Contra Sohn-Rethel: On the Philosophical Roots of Anti-Capitalism

David Black

Was the birth of philosophy in Ancient Greece a reflex and projection of the generic forms of capitalist exploitation, such as exchange-value, money and the commodity-form? Did commodity fetishism and reification exist in Antiquity or are they historically specific to capitalism? If the entire history of philosophy is branded with class-exploitation, is the Hegelian dialectic redundant in critical theory? David Black, introducing one of the themes of his forthcoming book, The Philosophical Roots of Anti-Capitalism, evaluates Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s “anti-philosophical” critique of capitalism–Editors (Image:

sohn-rethel(Persian Translation)

”Sohn-Rethel’s exceptionally radical view – parallels can be found, if at all, in Lukács’ ‘Reification’ essay, in Bloch’s Thomas Münzer and in some passages in Benjamin – theorises a capitalist order which is primordial vis-à-vis knowledge and being, an order that cannot be shown as a subject-matter, topic, theme or problem of philosophy because it is philosophy itself.”[i]

Gaspar Miklos Tamás

‘Real Abstraction’

Alfred Sohn-Rethel (1899-1990) spent his formative years in Germany amongst the radical intellectuals who were to found the Institute of Social Research (later known as the “Frankfurt School”), notably Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, In 1937, he fled Germany, where he had been active in the anti-Nazi underground and took up residence in England. Despite his originality as a Marxist theoretician, Sohn-Rethel found his works rejected for publication by Horkheimer, then by the British Communist Party and finally by the British academic presses. His major work, Intellectual and Manual Labour: a Critique of Epistemology, was eventually published in the nineteen-seventies, when “New Left” students of the Frankfurt School recognized its importance.

In Intellectual and Manual Labor, Sohn-Rethel comments on Marx’s speculation in the Critique of the Gotha Program about the vanishing of the antithesis between mental and physical labor in the higher phase of a future socialist/communist society: “But before understanding how this antithesis can be removed it is necessary to understand why it arose in the first place.” [ii]

Sohn-Rethel grounds the emergence of Western philosophy and scientific thought in an “autonomous intellect,” which became separated from manual labor in the Mediterranean civilizations of Antiquity. Ancient Egypt developed geometry and symbolic forms in writing as means for appropriating the surplus product of a subservient class. In Greece mathematics, science and philosophy were further developed, and in a more systematic manner. These civilizations are formulated by Sohn-Rethel as “societies of appropriation” which displace communal and classless “societies of production.” In a society of production, the communal order is derived directly from social labor and there is no appropriation of surplus product by any class of non-producers. In a society of appropriation, the appropriation operates either unilaterally, as in Ancient Egypt and medieval feudalism, or reciprocally, as in the exchange of commodities through money, which began in Greece and eventually became universalized in modern capitalism. In Greek Antiquity, abstract thought was actualized when the social nexus of exchange relations was facilitated by gold and silver coinage. This “real abstraction“ produced, for the first time in history, the cosmology of pure abstractions – the One, the Many, Being, Becoming, etc. — that we find in the pre-Socratic philosophies of Parmenides and Heraclitus. Sohn-Rethel argues that the fundamental unity of the being of things, which philosophers attempted to establish as an ontological or transcendental character of reality, is really a mode of exploitative relations. Thus the nexus of real abstraction is seen as having two sides which reflect one another: the commodity-form of exchange-value mediated by money; and the  norm  of “timeless” and “objectively deceptive” universal logic. Sohn-Rethel proceeds to argue that all concepts in the history of philosophy – including the transcendental categories of Kant’s pure reason and the absolutes of Hegel’s dialectic – are marked by this idealist timelessness, which also happens to characterize the status of the commodity in the process of exchange

In Kant’s transcendental unity of consciousness the possibility of knowledge and experience is grounded in a priori forms and categories. Sohn-Rethel’s materialist “critique of epistemology” seeks to overturn this Kantian synthetic unity by means of a “methodological postulate.” His move is is not however, entirely at odds with neo-Kantian scientific method. For in neo-Kantian sociology the objective validity of the sphere of facts and values is conferred by the power of society or culture. For Emile Durkheim, the social conditions for the possibility of knowledge and experience in human communities are actualized by the moral or coercive force of the “collective being,” acting as a sui generis, ”transcendent objectivity.” But a sociological a priori, unlike Kant’s “transcendental unity of apperception,” is external to the mind, and therefore has an object-like, causal relationship to thinking. Because, in neo-Kantian thought, the nature of the precondition (social being) is nevertheless transcendent and underivable, it cannot be a “fact” itself; therefore it is – like God or Freedom in Kant’s practical reason –– a postulate introduced to make values intelligible. But, as Gillian Rose points out, once a social origin of the categories is admitted it becomes impossible to explain the relation between the unconditioned and conditioned without using the very categories of the conditioned (such as cause) which need to be justified by the precondition.[iii]

Sohn-Rethel seems to think that he can avoid this dilemma through recourse to “materialism.” This is not to say that Sohn-Rethel subscribes to a vulgar dialectical materialist orthodoxy. He asserts that the reality Marx opposes to forms of consciousness is not “matter” but social existence; in order to derive consciousness historically from social being, we must presuppose “a process of abstraction which is part of this being.”[iv] Sohn-Rethel and his co-thinkers, George Thomson (1903-87) and Benjamin Farrington (1891-1974), argue that in Greek Antiquity, the ideology of philosophical idealism emerged in “class struggle.” The “idealism” of the ruling class was pitted against a “materialism” representative of the artisans of the “lower orders,” whose “practical,” “scientific” outlook had already established the categories of analysis, such as cause. But this methodological postulate of a putative pre-Socratic materialism, rendered dormant until its renovation by Marxian materialism, rests on questionable historical validation. According to Farrington, the atomistic philosophy of Epicurus was scientifically true and “Anaximander was saying the same kind of things that an up-to-date writer puts forward to-day in a scientific handbook of the universe,” with conclusions drawn from observation  and  reflection. These claims were challenged at the outset by Thomson’s former tutor at Cambridge, Francis Macdonald Cornford (1874-1943), in a forgotten essay entitled “The Marxist View of Ancient Philosophy”:

“What sort of observation could have taught Anaximander that the earth is a cylindrical drum, three times as broad as it is high; or that the fixed stars, the moon, and the sun, in that order, are respectively distant from the earth by 9, 18, and 27 times the diameter of the earth?”

Thomson claims that following the Peloponnesian War, Athenian thought was divided between those who supported the city-state (who were rich, such as Plato) and those who were prepared to see it fall (who were not rich). Cornford comments, “The implication that the abolition of the city-state would have entailed the abolition of social inequalities, including slavery, is hard to justify in the light of history.”[v]

Kant and Hegel on Form and Content

Sohn-Rethel says that the capitalist logic of appropriation cannot change into a socialist logic of production until desocialized labor is resocialized and “people create their own society as producers.”[vi] The problem is that he thinks the only thing preventing social labor from becoming directly socialized is the exchange relation; a society is potentially classless when it acquires the form of its synthesis “directly through the process of production and not through exchange-mediated appropriation.”[vii] Sohn-Rethel was doubtless highly critical of the divisions and inequalities in Russian communism between mental and manual workers. Note his insistence that, “to the conditions of a classless society we must add, in agreement with Marx, the unity of mental and manual labor, or as he puts it, the disappearance of their division.” But this goal is ungrounded in Sohn-Rethel’s critique. His statement that the struggle against the division between intellectual and manual labor formed “a central issue in the construction of socialism in China since the victory of the proletarian cultural revolution” betrays a Kantian dualism between  “ought” and  “is,” if not a lapse into Maoist voluntarism.[viii]

Sohn-Rethel tries to circumvent the relation between Hegel’s “idealism” and Marx’s “materialism” by insisting that Kantian dualism reflects the realities of capitalism more faithfully than Hegel’s anti-epistemological approach, which Sohn-Rethel sees as an attempt to draw all of the social antinomies and contradictions into the “immanency” of absolute spirit. George Lukács seems to concur, in saying that the Kantian critical philosophy springs from the reified structure of consciousness in the modern world. He adds however, that the problems and solutions of the Ancient Greek philosophy, embedded in a society wholly different from capitalism, were qualitatively different from those of modern philosophy: “Greek philosophy was no stranger to certain aspects of reification, without having experienced them, however, as universal forms of existence.”[ix]

Although commodities and money existed in the trading periphery of Greek Antiquity, the commodity-form as described by Marx in Capital was is no sense the active social mediation. Sohn-Rethel misses Hegel’s critique of major errors in Kantian thinking; a critique which provides Marxism with some crucial arguments against political economy. To take just one, Hegel argues, contra Kant, that form is by no means external in relation to content. For in the opposition of form and content, the content is not formless.  As Isaac Rubin observes:

“From the standpoint of Hegelian philosophy… the content itself in its development gives birth to this form, which was contained within this content in concealed form…. From this standpoint, the form of value also must arise of necessity from the substance of value, and consequently we must view abstract labor as the substance of value, in all the fullness of its social features which are characteristic for commodity production.”[x]

Raya Dunayevskaya’s 1949 essay, “Notes on Chapter One of Marx’s Capital in relation to Hegel’s Logic,” seems to concur with Rubin on the issue of form and content: the “illusory” nature of the commodity fetish cannot be overcome by simply counterposing essence to form i.e., opposing concrete, “useful” labor, conceived as the source of all value, to the phenomenal form and phantasmagoria of exchange-values. For to do so would fail to comprehend their interpenetration and opposition in a single commodity acting as an equivalent. Use-value becomes the phenomenal form of its opposite, value. Concrete labor becomes the mere matter of the form under which abstract labor manifests itself. Private labors are “socialized” by the general value-form which allows for, and requires, the existence of the money-form.[xi]  The general value-form reduces all actual labor to expenditure of labor-power – in a bad infinity of unlimited “growth” and accumulation of capital. Under the thumb of capital, labor is substance, not subject. Labor is not actualized as subject in a conflict between “good” use-value and “bad” exchange-value. “Labor,” as the proletariat, only becomes a “subject” in its self-abolition and uprooting of value-production. Marx says that the life-process of society does not strip off its mystical veil until it is consciously regulated by freely associated producers according to a settled plan.

Praxis in Aristotle, Hegel and Marx

According to Sohn-Rethel and Thomson, the fetishism of commodities – which they see as ”false consciousness,” rather than an objective structuring power of capital — existed in Greek Antiquity.[xii] But this view of fetishism, as a transhistorical phenomenon stemming from the ”illusions” in acts of exchange, is hard to square with Marx’s position that his investigation of the commodity – the “simplest social form in which the product of labor in contemporary society manifests itself” – is “historically specific.”[xiii] This might help to explain why Marx, in Capital Volume Three, says that the polis of Greek Antiquity had more in common with “primitive communism,” than with capitalism and feudalism. For in both the polis and primitive communism, it was the “actual community” that presented itself as the basis of production, and it was the reproduction of this community that was production’s “final purpose.”[xiv] Aristotle conceived of a social hierarchy of (in top-down order) Theoria (Theory and Philosophy), Praxis (Activity or Action) and Techné  (Production). Whilst philosophy and praxis – which together comprise the Realm of Freedom – have no ends outside themselves, production, performed largely by slaves, has its ends outside of itself. Hegel, in his philosophic conception of the modern (post-French Revolution) world, attempted to dissolve the barrier Aristotle put between freedom (as praxis) and unfreedom (as production) and make them the two sides of spirit’s historical self-objectification, united in the concept of free labor. Marx, like Aristotle, conceived of a society with no end outside itself. But whereas for Aristotle the self-sufficient community of the polis was a community of free men ruling over slaves and women, for Marx, socialism/communism would be a self-sufficient entity of “human power as its own end”; that is, in the words of August Blanqui (whom he much admired), “a republic without helots.” And whereas in Hegel’s philosophy of history, the dialectic is one of self-consciousness and consciousness, for Marx it is that of laboring humanity. Hegel was unable to see the commodity fetishism in industrial production which the class struggles of the nineteenth century were to illuminate for Marx. Therefore it is hardly surprising that Hegel conflated modern abstract labor with labor as praxis.

Rosa Luxemburg says that at the moment the Greeks entered history, their situation was that of a disintegrated primitive communism.[xv] Was it, then, any accident that “communism” made its first appearance in philosophy amongst the elite of Plato’s Republic, at the very time it was being extinguished, in its “primitive” forms, throughout the Greek world? Richard Seaford, in Money and the Early Greek Mind, argues that the western metaphysical tradition developed under the influence, not only of money, but also of the social forms and practices which preceded monetized society, however remote. Although philosophy involves unconscious cosmological projection of the abstract substance of money, it does not, as Sohn-Rethel supposes, consist of it.[xvi]

Even granted that Hegel’s Logic represents the logic of capital it does not necessarily follow that Hegel’s philosophy represents the value-form. Just as the internal duality of Hegel’s Logic is expressed in the contradiction between the Theoretical and Practical Idea in the Absolute, so capitalism is riven with an internal instability that intimates a realm beyond capital wherein “human power is its own end.”



[i] Gaspar Miklos Tamas, “The Uniqueness of Capitalism and the Normative Content of a Socialist Political Philosophy” (2008)

[ii] Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor: A Critique of Epistemology (London: Macmillan, 1976), p. 57.Sohn-Rethel, IML, p. 57.

[iii] Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, (London: Continuum, 2000), pp. 15-17.

[iv] Sohn-Rethel., p. 57.

[v] F.M. Cornford, The Unwritten Philosophy, pp. 120-26. Benjamin Farrington, Science and Politics in the Ancient World (London: Allen and Unwin, 1965). George Thomson, Aeschylus and Athens (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1973),

[vi] Sohn-Rethel,  p. 83.

[vii] Sohn-Rethel,  p. 139.

[viii] Sohn-Rethel,  p. 169.

[ix] George Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, (London: Merlin 1971),  p. 111.

[x] I.I. Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s System,” Capital and Class, No. 5,  Summer 1978

[xi] Raya Dunayeskaya, “Notes on Chapter One of Marx’s Capital and its Relation to Hegel’s Logic” (1949), The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State-Capitalism (Chicago: News and Letters Publications, 1992),  pp. 89-94.

[xii] Alfred Sohn-Rethel, “The Historical Materialist Theory of Knowledge” (in four parts). Marxism Today, (March, April, May and June 1965).

[xiii] Marx, “Notes on Adolph Wagner” in Karl Marx Texts and Method, ed. T. Carver (Oxford University Press: 1975).

[xiv]  Marx, Capital Vol. III. (London: Penguin, 1978), p. 970.

[xv] Rosa Luxemburg, “Slavery,” The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, eds, K.B. Anderson and P. Hudis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), p. 114.

[xvi] Richard Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind (Cambridge University Press: 2004), pp. 188-89.




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  1. Dayani Aquino

    I think you are right in two criticisms about Sohn-Rethel (and it is possible to list more) 1) in Greek Antiguity commodity-form and money were not generelised, then is necessary to think about how is the social sinthesis in Greek Antiquity; 2) fetishism is not necessary false consciousness. But, when you say “Contra Sohn-Rethel…” you produce “more heat than light” because those points above does not constitute the Sohn-Rethel’s complete theory. I think main point is the concept of “real abstraction”. And it is possible to think how this concept worked in Greek Antiquity correcting some Sohn-Rethel’s notion. It is necessary to analyze calmly complex theoretical aspects, otherwise we “throw out the baby with the bath water”.

  2. Dale Parsons

    I had to read this article a couple of times to begin to appreciate it. Also, I think re-reading David Black’s July 27, 2010 article ‘Reification a Myth’ Shock (or What Gillian Rose Tells Us About Sohn-Rethel, Adorno and Ancient Greece)is essential to begin grasping this current article. The previous article also intimated something I had sensed regarding Sohn-Rethel and Hegel’s “Unhappy Consciousness” which takes up “Scepticism”. Sceptics or cynics see human nature as fixed, unchanging essence. While Sohn-Rethel doesn’t go so far as to claim human nature is fixed unchanging essence, Gillian Rose seems to intimate that by claiming Marx’s capitalist category of the “fetisishim of commodities” existed during Greek Antiquity, Sohn-Rethel was betraying elements of sceptisism by narrowing down the dialectic of human self-development.