[Marxism] Copmmodity fetishism and reification: did Marx use the term "reification" ?

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Thu Jun 3 17:06:21 MDT 2004

Since I wrote this yesterday, I might as well post this bit anyhow and log
off again:

Phil Ferguson wrote on Thursday, 03 Jun 2004 18:23:31 +1200

"Marx never used the term reification, as far as I am aware."

In fact, as both Gyorgy Lukacs and Istvan Meszaros knew, this assertion is
not correct. Marx does in fact use that term, but in German, it's usually
"Verdinglichung", i.e. "thingification", normally rendered in English as
reification; sometimes Versachlichung). He used the term Verdinglichung
both in published and unpublished texts, including in Das Kapital.

The concepts of alienation (Entfremdung, estrangement) and reification
(thingification) are not identical, because alienation refers to the
separation of something from the original, natural context in which it truly
belongs or ought to belong, whereas reification refers to a specific
instance of alienation, a specific form of it, in which the separation
entails objectification and an inversion of characteristics, functions or

The logician Willard Quine suggested that reification exists potentially in
all linguistic categorisations and in all naming of objects, insofar as the
recognition of the same object in different temporal-spatial contexts
requires abstraction from time,
change, interactions and relations pertaining to the object. Already
Heraclitus had observed it was impossible to step in the same river twice,
and this implies that identifying the river involves the imputation of a
constancy which in physical reality does not exist, because nothing stays
exactly the same other than in the world of ideas.

But this is just a general point about the conservation of meaning in any
system of symbols. A meaningful pattern of symbols (a symbolisation)
requires constants, and these constants require abstraction from
temporality, change, interaction etc. We can cognise time, change and
interaction only by use of referents which are constants. And as the
psychological concept of cognitive dissonance suggests, human perception and
cognition actually sharpens up distinctions and detects patterns which in
reality are more vague, and exhibit more gradations and transitions than we
can sensorily perceive. In distinguishing between constants and variations
we may easily objectify entities and relations which are not really objects.
Reification generally speaking is said to occur when an abstract concept
(e.g. describing a relation) is treated as a concrete thing, or if
something is treated as if it were an object when this is inappropriate,
simply because it is not in reality an object. In this sense, Marx's
critique of reification begins with his criticism of the idealism of the
Young Hegelians, which is believed to be mere linguistic sophistry which
pretended to discover profundities through linguistic manipulations of ideas
and conceptual analysis rather than through practical-empirical
investigation of the real world.

But more specifically Marx argues reification is an inherent characteristic
of economic value, such as it manifests itself in market trade, i.e. an
inversion in thought between object and subject, or between means and ends,
reflects a real practice where attributes (properties, characteristics,
features, powers) which exist only by virtue of a social relationship
between people are treated as if they are the inherent characteristics of
things, or vice versa, attributes of things are treated
as if they are attributes of human subjects. At the simplest level, in
trading relations, use-value becomes a means for the purpose of
appropriating exchange-value, and exchange-value becomes a means for
appropriating use-value, for different trading partners, and this has an
effect on the social relation and interpersonal relation between those
trading partners. if anything can be traded, then anything which had a human
purpose could become a means to another purpose, human or inhuman, and
anything which was a subject could become an object, or vice versa.

Marx's concept implies the subjectivisation of objects and the
objectification of subjects, with the result that subjects are rendered
passive or determined, while objects are rendered as the active, determining
factor. In postmodernist culture, the reifying effect of commercial
relations also becomes a critical theme for playfully exploring the
connections between
objects and people, to invert inverted relations, and thus go beyond surface
appearances to the real nature of persons, objects and their relations.
Almost instinctively, people know that to break through ideological bullshit
and mental distortions they have to invert the symbolic depiction of the
social world. To "invert the inverted world", "turn it upside down", is of
course precisely the hallmark of revolutionary thought. To be able to change
ideas requires the insight that it is possible to invert the relations to
which they refer and the depiction of those relations. That inversion might
take place through a deliberate reification
of reified phenomena, as a kind of reductio ad absurdum.

I can cite five examples from English translations of Karl Marx's writings
to show he did used the term reification (Verdinglichung):

"Commodities, which exist as use-values, must first of all assume a form in
which they appear to one another nominally as exchange-values, as definite
quantities of materialised universal labour-time. The first necessary move
in this process is, as we have seen, that the commodities set apart a
specific commodity, say, gold, which becomes the direct reification of
universal labour-time or the universal equivalent."

"Capital employs labour. The means of production are not means by which he
can produce products, whether in the form of direct means of subsistence, or
as means of exchange, as commodities. He is rather a means for them, partly
to preserve their value, partly to valorise it, i.e. to increase it, to
absorb surplus labour. Even this relation in its simplicity is an inversion,
a personification of the thing and a reification of the person, for what
distinguishes this form from all previous ones is that the capitalist does
not rule the worker in any kind of personal capacity, but only in so far as
he is "capital"; his rule is only that of objectified labour over living
labour; the rule of the worker's product over the worker himself."

"because as a result of their alienation as use-values all commodities are
converted into linen, linen becomes the converted form of all other
commodities, and only as a result of this transformation of all other
commodities into linen does it become the direct reification of universal
labour-time, i.e., the product of universal alienation and of the
supersession of all individual labour."

"The production of capitalists and wage-laborers is therefore a major
product of the process by which capital turns itself into values. Ordinary
political economy, which concentrates only on the objects produced, forgets
this entirely. Inasmuch as this process establishes reified labor as what is
simultaneously the non-reification of the laborer, as the reification of a
subjectivity opposed to the laborer, as the property of someone else's will,
capital is necessarily also a capitalist. The idea of some socialists, that
we need capital but not capitalists, is completely false. The concept of
capital implies that the objective conditions of labor - and these are its
own product - acquire a personality as against labor, or what amounts to the
same thing, that they are established as the property of a personality other
than the worker's. The concept of capital implies the capitalist. However,
this error is certainly no greater than that of, e.g., all philologists who
speak of the existence of capital in classical antiquity, and of Roman or
Greek capitalists. This is merely another way of saying that in Rome and
Greece labor was free, an assertion which these gentlemen would hardly make.
If we now talk of plantation-owners in America as capitalists, if they are
capitalists, this is due to the fact that they exist as anomolies within a
world market based upon free labor. Were the term capital to be applicable
to classical antiquity - though the word does not actually occur among the
ancients (but among the Greeks the word arkhais is used for what the Roman's
called the principalis summa reicreditae, the principal of a loan) - then
the nomadic hordes with their flocks on the steppes of Central Asia would be
the greatest capitalists, for the original meaning of the word capital is

"Capital employs labour. Even this relation in its simplicity is a
personification of things and a reification of persons. But the relation
becomes still more complex - and apparently more mysterious - in that, with
the development of the specifically capitalist mode of production, not only
do these things - these products of labour, both as use values and as
exchange values - stand on their hind legs vis-à-vis the worker and confront
him as "capital" - but also the social forms of labour appear as forms of
the development of capital, and therefore the productive powers of social
labour, thus developed, appear as productive powers of capital. As such
social forces they are "capitalised" vis-à-vis labour. In fact, communal
unity in cooperation, combination in the division of labour, the application
of the forces of nature and science, as well as the products of labour in
the shape of machinery, are all things which confront the individual workers
as alien, objective, and present in advance, without their assistance, and
often against them, independent of them, as mere forms of existence of the
means of labour which are independent of them and rule over them, in so far
as they are objective; while the intelligence and volition of the total
workshop, incarnated in the capitalist or his understrappers
(representatives), in so far as the workshop is formed by the combination of
the means of labour, confront the workers as functions of capital, which
lives in the person of the capitalist. The social forms of their own
labour - the subjective as well as the objective forms - or the form of
their own social labour, are relations constituted quite independently of
the individual workers; the workers as subsumed under capital become
elements of these social constructions, but these social constructions do
not belong to them. They therefore confront the workers as shapes of capital
itself, as combinations which, unlike their isolated labour capacities,
belong to capital, originate from it and are incorporated within it. And
this assumes a form which is the more real the more, on the one hand, their
labour capacity is itself modified by these forms, so that it becomes
powerless when it stands alone, i.e. outside this context of capitalism, and
its capacity for independent production is destroyed, while on the other
hand the development of machinery causes the conditions of labour to appear
as ruling labour technologically too, and at the same time to replace it,
suppress it, and render it superfluous in its independent forms. In this
process, in which the social characteristics of their labour confront them
as capitalised, to a certain extent - in the way that e.g. in machinery the
visible products of labour appear as ruling over labour - the same thing of
course takes place for the forces of nature and science, the product of
general historical development in its abstract quintessence: they confront
the workers as powers of capital."

In addition, we can also look at the chapter in Capital on "The revenues and
their sources" - in German:

"Im Kapital - Profit, oder noch besser Kapital - Zins, Boden - Grundrente,
Arbeit - Arbeitslohn, in dieser ökonomischen Trinität als dem Zusammenhang
der Bestandteile des Werts und des Reichtums überhaupt mit seinen Quellen
ist die Mystifikation der kapitalistischen Produktionsweise, die
Verdinglichung der gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse, das unmittelbare
Zusammenwachsen der stofflichen Produktionsverhältnisse mit ihrer
geschichtlich-sozialen Bestimmtheit vollendet: die verzauberte, verkehrte
und auf den Kopf gestellte Welt, wo Monsieur le Capital und Madame la Terre
als soziale Charaktere und zugleich unmittelbar als bloße Dinge ihren Spuk
treiben." http://www.mlwerke.de/me/me25/me25_822.htm

Also (in German):

"Es ist ferner schon in der Ware eingeschlossen, und noch mehr in der Ware
als Produkt des Kapitals, die Verdinglichung der gesellschaftlichen
Produktionsbestimmungen und die Versubjektivierung der materiellen
Grundlagen der Produktion, welche die ganze kapitalistische Produktionsweise
charakterisiert." http://www.mlwerke.de/me/me25/me25_884.htm

For a German commentary on the view of Lukacs, see

An English commentary is at http://www.planetpapers.com/Assets/4033.php

See also: Herbert Marcuse, "The Reification of the Proletariat," in Bonner
and Kellner, Critical Theory: A Reader.

An article referring to linguistic reification: J. R. Hobbs, Ontological
Promiscuity, Proceedings, 23rd Annual Meeting of the ACL, University of
Chicago, Illinois, pp 61-69, 1985.

A book on the topic: Joseph Gabel, False consciousness: an
essay on reification. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Hypostatization is discussed in: C. K. Ogden and I.A. Richards,
The Meaning of Meaning, 1923.


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