Marx and the Basic Concepts of Sociological Theory

from Hans-Georg Backhaus's transcript of a lecture by Theodor W. Adorno, 1962
translated by Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson and Chris O'Kane, 2018

On Popper’s ‘social nominalism:’ In Popper, the concept of law is implicitly identified with the regularity of repeated occurrences. In truth, the concept of law is concerned with codifying a particular procedure/event [Ablauf] in its structure. It is essential for positivism to hypostatise the division of labour in the sciences, thereby also rejecting this concept of law – when Popper argues, for instance, that historiography cannot verify the concept of law. Here, historiography is being isolated. Marx is accused of ‘economism.’

There are intellectual [geistige] relations that take on a life of their own such that, if they are offhandedly reduced to economic causes, one makes a mess of Marx. Instead, what matters – and this is our task – is to account for the conditions that result in the becoming-independent of conceptual relations. The transition to independence itself is to be deduced from social dynamics.

Popper accuses Marx of ‘essentialism.’ Marx would have sneered and commended himself as a nominalist (to turn Hegel on his head). Nevertheless, I would say that Popper is right insofar as, in Marx, structural concepts are autonomous, without which social diversity cannot be thought, whereas Popper is essentially hostile to theory. Once the element of the autonomy of the concept is given up, the possibility of theory is denied. Then theory is replaced with the demand that sociology, understood as a kind of agency [Agentur] of society, provide well-ordered facts which are used in the respectively dominant praxis.

From where does Popper take his demand for an open society? After all, this is itself a general concept which appears like a shot. Here, a general concept is introduced rather naïvely and without thought [unreflektiert]. ‘Humanity’ [Humanitär] is already a general concept with respect to individual human beings [Menschen].

On the problem of social nominalism: Enlightenment recognises more and more general concepts as fabricated by us. It wants to see through [durch-schauen] the semblance of autonomy of that which is made by us. It is the human being who produces everything that appears as autonomous-in-itself, it is thesei and not physei. Popper accuses Marx and Hegel of antiquated conceptual fetishism, but there is no consciousness [Bewusstsein] of any fact which is not mediated by consciousness.

It is prohibited to speak of general concepts in the belief that external determination/heteronomy [Fremdbestimmtheit] is thereby overcome [aufgehoben]. The image of society is reduced to facts, which are said to be products of individual human beings [Menschen] in order for them to be conceivable as facts. At the same time, human beings [die Menschen] form associations which transcend individual, concrete actions such that these facts, which supposedly are primary, in actuality are themselves mediated. They are taken to present themselves to us immediately as if they were absolutely primary (what is most real), even though they contain a totality which is immediate/unmediated. Popper would not object to the empirical study of institutions. When I speak of essence [Wesen], however, he [Popper] would denounce this as conceptual mythology. When I speak of the structure of our society as a comprehensive totality, the positivists would say: capitalist society does not exist, our society is pluralist. So I ask: Is it really the case that the concept is something the knowing subject adds to the material, or is there something like a concept in the object with which we are dealing? I here raise the central problem. Our answer on this issue distinguishes our Frankfurt School from all other traditions of sociology. Exchange itself is a process of abstraction. Whether human beings [die Menschen] know it or not, by entering into a relationship of exchange and reducing different use-values to labour-value they actualise a real conceptual operation socially. This is the objectivity of the concept in practice. It shows that conceptuality lies not only in the minds of the philosophers but also in the reality of the object itself such that, when we speak of essence [Wesen], we refer precisely to that which society, without knowing it, already has in itself. If we stick to the facts, then we ourselves encounter the concept. We are forced to recur to the concept in the object itself instead of retroactively subsuming the object under ordering concepts. When Popper speaks about alienation, abstraction, he comes close to this moment: that the relations between human beings [are] of an abstract kind. The concept is not to be fetishised but instead is embedded within a dialectic with facts. The conceptual structure is itself a fact.

Natural science has objects that do not have consciousness. If it were not for subjects who realise abstraction, that is, if subjects were not also thinking subjects, objective conceptuality would not come into existence. Objects are not immediately subjects, but there is something subjective within objects in the sense of what is necessary for abstraction. The object is nothing self-sufficient [nichts Autarkes]. However, one should not posit it as absolute because there is the moment of second nature, which, towards us, tends to harden into something opaque. The superiority of the social is so strong that society appears as if it really were first nature. Positivism is so blinded by society that it regards second nature as first nature and identifies the data of society with the data of natural science. In these questions, our school is in opposition to all sociological traditions of the world.

When we say that a moment of conceptuality [Begrifflichkeit] lies in the object, this should not be taken to mean that society is based on something conceptual [auf etwas Begrifflichem]. One cannot arrive at relationships of exchange without a moment of conceptuality. It is a process of abstraction, which relates the same with the same to the same. Otherwise, irrationality would reign in society. It is the moment of calculatory equation which has founded the difference between bourgeois society and feudalism. Even if a single human being [Mensch] had not had the idea of this absolute exchange, there would objectively still be a process of abstraction in the objective reduction to the same, a process of abstraction which amounts to the objectivity of the conceptual moment, regardless of whether human beings [Menschen] reflect on it or not. On the contrary, the greater the power/violence [Gewalt] of this conceptual moment, the less it is thought by human beings but lies within the object itself. Therefore, the concept is the object itself and not the subjective unity of features [Merkmalseinheit] of the object comprehended under it.

This kind of objectivity of the concept is something else entirely than the kind of objectivity that is taught by mythological conceptual realism, instead containing nominalism as a whole. The conceptuality in the relationship of exchange is itself a kind of facticity. Yet there is something like a primacy of the object over the concept, and likewise there is a primacy of the nominalist over the realist motive. When we say that concept and fact are both moments, this does not mean that both have the same dignity. There is the predominance of the impenetrable over the other [Es gibt das Übergewicht des Undurchdringlichen gegenüber dem Anderen]. This way, we do not get into a kind of mythology.

Marx accuses Hegel of making the predicate, that is, the operations and functions, the subject. Marx was a pure nominalist, according to his own understanding, but not according to his objective structure. Hegel says, to be sure, that the concept of the state is historically prior to the concept of society. Human beings would have first encountered society as the state. Then again, the method [Weg] in The Philosophy of Right is to develop [the argument] that society necessarily strives towards the state by force of its own dialectic, that is, that the state is the product of society.

Marx was extremely anti-anthropological, anti-psychological. His real interest is in the institutions which dehumanise human beings [den Menschen]. He does not provide an analysis of humanity [des Menschen]; this would be superficial with regard to historical being.

Marx’s understanding of Hegel is very problematic. The mature Marx, however, resumed the objectivity of the concept, particularly in contrast to the Left-Hegelians.

The human being [der Mensch] is that living being [Lebewesen] that reproduces itself. The human being becomes a human being through itself, through social labour. Only through the phases of social labour does the human attain to the concept of humanity [des Menschen], that is real, free humanity.

Marx imputes a concept of spirit to Hegel which is separate from the material sphere of being. In Hegel, spirit is described as totality; the determinations of labour [Arbeit] are by no means of a separate intellectual principle. Hegel thinks of a contestation of humanity [des Menschen] with nature, but interprets the total movement as a spiritual one. However, the moments in labour [Arbeit] are equally material moments and not activities of an isolated spirit. The slave [Knecht] is not an intellectual. The spiritual lies only in the general relation which unfolds between master [Herr] and slave [Knecht]. Objectivity [Gegenständlichkeit] has, in a certain sense, a more conclusive meaning in Hegel than in Marx because an unresolved remnant of the institutional vis-à-vis a free society remains.

(Adorno: it is the core theoretical lecture of the seminar.) What does critique of political economy mean in Marx? (1.) Critique of the classical theory of liberalism. (2.) Critique of the economy itself. That is, critique of the self-understanding of liberalism (in particular in Volume 4, the Theories of Surplus Value) as well as a [critique] of liberalism itself. Marx is concerned with an immanent critique of liberalism. In the East, Marx serves the interests of power relations; this Marx belongs to the sphere of pulp literature. In the West, the accusation is made that Marx’s theory is premised on subjective-proletarian class consciousness. This is precisely what is not meant. Liberal theory is confronted with its own claim with regard to the act of exchange. ‘You say that equivalents are exchanged, that there is a free and just exchange, I take your word, now we shall see how this turns out!’ This is immanent critique.

That the human [Mensch] becomes a commodity has been perceived by others. Marx: ‘These petrified conditions must be made to dance by singing to them their own melody.’ (‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’) Not: to confront capitalist society with a different one, but: to ask if society conforms to its own rules, if society functions according to laws which it claims as its own. Now, Marx does not just say, no, this is wrong, but takes dialectic seriously and coquets with its terminology. In an exchange, something is the same and simultaneously not the same; it is and at the same time is not above-board. The theory of liberalism conforms to its own concept and by conforming it also contradicts its own concept. The exchange-relation is, in reality, preformed by class relations: that there is an unequal control of the means of production: that is the heart of the theory.

This question is of almost no importance in today’s discussion of Marx. Critique tests claims by confronting them with the object and by deducing tendencies of development out of this contradiction. The late Marx would say that this method is still too abstract.

The stages of development are developed as qualitatively different from each other. As in Hegel. Nodal points of development. Rostow, by contrast, does not recognise any qualitatively different fundamental structures. For him, two different stages are a more-or-less [ein Mehr oder Weniger], there are no qualitative differences. Marx is not simply an economic historian; for him, historical and systematic moments are mediated, the historical process itself is regarded as the logical, necessary transition from one structure to another. Marx differentiates himself from static doctrines as well as from the mere historian [vom bloßen Historiker] who only describes different stages. The concept is entirely historicised. The process is formally idealist, it is the self-actualisation of the concept, in the case of Marx the modes of production. Double rejection: with regard to invariant idealism and descriptive positivism.

The commodity is characterised by its exchange-value. It is precisely not need that constitutes the commodity. Commodity value is not derived from need but from objective conditions of production of which need is an element but only in the last instance, that is, mediated by the interest to get rid of the stuff. It is characteristic of objective theory that it starts from institutions rather than needs, from actual relations of power, relations of disposal/control [Verfügungsverhältnissen]. ‘You always talk about explaining the economy out of needs, but the mechanism/business keeping [Getriebe] does not primarily serve the needs; rather these are satisfied at great cost and under the terrible grinding of the system.’ Need is only dragged along and this is why the economy must not start from needs – because the world does not turn according to our needs. The latter are only an epiphenomenon.

What is decisive is the primacy of the apparatus of production over needs. This must be maintained against the objection that the phenomena described by Marx could be represented subjectively. Marx’s method consists of subsequently correcting abstractions by way of very extensive differentiations. Here, I want to give notice of the problem of whether this is reconcilable with dialectics or whether Marx may have violated the principles of dialectics.

What makes commodities exchangeable is the unity of socially necessary abstract labour-time [Arbeitszeit]. Abstract labour, because through a reduction to unity one abstracts from use-values, from needs. When a businessman calculates, he can recur neither to conditions under which a commodity came about nor to whatever a commodity is good for, but focuses on labour-time, profit, material. This is what a commodity is composed of, but this is what makes it a kind of sum of something solid, thing-like [Dinglichem]. Through abstract labour-time one abstracts from living opponents. On the face of it, this abstraction makes what is exchanged a thing-in-itself. What is in fact a social relation appears as if [erscheint als ob] it were the sum of objective qualities of an object. The concept of commodity-fetishism is nothing but this necessary process of abstraction. By performing the operation of abstraction, the commodity no longer appears as a social relation but it seems as if value were a thing-in-itself.

Exchange is still the key to society. It is characteristic of the commodity economy [Warenwirtschaft] that what characterises exchange – i.e. that it is a relation between human beings – disappears and presents itself as if it were a quality of the things themselves that are to be exchanged. It is not the exchange that is fetishised, but the commodity. That which is a congealed social relation [ein geronnenes gesellschaftliches Verhältnis] within commodities is regarded as if it were a natural quality, a being-in-itself of things. The illusion [der Schein] is not the exchange, because exchange really takes place. The illusion in the process of exchange lies in the concept of surplus-value.

However, fetishised perceptions are not an illusion either, because insofar as human beings in fact become dependent on those objectivities, which are obscure to them, reification [Verdinglichung] is not only false consciousness, but also simultaneously reality, insofar as commodities really are alienated [entfremdet] from human beings. We really are dependent on the world of commodities [Warenwelt]. On the one hand, commodity fetishism is an illusion; on the other, it is utmost/ultimate reality – and the superiority of the reified commodity [der verdinglichten Ware] over humanity stands as testament to this. That the categories of illusion are in truth also categories of reality, this is dialectic.

Concepts like the fetish-character of commodities can only be understood when one does not merely transform them into subjective categories. Here, I do not mean the appeal to today’s human beings [Menschen], which emanates from commodities in a store. It is not about the psychological fetishising of individual commodities but about the objective structure of the commodity economy [Warenwirtschaft]. In a society in which exchange-value is the dominant principle, this fetishising is realised necessarily. What is essential is that the commodity disappears as a social relation; all other reactions of reified consciousness [des verdinglichten Bewusstseins] are secondary.

To be sure, the commodity is the archetype [Urform] of ideology; yet the commodity itself is not simply false consciousness but results from the structure of political economy. This is the actual reason why consciousness is determined by being. What is decisive is that the objective structure of economic form realises from within itself fetishisation. This is the objective process of ideology – independent of the consciousness of individuals and their will. The theory of ideology [Ideologielehre] has its seriousness [Ernst] only in the fact that false consciousness itself appears as a necessary form of the objective process that holds society together. Socialisation itself takes place through this ideology. Here, the issue of the problem of ideology becomes very serious.

Even if we see through illusion, this does not change the fetish-character of the commodity: every businessman who calculates has to act according to this fetish. If he does not calculate in this way, he goes broke.

Money is also only a symbol of congealed labour [geronnene Arbeit] and not a thing-in-itself, such that the processes in finance are not primary; rather, financial relations have to be derived from political economy.

When exchange-value becomes independent, then I can strive for it as a thing-in-itself. And this reification of exchange-value is what is meant by the formula M–C–M’.

Crucial question: Where does surplus-value come from? The sphere of circulation is secondary. Surplus-value is already contained in it. In the sphere of circulation, entrepreneurs scramble for surplus-value, which is, however, already produced.

Labour power [Arbeitskraft] is the source of surplus-value because it is at the same time use-value and exchange-value. This is the crux of the matter. The worker is free insofar as he can move from one branch to another.

Value itself is defined as social labour. For this reason, machines cannot produce value. What they do refers back to labour because machines themselves are produced by human beings. Entrepreneurs strive for absolute surplus-value – but not because they are bad people. Psychology is as alien to Marx as it is to Hegel. Marx’s theory of ‘character mask’ contains the concept of role [Rollenbegriff]. Only that it is here derived from objective conditions; the role is imposed on the subject by the structure. Today – as in Parsons – there is no reflection on, but instead an absolutisation of the concept of role itself. The real reason why I am sceptical of the concept of role is that it is not understood as a necessary moment in a process, but that it is instead isolated and singled out.

Essence of dialectics: Capitalists are forced to try to accumulate surplus-value. For this purpose, they are impelled to develop machines in order to replace living with dead labour. If not, then they are in competition. Here, a moment of the sphere of circulation impacts on the sphere of production. However, because they are forced, capitalists create the conditions of productive forces that do not need the chains of capitalist economy. Second, they thereby create a dynamic which turns against themselves; more and more labour is set free, thereby creating the conditions of crisis and the continuously increasing threat to the system itself. In order to maintain itself, the system must produce precisely such moments through which it increasingly undermines [untergräbt] its own possibility. The purpose of spontaneity is to get this process under control, which is otherwise headed for the destruction of the whole, so as to transform [aufheben] the whole to a higher mode of production. Whereas dialectic itself, insofar as it is blind, also creates the conditions for the other [für das Andere]. If there is no moment of freedom, that is, if the whole is left to itself, then it goes under.

Eternal uncertainty is one of the reasons for the backwards-oriented desire for agrarian and artisanal [handwerklichen] relations. This is the authentic moment in it. The other, the transfiguration, is false: these relations cannot be restored.

In order to understand the concept of surplus-value, two time-spans have to be compared: the time which is necessary for the production of labour-power and the time that the worker gives in labour. One must not start with the commodity produced by the worker, rather it is a matter of an exchange process: the worker sells his labour-time [Arbeitszeit] for which he receives his equivalent. But the time he gives and the time that is needed for the reproduction of his labour-power are different. On the one hand, exchange takes place in the form of equivalents: the worker gives his labour-time and receives what is required for the reproduction of his labour-power in return. Here lies the source of surplus-value without having to consider the commodity produced. One exchanges the same for the same [Gleiches mit Gleichem] and simultaneously the same for the not-same [Gleiches mit Nicht-Gleichem]. Behind this lies the entirety of class relations. Only because the worker has nothing else but his labour-power does he accept these conditions. Behind this strange exchange lies the question of class relations.

It would probably be flawed to say that subjective theory is unable to explain the entire mechanism of the economy in terms of needs. It can certainly also be done in terms of subjective categories – if one settles for outlining a formalistic scheme for economic processes. However, in doing so one abstracts from the moment of social power and impotence [Macht und Ohnmacht]. It is not as if it is only today that consumption is controlled. Today there is only a new quality, which prevails in the regulation of consumption. But in this society the consumption of subjects is not the key for the economy because the subjects’ own possibilities of consumption depend on (1.) the overall economic system as a whole; one can consume only as much as social status permits; (2.) consumption depends on the contemporary overall economic situation.

The actual controversy does not concern which of the two directions economic processes can be represented more smoothly, but rather what theory more adequately portrays the reality in which economic relationships of human beings take place. An approach that does not account for the consumer’s dependence on the overall system is inadequate to reality. One can demonstrate that the change in the customs of consumption [Konsumsitten] do not spring from the subject but that they are objective processes which have their roots in the structure of society. This is why Marx does not start with consumption but with production – production understood as dominance [Vorherrschaft] of the proprietors [der Verfügenden]. This approach is more in line with reality.

The choice of coordinate system is not neutral with regard to the issue. That system is better in which more of the real relations appear. If relations are antagonistic (class system), then antagonisms must also be expressed in theory.

Subjective economics is essentially an analysis of market processes in which established market relations are already presupposed. Engels rightly invokes the heritage of German philosophy: the question was concerned with constitutive moments through which surplus-value comes about, with immanent conditions through which the system comes about, while subjective doctrine attempts to elegantly formalise already-established processes.

By contrast, Marx is not concerned with the description of market society but instead enquires about the constituents of experience and provides a critique of these categories of economic activity. This approach, which proceeds from the problem of constitution [vom Konstitutionsproblem], is deeper; it enables more of reality to be expressed. The point is whether constituents of totality can be seized. The question of constitution is already present in the ostensible discretion concerning where to cut through reality for the purpose of abstraction. Subjective doctrine is essentially apology. The analysis of the question of price is an epiphenomenon in contrast to the questions of constitution.

On critique: One cannot stop at the phenomena of alienation [Entfremdungsphänomenen]; in principle, alienation is an idealist category. However, alienation results from the commodity character of the economy [der Ökonomie]. Nor can one speak in abstractions about power, for the question of power asserts itself by virtue of the reproduction of the material life of man. If it were only about questions of alienation and power, Marx would not have anything to tell us; then all that would remain of Marx would be Left-Hegelianism. But Marx wanted to criticise how power and alienation play out in concrete society.

The concept of relative immiseration [Verelendung] is diabolically amusing [urkomisch]. When no worker knows anymore that he is [pauperised] – as Schelsky claims – where, then, lies the possibility to draw on the concept of class?

The concept of technology [Technik] is not clear in Marx. This concept is inherited from Saint-Simon without the latter having thought through his position concerning relationships of production. These are, on the one hand, shackling; on the other, they are constantly changing and become productive forces. This is the problematic nature of this concept.

We can see that the utmost difficulties are inherent in the system. Marx is burdened with a whole string of questions. The bleakness of our situation consists in the fact that these aspects are not developed further but instead criticised from outside without confronting the theory with its own immanent difficulties. On the one hand, the theory is defamed – in the West – on the other hand, it is fetishised – in the East. In the East, the theory is placed under a taboo; in the West it is considered a cardinal sin to concern oneself with it. The future of thinking about society depends on whether we can solve these problems. The genius of Marx consisted precisely in the fact that, filled with disgust, he tackled exactly that which he found disgusting: the economy [Ökonomie].

To the objection that socialism leads to massification, one must reply that the latter will disappear only when individuals are no longer determined by relations of exchange.

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