Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat

by Georg Lukács, from History & Class Consciousness, written 1923.
Published by Merlin Press, 1967; transcribed and prepared for by Andy Blunden

Part I: The Phenomenon of Reification

To be radical is to go to the root of the matter. For man, however, the root is man himself.
Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

It is no accident that Marx should have begun with an analysis of commodities when, in the two great works of his mature period, he set out to portray capitalist society in its totality and to lay bare its fundamental nature. For at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure. Of course the problem can only be discussed with this degree of generality if it achieves the depth and breadth to be found in Marx’s own analyses. That is to say, the problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity-relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them.


The essence of commodity-structure has often been pointed out. Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people. It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the central importance of this problem for economics itself. Nor shall we consider its implications for the economic doctrines of the vulgar Marxists which follow from their abandonment of this starting-point.

Our intention here is to base ourselves on Marx’s economic analyses and to proceed from there to a discussion of the problems growing out of the fetish character of commodities, both as an objective form and also as a subjective stance corresponding to it. Only by understanding this can we obtain a clear insight into the ideological problems of capitalism and its downfall.

Before tackling the problem itself we must be quite clear in our minds that commodity fetishism is a specific problem of our age, the age of modern capitalism. Commodity exchange an the corresponding subjective and objective commodity relations existed, as we know, when society was still very primitive. What is at issue here, however, is the question: how far is commodity exchange together with its structural consequences able to influence the total outer and inner life of society? Thus the extent to which such exchange is the dominant form of metabolic change in a society cannot simply be treated in quantitative terms - as would harmonise with the modern modes of thought already eroded by the reifying effects of the dominant commodity form. The distinction between a society where this form is dominant, permeating every expression of life, and a society where it only makes an episodic appearance is essentially one of quality. For depending on which is the case, all the subjective phenomena in the societies concerned are objectified in qualitatively different ways.

Marx lays great stress on the essentially episodic appearance of the commodity form in primitive societies: “Direct barter, the original natural form of exchange, represents rather the beginning of the transformation of use-values into commodities, than that of commodities into money. Exchange value has as yet no form of its own, but is still directly bound up with use-value. This is manifested in two ways. Production, in its entire organisation, aims at the creation of use-values and not of exchange values, and it is only when their supply exceeds the measure of consumption that use-values cease to be use-values, and become means of exchange, i.e. commodities. At the same time, they become commodities only within the limits of being direct use-values distributed at opposite poles, so that the commodities to be exchanged by their possessors must be use-values to both - each commodity to its non-possessor. As a matter of fact, the exchange of commodities originates not within the primitive communities, but where they end, on their borders at the few points where they come in contact with other communities. That is where barter begins, and from here it strikes back into the interior of the community, decomposing it.” [1] We note that the observation about the disintegrating effect of a commodity exchange directed in upon itself clearly shows the qualitative change engendered by the dominance of commodities.

However, even when commodities have this impact on the internal structure of a society, this does not suffice to make them constitutive of that society. To achieve that it would be necessary - as we emphasised above - for the commodity structure to penetrate society in all its aspects and to remould it in its own image. It is not enough merely to establish an external link with independent processes concerned with the production of exchange values. The qualitative difference between the commodity as one form among many regulating the metabolism of human society and the commodity as the universal structuring principle has effects over and above the fact that the commodity relation as ail isolate phenomenon exerts a negative influence at best on the structure and organisation of society. The distinction also has repercussions upon the nature and validity of the category itself. Where the commodity is universal it manifests itself differently from the commodity as a particular, isolated, non-dominant phenomenon.

The fact that the boundaries lack sharp definition must not be allowed to blur the qualitative nature of the decisive distinction. The situation where commodity exchange is not dominant has been defined by Marx as follows: “The quantitative ratio in which products are exchanged is at first quite arbitrary. They assume the form of commodities inasmuch as they are exchangeables, i.e. expressions of one and the same third. Continued exchange and more regular reproduction for exchange reduces this arbitrariness more and more. But at first not for the producer and consumer, but for their go-between, the merchant, who compares money-prices and pockets the difference. It is through his own movements that he establishes equivalence. Merchant’s capital is originally merely the intervening movement between extremes which it does not control and between premises which it does not create.” [2]

And this development of the commodity to the point where it becomes the dominant form in society did not take place until the advent of modern capitalism. Hence it is not to be wondered at that the personal nature of economic relations was still understood clearly on occasion at the start of capitalist development, but that as the process advanced and forms became more complex and less direct, it became increasingly difficult and rare to find anyone penetrating the veil of reification. Marx sees the matter in this way: “In preceding forms of society this economic mystification arose principally with respect to money and interest-bearing capital. In the nature of things it is excluded, in the first place, where production for the use-value, for immediate personal requirements, predominates; and secondly, where slavery or serfdom form the broad foundation of social production, as in antiquity and during the Middle Ages. Here, the domination of the producers by the conditions of production is concealed by the relations of dominion and servitude which appear and are evident as the direct motive power of the process of production.” [3]

The commodity can only he understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reificiation produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the stance adopted by men towards it. Only then does the commodity become crucial for the subjugation of men’s consciousness to the forms in which this reification finds expression and for their attempts to comprehend the process or to rebel against its disastrous effects and liberate themselves from servitude to the ‘second nature’ so created.

Marx describes the basic phenomenon of reification as follows:

"A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses ... It is only a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” [4]

What is of central importance here is that because of this situation a man’s own activity, his own labour becomes something objective and independent of him. something that controls him by virtue of an autonomy alien to man. There is both an objective and a subjective side to this phenomenon. Objectively a world of objects and relations between things springs into being (the world of commodities and their movements on the market). The laws governing these objects are indeed gradually discovered by man, but even so they confront him as invisible forces that generate their own power. The individual can use his knowledge of these laws to his own advantage, but he is not able to modify the process by his own activity. Subjectively - where the market economy has been fully developed - a man’s activity becomes estranged from himself, it turns into a commodity which, subject to the non-human objectivity of the natural laws of society, must go its own way independently of man just like any consumer article. “What is characteristic of the capitalist age,” says Marx, “is that in the eyes of the labourer himself labour-power assumes the form of a commodity belonging to him. On the other hand it is only at this moment that the commodity form of the products of labour becomes general.” [5]

Thus the universality of the commodity form is responsible both objectively and subjectively for the abstraction of the human labour incorporated in commodities. (On the other hand, this universality becomes historically possible because this process of abstraction has been completed.) Objectively, in so far as the commodity form facilitates the equal exchange of qualitatively different objects, it can only exist if that formal equality is in fact recognised - at any rate in. this relation, which indeed confers upon them their commodity nature. Subjectively, this formal equality of human labour in the abstract is not only the common factor to which the various commodities are reduced; it also becomes the real principle governing the actual production of commodities.

Clearly, it cannot be our aim here to describe even in outline the growth of the modern process of labour, of the isolated, ‘free’ labourer and of the division of labour. Here we need only establish that labour, abstract, equal. comparable labour, measurable with increasing precision according to the time socially necessary for its accomplishment, the labour of the capitalist division of labour existing both as the presupposition and the product of capitalist production, is born only in the course of the development of the capitalist system. Only then does it become a category of society influencing decisively the objective form of things and people in the society thus emerging, their relation to nature and the possible relations of men to each other. [6]

If we follow the path taken by labour in its development from the handicrafts via cooperation and manufacture to machine industry we can see a continuous trend towards greater rationalisation, the progressive elimination of the qualitative, human and individual attributes of the worker. On the one hand, the process of labour is progressively broken down into abstract, rational, specialised operations so that the worker loses contact with the finished product and his work is reduced to the mechanical repetition of a specialised set of actions. On the other hand, the period of time necessary for work to be accomplished (which forms the basis of rational calculation) is converted, as mechanisation and rationalisation are intensified, from a merely empirical average figure to an objectively calculable work-stint that confronts the worker as a fixed and established reality. With the modern ‘psychological’ analysis of the work-process (in Taylorism) this rational mechanisation extends right into the worker’s ‘soul’: even his psychological attributes are separated from his total personality and placed in opposition to it so as to facilitate their integration into specialised rational systems and their reduction to statistically viable concepts. [7]

We are concerned above all with the principle at work here: the principle of rationalisation based on what is and can be calculated. The chief changes undergone by the subject and object of the economic process are as follows: (1) in the first place, the mathematical analysis of work-processes denotes a break with the organic, irrational and qualitatively determined unity of the product. Rationalisation in the sense of being able to predict with ever greater precision all the results to be achieved is only to be acquired by the exact breakdown of every complex into its elements and by the study of the special laws governing production. Accordingly it must declare war on the organic manufacture of whole products based on the traditional amalgam of empirical experiences of work: rationalisation is unthinkable without specialisation. [8]

The finished article ceases to be the object of the work-process. The latter turns into the objective synthesis of rationalised special systems whose unity is determined by pure calculation and which must therefore seem to be arbitrarily connected with each other.

This destroys the organic necessity with which inter-related special operations are unified in the end-product. The unity of a product as a commodity no longer coincides with its unity as a use-value: as society becomes more radically capitalistic the increasing technical autonomy of the special operations involved in production is expressed also, as an economic autonomy, as the growing relativisation of the commodity character of a product at the various stages of production. [9] It is thus possible to separate forcibly the production of a use-value in time and space. This goes hand in hand with the union in time and space of special operations that are related to a set of heterogeneous use-values.

(2) In the second place, this fragmentation of the object of production necessarily entails the fragmentation of its subject. In consequence of the rationalisation of the work-process the human qualities and idiosyncrasies of the worker appear increasingly as mere sources of error when contrasted with these abstract special laws functioning according to rational predictions. Neither objectively nor in his relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of the process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not. [10] As labour is progressively rationalised and mechanised his lack of will is reinforced by the way in which his activity becomes less and less active and more and more contemplative.[11] The contemplative stance adopted towards a process mechanically conforming to fixed laws and enacted independently of man’s consciousness and impervious to human intervention, i.e. a perfectly closed system, must likewise transform the basic categories of man’s immediate attitude to the world: it reduces space and time to a common denominator and degrades time to the dimension of space.

Marx puts it thus:

"Through the subordination of man to the machine the situation arises in which men are effaced by their labour; in which the pendulum of the clock has become as accurate a measure of the relative activity of two workers as it is of the speed of two locomotives. Therefore, we should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour. Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at the most the incarnation of time. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything: hour for hour, day for day .... ”[12]

Thus time sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable ‘things’ (the reified, mechanically objectified ‘performance’ of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality: in short, it becomes space.[13] In this environment where time is transformed into abstract, exactly measurable, physical space, an environment at once the cause and effect of the scientifically and mechanically fragmented and specialised production of the object of labour, the subjects of labour must likewise be rationally fragmented. On the one hand, the objectification of their labour-power into something opposed to their total personality (a process already accomplished with the sale of that labour-power as a commodity) is now made into the permanent ineluctable reality of their daily life. Here, too, the personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle and fed into an alien system. On the other hand, the mechanical disintegration of the process of production into its components also destroys those bonds that had bound individuals to a community in the days when production was still ‘organic’. In this respect, too, mechanisation makes of them isolated abstract atoms whose work no longer brings them together directly and organically; it becomes mediated to an increasing extent exclusively by the abstract laws of the mechanism which imprisons them.

The internal organisation of a factory could not possibly have such an effect - even within the factory itself - were it not for the fact that it contained in concentrated form the whole structure of capitalist society. Oppression and an exploitation that knows no bounds and scorns every human dignity were known even to pre-capitalist ages. So too was mass production with mechanical, standardised labour, as we can see, for instance, with canal construction in Egypt and Asia Minor and the mines in Rome. [14] But mass projects of this type could never be rationally mechanised; they remained isolated phenomena within a community that organised its production on a different (’natural’) basis and which therefore lived a different life. The slaves subjected to this exploitation, therefore, stood outside what was thought of as ‘human’ society and even the greatest and noblest thinkers of the time were unable to consider their fate as that of human beings.

As the commodity becomes universally dominant, this situation changes radically and qualitatively. The fate of the worker becomes the fate of society as a whole; indeed, this fate must become universal as otherwise industrialisation could not develop in this direction. For it depends on the emergence of the ‘free’ worker who is freely able to take his labour-power to market and offer it for sale as a commodity ‘belonging’ to him, a thing that he ‘possesses’.

While this process is still incomplete the methods used to extract surplus labour are, it is true, more obviously brutal than in the later, more highly developed phase, but the process of reification of work and hence also of the consciousness of the worker is much less advanced. Reification requires that a society should learn to satisfy all its needs in terms of commodity exchange. The separation of the producer from his means of production, the dissolution and destruction of all ‘natural’ production units, etc., and all the social and economic conditions necessary for the emergence of modern capitalism tend to replace ‘natural’ relations which exhibit human relations more plainly by rationally reified relations. “The social relations between individuals in the performance of their labour,” Marx observes with reference to pre-capitalist societies, “appear at all events as their own personal relations, and are not disguised under the shape of social relations between the products of labour.” [15]

But this implies that the principle of rational mechanisation and calculability must embrace every aspect of life. Consumer articles no longer appear as the products of an organic process within a community (as for example in a village community). They now appear, on the one hand, as abstract members of a species identical by definition with its other members and, on the other hand, as isolated objects the possession or non-possession of which depends on rational calculations. Only when the whole life of society is thus fragmented into the isolated acts of commodity exchange can the ‘free’ worker come into being; at the same time his fate becomes the typical fate of the whole society.

Of course, this isolation and fragmentation is only apparent. The movement of commodities on the market, the birth of their value, in a word, the real framework of every rational calculation is not merely subject to strict laws but also presupposes the strict ordering of all that happens. The atomisation of the individual is, then, only the reflex in consciousness of the fact that the ‘natural laws’ of capitalist production have been extended to cover every manifestation of life in society; that – for the first time in history – the whole of society is subjected, or tends to be subjected, to a unified economic process, and that the fate of every member of society is determined by unified laws. (By contrast, the organic unities of pre-capitalist societies organised their metabolism largely in independence of each other).

However, if this atomisation is only an illusion it is a necessary one. That is to say, the immediate, practical as well as intellectual confrontation of the individual with society, the immediate production and reproduction of life - in which for the individual the commodity structure of all ‘things’ and their obedience to ‘natural laws’ is found to exist already in a finished form, as something immutably given - could only take place in the form of rational and isolated acts of exchange between isolated commodity owners. As emphasised above, the worker, too, must present himself as the ‘owner’ of his labour-power, as if it were a commodity. His specific situation is defined by the fact that his labour-power is his only possession. His fate is typical of society as a whole in that this self-objectification, this transformation of a human function into a commodity reveals in all its starkness the dehumanised and dehumanising function of the commodity relation.


This rational objectification conceals above all the immediate - qualitative and material - character of things as things. When use-values appear universally as commodities they acquire a new objectivity, a new substantiality which they did not possess in an age of episodic exchange and which destroys their original and authentic substantiality. As Marx observes:

"Private property alienates not only the individuality of men, but also of things. The ground and the earth have nothing to do with ground-rent, machines have nothing to do with profit. For the landowner ground and earth mean nothing but ground-rent; he lets his land to tenants and receives the rent - a quality which the ground can lose without losing any of its inherent qualities such as its fertility; it is a quality whose magnitude and indeed existence depends on social relations that are created and abolished without any intervention by the landowner. Likewise with the machine.” [16]

Thus even the individual object which man confronts directly, either as producer or consumer, is distorted in its objectivity by its commodity character. If that can happen then it is evident that this process will be intensified in proportion as the relations which man establishes with objects as objects of the life process are mediated in the course of his social activity. It is obviously not possible here to give an analysis of the whole economic structure of capitalism. It must suffice to point out that modern capitalism does not content itself with transforming the relations of production in accordance with its own needs. It also integrates into its own system those forms of primitive capitalism that led an isolated existence in pre-capitalist times, divorced from production; it converts them into members of the henceforth unified process of radical capitalism. (Cf. merchant capital, the role of money as a hoard or as finance capital, etc.)

These forms of capital are objectively subordinated, it is true, to the real life-process of capitalism, the extraction of surplus value in the course of production. They are, therefore, only to be explained in terms of the nature of industrial capitalism itself. But in the minds of people in bourgeois society they constitute the pure, authentic, unadulterated forms of capital. In them the relations between men that lie hidden in the immediate commodity relation, as well as the relations between men and the objects that should really gratify their needs, have faded to the point where they can be neither recognised nor even perceived.

For that very reason the reified mind has come to regard them as the true representatives of his societal existence. The commodity character of the commodity, the abstract, quantitative mode of calculability shows itself here in its purest form: the reified mind necessarily sees it as the form in which its own authentic immediacy becomes manifest and - as reified consciousness - does not even attempt to transcend it. On the contrary, it is concerned to make it permanent by ‘scientifically deepening’ the laws at work. Just as the capitalist system continuously produces and reproduces itself economically on higher and higher levels, the structure of reification progressively sinks more deeply, more fatefully and more definitively into the consciousness of man. Marx often describes this potentiation of reification in incisive fashion. One example must suffice here:

"In interest-bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish, self-expanding value, money generating money is brought out in its pure state and in this form it no longer bears the birth-marks of its origin. The social relation is consummated in the relation of a thing, of money, to itself. Instead of the actual transformation of money into capital, we see here only form without content. ... It becomes a property of money to generate value and yield interest, much as it is an attribute of pear trees to bear pears. And the money-lender sells his money as just such an interest-bearing thing. But that is not all. The actually functioning capital, as we have seen, presents itself in such a light that it seems to yield interest not as functioning capital, but as capital in itself, as money-capital. This, too, becomes distorted. While interest is only a portion of the profit, i.e. of the surplus value, which the functioning capitalist squeezes out of the labourer, it appears now, on the contrary, as though interest were the typical product of capital, the primary matter, and profit, in the shape of profit of enterprise, were a mere accessory and by-product of the process of reproduction. Thus we get a fetish form of capital, and the conception of fetish capital. In M-M’ we have the meaningless form of capital, the perversion and objectification of production relations in their highest degree, the interest-bearing form, the simple form of capital, in which it antecedes its own process of reproduction. It is the capacity of money, or of a commodity, to expand its own value independently of reproduction - which is a mystification of capital in its most flagrant form. For vulgar political economy, which seeks to represent capital as an independent source of value, of value creation, this form is naturally a veritable find. a form in which the source of profit is no longer discernible, and in which the result of the capitalist process of production - divorced from the process - acquires an independent existence.” [17]

Just as the economic theory of capitalism remains stuck fast in its self-created immediacy, the same thing happens to bourgeois attempts to comprehend the ideological phenomenon of reification. Even thinkers who have no desire to deny or obscure its existence and who are more or less clear in their own minds about its humanly destructive consequences remain on the surface and make no attempt to advance beyond its objectively most derivative forms, the forms furthest from the real life-process of capitalism,, i.e. the most external and vacuous forms, to the basic phenomenon of reification itself.

Indeed, they divorce these empty manifestations from their real capitalist foundation and make them independent and permanent by regarding them as the timeless model of human relations in general. (This can be seen most clearly in Simmel’s book The Philosophy of Money, a very interesting and perceptive work in matters of detail.) They offer no more than a description of this “enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world, in which Monsieur Le Capital and Madame La Terre do their ghost-walking as social characters and at the same time as mere things.” [18] But they do not go further than a description and their ‘deepening’ of the problem runs in circles around the eternal manifestations of reification.

The divorce of the phenomena of reification from their economic bases and from the vantage point from which alone they can be understood, is facilitated by the fact that the [capitalist] process of transformation must embrace every manifestation of the life of society if the preconditions for the complete self-realisation of capitalist production are to be fulfilled.

Thus capitalism has created a form for the state and a system of law corresponding to its needs and harmonising with its own structure. The structural similarity is so great that no truly perceptive historian of modern capitalism could fail to notice it. Max Weber, for instance, gives this description of the basic lines of this development: “Both are, rather, quite similar in their fundamental nature. Viewed sociologically, a ‘business-concern’ is the modern state; the same holds good for a factory: and this, precisely, is what is specific to it historically. And, likewise, the power relations in a business are also of the same kind. The relative independence of the artisan (or cottage craftsman), of the landowning peasant, the owner of a benefice, the knight and vassal was based on the fact that he himself owned the tools, supplies, financial resources or weapons with the aid of which he fulfilled his economic, political or military function and from which he lived while this duty was being discharged. Similarly, the hierarchic dependence of the worker, the clerk, the technical assistant,, the assistant in an academic institute and the civil servant and. soldier has a comparable basis: namely that the tools, supplies and financial resources essential both for the business-concern and for economic survival are in the hands. in the one case, of the entrepreneur and, in the other case, of the political master.” [19]

He rounds off this account - very pertinently - with an analysis of the cause and the social implications of this phenomenon:

"The modern capitalist concern is based inwardly above all on calculation. It system of justice and an administration whose workings can be rationally calculated, at least in principle, according to fixed general laws, just as the probable performance of a machine can be calculated. It is as little able to tolerate the dispensing of justice according to the judge’s sense of fair play in individual cases or any other irrational means or principles of administering the law ... as it is able to endure a patriarchal administration that obeys the dictates of its own caprice, or sense of mercy and, for the rest, proceeds in accordance with an inviolable and sacrosanct, but irrational tradition. ... What is specific to modern capitalism as distinct from the age-old capitalist forms of acquisition is that the strictly rational organisation of work on the basis of rational technology did not come into being anywhere within such irrationally constituted political systems nor could it have done so. For these modern businesses with their fixed capital and their exact calculations are much too sensitive to legal and administrative irrationalities. They could only come into being in the bureaucratic state with its rational laws where ... the judge is more or less an automatic statute-dispensing machine in which you insert the files together with the necessary costs and dues at the top, whereupon he will eject the judgment together with the more or less cogent reasons for it at the bottom: that is to say, where the judge’s behaviour is on the whole predictable."

The process we see here is closely related both in its motivation and in its effects to the economic process outlined above. Here, too, there is a breach with the empirical and irrational methods of administration and dispensing justice based on traditions tailored, subjectively, to the requirements of men in action, and, objectively, to those of the concrete matter in hand. There arises a rational systematisation of all statutes regulating life, which represents, or at least tends towards a closed system applicable to all possible and imaginable cases. Whether this system is arrived at in a purely logical manner, as an exercise in pure legal dogma or interpretation of the law, or whether the judge is given the task of filling the ‘gaps’ left in the laws, is immaterial for our attempt to understand the structure of modern legal reality. In either case the legal system is formally capable of being generalised so as to relate to every possible situation in life and it is susceptible to prediction and calculation. Even Roman Law, which comes closest to these developments while remaining, in modern terms, within the framework of pre-capitalist legal patterns, does not in this respect go beyond the empirical, the concrete and the traditional. The purely systematic categories which were necessary before a judicial system could become universally applicable arose only in modern times .[20]

It requires no further explanation to realise that the need to systematise and to abandon empiricism, tradition and material dependence was the need for exact calculations However, this same need requires that the legal system should confront the individual events of social existence as something permanently established and exactly defined, i.e. as a rigid system. Of course, this produces an uninterrupted series of conflicts between the unceasingly revolutionary forces of the capitalist economy and the rigid legal system. But this only results in new codifications; and despite these the new system is forced to preserve the fixed, change-resistant structure of the old system.

This is the source of the - apparently - paradoxical situation whereby the ‘law’ of primitive societies, which has scarcely altered in hundreds or sometimes even thousands of years, can be flexible and irrational in character, renewing itself with every new legal decision, while modern law, caught up in the continuous turmoil of change, should appear rigid, static and fixed. But the paradox dissolves when we realise that it arises only because the same situation has been regarded from two different points of view: on the one hand, from that of the historian (who stands ‘outside’ the actual process) and, on the other, from that of someone who experiences the effects of the social order in question upon his consciousness.

With the aid of this insight we can see clearly how the antagonism between the traditional and empirical craftsmanship and the scientific and rational factory is repeated in another sphere of activity. At every single stage of its development, the ceaselessly revolutionary techniques of modern production turn a rigid and immobile face towards the individual producer. Whereas the objectively relatively stable, traditional craft production preserves in the minds of its individual practitioners the appearance of something flexible, something constantly renewing itself, something produced by the producers.

In the process we witness, illuminatingly, how here, too, the contemplative nature of man under capitalism makes its appearance. For the essence of rational calculation is based ultimately upon the recognition and the inclusion in one’s calculations of the inevitable chain of cause and effect in certain events - independently of individual ‘caprice’. In consequence, man’s activity does not go beyond the correct calculation of the possible outcome of the sequence of events (the ‘laws’ of which he finds ‘ready-made’), and beyond the adroit evasion of disruptive ‘accidents’ by means of protective devices and preventive measures (which are based in their turn on the recognition and application of similar laws). Very often it will confine itself to working out the probable effects of such ‘laws’ without making the attempt to intervene in the process by bringing other ‘laws’ to bear. (As in insurance schemes, etc.)

The more closely we scrutinise this situation and the better we are able to close our minds to the bourgeois legends of the ‘creativity’ of the exponents of the capitalist age, the more obvious it becomes that we are witnessing in all behaviour of this sort the structural analogue to the behaviour of the worker vis-à-vis the machine he serves and observes, and whose functions he controls while he contemplates it. The ‘creative’ element can be seen to depend at best on whether these ‘laws’ are applied in a - relatively - independent way or in a wholly subservient one. That is to say, it depends on the degree to which the contemplative stance is repudiated. The distinction between a worker faced with a particular machine, the entrepreneur faced with a given type of mechanical development, the technologist faced with the state of science and the profitability of its application to technology, is purely quantitative; it does not directly entail any qualitative difference in the structure of consciousness.

Only in this context can the problem of modern bureaucracy be properly understood. Bureaucracy implies the adjustment of one’s way of life, mode of work and hence of consciousness to the general socioeconomic premises of the capitalist economy, similar to that which we have observed in the case of the worker in particular business concerns. The formal standardisation of justice, the state, the civil service, etc., signifies objectively and factually a comparable reduction of all social functions to their elements, a comparable search for the rational formal laws of these carefully segregated partial systems. Subjectively, the divorce between work and the individual capacities and needs of the worker produces comparable effects upon consciousness. This results in an inhuman, standardised division of labour analogous to that which we have found in industry on the technological and mechanical plane. [22]

It is not only a question of the completely mechanical, ‘mindless’ work of the lower echelons of the bureaucracy which bears such an extraordinarily close resemblance to operating a machine and which indeed often surpasses it in sterility and uniformity. It is also a question, on the one hand, of the way in which objectively all issues are subjected to an increasingly formal and standardised treatment and in which there is an ever-increasing remoteness from the qualitative and material essence of the ‘things’ to which bureaucratic activity pertains. On the other hand, there is an even more monstrous intensification of the one-sided specialisation which represents such a violation of man’s humanity. Marx’s comment on factory work that “the individual, himself divided, is transformed into the automatic mechanism of a partial labour” and is thus “crippled to the point of abnormality” is relevant here too. And it becomes all the more clear, the more elevated, advanced and ‘intellectual’ is the attainment exacted by the division of labour.

The split between the worker’s labour-power and his personality, its metamorphosis into a thing, an object that he sells on the market is repeated here too. But with the difference that not every mental faculty is suppressed by mechanisation; only one faculty (or complex of faculties) is detached from the whole personality and placed in opposition to it, becoming a thing, a commodity. But the basic phenomenon remains the same even’ though both the means by which society instills such abilities and their material and ‘moral’ exchange value are fundamentally different from labour-power (not forgetting, of course, the many connecting links and nuances).

The specific type of bureaucratic ‘conscientiousness’ and impartiality, the individual bureaucrat’s inevitable total subjection to a system of relations between the things to which he is exposed, the idea that it is precisely his ‘honour’ and his ‘sense of responsibility’ that exact this total submission [23] all this points to the fact that the division of labour which in the case of Taylorism invaded the psyche, here invades the realm of ethics. Far from weakening the reified structure of consciousness, this actually strengthens it. For as long as the fate of the worker still appears to be an individual fate (as in the case of the slave in antiquity), the life of the ruling classes is still free to assume quite different forms. Not until the rise of capitalism was a unified economic structure, and hence a - formally - unified structure of consciousness that embraced the whole society, brought into being. This unity expressed itself in the fact that the problems of consciousness arising from wage-labour were repeated in the ruling class in a refined and spiritualised, but, for that very reason, more intensified form. The specialised ‘virtuoso’, the vendor of his objectified and reified faculties does not just become the [passive] observer of society; he also lapses into a contemplative attitude vis-à-vis the workings of his own objectified and reified faculties. (It is not possible here even to outline the way in which modern administration and law assume the characteristics of the factory as we noted above rather than those of the handicrafts.) This phenomenon can be seen at its most grotesque in journalism. Here it is precisely subjectivity itself, knowledge, temperament and powers of expression that are reduced to an abstract mechanism functioning autonomously and divorced both from the personality of their ‘owner’ and from the material and concrete nature of the subject matter in hand. The journalist’s ‘lack of convictions’, the prostitution of his experiences and beliefs is comprehensible only as the apogee of capitalist reification. [24]

The transformation of the commodity relation into a thing of ‘ghostly objectivity’ cannot therefore content itself with the reduction of all objects for the gratification of human needs to commodities. It stamps its imprint upon the whole consciousness of man; his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things which he can ‘own’ or ‘dispose of’ like the various objects of the external world. And there is no natural form in which human relations can be cast, no way in which man can bring his physical and psychic ‘qualities’ into play without their being subjected increasingly to this reifying process. We need only think of marriage, and without troubling to point to the developments of the nineteenth century we can remind ourselves of the way in which Kant, for example, described the situation with the naively cynical frankness peculiar to great thinkers.

"Sexual community," he says, “is the reciprocal use made by one person of the sexual organs and faculties of another ... marriage ... is the union of two people of different sexes with a view to the mutual possession of each other’s sexual attributes for the duration of their lives.” [25]

This rationalisation of the world appears to be complete, it seems to penetrate the very depths of man’s physical and psychic nature. It is limited, however, by its own formalism. That is to say, the rationalisation of isolated aspects of life results in the creation of formal laws. All these things do join together into what seems to the superficial observer to constitute a unified system of general ‘laws’. But the disregard of the concrete aspects of the subject matter of these laws, upon which disregard their authority as laws is based, makes itself felt in the incoherence of the system in fact. This incoherence becomes particularly egregious in periods of crisis. At such times we can see how the immediate continuity between two partial systems is disrupted and their independence from and adventitious connection with each other is suddenly forced into the consciousness of everyone. It is for this reason that Engels is able to define the ‘natural laws’ of capitalist society as the laws of chance. [26]

On closer examination the structure of a crisis is seen to be no more than a heightening of the degree and intensity of the daily life of bourgeois society. In its unthinking, mundane reality that life seems firmly held together by ‘natural laws’; yet it can experience a sudden dislocation because the bonds uniting its various elements and partial systems are a chance affair even at their most normal. So that the pretence that society is regulated by ‘eternal, iron’ laws which branch off into the different special laws applying to particular areas is finally revealed for what it is: a pretence. The true structure of society appears rather in the independent, rationalised and formal partial laws whose links with each other are of necessity purely formal (i.e. their formal interdependence can be formally systematised), while as far as concrete realities are concerned they can only establish fortuitous connections.

On closer inspection this kind of connection can be discovered even in purely economic phenomena. Thus Marx points out - and the cases referred to here are intended only as an indication of the methodological factors involved, not as a substantive treatment of the problems themselves - that “the conditions of direct exploitation [of the labourer], and those of realising surplus-value, are not identical. They diverge not only in place and time, but also logically.” [27] Thus there exists “an accidental rather than a necessary connection between the total amount of social labour applied to a social article” and “the volume whereby society seeks to satisfy the want gratified by the article in question.” [28]

These are no more than random instances. It is evident that the whole structure of capitalist production rests on the interaction between a necessity subject to strict laws in all isolated phenomena and the relative irrationality of the total process. “Division of labour within the workshop implies the undisputed authority of the capitalist over men, who are but parts of a mechanism that belongs to him. The division of labour within society brings into contact independent commodity-producers who acknowledge no other authority than that of competition, of the coercion exerted pressure of their mutual interests.” [29]

The capitalist process of rationalisation based on private economic calculation requires that every manifestation of life shall exhibit this very interaction between details which are subject to laws and a totality ruled by chance. It presupposes a society so structured. It produces and reproduces this structure in so far as it takes possession of society. This has its foundation already in the nature of speculative calculation, i.e. the economic practice of commodity owners at the stage where the exchange of commodities has become universal. Competition between the different owners of commodities would not be feasible if there were an exact, rational, systematic mode of functioning for the whole of society to correspond to the rationality of isolated phenomena. If a rational calculation is to be possible the commodity owner must be in possession of the laws regulating every detail of his production. The chances of exploitation, the laws of the ‘market’ must likewise be rational in the sense that they must be calculable according to the laws of probability. But they must not be governed by a law in the sense in which ‘laws’ govern individual phenomena; they must not under any circumstances be rationally organised through and through. This does not mean, of course, that there can be no ‘law’ governing the whole. But such a ‘law’ would have to be the ‘unconscious’ product of the activity of the different commodity owners acting independently of one another, i.e. a law of mutually interacting ‘coincidences’ rather than one of truly rational organisation. Furthermore, such a law must not merely impose itself despite the wishes of individuals, it may not even be fully and adequately knowable. For the complete knowledge of the whole would vouchsafe the knower a monopoly that would amount to the virtual abolition of the capitalist economy.

This irrationality - this highly problematic - ‘systematisation’ ,of the whole which diverges, qualitatively and in principle from the laws regulating the parts, is more than just a postulate, a presupposition essential to the workings of a capitalist economy. It is at the same time the product of the capitalist division of labour. It has already been pointed out that the division of labour disrupts every organically unified process of work and life and breaks it down into its components. This enables the artificially isolated partial functions to be performed in the most rational manner by ‘specialists’ who are specially adapted mentally and physically for the purpose. This has the effect of making these partial functions autonomous and so they tend to develop through their own momentum and in accordance with their own special laws independently of the other partial functions of society (or that part of the society to which they belong.

As the division of labour becomes more pronounced and more rational, this tendency naturally increases in proportion. For the more highly developed it is, the more powerful become the claims to status and the professional interests of the ‘specialists’ who are the living embodiments of such tendencies. And this centrifugal movement is not confined to aspects of a particular sector. It is even more in evidence when we consider the great spheres of activity created by the division of labour. Engels describes this process with regard to the relation between economics and laws: “Similarly with law. As soon as the new division of labour which creates professional lawyers becomes necessary, another new and independent sphere is opened up which, for all its essential dependence on production and trade, still has also a special capacity for reacting upon these spheres. In a modern state, law must not only correspond to the general economic condition and be its expression, but must also be an internally coherent expression which does not, owing to inner contradictions, reduce itself to nought. And in order to achieve this, the faithful reflection of economic conditions suffers increasingly. ... [30] It is hardly necessary to supplement this with examples of the inbreeding and the interdepartmental conflicts of the civil service (consider the independence of the military apparatus from the civil administration), or of the academic faculties, etc.


The specialisation of skills leads to the destruction of every image of the whole. And as, despite this, the need to grasp the whole-at least cognitively-cannot die out, we find that science, which is likewise based on specialisation and thus caught up in the same immediacy, is criticised for having torn the real world into shreds and having lost its vision of the whole. In reply to allegations that “the various factors are not treated as a whole” Marx retorts that this criticism is levelled “as though it were the text-books that impress this separation upon life and not life upon the text-books.” [31] Even though this criticism deserves refutation in its naive form it becomes comprehensible when we look for a moment from the outside, i.e. from a vantage point other than that of a reified consciousness, at the activity of modern science which is both sociologically and methodologically necessary and for that reason ‘comprehensible’. Such a look will reveal (without constituting a ‘criticism’) that the more intricate a modern science becomes and the better it understands itself methodologically, the more resolutely it will turn its back on the ontological problems of its own sphere of influence and eliminate them from the realm, where it has achieved some insight. The more highly developed it becomes and the more scientific, the more it will become a formally closed system of partial laws. It will then find that the world lying beyond its confines, and in particular the material base which it is its task to understand, its own concrete underlying reality lies, methodologically and in principle, beyond its grasp.

Marx acutely summed up this situation with reference to economics when he declared that “use-value as such lies outside the sphere of investigation of political economy.” [32] It would be a mistake to suppose that certain analytical devices - such as find in the ‘Theory of Marginal Utility’-might show the way out of this impasse. It is possible to set aside objective laws governing the production and movement of commodities which regulate the market and ‘subjective’ modes of behaviour on it and to make the attempt to start from ‘subjective’ behaviour on the market. But this simply shifts the question from the main issue to more and more derivative and reified stages without ,,negating the formalism of the method and the elimination from the outset of the concrete material underlying it. The formal act of exchange which constitutes the basic fact for the theory of marginal utility likewise suppresses use-value as use-value and establishes a relation of concrete equality between concretely unequal and indeed incomparable objects. It is this that creates impasse.

Thus the subject of the exchange is just as abstract, formal and reified as its object. The limits of this abstract and formal method are revealed in the fact that its chosen goal is an abstract system of ‘laws’ that focuses on the theory of marginal utility just as much as classical economics had done. But the formal abstraction of these ‘laws’ transforms economics into a closed partial system. And this in turn is unable to penetrate its own material substratum, nor can it advance from there to an understanding of society in its entirety and so it is compelled to view that substratum as an immutable, eternal ‘datum’. Science is thereby debarred from comprehending the development and the demise, the social character of its own material base, no less than the range of possible attitudes towards it and the nature of its own formal system.

Here, once again, we can clearly observe. the close interaction between a class and the scientific method that arises from the attempt to conceptualise the social character of that class together with its laws and needs. It has often been pointed out-in these pages and elsewhere-that the problem that forms the ultimate barrier to the economic thought of the bourgeoisie is the crisis. If now-in the full awareness of our own one-sidedness-consider this question from a purely methodological point of view, we see that it is the very success with which the economy is totally rationalised and transformed into an abstract and mathematically orientated system of formal ‘laws’ that creates the methodological barrier to understanding the phenomenon of crisis. In moments of crisis the qualitative existence of the ‘things’ that lead their lives beyond the purview of economics as misunderstood and neglected things-in-themselves, as use-values, suddenly becomes the decisive factor. (Suddenly, that is, for reified, rational thought.) Or rather: these ‘laws’ fail to function and the reified mind is unable to perceive a pattern in this ‘chaos’.

This failure is characteristic not merely of classical economics (which regarded crises as ‘passing’, ‘accidental’ disturbances), but of bourgeois economics in toto. The incomprehensibility and irrationality of crises is indeed a consequence of the class situation and interests of the bourgeoisie but it follows equally from their approach to economics. (There is no need to spell out the fact that for us these are both merely aspects of the same dialectical unity). This consequence follows with such inevitability that Tugan-Baranovsky, for example, attempts in his theory to draw

the necessary conclusions from a century of crises by excluding consumption from economics entirely and founding a ‘pure’ economics based only on production. The source of crises (whose existence cannot be denied) is then found to lie in incongruities between the various elements of production, i.e. in purely quantitative factors. Hilferding puts his finger on the fallacy underlying all such explanations:

"They operate only with economic concepts such as capital, profit, accumulation, etc., and believe that they possess the solution to the problem when they have discovered the quantitative relations on the basis of which either simple and expanded reproduction is possible, or else there are disturbances. They overlook the fact that there are qualitative conditions attached to these quantitative relations, that it is not merely a question of units of value which can easily be compared with each other but also use-values of a definite kind which must fulfil a definite function in production and consumption. Further, they are oblivious of the fact that in the analysis of the process of reproduction more is involved than just aspects of capital in general, so that it is not enough to say that an excess or a deficit of industrial capital can be ‘balanced’ by an appropriate amount of money-capital. Nor is it a matter of fixed or circulating capital, but rather of machines, raw materials, labour-power of a quite definite (technically defined) sort, if disruptions are to be avoided.” [33]

Marx has often demonstrated convincingly how inadequate the claws’ of bourgeois economics are to the task of explaining the true movement of economic activity in toto. He has made it clear that this limitation lies in the-methodologically inevitable-failure to comprehend use-value and real consumption.

"Within certain limits, the process of reproduction may take place on the same or on an increased scale even when the commodities expelled from it have not really entered individual or productive consumption. The consumption of commodities is not included in the cycle of the capital from which they originated. For instance, as soon as the yarn is sold the cycle of the capital-value represented by the yarn may begin anew, regardless of what may next become of the sold yarn. So long as the product is sold, everything is taking its regular course from the standpoint of the capitalist producer. The cycle of the capital-value he is identified with is not interrupted. And if this process is expanded-which includes increased productive consumption of the means of production-this reproduction of capital may be accompanied by increased individual consumption (hence demand) on the part of the labourers, since this process is initiated and effected by productive consumption. Thus the production of surplus-value, and with it the individual consumption of the capitalist, may increase, the entire process of reproduction may be in a flourishing condition, and yet a large part of the commodities may have entered into consumption only in appearance, while in reality they may still remain unsold in the hands of dealers, may in fact still be lying in the market.” [34]

It must be emphasised that this inability to penetrate to the real material substratum of science is not the fault of individuals. It is rather something that becomes all the more apparent the more science has advanced and the more consistently it functions from the point of view of its own premises. It is therefore no accident, as Rosa Luxemburg has convincingly shown, [35] that the great, if also often primitive, faulty and inexact synoptic view of economic life to be found in Quesnay’s “Tableau Economique", disappears progressively as the - formal - process of conceptualisation becomes increasingly exact in the course of its development from Adam Smith to Ricardo. For Ricardo the process of the total reproduction of capital (where this problem cannot be avoided) is no longer a central issue.

In jurisprudence this situation emerges with even greater clarity and simplicity - because there is a more conscious reification at work. If only because the question of whether the qualitative content can be understood by means of a rational, calculating approach is no longer seen in terms of a rivalry between two principles within the same sphere (as was the case with use-value and exchange value in economics), but rather, right from the start, as a question of form versus content. The conflict revolving around natural law, and the whole revolutionary period of the bourgeoisie was based on the assumption that the formal equality and universality of the law (and hence its rationality) was able at the same time to determine its content. This was expressed in the assault on the varied and picturesque medley of privileges dating back to the Middle Ages and also in the attack on the Divine Right of Kings. The revolutionary bourgeois class refused to admit that a legal relationship had a valid foundation merely because it existed in fact. "Burn your laws and make new ones!” Voltaire counselled; “Whence can new laws be obtained? From Reason!” [36]

The war waged against the revolutionary bourgeoisie, say, at the time of the French Revolution, was dominated to such an extent by this idea that it was inevitable that the natural law of the bourgeoisie could only be opposed by yet another natural law (see Burke and also Stahl). Only after the bourgeoisie had gained at least a partial victory did a ‘critical’ and a ‘historical’ view begin to emerge in both camps. Its essence can be summarised as the belief that the content of law is something purely factual and hence not to be comprehended by the formal categories of jurisprudence. Of the tenets of natural law the only one to survive was the idea of the unbroken continuity of the formal system of law; significantly, Bergbohm uses an image borrowed from physics, that of a ‘juridical vacuum’, to describe everything not regulated by law. [37]

Nevertheless, the cohesion of these laws is purely formal: what they express, “the content of legal institutions is never of a legal character, but always political and economic.” [38] With this the primitive, cynically sceptical campaign against natural law that was launched by the ‘Kantian’ Hugo at the end of the eighteenth century, acquired ‘scientific’ status. Hugo established the juridical basis of slavery, among other things, by arguing that it “had been the law of the land for thousands of years and was acknowledged by millions of cultivated people.” [39] In this naively cynical frankness the pattern which is to become increasingly characteristic of law in bourgeois society stands clearly revealed. When Jellinek describes the contents of law as meta-juristic, when ‘critical’ jurists locate the study of the contents of law in history, sociology and politics what they are doing is, in the last analysis, just what Hugo had demanded: they are systematically abandoning the attempt to ground law in reason and to give it a rational content; law is henceforth to be regarded as a formal calculus with the aid of which the legal consequences of particular actions (rebus sic stantibus) can be determined as exactly as possible.

However, this view transforms the process by which law comes into being and passes away into something as incomprehensible to the jurist as crises had been to the political economist. With regard to the origins of law the perceptive ‘critical’ jurist Kelsen observes: “It is the great mystery of law and of the state that is consummated with the enactment of laws and for this reason it may be permissible to employ inadequate images in elucidating its nature.” [40] Or in other words: “It is symptomatic of the nature of law that a norm may be legitimate even if its origins are iniquitous. That is another way of saying that the legitimate origin of a law cannot be written into the concept of law as one of its conditions.” [41] This epistemological clarification could also be a factual one and could thereby lead to an advance in knowledge. To achieve this, however, the other disciplines into which the problem of the origins of law had been diverted would really have to propose a genuine solution to it. But also it would be essential really to penetrate the nature of a legal system which serves purely as a means of calculating the effects of actions and of rationally imposing modes of action relevant to a particular class. In that event the real, material substratum of the law would at one stroke become visible and comprehensible. But neither condition can be fulfilled. The law maintains its close relationship with the ‘eternal values’. This gives birth, in the shape of a philosophy of law to an impoverished and formalistic re-edition of natural law (Stammler). Meanwhile, the real basis for the development of law, a change in the power relations between the classes, becomes hazy and vanishes into the sciences that study it, sciences which - in conformity with the modes of thought current in bourgeois society - generate the same problems of transcending their material substratum as we have seen in jurisprudence and economics.

The manner in which this transcendence is conceived shows how vain was the hope that a comprehensive discipline, like philosophy, might yet achieve that overall knowledge which the particular sciences have so conspicuously renounced by turning away from the material substratum of their conceptual apparatus. Such a synthesis would only be possible if philosophy were able to change its approach radically and concentrate on the concrete material totality of what can and should be known. Only then would it be able to break through the barriers erected by a formalism that has degenerated into a state of complete fragmentation. But this would presuppose an awareness of the causes, the genesis and the necessity of this formalism; moreover, it would not be enough to unite the special sciences mechanically: they would have to be transformed inwardly by an inwardly synthesising philosophical method. It is evident that the philosophy of bourgeois society is incapable of this. Not that the desire for synthesis is absent; nor can it be maintained that the best people have welcomed with open arms a mechanical existence hostile to life and a scientific formalism alien to it. But a radical change in outlook is not feasible on the soil of bourgeois society. Philosophy can attempt to assemble the whole of knowledge encyclopaedically (see Wundt). Or it may radically question the value of formal knowledge for a ‘living life’ (see irrationalist philosophies from Hamann to Bergson). But these episodic trends lie to one side of the main philosophical tradition. The latter acknowledges as given and necessary the results and achievements of the special sciences and assigns to philosophy the task of exhibiting and justifying the grounds for regarding as valid the concepts so constructed.

Thus philosophy stands in the same relation to the special sciences as they do with respect to empirical reality. The formalistic conceptualisation of the special sciences become for philosophy an immutably given substratum and this signals the final and despairing renunciation of every attempt to cast light on the reification that lies at the root of this formalism. The reified world appears henceforth quite definitively-and in philosophy, under the spotlight of ‘criticism’ it is potentiated still further-as the only possible world, the only conceptually accessible, comprehensible world vouchsafed to us humans. Whether this gives rise to ecstasy, resignation or despair, whether we search for a path leading to ‘life’ via irrational mystical experience, this will do absolutely nothing to modify the situation as it is in fact.

By confining itself to the study of the ‘possible conditions’ of the validity of the forms in which its underlying existence is manifested, modern bourgeois thought bars its own way to a clear view of the problems bearing on the birth and death of these forms, and on their real essence and substratum. Its perspicacity finds itself increasingly in the situation of that legendary ‘critic’ in India who was confronted with the ancient story according to which the world rests upon an elephant. He unleashed the ‘critical’ question: upon what does the elephant rest? On receiving the answer that the elephant stands on a tortoise ‘criticism’ declared itself satisfied. It is obvious that even if he had continued to press apparently (critical’ questions, he could only have elicited a third miraculous animal. He would not have been able to discover the solution to the real question.


1 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p. 53.

2 Capital III, p. 324.

3 Capital III, p. 810.

4 Capital I, p. 72. On this antagonism cf. the purely economic distinction between the exchange of goods in terms of their value and the exchange in terms of their cost of production. Capital III, p. 174.

5 Capital I, p. 170.

6 Cf. Capital 1, pp. 322, 345.

7 This whole process is described systematically and historically in Capital I. The facts themselves can also be found in the writings of bourgeois economists like Bücher, Sombart, A. Weber and Gottl among others - although for the most part they are not seen in connection with the problem of reification.

8 Capital I, p. 384.

9 Capital I, p. 355 (note).

10 That this should appear so is fully justified from the point of view of the individual consciousness. As far as class is concerned we would point out that this subjugation is the product of a lengthy struggle which enters upon a new stage with the organisation of the proletariat into a class. but on a higher plane and with different weapons.

11 Capital 1, pp. 374-6, 423-4, 460, etc. It goes without saying that this ‘contemplation’ can be more demanding and demoralising than ‘active’ labour. But we cannot discuss this further here.

12 The Poverty of Philosophy, pp. 58-9.

13 Capital I, p. 344.

14 CL Gottl: Wirtschaft und Technik, Grundrisse der Sozialökonomik II, 234 et seq.

15 Capital I, p. 77.

16 This refers above all to capitalist private property. Der heilige Max. Dokumente des Sozialismus 1II, 363. Marx goes on to make a number of very fine observations about the effects of reification upon language. A philological study from the standpoint of historical materialism could profitably begin here.

17 Capital III, pp. 384-5.

18 Ibid., p. 809.

19 Gesammelte politische Schriften, Munich, 1921, pp. 140-2. Weber’s reference to the development of English law has no bearing on our problem. On the gradual ascendancy of the principle of economic calculation, see also A. Weber, Standort der Industrien, especially p. 216.

20 Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, p. 491.

21 Ibid., p. 129.

22 If we do not emphasise the class character of the state in this context, this is because our aim is to understand reification as a general phenomenon constitutive of the whole of bourgeois society. But for this the question of class would have to begin with the machine. On this point see Section Ill.

23 Cf. Max Weber, Politische Schriften, p. 154.

24 Cf. the essay by A. Fogarasi in Kommunismus, jg. II, No. 25126.

25 Die Metaphysik der Sitten, Pt. I, § 24.

26 The Origin of the Family, in S. W. II, p. 293.

27 Capital III, p. 239.

28 Ibid., p. 183.

29 Capital I, p. 356.

30 Letter to Conrad Schmidt in S.W. II, pp. 447-8.

31 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p. 276.

32 Ibid., p. 2 1.

33 Finanzkapital, 2nd edition, pp. 378-9.

34 Capital II, pp. 75-6.

35 Die Akkumulation des Kapitals, Ist edition, pp. 78-9. It would be a fascinating task to work out the links between this process and the development of the great rationalist systems.

36 Quoted by Bergbohm, Jurisprudenz und Rechtsphilosphie, p. 170.

37 Ibid., p. 375.

38 Preuss, Zur Methode der juristischen Begriffsbildung. In Schmollers jahrbuch, 1900, p. 370.

39 Lehrbuch des Naturrechts, Berlin, 1799, § 141. Marx’s polemic against Hugo (Nachlass 1, pp. 268 et seq.) is still on Hegelian lines.

40 Hauptprobleme der Staatsrechtslehre, p. 411 (my italics).

41 F. Somlo, juristiche Grundlehre, p. 117.

Part II: The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought

Modern critical philosophy springs from the reified structure of consciousness. The specific problems of this philosophy are distinguishable from the problematics of previous philosophies by the fact that they are rooted in this structure. Greek philosophy constitutes something of an exception to this. This is not merely accidental, for reification did play a part in Greek society in its maturity. But as the problems and solutions of the philosophy of the Ancients were embedded in a wholly different society it is only natural that they should be qualitatively different from those of modern philosophy. Hence, from the standpoint of any adequate interpretation it is as idle to imagine that we can find in Plato a precursor of Kant (as does Natorp), as it is to undertake the task of erecting a philosophy on Aristotle (as does Thomas Aquinas) . If these two ventures have proved feasible – even though arbitrary and inadequate – this can be accounted for in part by the use to which later ages are wont to put the philosophical heritage, bending it to their own purposes. But also further explanation lies in the fact that Greek philosophy was no stranger to certain aspects of reification, without having experienced them, however, as universal forms of existence; it had one foot in the world of reification while the other remained in a ‘natural’ society. Hence its problems can be applied to the two later traditions, although only with the aid of energetic re-interpretations.



Where, then, does the fundamental distinction lie? Kant has formulated the matter succinctly in the Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason with his well-known allusion to the “Copernican Revolution”, a revolution which must be carried out in the realm of the problem of knowledge: “Hitherto, it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to the objects.... Therefore let us for once attempt to see whether we cannot reach a solution to the tasks of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our knowledge. ...”[1] In other words, modern philosophy sets itself the following problem: it refuses to accept the world as something that has arisen (or e.g. has been created by God) independently of the knowing subject, and prefers to conceive of it instead as its own product.

This revolution which consists in viewing rational knowledge as the product of mind does not originate with Kant. He only developed its implications more radically than his predecessors had done. Marx has recalled, in a quite different context, Vico’s remark to the effect that “the history of man is to be distinguished from the history of nature by the fact that we have made the one but not the other”. [2] In ways diverging from that of Vico who in many respects was not understood and who became influential only much later, the whole of modern philosophy has been preoccupied with this problem. From systematic doubt and the Cogito ergo sum of Descartes, to Hobbes, Spinoza and Leibniz there is a direct line of development whose central strand, rich in variations, is the idea that the object of cognition can be known by us for the reason that, and to the degree in which, it has been created by ourselves. [3] And with this, the methods of mathematics and geometry (the means whereby objects are constructed, created out of the formal presuppositions of objectivity in general) and, later, the methods of mathematical physics become the guide and the touchstone of philosophy, the knowledge of the world as a totality.

The question why and with what justification human reason should elect to regard just these systems as constitutive of its own essence (as opposed to the ‘given’, alien, unknowable nature of the content of those systems) never arises. It is assumed to be self-evident. Whether this assumption is expressed (as in the case of Berkeley and Hume) as scepticism, as doubt in the ability of ‘our’ knowledge to achieve universally valid results, or whether (as with Spinoza and Leibniz) it becomes an unlimited confidence in the ability of these formal systems to comprehend the ‘true’ essence of all things, is of secondary importance in this context. For we are not concerned to present a history of modern philosophy, not even in crude outline. We wish only to sketch the connection between the fundamental problems of this philosophy and the basis in existence from which these problems spring and to which they strive to return by the road of the understanding. However, the character of this existence is revealed at least as clearly by what philosophy does not find problematic as by what it does. At any rate it is advisable to consider the interaction between these two aspects. And if we do put the question in this way we then perceive that the salient characteristic of the whole epoch is the equation which appears naïve and dogmatic even in the most ‘critical’ philosophers, of formal, mathematical, rational knowledge both with knowledge in general and also with ‘our’ knowledge.

Even the most superficial glance at the history of human thought will persuade us that neither of the two equations is self-evidently true under all circumstances. This is most obviously apparent in the origins of modern thought where it was necessary to wage prolonged intellectual wars with the quite differently based thought of the Middle Ages before the new method and the new view of the nature of thought could finally prevail. This struggle, too, can obviously not be portrayed here. A familiarity with its dominant motifs can be assumed. These were the continuity of all phenomena (in contrast to the medieval distinction between the world ‘beneath’ the moon and the world ‘above’ it); the demand for immanent causal connections in contrast to views which sought to explain and connect phenomena from some transcendental point (astronomy versus astrology); the demand that mathematical and rational categories should be applied to all phenomena (in contrast to the qualitative approach of nature philosophy which experienced a new impetus in the Renaissance – Böhme, Fludd, etc. – and even formed the basis of Bacon’s method. It can similarly be taken as read that the whole evolution of philosophy went hand in hand with the development of the exact sciences. These in turn interacted fruitfully with a technology that was becoming increasingly more rationalised, and with developments in production. [4]

These considerations are of crucial importance for our analysis. For rationalism has existed at widely different times and in the most diverse forms, in the sense of a formal system whose unity derives from its orientation towards that aspect of the phenomena that can be grasped by the understanding, that is created by the understanding and hence also subject to the control, the predictions and the calculations of the understanding. But there are fundamental distinctions to be made, depending on the material on which this rationalism is brought to bear and on the role assigned to it in the comprehensive system of human knowledge and human objectives. What is novel about modern rationalism is its increasingly insistent claim that it has discovered the principle which connects up all phenomena which in nature and society are found to confront mankind. Compared with this, every previous type of rationalism is no more than a partial system.

In such systems the ‘ultimate’ problems of human existence persist in an irrationality incommensurable with human understanding. The closer the system comes to these ‘ultimate’ questions the more strikingly its partial, auxiliary nature and its inability to grasp the ‘essentials’ are revealed. An example of this is found in the highly rationalised techniques of Hindu asceticism [5], with its ability to predict exactly all of its results. Its whole ‘rationality’ resides in the direct and immediate bond, related as means to ends, with an entirely supra-rational experience of the essence of the world.

Thus, here too, it will not do to regard ‘rationalism’ as something abstract and formal and so to turn it into a suprahistorical principle inherent in the nature of human thought. We perceive rather that the question of whether a form is to be treated as a universal category or merely as a way of organising precisely delimited partial systems is essentially a qualitative problem. Nevertheless even the purely formal delimitation of this type of thought throws light on the necessary correlation of the rational and the irrational, i.e. on the inevitability with which every rational system will strike a frontier or barrier of irrationality. However, when – as in the case of Hindu asceticism – the rational system is conceived of as a partial system from the outset, when the irrational world which surrounds and delimits it – (in this case the irrational world comprises both the earthly existence of man which is unworthy of rationalisation and also the next world, that of salvation, which human, rational concepts cannot grasp) – is represented as independent of it, as unconditionally inferior or superior to it, this creates no technical problem for the rational system itself. It is simply the means to a-non-rational-end. The situation is quite different when rationalism claims to be the universal method by which to obtain knowledge of the whole of existence. In that event the necessary correlation with the principle of irrationality becomes crucial: it erodes and dissolves the whole system. This is the case with modern (bourgeois) rationalism.

The dilemma can be seen most clearly in the strange significance for Kant’s system of his concept of the thing-in-itself, with its many iridescent connotations. The attempt has often been made to prove that the thing-in-itself has a number of quite disparate functions within Kant’s system. What they all have in common is the fact that they each represent a limit, a barrier, to the abstract, formal, rationalistic, ‘human’ faculty of cognition. However, these limits and barriers seem to be so very different from each other that it is only meaningful to unify them by means of the admittedly abstract and negative-concept of the thing-in-itself if it is clear that, despite the great variety of effects, there is a unified explanation for these frontiers. To put it briefly, these problems can be reduced to two great, seemingly unconnected and even opposed complexes. There is, firstly, the problem of matter (in the logical, technical sense), the problem of the content of those forms with the aid of which ‘we’ know and are able to know the world because we have created it ourselves. And, secondly, there is the problem of the whole and of the ultimate substance of knowledge, the problem of those ‘ultimate’ objects of knowledge which are needed to round off the partial systems into a totality, a system of the perfectly understood world.

We know that in the Critique of Pure Reason it is emphatically denied that the second group of questions can be answered. Indeed, in the section on the Transcendental Dialectic the attempt is made to condemn them as questions falsely put, and to eliminate them from science. [6] But there is no need to enlarge on the fact that the question of totality is the constant centre of the transcendental dialectic. God, the soul, etc., are nothing but mythological expressions to denote the unified subject or, alternatively, the unified object of the totality of the objects of knowledge considered as perfect (and wholly known). The transcendental dialectic with its sharp distinction between phenomena and noumena repudiates all attempts by ‘our’ reason to obtain knowledge of the second group of objects. They are regarded as things-in-themselves as opposed to the phenomena that can be known.

It now appears as if the first complex of questions, that concerning the content of the forms, had nothing to do with these issues. Above all in the form sometimes given to it by Kant, according to which: “the sensuous faculty of intuition (which furnishes the forms of understanding with content) is in reality only a receptive quality, a capacity for being affected in a certain way by ideas.... The non-sensuous cause of these ideas is wholly unknown to us and we are therefore unable to intuit it as an object.... However, we can call the merely intelligible cause of phenomena in general the transcendental object, simply so that ‘we’ should have something which corresponds to sensuousness as receptivity.”

He goes on to say of this object “that it is a datum in itself, antecedent to all experience”. [7] But the problem of content goes much further than that of sensuousness, though unlike some particularly ‘critical’ and supercilious Kantians we cannot deny that the two are closely connected. For irrationality, the impossibility of reducing contents to their rational elements (which we shall discover again as a general problem in modern logic) can be seen at its crudest in the question of relating the sensuous content to the rational form. While the irrationality of other kinds of content is local and relative, the existence and the mode of being of sensuous contents remain absolutely irreducible. [8] But when the problem of irrationality resolves itself into the impossibility of penetrating any datum with the aid of rational concepts or of deriving them from such concepts, the question of the thing-in-itself, which at first seemed to involve the metaphysical dilemma of the relation between ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ now assumes a completely different aspect which is crucial both for methodology and for systematic theory. [9] The question then becomes: are the empirical facts – (it is immaterial whether they are purely ‘sensuous’ or whether their sensuousness is only the ultimate material substratum of their ‘factual’ essence) – to be taken as ‘given’ or can this ‘givenness’ be dissolved further into rational forms, i.e. can it be conceived as the product of ‘our’ reason? With this the problem becomes crucial for the possibility of the system in general.

Kant himself had already turned the problem explicitly in this direction. He repeatedly emphasises that pure reason is unable to make the least leap towards the synthesis and the definition of an object and so its principles cannot be deduced “directly from concepts but only indirectly by relating these concepts to something wholly contingent, namely possible experience” [10]; in the Critique of Judgment this notion of ‘intelligible contingency’ both of the elements of possible experience and of all laws regulating and relating to it is made the central problem of systematisation. When Kant does this we see, on the one hand, that the two quite distinct delimiting functions of the thing-in-itself (viz. the impossibility of apprehending the whole with the aid of the conceptual framework of the rational partial systems and the irrationality of the contents of the individual concepts) are but two sides of the one problem. On the other hand, we see that this problem is in fact of central importance for any mode of thought that undertakes to confer universal significance on rational categories.

Thus the attempt to universalise rationalism necessarily issues in the demand for a system but, at the same time, as soon as one reflects upon the conditions in which a universal system is possible, i.e. as soon as the question of the system is consciously posed, it is seen that such a demand is incapable of fulfilment. [11] For a system in the sense given to it by rationalism – and any other system would be self-contradictory – can bear no meaning other than that of a co-ordination, or rather a supra- and subordination of the various partial systems of forms (and within these, of the individual forms). The connections between them must always be thought of as ‘necessary’, i.e. as visible in or ‘created ‘by the forms themselves, or at least by the principle according to which forms are constructed. That is to say, the correct positing of a principle implies – at least in its general tendency – the positing of the whole system determined by it; the consequences are contained in the principle, they can be deduced from it, they are predictable and calculable. The real evolution of the totality of postulates may appear as an ‘infinite process’, but this limitation means only that we cannot survey the whole system at once; it does not detract from the principle of systematisation in the least. [12] This notion of system makes it clear why pure and applied mathematics have constantly been held up as the methodological model and guide for modern philosophy. For the way in which their axioms are related to the partial systems and results deduced from them corresponds exactly to the postulate that systematic rationalism sets itself, the postulate, namely, that every given aspect of the system should be capable of being deduced from its basic principle, that it should be exactly predictable and calculable.

It is evident that the principle of systematisation is not reconcilable with the recognition of any ‘facticity’, of a ‘content’ which in principle cannot be deduced from the principle of form and which, therefore, has simply to be accepted as actuality. The greatness, the paradox and the tragedy of classical German philosophy lie in the fact that – unlike Spinoza – it no longer dismisses every given [donné] as non-existent, causing it to vanish behind the monumental architecture of the rational forms produced by the understanding. Instead, while grasping and holding on to the irrational character of the actual contents of the concepts it strives to go beyond this, to overcome it and to erect a system. But from what has already been said it is clear what the problem of the actually given means for rationalism: viz. that it cannot be left to its own being and existence, for in that case it would remain ineluctably ‘contingent’. Instead it must be wholly absorbed into the rational system of the concepts of the understanding.

At first sight we seem to be faced by an insoluble dilemma. For either the ‘irrational’ content is to be wholly integrated into the conceptual system, i.e. this is to be so constructed that it can be coherently applied to everything just as if there were no irrational content or actuality (if there is, it exists at best as a problem in the sense suggested above). In this event thought regresses to the level of a naïve, dogmatic rationalism: somehow it regards the mere actuality of the irrational contents of the concepts as nonexistent. (This metaphysics may also conceal its real nature behind the formula that these contents are ‘irrelevant’ to knowledge.) Alternatively we are forced to concede that actuality, content, matter reaches right into the form, the structures of the forms and their interrelations and thus into the structure of the system itself[13] In that case the system must be abandoned as a system. For then it will be no more than a register, an account, as well ordered as possible, of facts which are no longer linked rationally and so can no longer be made systematic even though the forms of their components are themselves rational. [14]

It would be superficial to be baffled by this abstract dilemma and the classical philosophers did not hesitate for a moment. They took the logical opposition of form and content, the point at which all the antitheses of philosophy meet, and drove it to extremes. This enabled them to make a real advance on their predecessors and lay the foundations of the dialectical method. They persisted in their attempts to construct a rational system in the face of their clear acknowledgment of and stubborn adherence to the irrational nature of the contents of their concepts (of the given world).

This system went in the direction of a dynamic relativisation of these antitheses. Here too, of course, modern mathematics provided them with a model. The systems it influenced (in particular that of Leibniz) view the irrationality of the given world as a challenge. And in fact, for mathematics the irrationality of a given content only serves as a stimulus to modify and reinterpret the formal system with whose aid correlations had been established hitherto, so that what had at first sight appeared as a ‘given’ content, now appeared to have been ‘created’. Thus actuality was resolved into necessity. This view of reality does indeed represent a great advance on the dogmatic period (of ‘holy mathematics’).

But it must not be overlooked that mathematics was working with a concept of the irrational specially adapted to its own needs and homogeneous with them (and mediated by this concept it employed a similarly adapted notion of actuality, of existence). Certainly, the local irrationality of the conceptual content is to be found here too: but from the outset it is designed – by the method chosen and the nature of its axioms – to spring from as pure a position as possible and hence to be capable of being relativised. [15]

But this implies the discovery of a methodological model and not of the method itself. It is evident that the irrationality of existence (both as a totality and as the ‘ultimate’ material substratum underlying the forms), the irrationality of matter is qualitatively different from the irrationality of what we can call with Maimon, intelligible matter. Naturally this could not prevent philosophers from following the mathematical method (of construction, production) and trying to press even this matter into its forms. But it must never be forgotten that the uninterrupted ‘creation’ of content has a quite different meaning in reference to the material base of existence from what it involves in the world of mathematics which is a wholly constructed world. For the philosophers ‘creation’ means only the possibility of rationally comprehending the facts, whereas for mathematics ‘creation’ and the possibility of comprehension are identical. Of all the representatives of classical philosophy it was Fichte in his middle period who saw this problem most clearly and gave it the most satisfactory formulation. What is at issue, he says, is “the absolute projection of an object of the origin of which no account can be given with the result that the space between projection and thing projected is dark and void; I expressed it somewhat scholastically but, as I believe, very appropriately, as the projectio per hiatum irrationalem”. [16]

Only with this problematic does it become possible to comprehend the parting of the ways in modern philosophy and with it the chief stages in its evolution. This doctrine of the irrational leaves behind it the era of philosophical ‘dogmatism’ or – to put it in terms of social history – the age in which the bourgeois class naïvely equated its own forms of thought, the forms in which it saw the world in accordance with its own existence in society, with reality and with existence as such.

The unconditional recognition of this problem, the renouncing of attempts to solve it leads directly to the various theories centring on the notion of fiction. It leads to the rejection of every ‘metaphysics’ (in the sense of ontology) and also to positing as the aim of philosophy the understanding of the phenomena of isolated, highly specialised areas by means of abstract rational special systems, perfectly adapted to them and without making the attempt to achieve a unified mastery of the whole realm of the knowable. (Indeed any such attempt is dismissed as ‘unscientific’) Some schools make this renunciation explicitly (e.g. Mach Avenarius, Poincare, Vaihinger, etc.) while in many others it is disguised. But it must not be forgotten that – as was demonstrated at the end of Section I – the origin of the special sciences with their complete independence of one another both in method and subject matter entails the recognition that this problem is insoluble. And the fact that these sciences are ‘exact’ is due precisely to this circumstance. Their underlying material base is permitted to dwell inviolate and undisturbed in its irrationality (‘non-createdness’, ‘givenness’) so that it becomes possible to operate with unproblematic, rational categories in the resulting methodically purified world. These categories are then applied not to the real material substratum (even that of the particular science) but to an ‘intelligible’ subject matter.

Philosophy – consciously – refrains from interfering with the work of the special sciences. It even regards this renunciation as a critical advance. In consequence its role is confined to the investigation of the formal presuppositions of the special sciences which it neither corrects nor interferes with. And the problem which they by-pass philosophy cannot solve either, nor even pose, for that matter. Where philosophy has recourse to the structural assumptions lying behind the form-content relationship it either exalts the ‘mathematicising’ method of the special sciences, elevating it into the method proper to philosophy (as in the Marburg School) [17], or else it establishes the irrationality of matter, as logically, the ‘ultimate’ fact (as do Windelband, Rickert and Lask). But in both cases, as soon as the attempt at systematisation is made, the unsolved problem of the irrational reappears in the problem of totality. The horizon that delimits the totality that has been and can be created here is, at best, culture (i.e. the culture of bourgeois society). This culture cannot be derived from anything else and has simply to be accepted on its own terms as ‘facticity’ in the sense given to it by the classical philosophers. [18]

To give a detailed analysis of the various forms taken by the refusal to understand reality as a whole and as existence, would be to go well beyond the framework of this study. Our aim here was to locate the point at which there appears in the thought of bourgeois society the double tendency characteristic of its evolution. On the one hand, it acquires increasing control over the details of its social existence, subjecting them to its needs. On the other hand, it loses – likewise progressively – the possibility of gaining intellectual control of society as a whole and with that it loses its own qualifications for leadership.

Classical German philosophy marks a unique transitional stage in this process. It arises at a point of development where matters have progressed so far that these problems can be raised to the level of consciousness. At the same time this takes place in a milieu where the problems can only appear on an intellectual and philosophical plane. This has the drawback that the concrete problems of society and the concrete solutions to them cannot be seen. Nevertheless, classical philosophy is able to think the deepest and most fundamental problems of the development of bourgeois society through to the very end – on the plane of philosophy. It is able – in thought – to complete the evolution of class. And – in thought – it is able to take all the paradoxes of its position to the point where the necessity of going beyond this historical stage in mankind’s development can at least be seen as a problem.


Classical philosophy is indebted for its wealth, its depth and its boldness no less than its fertility for future thinkers to the fact that it narrowed the problem down, confining it within the realm of pure thought. At the same time it remains an insuperable obstacle even within the realm of thought itself. That is to say, classical philosophy mercilessly tore to shreds all the metaphysical illusions of the preceding era, but was forced to be as uncritical and as dogmatically metaphysical with regard to some of its own premises as its predecessors had been towards theirs. We have already made a passing reference to this point: it is the – dogmatic – assumption that the rational and formalistic mode of cognition is the only possible way of apprehending reality (or to put it in its most critical form: the only possible way for ‘us’), in contrast to the facts which are simply given and alien to ‘us’. As we have shown, the grandiose conception that thought can only grasp what it has itself created strove to master the world as a whole by seeing it as self-created. However, it then came up against the insuperable obstacle of the given, of the thing-in-itself. If it was not to renounce its understanding of the whole it had to take the road that leads inwards. It had to strive to find the subject of thought which could be thought of as producing existence without any hiatus irrationalis or transcendental thing-in-itself. The dogmatism alluded to above was partly a true guide and partly a source of confusion in this enterprise. It was a true guide inasmuch as thought was led beyond the mere acceptance of reality as it was given, beyond mere reflection and the conditions necessary for thinking about reality, to orientate itself beyond mere contemplation and mere intuition. It was a source of confusion since it prevented the same dogmatism from discovering its true antidote, the principle that would enable contemplation to be overcome, namely the practical. (The fact that precisely for this reason the given constantly re-emerges as untranscended in its irrationality will be demonstrated in the course of the following account.)

In his last important logical work [19] Fichte formulates the philosophical starting-point for this situation as follows: “We have seen all actual knowledge as being necessary, except for the form of ‘is’, on the assumption that there is one phenomenon that must doubtless remain as an absolute assumption for thought and concerning which doubt can only be resolved by an actual intuition. But with the distinction that we can perceive the definite and qualitative law in the content of one part of this fact, namely the ego-principle. Whereas for the actual content of this intuition of self we can merely perceive the fact that one must exist but cannot legislate for the existence of this one in particular. At the same time we note clearly that there can be no such law and that therefore, the qualitative law required for this definition is precisely the absence of law itself Now, if the necessary is also that which is known a priori we have in this sense perceived all facticity a priori, not excluding the empirical since this we have deduced to be non-deducible.”

What is relevant to our problem here is the statement that the subject of knowledge, the ego-principle, is known as to its content and, hence, can be taken as a starting-point and as a guide to method. In the most general terms we see here the origin of the philosophical tendency to press forward to a conception of the subject which can be thought of as the creator of the totality of content. And likewise in general, purely programmatic terms we see the origin of the search for a level of objectivity, a positing of the objects, where the duality of subject and object (the duality of thought and being is only a special case of this), is transcended, i.e. where subject and object coincide, where they are identical.

Obviously the great classical philosophers were much too perceptive and critical to overlook the empirically existing duality of subject and object. Indeed, they saw the basic structure of empirical data precisely in this split. But their demand, their programme was much more concerned with finding the nodal point, from which they could ‘create’, deduce and make comprehensible the duality of subject and object on the empirical plane, i.e. in its objective form. In contrast to the dogmatic acceptance of a merely given reality – divorced from the subject – they required that every datum should be understood as the product of the identical subject-object, and every duality should be seen as a special case derived from this pristine unity.

But this unity is activity. Kant had attempted in the Critique of Practical Reason (which has been much misunderstood and often falsely opposed to the Critique of Pure Reason) to show that the barriers that could not be overcome by theory (contemplation) were amenable to practical solutions. Fichte went beyond this and put the practical, action and activity in the centre of his unifying philosophical system. “For this reason,” he says, “it is not such a trivial matter as it appears to some people, whether philosophy should begin from a fact or from an action (i.e. from pure activity which presupposes no object but itself creates it, so that action immediately becomes deed). For if it starts with the fact it places itself inside the world of existence and of finitude and will find it hard to discover the way that leads from there to the infinite and the suprasensual; if it begins from action it will stand at the point where the two worlds meet and from which they can both be seen at a glance.” [20]

Fichte’s task, therefore, is to exhibit the subject of the ‘action’ and, assuming its identity with the object, to comprehend every dual subject-object form as derived from it, as its product. But here, on a philosophically higher plane, we find repeated the same failure to resolve the questions raised by classical German philosophy. The moment that we enquire after the concrete nature of this identical subject-object, we are confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand, this configuration of consciousness can only be found really and concretely in the ethical act, in the relation of the ethically acting (individual) subject to itself. On the other hand, for the ethical consciousness of the acting individual the split between the self-generated, but wholly inwardly turning form (of the ethical imperative in Kant) and of the reality, the given, the empirical alien both to the senses and the understanding must become even more definitive than for the contemplative subject of knowledge.

It is well known that Kant did not go beyond the critical interpretation of ethical facts in the individual consciousness. This had a number of consequences. In the first place, these facts were thereby transformed into something merely there and could not be conceived of as having been ‘created’. [21]

Secondly, this intensifies the ‘intelligible contingency’ of an ‘external world’ subject to the laws of nature. In the absence of a real, concrete solution the dilemma of freedom and necessity, of voluntarism and fatalism is simply shunted into a siding. That is to say, in nature and in the ‘external world’ laws still operate with inexorable necessity [22], while freedom and the autonomy that is supposed to result from the discovery of the ethical world are reduced to a mere point of view from which to judge internal events. These events, however, are seen as being subject in all their motives and effects and even in their psychological elements to a fatalistically regarded objective necessity. [23]

Thirdly, this ensures that the hiatus between appearance and essence (which in Kant coincides with that between necessity and freedom) is not bridged and does not, therefore, give way to a manufactured unity with which to establish the unity of the world. Even worse than that: the duality is itself introduced into the subject. Even the subject is split into phenomenon and noumenon and the unresolved, insoluble and henceforth permanent conflict between freedom and necessity now invades its innermost structure.

Fourthly, in consequence of this, the resulting ethic becomes purely formal and lacking in content. As every content which is given to us belongs to the world of nature and is thus unconditionally subject to the objective laws of the phenomenal world, practical norms can only have bearing on the inward forms of action. The moment this ethic attempts to make itself concrete, i.e. to test its strength on concrete problems, it is forced to borrow the elements of content of these particular actions from the world of phenomena and from the conceptual systems that assimilate them and absorb their ‘contingency’. The principle of creation collapses as soon as the first concrete content is to be created. And Kant’s ethics cannot evade such an attempt. It does try, it is true, to find the formal principle which will both determine and preserve content – at least negatively – and to locate it in the principle of non-contradiction. According to this, every action contravening ethical norms contains a self-contradiction. For example, an essential quality of a deposit is that it should not be embezzled, etc. But as Hegel has pointed out quite rightly: “What if there were no deposit, where is the contradiction in that? For there to be no deposit would contradict yet other necessarily determined facts; just as the fact that a deposit is possible, is connected with other necessary facts and so it itself becomes necessary. But it is not permissible to involve other purposes and other material grounds; only the immediate form of the concept may decide which of the two assumptions is correct. But each of the opposed facts is as immaterial to the form as the other; either can be acceptable as a quality and this acceptance can be expressed as a law.” [24]

Thus Kant’s ethical analysis leads us back to the unsolved methodological problem of the thing-in-itself. We have already defined the philosophically significant side of this problem, its methodological aspect, as the relation between form and content, as the problem of the irreducibility of the factual, and the irrationality of matter. Kant’s formalistic ethics, adapted to the consciousness of the individual, is indeed able to open up the possibility of a metaphysical solution to the problem of the thing-in-itself by enabling the concepts of a world seen as a totality, which had been destroyed by the transcendental dialectic, to reappear on the horizon as the postulates of practical reason. But from the point of view of method this subjective and practical solution remains imprisoned within the same barriers that proved so overwhelming to the objective and contemplative analysis in the Critique of Pure Reason.

This sheds light on a new and significant structural aspect of the whole complex of problems: in order to overcome the irrationality of the question of the thing-in-itself it is not enough that the attempt should be made to transcend the contemplative attitude. When the question is formulated more concretely it turns out that the essence of praxis consists in annulling that indifference of form towards content that we found in the problem of the thing-in-itself Thus praxis can only be really established as a philosophical principle if, at the same time, a conception of form can be found whose basis and validity no longer rest on that pure rationality and that freedom from every definition of content. In so far as the principle of praxis is the prescription for changing reality, it must be tailored to the concrete material substratum of action if it is to impinge upon it to any effect.

Only this approach to the problem makes possible the clear dichotomy between praxis and the theoretical, contemplative and intuitive attitude. But also we can now understand the connection between the two attitudes and see how, with the aid of the principle of praxis, the attempt could be made to resolve the antinomies of contemplation. Theory and praxis in fact refer to the same objects, for every object exists as an immediate inseparable complex of form and content. However, the diversity of subjective attitudes orientates praxis towards what is qualitatively unique, towards the content and the material substratum of the object concerned. As we have tried to show, theoretical contemplation leads to the neglect of this very factor. For, theoretical clarification and theoretical analysis of the object reach their highest point just when they reveal at their starkest the formal factors liberated from all content (from all ‘contingent facticity’). As long as thought proceeds ‘naïvely’, i.e. as long as it fails to reflect upon its activity and as long as it imagines it can derive the content from the forms themselves, thus ascribing active, metaphysical functions to them, or else regards as metaphysical and non-existent any material alien to form, this problem does not present itself. Praxis then appears to be consistently subordinated to the theory of contemplation. [25] But the very moment when this situation, i.e. when the indissoluble links that bind the contemplative attitude of the subject to the purely formal character of the object of knowledge become conscious, it is inevitable either that the attempt to find a solution to the problem of irrationality (the question of content, of the given, etc.) should be abandoned or that it should be sought in praxis.

It is once again in Kant that this tendency finds its clearest expression. When for Kant “existence is evidently not a real predicate, i.e. the concept of something that could be added to the concept of a thing” [26], we see this tendency with all its consequences at its most extreme. It is in fact so extreme that he is compelled to propose the dialectics of concepts in movement as the only alternative to his own theory of the structure of concepts. “For otherwise it would not be exactly the same thing that exists, but something more than I had thought in the concept and I would not be. able to say that it is precisely the object of my concept that exists.” It has escaped the notice of both Kant and the critics of his critique of the ontological argument that here – admittedly in a negative and distorted form arising from his purely contemplative viewpoint – Kant has hit upon the structure of true praxis as a way of overcoming the antinomies of the concept of existence. We have already shown how, despite all his efforts, his ethics leads back to the limits of abstract contemplation.

Hegel uncovers the methodological basis of this theory in his criticism of this passage. [27] “For this content regarded in isolation it is indeed a matter of indifference whether it exists or does not exist; there is no inherent distinction between existence and nonexistence; this distinction does not concern it at all.... More generally, the abstractions existence and non-existence both cease to be abstract when they acquire a definite content; existence then becomes reality . . .” That is to say, the goal that Kant here sets for knowledge is shown to be the description of that structure of cognition that systematically isolates ‘pure laws’ and treats them in a systematically isolated and artificially homogeneous milieu. (Thus in the physical hypothesis of the vibrations of the ether the ‘existence’ of the ether would in fact add nothing to the concept.) But the moment that the object is seen as part of a concrete totality, the moment that it becomes clear that alongside the formal, delimiting concept of existence acknowledged by this pure contemplation other gradations of reality are possible and necessary to thought (being [Dasein], existence [Existenz], reality [Realitat], etc. in Hegel), Kant’s proof collapses: it survives only as the demarcation line of purely formal thought.

In his doctoral thesis Marx, more concrete and logical than Hegel, effected the transition from the question of existence and its hierarchy of meanings to the plane of historical reality and concrete praxis. “Didn’t the Moloch of the Ancients hold sway? Wasn’t the Delphic Apollo a real power in the life of the Greeks? In this context Kant’s criticism is meaningless.” [28] Unfortunately Marx did not develop this idea to its logical conclusion although in his mature works his method always operates with concepts of existence graduated according to the various levels of praxis.

The more conscious this Kantian tendency becomes the less avoidable is the dilemma. For, the ideal of knowledge represented by the purely distilled formal conception of the object of knowledge, the mathematical organisation and the ideal of necessary natural laws all transform knowledge more and more into the systematic and conscious contemplation of those purely formal connections, those ‘laws’ which function in-objective-reality without the intervention of the subject. But the attempt to eliminate every element of content and of the irrational affects not only the object but also, and to an increasing extent, the subject. The critical elucidation of contemplation puts more and more energy into its efforts to weed out ruthlessly from its own outlook every subjective and irrational element and every anthropomorphic tendency; it strives with ever increasing vigour to drive a wedge between the subject of knowledge and ‘man’, and to transform the knower into a pure and purely formal subject.

It might seem as if this characterisation of contemplation might be thought to contradict our earlier account of the problem of knowledge as the knowledge of what ‘we’ have created. This is in fact the case. But this very contradiction is eminently suited to illuminate the difficulty of the question and the possible solutions to it. For the contradiction does not lie in the inability of the philosophers to give a definitive analysis of the available facts. It is rather the intellectual expression of the objective situation itself which it is their task to comprehend. That is to say, the contradiction that appears here between subjectivity and objectivity in modern rationalist formal systems, the entanglements and equivocations hidden in their concepts of subject and object, the conflict between their nature as systems created by ‘us’ and their fatalistic necessity distant from and alien to man is nothing but the logical and systematic formulation of the modern state of society. For, on the one hand, men are constantly smashing, replacing and leaving behind them the ‘natural’, irrational and actually existing bonds, while, on the other hand, they erect around themselves in the reality they have created and ‘made’, a kind of second nature which evolves with exactly the same inexorable necessity as was the case earlier on with irrational forces of nature (more exactly: the social relations which appear in this form). “To them, their own social action”, says Marx, “takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.”

1. From this it follows that the powers that are beyond man’s control assume quite a different character. Hitherto it had been that of the blind power of a – fundamentally – irrational fate, the point where the possibility of human knowledge ceased and where absolute transcendence and the realm of faith began. [29] Now, however, it appears as the ineluctable consequence of known, knowable, rational systems of laws, as a necessity which cannot ultimately and wholly be grasped, as was indeed recognised by the critical philosophers, unlike their dogmatic predecessors. In its parts, however – within the radius in which men live – it can increasingly be penetrated, calculated and predicted. It is anything but a mere chance that at the very beginning of the development of modern philosophy the ideal of knowledge took the form of universal mathematics: it was an attempt to establish a rational system of relations which comprehends the totality of the formal possibilities, proportions and relations of a rationalised existence with the aid of which every phenomenon-independently of its real and material distinctiveness – could be subjected to an exact calculus. [30]

This is the modern ideal of knowledge at its most uncompromising and therefore at its most characteristic, and in it the contradiction alluded to above emerges clearly. For, on the one hand, the basis of this universal calculus can be nothing other than the certainty that only a reality cocooned by such concepts can truly be controlled by us. On the other hand, it appears that even if we may suppose this universal mathematics to be entirely and consistently realised, ‘control’ of reality can be nothing more than the objectively correct contemplation of what is yielded – necessarily and without our intervention – by the abstract combinations of these relations and proportions. In this sense contemplation does seem to come close to the universal philosophical ideal of knowledge (as in Greece and India). What is peculiar to modern philosophy only becomes fully revealed when we critically examine the assumption that this universal system of combinations can be put into practice.

For it is only with the discovery of the ‘intelligible contingency’ of these laws that there arises the possibility of a ‘free’ movement within the field of action of such overlapping or not fully comprehended laws. It is important to realise that if we take action in the sense indicated above to mean changing reality, an orientation towards the qualitatively essential and the material substratum of action, then the attitude under discussion will appear much more contemplative than, for instance, the ideal of knowledge held by Greek philosophers. [31] For this ‘action’ consists in predicting, in calculating as far as possible the probable effects of those laws and the subject of the ‘action’ takes up a position in which these effects can be exploited to the best advantage of his own purposes. It is therefore evident that, on the one hand, the more the whole of reality is rationalised and the more its manifestations can be integrated into the system of laws, the more such prediction becomes feasible. On the other hand, it is no less evident that the more reality and the attitude of the subject ‘in action’ approximate to this type, the more the subject will be transformed into a receptive organ ready to pounce on opportunities created by the system of laws and his ‘activity’ will narrow itself down to the adoption of a vantage point from which these laws function in his best interests (and this without any intervention on his part). The attitude of the subject then becomes purely contemplative in the philosophical sense.

2. But here we can see that this results in the assimilation of all human relations to the level of natural laws so conceived. It has often been pointed out in these pages that nature is a social category. Of course, to modern man who proceeds immediately from ready-made ideological forms and from their effects which dazzle his eye and exercise such a profound effect on his whole intellectual development, it must look as if the point of view which we have just outlined consisted simply in applying to society an intellectual framework derived from the natural sciences. In his youthful polemic against Fichte, Hegel had already pointed out that his state was “a machine”, its substratum “an atomistic . . . multitude whose elements are . . . a quantity of points. This absolute substantiality of the points founds an atomistic system in practical philosophy in which, as in the atomism of nature, a mind alien to the atoms becomes law.” [32]

This way of describing modern society is so familiar and the attempts to analyse it recur so frequently in the course of later developments that it would be supererogatory to furnish further proof of it. What is of greater importance is the fact that the converse of this insight has not escaped notice either. After Hegel had clearly recognised the bourgeois character of the ‘laws of nature’ [33], Marx pointed out [34] that “Descartes with his definition of animals as mere machines saw with the eyes of the manufacturing period, while in the eyes of the Middle Ages, animals were man’s assistants”; and he adds several suggestions towards explaining the intellectual history of such connections. Tonnies notes the same connection even more bluntly and categorically: “A special case of abstract reason is scientific reason and its subject is the man who is objective, and who recognises relations, i.e. thinks in concepts. In consequence, scientific concepts which by their ordinary origin and their real properties are judgements by means of which complexes of feeling are given names, behave within science like commodities in society. They gather together within the system like commodities on the market. The supreme scientific concept which is no longer the name of anything real is like money. E.g. the concept of an atom, or of energy.” [35]

It cannot be our task to investigate the question of priority or the historical and causal order of succession between the ‘laws of nature’ and capitalism. (The author of these lines has, however, no wish to conceal his view that the development of capitalist economics takes precedence.) What is important is to recognise clearly that all human relations (viewed as the objects of social activity) assume increasingly the objective forms of the abstract elements of the conceptual systems of natural science and of the abstract substrata of the laws of nature. And also, the subject of this ‘action’ likewise assumes increasingly the attitude of the pure observe of these – artificially abstract – processes, the attitude of the experimenter.

I may be permitted to devote a few words – as a sort of excursus – to the views expressed by Friedrich Engels on the problem of the thing-in-itself. In a sense they are of no immediate concern to us, but they have exercised such a great influence on the meaning given to the term by many Marxists that to omit to correct this might easily give rise to a misunderstanding. He says: [36] “The most telling refutation of this as of all other philosophical crotchets is practice, namely, experiment and industry. If we are able to prove the correctness of our conception of a natural process by making it ourselves, bringing it into being out of its conditions and making it serve our own purposes into the bargain, then there is an end to the ungraspable Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’. The chemical substances produced in the bodies of plants and animals remained such ‘things-in-themselves’ until organic chemistry began to produce them one after another, whereupon the ‘thing in-itself’ became a thing for us, as, for instance, alizarin, the colouring matter of the madder, which we no longer trouble to grow in the madder roots in the field, but produce much more cheaply and simply from coal tar.”

Above all we must correct a terminological confusion that is almost incomprehensible in such a connoisseur of Hegel as was Engels. For Hegel the terms ‘in itself’ and ‘for us’ are by no means opposites; in fact they are necessary correlatives. That something exists merely ‘in itself’ means for Hegel that it merely exists ‘for us’. The antithesis of ‘for us or in itself’ [37] is rather ‘for itself’, namely that mode of being posited where the fact that an object is thought of implies at the same time that the object is conscious of itself. [38] In that case, it is a complete misinterpretation of Kant’s epistemology to imagine that the problem of the thing-in-itself could be a barrier to the possible concrete expansion of our knowledge. On the contrary, Kant who sets out from the most advanced natural science of the day, namely from Newton’s astronomy, tailored his theory of knowledge precisely to this science and to its future potential. For this reason he necessarily assumes that the method was capable of limitless expansion. His ‘critique’ refers merely to the fact that even the complete knowledge of all phenomena would be no more than a knowledge of phenomena (as opposed to the things-in-themselves). Moreover, even the complete knowledge of the phenomena could never overcome the structural limits of this knowledge, i.e. in our terms, the antinomies of totality and of content. Kant has himself dealt sufficiently clearly with the question of agnosticism and of the relation to Hume (and to Berkeley who is not named but whom Kant has particularly in mind) in the section entitled ‘The Refutation of Idealism’. [39]

But Engels’ deepest misunderstanding consists in his belief that the behaviour of industry and scientific experiment constitutes praxis in the dialectical, philosophical sense. In fact, scientific experiment is contemplation at its purest. The experimenter creates an artificial, abstract milieu in order to be able to observe undisturbed the untrammelled workings of the laws under examination, eliminating all irrational factors both of the subject and the object. He strives as far as possible to reduce the material substratum of his observation to the purely rational ‘product’, to the ‘intelligible matter’ of mathematics. And when Engels speaks, in the context of industry, of the “product” which is made to serve “our purposes”, he seems to have forgotten for a moment the fundamental structure of capitalist society which he himself had once formulated so supremely well in his brilliant early essay. There he had pointed out that capitalist society is based on “a natural law that is founded on the unconsciousness of those involved in it”. [40] Inasmuch as industry sets itself ‘objectives’ – it is in the decisive, i.e. historical, dialectical meaning of the word, only the object, not the subject of the natural laws governing society.

Marx repeatedly emphasised that the capitalist (and when we speak of ‘industry’ in the past or present we can only mean the capitalist) is nothing but a puppet. And when, for example, he compares his instinct to enrich himself with that of the miser, he stresses the fact that “what in the miser is a mere idiosyncrasy, is, in the capitalist, the effect of the social mechanism, of which he is but one of the wheels. Moreover, the development of capitalist production makes it constantly necessary to keep increasing the amount of the capital invested in a given industrial undertaking, and competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt as external coercive laws by each individual capitalist.” [41] The fact, therefore, that ‘industry’, i.e. the capitalist as the incarnation of economic and technical progress, does not act but is acted upon and that his ‘activity’ goes no further than the correct observation and calculation of the objective working out of the natural laws of society, is a truism for Marxism and is elsewhere interpreted in this way by Engels also.

3. To return to our main argument, it is evident from all this that the attempt at a solution represented by the turn taken by critical philosophy towards the practical, does not succeed in resolving the antinomies we have noted. On the contrary it fixes them for eternity. [42] For just as objective necessity, despite the rationality and regularity of its manifestations, yet persists in a state of immutable contingency because its material substratum remains transcendental, so too the freedom of the subject which this device is designed to rescue, is unable, being an empty freedom, to evade the abyss of fatalism. “Thoughts without content are empty,” says Kant programmatically at the beginning of the ‘Transcendental Logic’, “Intuitions without concepts are blind.” [43] But the Critique which here propounds the necessity of an interpretation of form and content can do no more than offer it as a methodological programme, i.e. for each of the discrete areas it can indicate the point where the real synthesis should begin, and where it would begin if its formal rationality could allow it to do more than predict formal possibilities in terms of formal calculations.

The freedom (of the subject) is neither able to overcome the sensuous necessity of the system of knowledge and the soullessness of the fatalistically conceived laws of nature, nor is it able to give them any meaning. And likewise the contents produced by reason, and the world acknowledged by reason are just as little able to fill the purely formal determinants of freedom with a truly living life. The impossibility of comprehending and ‘creating’ the union of form and content concretely instead of as the basis for a purely formal calculus leads to the insoluble dilemma of freedom and necessity, of voluntarism and fatalism. The ‘eternal, iron’ regularity of the processes of nature and the purely inward freedom of individual moral practice appear at the end of the Critique of Practical Reason as wholly irreconcilable and at the same time as the unalterable foundations of human existence. [44]Kant’s greatness as a philosopher lies in the fact that in both instances he made no attempt to conceal the intractability of the problem by means of an arbitrary dogmatic resolution of any sort, but that he bluntly elaborated the contradiction and presented it in an undiluted form.


As everywhere in classical philosophy it would be a mistake to think that these discussions are no more than the problems of intellectuals and the squabbles of pedants. This can be seen most clearly if we turn back a page in the growth of this problem and examine it at a stage in its development when it had been less worked over intellectually, when it was closer to its social background and accordingly more concrete. Plekhanov strongly emphasises the intellectual barrier that the bourgeois materialism of the eighteenth century came up against and he puts it into perspective by means of the following antinomy: on the one hand, man appears as the product of his social milieu, whereas, on the other hand, “the social milieu is produced by ‘public opinion’, i.e. by man”. [45] This throws light on the social reality underlying the antinomy which we encountered in the – seemingly – purely epistemological problem of production, in the systematic question of the subject of an ‘action’, of the ‘creator’ of a unified reality. Plekhanov’s account shows no less clearly that the duality of the contemplative and the (individual) practical principles which we saw as the first achievement and as the starting-point for the later development of classical philosophy, leads towards this antinomy.

However, the naïver and more primitive analysis of Holbach and Helvetius permits a clearer insight into the life that forms the true basis of this antinomy. We observe, firstly, that following on the development of bourgeois society all social problems cease to transcend man and appear as the products of human activity in contrast to the view of society held by the Middle Ages and the early modern period (e.g. Luther). Secondly, it becomes evident that the man who now emerges must be the individual, egoistic bourgeois isolated artificially by capitalism and that his consciousness, the source of his activity and knowledge, is an individual isolated consciousness a la Robinson Crusoe. [46] But, thirdly, it is this that robs social action of its character as action. At first this looks like the after-effects of the sensualist epistemology of the French materialists (and Locke, etc.) where it is the case, on the one hand, that “his brain is nothing but wax to receive the imprint of every impression made in it” (Holbach according to Plekhanov, op. cit.) and where, on the other hand, only conscious action can count as activity. But examined more closely this turns out to be the simple effect of the situation of bourgeois man in the capitalist production process.

We have already described the characteristic features of this situation several times: man in capitalist society confronts a reality ‘made’ by himself (as a class) which appears to him to be a natural phenomenon alien to himself; he is wholly at the mercy of its ‘laws’, his activity is confined to the exploitation of the inexorable fulfilment of certain individual laws for his own (egoistic) interests. But even while ‘acting’ he remains, in the nature of the case, the object and not the subject of events. The field of his activity thus becomes wholly internalised: it consists on the one hand of the awareness of the laws which he uses and, on the other, of his awareness of his inner reactions to the course taken by events.

This situation generates very important and unavoidable problem-complexes and conceptual ambivalences which are decisive for the way in which bourgeois man understands himself in his relation to the world. Thus the word ‘nature’ becomes highly ambiguous. We have already drawn attention to the idea, formulated most lucidly by Kant but essentially unchanged since Kepler and Galileo, of nature as the “aggregate of systems of the laws” governing what happens. Parallel to this conception whose development out of the economic structures of capitalism has been shown repeatedly, there is another conception of nature, a value concept, wholly different from the first one and embracing a wholly different cluster of meanings.

A glance at the history of natural law shows the extent to which these two conceptions have become inextricably interwoven with each other. For here we can see that ‘nature’ has been heavily marked by the revolutionary struggle of the bourgeoisie: the ‘ordered’, calculable, formal and abstract character of the approaching bourgeois society appears natural by the side of the artifice, the caprice and the disorder of feudalism and absolutism. At the same time if one thinks of Rousseau, there are echoes of a quite different meaning wholly incompatible with this one. It concentrates increasingly on the feeling that social institutions (reification) strip man of his human essence and that the more culture and civilisation (i.e. capitalism and reification) take possession of him, the less able he is to be a human being. And with a reversal of meanings that never becomes apparent, nature becomes the repository of all these inner tendencies opposing the growth of mechanisation, dehumanisation and reification.

Nature thereby acquires the meaning of what has grown organically, what was not created by man, in contrast to the artificial structures of human civilisation. [47] But, at the same time, it can be understood as that aspect of human inwardness which has remained natural, or at least tends or longs to become natural once more. “They are what we once were,” says Schiller of the forms of nature, “they are what we should once more become.” But here, unexpectedly and indissolubly bound up with the other meanings, we discover a third conception of nature, one in which we can clearly discern the ideal and the tendency to overcome the problems of a reified existence. ‘Nature’ here refers to authentic humanity, the true essence of man liberated from the false, mechanising forms of society: man as a perfected whole who has inwardly overcome, or is in the process of overcoming, the dichotomies of theory and practice, reason and the senses, form and content; man whose tendency to create his own forms does not imply an abstract rationalism which ignores concrete content; man for whom freedom and necessity are identical.

With this we find that we have unexpectedly discovered what we had been searching for when we were held up by the irreducible duality of pure and practical reason, by the question of the subject of an ‘action’, of the ‘creation’ of reality as a totality. All the more as we are dealing with an attitude (whose ambivalence we recognise as being necessary but which we shall not probe any further) which need not be sought in some mythologising transcendent construct; it does not only exist as a ‘fact of the soul’, as a nostalgia inhabiting the consciousness, but it also possesses a very real and concrete field of activity where it may be brought to fruition, namely art. This is not the place to investigate the ever-increasing importance of aesthetics and the theory of art within the total world-picture of the eighteenth century. As everywhere in this study, we are concerned solely to throw light on the social and historical background which threw up these problems and conferred upon aesthetics and upon consciousness of art philosophical importance that art was unable to lay claim to in previous ages. This does not mean that art itself was experiencing an unprecedented golden age. On the contrary, with a very few exceptions the actual artistic production during this period cannot remotely be compared to that of past golden ages. What is crucial here is the theoretical and philosophical importance which the principle of art acquires in this period.

This principle is the creation of a concrete totality that springs from a conception of form orientated towards the concrete content of its material substratum. In this view form is therefore able to demolish the ‘contingent’ relation of the parts to the whole and to resolve the merely apparent opposition between chance and necessity. It is well known that Kant in the Critique of Judgment assigned to this principle the role of mediator between the otherwise irreconcilable opposites, i.e. the function of perfecting the system. But even at this early stage this attempt at a solution could not limit itself to the explanation and interpretation of the phenomenon of art. If only because, as has been shown, the principle thus discovered was, from its inception, indissolubly bound up with the various conceptions of nature so that its most obvious and appropriate function seemed to provide a principle for the solution of all insoluble problems both of contemplative theory and ethical practice. Fichte did indeed provide a succinct programmatic account of the use to which this principle was to be put: art “transforms the transcendental point of view into the common one”, [48]that is to say, what was for transcendental philosophy a highly problematic postulate with which to explain the world, becomes in art perfect achievement: it proves that this postulate of the transcendental philosophers is necessarily anchored in the structure of human consciousness.

However, this proof involves a vital issue of methodology for classical philosophy which – as we have seen – was forced to undertake the task of discovering the subject of ‘action’ which could be seen to be the maker of reality in its concrete totality. For only if it can be shown that such a subjectivity can be found in the consciousness and that there can be a principle of form which is not affected by the problem of indifference vis-a-viscontent and the resulting difficulties concerning the thing-in-itself, ‘intelligible contingency’, etc., only then is it methodologically possible to advance concretely beyond formal rationalism. Only then can a logical solution to the problem of irrationality (i.e. the relation of form to content) become at all feasible. Only then will it be possible to posit the world as conceived by thought as a perfected, concrete, meaningful system ‘created’ by us and attaining in us the stage of self-awareness. For this reason, together with the discovery of the principle of art, there arises also the problem of the ‘intuitive understanding’ whose content is not given but ‘created’. This understanding is, in Kant’s words [49] , spontaneous (i.e. active) and not receptive (i.e. contemplative) both as regards knowledge and intuitive perception. If, in the case of Kant himself, this only indicates the point from which it would be possible to complete and perfect the system, in the works of his successors this principle and the postulate of an intuitive understanding and an intellectual intuition becomes the cornerstone of systematic philosophy.

But it is in Schiller’s aesthetic and theoretical works that we can see, even more clearly than in the systems of the philosophers (where for the superficial observer the pure edifice of thought sometimes obscures the living heart from which these problems arise), the need which has provided the impetus for these analyses as well as the function to be performed by the solutions offered. Schiller defines the aesthetic principle as the play-instinct (in contrast to the form-instinct and the content-instinct) and his analysis of this contains very valuable insights into the question of reification, as is indeed true of all his aesthetic writings) . He formulates it as follows: “For it must be said once and for all that man only plays when he is a man in the full meaning of the word, and he is fully human only when he plays.” [50] By extending the aesthetic principle far beyond the confines of aesthetics, by seeing it as the key to the solution of the question of the meaning of man’s existence in society, Schiller brings us back to the basic issue of classical philosophy. On the one hand, he recognises that social life has destroyed man as man. On the other hand, he points to the principle whereby man having been socially destroyed, fragmented and divided between different partial systems is to be made whole again in thought. If we can now obtain a clear view of classical philosophy we see both the magnitude of its enterprise and the fecundity of the perspectives it opens up for the future, but we see no less clearly the inevitability of its failure. For while earlier thinkers remained naïvely entangled in the modes of thought of reification, or at best (as in the cases cited by Plekhanov) were driven into objective contradictions, here the problematic nature of social life for capitalist man becomes fully conscious.

“When the power of synthesis”, Hegel remarks, “vanishes from the lives of men and when the antitheses have lost their vital relation and their power of interaction and gain independence, it is then that philosophy becomes a felt need.” [51] At the same time, however, we can see the limitations of this undertaking. Objectively, since question and answer are confined from the very start to the realm of pure thought. These limitations are objective in so far as they derive from the dogmatism of critical philosophy. Even where its method has forced it beyond the limits of the formal, rational and discursive understanding enabling it to become critical of thinkers like Leibniz and Spinoza its fundamental systematic posture still remains rationalistic. The dogma of rationality remains unimpaired and is by no means superseded. [52] The limitations are subjective since the principle so discovered reveals when it becomes conscious of itself the narrow confines of its own validity. For if man is fully human “only when he plays”, we are indeed enabled to comprehend all the contents of life from this vantage point. And in the aesthetic mode, conceived as broadly as possible, they may be salvaged from the deadening effects of the mechanism of reification. But only in so far as these contents become aesthetic. That is to say, either the world must be aestheticised, which is an evasion of the real problem and is just another way in which to make the subject purely contemplative and to annihilate ‘action’. Or else, the aesthetic principle must be elevated into the principle by which objective reality is shaped: but that would be to mythologise the discovery of intuitive understanding.

From Fichte onwards it became increasingly necessary to make the mythologising of the process of ‘creation’ into a central issue, a question of life and death for classical philosophy; all the more so as the critical point of view was constrained, parallel with the antinomies which it discovered in the given world and our relationship with it, to treat the subject in like fashion and to tear it to pieces (i.e. its fragmentation in objective reality had to be reproduced in thought, accelerating the process as it did so). Hegel pours scorn in a number of places on Kant’s ‘soul-sack’ in which the different ‘faculties’ (theoretical, practical, etc.) are lying and from which they have to be ‘pulled out’. But there is no way for Hegel to overcome this fragmentation of the subject into independent parts whose empirical reality and even necessity is likewise undeniable, other than by creating this fragmentation, this disintegration out of a concrete, total subject. On this point art shows us, as we have seen, the two faces of Janus, and with the discovery of art it becomes possible either to provide yet another domain for the fragmented subject or to leave behind the safe territory of the concrete evocation of totality and (using art at most by way of illustration) tackle the problem of ‘creation’ from the side of the subject. The problem is then no longer – as it was for Spinoza – to create an objective system of reality on the model of geometry. It is rather this creation which is at once philosophy’s premise and its task. This creation is undoubtedly given (“There are synthetic judgements a priori – how are they possible ?” Kant had once asked). But the task is to deduce the unity – which is not given – of this disintegrating creation and to prove that it is the product of a creating subject. In the final analysis then: to create the subject of the ‘creator’.


This extends the discussions to the point where it goes beyond pure epistemology. The latter had aimed at investigating only the ‘possible conditions’ of those forms of thought and action which are given in ‘our’ reality. Its cultural and philosophical tendency, namely the impulse to overcome the reified disintegration of the subject and the – likewise reified – rigidity and impenetrability of its objects, emerges here with unmistakable clarity. After describing the influence Hamann had exercised upon his own development, Goethe gives a clear formulation to this aspiration: “Everything which man undertakes to perform, whether by word or deed, must be the product of all his abilities acting in concert; everything isolated is reprehensible.” [54]But with the shift to a fragmented humanity in need of reconstruction (a shift already indicated by the importance of the problem of art), the different meanings assumed by the subjective ‘we’ at the different stages of development can no longer remain concealed. The fact that the problematics have become more conscious, that it is harder to indulge confusions and equivocations than was the case with the concept of nature only makes matters more difficult. The reconstitution of the unity of the subject, the intellectual restoration of man has consciously to take its path through the realm of disintegration and fragmentation. The different forms of fragmentation are so many necessary phases on the road towards a reconstituted man but they dissolve into nothing when they come into a true relation with a grasped totality, i.e. when they become dialectical.

“The antitheses,” Hegel observes, “which used to be expressed in terms of mind and matter, body and soul, faith and reason, freedom and necessity, etc., and were also prominent in a number of more restricted spheres and concentrated all human interests in themselves, became transformed as culture advanced into contrasts between reason and the senses, intelligence and nature and, in its most general form, between absolute subjectivity and absolute objectivity. To transcend such ossified antitheses is the sole concern of reason. This concern does not imply hostility to opposites and restrictions in general; for the necessary course of evolution is one factor of life which advances by opposites: and the totality of life at its most intense is only possible as a new synthesis out of the most absolute separation.” [55] The genesis, the creation of the creator of knowledge, the dissolution of the irrationality of the thing-in-itself, the resurrection of man from his grave, all these issues become concentrated henceforth on the question of dialectical method. For in this method the call for an intuitive understanding (for method to supersede the rationalistic principle of knowledge) is clearly, objectively and scientifically stated. Of course, the history of the dialectical method reaches back deep into the history of rationalistic thought. But the turn it now takes distinguishes it qualitatively from all earlier approaches. (Hegel himself underestimates the importance of this distinction, e.g. in his treatment of Plato.) In all earlier attempts to use dialectics in order to break out of the limits imposed by rationalism there was a failure to connect the dissolution of rigid concepts clearly and firmly to the problem of the logic of the content, to the problem of irrationality.

Hegel in his Phenomenology and Logic was the first to set about the task of consciously recasting all problems of logic by grounding them in the qualitative material nature of their content, in matter in the logical and philosophical sense of the word. [56] This resulted in the establishment of a completely new logic of the concrete concept, the logic of totality – admittedly in a very problematic form which was not seriously continued after him.

Even more original is the fact that the subject is neither the unchanged observer of the objective dialectic of being and concept (as was true of the Eleatic philosophers and even of Plato), nor the practical manipulator of its purely mental possibilities (as with the Greek sophists): the dialectical process, the ending of a rigid confrontation of rigid forms, is enacted essentially between the subject and the object. No doubt, a few isolated earlier dialecticians were not wholly unaware of the different levels of subjectivity that arise in the dialectical process (consider for example the distinction between ‘ratio’ and ‘intellectus’ in the thought of Nicholas of Cusa). But this relativising process only refers to the possibility of different subject-object relations existing simultaneously or with one subordinated to the other, or at best developing dialectically from each other; they do not involve the relativising or the interpenetration of the subject and the object themselves. But only if that were the case, only if “the true [were understood] not only as substance but also as subject”, only if the subject (consciousness, thought) were both producer and product of the dialectical process, only if, as a result the subject moved in a self-created world of which it is the conscious form and only if the world imposed itself upon it in full objectivity, only then can the problem of dialectics, and with it the abolition of the antitheses of subject and object, thought and existence, freedom and necessity, be held to be solved. It might look as if this would take philosophy back to the great system-builders of the beginning of the modern age. The identity, proclaimed by Spinoza, of the order to be found in the realm of ideas with the order obtaining in the realm of things seems to come very close to this point of view. The parallel is all the more plausible (and made a strong impression on the system of the young Schelling) as Spinoza, too, found the basis of this identity in the object, in the substance. Geometric construction is a creative principle that can create only because it represents the factor of self-consciousness in objective reality. But here [in Hegel’s argument] objectivity tends in every respect in the opposite direction to that given it by Spinoza for whom every subjectivity, every particular content and every movement vanishes into nothing before the rigid purity and unity of this substance. If, therefore, it is true that philosophy is searching for an identical order in the realms of ideas and things and that the ground of existence is held to be the first principle, and if it is true also that this identity should serve as an explanation of concreteness and movement, then it is evident that the meaning of substance and order in the realm of things must have undergone a fundamental change.

Classical philosophy did indeed advance to the point of this change in meaning and succeeded in identifying the substance, now appearing for the first time, in which philosophically the underlying order and the connections between things were to be found, namely history. The arguments which go to show that here and here alone is the concrete basis for genesis are extraordinarily diverse and to list them would require almost a complete recapitulation of our analysis up to this point. For in the case of almost every insoluble problem we perceive that the search for a solution leads us to history. On the other hand, we must discuss some of these factors at least briefly for even classical philosophy was not fully conscious of the logical necessity of the link between genesis and history and for social and historical reasons to be spelled out later, it could not become fully conscious of it.

The materialists of the eighteenth century were aware that history is an insuperable barrier to a rationalist theory of knowledge. [57] But in accordance with their own rationalistic dogma they interpreted this as an eternal and indestructible limit to human reason in general. The logical and methodological side of this fallacy can easily be grasped when we reflect that rationalist thought by concerning itself with the formal calculability of the contents of forms made abstract, must define these contents as immutable – within the system of relations obtaining at any given time. The evolution of the real contents, i.e. the problem of history, can only be accommodated by this mode of thought by means of a system of laws which strives to do justice to every foreseeable possibility.

How far this is practicable need not detain us here; what we find significant is the fact that thanks to this conclusion the method itself blocks the way to an understanding both of the quality and the concreteness of the contents and also of their evolution, i.e. of history: it is of the essence of such a law that within its jurisdiction nothing new can happen by definition and a system of such laws which is held to be perfect can indeed reduce the need to correct individual laws but cannot calculate what is novel. (The concept of the ‘source of error’ is just a makeshift to cover up for the fact that for rational knowledge process and novelty have the [unknowable] quality of things-in-themselves.) But if genesis, in the sense given to it in classical philosophy, is to be attained it is necessary to create a basis for it in a logic of contents which change. It is only in history, in the historical process, in the uninterrupted outpouring o f what is qualitatively new that the requisite paradigmatic order can be found in the realm of things. [58]

For as long as this process and this novelty appear merely as an obstacle and not as the simultaneous result, goal and substratum of the method, the concepts – like the objects of reality as it is experienced – must preserve their encapsulated rigidity which only appears to be eliminated by the juxtaposition of other concepts. Only the historical process truly eliminates the-actual-autonomy of the objects and the concepts of objects with their resulting rigidity As Hegel remarks with reference to the relation between body and soul: “Indeed, if both are presumed to be absolutely independent of each other they are as impenetrable for each other as any material is for any other and the presence of one can be granted only in the non-being, in the pores of the other; just as Epicurus assigned to the gods a dwelling place in the pores but was logical enough not to impose upon them any community with the world.” [59] But historical evolution annuls the autonomy of the individual factors. By compelling the knowledge which ostensibly does these factors justice to construct its conceptual system upon content and upon what is qualitatively unique and new in the phenomena, it forces it at the same time to refuse to allow any of these elements to remain at the level of mere concrete uniqueness. Instead, the concrete totality of the historical world, the concrete and total historical process is the only point of view from which understanding becomes possible.

With this point of view the two main strands of the irrationality of the thing-in-itself and the concreteness of the individual content and of totality are given a positive turn and appear as a unity. This signals a change in the relation between theory and practice and between freedom and necessity. The idea that we have made reality loses its more or less fictitious character: we have – in the prophetic words of Vico already cited – made our own history and if we are able to regard the whole of reality as history (i.e. as our history, for there is no other), we shall have raised ourselves in fact to the position from which reality can be understood as our ‘action’. The dilemma of the materialists will have lost its meaning for it stands revealed as a rationalistic prejudice, as a dogma of the formalistic understanding. This had recognised as deeds only those actions which were consciously performed whereas the historical environment we have created, the product of the historical process was regarded as a reality which influences us by virtue of laws alien to us.

Here in our newly-won knowledge where, as Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology, “the true becomes a Bacchantic orgy in which no one escapes being drunk”, reason seems to have lifted the veil concealing the sacred mystery at Saïs and discovers, as in the parable of Novalis, that it is itself the solution to the riddle. But here, we find once again, quite concretely this time, the decisive problem of this line of thought: the problem of the subject of the action, the subject of the genesis. For the unity of subject and object, of thought and existence which the ‘action’ undertook to prove and to exhibit finds both its fulfilment and its substratum in the unity of the genesis of the determinants of thought and of the history of the evolution of reality. But to comprehend this unity it is necessary both to discover the site from which to resolve all these problems and also to exhibit concretelythe ‘we’ which is the subject of history, that ‘we’ whose action is in fact history.

However, at this point classical philosophy turned back and lost itself in the endless labyrinth of conceptual mythology. It will be our task in the next section to explain why it was unable to discover this concrete subject of genesis, the methodologically indispensable subject-object. At this stage it is only necessary to indicate what obstacle it encountered as a result of this aberrancy.

Hegel, who is in every respect the pinnacle of this development, also made the most strenuous search for this subject. The ‘we’ that he was able to find is, as is well known, the World Spirit, or rather, its concrete incarnations, the spirits of the individual peoples. Even if we – provisionally – ignore the mythologising and hence abstract character of this subject, it must still not be overlooked that, even if we accept all of Hegel’s assumptions without demur, this subject remains incapable of fulfilling the methodological and systematic function assigned to it, even from Hegel’s own point of view. Even for Hegel, the spirit of a people can be no more than a ‘natural’ determinant of the World Spirit, i.e. one “which strips off its limitation only at a higher moment, namely at the moment when it becomes conscious of its own essence and it possesses its absolute truth only in this recognition and not immediately in its existence.” [60]

From this follows above all that the spirit of a people only seems to be the subject of history, the doer of its deeds: for in fact it is the World Spirit that makes use of that ‘natural character’ of a people which corresponds to the actual requirements and to the idea of the World Spirit and accomplishes its deeds by means of and in spite of the spirit of the people. [61] But in this way the deed becomes something transcendent for the doer himself and the freedom that seems to have been won is transformed unnoticed into that specious freedom to reflect upon laws which themselves govern man, a freedom which in Spinoza a thrown stone would possess if it had consciousness. It is doubtless true that Hegel whose realistic genius neither could nor would disguise the truth about the nature of history as he found it did nevertheless seek to provide an explanation of it in terms of “the ruse of reason”. But it must not be forgotten that “the ruse of reason” can only claim to be more than a myth if authentic reason can be discovered and demonstrated in a truly concrete manner. In that case it becomes a brilliant explanation for stages in history that have not yet become conscious. But these can only be understood and evaluated as stages from a standpoint already achieved by a reason that has discovered itself. At this point Hegel’s philosophy is driven inexorably into the arms of mythology. Having failed to discover the identical subject-object in history it was forced to go out beyond history and, there, to establish the empire of reason which has discovered itself. From that vantage point it became possible to understand history as a mere stage and its evolution in terms of “the ruse of reason”. History is not able to form the living body of the total system: it becomes a part, an aspect of the totality that culminates in the ‘absolute spirit’, in art, religion and philosophy.

But history is much too much the natural, and indeed the uniquely possible life-element of the dialectical method for such an enterprise to succeed. On the one hand, history now intrudes, illogically but inescapably into the structure of those very spheres which according to the system were supposed to lie beyond its range. [62] On the other hand, this inappropriate and inconsistent approach to history deprives history itself of that essence which is so important precisely within the Hegelian system.

For, in the first place, its relation to reason will now appear to be accidental. “When, where and in what form such self-reproductions of reason make their appearance as philosophy is accidental,” Hegel observes in the passage cited earlier concerning the “needs of philosophy”. [63] But in the absence of necessity history relapses into the irrational dependence on the ‘given’ which it had just overcome. And if its relation to the reason that comprehends it is nothing more than that of an irrational content to a more general form for which the concrete hic et nunc, place, time and concrete content are contingent, then reason itself will succumb to all the antinomies of the thing-in-itself characteristic of pre-dialectical methods.

In the second place, the unclarified relation between absolute spirit and history forces Hegel to the assumption, scarcely comprehensible in view of this method, that history has an end and that in his own day and in his own system of philosophy the consummation and the truth of all his predecessors are to be found. This necessarily means that even in the more mundane and properly historical spheres, history must find its fulfilment in the restored Prussian state.

In the third place, genesis, detached from history, passes through its own development from logic through nature to spirit. But as the historicity of all categories and their movements intrudes decisively into the dialectical method and as dialectical genesis and history necessarily belong together objectively and only go their separate ways because classical philosophy was unable to complete its programme, this process which had been designed to be suprahistorical, inevitably exhibits a historical structure at every point. And since the method, having become abstract and contemplative, now as a result falsifies and does violence to history, it follows that history will gain its revenge and violate the method which has failed to integrate it, tearing it to pieces. (Consider in this context the transition from the logic to the philosophy of nature.)

In consequence, as Marx has emphasised in his criticism of Hegel, the demiurgic role of the ‘spirit’ and the ‘idea’ enters the realm of conceptual mythology.” [64] Once again – and from the standpoint of Hegel’s philosophy itself – it must be stated that the demiurge only seems to make history. But this semblance is enough to dissipate wholly the attempt of the classical philosophers to break out of the limits imposed on formal and rationalistic (bourgeois, reified) thought and thereby to restore a humanity destroyed by that reification. Thought relapses into the contemplative duality of subject and object. [65]

Classical philosophy did, it is true, take all the antinomies of its life-basis to the furthest extreme it was capable of in thought; it conferred on them the highest possible intellectual expression. But even for this philosophy they remain unsolved and insoluble. Thus classical philosophy finds itself historically in the paradoxical position that it was concerned to find a philosophy that would mean the end of bourgeois society, and to resurrect in thought a humanity destroyed in that society and by it. In the upshot, however, it did not manage to do more than provide a complete intellectual copy and the a priori deduction of bourgeois society. It is only the manner of this deduction, namely the dialectical method that points beyond bourgeois society. And even in classical philosophy this is only expressed in the form of an unsolved and insoluble antinomy. This antinomy is admittedly the most profound and the most magnificent intellectual expression of those antinomies which lie at the roots of bourgeois society and which are unceasingly produced and reproduced by it – albeit in confused and inferior forms. Hence classical philosophy had nothing but these unresolved antinomies to bequeath to succeeding (bourgeois) generations. The continuation of that course which at least in method started to point the way beyond these limits, namely the dialectical method as the true historical method was reserved for the class which was able to discover within itself on the basis of its life-experience the identical subject-object, the subject of action; the ‘we’ of the genesis: namely the proletariat.


1 Reclam, p. 17.

2 Capital I, p. 372 (note).

3 Cf. Tönnies, Hobbes' Leben und Lehre and especially Ernst Cassirer, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. We shall return to the conclusions of this book which are of value for us because they have been arrived at from a completely different point of view and yet describe the same process, showing the impact of the rationalism of mathematics and the 'exact' sciences upon the origins of modern thought.

4 Capital I, p. 486. See also Gottl, op. cit., pp. 238-45. for the contrast with antiquity. For this reason the concept of 'rationalism' must not be employed as an unhistorical abstraction, but it is always necessary precisely to determine the object (or sphere of life) to which it is to be related, and above all to define the objects to which it is not related.

5 Max Weber, Gesammelle Aufsdtze zur Religionssoziologie II, pp. 165-70. A like structure can be found in the development of all the 'special' sciences in India: a highly advanced technology in particular branches without reference to a rational totality and without any attempt to rationalise the whole and to confer universal validity upon the rational categories. Cf. also Ibid., pp. 146-7, 166-7. The situation is similar with regard to the 'rationalism' of Confucianism. Op. cit. I, p. 527.

6 In this respect Kant is the culmination of the philosophy of the eighteenth century. Both the line from Locke to Berkeley. and Hume and also the tradition of French materialism move in this direction. It would be beyond the scope of this inquiry to outline the different stages of this development with its various divergent strands.

7 Kritik der reinen Vernunft, pp. 403-4. Cf. also pp. 330 et seq.

8 Feuerbach also connected the problem of the absolute transcendence of sensuousness (by the understanding) with a contradiction in the existence of God. "The proof of the existence of God goes beyond the bounds of reason; true enough; but in the same sense in which seeing, hearing, smelling go beyond the bounds of reason." Das Wesen des Christentums, Reclam., p. 303. See Cassirer, op. cit. II, p. 608, for similar arguments in Hume and Kant.

9 This problem is stated most clearly by Lask: "For subjectivity" (i.e. for the logically subjective status of judgement), "it is by no means self-evident, but on the contrary it is the whole task of the philosopher to ascertain the categories into which logical form divides when applied to a particular subject-matter or, to put it differently, to discover which subjects form the particular province of the various categories." Die Lehre vom Urteil, p. 162.

10 Die Kritik der reinen Vernunft, p. 564.

11 This is not the place to show that neither Greek philosophy (with the possible exception of quite late thinkers, such as Proclus) nor medieval philosophy were acquainted with the idea of a 'system' in our sense. The problem of systems originates in modern times, with Descartes and Spinoza and from Leibniz and Kant onwards it becomes an increasingly conscious methodological postulate.

12 The idea of "infinite understanding", of intellectual intuition, etc., is partly designed as an epistemological solution to this difficulty. However, Kant had already perceived quite clearly that this problem leads on to the one we are about to discuss.

13 Once again it is Lask who perceives this most clearly and uncompromisingly. Cf. Die Logik der Philosophie, pp. 60-2. But he does not draw all the consequences of his line of reasoning, in particular that of the impossibility of a rational system in principle.

14 We may point for example to Husserl's phenomenological method in which the whole terrain of logic is ultimately transformed into a 'system of facts' of a higher order. Husserl himself regards this method as purely descriptive. Cf. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie in Vol. I of his jahrbuch, p. 113.

15 This fundamental tendency of Leibniz's thought attains maturity in the philosophy of Maimon where it appears in the form of the dissolution of the problem of the thing-in-itself and of "intelligible chance"; from here a path leads directly to Fichte and through him to later developments. The problem of the irrationality of mathematics is analysed incisively in an essay by Rickert, "Das Eine, die Einheit und das Eins," in Logos II, p. 1.

16 Die Wissenschaftslehre of 1804, Lecture XV, Werke (Neue Ausgabe) IV, p. 288. My italics. The problem is put similarly - though with varying degrees of clarity - by later 'critical' philosophers. Most clearly of all by Windelband when he defines existence as "content independent of form". In my opinion his critics have only obscured his paradox without providing a solution to the problem it contains.

17 This is not the place to offer a critique of particular philosophical schools. By way of proof of the correctness of this sketch I would only point to the relapse into natural law (which methodologically belongs to the pre-critical period) observable - in substance, though not in terminology - in the works of Cohen and also of Stammler whose thought is related to that of the Marburg School.

18 Rickert, one of the most consistent representatives of this school of thought, ascribes no more than a formal character to the cultural values underlying historiography, and it is precisely this fact that highlights the whole situation. On this point see Section III.

19 Transcendentale Logik, Lecture XXIII, Werke VI, p. 335. Readers unfamiliar with the terminology of classical philosophy are reminded that Fichte's concept of the ego has nothing to do with the empirical ego.

20 Second Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre, Werke III, p. 52. Although Fichte's terminology changes from one work to the next, this should not blind us to the fact that he is always concerned with the same problem.

21 Cf. Die Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, Philosophische Bibliothek, p. 72.

22 "Now nature is in the common view the existence of things subject to laws." Ibid., p. 57.

23 Ibid., pp. 125-6.

24 Ober die wissenschaftliche Behandlungsarien des Naturrechts, Werke 1, pp. 352-3. Cf. ibid., p. 351. "For it is the absolute abstraction from every subject-matter of the will; every content posits a heteronomy of the free will." Or, with even greater clarity, in the Phenomenology of Mind: "For pure duty is . . . absolutely indifferent towards every content and is compatible with every content." Werke II, p. 485.

25 This is quite clear in the case of the Greeks. But the same structure can be seen in the great systems at the beginning of the modern age, above all in Spinoza.

26 Die Kritik der reinen Vernunft, pp. 472-3.

27 Hegel, Werke III, pp. 78 et seq.

28 Nachlass I, p. 117. [Fragments on The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean philosophies of nature].

29 From this ontological situation it becomes possible to understand the point of departure for the belief, so alien to modern thought, in 'natural' states, e.g. the "credo ut intellegam" of Anselm of Canterbury, or the attitude of Indian thought ("Only by him whom he chooses will he be understood," it has been said of Atman). Descartes' systematic scepticism, which was the starting-point of exact thought, is no more than the sharpest formulation of this antagonism that was very consciously felt at the birth of the modern age. It can be seen again in every important thinker from Galileo to Bacon.

30 For the history of this universal mathematics, see Cassirer, op. cit. I, pp. 446, 563; II, 138, 156 et seq. For the connection between this mathematicisation of reality and the bourgeois 'praxis' of calculating the anticipated results of the 'laws', see Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus (Reclam) I, pp. 321-32 on Hobbes, Descartes and Bacon.

31 For the Platonic theory of ideas was indissolubly linked - with what right need not be discussed here - both with the totality and the qualitative existence of the given world. Contemplation means at the very least the bursting of the bonds that hold the 'soul' imprisoned within the limitations of the empirical. The Stoic ideal of ataraxy is a much better instance of this quite pure contemplation, but it is of course devoid of the paradoxical union with a feverish and uninterrupted 'activity'.

32 Die Differenz des Fichteschen und Schellingschen Systems, Werke I, p. 242. Every such 'atomic' theory of society only represents the ideological reflection of the purely bourgeois point of view; this was shown conclusively by Marx in his critique of Bruno Bauer, Nachlass II, p. 227. But this is not to deny the 'objectivity' of such views: they are in fact the necessary forms of consciousness that reified man has of his attitude towards society.

33 Hegel, Werke IX, p. 528.

34 Capital I, 390 (footnote).

35 Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, 3rd edition, p. 38.

36 Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy in S.W. II, p. 336.

37 E.g. the Phenomenology of Mind, Preface, Werke II, p. 20; and also ibid., pp. 67-8, 451, etc.

38 Marx employs this terminology in the important, oft-quoted passage about the proletariat (it is to be found in these pages too). The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 195. For this whole question, see also the relevant passages in the Logik, especially in Vol. III, pp. 127 et. seq., 166 et seq., and Vol. IV, pp. 120 et seq., and see also the critique of Kant in a number of places.

39 Die Kritik der reinen Vernunft, pp. 208 et seq.

40 Nachlass I, p. 449. [An Outline of a Critique of National Economy].

41 Capital I, p. 592, etc. Cf. also the essay on "Class Consciousness" for the question of the 'false consciousness' of the bourgeoisie.

42 It is this that provokes repeated attacks from Hegel. But in addition Goethe's rejection of the Kantian ethic points in the same direction although Goethe's motives and hence his terminology are different. That Kant's ethics is faced with the task of solving the problem of the thing-in-itself can be seen in innumerable places, e.g. the Grundlegung der Metaphysik der Sitien, Philosophische Bibliothek, p. 87; Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, p. 123.

43 Die Kritik der reinen Vernunft, p. 77.

44 Cf. also the essay "The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg" on the question of the methodological interrelatedness of these two principles.

45 Beiträge zur Geschichte des Materialismus, pp. 54 et seq., 122 et seq. How near Holbach and Helvetius came to the problem of the thing-in-itself - admittedly in a more naive form - can likewise be seen there on pp. 9, 51, etc.

46 The history of the stories 5 la Robinson cannot be undertaken here. I refer the reader to Marx's comments (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, pp. 266 et seq., and to Cassirer's subtle remarks about the role of Robinson Crusoe in Hobbes' epistemology. Op. cit. II, pp. 61 et seq.

47 On this point cf. especially Die Kritik der Urteilskraft § 42. Via Schiller the illustration of the real and the imitated nightingale strongly influenced later thinkers. It would be of absorbing interest to follow through the historical development leading from German Romanticism via the historical school of law, Carlyle, Ruskin, etc., in the course of which the concept of 'organic growth' was converted from a protest against reification into an increasingly reactionary slogan. To do so, however, would be outside the scope of this work. Here it is only the structure of the objects that need concern us: namely the fact that what would seem to be the highpoint of the interiorisation of nature really implies the abandonment of any true understanding of it. To make moods [Stimmung] into the content presupposes the existence of unpenetrated and impenetrable objects (things-in-themselves) just as much as do the laws of nature.

48 Das System der Sittenlehre, 3. Hauptstück, § 31, Werke II, p. 747. It would be both interesting and rewarding to show how the so rarely understood Nature philosophy of the classical epoch necessarily springs from this state of affairs. It is not by chance that Goethe's Nature philosophy arose in the course of a conflict with Newton's 'violation' of nature. Nor was it an accident that it set the pattern for all later developments. But both phenomena can only be understood in terms of the relation between man, nature and art. This also explains the methodological return to the qualitative Nature philosophy of the Renaissance as being the first assault upon a mathematical conception of nature.

49 Die Kritik der Urteilskraft, § 77.

50 On the Aesthetic Education of Man, 15th Letter.

51 Die Differenz des Fichteschen und Schellingschen Systems, Werke I, p. 174.

52 It is in his opposition to this that we can locate the substantive core in Schelling's later philosophy. However, his mythologising approach now became wholly reactionary. Hegel represents - as we shall show - the absolute consummation of rationalism, but this means that he can be superseded only by an interrelation of thought and existence that has ceased to be contemplative, by the concrete demonstration of the identical subject-object. Schelling made the absurd attempt to achieve this by going in the reverse direction and so to reach a purely intellectual solution. He thus ended up, like all the epigones of classical philosophy, in a reactionary mythology that glorified an empty irrationality.

53 It is not possible to examine the question in detail here, but I should like to point out that this is the point at which to begin an analysis of the problematics of Romanticism. Familiar, but seldom understood concepts, such as 'irony' spring from this situation. In particular the incisive questions posed by Solger who has wrongly been allowed to slide into oblivion, place him together with Friedrich Schlegel as a pioneer of the dialectical method between Schelling and Hegel, a position in some ways comparable to that occupied by Maimon in between Kant and Fichte. The role of mythology in Schelling's aesthetics becomes clearer with this in mind. There is an obvious connection between such problems and the conception of nature as a mood. The truly critical, metaphysically non-hypostatised, artistic view of the world leads to an even greater fragmentation of the unity of the subject and thus to an increase in the symptoms of alienation; this has been borne out by the later evolution of consistently modern views of art (Flaubert, Konrad Fiedler, etc.) On this point cf. my essay, Die Subjekt-Objekt-Beziehung in der Asthetik, Logos, jahrgang iv.

54 Dichtung und Wahrheit, Book 12. The subterranean influence of Hamann is much greater than is usually supposed.

55 Werke I, pp. 173-4. The Phenomenology is an attempt - unsurpassed hitherto, even by Hegel - to develop such a method.

56 Lask, the most ingenious and logical of the modern Neo-Kantians, clearly perceives this development in Hegel's Logic. "In this respect, too, the critic must admit that Hegel is in the right: irrationality can be overcome if and only if dialectically changing concepts are acceptable." Fichtes Idealismus und die Geschichte, p. 67.

57 Cf. Plekhanov, op. cit., pp. 9, 51, etc. But methodologically only formalistic rationalism is confronted by an insoluble problem at this point. Setting aside the substantive scientific value of medieval solutions to these questions, it is indubitable that the Middle Ages did not see any problem here, let alone an insoluble one. We may compare Holbach's statement, quoted by Plekhanov, that we cannot know "whether the chicken preceded the egg, or the egg the chicken" with e.g. the statement of Master Eckhard, "Nature makes the man from the child and the chicken from the egg; God makes the man before the child and the chicken before the egg" (Sermon of the noble man). Needless to say, we are here concerned exclusively with the contrast in methodology. On the basis of this methodological limitation as the result of which history is made to appear as a thing-in-itself, Plekhanov has rightly judged these materialists to be naive idealists in their approach to history. Zu Hegels 60. Todestag, Neue Zeit X. 1. 273.

58 Here too we can do no more than refer in passing to the history of this problem. The opposed positions were clearly established very early on. I would point to e.g. Friedrich Schlegel's critique of Condorcet's attempt (1 795) to provide a rationalist explanation of history (as it were, of the type of Comte or Spencer). " The enduring qualities of man are the subject of pure science, but the changing aspects of man, both as an individual and in the mass, are the subject of a scientific history of mankind." Prosaische jugendschriften, Vienna, 1906. Vol. II, p. 52.

59 Die Encyclopädie, § 309. For us, of course, only the methodological aspect has any significance. Nevertheless, we must emphasise that all formal, rationalist concepts exhibit this same reified impenetrability. The modern substitution of functions for things does not alter this situation in the least, as concepts of function do not at all differ from thing-concepts in the only area that matters, i.e. the form-content relationship. On the contrary, they take their formal, rationalist structure to its extreme logical conclusion.

60 Hegel, Werke II, p. 267.

61 Die Philosophie des Rechts, § 345-7. Encyclopädie, § 548-52.

62 In the last versions of the system history represents the transition from the philosophy of right to the absolute spirit. (In the Phenomenology the relation is more complex but methodologically just as ambiguous and undefined.) 'Absolute spirit' is the truth of the preceding moment, of history and therefore, in accordance with Hegel's logic, it would have to have annulled and preserved history within itself. However, in the dialectical method history cannot be so transcended and this is the message at the end of Hegel's Philosophy of History where at the climax of the system, at the moment where the 'absolute spirit' realises itself, history makes its reappearance and points beyond philosophy in its turn: "That the determinants of thought had this importance is a further insight that does not belong within the history of philosophy. These concepts are the simplest revelation of the spirit of the world: this in its most concrete form is history." Werke XV, p. 618.

63 Werke 1, p. 174. Needless to say, Fichte places an even heavier emphasis on chance.

64 Cf. the essay "What is orthodox Marxism?"

65 With this the Logic itself becomes problematic. Hegel's postulate that the concept is "reconstituted being" (Werke V, 30) is only possible on the assumption of the real creation of the identical subject-object. A failure at this point means that the concept acquires a Kantian, idealistic emphasis which is in conflict with its dialectical function. To show this in detail would be well beyond the scope of this study.

Part III: The Standpoint of the Proletariat

In his early Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx gave a lapidary account of the special position of the proletariat in society and in history, and the standpoint from which it can function as the identical subject-object of the social and historical processes of evolution. “When the proletariat proclaims the dissolution of the previous world-order it does no more than reveal the secret of its own existence, for it represents the effective dissolution of that world-order.” The self-understanding of the proletariat is therefore simultaneously the objective understanding of the nature of society. When the proletariat furthers its own class-aims it simultaneously achieves the conscious realisation of the – objective – aims of society, aims which would inevitably remain abstract possibilities and objective frontiers but for this conscious intervention. [1]

What change has been brought about, then, socially by this point of view and even by the possibility of taking up a point of view at all towards society? ‘In the first instance’ nothing at all. For the proletariat makes its appearance as the product of the capitalist social order. The forms in which it exists are – as we demonstrated in Section I – the repositories of reification in its acutest and direst form and they issue in the most extreme dehumanisation. Thus the proletariat shares with the bourgeoisie the reification of every aspect of its life. Marx observes:

“The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognises alienation as its own instrument and in it it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.” [2]


It would appear then, that – even for Marxism – nothing has changed in the objective situation. Only the ‘vantage point from which it is judged’ has altered, only ‘the value placed on it’ has acquired a different emphasis. This view does in fact contain a very essential grain of truth, one which must constantly be borne in mind if true insight is not to degenerate into its opposite.

To put it more concretely: the objective reality of social existence is in its immediacy ‘the same’ for both proletariat and bourgeoisie. But this does not prevent the specific categories of mediation by means of which both classes raise this immediacy to the level of consciousness, by means of which the merely immediate reality becomes for both the authentically objective reality, from being fundamentally different, thanks to the different position occupied by the two classes within the ‘same’ economic process. It is evident that once again we are approaching – this time from another angle – the fundamental problem of bourgeois thought, the problem of the thing-in-itself. The belief that the transformation of the immediately given into a truly understood (and not merely an immediately perceived) and for that reason really objective reality, i.e. the belief that the impact of the category of mediation upon the picture of the world is merely ‘subjective’, i.e. is no more than an ‘evaluation’ of a reality that ‘remains unchanged’, all this is as much as to say that objective reality has the character of a thing-in-itself.

It is true that the kind of knowledge which regards this ‘evaluation’ as merely ‘subjective’, as something which does not go to the heart of the facts, nevertheless claims to penetrate the essence of actuality. The source of its self-deception is to be found in its uncritical attitude to the fact that its own standpoint is conditioned (and above all that it is conditioned by the society underlying it). Thus – to take this view of history at its most developed and most highly articulated – we may consider Rickert’s arguments with regard to the historian who studies “his own cultural environment.” He claims that: “If the historian forms his concepts with an eye on the values of the community to which he himself belongs, the objectivity of his presentation will depend entirely on the accuracy of his factual material, and the question of whether this or that event in the past is crucial will not even arise. He will be immune from the charge of arbitrariness, as long as he relates, e.g. the history of art to the aesthetic values of his culture and the history of the state to its political values and, so long as he refrains from making unhistorical value-judgements, he will create a mode of historical narrative that is valid for all who regard political or aesthetic values as normative for the members of his community.” [3]

By positing the materially unknown and only formally valid ‘cultural values’ as the founders of a ‘value-related’ historical objectivity, the subjectivity of the historian is, to all appearances, eliminated. However, this does no more than enthrone as the measure and the index of objectivity, the “cultural values” actually “prevailing in his community” (i.e. in his class). The arbitrariness and subjectivity are transformed from the material of the particular facts and from judgements on these into the criterion itself, into the “prevailing cultural values.” And to judge or even investigate the validity of these values is not possible within that framework; for the historian the ‘cultural values’ become the thing-in-itself; a structural process analogous to those we observed in economics and jurisprudence in Section I.

Even more important, however, is the other side of the question, viz. that the thing-in-itself character of the form-content relation necessarily opens up the problem of totality. Here, too, we must be grateful to Rickert for the clarity with which he formulates his view. Having stressed the methodological. need for a substantive theory of value for the philosophy of history, he continues: “Indeed, universal or world history, too, can only be written in a unified manner with the aid of a system of cultural values and to that extent it presupposes a substantive philosophy of history. For the rest, however, knowledge of a value system is irrelevant to the question of the scientific objectivity of purely empirical narrative.” [4]

We must ask, however: is the distinction between historical monograph and universal history purely one of scope or does it also involve method? Of course, even in the former case history according to Rickert’s epistemological ideal would be extremely problematic. For the ‘facts’ of history must remain – notwithstanding their ‘value-attributes’ – in a state of crude, uncomprehended facticity as every path to, or real understanding of them, of their real meaning, their real function in the historical process has been blocked systematically by methodically abandoning any claim to a knowledge of the totality. But, as we have shown, [5] the question of universal history is a problem of methodology that necessarily emerges in every account of even the smallest segment of history. For history as a totality (universal history) is neither the mechanical aggregate of individual historical events, nor is it a transcendent heuristic principle opposed to the events of history, a principle that could only become effective with the aid of a special discipline, the philosophy of history. The totality of history is itself a real historical power – even though one that has not hitherto become conscious and has therefore gone unrecognised – a power which is not to be separated from the reality (and hence the knowledge) of the individual facts without at the same time annulling their reality and their factual existence. It is the real, ultimate ground of their reality and their factual existence and hence also of their knowability even as individual facts.

In the essay referred to above we used Sismondi’s theory of crisis to illustrate how the real understanding of a particular phenomenon can be thwarted by the misapplication of the category of totality, even when all the details have been correctly grasped. We saw there, too, that integration in the totality (which rests on the assumption that it is precisely the whole of the historical process that constitutes the authentic historical reality) does not merely affect our judgement of individual phenomena decisively. But also, as a result, the objective structure, the actual content of the individual phenomenona – as individual phenomenon – is changed fundamentally. The difference between this method which treats individual historical phenomena in isolation and one which regards them from a totalising point of view becomes even more apparent if we compare the function of the machine in the view of bourgeois economics and of Marx:

“The contradictions and antagonisms inseparable from the capitalist employment of machinery, do not exist, they say, since they do not arise out of machinery, as such, but out of its capitalist employment! Since therefore machinery, considered alone shortens the hours of labour, but, when in the service of capital, lengthens them; since in itself it lightens labour, but when employed by capital, heightens the intensity of labour; since in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of Nature, but in the hands of capital, makes man the slave of those forces; since in itself it increases the wealth of the producers, but in the hands of capital, makes them paupers – for all these reasons and others besides, says the bourgeois economist without more ado, it is clear as noonday that all these contradictions are a mere semblance of the reality, and that, as a matter of fact, they have neither an actual nor a theoretical existence.” [6]

Ignoring for the moment the aspect of bourgeois economics that constitutes an apologia on class lines, let us examine the distinction solely from the point of view of method. We then observe that the bourgeois method is to consider the machine as an isolated unique thing and to view it simply as an existing ‘individual’ (for as a phenomenon of the process of economic development the machine as a class rather than the particular appliance constitutes the historical individual in Rickert’s sense). We see further that to view the machine thus is to distort its true objective nature by representing its function in the capitalist production process as its ‘eternal’ essence, as the indissoluble component of its ‘individuality’. Seen methodologically, this approach makes of every historical object a variable monad which is denied any interaction with other – similarly viewed – monads and which possesses characteristics that appear to be absolutely immutable essences. It does indeed retain an individual uniqueness but this is only the uniqueness of mere facticity, of being-just-so. The ‘value-relation’ does not at all affect this structure, for it does no more than make it possible to select from the infinite mass of such facticities. Just as these individual historical monads are only related to each other in superficial manner, one which attempts no more than a simple factual description, so too their relation to the guiding value principle remains purely factual and contingent.

And yet, as the really important historians of the nineteenth century such as Riegl, Dilthey and Dvořak could not fail to notice, the essence of history lies precisely in the changes undergone by those structural forms which are the focal points of man’s interaction with environment at any given moment and which determine the objective nature of both his inner and his outer life. But this only becomes objectively possible (and hence can only be adequately comprehended) when the individuality, the uniqueness of an epoch or an historical figure, etc., is grounded in the character of these structural forms, when it is discovered and exhibited in them and through them.

However, neither the people who experience it nor the historian have direct access to immediate reality in these, its true structural forms. It is first necessary to search for them and to find them – and the path to their discovery is the path to a knowledge of the historical process in its totality. At first sight, anyone who insists upon immediacy may never go beyond this ‘first sight’ his whole life long – it may look as if the next stages implied a purely intellectual exercise, a mere process of abstraction. But this is an illusion which is itself the product of the habits of thought and feeling of mere immediacy where the immediately given form of the objects, the fact of their existing here and now and in this particular way appears to be primary, real and objective, whereas their ‘relations’ seem to be secondary and subjective. For anyone who sees things in such immediacy every true change must seem incomprehensible. The undeniable fact of change must then appear to be a catastrophe, a sudden, unexpected turn of events that comes from outside and eliminates all mediations. [7] If change is to be understood at all it is necessary to abandon the view that objects are rigidly opposed to each other, it is necessary to elevate their interrelatedness and the interaction between these ‘relations’ and the ‘objects’ to the same plane of reality. The greater the distance from pure immediacy the larger the net encompassing the ‘relations’, and the more complete the integration of the ‘objects’ within the system of relations the sooner change will cease to be impenetrable and catastrophic, the sooner it will become comprehensible.

But this will only be true if the road beyond immediacy leads in the direction of a greater concreteness, if the system of mediating concepts so constructed represents the “totality of the empirical” – to employ Lassalle’s felicitous description of the philosophy of Hegel. We have already noted the methodological limits of formal, rational and abstract conceptual systems. In this context it is important only to hold on to the fact that it is not possible to use them to surpass the purely factual nature of historical facts. (The critical efforts of Rickert and of modern historiography also focus on this point and they too have successfully proved this.) The very most that can be achieved in this way is to set up a formal typology of the manifestations of history and society using historical facts as illustrations. This means that only a chance connection links the theoretical system to the objective historical reality that the theory is intended to comprehend. This may take the form of a naïve ‘sociology’ in search of ‘laws’ (of the Comte/Spencer variety) in which the insolubility of the task is reflected in the absurdity of the results. Or else the methodological intractability may be a matter of critical awareness from the beginning (as with Max Weber) and, instead, an auxiliary science of history is brought into being. But in either case the upshot is the same: the problem of facticity is pushed back into history once again and the purely historical standpoint remains unable to transcend its immediacy regardless of whether this is desired or not.

We have described the stance adopted by the historian in Rickert’s sense (i.e. critically the most conscious type in the bourgeois tradition) as a prolongation of the state of pure immediacy. This appears to contradict the obvious fact that historical reality can only be achieved, understood and described in the course of a complicated process of mediation. However, it should not be forgotten that immediacy and mediation are themselves aspects of a dialectical process and that every stage of existence (and of the mind that would understand it) has its own immediacy in the sense given to it in the Phenomenology in which, when confronted by an immediately given object, “we should respond just as immediately or receptively, and therefore make no alteration to it, leaving it just as it presents itself.”[8] To go beyond this immediacy can only mean the genesis, the ‘creation’ of the object. But this assumes that the forms of mediation in and through which it becomes possible to go beyond the immediate existence of objects as they are given, can be shown to be the structural principles and the real tendencies of the objects themselves.

In other words, intellectual genesis must be identical in principle with historical genesis. We have followed the course of the history of ideas which, as bourgeois thought has developed, has tended more and more to wrench these two principles apart. We were able to show that as a result of this duality in method, reality disintegrates into a multitude of irrational facts and over these a network of purely-formal ‘laws’ emptied of content is then cast. And by devising an ‘epistemology’ that can go beyond the abstract form of the immediately given world (and its conceivability) the structure is made permanent and acquires a justification – not inconsistently – as being the necessary ‘precondition of the possibility’ of this world view. But unable to turn this ‘critical’ movement in the direction of a true creation of the object – in this case of the thinking subject – and indeed by taking the very opposite direction, this ‘critical’ attempt to bring the analysis of reality to its logical conclusion ends by returning to the same immediacy that faces the ordinary man of bourgeois society in his everyday life. It has been conceptualised, but only immediately.

Immediacy and mediation are therefore not only related and mutually complementary ways of dealing with the objects of reality. But corresponding to the dialectical nature of reality and the dialectical character of our efforts to come to terms with it, they are related dialectically. That is to say that every mediation must necessarily yield a standpoint from which the objectivity it creates assumes the form of immediacy. Now this is the relation of bourgeois thought to the social and historical reality of bourgeois society – illuminated and made transparent as it has been by a multiplicity of mediations. Unable to discover further mediations, unable to comprehend the reality and the origin of bourgeois society as the product of the same subject that has ‘created’ the comprehended totality of knowledge, its ultimate point of view, decisive for the whole of its thought, will be that of immediacy. For, in Hegel’s words: “the mediating factor would have to be something in which both sides were one, in which consciousness would discern each aspect in the next, its purpose and activity in its fate, its fate its purpose and activity, its own essence in this necessity.”[9]

It may be hoped that our arguments up to this point have demonstrated with sufficient clarity that this particular mediation was absent and could not be otherwise than absent from bourgeois thought. In the context of economics this has been proved by Marx time and time again. [10] And he explicitly attributed the mistaken ideas of bourgeois economists concerning the economic processes of capitalism to the absence of mediation, to the systematic avoidance of the categories of mediation, to the immediate acceptance of secondary forms of objectivity, to the inability to progress beyond the stage of merely immediate cognition. In Section II we were able to point out as emphatically as possible the various intellectual implications flowing from the character of bourgeois society and the systematic limitations of its thought. We drew attention there to the antinomies (between subject and object, freedom and necessity, individual and society, form and content, etc.) to which such thought necessarily led. It is important to realise at this point that although bourgeois thought only landed in these antinomies after the very greatest mental exertions, it yet accepted their existential basis as self-evident, as a simply unquestionable reality. Which is to say: bourgeois thought entered into an unmediated relationship with reality as it was given.

Thus Simmel has this to say about the ideological structure of reification in consciousness: “And therefore now that these counter-tendencies have come into existence, they should at least strive towards an ideal of absolutely pure separation: every material content of life should become more and more material and impersonal so that the non-reifiable remnant may become all the more personal and all the more indisputably the property of the person.”[11] In this way the very thing that should be understood and deduced with the aid of mediation becomes the accepted principle by which to explain all phenomena and is even elevated to the status of a value: namely the unexplained and inexplicable facticity of bourgeois existence as it is here and now acquires the patina of an eternal law of nature or a cultural value enduring for all time.

At the same time this means that history must abolish itself. [12] As Marx says of bourgeois economics: “Thus history existed once upon a time, but it does not exist any more.” And even if this antinomy assumes increasingly refined forms in later times, so that it even makes its appearance in the shape of historicism, of historical relativism, this does not affect the basic problem, the abolition of history, in the slightest.

We see the unhistorical and anti-historical character of bourgeois thought most strikingly when we consider the problem of the present as a historical problem. It is unnecessary to give examples here. Ever since the World War and the World Revolution the total inability of every bourgeois thinker and historian to see the world-historical events of the present as universal history must remain one of the most terrible memories of every sober observer. This complete failure has reduced otherwise meritorious historians and subtle thinkers to the pitiable or contemptible mental level of the worst kind of provincial journalism. But it cannot always be explained simply as the result of external pressures (censorship, conformity to ‘national’ class interests, etc.). It is grounded also in a theoretical approach based upon unmediated contemplation which opens up an irrational chasm between the subject and object of knowledge, the same “dark and empty” chasm that Fichte described. This murky void was also present in our knowledge of the past, though this was obscured by the distance created by time, space and historical mediation. Here, however, it must appear fully exposed.

A fine illustration borrowed from Ernst Bloch will perhaps make this theoretical limitation clearer than a detailed analysis which in any case would not be possible here. When nature becomes landscape – e.g. in contrast to the peasant’s unconscious living within nature – the artist’s unmediated experience of the landscape (which has of course only achieved this immediacy after undergoing a whole series of mediations) presupposes a distance (spatial in this case) between the observer and the landscape. The observer stands outside the landscape, for were this not the case it would not be possible for nature to become a landscape at all. If he were to attempt to integrate himself and the nature immediately surrounding him in space within ‘nature-seen-as-landscape’, without modifying his aesthetic contemplative immediacy, it would then at once become apparent that landscape only starts to become landscape at a definite (though of course variable) distance from the observer and that only as an observer set apart in space can he relate to nature in terms of landscape at all.

This illustration is only intended to throw light on the theoretical situation, for it is only in art that the relation to landscape is expressed in an appropriate and unproblematic way, although it must not be forgotten that even in art we find the same unbridgeable gap opening up between subject and object that we find confronting us everywhere in modern life, and that art can do no more than shape this problematic without however finding a real solution to it. But as soon as history is forced into the present – and this is inevitable as our interest in history is determined in the last analysis by our desire to understand the present – this “pernicious chasm” (to use Bloch’s expression) opens up.

As a result of its incapacity to understand history, the contemplative attitude of the bourgeoisie became polarised into two extremes: on the one hand, there were the ‘great individuals’ viewed as the autocratic makers of history, on the other hand, there were the ‘natural laws’ of the historical environment. They both turn out to be equally impotent – whether they are separated or working together – when challenged to produce an interpretation of the present in all its radical novelty. [13] The inner perfection of the work of art can hide this gaping abyss because in its perfected immediacy it does not allow any further questions to arise about a mediation no longer available to the point of view of contemplation. However, the present is a problem of history, a problem that refuses to be ignored and one which imperiously demands such mediation. It must be attempted. But in the course of these attempts we discover the truth of Hegel’s remarks about one of the stages of self-consciousness that follow the definition of mediation already cited:

“Therefore consciousness has become an enigma to itself as a result of the very experience which was to reveal its truth to itself; it does not regard the effects of its deeds as its own deeds: what happens to it is not the same experience for it as it is in itself; the transition is not merely a formal change of the same content and essence seen on the one hand as the content and essence of consciousness and on the other hand as the object or intuited essence of itself. Abstract necessity, therefore passes for the merely negative, uncomprehended power of the universalby which individuality is destroyed.”


The historical knowledge of the proletariat begins with knowledge of the present, with the self-knowledge of its own social situation and with the elucidation of its necessity (i.e. its genesis). That genesis and history should coincide or, more exactly, that they should be different aspects of the same process, can only happen if two conditions are fulfilled. On the one hand, all the categories in which human existence is constructed must appear as the determinants of that existence itself (and not merely of the description of that existence). On the other hand, their succession, their coherence and their connections must appear as aspects of the historical process itself, as the structural components of the present. Thus the succession and internal order of the categories constitute neither a purely logical sequence, nor are they organised merely in accordance with the facts of history. “Their sequence is rather determined by the relation which they bear to one another in modern bourgeois society, and which is the exact opposite of what seems to be their natural order or the order of their historical developmental.” [14]

This in turn assumes that the world which confronts man in theory and in practice exhibits a kind of objectivity which – if properly thought out and understood – need never stick fast in an immediacy similar to that of forms found earlier on. This objectivity must accordingly be comprehensible as a constant factor mediating between past and future and it must be possible to demonstrate that it is everywhere the product of man and of the development of society. To pose the question thus is to bring up the issue of the ‘economic structure’ of society. For, as Marx points out in his attack on Proudhon’s pseudo-Hegelianism and vulgar Kantianism for its erroneous separation of principle (i.e. category) from history: “When we ask ourselves why a particular principle was manifested in the eleventh or in the eighteenth century rather than in any other, we are necessarily forced to examine minutely what men were like in the eleventh century, what they were like in the eighteenth, what were their respective needs, their productive forces, their mode of production and their raw materials – in short, what were the relations between man and man which resulted from all these conditions of existence. To get to the bottom of all these questions – what is this but to draw up the real, profane history of men in every century and to present these men as both the authors and the actors of their own drama? But the moment we present men as the actors and authors of their own history, we arrive – by a detour – at the real starting-point, because we have abandoned those eternal principles of which we spoke at the outset.” [15]

It would, however, be an error – an error which marks the point of departure of all vulgar Marxism – to believe that to adopt this standpoint is simply to accept the immediately given (i.e. the empirical) social structure. Moreover, the refusal to be content with this empirical reality, this going beyond the bounds of what is immediately given by no means signifies a straightforward dissatisfaction with it and a straightforward – abstract – desire to alter it. Such a desire, such an evaluation of empirical reality would indeed be no more than subjective: it would be a ‘value-judgement’, a wish, a utopia. And even though to aspire to a utopia is to affirm the will in what is philosophically the more objective and distilled form of an ‘ought’ (Sollen) it does not imply that the tendency to accept empirical reality has been overcome. This applies, too, to the subjectivism of the impulse to initiate change which admittedly appears here in a philosophically sophisticated form.

For precisely in the pure, classical expression it received in the philosophy of Kant it remains true that the ‘ought’ presupposes an existing reality to which the category of ‘ought’ remains inapplicable in principle. Whenever the refusal of the subject simply to accept his empirically given existence takes the form of an ‘ought’, this means that the immediately given empirical reality receives affirmation and consecration at the hands of philosophy: it is philosophically immortalised. “Nothing in the world of phenomena can be explained by the concept of freedom,” Kant states, “the guiding thread in that sphere must always be the mechanics of nature.” [16]

Thus every theory of the ‘ought’ is left with a dilemma: either it must allow the – meaningless – existence of empirical reality to survive unchanged with its meaninglessness forming the basis of the ‘ought’ – for in a meaningful existence the problem of an ‘ought’ could not arise. This gives the ‘ought’ a purely subjective character. Or else, theory must presuppose a principle that transcends the concept of both what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be’ so as to be able to explain the real impact of the ‘ought’ upon what ‘is’. For the popular solution of an infinite progression [towards virtue, holiness], which Kant himself had already proposed, merely conceals the fact that the problem is insoluble. Philosophically it is not important to determine the time needed by the ‘ought’ in order to reorganise what ‘is’. The task is to discover the principles by means of which it becomes possible in the first place for an ‘ought’ to modify existence. And it is just this that the theory rules out from the start by establishing the mechanics of nature as an unchangeable fact of existence, by setting up a strict dualism of ‘ought’ and ‘is’, and by creating the rigidity with which ‘is’ and ‘ought’ confront each other – a rigidity which this point of view can never eliminate. However, if a thing is theoretically impossible it cannot be first reduced to infinitesimal proportions and spread over an infinite process and then suddenly be made to reappear as a reality.

It is, however, no mere chance that in its attempt to find a way out of the contradictions created by the fact that history is simply given, bourgeois thought should have taken up the idea of an infinite progression. For, according to Hegel, this progression makes its appearance “everywhere where relative determinants are driven to the point where they become antithetical so that they are united inseparably whilst an independent existence is attributed to each vis-à-vis the other. This progression is, therefore, the contradiction that is never resolved but is always held to be simply present.” [17] And Hegel has also shown that the methodological device that forms the logical first link in the infinite progression consists in establishing a purely quantitative relationship between elements that are and remain qualitatively incommensurable but in such a way that “each is held to be indifferent to this change.” [18]

With this we find ourselves once more in the old antinomy of the thing-in-itself but in a new form: on the one hand ‘is’ and ‘ought’ remain rigidly and irreducibly antithetical; on the other hand, by forging a link between them an external, illusory link that leaves their irrationality and facticity untouched, an area of apparent Becoming is created thanks to which growth and decay, the authentic theme of history, is really and truly thrust out into the darkness of incomprehensibility. For the reduction to quantitative terms must affect not only the basic elements of the process but also its individual stages, and the fact that this procedure makes it appear as if a gradual transition were taking place, goes unobserved. “But this gradualness only applies to the externals of change, not to their quality; the preceding quantitative situation, infinitely close to the succeeding one yet possesses a different existence qualitatively.... One would like to employ gradual transitions in order to make a change comprehensible to oneself; but the gradual change is precisely the trivial one, it is the reverse of the true qualitative change. In the gradualness the connection between the two realities is abolished – this is true whether they are conceived of as states or as independent objects – ; it is assumed that ... one is simply external to the other; in this way the very thing necessary to comprehension is removed. . . . With this growth and decay are altogether abolished, or else the In Itself, the inner state of a thing prior to its existence is transformed into a small amount of external existence and the essential or conceptual distinction is changed into a simple, external difference of magnitude.” [19]

The desire to leave behind the immediacy of empirical reality and its no less immediate rationalist reflections must not be allowed to become an attempt to abandon, immanent (social) reality. The price of such a false process of transcendence would be the reinstating and perpetuating of empirical reality with all its insoluble questions, but this time in a philosophically sublimated way. But in fact, to leave empirical reality behind can only mean that the objects of the empirical world are to be understood as aspects of a totality, i.e. as the aspects of a total social situation caught up in the process of historical change. Thus the category of mediation is a lever with which to overcome the mere immediacy of the empirical world and as such it is not something (subjective) foisted on to the objects from outside, it is no value-judgement or ‘ought’ opposed to their ‘is’. It is rather the manifestation of their authentic objective structure. This can only become apparent in the visible objects of consciousness when the false attitude of bourgeois thought to objective reality has been abandoned. Mediation would not be possible were it not for the fact that the empirical existence of objects is itself mediated and only appears to be unmediated in so far as the awareness of mediation is lacking so that the objects are torn from the complex of their true determinants and placed in artificial isolation. [20]

Moreover, it must be borne in mind that the process by which the objects are isolated is not the product of chance or caprice. When true knowledge does away with the false separation of objects (and the even falser connections established by unmediated abstractions) it does much more than merely correct a false or inadequate scientific method or substitute a superior hypothesis for a defective one. It is just as characteristic of the social reality of the present that its objective form should be subjected to this kind of intellectual treatment as it is that the objective starting-point of such treatment should have been chosen. If, then, the standpoint of the proletariat is opposed to that of the bourgeoisie, it is nonetheless true that proletarian thought does not require a tabula rasa, a new start to the task of comprehending reality and one without any preconceptions. In this it is unlike the thought of the bourgeoisie with regard to the medieval forms of feudalism – at least in its basic tendencies. Just because its practical goal is the fundamentaltransformation of the whole of society it conceives of bourgeois society together with its intellectual and artistic productions as the point of departurefor its own method.

The methodological function of the categories of mediation consists in the fact that with their aid those immanent meanings that necessarily inhere, in the objects of bourgeois society but which are absent from the immediate manifestation of those objects as well as from their mental reflection in bourgeois thought, now become objectively effective and can therefore enter the consciousness of the proletariat. That is to say, if the bourgeoisie is held fast in the mire of immediacy from which the proletariat is able to extricate itself, this is neither purely accidental nor a purely theoretical scientific problem. The distance between these two theoretical positions is an expression of the differences between the social existence of the two classes.

Of course, the knowledge yielded by the standpoint of the proletariat stands on a higher scientific plane objectively; it does after all apply a method that makes possible the solution of problems which the greatest thinkers of the bourgeois era have vainly struggled to find and in its substance, it provides the adequate historical analysis of capitalism which must remain beyond the grasp of bourgeois thinkers. However, this attempt to grade the methods objectively in terms of their value to knowledge is itself a social and historical problem, an inevitable result of the types of society represented by the two classes and their place in history. It implies that the ‘falseness’ and the ‘one-sidedness’ of the bourgeois view of history must be seen as a necessary factor in the systematic acquisition of knowledge about society. [21]

But also, it appears that every method is necessarily implicated in the existence of the relevant class. For the bourgeoisie, method arises directly from its social existence and this means that mere immediacy adheres to its thought, constituting its outermost barrier, one that can not be crossed. In contrast to this the proletariat is confronted by the need to break through this barrier, to overcome it inwardly from the very start by adopting its own point of view. And as it is the nature of the dialectical method constantly to produce and reproduce its own essential aspects, as its very being constitutes the denial of any smooth, linear development of ideas, the proletariat finds itself repeatedly confronted with the problem of its own point of departure both in its efforts to increase its theoretical grasp of reality and to initiate practical historical measures. For the proletariat the barrier imposed by immediacy has become an inward barrier. With this the problem becomes clear; by putting the problem in this way the road to a possible answer is opened up. [22]

But it is no more than a possible answer. The proposition with which we began, viz. that in capitalist society reality is – immediately – the same for both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, remains unaltered. But we may now add that this same reality employs the motor of class interests to keep the bourgeoisie imprisoned within this immediacy while forcing the proletariat to go beyond it. For the social existence of the proletariat is far more powerfully affected by the dialectical character of the historical process in which the mediated character of every factor receives the imprint of truth and authentic objectivity only in the mediated totality. For the proletariat to become aware of the dialectical nature of its existence is a matter of life and death, whereas the bourgeoisie uses the abstract categories of reflection, such as quantity and infinite progression, to conceal the dialectical structure of the historical process in daily life only to be confronted by unmediated catastrophes when the pattern is reversed. This is based – as we have shown – on the fact that the bourgeoisie always perceives the subject and object of the historical process and of social reality in a double form: in terms of his consciousness the single individual is a perceiving subject confronting the overwhelming objective necessities imposed by society of which only minute fragments can be comprehended. But in reality it is precisely the conscious activity of the individual that is to be found on the object-side of the process, while the subject (the class) cannot be awakened into consciousness and this activity must always remain beyond the consciousness of the – apparent – subject, the individual.

Thus we find the subject and object of the social process coexisting in a state of dialectical interaction. But as they always appear to exist in a rigidly twofold form, each external to the other, the dialectics remain unconscious and the objects retain their twofold and hence rigid character. This rigidity can only be broken by catastrophe and it then makes way for an equally rigid structure. This unconscious dialectic which is for that very reason unmanageable

“breaks forth in their confession of naive surprise, when what they have just thought to have defined with great difficulty as a thing suddenly appears as a social relation and then reappears to tease them again as a thing, before they have barely managed to define it as a social relation.” [23]

For the proletariat social reality does not exist in this double form. It appears in the first instance as the pure object of societal events. In every aspect of daily life in which the individual worker imagines himself to be the subject of his own life he finds this to be an illusion that is destroyed by the immediacy of his existence. This forces upon him the knowledge that the most elementary gratification of his needs, “his own individual consumption, whether it proceed within the workshop or outside it, whether it be part of the process of reproduction or not, forms therefore an aspect of the production and the reproduction of capital; just as cleaning machinery does, whether it be done while the machinery is working or while it is standing idle.” [24] The quantification of objects, their subordination to abstract mental categories makes its appearance in the life of the worker immediately as a process of abstraction of which he is the victim, and which cuts him off from his labour-power, forcing him to sell it on the market as a commodity, belonging to him. And by selling this, his only commodity, he integrates it (and himself: for his commodity is inseparable from his physical existence) into a specialised process that has been rationalised and mechanised, a process that he discovers already existing, complete and able to function without him and in which he is no more than a cipher reduced to an abstract quantity, a mechanised and rationalised tool.

Thus for the worker the reified character of the immediate manifestations of capitalist society receives the most extreme definition possible. It is true: for the capitalist also there is the same doubling of personality, the same splitting up of man into an element of the movement of commodities and an (objective and impotent) observer of that movement. [25] But for his consciousness it necessarily appears as an activity (albeit this activity is objectively an illusion), in which effects emanate from himself. This illusion blinds him to the true state of affairs, whereas the worker, who is denied the scope for such illusory activity, perceives the split in his being preserved in the brutal form of what is in its whole tendency a slavery without limits. He is therefore forced into becoming the object of the process by which he is turned into a commodity and reduced to a mere quantity.

But this very fact forces him to surpass the immediacy of his condition. For as Marx says, “Time is the place of human development.” [26] The quantitative differences in exploitation which appear to the capitalist in the form of quantitative determinants of the objects of his calculation, must appear to the worker as the decisive, qualitative categories of his whole physical, mental and moral existence. The transformation of quantity into quality is not only a particular aspect of the dialectical process of development, as Hegel represents it in his philosophy of nature and, following him, Engels in the Anti-Dühring. But going beyond that, as we have just shown with the aid of Hegel’s Logic, it means the emergence of the truly objective form of existence and the destruction of those confusing categories of reflection which had deformed true objectivity into a posture of merely immediate, passive, contemplation.

Above all, as far as labour-time is concerned, it becomes abundantly clear that quantification is a reified and reifying cloak spread over the true essence of the objects and can only be regarded as an objective form of reality inasmuch as the subject is uninterested in the essence of the object to which it stands in a contemplative or (seemingly) practical relationship. When Engels illustrates the transformation of quantity into quality by pointing to the example of water changing into solid or gaseous form [27] he is in the right so far as these points of transition are concerned. But this ignores the fact that when the point of view is changed even the transitions that had seemed to be purely quantitative now become qualitative. (To give an extremely trivial example, consider what happens when water is drunk; there is here a point at which ‘quantitative’ changes take on a qualitative nature.) The position is even clearer when we consider the example Engels gives from Capital. The point under discussion is the amount needed at a particular stage of production to transform a given sum into capital; Marx observes that it is at this point that quantity is changed into quality. [28]

Let us now compare these two series (the growth or reduction in the sum of money and the increase or decrease in labour-time) and examine their possible quantitative changes and their transformation into quality. We note that in the first case we are in fact confronted only by what Hegel calls a “nodal line of measure relations.” Whereas in the second case every change is one of quality in its innermost nature and although its quantitative appearance is forced on to the worker by his social environment, its essence for him lies in its qualitative implications. This second aspect of the change obviously has its origin in the fact that for the worker labour-time is not merely the objective form of the commodity he has sold, i.e. his labour-power (for in that form the problem for him, too, is one of the exchange of equivalents, i.e. a quantitative matter). But in addition it is the determining form of his existence as subject, as human being.

This does not mean that immediacy together with its consequences for theory, namely the rigid opposition of subject and object, can be regarded as having been wholly overcome. It is true that in the problem of labour-time, just because it shows reification at its zenith, we can see how proletarian thought is necessarily driven to surpass this immediacy. For, on the one hand, in his social existence the worker is immediately placed wholly on the side of the object: he appears to himself immediately as an object and not as the active part of the social process of labour. On the other hand, however, the role of object is no longer purely immediate. That is to say, it is true that the worker is objectively transformed into a mere object of the process of production by the methods of capitalist production (in contrast to those of slavery and servitude) i.e. by the fact that the worker is forced to objectify his labour-power over against his total personality and to sell it as a commodity. But because of the split between subjectivity and objectivity induced in man by the compulsion to objectify himself as a commodity, the situation becomes one that can be made conscious. In earlier, more organic forms of society, work is defined “as the direct function of a member of the social organism”: [29] in slavery and servitude the ruling powers appear as the “immediate mainsprings of the production process” and this prevents labourers enmeshed in such a situation with their personalities undivided from achieving clarity about their social position. By contrast, “work which is represented as exchange value has for its premise the work of the isolated individual. It becomes social by assuming the form of its immediate antithesis, the form of abstract universality.”

We can already see here more clearly and concretely the factors that create a dialectic between the social existence of the worker and the forms of his consciousness and force them out of their pure immediacy. Above all the worker can only become conscious of his existence in society when he becomes aware of himself as a commodity. As we have seen, his immediate existence integrates him as a pure, naked object into the production process. Once this immediacy turns out to be the consequence of a multiplicity of mediations, once it becomes evident how much it presupposes, then the fetishistic forms of the commodity system begin to dissolve: in the commodity the worker recognises himself and his own relations with capital. Inasmuch as he is incapable in practice of raising himself above the role of object his consciousness is the self-consciousness of the commodity; or in other words it is the self-knowledge, the self-revelation of the capitalist society founded upon the production and exchange of commodities.

By adding self-consciousness to the commodity structure a new element is introduced, one that is different in principle and in quality from what is normally described as consciousness ‘of’ an object. Not just because it is a matter of self-consciousness. For, as in the science of psychology, this might very well be consciousness ‘of’ an object, one which without modifying the way in which consciousness and object are related and thus without changing the knowledge so attained, might still ‘accidentally’ choose itself for an object. From this it would follow that knowledge acquired in this way must have the same truth-criteria as in the case of knowledge of ‘other’ objects. Even when in antiquity a slave, an instrumentum vocale, becomes conscious of himself as a slave this is not self-knowledge in the sense we mean here: for he can only attain to knowledge of an object which happens ‘accidentally’ to be himself. Between a ‘thinking’ slave and an ‘unconscious’ slave there is no real distinction to be drawn in an objective social sense. No more than there is between the possibility of a slave’s becoming conscious of his own social situation and that of a ‘free’ man’s achieving an understanding of slavery. The rigid epistemological doubling of subject and object remains unaffected and hence the perceiving subject fails to impinge upon the structure of the object despite his adequate understanding of it.

In contrast with this, when the worker knows himself as a commodity his knowledge is practical. That is to say, this knowledge brings about an objective structural change in the object of knowledge. In this consciousness and through it the special objective character of labour as a commodity, its ‘use-value’ (i.e. its ability to yield surplus produce) which like every use-value is submerged without a trace in the quantitative exchange categories of capitalism, now awakens and becomes social reality. The special nature of labour as a commodity which in the absence of this consciousness acts as an unacknowledged driving wheel in the economic process now objectives itself by means of this consciousness. The specific nature of this kind of commodity had consisted in the fact that beneath the cloak of the thing lay a relation between men, that beneath the quantifying crust, there was a qualitative, living core. Now that this core is revealed it becomes possible to recognise the fetish character of every commodity based on the commodity character of labour power: in every case we find its core, the relation between men, entering into the evolution of society.

Of course, all of this is only contained implicitly in the dialectical antithesis of quantity and quality as we meet it in the question of labour-time. That is to say, this antithesis with all its implications is only the beginning of the complex process of mediation whose goal is the knowledge of society as a historical totality. The dialectical method is distinguished from bourgeois thought not only by the fact that it alone can lead to a knowledge of totality; it is also significant that such knowledge is only attainable because the relationship between parts and whole has become fundamentally different from what it is in thought based on the categories of reflection. In brief, from this point of view, the essence of the dialectical method lies in the fact that in every aspect correctly grasped by the dialectic the whole totality is comprehended and that the whole method can be unravelled from every single aspect. [30] It has often been claimed – and not without a certain justification – that the famous chapter in Hegel’s Logic treating of Being, Non-Being and Becoming contains the whole of his philosophy. It might be claimed with perhaps equal justification that the chapter dealing with the fetish character of the commodity contains within itself the whole of historical materialism and the whole self-knowledge of the proletariat seen as the knowledge of capitalist society (and of the societies that preceded it). [Capital I, Chapter 1, Section 4].

Obviously, this should not be taken to mean that the whole of history with its teeming abundance should be thought of as being superfluous. Quite the reverse. Hegel’s programme: to see the absolute, the goal of his philosophy, as a result remains valid for Marxism with its very different objects of knowledge, and is even of greater concern to it, as the dialectical process is seen to be identical with the course of history. The theoretical point we are anxious to emphasise here is merely the structural fact that the single aspect is not a segment of a mechanical totality that could be put together out of such segments, for this would lead us to see knowledge as an infinite progression. It must be seen instead as containing the possibility of unravelling the whole abundance of the totality from within itself. But this in turn can only be done if the aspect is seen as aspect, i.e. as a point of transition to the totality; if every movement beyond the immediacy that had made the aspect an aspect of the dialectical process (whereas before it had been nothing more than the evident contradiction of two categories of thought) is not to freeze once more in a new rigidity and a new immediacy.

This reflection leads us back to our concrete point of departure. In the Marxist analysis of labour under capitalism that we have sketched above, we encountered the antithesis between the isolated individual and the abstract generality within which he finds mediated the relation between his work and society. And once again it is important to emphasise, that as in every immediate and abstract form of existence as it is simply given, here, too, we find bourgeoisie and proletariat placed in an immediately similar situation. But, here too, it appears that while the bourgeoisie remains enmeshed in its immediacy by virtue of its class role, the proletariat is driven by the specific dialectics of its class situation to abandon it. The transformation of all objects into commodities, their quantification into fetishistic exchange-values is more than an intensive process affecting the form of every aspect of life in this way (as we were able to establish in the case of labour-time). But also and inseparably bound up with this we find the extensive expansion of these forms to embrace the whole of society. For the capitalist this side of the process means an increase in the quantity of objects for him to deal with in his calculations and speculations. In so far as this process does acquire the semblance of a qualitative character, this goes no further than an aspiration towards the increased rationalisation, mechanisation and quantification of the world confronting him. (See the distinction between the dominance of merchant’s capital and that of industrial capital, the capitalisation of agriculture, etc.) Interrupted abruptly now and again by ‘irrational’ catastrophes, the way is opened up for an infinite progression leading to the thorough-going capitalist rationalisation of society as a whole.

For the proletariat, however, the ‘same’ process means its own emergence as a class. In both cases a transformation from quantity to quality is involved. We need only consider the line of development leading from the medieval craft via simple cooperation and manufacture to the modern factory and we shall see the extent to which even for the bourgeoisie the qualitative changes stand out as milestones on the road. The class meaning of these changes lies precisely in the fact that the bourgeoisie regularly transforms each new qualitative gain back on to the quantitative level of yet another rational calculation. Whereas for the proletariat the ‘same’ development has a different class meaning: it means the abolition of the isolated individual, it means that workers can become conscious of the social character of labour, it means that the abstract, universal form of the societal principle as it is manifested can be increasingly concretised and overcome.

This enables us to understand why it is only in the proletariat that the process by which a man’s achievement is split off from his total personality and becomes a commodity leads to a revolutionary consciousness. It is true, as we demonstrated in Section I, that the basic structure of reification can be found in all the social forms of modern capitalism (e.g. bureaucracy.) But this structure can only be made fully conscious in the work-situation of the proletarian. For his work as he experiences it directly possesses the naked and abstract form of the commodity, while in other forms of work this is hidden behind the façade of ‘mental labour’, of ‘responsibility’, etc. (and sometimes it even lies concealed behind ‘patriarchal’ forms). The more deeply reification penetrates into the soul of the man who sells his achievement as a commodity the more deceptive appearances are (as in the case of journalism). Corresponding to the objective concealment of the commodity form, there is the subjective element. This is the fact that while the process by which the worker is reified and becomes a commodity dehumanises him and cripples and atrophies his ‘soul’ – as long as he does not consciously rebel against it – it remains true that precisely his humanity and his soul are not changed into commodities. He is able therefore to objectify himself completely against his existence while the man reified in the bureaucracy, for instance, is turned into a commodity, mechanised and reified in the only faculties that might enable him to rebel against reification. Even his thoughts and feelings become reified. As Hegel says: “It is much harder to bring movement into fixed ideas than into sensuous existence.” [31]

In the end this corruption assumes objective forms also. The worker experiences his place in the production process as ultimate but at the same time it has all the characteristics of the commodity (the uncertainties of day-to-day movements of the market). This stands in contrast to other groups which have both the appearance of stability (the routine of duty, pension, etc.) and also the – abstract – possibility of an individual’s elevating himself into the ruling class. By such means a ‘status-consciousness’ is created that is calculated to inhibit effectively the growth of a class consciousness. Thus the purely abstract negativity in the life of the worker is objectively the most typical manifestation of reification, it is the constitutive type of capitalist socialisation. But for this very reason it is also subjectively the point at which this structure is raised to consciousness and where it can be breached in practice. As Marx says: “Labour ... is no longer grown together with the individual into one particular determination” [32] once the false manifestations of this unmediated existence are abolished, the true existence of the proletariat as a class will begin.

It could easily appear at this point that the whole process is nothing more than the ‘inevitable’ consequence of concentrating masses of workers in large factories, of mechanising and standardising the processes of work and levelling down the standard of living. It is therefore of vital importance to see the truth concealed behind this deceptively one-sided picture. There is no doubt that the factors mentioned above are the indispensable precondition for the emergence of the proletariat as a class. Without them the proletariat would never have become a class and if they had not been continually intensified – by the natural workings of capitalism – it would never have developed into the decisive factor in human history.

Despite this it can be claimed without self-contradiction that we are not concerned here with an unmediated relation. What is unmediated is the fact that, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, “these labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce.” And the fact that this commodity is able to become aware of its existence as a commodity does not suffice to eliminate the problem. For the unmediated consciousness of the commodity is, in conformity with the simple form in which it manifests itself, precisely an awareness of abstract isolation and of the merely abstract relationship – external to consciousness – to those factors that create it socially. I do not wish to enter here into a discussion of the conflict between the (immediate) interests of the individual and the (mediated) interests of the class that have been arrived at through experience and knowledge; nor shall I discuss the conflict between immediate and momentary interests as opposed to general long-term interests.

It is self-evident that immediacy must be abandoned at this point. If the attempt is made to attribute an immediate form of existence to class consciousness, it is not possible to avoid lapsing into mythology: the result will be a mysterious species-consciousness (as enigmatic as the ‘spirits of the nations’ in Hegel) whose relation to and impact upon the individual consciousness is wholly incomprehensible. It is then made even more incomprehensible by a mechanical and naturalistic psychology and finally appears as a demiurge governing historical movement.[33]

On the other hand, the growing class consciousness that has been brought into being through the awareness of a common situation and common interests is by no means confined to the working class. The unique element in its situation is that its surpassing of immediacy represents an aspiration towards society in its totality regardless of whether this aspiration remains conscious or whether it remains unconscious for the moment. This is the reason why its logic does not permit it to remain stationary at a relatively higher stage of immediacy but forces it to persevere in an uninterrupted movement towards this totality, i.e. to persist in the dialectical process by which immediacies are constantly annulled and transcended. Marx recognised this aspect of proletarian class consciousness very early on. In his comments on the revolt of the Silesian weavers he lays emphasis on its “conscious and theoretical character.”[34] He sees in the ‘Song of the Weavers’ a “bold battle cry which does not even mention the hearth, factory or district but in which the proletariat immediately proclaims its opposition to private property in a forceful, sharp, ruthless and violent manner.” Their action revealed their “superior nature” for “whereas every other movement turned initially only against the industrialist, the visible enemy, this one attacked also the hidden enemy, namely the banker.”

We would fail to do justice to the theoretical significance of this view if we were to see in the attitude that Marx – rightly or wrongly – attributes to the Silesian weavers nothing more than their ability to see further than their noses and to give weight to considerations whether spatial or conceptual that were rather more remote. For this is something that can be said in varying degrees of almost every class in history. What is crucial is how to interpret the connection between these remoter factors and the structure of the objects immediately relevant to action. We must understand the importance of this remoteness for the consciousness of those initiating the action and for its relation to the existing state of affairs. And it is here that the differences between the standpoints of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are thrown sharply into relief.

In bourgeois thought these remoter factors are simply incorporated into the rational calculation. They are conceived of as being similar to the factors that are within easy reach and which can be rationalised and quantified. The view that things as they appear can be accounted for by ‘natural laws’ of society is, according to Marx, both the highpoint and the ‘insuperable barrier’ of bourgeois thought. The notion of the laws of society undergoes changes in the course of history and this is due to the fact that it originally represented the principle of the overthrow of (feudal) reality. Later on, while preserving the same structure, it became the principle for conserving (bourgeois) reality. However, even the initial revolutionary movement was unconscious from a social point of view.

For the proletariat, however, this ability to go beyond the immediate in search of the ‘remoter’ factors means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action. At first sight it appears as if the more immediate objects are no less subject to this transformation than the remote ones. It soon becomes apparent, however, that in their case the transformation is even more visible and striking. For the change lies on the one hand in the practical interaction of the awakening consciousness and the objects from which it is born and of which it is the consciousness. And on the other hand, the change means that the objects that are viewed here as aspects of the development of society, i.e. of the dialectical totality, become fluid: they become parts of a process. And as the innermost kernel of this movement is praxis, its point of departure is of necessity that of action; it holds the immediate objects of action firmly and decisively in its grip so as to bring about their total, structural transformation and thus the movement of the whole gets under way.

The category of totality begins to have an effect long before the whole multiplicity of objects can be illuminated by it. It operates by ensuring that actions which seem to confine themselves to particular objects, in both content and consciousness, yet preserve an aspiration towards the totality, that is to say: action is directed objectively towards a transformation of totality. We pointed out earlier in the context of a purely methodological discussion, that the various aspects and elements of the dialectical method contain the structure of the whole; we see the same thing here in a more concrete form, a form more closely orientated towards action. As history is essentially dialectical, this view of the way reality changes can be confirmed at every decisive moment of transition. Long before men become conscious of the decline of a particular economic system and the social and juridical forms associated with it, its contradictions are fully revealed in the objects of its day-to-day actions.

When, for example, the theory and practice of tragedy from Aristotle to the age of Corneille, regard family conflicts as providing the most fruitful subject-matter for tragedy, we glimpse lying behind this view – ignoring its technical merits such as concentration – the feeling that the great changes in society are being revealed here with a sensuous, practical vividness. This enables their contours to be drawn clearly whereas it is subjectively and objectively impossible to grasp their essence, to understand their origins and their place in the whole process. Thus an Aeschylus[35] or a Shakespeare draw pictures of family life that provide us with such penetrating and authentic portraits of the social upheavals of their age that it is only now, with the aid of historical materialism, that it has become at all possible for theory to do justice to these artistic insights.

The place in society and hence the viewpoint of the proletariat goes further than the example just cited in one vital qualitative way. The uniqueness of capitalism is to be seen precisely in its abolition of all ‘natural barriers’ and its transformation of all relations between human beings into purely social relations.[36] Bourgeois thought, however, remains enmeshed in fetishistic categories and in consequence the products of human relations become ossified, with the result that such thought trails behind objective developments. The abstract, rational categories of reflection which constitute the objectively immediate expression of this – the first – socialisation of the whole of human society, appear in the eyes of the bourgeoisie as something ultimate and indestructible. (For this reason bourgeois thought remains always in an unmediated relation to such categories.) The proletariat, however, stands at the focal point of this socialising process. On the one hand, this transformation of labour into a commodity removes every ‘human’ element from the immediate existence of the proletariat, on the other hand the same development progressively eliminates everything ‘organic’, every direct link with nature from the forms of society so that socialised man can stand revealed in an objectivity remote from or even opposed to humanity. It is just in this objectification, in this rationalisation and reification of all social forms that we see clearly for the first time how society is constructed from the relations of men with each other.

But we can see this only if we also remember that these human interrelations are, in Engels’ words, “bound to objects” and that they “appear as objects,” only if we do not forget for a single moment that these human interrelations are not direct relations between one man and the next. They are instead typical relations mediated by the objective laws of the process of production in such a way that these ‘laws’ necessarily become the forms in which human relations are directly manifested.

From this it follows, firstly, that man, who is the foundation and the core of all reified relations, can only be discovered by abolishing the immediacy of those relations. It is always necessary, therefore, to begin from this immediacy and from these reified laws. Secondly, these manifestations are by no means merely modes of thought, they are the forms in which contemporary bourgeois society is objectified. Their abolition, if it is to be a true abolition, cannot simply be the result of thought alone, it must also amount to their practical abolition as the actual forms of social life. Every kind of knowledge that aspires to remain pure knowledge is doomed to end up granting recognition to these forms once again. Thirdly, this praxis cannot be divorced from knowledge. A praxis which envisages a genuine transformation of these forms can only start to be effective if it intends to think out the process immanent in these forms to its logical conclusion, to become conscious of it and to make it conscious. “Dialectics,” Hegel says, “is this immanent process of transcendence, in the course of which the one-sidedness and the limitation of the determinants of the understanding shows itself to be what it really is, namely their negation.”[37]

The great advance over Hegel made by the scientific standpoint of the proletariat as embodied in Marxism lay in its refusal to see in the categories of reflection a ‘permanent’ stage of human knowledge and in its insistence that they were the necessary mould both of thought and of life in bourgeois society, in the reification of thought and life. With this came the discovery of dialectics in history itself. Hence dialectics is not imported into history from outside, nor is it interpreted in the light of history (as often occurs in Hegel), but is derived from history made conscious as its logical manifestation at this particular point in its development.

Fourthly, it is the proletariat that embodies this process of consciousness. Since its consciousness appears as the immanent product of the historical dialectic, it likewise appears to be dialectical. That is to say, this consciousness is nothing but the expression of historical necessity. The proletariat “has no ideals to realise.” When its consciousness is put into practice it can only breathe life into the things which the dialectics of history have forced to a crisis; it can never ‘in practice’ ignore the course of history, forcing on it what are no more than its own desires or knowledge. For it is itself nothing but the contradictions of history that have become conscious. On the other hand, however, a dialectical necessity is far from being the same thing as a mechanical, causal necessity. Marx goes on to say, following the passage already quoted: The working class “has only to liberate (my italics) the elements of the new society that have already grown within the womb of the disintegrating society of the bourgeoisie.”

In addition to the mere contradiction – the automatic product of capitalism – a new element is required: the consciousness of the proletariat must become deed. But as the mere contradiction is raised to a consciously dialectical contradiction, as the act of becoming conscious turns into a point of transition in practice, we see once more in greater concreteness the character of proletarian dialectics as we have often described it: namely, since consciousness here is not the knowledge of an opposed object but is the self-consciousness of the object the act of consciousness overthrows the objective form of its object.

Only with this consciousness do we see the emergence of that profound irrationality that lurks behind the particular rationalistic disciplines of bourgeois society. This irrationality appears normally as an eruption, a cataclysm, and for that very reason it fails to alter the form and the arrangement of the objects on the surface. This situation, too, can be seen most easily in the simple events of everyday. The problem of labour-time has already been mentioned but only from the standpoint of the worker, where it was seen as the moment at which his consciousness emerges as the consciousness of the commodity (i.e. of the substantive core of bourgeois society). The instant that this consciousness arises and goes beyond what is immediately given we find in concentrated form the basic issue of the class struggle: the problem of force. For this is the point where the ‘eternal laws’ of capitalist economics fail and become dialectical and are thus compelled to yield up the decisions regarding the fate of history to the conscious actions of men. Marx elaborates this thought as follows: “We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his right as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working days out of one. On the other hand the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence it is that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e. the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working class.”[38]

But here, too, we must emphasise that force, which appears here concretely as the point at which capitalist rationalism becomes irrational, at which its laws fail to function, means something quite different for the bourgeoisie and for the proletariat. For the former, force is simply the continuation of its daily reality: it is true that it is no novelty but at the same time and for that very reason it is not able to resolve any single one of the contradictions the bourgeoisie has created itself. For the latter, on the other hand, its use, its efficacy, its potentiality and its intensity depend upon the degree to which the immediacy of the given has been overcome. No doubt, the fact that it is possible to go beyond the given, the fact that this consciousness is so great and so profound is itself a product of history. But what is historically possible cannot be achieved simply by a straightforward progression of the immediately given (with its ‘laws’), but only by a consciousness of the whole of society acquired through manifold mediations, and by a clear aspiration to realise the dialectical tendencies of history. And the series of mediations may not conclude with unmediated contemplation: it must direct itself to the qualitatively new factors arising from the dialectical contradictions: it must be a movement of mediations advancing from the present to the future.[39]

This in turn presupposes that the rigidly reified existence of the objects of the social process will dissolve into mere illusion, that the dialectic, which is self-contradictory, a logical absurdity as long as there is talk of the change of one ‘thing’ into another ‘thing’ (or of one thing-like concept into another), should test itself on every object. That is to say, its premise is that things should be shown to be aspects of processes. With this we reach the limits of the dialectics of the Ancients, the point at which they diverge from materialist and historical dialectics. (Hegel, too, marks the point of transition, i.e. he, too, combines elements of both views in a not fully clarified manner.) The dialectics of the Eleatic philosophers certainly lay bare the contradictions underlying movement but the moving object is left unaffected. Whether the arrow is flying or at rest its objective nature as an arrow, as a thing remains untouched amidst the dialectical turmoil. It may be the case, as Heraclitus says, that one cannot step into the same river twice; but as the eternal flux is and does not become, i.e. does not bring forth anything qualitatively new, it is only a becoming when compared with the rigid existence of the individual objects. As a theory of totality eternal becoming turns out to be a theory of eternal being; behind the flowing river stands revealed an unchanging essence, even though it may express itself in the incessant transformations of the individual objects.[40]

Opposed to this is the Marxian dialectical process where the objective forms of the objects are themselves transformed into a process, a flux. Its revolutionary character appears quite clearly in the simple process of the reproduction of capital. The simple “repetition or continuity imbues the process with quite novel characteristics or rather causes the disappearance of some apparent characteristics which it possessed as an isolated discontinuous process.” For “quite apart from all accumulation, the mere continuity of the process of production, in other words simple reproduction, sooner or later, and of necessity, converts every capital into accumulated capital, or capitalised surplus-value. Even if that capital was originally acquired by the personal labour of its employer, it sooner or later becomes value appropriated without an equivalent, the unpaid labour of others materialised either in money or in some other object.”[41]

Thus the knowledge that social facts are not objects but relations between men is intensified to the point where facts are wholly dissolved into processes. But if their Being appears as a Becoming this should not be construed as an abstract universal flux sweeping past, it is no vacuous durée réelle but the unbroken production and reproduction of those relations that, when torn from their context and distorted by abstract mental categories, can appear to bourgeois thinkers as things. Only at this point does the consciousness of the proletariat elevate itself to the self-consciousness of society in its historical development. By becoming aware of the commodity relationship the proletariat can only become conscious of itself as the object of the economic process. For the commodity is produced and even the worker in his quality as commodity, as an immediate producer is at best a mechanical driving wheel in the machine. But if the reification of capital is dissolved into an unbroken process of its production and reproduction, it is possible for the proletariat to discover that it is itself the subject of this process even though it is in chains and is for the time being unconscious of the fact. As soon, therefore, as the readymade, immediate reality is abandoned the question arises: “Does a worker in a cotton factory produce merely cotton textiles? No, he produces capital. He produces values which serve afresh to command his labour and by means of it to create new values.”[42]


This throws an entirely new light on the problem of reality. If, in Hegel’s terms, Becoming now appears as the truth of Being, and process as the truth about things, then this means that the developing tendencies of history constitute a higher reality than the empirical ‘facts’. It is doubtless true that in capitalist society the past dominates the present – as indeed we have shown elsewhere.[43] But this only means that there is an antagonistic process that is not guided by a consciousness but is instead driven forward by its own immanent, blind dynamic and that this process stands revealed in all its immediate manifestations as the rule of the past over the present, the rule of capital over labour. It follows that any thinker who bases his thought on such ideas will be trapped in the frozen forms of the various stages. He will nevertheless stand helpless when confronted by the enigmatic forces thrown up by the course of events, and the actions open to him will never be adequate to deal with this challenge.

This image of a frozen reality that nevertheless is caught up in an unremitting, ghostly movement at once becomes meaningful when this reality is dissolved into the process of which man is the driving force. This can be seen only from the standpoint of the proletariat because the meaning of these tendencies is the abolition of capitalism and so for the bourgeoisie to become conscious of them would be tantamount to suicide. Moreover, the ‘laws’ of the reified reality of capitalism in which the bourgeoisie is compelled to live are only able to prevail over the heads of those who seem to be its active embodiments and agents. The average profit rate is the paradigm of this situation. Its relation to individual capitalists whose actions are determined by this unknown and unknowable force shows all the symptoms of Hegel’s ‘ruse of reason’. The fact that these individual ‘passions’, despite which these tendencies prevail, assume the form of the most careful, far-sighted and exact calculations does not affect this conclusion in the least; on the contrary, it reinforces it still further. For the fact that there exists the illusion of a rationalism perfected in every detail – dictated by class interests and hence subjectively based – makes it even more evident that this rationalism is unable to grasp the meaning of the overall process as it really is. Moreover, the situation is not attenuated by the fact that we are not confronted here by a unique event, a catastrophe, but by the unbroken production and reproduction of the same relation whose elements are converted into empirical facts and incorporated in reified form in the web of rational calculation. It only shows the strength of the dialectical antagonism controlling the phenomena of capitalist society.

The conversion of social-democratic ideas into bourgeois ones can always be seen at its clearest in the jettisoning of the dialectical method. As early as the Bernstein Debate it was clear that the opportunists had to take their stand ‘firmly on the facts’ so as to be able to ignore the general trends[44] or else to reduce them to the status of a subjective, ethical imperative. In like fashion the manifold misunderstandings in the debate on accumulation should be seen as part of the same phenomenon. Rosa Luxemburg was a genuine dialectician and so she realised that it was not possible for a purely capitalist society to exist as a tendency of history, as a tendency which inevitably determines the actions of men – unbeknown to them – long before it had itself become ‘fact’. Thus the economic impossibility of accumulation in a purely capitalist society does not show itself by the ‘cessation’ of capitalism once the last non-capitalist has been expropriated, but by actions that force upon the capitalist class the awareness that this (empirically still remote) state of affairs is on its way: actions such as feverish colonialisation, disputes about territories providing raw materials or markets, imperialism and world war. For dialectical trends do not constitute an infinite progression that gradually nears its goal in a series of quantitative stages. They are rather expressed in terms of an unbroken qualitative revolution in the structure of society (the composition of the classes, their relative strengths, etc.) The ruling class of the moment attempts to meet the challenge of these changes in the only way open to it, and on matters of detail it does appear to meet with some success. But in reality the blind and unconscious measures that seem to it to be so necessary simply hasten the course of events that destroy it.

The difference between ‘fact’ and tendency has been brought out on innumerable occasions by Marx and placed in the foreground of his studies. After all, the basic thought underlying his magnum opus, the retranslation of economic objects from things back into processes, into the changing relations between men, rests on just this idea. But from this it follows further that the question of theoretical priority, the location within the system (i.e. whether original or derivative) of the particular forms of the economic structure of society depends on their distance from this retranslation. Upon this is based the prior importance of industrial capital over merchant capital, money-dealing capital, etc. And this priority is expressed historically by the fact that these derivative forms of capital, that do not themselves determine the production process, are only capable of performing the negative function of dissolving the original forms of production. However, the question of “whither this process of dissolution will lead, in other words, what new mode of production will replace the old, does not depend on commerce, but on the character of the old mode of production itself”[45]

On the other hand, merely from the point of view of theory it would appear that the ‘laws governing these forms are in fact only determined by the ‘contingent’ empirical movements of supply and demand and that they are not the expression of any universal social trend. As Marx points out in a discussion of interest: “Competition does not, in this case, determine the deviations from the rule. There is rather no law of division except that enforced by competition.”[46]

In this theory of reality which allots a higher place to the prevailing trends of the total development than to the facts of the empirical world, the antithesis we stressed when considering the particular questions raised by Marxism (the antithesis between movement and final goal, evolution and revolution, etc.) acquires its authentic, concrete and scientific shape. For only this analysis permits us to investigate the concept of the ‘fact’ in a truly concrete manner, i.e. in the social context in which it has its origin and its existence. The direction to be taken by such an investigation has been outlined elsewhere,[47] although only with reference to the relation between the ‘facts’ and the concrete totality to which they belong and in which they become ‘real’.

But now it becomes quite clear that the social development and its intellectual reflex that was led to form ‘facts’ from a reality that had been undivided (originally, in its autochthonous state) did indeed make it possible to subject nature to the will of man. At the same time, however, they served to conceal the socio-historical grounding of these facts in relations between men “so as to raise strange, phantom powers against them.” [48] For the 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 crystallisation 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 movement impinging on them, while every tendency to change them appears to be a merely subjective principle (a wish, a value judgement, an ought). Thus only when the theoretical primacy of the ‘facts’ has been broken, only when every phenomenon is recognised to be a process, will it be understood that what we are wont to call ‘facts’ consists of processes. Only then will it be understood that the facts are nothing but the parts, the aspects of the total process that have been broken off, artificially isolated and ossified. This also explains why the total process which is uncontaminated by any trace of reification and which allows the process-like essence to prevail in all its purity should represent the authentic, higher reality. Of course, it also becomes clear why in the reified thought of the bourgeoisie the ‘facts’ have to play the part of its highest fetish in both theory and practice. This petrified factuality in which everything is frozen into a ‘fixed magnitude”[49] in which the reality that just happens to exist persists in a totally senseless, unchanging way precludes any theory that could throw light on even this immediate reality.

This takes reification to its ultimate extreme: it no longer points dialectically to anything beyond itself: its dialectic is mediated only by the reification of the immediate forms of production. But with that a climax is reached in the conflict between existence in its immediacy together with the abstract categories that constitute its thought, on the one hand, and a vital societal reality on the other. For these forms (e.g. interest) appear to capitalist thinkers as the fundamental ones that determine all the others and serve as paradigms for them. And likewise, every decisive turn of events in the production process must more or less reveal that the true categorical structure of capitalism has been turned completely upside down.

Thus bourgeois thought remains fixated on these forms which it believes to be immediate and original and from there it attempts to seek an understanding of economics, blithely unaware that the only phenomenon that has been formulated is its own inability to comprehend its own social foundations. Whereas for the proletariat the way is opened to a complete penetration of the forms of reification. It achieves this by starting with what is dialectically the clearest form (the immediate relation of capital and labour). It then relates this to those forms that are more remote from the production process and so includes and comprehends them, too, in the dialectical totality.[50]


1. Cf. “What is orthodox Marxism?", “Class Consciousness” and “The Changing Function of Historical Materialism". In view of the fact that the themes in these essays are so closely interrelated it has regrettably not always been possible to avoid repetition.

2. Nachlass II, p. 132. [The Holy Family, Chapter 4.]

3. Grenzen der naturwissenschaftlichen Begrifsbildung, 2nd ed., p. 562.

4. Ibid., pp. 606-7.

5. Cf. “What is orthodox Marxism?"

6. Capital I, p. 441.

7. For eighteenth century materialism, see Plekhanov, op. cit., p. 51. In Section I we have shown how this belief underlies the bourgeois theory of crisis, the theory of the origin of law, etc. In history itself anyone can easily understand that an approach that is not world-historical and that does not relate to the overall development must necessarily interpret the most important turning-points of history as senseless cataclysms as their causes lie outside its scheme. This can be seen, e.g. in the Germanic Migrations, in the downward trend of German history from the Renaissance on, etc.

8. Hegel’s Werke II, p. 73.

9. Ibid., p. 275.

10. Cf. e.g. Capital Ill, pp. 336, 349-50, 370-1, 374-6, 383-4.

11. Die Philosophie des Geldes, p. 531.

12. The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 135.

13. I would refer the reader once again to Plekhanov’s statement of the dilemma confronting older forms of materialism. As Marx showed in his critique of Bruno Bauer (Nachlass II, pp. 178 et seq.) every bourgeois view of history logically ends up by mechanising the ‘masses’ and irrationalising the hero. However, exactly the same dualism can be found in such thinkers as Carlyle or Nietzsche. Even a cautious thinker like Rickert, (despite some reservations, e.g. op. cit., p. 380) is inclined to regard ‘milieu’ and the ‘movements of masses’ as subject to natural laws and to see only the isolated personality as a historical individual. Op. cit., pp. 444, 460-1.

14. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p. 304.

15. The Poverty of Philosophy, pp. 128-9.

16. Die Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, pp. 38-9, Cf. ibid., pp. 24, 123; Die Grundlegung der Metaphysik der Sitten, pp. 4, 38. Cf. also Hegel’s critique, Werke III, pp. 133 et seq.

17. Werke III, p. 147.

18. Ibid., p. 262.

19. Ibid., pp. 432-5. Plekhanov deserves the credit for having pointed to the importance of this side of Hegel’s Logic for the distinction between evolution and revolution as early as 1891 (Neue Zeit X/I, pp. 280 et seq.). Regrettably his insight was neglected by later theorists.

20. On the methodological side of this question, see above all the first part of Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion. In particular, Werke XI, pp. 158-9. “There is no immediate knowledge. Immediate knowledge is where we have no consciousness of mediation; but it is mediated for all that.” Similarly in the Preface to the Phenomenology: “The true is not an original unity as such or an immediate one, but only this reconstituting equality or reflection in otherness in itself.” Werke II, p. 15.

21. Engels in fact accepted the Hegelian theory of the false (which has its finest definition in the Preface to the Phenomenology, Werke II, p. 30 et seq.). Cf. his analysis of the role of ‘evil’ in history, Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, in S.W. II, p. 345 et seq. This refers, of course, only to the truly original representatives of bourgeois thought. Epigones, eclectics and simple partisans of the interests of a declining class belong in quite a different category.

22. On this distinction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, see the essay on “Class Consciousness".

23. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p. 31.

24. Capital I, p. 572.

25. All so-called theories of abstinence are based on this. We may mention especially the importance attributed by Max Weber to ‘inner worldly asceticism’ in the origins of the ‘spirit’ of capitalism. Marx, too, confirms this fact when he points out that for the capitalist “his own private consumption is a robbery perpetrated on accumulation, just as in book-keeping by double entry, the private expenditure of the capitalist is placed on the debtor side of his account against his capital". Capital 1, p. 592.

26. Wages, Price and Profit in S.W. I, p. 398.

27. Anti-Dühring, p. 141.

28. Capital I, p. 309.

29. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p. 29.

30. Thus Marx writes to Engels: “These gentry, the economists have hitherto overlooked the extremely simple point that the form: 20 yards of linen = 1 coatis only the undeveloped basis of 20 yards of linen = f.2, and that therefore the simplest form of a commodity, in which its value is not yet expressed as a relation to all other commodities but only as something differentiated from the commodity in its natural form, contains the whole secret of the money-formand with it, in embryo, of all the bourgeois form of the product of labour. (22 June, 1867). Selected Correspondence, Moscow, n.d., p. 228. On this point see also the magisterial analysis of the distinction between exchange value and price in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy where it is shown that in this distinction “all the tempests that threaten the commodity in the real process of circulation are concentrated", p. 80.

31. Werke 11, p. 27.

32. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, p. 299.

33. Thus Marx says of Feuerbach’s use of the term ‘species’ – and all such views fail to advance beyond Feuerbach and many indeed do not go as far – that “it can be understood only as the inward dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals.” 6th Thesis on Feuerbach.

34. Nachlass II, p. 54. [Critical Notes on “The King of Prussia and Social Reform”] We are interested here solely in the methodical implications. Mehring’s question (ibid., p. 30) about the extent to which Marx overestimated the consciousness of the Weavers’ Uprising does not concern us here. Methodologically he has provided a perfect description of the development of revolutionary class consciousness in the proletariat and his later views (in the Manifesto, Eighteenth Brumaire, etc.) about the difference between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions are wholly in line with this.

35. We have in mind here Bachofen’s analysis of the Orestia and of its significance for the history of social development. The fact that Bachofen’s ideological timidity prevented him from going further than the correct interpretation of the drama is additional proof of the rightness of the views set out here.

36. On this point cf. Marx’s analysis of the industrial reserve army and surplus-population. Capital I, pp. 628 et seq.

37. Encyclopädie, § 15.

38. Capital I, pp. 234-5. Cf. also Wages, Price and Profit, S.W. I, pp. 401-2.

39. Cf. what is said on the ‘post festum’ nature of the consciousness of the bourgeoisie in the essays “The Changing Function of Historical Materialism” and “What is Orthodox Marxism?”

40. A detailed examination of this question is not possible here although this distinction would enable us to differentiate clearly between the ancient and the modern world, because Heraclitus’ self-annulling conception of the object bears the closest resemblance to the reified structure of modern thought. This alone would clearly reveal the limitation of the thought of the Ancients, viz. their inability to grasp dialectically their own societal existence in the present and hence also in history, as a limitation of classical society. In various other contexts, but always in a way that leads to the same methodological goal, Marx has made the same point about Aristotle’s ‘economics’. Hegel’s and Lassalle’s overestimation of the modernity of Heraclitus’ dialectics has symptomatic importance for their own. This only means, however, that this limitation of the thought of the ‘Ancients’ (the ultimately uncritical attitude towards the historical conditioning of the formations from which thought arises) remains decisive for them, too, and then emerges in the contemplative and speculative character of their thought, as opposed to a material and practical one.

41. Capital I, pp. 570, 572-3. Here too, as we have already emphasised, the change from quantity to quality is seen to be a characteristic of every single moment. The quantified moments only remain quantitative when regarded separately. Seen as aspects of a process they appear as qualitative changes in the economic structure of capital.

42. Wage Labour and Capital S.W. I, p. 86.

43. Cf. “The Changing Function of Historical Materialism.” On fact and reality see the essay “What is Orthodox Marxism?”

44. Cf. the dispute about the disappearance or increase of the medium-sized firms in Rosa Luxemburg, Soziale Reform oder Revolution, pp. 11 et seq.

45. Capital III, p. 326.

46. Ibid., pp. 349-50. The rate of interest is thus “given as a fixed magnitude, like the price of commodities on the market” and the general profit rate is expressly contrasted with it as an opposing tendency. Ibid., p. 359. We see here the fundamental issue dividing us from bourgeois thought.

47. Cf. the essay “What is Orthodox Marxism?”

48. Origin of the Family, S.W. II, p. 92.

49. Cf. Marx’s comments on Bentham, Capital I, pp. 609-10.

50. A fine elucidation of the different stages can be found in Capital III, pp. 806 et seq.

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