of those tendencies which drive capitalism towards crisis.’ While Lukács ’ use of this passage from Capital Volume III is still fragmentary it points out that he held that crises were triggered by an internal contradiction within capitalism and that it was also by such a contradiction that capitalism reproduced itself. This raises the question if these aspects of Lukács theory of crisis might find a more robust basis in Marx’s theory. I will try to demonstrate this is the case by focusing on the aspects of Marx’s theory of value and notions of crisis that account for the historical specificity of the capitalist social form, conceive of valorization as consequent upon production for successful exchange as meditated by money and the ensuing tendencies towards crises all of these aspects of capitalist society engender.




As Simon Clarke perceptively notes ‘The distinctive feature of Marxist theories of crisis is their emphasis on the necessity of crisis as an essential and ineradicable feature of the capitalist mode of production’.[35] From this perspective, ‘The task’ of Marx’s critique of political economy ‘is to explain the regular recurrence of economic crises as a normal part of the developmental tendencies of the capitalist mode of production.’ Thus while Clarke, and Heinrich, argue that Marx does not have a coherent or independent theory of crisis, they also point out that Marx’s critique held ‘that the tendency to crisis is inherent in the social form of capitalist production.’[36] As I will show such a notion of social form and its inherent notion of crisis mirror and can thus supplement Lukács ’ account of crisis.

Marx’s notion of the social form of capitalist production is based on what he views as historically-specific to the capitalist social labour. As in Lukács ’ analysis, Marx characterizes this historical specificity as the result of a double separation. In the first instance the historical development of ‘primitive accumulation’ consisted in ‘the expropriation of the workers from the conditions of labour’. In the second, production is separated from circulation:[37] ‘The so-called relations of distribution … correspond to and arise from historically particular and specific social forms of the production process and of the relationships which men enter into among themselves.’[38]

Marx’s theory of value enumerates how money pertains to this capitalist social form. As he argues money arises from and facilitates these peculiar characteristics of capitalism: ‘In the relation between capitalist and wage-labourer, the money relation, the relation of buyer and seller, becomes a relation inherent in production itself. But this relation rests fundamentally on the social character of production, not on the mode of commerce; the latter rather derives from the former.’[39] Capital, as self-valorising value, thus stems from these social relations constitutive of the specific separations and of the social power that money possesses by virtue of these separations — capital is not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character.’ Crises are also inherent to these social characters, and their constituting separations, for a ‘Crisis is nothing but the forcible assertion of the unity of phases of the production process which have become independent of each other.’

Marx shows how and why this is the case in the course of his presentation in Capital. As Marx notes elsewhere, even at its most abstract, this method of presentation enumerates what is unique to capitalism as a peculiar social form.[40] The method of presentation in Capital thus unfolds the essential elements of the capitalist mode of production in a manner that proceeds more or less from the most abstract to the concrete. This same method of presentation therefore also unfolds why and how crises are inherent to capitalist social production.

In Part One of Capital Marx thus enumerates that the social division of labour is responsible for the emergence of abstract labour, which as the substance of value appears in the exchange value of commodities. In order to facilitate the exchange of these commodities a general equivalent, money is necessary. Marx also indicates that the propensity for crises are rooted in this social division of labour, the opposition between the historically-specific social character of labour and its trans-historical dimensions and the ensuing independent disassociation of value from exchange value, which form the structural preconditions for the development of crises.


            The antithesis, use-value and value; the contradictions that private labour is bound to manifest itself as direct social labour, that a particularised concrete kind of labour has to pass for abstract human labour; the contradiction between the personification of objects and  the representation of persons by things; all these antitheses and contradictions,             which are immanent in commodities, assert themselves, and develop their modes of motion, in the antithetical phases of the metamorphosis of the commodity. These modes therefore imply the possibility of, and no more than the possibility, of crises. The conversion of this mere possibility into a reality is  the result of a long series of relations, that, from our present standpoint of  simple circulation, have as yet no existence.[41]


Marx’s conversion of these anti-thesis into the crisis-prone reality of capitalist social production is enumerated in the course of his presentation and developed in tandem with his monetary theory of value. As the form of value, money functions as the measure of value. It also facilitates exchange. Since this makes money the embodiment of value and determinate of whether commodities possess value if they are validated in the act of exchange, it posses what Marx terms a ‘social power’ and becomes the sole aim of production, ‘the self-sufficient purpose of the sale’, and thus the ends of the process of valorization, which is simultaneously one of reproduction.

As a consequence, this process of valorization is marred by inherent crisis tendencies. In the first place, the division of production and circulation possesses the inherent possibility that commodities will not be purchased in exchange. This means that although ‘The division of labour converts the product of labour into a ‘Commodity, and thereby makes necessary its conversion into money’ it also ‘makes it a matter of chance whether this transubstantiation succeeds or not.[42] This has ramifications for a society that reproduces itself through this process, for if the unity of these processes assert their ‘external independence’ their ‘unity makes itself felt by producing a crisis.’[43]

In the second place the process of valorization that occurs through this process of production and exchange is driven by a social rationality. It is ultimately capital, as self-valorising value that is ‘the dominant subject [iibergreifendes Subjekt] of the process’ of valorization.[44] As personifications of capital, individual capitalists are compelled to valorize value. Since ‘The driving motive and determining purpose of capitalist production is the self-valorization of capital to the greatest possible extent” i.e. the greatest possible production of surplus- value, hence the greatest possible exploitation of labour-power by the capitalist,[45] the capitalist personifies capital by implementing a number of techniques to ‘pump out’ surplus value from the labour power of the proletariat.

These techniques are unfolded in Marx’s account of valorization. They include cooperation ( the rational division of production within the factory as discussed by Lukács .) and the lengthening of the working day and the reliance on ‘increasingly improved machinery’ and the production of relative-surplus value which increases the productivity of labour at the same time as it decreases the value of labour power. As a result ‘The working population… produces both the accumulation of capital and the means by which it is itself made relatively superfluous’[46]. In sum, this process of valorization leads to what Marx describes as the ‘Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product as capital[47] and which is either compelled to continue to produce capital or become part of the surplus population which in turn drives the value of labour-power down and increases the rate of exploitation.

These elements of Marx’s account of the social form of production, his monetary theory, the valorization, and the inherent crisis tendencies of capitalism are brought together in the passage from Volume III that Lukács draws on to define Marx’s account of crisis as inherent to the social form of capitalist production.[48] Here Marx begins by offering a general account of what is unique to production in capitalism– ‘The creation of .. surplus-value makes up the direct process of production’.[49] In what he refers to as ‘the second act of the process’, which is also specific to capitalism, the ‘entire mass of commodities, i.e. , the total product, including the portion which replaces the constant and variable capital, and that representing surplus-value, must be sold’. For, ’if this is not done’ surplus value is not ‘realized for the capitalist’.[50]

This is because of the separation of production and circulation; ‘The conditions of direct exploitation, and those of realising it, are not identical.’[51] Mirroring Lukács ’ comment about (fill in here) ‘They diverge not only in place and time, but also logically.’[52] This is where Marx starts to unpack the consequences of such of divergence; while the ‘The first are only limited by the productive power of society, ‘the latter [are limited] by the proportional relation of the various branches of production and the consumer power of society’.[53] Consequently, as Lukács cites, ‘Consumer power is not determined either by the absolute productive power, or by the absolute consumer power, but by the consumer power based on antagonistic conditions of distribution, which reduce the consumption of the bulk of society to a minimum varying within more or less narrow limits.’[54] As Marx enumerates consumer power ‘is furthermore restricted by the tendency to accumulate, the drive to expand capital and produce surplus-value on an extended scale’.[55] Such an outcome is the logical consequence of the dynamics of the valorisiation process, which operate as law of nature and leads to the development of an ‘internal contradiction’ between the drive to produce in order to valorize capital and the inability of these products to be consumed because this very same production for the sake of valorization occurs at the expense of the proletariat are thus erodes their consumer power.[56]


            This is law for capitalist production, imposed by incessant revolutions in the methods of production themselves, by the depreciation of existing capital always bound up with them, by the general competitive struggle and the need to improve production and expand its scale merely as a means of self-preservation and under penalty of ruin. The market must, therefore, be continually extended, so that its interrelations and the conditions regulating them assume more and more the form of a natural law working          independently of the producer, and become ever more uncontrollable. This internal contradiction seeks to resolve itself through expansion of the outlying  field of production. But the more productiveness develops, the more it finds itself at variance with the narrow basis on which the conditions of consumption rest. It is no contradiction at all on this self-contradictory basis that there should be an excess of capital simultaneously with a growing surplus of population For while a combination of these two would, indeed, increase the mass of produced surplus-value, it would at the same time intensify the contradiction between the conditions under which this surplus-value is produced and those under which it is realised.[57]


Due to the variegated branches of capitalist production ‘This tendency for an unlimited extension of production confronts an ability to consume in society that is limited in a variety of ways’. Although this tendency’ may at one time operate predominantly side by side in space’…. ‘From time to time the conflict of antagonistic agencies finds vent in crises’ The crises are always but momentary and forcible solutions of the existing contradictions. They are violent eruptions which for a time restore the disturbed equilibrium.’[58]

In Marx’s analysis crises are therefore intrinsic to the capitalist social form. They stem from the double separation of producers from production and production from circulation. As his monetary theory of value and ensuing account of valorization demonstrate these separations are realized in a social dynamic wherein production occurs for the purpose of valorization at the expense of the proletariat. However because valorization relies on exchange this logic leads to an internal contradiction in which value cannot be realized because its production relies on undermining the purchasing power of the majority of the population. While this dynamic already relies on a certain amount of value failing to be realized as well as a surplus population with little to no consumer power, there a periodic tendency for this tendency to irrupt into a crises when this occurs on a mass scale.

Lukács account of crises can now be seen to allude to such a theory. His notion of the double separation that underlies his account of reification is likewise central to Marx’s theory of the social form. Moreover, his discussion of rationalization and chance can be seen to refer to the valorization process; the former in the management techniques capitalists use to ‘pump out surplus value’ from proletarian labour power; the latter in the fact that the realization of surplus value hinges on exchange. Finally, Lukács citation of Capital Volume III can be seen to signal towards the dynamic these factors set up that leads to the outbreak of crises.

These aspects of Lukács’ theory of reification are tied to a larger theory that is rightly criticized by Honneth for its methodological and socio-theoretical deficiencies. While I agree with Honneth’s assessment of these deficiencies, I disagree on their origins. For as I have shown they do not stem from the economic basis of Lukács ’ Marxism or from his ensuing departure from it, but from the eclectic and partial properties of this Marxism which combine Hegel, Marx, Simmel and Weber’s theories in Lukács ’ definition of the commodity form and generalize these properties to reified society, disclosing rather than explaining how these incongruent types of reification are part of a totality.

This raises the question — if Lukács theory of reification does not fail due to its Marxist basis could it be revitalized in a manner that is different than Honneth, Chari and Feenberg’s recent attempts, which eschew the Marxian element of Lukács ’ theory and with it an account of supra-individual social dynamics. As I have indicated, I believe this is possible by aligning Lukács ’ account of crises as intrinsic to capitalist society with the more rigorous theory Marx provides. Such a theory would also provide contemporary critical theory with a theory crisis by viewing crises as inherent to capitalist society and thus making this society the object of critical theory. This conception of a critical theory of crisis would also re-align contemporary critical theory with the critical theory of society laid out by Horkheimer, but instead of developing a critical theory of social crises from an account of bourgeois society premised on ‘simple commodity production’ one would begin with an account of bourgeois society as based on the double separation of the capitalist social form. From there, using Marx and Lukács, one could follow Horkheimer in showing how the monetary theory of value leads to capitalism, surplus populations and crises. Finally, echoing Horkheimer’s edicts that ‘specific ele­ments must be introduced in order to move from fundamental structure to concrete reality’ the ensuing socio-theoretical dimensions of such a theory could avoid Lukács ’ one-dimensionality by focusing on how crises have been realized in particular social and cultural phenomena. Although a study that utilizes this approach and these methods will have to the subject of a different article one could imagine providing an account of the current crisis that draws on Marx and Lukács to show how financialization consisted in the commodification and rationalization of financial assets for profit in a era of declining wages that played out the dynamic of the internal contradiction until a crisis erupted one might concretise the ramifications of this crisis in the growing surplus population, debt and misery it inflicts.





[1] The following represents my initial attempt to contribute to recent efforts to revitalize reification and fill a gap in literature on contemporary critical theory and crisis. I am hopeful that a publishable article will evolve out of the subject matter so constructive feedback on any elements of the paper, particularly Marx’s theories of crisis are welcome.

[2] CF Timo Juetten, Andrew Feenberg etc

[3] CF Anita Chari, ‘Toward a political critique of reification: Lukács, Honneth and the aims of critical theory’ Philosophy & Social Criticism June 2010 36: 587-606, and Andrew Feenberg, ‘’Re-thinking Refieiction in Timothy Bewes and Timothey Hall (eds.) ‘Georg Lukács : The Fundamental Dissonance of Existence Aesthetics, Politics and Literature. For a number of essays that reconsider Lukács from the perspective of contemporary critical or criticize Honneth’s interpretation of Lukács see the Bewes and Hall book, Michael J. Thompson (ed.) Georg Lukács Reconsidered: Critical Essays In Critical Essays in Politics, Philosophy and Aesthetics. and several articles by

[4]This can be seen in the astonishing fact that neither of the three leading critical theory journals—Constellations, Telos and Thesis Eleven—have any articles on the social and economic crisis or its relation to critical theory in the period of 2008-2013. Furthermore, (1) the recent special issue of Constellations volume 19 issue 3 on ‘rethinking critical theory’ did not have any articles re-assessing the Marxian legacy of critical theory (2) As survey articles on contemporary critical theory by (Brincbat 2012) and (Piá Lara 2008) point out contemporary critical theory is not engaged with these theoretical approaches or questions.

[5] Lukács , 1967 Prefaceács /works/history/

[6] Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory. See also Horkheimer’s comment that ‘The critical theory of society also begins with abstract de­terminations; in dealing with the present era it begins with the characterization of an economy based on exchange. The con­cepts Marx uses, such as commodity, value, and money, can function as genera when, for example, concrete social relations are judged to be relations of exchange and when there is ques­tion of the commodity character of goods. But the theory is not satisfied to relate concepts of reality by way of hypotheses. The theory begins with an outline of the mechanism by which bourgeois society, after dismantling feudal regulations, the guild system, and vassalage, did not immediately fall apart under the pressure of its own anarchic principle but managed to survive. The regulatory effects of exchange are brought out on which bourgeois economy is founded. The conception of the interac­tion of society and nature, which is already exercising its in­fluence here, as well as the idea of a unified period of society, of its self-preservation, and so on, spring from a radical analysis, guided by concern for the future, of the historical process. The relation of the primary conceptual interconnections to the world of facts is not essentially a relation of classes to instances. It is because of its inner dynamism that the exchange relation­ship, which the theory outlines, dominates social reality, as, for example, the assimilation of food largely dominates the organic life of plant and brute beast.’


[7] Lukács , What is orthodox Marxism? fromács /works/history/orthodox.htm

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Honneth, Reification: An Old Look at a New Idea.

[15] Honneth, p 21.

[16] CF. Martin Jay Marxism and Totality, Andrew Arato, The Young Lukács .

[17] Honneth p. 15

[18] Honneth, p. 16

[19] Honneth. P. 23

[20] Ingo Elbe, Between Marx, Marxism and Marxisms from

[21] Lukács , Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat fromács /works/history/hcc05.htm

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Thus, ‘the universality of the commodity form is responsible both objectively and subjectively for the abstraction of the human labour incorporated in commodities. (On the other hand, this universality becomes historically possible because this process of abstraction has been completed.) Objectively, in so far as the commodity form facilitates the equal exchange of qualitatively different objects, it can only exist if that formal equality is in fact recognised-at any rate in this relation, which indeed confers upon them their commodity nature. Subjectively, this formal equality of human labour in the abstract is not only the common factor to which the various commodities are reduced; it also becomes the real principle governing the actual production of commodities.’[29]


[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Clarke p. 6

[36] Clarke p. 7

[37] Marx


[39]V2 196

[40] ‘What is implied already in the commodity, and still so more so in the commodity as the product of capital, is the reification of the social determinations of production and


[41] Marx, Capital vol 1,

[42] Marx, Capital vol 1, p. 203.

[43] Marx, Capital Vol 1, p. 209.

[44] Marx, Capital Vol 1, p. 255.

[45] Marx, Capital Vol 1, p. 449.

[46] Marx, Capital Vol 1, p. 783.

[47] Marx, Capital vol 1, p. 799

[48] This is in contrast to others who use this passage in terms of profit squeeze.

[49] Marx, Capital Vol. III.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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