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