Historical Materialist Theory of Knowledge

by Alfred Sohn-Rethel

“It is not the consciousness of men which determines their being, but on the contrary it is their social existence which determines their consciousness.”

“Consciousness is therefore from the very beginning a social product and remains so as long as men exist at all.”

Taking these statements of Marx as a guide we find it useful for purposes of the theory of knowledge to distinguish three major epochs of social development to which correspond three important stages in the emergence of knowledge:

1. Tribal society (primitive communism).

2. Early class society (Bronze Age civilisations).

3. Commodity production (ancient and modern).

The corresponding states of knowledge are:

1. Language and consciousness.

2. Numbers and script.

3. Conceptual reasoning.

The contribution which I wish to make in this article relates to the third stage, but in order to see our problem in its historical perspective we must cast a glance, if ever so briefly, on the previous stages.

1. Language and Consciousness

“Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness as it exists for other men and for that reason is really beginning to exist for me personally as well; for language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of co-operation (Verkehr) with other men.”

This Marxian insight, characteristic of his genius, has been proved correct by the work of I. P. Pavlov on conditioned reflexes which has clarified the nature of speech. Speech, the use of words, Pavlov understands as “secondary signalling system” involving abstraction and thought.  Basing himself on these results, George Thomson in the opening chapter of his book The First Philosophers, (Lawrence & Wishart, 1955—as Vol. II of his Studies in Ancient Greek Society.) has undertaken to reconstruct the emergence of human consciousness in history. He argues convincingly that consciousness evolves as an outcome of “collective labour, involving tools and speech”. “The three characteristics we have distinguished—tools, speech, co-operation—are parts of a single process, the labour of production. This process is distinctively human, and its organising unit is society.”

Some distinctive features of the consciousness throughout the periods of the first stage are: (a) Consciousness here is entirely practical; it is in the nature of skill which we would describe as knowledge of how to do things as distinct from the knowledge of how to explain them. Only to the latter do we, for our special purposes, reserve the name of “scientific”. (b) The individual cannot conceive of his existence outside his social group, he does not face nature as an individual, on the contrary, his conception of nature bears essential features of the organisation of his group. (c) “So long as labour remained collective, its process was necessarily incomprehensible to the individual participants.” In fact, to the participants the process was indistinguishable from magic, “we may say that magic originated in the labour process as its subjective aspect.”

2. Number and Script

Economically primitive communism was based on common ownership of the means of production at a level of productivity so low that it hardly sufficed for subsistence. Only at the end, in the neolithic epoch, did productivity begin permanently to rise above subsistence level, thereby making social exploitation possible. Aided by increasing division of labour and the corresponding commodity exchange the introduction of metallurgy (copper and bronze) together with centrally organised irrigation in the alluvial valleys of the Nile, Eurphrates, Indus, and Hoang-Ho laid the economic foundations to the class society of the Bronze Age civilisations.

The vastly increased surplus product of the village communities is appropriated—collected, stored, and disposed of—by a non-producing class of landlords and priests organised under a kingship. (With their “primitive communal relations of production . . . converted into tributary relations, but without involving any more radical change”—G Thompson, 1.c. p. 178)  This surplus product serves to pay for metal and other materials traded from abroad, to proved the keep of specialised metalworkers and other urban craftsmen whose (luxury) product is again appropriated by the ruling class, and to feed soldiers and masses of conscript labourers occupied on useful and sacred constructions. With the chief exception of foreign trade which is in the form of exchange, appropriation in a social system of “direct lordship and bondage”. to use a Marxian term. (For a clear description of these Bronze Age economies see the books of Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (Pelican), Man Makes Himself (Thinkers’ Library) and particularly his elucidating short article in Modern Quarterly Vol. 1, 2 (March 1946) on “The Social Implications of the Three Agesin Archeological Classification“.)

All the characteristic mental achievements of this stage are made by the agents of this kind of appropriation, of whom the only example within our historical experience are the mandarins of Imperial China and their subalterns. Foremost amongst these achievements was: the working out of counting systems, the establishment of standard measures, the calculation of storage and building volumes, the astronomy and calendar of the floods, the geometry of the redistribution of the fields after the floods for tax re-allocation, the preservation (mummification) of things stored, and last but not least, record keeping and writing. these are achievements of mental work divided from productive labour, even if not yet severed from manual activity altogether. the mental techniques evolved at this stage are associated not with the naming of things, but with written (man-made) signs for things named, arithmetical or verbal symbols. Although many of these techniques are absorbed and carried on at the next stage, they do not in themselves imply or presuppose a scientific mode of thinking. the arithmetic of the Egyptians, for instance, shows  no sign of free mathematical reasoning; the nature of their geometry seems indicated by the professional name of the geometers which Herodotus translates by a word meaning “rope fasteners”; and their astronomy did not oust mythology. Indeed, the ideological leaders were everywhere priests, not philosophers. These only belong to the third stage.

3. Conceptual Reasoning

(a) Commodity production and the rise of philosophy

Philosophical thought emerges in ancient Greece, first in the early Ionian, still semi-mythological cosmologies of the sixth century, and then around 500 B.C. with the first philosophers in the strict sense, i.e., Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Parmenides. Philosophical and conceptual reasoning may be regarded as an attribute of civilisation as understood by Engels. “Civilisation is . . . the stage of development in society at which the division of labour, the exchange between individuals arising from it, and the commodity production which combines them both, come to their full growth and revolutionise the whole of previous society.” (Origins of the Family, p198) And again more explicitly and in greater detail: “The stage of commodity production with which civilisation begins is distinguished economically by the introduction of (1) metal money, and with it money capital, interest and usury; (2) merchants, as the class of intermediaries between the producers; (3) private ownership of land, and the mortgage system; (4) slave labour as the dominant form of production.” (p201) The conclusions reached by Engels in this study regarding the effects of commodity production and money economy upon social life have in recent years been brought an essential step forward by George Thomson who in the book already quoted shows in a closely argued manner that the growth of commodity production is also at the root of the rise of philosophy. He sums up his conclusion in these words:

“In Capital Marx gave the first scientific analysis of those mysterious things called commodities. A commodity is a material object, but it only becomes a commodity by virtue of its social relations to other commodities. Its existence qua commodity is a purely abstract reality. It is at the same time . . . the hall-mark of civilisation . . . Hence, civilised thought has been dominated from the earliest times down to the present day by what Marx called the fetishism of commodities, that is, the false consciousness generated by the social relations of commodity production. In early Greek philosophy we see this ‘false consciousness’ gradually emerging and imposing on the world categories of thought derived from commodity production, as though these categories belonged, not to society, but to nature.” (The First Philosophers, p301) This conclusion seems to raise an important question.

Apparent Incompatibility of Two Materialistic Views

How does the derivation of basic categories of thought from commodity production, as suggested by G. Thomson, fit in with the accepted theory of knowledge of dialectical materialism? The categories in question are concepts like substance, being, magnitude, abstract time and space, uniform movement, etc., and therefore not dissimilar to the “principles of being” under discussion in the Anti-Dühring where Engels argues:

“But whence does thought obtain these principles? From itself? No, . . . the realm of pure thought is limited to logical schemata . . . ; but what we are dealing with here are forms of being , of the external world, and these forms can never be created and derived by thought out of itself, but only from the external world. But with this the whole relationship is inverted: the principles are not the starting point of the investigation, but its final result; they are not applied to Nature and human history, but abstracted from them; it is not Nature and the realm of humanity which conform to these principles, but the principles are only valid in so far as they are in conformity with Nature and history. That is the only materialistic conception of the matter and Herr Dühring’s conception is idealistic.” (p44)

Engels, on the other hand, speaks of the “external world” and there cannot be any doubt that a derivation of the kind G. Thomson suggests was not in Engels’ mind when he wrote these lines. Hence there would seem to exist, at first sight, a certain incompatibility between two materialistic ways of thinking, one tracing the basic principles of knowledge to a root in “social existence”, the other deriving them from the “external world” by way of “abstraction” and “reflection”. This apparent contradiction calls for a clarification of the position and this could be helped by a systematic enquiry into the implications of G. Thomson’s conclusion. This seems a task worth undertaking as the theory of G. Thomson bears out most fully the principles of historical materialism stressing the determination of human consciousness by social existence. Secondly it promises, what no previous materialistic theory has ever suggested, a possibility of specific derivations of definite categories. And thirdly it aims at an understanding of any given forms of knowledge in their particular historical epoch and would thus inaugurate a historical-materialistic theory of knowledge.

The basis for our understanding must be a close form analysis of commodity exchange, itself the precise seat of the abstraction which according to the suggestion under scrutiny, causes the abstract manner of thinking characteristic of epochs of fully-fledged commodity production. Our starting point is Marx’s analysis of the commodity in the opening chapters of Capital.

Marx lays great stress on the abstract nature of the commodity and uses such expressions as “value-abstraction” and “commodity-abstraction”. What is meant by these terms is abstraction from use-value. “The material properties of the commodities only concern us here, in so far as they confer utility, so as to render the commodities use-values. On the other hand, the obvious characteristic of the exchange ratio between commodities is precisely this., that it is an abstraction from their use-values.” Thus by use-value of a commodity is understood the sum total of its physical properties, its entire sense reality. The abstraction from use-value is seen as a purely objective, blind and factual function of commodity exchange. It is not intended by anybody, not consciously instituted by man, not sprung from his thoughts. On the contrary, the abstraction is not even noticeable to the exchanging agents who cause it by what they do. “They do not know it, but they do it.” The commodity owners are the deluded victims of whatever effects the abstraction that they themselves enact has upon their condition. The awareness of the abstraction comes to them post festum and leaves them guessing as to the origin. “The intermediate steps of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind.”

What makes exchange possess this abstractive function? This, obviously, is the crucial question. To any bourgeois economist or sociologist, the Marxian teaching on the fetishism of commodity is pure speculation devoid of reality. But what is the argument upon which Marx’s assertion rests? If we trace back the twenty-odd steps by which he reaches his conclusion, we meet as sheet-anchor of the derivation the reference to the function inherent in exchange of establishing an equation between the commodities exchanged.

“In order to discover how the elementary expression of the value of a commodity lies hidden in the value relation of two commodities, we must, in the first place, consider the latter entirely apart from its quantitative aspect . . . Linen = coat is the basis of the equation.”

The Postulate of Equivalence

This equation Marx accepted as a basic postulate needing no proof beyond its mere statement. And it formed indeed the common ground of all economic value theory up to his day. The “equivalent” of a commodity is that which is “exchangeable” with it; these are synonymous terms to him. It is well known, however, that only four or five years after the appearance of the first volume of Capital bourgeois economics evolved the subjectivistic value theory (of marginal utility) which is based on the denial of the postulate of equivalence. This theory reduces exchange to the logic of choice, and choice pre-supposes difference, not equality of values. This makes idealism the methodological principle of economics, but however this may be, the exchange equation of values can no longer be treated as an axiomatic truth. It must be proved and traced to its foundation. This will not merely reconfirm the Marxian analysis of commodity but will inevitably enlarge it, and this enlargement entails, if I am not mistaken, its extension into the epistemological field.

There is more than one way of approach to this task. The most obvious would be by means of a fully-fledged critique of subjectivistic economics, or at least of its theory of value, an undertaking impossible in a short article. There is, however, a short cut which has moreover the advantage that it eliminates the economic aspect focused upon the quantitative determination of value and confines our analysis to the purely formal characteristics of exchange.

Separation of Exchange from Use

For this short cut we require a definition of use-value and of exchange-value and of their relationship, which satisfies the Marxian theory and which, at the same time, subjectivistic economists are powerless to reject. Accordingly we say: use-value is the aspect of a commodity as object of use, exchange value its aspect of exchange. (The word “use” here must be understood in a precise meaning: [1] the word signifies act of use, not a property of being usable—e.g., the use of a chair to sit on it;[2] the word must retain its distinctive difference from exchange—e.g., it is admissible to speak of the “use” of a coin as material for jewelery, but not to speak of its “use” as money.) Use and exchange are different actions in such a way that they are mutually exclusive in time. The root-cause of the abstractness of exchange is contained in this exclusion. The exclusion or separation in time between exchange and use as actions therefore carries paramount importance and must be understood in its essentials.

The point is that exchange and use are not only different and contrasting by description, but that they must perforce take place separately, at different times. While commodities are subject to a deal of exchange, they must remain exempt from use. The reason is that exchange serves one change only, a change of ownership, a change, that is, of a purely social status. And in order to make this change of ownership possible as a regular activity, the physical state of the commodity must be assumed to remain unchanged while their transfer is taking place. Therefore, wherever commodity exchange takes place, it does so in effective “abstraction” from use. This is an abstraction not in mind, but in fact; it is a state of affairs prevailing at a definite place and throughout a definite time. It is the state of affairs which reigns in the market.

The abstraction from use by no means implies, however, that the use-value of the commodities is of no importance in the market. On the contrary, it engages the interest of people in the most lively way. But it occupies them only in their minds, only subjectively and by thought; they may not put their interest into action. Hence, in the market and in the shop window things stand still.  They are under the spell of one activity only, that of changing their owners. While they are waiting to be sold their use-value is on show and for scrutiny. the scrutiny may take any form and go to any length short of causing damage to the commodities, that is, of affecting their material state, or of putting the commodities to their actual use.

THE BAN ON USE divides the people from the commodities and establishes a relationship closely akin to the ’subject-object division’ one finds described in the treatises of subjective idealism. People interested in the use-value of a commodity in the market are reduced to the passive role of receiving ’sense impressions’ and verifying them in tests leaving the material nature of the object intact. (A closer but quite easy analysis would retrace the essential features of subjective idealism in the characteristics of the market and give good cause for suspecting that this is in fact whence that philosophy unknowingly stems.) With all the means at their disposal to satisfy their interest they cannot bridge the gap that separates them from the material reality of things which only use can give them and which therefore lies outside or ‘transcends’ the sphere of the market. For use and the material practice with things (See Marx’s first Theses on Feuerbach) in production and consumption, in a commodity producing society, is relegated to the private spheres of the households, workshops, factories, etc., while in the public sphere, i.e. in the market, people gather for the radically different activity of exchange alone. With capitalist commodity production, moreover, at the stage when it reaches maturity—as it did in England in the eighteenth century—the market penetrates into the entire width and breadth of social life to become co-extensive with society itself.

The actual events, then, to which the market as such reserves recognition are the acts of exchange defined as actions concerned with the social status of commodities as owned property. In order to satisfy this definition the acts of exchange must be assumed to leave the physical state of the commodities unaffected. Nevertheless, the acts of exchange by no means lack physical reality themselves. They involve movement of things in time and space and represent events of no less physical reality than the acts of use which they rule out. it is precisely because their physical reality is on a par that both kinds of activity, exchange and use, are mutually exclusive in time.

In order to understand how this condition makes for the postulate of equivalence, it must be realised that the exclusion of use and the ensuing abstractness of exchange is tied to the reciprocity of the relationship. A one-sided appropriation or act of robbery does not exclude the simultaneous use of the robbed object. The abstractness makes for the identical equality of form of both commodities in their exchange relation to each other. But besides being thus identically equal in form they are both essentially unequal in use-value (equal use-values would not be exchanged one for the other). Therefore, the commodities in exchange are not equal themselves, but equal “in value”. The notion of value as value-in-exchange is a purely relational concept the content of which is to postulate the equality of the unequal. At the same time it serves to commute the qualitative differences of the unequal into quantitative comparison of that which is postulated to be equal. Under the postulate of equivalence commodities are capable of none but quantitative differentiation.

The Exchange Abstraction and its Pattern

I call exchange abstraction the effect which the exclusion of use has upon the description of acts of exchange. The term is closely related to, but not identical with, the Marxian terms of “commodity abstraction” and “value abstraction”; on the other hand, I would regard it as an essential part of what Marx calls the “commodity form.” Like the commodity abstraction with Marx, so the exchange abstraction in the light of the present analysis is a blind, essentially unnoticed result of the actions of people. The abstraction happens, as Marx puts it “behind the backs” of people who, while they are taken up with their market activities, cannot have a mind for the formal implications of what they are doing. For it is not the people, it is their reactions which cause the exchange abstraction.

The main importance of the exchange abstraction for our present purposes lies with the description of the acts of exchange, which it implies and which I shall refer to as “the pattern” of the exchange abstraction. It can be roughly given as abstract movement through abstract time and space of abstract substances which thereby suffer no material change and which allow for none but quantitative differentiation. The essential nature of the terms of this pattern is that they are form, pure form. They therefore allow for no other reflection than by pure thought.

Now it must be feasible, if by no means easy task, to give a detailed and accurate description of the pattern and its terms, based upon a close and painstaking analysis of the exchange abstraction. It is my contention that anyone undertaking this task will find in it the formal genetic deduction of the concepts which in traditional philosophy are known as “the categories of the pure understanding” and which, whether in ontological or epistemological interpretation, have formed the chief bugbear of theoretical philosophy since the “first philosophers.”

The Rational Core of Theoretical Philosophy

For let us ask wherein lies, from a Marxian angle, the rational core of theoretical philosophy? It lies in the question: how is a valid knowledge of nature possible on a basis other than manual labour? Philosophy is as old as this problem. In ancient Greece it fell upon the philosophers themselves to seek knowledge of nature by intellectual labour; in modern Europe knowledge of nature became the work of science, and philosophers from Descartes onwards attempted to account for the possibility of science. They are still occupied with this task. In both cases knowledge of nature was an indispensable necessity for ruling classes of society based, in antiquity, on simple, and in modern Europe, on capitalist commodity production. Here as there, control over the process of production has passed from the manual producers to a class of non-producers exercising their class-rule as capitalists, that is, as owners of money-power. A valid knowledge of nature from sources other than manual labour therefore was, and still is, an indispensable social necessity.

There is no room here to discuss the answers to this problem given throughout 2,500 years of philosophy until the present day, not excluding John Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Bertrand Russell. Suffice it to say that all the answers given are in timeless, unhistorical terms so that the needs of commodity producing societies is based on the pattern of the exchange abstraction. It is knowledge of nature in commodity form.

Matter in Motion

This answer cannot be argued here in detail so as to make it more than a suggestion. In support of it, however, consider two general characteristics of modern science and of its underlying pattern of thinking. One is by Engels:

“Motion is the mode of existence off matter. Never anywhere has there been matter without motion, nor can there be. Motion in cosmic space, mechanical motion of smaller masses on the various celestial bodies, the motion of molecules as heat or as electrical magnetic currents, chemical combination or disintegration, organic life—at each given moment each individual atom of matter in the world is in one or other of these forms of motion, or in several forms of them at once.” (Anti-Dühring, p71)

The other is by Bertrand Russell:

“The theory that the physical world consists only of matter in motion was the basis of the accepted theories of sound, heat, light and electricity.” (A History of Western Philosophy, p630. The sentence occurs in a discussion of Locke’s doctrine as to primary and secondary qualities of which B.R. says: ‘Ever since Berkeley, Locke’s dualism on this point has been philosophically out of date. Nevertheless, it dominated practical physics . . . Not only was it assumed, explicitly or tacitly, by physicists, but it proved fruitful as a source of many very important discoveries.’ And after the sentence quoted in the text, B.R. continues: ‘Pragmatically, the theory was useful, however, mistaken it may have been theoretically.’ It is true that Locke’s list and evaluation of ‘primary qualities’ was faulty and more so the standard he applies to the division. But the division itself touches upon the very foundation of bourgeois science, and its fruitfulness is thus not quite as accidental as B.R. would make it appear.)

The association of matter with motion stems from Galileo’s definition of inertia. (As formulated by Newton this definition reads: ‘Inertia is that property of matter by virtue of which it retains its state of rest or uniform rectilinear motion so long as no foreign cause changes that state.’) This definition was the finishing touch enabling Galileo to work out the mathematical and experimental method and to become the founder of modern science. How do we account for this epistemologically? In the light of Galileo’s definition of inertia the pattern of the exchange abstraction assumes the meaning of the absolute minimum of what constitutes a physical event. Any event that can be constructed as a composite of this minimum is therefore ipso facto conceivable in terms of pure theoretical categories and amenable to mathematical treatment. This is in fact how modern science proceeds. Theoretical hypotheses in conceptual form and mathematical formulation are worked out and tested by confrontation with nature or rather with that carefully isolated part of nature of which the hypothesis contains the definition. This confrontation represents the experiment. If the experiments yield a reliable verification of the hypothesis the latter becomes an established ‘law of nature’ in the shape of a law of recurring events. And this is the result which one or the other capitalist has been waiting for in order to install a serial manufacturing process on the lines of a large-scale replica of the successful experiment. Knowledge of nature from sources other than manual labour is indeed his indispensable need.

Reflections on the Exchange Abstraction

It was pointed out above that, as the exchange abstraction reduces the description of exchange to pure form, its pattern and any of its terms cannot be reflected except by pure thought. Our subsequent considerations were based on the assumption that this reflection had actually taken place. But the pattern of the exchange abstraction and its terms are not originally reflections. On the contrary, it presents a major problem to trace the way by which that pattern or any parts of it are conveyed to the conscious mind of people and take the shape of concepts. Again only a rough outline can be given here.

The key to the answer is that the exchange abstraction cannot find its way to the minds of people unless it assumes a visible representation. And the first visible representation of the exchange abstraction in history was none other than coined money. The essentials of its evolution were traced by Marx in the first chapter of Capital and I have to refer the reader to that analysis. However, a few salient points I must raise here.

The Evolution of Coined Money

In a mere isolated, accidental case of exchange between any two parties the exchange abstraction evidently shows no trace at all. At a higher stage, which Marx calls ‘the expanded form of value’, when exchange becomes multilateral and comprises a variety of commodities, one of these must serve as means of exchange with others. here too, this role does not convey to the commodity in question any appearance different from its use-value, although the latter is now vested with a postulate not to undergo any material change while it acts in this capacity. Still, the choice for this role falls upon a commodity which by its physical durability easily complies with the postulate. In this way the postulate of immutability, although springing from the nature of exchange, soon again appears to all concerned to be the outcome of the peculiar use-value of the commodity in question. The fact that a peculiar halo is likely to accrue to the latter will seem to confirm rather than to contradict the misleading appearance. This is notoriously so when the role of equivalent settles upon one or the other of the precious metals. ‘All this was still very undeveloped: the precious metals were beginning to be the predominant and general money commodity, but still uncoined, exchanging simply by their naked weight”, (F. Engels, Origin of the Family, p186) that is, in the appearance of objects of use. Therefore at each transaction they had to be weighed and cut or melted and tested for their metallic purity; in short, they had to be treated in accordance with their physical nature. But precisely this was the reason why they did not very well conform to the requirements of the market, and their inadequacies were not remedied until the invention of coinage.

This portentous step was taken for the first time in history round about 700 B.C. on the Ionian side of the Aegean, in Lydia or Phrygia. The institution quickly spread, following as well as helping the marked commercial expansion in process at that epoch and finding imitation in the main Greek centres of maritime trade. The very introduction of coinage is a sure sign of commodity production entering upon its stage of ‘full growth’. “From Ionia the new medium spread across the Aegean to Aigina, Euboia, Corinth, Athens, and a little later to the Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily. Thus Greek society was the first to be based on a monetary economy. The significance of this development has seldom been appreciated.” (George Thompson,1.c, p194)

Independent Intellectual Labour 

In coinage the previous relationship by which the value status of a commodity serving as money was subordinated to, and covered up by, its material status is reversed. A coin has it stamped upon its body that it is to serve as a means of exchange and not as an object of use. Its weight and metallic purity are guaranteed by the issuing authority so that, if by the wear and tear of circulation it has lost in weight, full . A replacement is provided. Its physical matter has visibly become a mere carrier of its social function. A coin, therefore, is a thing which conforms to the postulates of the exchange abstraction and is supposed, among other things, to consist of an immutable substance, a substance over which time has no power, and which stands in antithetic contrast to any matter found in nature.

Anybody who carries coins in his pocket and understands their function, bears in his mind, whether or not he is aware of it, ideas which, no matter how hazily, reflect the postulates of the exchange abstraction. To go about his marketing activities of buying and selling and to take advantage of the power of his money no clearer awareness is required. But to reflect upon the ideas involved, to become conscious of them, to formulate them, to take stock of them and to work out their inter-relations, to recognise their antithetic contrast to the world of the senses and yet their intrinsic reference to it, etc.—this does not follow automatically from the use of coined money, but constitutes a clearly definable conditioned potentiality inherent in a monetary economy.

The social upheavals and class struggles ensuing from the development of this economy in the various City States of ancient Greece created under the existing historical conditions the necessary incentives for tackling these tasks. To work out their solutions occupied the long line of philosophers from Thales to Aristotle throughout three hundred years of astounding intellectual effort. What came into existence here is the capacity of conceptual reasoning in terms of abstract universals, a capacity which established full intellectual independence from manual labour.

We became aware earlier that in the exchange abstraction time becomes unhistorical time and space becomes ungeographical space; they become “abstract time” and “abstract space”, as we said, endless time and limitless space, and in this form the setting of a conception of the universe as nature in an antithetic contrast to man’s own social world. This concept of nature did not exist before. It is nature in the strict sense of the object world, incompatible with any human and social connotations such as those in magic and mythology. Nature in this new sense constitutes the original and immediate subject matter of the independent intellect which, by means of the pattern of the exchange abstraction, is equipped for its conception and understanding. The timeless, unhistorical character is common to all concepts derived from the reflection of the abstract pattern of exchange.

On the other hand, the independent intellect has not a trace of its own origin. It has come to Man as the most mystifying mystery of all, his un-understandable power of understanding. The mystery is sealed under a long variety of names—the logos, the nous, the intellectus purus, the ego cogitans, the transcendental subject, the subject of cognition, “the” mind, etc., etc. But it is not only over its own self, it is over the entire field of Man’s own social and human condition that the independent intellect casts the impenetrable shadow of false consciousness. (For the connotations of this term I must refer the reader to G. Thomson’s book and to its last chapter headed “False Consciousness”, as well as to the paragraph “Necessary false Consciousness” in a contribution of mine in Modern Quarterly Vol.3, 1, Winter 1947/8.)

This intellectual capacity has accrued to Man at the crucial juncture in history when he lost control over the social process. Thus his independent intellect is no more than the indispensable light to enable him to live in a world plunged in darkness. Only a very few philosophers were sufficiently aware of this condition to conceive of reason as a capacity for changing the darkness into daylight; Hegel was foremost among them, but even he could only think of changing a lower into a higher intellect (“den Verstand sur Vernunft zu bringen”) and failed to realise that what was needed was “to change the world” itself, (Marx) that is, to end commodity production.

Basis and Superstructure in Intellectual Work

Some part or aspect of intellectual work done by or on behalf of classes ruling by money power is basic and some other is superstructural in the Marxist sense, and it is important to distinguish with certainty between these parts.

The logical constitution of the intellectual work, i.e., that part which bestows the validity of correct thinking on such work, is necessarily determined. Indeed, it is deducible if our view is correct “with the precision of a natural science” (Marx) from the formal constitution of the nexus of commodity producing societies. This part is basic. On the other hand, this social nexus and the underlying economic conditions engender class antagonisms and class struggles which, in their turn, have inevitable effects on the feeling and thinking of the people involved, and these effects are not basic, but superstructural and “ideological”, not judgeable on standards of objective truth. Thus, the derivation of the scientific mode of thinking from its roots in the exchange abstraction does not make science an “ideology”.


We should now be in a position to clear up the apparent contradiction between the materialistic conception of George Thompson and that of Engels and Lenin. In fact, there is no contradiction. The analysis of commodity exchange enables us to understand the way by which the abstract concepts which form the foundations of our scientific knowledge of nature are derived from nature. They are derived from nature by a historical process which implies both abstraction and reflection. The abstraction takes place as a blind and purely functional result of commodity exchange and is inseparably connected with exchange from its first to its last days in history. Great stress must be laid upon the fact that commodity exchange does not create, but merely abstracts the form characteristics of exchange. And it abstracts them ultimately from nature by banning every kind of physical event in the market except the one of property transfers. The reflection, on the other hand, is a mental and conscious activity, and it is reflection of what is abstract. (This observation disposes of the metaphorical sense of the term “reflection” and gives it a precise meaning.)

It is never an automatic necessity but in the nature of a conditioned potentiality which, in fact, was first given in history from the time when the exchange abstraction assumed visible appearance in coinage (It is to my knowledge, a historical truth that conceptual reasoning emerged in history only in the wake of the introduction of coinage, not only in classical antiquity, but also in China and in India and here dried up when, as a result of deep-rooted economic changes, coinage disappeared again). Money is the abstract thing. As compared with the first stage, the relationship between language and thought is here reversed. Thinking in abstract universals has its own independent foundation and consciously chooses the language to suit it. When this mode of thinking approaches maturity we witness the emancipation of logic from grammar. (Adam Schaff, in his Introduction to Semantics [1962] has some useful critical remarks directed against those neopositivists who by making a philosophy of semantics, aim at drawing logic back into grammar.) Further while the consciousness of individuals in tribal societies reflects the collective character of their activities, the intellect characteristic of civilisation is not only independent of manual work, but it is the independent intellect of individuals. However, the formal code or “ratio” of this intellect is one between all individuals since it is the pattern of the exchange abstraction.

The theory of knowledge to which our systematic enquiry had led us, is in the precise sense of the term a historical-materialistic one. It does not occupy the place of a prima philosophia (which must by necessity be timeless), but forms part and parcel of the understanding of the historical epochs under consideration, for instance, the epochs of civilisation as defined by Engels. True, it is the hall-mark of civilised thought that it is all in timeless, unhistorical terms. But we found that the unhistorical mode of thinking is itself historically conditioned. We found that the timeless mode of reasoning, and even the knowledge of nature necessary in commodity producing societies is based on the pattern of the exchange abstraction, on the commodity form. A society not relying on commodity exchange for its nexus, for instance, a modern communist society, would require for the first time in history a kind of knowledge based on a different foundation. It also would require for the first time in history a kind of knowledge not emerging blindly but equipped with a full understanding of its own origin and nature. Part of this understanding is the generalisation that for all epochs and societies the basic logical pattern of the socially necessary mode of knowledge is the same as the form pattern of the social nexus. The Marxian statement according to which the consciousness of men is determined by their social existence is true in a far more exact sense than is commonly appreciated.

SOURCE: Sohn-Rethel, Alfred. “Historical Materialist Theory of Knowledge,” Marxism Today, 1965.

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