Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Critique of Sohn-Rethel's "Intellectual and Manual Labour"

This is an extended version of a critique of the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel that we posted a few days ago. Sohn-Rethel's book (Intellectual and Manual Labour) can be found here:


As Marxists we were brought up to think that of all the contradictions inherent in capitalism the one between the ever-increasing social dimension of social production and private appropriation is the most fundamental. It expresses the historical trend of the capitalist mode of production and asserts its transient character. This teaching has gained enhanced relevance in monopoly capitalism. With the introduction of flow production the social dimension assumed a specific structural form of its own and henceforth increased in a conclusive manner reaching in our days the size of the giant multi-national corporations…. [This] discrepancy creates problems which tend to exceed the controlling power of private capital and requires supplementation by the social resources and power of the State, (A. Sohn-Rethel, ‘I&M L’, pp.178-9).

As we saw in our earlier critique of Habermas, classical Marxism reprises the “idealist objectivism” of Hegel by emphasizing the dialectical contradiction between the “instrumental” development of the forces of production and the “interactive” backwardness of existing capitalist social relations of production. It is this contra-diction between the “objective” possibilities of human emancipation from capitalist “appropriation of surplus value” and the “subjective” or voluntarist imposition of obsolete capitalist social relations that, in the eyes of classical Marxism, determines the crisis of capitalism. Yet even the mere re-statement of this theory – that is, the “discrepancy” between the possibility of emancipation and the obsolescence of capitalist categories of private appropriation – evinces its implicit logical contra-diction: - because it is impossible to see how the “objective” development of “forces” of production can ever give rise to claims of “emancipation” that can clash against “subjective” legal and social relations! Emancipation is a political notion that is categorically different from the kind of “social dimension of social production…that exceeds the controlling power of private capital”. The very fact that “private capital” has always exerted a “controlling power” over social production means that “social production” cannot be distinguished from the “controlling power” that “private capital” exerts over it! Consequently, it is impossible to distinguish, as Sohn-Rethel attempts to do here, between the “social dimension of social production” and the “private appropriation” of production by capitalists – as if the first could be objectively determined and the second were a mere subjective appendage or appurtenance. Quite simply, Sohn-Rethel fails to see – as did Marx who tended to relegate the State to the sphere of “superstructure” – that capitalist society was never in a “competitive” stage that did not “require supplementation by the social resources and power of the State” – for the simple reason that the political coercion of State institutions, in their various State-forms since the rise of capitalism, has been essential to the reproduction and expansion of the wage relation. To imagine that capitalism (the wage relation) would have been possible without the political violence of the collective capitalist, the State-form, is to indulge in sheer fantasy.

The Marxian distinction between base and superstructure therefore has no basis in reality because the wage relation, and not the commodity form or the law of value, is what is at the centre of capitalist social relations of production, and what makes these irreducibly antagonistic. The reality of crisis is endemic to the capitalist wage relation because the definition of capital is precisely the command of the capitalist by means of dead objectified labor over living labor. If we wish to understand what “reification” means we need not delve into the foggy notions of “commodity fetishism” or of “crystallized labor time”, but rather peer into the simple, naked violence that capitalists perpetrate against workers through the coercion of wage labor.

The wage relation, which occupied at first only a limited sphere within post-feudal mercantilist societies, eventually became generalized to the extent that capital became the predominant force until it transformed the societies within which it originated into its own shape and form – into societies of capital. No “automatism”, then; no “self-regulating market economy”; no “competitive capitalism” that is replaced eventually by “monopoly capitalism”. Indeed, once we entertain the notion of a competitive capitalism, it becomes quite simply impossible for us ever to be able to reach – both logically and historically – the stage of monopoly capitalism – again for the simple reason that the two notions are aporetic, contradictory in a practical historical sense. For it is just as impossible for “competition” to subsist without turning into “monopoly” as it is for “monopoly” to make any sense at all without the reality of competition! (Schumpeter, in CS&D, brilliantly captures this point when he observes that even the strictest monopoly in capitalism lives in fear for its life! One may also recall Schumpeter’s quip at those clever economists who objected that “monopolies are in breach of the law of competition” that in fact it is the law of competition that runs foul of monopolies!)

The upshot of what we are arguing here is that “competition” and, by extension, “monopoly” are meaningless concepts because once we look at capitalist “market competition” we discover that it is dependent solely on the ability of capitalists to secure the command of dead labor over living labor by means of the “exchange” of the two, as if living labor could be “objectified” like dead labor! Sohn-Rethel is able to see the second point, the incommensurability of dead and living labor, but he is unable to extend this point – as logically it must – to the impossibility of defining objectively a specific form of quantitative co-ordination of an “economy”, whether capitalist or other. Here is Sohn-Rethel:

Thus the commensuration of labor demanded by way of a ‘law of nature’ [Marx] for any human society, presupposes a quantification of labor of different kinds or by different individuals. And the fact is that labour, as it occurs in society, is not itself quantifiable. It is not directly quantifiable in terms of needs, nor needs in terms of labour, neither is labour quantifiable in terms of labor time unless the labour were identical in kind or the actual differences material or personal were disregarded. Therefore to satisfy ‘the law of nature’ stated by Marx thereby making human society possible, systems of social economy are needed to operate a commensuration of labour based on a quantification of labour….
A most significant difference in the modes of commensuration of labour rests upon whether it is brought about indirectly by the exchange process, or directly by the labour process. (I&ML, p.168)

The logical contra-diction in Sohn-Rethel’s argument is almost too obvious: in one and the same breath he claims in the passage above that “the commensuration of labour presupposes the quantification of labour of different kinds” and that “labour [whatever that is!] in society is not itself quantifiable” – and so far he is entirely right. But then, contrary to this correct assertion, he immediately adds that “the commensuration of labour is what makes human society possible” and that this “can be brought about indirectly by the exchange process or directly by the labour process”.

Now, we may certainly agree with Sohn-Rethel that the labour process is what constitutes the social synthesis, if it is understood in the broader sense of both the “technical” element as well as its “reflexive” (or decision-making) component, which is what Habermas was aiming at earlier (see our posts on him) and which we criticized for is artificial separation of these two elements which for us are instead absolutely indivisible. For us, for the society that we intend to substitute to capitalism, the technical labour process and the decision-making process that goes with it cannot be separated either intellectually or indeed politically, so that the socialist society of the future will have to re-establish the control of workers over their working activity – something that capitalism separated violently.

But we cannot agree with Sohn-Rethel or with Marx or with the vast majority of Marxists who have fallen into the trap of believing (with Classical and Neoclassical Political Economy!) that “the exchange process” or “the market mechanism” is what brings about the social synthesis or “social co-ordination” – because, as we have argued here repeatedly, no “social co-ordination” is possible under capitalist industry without the direct intervention and regulation of the capitalist economy by the collective capitalist, the State-form, which has now become “the Crisis-State”.


It is this “anti-nomy” that Nietzsche tackles and denies most vigourously – this oxy-moronic concept of “necessary pre-supposition” of a “free individuality” – whence comes Kant’s transcendental (necessary or “intelligible”, required by Reason) idealism (freedom of the will). Here we have a “cognition”, the very act of knowing – the actus cognoscendi – that forms the foundation of the ultimate Subject, the Will: cogito ergo sum. In other words, it is Reason, the Ratio, that in its very “reasoning” requires an “ordering”, its Logos, the Word, essence become existence, the unity of Being and beings. This is the meaning of Kant’s “transcendental dialectic”. Equally, the Hobbesian decision achieves its “value-lessness” purely in extremis, in point of death, under “dire” necessity – and yet this necessity has no “organic”, historical or physiological or ontological nexus with the “freedom”, the Freiheit of the forum internum. Nietzsche instead firmly insists on “im-manence”, on the “physio-logical” or material foundation and origin (fons et origo) of our “cognition”, of knowledge as a living activityvivo ergo cogito! Because Nietzsche sees life and the world within the horizon of time and place – the hic et nunc – whereby “everything” happens here and now, the being of beings can be understood only within this “extra-temporal” and “extra-mundane” horizon of time and place – not (!) as an “object”, as a “sub-stratum” or “essence” that can be “known”, “explored”, “de-fined”, even “measured”, but rather as an intrinsic, constant becoming – the “gi-gnomai” that turns into “gi-gnosco” (knowledge as “recognition”), and therefore “gnosis” or “science” (scire) and into “noesis” (meaning), then into “dia-noia” (in-tention, project) and finally “dynamai” (power). [Nietzschebuch, Pt.2, p.34]

The above quotation from our ‘Nietzschebuch’ is meant to highlight the dif-ference between our approach to the question of “abstract labour”, which follows closely on Nietzsche’s critique of Western prima philosophia, and that taken by Sohn-Rethel. Specifically, and in essence, the dif-ference concerns the fact that for us the “abstraction” of living labour does not originate in the “distinction” or “division” of intellectual and manual labour, but rather in the “substantive practical” reason for this distinction – that is, the command of living labour by dead labour. Sohn-Rethel has mis-taken the reality of command (the Hobbesian “Power” that lies behind “possession” and its “proprietary individuality”) and the simple “formal” distinction between what may be perceived as “intellectual” and what may be perceived as “manual” labour. To illustrate the mis-apprehension under which Sohn-Rethel labors, let us quote him directly:

If the contradiction between the real abstraction in Marx and the thought abstraction in the theory of knowledge is not brought to any critical confrontation, one must acquiesce with the total lack of connection between the scientific form of thought and the historical social process. Mental and manual labour must remain divided. This means however that one must also acquiesce with the persistence of social class division, even if this assumes the form of socialist bureaucratic rule,” (I&ML, p.21).

There are a few obvious non sequiturs in Sohn-Rethel’s reasoning here that leap immediately to our attention. The first is that he assumes that the elimination of the division between intellectual and manual labour is indispensable to the formation of a classless society. Yet we all realize immediately that such a pre-requisite is simply unattainable for the obvious reason that it is impossible to distinguish between intellectual and manual labour in all but perhaps the most extreme cases. All “intellectual” activity involves some “manual” aspects and vice versa: the distinction is well-nigh impossible to draw. Worse still, Sohn-Rethel is putting the cart before the horse by identifying all “intellectual labour” with “commanding activity” and all “manual labour” with “subaltern or commanded activity”. Neither of these propositions is valid.

Furthermore, Sohn-Rethel is assuming, in line with Marx’s position, that there actually, really exists such a thing as a “real abstraction” of human social labour in such a manner that capitalists can achieve “the social synthesis” – that is, the effective operation of market commodity exchange or the rule of “exchange value” – through the “commodification” of human living labour. Again, just as we showed earlier in our discussion of Habermas and Lukacs that no such “necessary illusion” like “the fetishism of commodities” is possible, again we must argue against Sohn-Rethel that “abstract labour”, its “monetization” or exchange for dead labour and money, is purely, merely and simply the product, the fruit, the result of nothing other than capitalist violence and nothing else! In other words, there is and there cannot be anything like a “value” that is “exchanged” in a capitalist economy through the operation of “the market” or any other “competitive device”! Capitalism consists quite simply in the violent “reduction” of living labour to an “exchange” with dead labour that is the product, not of “the market” or of “competition”, but rather of sheer violence organized and enforced institutionally. The idea that Marx and his followers to date have formed – similar to the delusions of bourgeois economists whether classical or neoclassical or Keynesian – that the capitalist economy operates independently of direct political command on the part of specific institutions, or that it operates “automatically” or, as Sohn-Rethel puts it citing from Marx, “behind the backs of human beings” (p.20: “They do this without being aware of it”) is a complete and utter fabrication! No such magic Eskamotage is possible!

Indeed, the very notion of “crisis” that we have sought to present in nearly all of our work consists in the fact that the capitalist economy and society can never operate “automatically”, in monetary or in any other terms, except for the fact that the money wage constitutes the ultimate institutional “measure” of social antagonism because it indicates how “available” or “willing” are workers to sell their living labour in exchange for (!) the pro-ducts of social labour that are owned by capitalists and for which they pay the workers in money wages. Quite clearly, it is simply impossible for this “exchange” to have any “real basis” whatsoever except as violence, as sheer coercion through the various “institutions” of capitalist society. And therefore it is impossible for this “exchange” to form the basis of that “social synthesis” that Marx and all Marxists to date have believed takes place through “the market mechanism” (“self-regulating” for bourgeois economists and “crisis-prone” for socialist “economists”, Keynes included).

Interestingly, Sohn-Rethel himself seems to have his own misgivings about the Marxian notion of “socially necessary labour time” as the basis of “the social synthesis” and he does so after quoting a crucial passage from Marx:
“The reason for this reduction [i.e. the social synthesis through the homologation of “individual” labours] is that in the midst of the accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour-time socially necessary for their production asserts itself as a regulative law of nature….The determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time is therefore a secret hidden under the apparent movements on the relative values of commodities,” (at p.33).

Sensing the non-sequitur involved in Marx’s reasoning – how can it follow that “independent decisions” made by “independent producers” can ever, in a million years, satisfy the requirements of a society? -, Sohn-Rethel objects to Marx:

“Surely the exchange relations must have the formal ability to weave a web of social coherence [!] among the mass of private individuals all acting independently of one another [!] before, by the action of these exchange relations, their labour spent on all the variety of products can be quantified proportionately to the social needs,” (p.33).

Precisely, Alfred! Except that “the formal ability of the exchange relations to weave a web of social coherence” is not a ‘formal’ ability at all but is instead a ‘real’ and eminently ‘political’ one!    

Instead of realizing the im-possibility of this “formal ability”, Sohn-Rethel proceeds to seek to prove the impossible!

“I shall define the purely formal [!] capacity of the exchange abstraction and its social function…This conviction of mine, that the ‘commodity form’, to use Marx’s expression, can be analysed as a phenomenon of its own, in separation from the economic issues, does mark a difference from the Marxian theory but only in the sense that it adds to that theory. The formal analysis of the commodity holds the key not only to the critique of political economy but also to the historical explanation of the abstract conceptual mode of thinking and of the division of intellectual and manual labour that came into existence with it,” (p.33).

In other words, not only is Sohn-Rethel insisting on proving the impossible – that is, that the social synthesis, the reproduction of capitalist society, can be explained through the mere “form” of commodity exchange and its “real abstraction” of social labour; but also he pretends to be able to establish that this “real abstraction” which makes possible (just as Kant asked what makes “knowledge” possible) the social synthesis is dependent on the division and separation of intellectual from manual labour!

In light of our discussion of Nietzsche’s critique of epistemology quoted above, let us now turn to how Sohn-Rethel seeks to set up this “confrontation” between “real abstraction” and the critique of epistemology through the crucible of commodity exchange. “The essence of commodity abstraction,” argues Sohn-Rethel, “is that it is not thought-induced; it does not originate in men’s minds but in their actions…. While the concepts of natural science are thought abstractions, the economic concept of value is a real one. It exists nowhere but in the human mind but it does not spring from it.” Yet, as Nietzsche showed conclusively with his critique (see especially Part One of our ‘Nietzschebuch’, section on ‘Nietzsche’s Eristic Genealogy of Law and Political Economy’), this is quite incorrect: in actual fact “the concepts of natural science” originate in the actions of humans as much as “the economic concept of value”. Sohn-Rethel is attempting to draw a line between “scientific concepts” that deal with a “natural reality” and “economic concepts” that deal with “social reality”: “[Economic value] is purely social in character, arising in the spatio-temporal sphere of human inter-relations. It is not people who originate these abstractions but their actions. ‘They do this without being aware of it.’” (p.20).

In other words, for Sohn-Rethel it is the very act of “exchange” between human producers that leads to the “equiparation” of their individual activities and there-fore to the “abstraction” of these individual activities into “homogeneous labour” measurable by the category “value”. [Quote from Marx.] “[Commodities] are equated by virtue of being exchanged,” claims Sohn-Rethel, “they are not exchanged by virtue of any equality that they possess. In this way the relationship between the exchanging persons…is expressed as equality between these objects”. Individual workers know that their activities are materially (spatio-temporally) incommensurable; but it is through the act of exchange that these activities become “commensurable” without the awareness of the producers, without their being aware of their performing this otherwise [!] impossible task. We say “otherwise” because according to Sohn-Rethel and Marx this task of “commensuration” or “equiparation” of human activities is “socially” possible – through commodity exchange.

What Sohn-Rethel is doing here is confusing simple “exchange” in the form of barter or even gift (?) with the exchange of “commodities” which can take place only in an inchoately formed capitalist system until it becomes generalized to the entire reproduction of society as in advanced capitalism! But we say that this task is impossible in any case! Because incommensurables cannot become commensurable except through the “concerted” action of human beings, and not through the mere act of “exchange by independent[!] producers”! If “producers” were truly “independent”, then no amount of “exchange” could ever be responsible or lead to the “commensuration” of their “private individual labours”! It is only because there is no such thing as a “private individual labour”, only because all human labour is part of “social labour”, that the “social synthesis” is at all possible! Except that in capitalism this synthesis occurs only on condition that producers are “separated” from one another (from social labour) through their “separation” from the means of production. The ‘Trennung’ therefore occasions two separations for workers:- from the means of production first and consequently from their collective activity, so that the productivity of social labour appears as the property of the capitalist!

The error that Sohn-Rethel has committed is to characterize all “exchange” as commodity exchange! We can see yet again, then, that his insistence on the “independence” of “commodity exchange”, despite his misgivings and reservations on Marx’s “solution” to the problem by means of “socially necessary labour time”, leads to the hypostatization of social labour and to the treatment of “commodity exchange” as an attribute of all (!) “human inter-relations” rather than as a specific historical characteristic of capitalism! Thus, the “real abstraction” becomes a “crystallization” of human activity similar to the “forms” hypothesized in Georg Simmel’s neo-Kantian social theory. Or indeed even in Nietzsche – except that the philosopher of Rocken excoriated this as “the ontogeny of thought”, that is, as a fictitious “con-vention” that serves to disguise the instincts of freedom, the Will to Power, whereas Simmel treats these “forms” as ineluctable aspects of human social existence. But so does Sohn-Rethel, because of his failure to indicate correctly (!) how “exchange” arises historically – and thus incorrectly attributing this to the division between intellectual and manual labour.

As we demonstrated earlier, the division of human activity into “intellectual” and “manual” is quite simply untenable, for the evident reason that all human activity involves both a “mental” and a “manual” element and to seek to dichotomise it in the manner of Sohn-Rethel is palpably absurd. For Sohn-Rethel, the coercive separation of intellectual from manual tasks is the “real” source of the “abstraction” of concrete human labour – what Marx called “real abstraction” which leads to the “commodification” of use values, that is, their trans-formation into exchange values. At the intellectual level, however, this very “separation” of mental and manual labours, this “real abstraction”, engenders also the hypostatization and reification of the concepts of “natural science” in the manner operated by Kant in his “critique” – which is why Sohn-Rethel subtitles his work “Critique of Epistemology”: “Kant’s work does not presuppose that it is in the nature of the human mind to perform its labour in separation from manual labour, but it leads to that conclusion,” (p.36). At p.34:

But I set out to argue that the abstraction operating in exchange and reflected in value does nevertheless find an identical expression, namely the ‘abstract intellect’, or the so-called ‘pure understanding’ – the cognitive source of scientific knowledge.

And again at p.57:

This real abstraction is the arsenal from which intellectual labour throughout the eras of commodity exchange draws its conceptual resources. It was the historical matrix of Greek philosophy and it is still the matrix of the conceptual paradigms of science as we know it, (p.57).

Quite clearly, what Sohn-Rethel is attempting here is that unification of social and natural science that Marx had prophesied but that he was unable to realize because of his failure to supply “the critique of epistemology”:

The practical solipsism of commodity-exchanging owners is nothing but the practice of private property as a basis of social relations. And this is not by people’s choices but by the material necessity of the stage of development of their productive forces – the umbilical cord that ties human to natural history, (p.42).

The problem with Sohn-Rethel’s account, however, is quite simply that “the abstract intellect” is something that long pre-dates the arrival of “the exchange of commodities” or indeed of “exchange value”. It is meaningless, for instance, to speak of “commodity production” or exchange in Ancient Greece, because its “commerce” was never based on “the real abstraction” of living labour. Even if it were, however, the fact remains that “abstract labour” is not and cannot be the result, the outcome of “exchange” unless and until that “exchange” has become so “generalized” that it affects all aspects of the reproduction of a society – which was certainly not the case in Ancient Greece. In any case, it is impossible at least for Antiquity to distinguish between “simple exchange” and “commodity exchange” – with the consequence that Sohn-Rethel runs the real risk of hypostatizing all forms of human “exchange” as “the exchange of commodities”. And finally, why does “exchange” have to lead to “the abstraction of labour” and why does this “real abstraction” have to be the result of the distinction between “intellectual/mental” and “manual” labour? Is it not better, instead, to follow Hegel (as did Marx) and focus instead on the command of living labour by some human beings either through sheer violence (as in slavery) or through the (impossible) “exchange” (in fact a dif-ferent form of violence) with dead labour?

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