Ross Wolf: Alienation, reification, and the fetish form: Traces of the Hegelian legacy in Marx and Marxism

Everyone remembers Althusser’s numerous objections to the overemphasis placed on the concept of “alienation” amongst Marxists, and in general the fascination with the young, “humanistic” Marx at the expense of the old, “scientific” Marx. What is less often remembered, however, is that even many who stressed the Hegelian underpinnings of Marxism had grown tired of the all the talk of “alienation” by the 1960s. In his Introduction to Sociologylecture series delivered in 1961, no less a dialectician than Theodor Adorno remarked:
One hears much talk about the concept of alienation — so much that I myself have put a kind of moratorium on it, as I believe that the emphasis it places on a spiritual feeling of strangeness and isolation conceals something which is really founded on material conditions. (Introduction to Sociology, pg. 3).
Since the word “alienation” is used ad nauseum today, I try to dispense with it as far as I can. Nevertheless, it does impinge on the subject under discussion, and I shall mention it at least as a general heading for what I mean. We live within a totality which binds people together only by virtue of their alienation from each other. (Ibid., pg. 43)
Clearly, Adorno is not objecting to the concept of alienation as such, but rather a pernicious effect resulting from its overuse. Two years later, he linked this tendentious usage of the young Marx’s terminology to a rekindled communitarianism enchanted by the memory of “community” [Gemeinschaft] and distraught over the reality of “society” [Gesellschaft]. In one of his lectures on History and Freedom(1963), he maintained:
Infected by an irrational cult of community, the term “alienation” has recently become fashionable in both East and West, thanks to the veneration of the young Marx at the expense of the old one, and thanks to the regression of objective dialectics to anthropology. This term “alienation” takes an ambivalent view of a repressive society; it is as ambivalent as genuine suffering under the rule of alienation itself. (History and Freedom, pg. 265)
As was already mentioned above, the French Marxist Louis Althusser was likewise exhausted with the jargon of “alienation” being bandied about in the universities. Unlike Adorno, however, this led him to reject the entire philosophical apparatus of the young Marx root and branch. Furthermore, adopting the rather hazy distinction made by the humanist Marxists — he had in mind here Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Simone de Beauvoir rather than Raya Dunayevskaya — Althusser posited a decisive, unequivocal “epistemic break” between the young Marx and the old Marx supposedly taking place around 1845. (Though, for the curious, Dunayevskaya had this to say about Althusser: “Althusser really goes backward. Compared to him, [Eduard] Bernstein was practically a revolutionary. Althusser wants to ‘drive Hegel back into the night’.”)

George Tooker, Lunch

Rejecting the earlier category of “alienation,” Althusser railed against the theory of “reification” proposed by Marxist Hegelians influenced by writings from the 1920s by Georg Lukács, Isaak Rubin, and Karl Korsch. In a lengthy footnote in his book For Marx (1962), he wrote:
The whole, fashionable, theory of “reification” depends on a projection of the theory of alienation found in the early texts, particularly the 1844 Manuscripts, on to the theory of “fetishism” in Capital. In the 1844 Manu­scripts, the objectification of the human essence is claimed as the indispensable preliminary to the reappropriation of the human essence by man. Throughout the process of objectification, man only exists in the form of an objectivity in which he meets his own essence in the appearance of a foreign, non-human, essence. This “objectification” is not called “reification” even though it is called inhuman. Inhumanity is not represented par excellence by the model of a “thing”: but sometimes by the model of animality (or even of pre-animality — the man who no longer even has simple animal relations with nature), sometimes by the model of the omnipotence and fascination of transcendence (God, the State) and of money, which is, of course, a “thing.” In Capital the only social relation that is presented in the form of a thing (this piece of metal) is money. But the conception of money as a thing (that is, the confusion of value with use-value in money) does not correspond to the reality of this “thing”: it is not the brutality of a simple “thing” that man is faced with when he is in direct relation with money; it is a power (or a lack of it) over things and men. An ideology of reification that sees “things” everywhere in human relations confuses in this category “thing” (a category more foreign to Marx cannot be imagined) every social relation, conceived according to the model of a money-thing ideology. (For Marx, pg. 230)
Of course, this could in no way be the case. To begin with, Althusser confuses the chronology of these writings by alleging that the early works of Rubin, Korsch, and Lukács, were a result of the direct influence of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. According to Althusser, the theory of alienation from this text was then overhastily equated with Marx’s later exposition of commodity fetishism in Capital (1867). He somehow neglects to mention the fact that these exegeses of Capitalby Rubin and Lukács were written and released in 1926 and 1918-1923, respectively, while the 1844 Manuscripts would not be discovered or published until 1927! The German Ideology, another work in which the concept of “alienation” recurred, was not known to the wider public until 1932.

George Tooker, Behind the Wall

Certainly, some of the language of “alienation” — which admittedly does occur with much more frequency in Marx’s earlier writings — appeared in works like The Holy Family, one chapter of which was then scavenged for The German Ideology. Isaak Rubin himself cites this as site where one can see the genesis from the theory of alienation to the theory of commodity fetishism in Capital,  the inspiration for Rubin’s own reflections on “reification”:
[I]n that work [The Holy Family] we find the embryo of the theory of fetishism in the form of a contrast between “social,” or “human” relations, and their “alienated,” materialized form. The source of this contrast was the widespread conception of Utopian Socialists on the character of the capitalist system. According to the Utopian Socialists, this system is characterized by the fact that the worker is forced to “self-alienate” his personality, and that he “alienates” the product of his labor from himself. The domination of “things,” of capital over man, over the worker, is expressed through this alienation. (“Marx’s Development of the Theory of Fetishism,” Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, pg. 56)
Rubin continues in that same essay to spell out the precise changes undergone in Marx’s thought that led from alienation to fetishism:
Marx’s transition from Utopian to Scientific Socialism introduced an essential change into the above-mentioned theory of “alienation.” If the opposition which he had earlier described between human relations and their “material” form meant an opposition between what should be and what is, now both opposing factors are transferred to the world as it is, to social being. The economic life of contemporary society is on the one hand the totality of social production relations, and on the other a series of “material” categories in which these relations are manifested. Production relations among people and their “material” form is the content of a new opposition, which originated in the earlier opposition between the ”human” element in the economy and its “alienated” forms. The formula of commodity fetishism was found in this way. But several stages were still necessary before Marx gave this theory its final formulation. (Ibid., pg. 58)
Similarly, besides its primary derivation from the commodity fetishism chapter inCapital, Lukács also derives his concept of “reification” from a few lines in Marx’s The Holy Family and The Poverty of Philosophy:
[T]he ossifying quality of reified thought with its tendency to oust the process is exemplified even more clearly In the facts than In the “laws” that would order them. In the latter it is still possible to detect a trace of human activity even though it often appears in a reified and false subjectivity. But in the “facts” we find the crystallization of the essence of capitalist development into an ossified, impenetrable thing alienated from man. And the form assumed by this ossification and this alienation converts it into a foundation of reality and of philosophy that is perfectly self-evident and immune from every doubt. When confronted by the rigidity of these “facts” every movement seems like a movementimpinging on them, while every tendency to change them appears to be a merely subjective principle (a wish, a value judgement, an ought). (“Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,”History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, pg. 183)
Not only was Althusser mistaken about the source Korsch, Lukács, and Rubin relied upon for the “young” Marx’s theory of alienation; he was also wrong to imply that these thinkers ham-fistedly mapped the one onto the other. Rubin even consciously extrapolated the category of fetishism from the earlier category of alienation, while underscoring the shift in Marx’s thought that distinguished the two. Indeed, Adorno remark in passing decades later that “what we call reification and what we call alienation [are] two concepts…which are far from identical” (Introduction to Sociology, pg. 304).

George Tooker, The Mirror

“Reification” was not a terminological invention of these authors, either. The term appeared in Capital itself, where Marx wrote of
the conversion of things into persons and the conversion of persons into things [Personifizierung der Sachen und Versachlichung der Personen, or “Personification of things and reificationof persons.”]. (Capital, pg. 209)
And then later, in the book’s appendix, more expansively:
Even if we consider just the formalrelation, the general form of capitalist production, which is common to both its more and its less advanced forms, we see that the means of production, thematerial conditions of labor, are not subject to the worker, but he to them. Capital employs labor. This in itself exhibits the relationship in its simple form and entails the personification of things and the reification [Versachlichung] of persons.
The relationship becomes more complicated, however, and apparently more mysterious, with the emergence of the specifically capitalist mode of production. Here we find that it is not only such things — the products of labor, both use-values and exchange­ values — that rise up on their hind legs and face the worker and confront him as “Capital.” But even the social form of labor appears as aform of development of capital, and hence the productive forces of social labor so developed appear as theproductive forces of capitalismVis-à-vislabor such social forces are in fact “capitalized.” In fact collective unity in co-operation, combination in the division of labor, the use of the forces of nature and the sciences, of the products of labor, asmachinery— all these con­front the individual workers as something alien,objectivereadymade, existing without their intervention, and frequently even hostile to them. (Ibid., pg. 1054)
Rubin’s discussion of reification in his brilliant essay, “Reification of Productive Relations among People, Personification of Things,” takes up these passages directly:
Vulgar economists who do not grasp that the process of “personification of things” can only be understood as a result of the process of “reification of production relations among people,” con-sider the social characteristics of things (value, money, capital, etc.) as natural characteristics which belong to the things themselves. Value, money, and so on, are not considered as expressions of human relations “tied” to things, but as the direct characteristics of the things themselves, characteristics which are “directly intertwined” with the natural-technical characteristics of the things. This is the cause of the commodity fetishismwhich is characteristic of vulgar economics and of the commonplace thinking of the participants in production who are limited by the horizon of the capitalist economy. (“Reification of Productive Relations among People, Personification of Things,” Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, pg. 27)
Incidentally, in tracing out Marx’s materialization of the Hegelian dialectic and the Hegelian-Feuerbachian concept of “alienation,” the French phenomenologist and Marxist Maurice Merleau-Ponty roughly paraphrased this double-inversion of the “reification of persons, personification of things.” Leaning throughout on Lukács’ concept of reification, Merleau-Ponty explained in his essay on “Western Marxism” (1955):
Capital, says Marx in a famous passage, is “not a thing, but a social relationship between persons mediated by things (nicht eine Sache, sondern ein durch Sachen vermitteltes gesellschaftliches Verhältnis zwischen Personen).” Historical materialism is not the reduction of history to one of its sectors. It states a kinship between the person and the exterior, between the subject and the object, which is at the bottom of the alienation of the subject in the object and, if the movement is reversed, will be the basis for the reintegration of the world with, man.
Marx’s innovation is that he takes this fact as fundamental, whereas, for Hegel, alienation is still an operation of the spirit on itself and thus is already overcome when it manifests itself. When Marx says that he has put the dialectic back on its feet or that his dialectic is the “contrary” of Hegel’s, this cannot be simply a matter of exchanging the roles of the spirit and the “matter” of history, giving to the “matter” of history the very functions Hegel accorded to the spirit. As it becomes material, the dialectic must grow heavy. In Marx spirit becomes a thing [reification of persons], while things become saturated with spirit [personification of things]. (“Western Marxism,” Adventures of the Dialectic. Pg. 33).
Merleau-Ponty gets at something important when he writes that “alienation is still an operation of the spirit on itself and thus is already overcome when it manifests itself.” In other words, the alienation written about by the Marx of Capital is no longer self-alienation, as it was in his earlier manuscripts. Adorno raised this same point later in his 1966 book, Negative Dialectics:
[T]alk of “self-alienation” is untenable. Despite — or perhaps on account of — the better days it has seen under Hegel and Marx, that talk has become the stock in trade of apologists who will suggest in paternal tones that man has apostatized, that he has lapsed from a being-in-itself which he had always been. Whereas, in fact, he never was that being-in-itself, and what he can expect from recourses to his is therefore nothing but submission to authority, the very thing that is alien to him. It is not only due to the economic themes of Das Kapital that the concept of self-alienation plays no part in it any more; it makes philosophical sense.
Perhaps in this sense there is something to Althusser’s point that the difference between Hegel and Marx is that for Hegel the starting point is a simple, undifferentiated unity, a simplicity to which consciousness returns after a long journey. Alienation is not posited by the self, and is not simply an operation performed on itself. Workers experience alienation as an external power imposed upon them by the productive process. From Capital, in this case:
[B]efore [the worker] enters the [production] process, his own labor has already been alienated [entfremdet] from him, appropriated by the capitalist, and incorporated with capital, it now, in the course of the process, constantly objectifies itself so that it becomes a pro­duct alien to him [fremder ProduktJ. Since the process of production is also the process of the consumption of labor-power by the capitalist, the worker’s product is not only constantly converted into commodities, but also into capital, i.e. into value that sucks up the worker’s value-creating power, means of subsistence that actually purchase human beings, and means of production that employ the people who are doing the producing. Therefore the worker himself constantly produces objective wealth, in the form of capital, an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist just as constantly produces labor-power, in the form of a subjective source of wealth which is abstract, exists merely in the physical body of the worker, and is separated from its own means of objectification and realization; in short, the capitalist produces the worker as a wage-laborer. (Capital, pg. 716)
So we can see even here that Marx never fully abandons the language of alienation, even in his late magnum opus Capital. In concluding, without having really resolved all these threads of inquiry, I would simply like to propose that the concept of “alienation” for Marx does not come solely from Hegel, or even from Hegel mediated by Feuerbach.

George Tooker, Waiting Room