An Excerpt from “The Concept of Critique and the Critique of Political Economy: From the 1844 Manuscripts to Capital”

Editor’s Note: The fol­low­ing is an extract from Jacques Ranciere’s con­tri­bu­tion to Read­ing Cap­i­tal, “The Con­cept of Cri­tique and the Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy: From the 1844 Man­u­scripts to Cap­i­tal.” This excerpt is taken from Chap­ter 2 of Ranciere’s long piece, enti­tled “Cri­tique and Sci­ence in Cap­i­tal.” In the newly released Read­ing Cap­i­tal: The Com­plete Edi­tion, avail­able unabridged for the first time from Verso Books, this cor­re­sponds to pages 100-112 of the text. 


This expo­si­tion pro­poses to show what prob­lems artic­u­late the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of Marx’s con­cep­tual field, the reor­ga­ni­za­tion which con­sti­tutes the tran­si­tion from the ide­o­log­i­cal dis­course of the Young Marx to Marx’s sci­en­tific dis­course. Actu­ally, there can be no ques­tion of a sys­tem­atic expo­si­tion, which would pre­sup­pose that Marxism’s con­cept of sci­en­tificity was fully grasped and could be expounded in a uni­tary dis­course. Hence my method will be to start from dif­fer­ent points, dif­fer­ent sites, in an attempt to cir­cum­scribe the speci­ficity of Marx’s dis­course in Cap­i­tal by a series of approx­i­ma­tions.

In gen­eral, Marx no longer gives this speci­ficity the name ‘cri­tique’, but rather the name ‘sci­ence’. A famous let­ter to Kugel­mann (28 Decem­ber 1862) ranks Cap­i­tal among the ‘sci­en­tific attempts to rev­o­lu­tion­ize a sci­ence’ (MECW 41, p. 436). This project to rev­o­lu­tion­ize a con­sti­tuted sci­en­tific domain is some­thing quite dif­fer­ent from the project to read into a dis­course an implicit sub-dis­course, the project which char­ac­ter­ized the anthro­po­log­i­cal cri­tique. How­ever, Marx does also use the term ‘cri­tique’ to des­ig­nate this new speci­fic project – the sub­ti­tle of Cap­i­tal is ample evi­dence of this. Thus, in a let­ter to Las­salle on 22 Feb­ru­ary 1858, he writes:

The work I am presently con­cerned with is a Cri­tique of Eco­nomic Cat­e­gories or, if you like, a crit­i­cal exposé of the sys­tem of the bour­geois econ­omy. It is at once an exposé and, by the same token, a cri­tique of the sys­tem (MECW 40, p. 270).

In approach­ing the prob­lems raised by this project to rev­o­lu­tion­ize a sci­ence I shall assume famil­iar­ity with a num­ber of points. These are, essen­tially:

  • The loca­tion of what I have called eco­nomic real­ity in the ‘eco­nomic struc­ture of soci­ety’ as defined by Marx in the Pref­ace to A Con­tri­bu­tion to the Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy (1859), i.e., I shall pre­sup­pose famil­iar­ity with the con­cepts of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism;
  • The prob­lem­atic of the method expounded in the gen­eral Intro­duc­tion of 1857.

The ques­tions I shall attempt to pose are there­fore as fol­lows:

If Marx rev­o­lu­tion­ized a sci­ence, founded a new sci­en­tific domain, what is the con­fig­u­ra­tion of that domain? How are its objects and the rela­tions between those objects defined? If Marx founded this new sci­ence by the cri­tique of eco­nomic cat­e­gories, what is the basis for the essen­tial dif­fer­ence between this new sci­ence and clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics? Fur­ther, what in its the­ory will enable us to under­stand the eco­nomic dis­courses it refutes, that of clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics and that of vul­gar eco­nom­ics? At the same time, I shall ten­der another ques­tion, as I promised: What becomes of the anthro­po­log­i­cal prob­lem­atic of the 1844 Man­u­scripts in Cap­i­tal?

This last ques­tion can be posed by using a par­tic­u­lar inter­pre­ta­tion of Marx as a ref­er­ence, the inter­pre­ta­tion devel­oped by Della Volpe’s school. Accord­ing to this inter­pre­ta­tion, to crit­i­cize eco­nom­ics in Cap­i­tal Marx used the crit­i­cal model he had worked out in the man­u­script of 1843 enti­tled Con­tri­bu­tion to the Cri­tique of Hegel’s Phi­los­o­phy of Law (MECW 3, pp. 3–129). In this text, in order to crit­i­cize Hegel’s phi­los­o­phy of Staat­srecht, Marx used the Feuer­bachian crit­i­cal model, the model of the subject/predicate inver­sion. This model aimed to show that Hegel every­where turned the auton­o­mized pred­i­cate into the true sub­ject.

As a con­crete exam­ple, Marx takes the con­cept of sov­er­eignty. Sov­er­eignty, he says, is noth­ing but the spirit of the sub­jects of the state. It is there­fore the pred­i­cate of a sub­stan­tial sub­ject (Marx defines this sub­ject as hypokeimenon, as a sub­stance). In alien­ation, this pred­i­cate, this spirit of the sub­jects of the state, is sep­a­rated from its sub­ject. It appears as the essence of the state. This sep­a­rate exis­tence of the sub­ject and the pred­i­cate enables Hegel to make the spec­u­la­tive oper­a­tion: by a new sep­a­ra­tion he sep­a­rates sov­er­eignty from the real state, he makes it into an idea, an autonomous being. This autonomous being has to have a sup­port. This sup­port is pro­vided by the Hegelian Idea, what Marx calls the Mys­ti­cal Idea. Sov­er­eignty becomes a deter­mi­na­tion of this Mys­ti­cal Idea.

Once he has com­pleted this move­ment of abstrac­tion, Hegel has to make the inverse move­ment and redescend towards the con­crete. The link between the abstract idea and the con­crete empir­i­cal real­ity can only be made in a mys­ti­cal way, by an incar­na­tion. This incar­na­tion allows the abstract deter­mi­na­tion to exist in the con­crete. The Mys­ti­cal Idea is incar­nated in a par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­ual, the monarch. The lat­ter then appears for Hegel as the imme­di­ate exis­tence of sov­er­eignty.

Let me sum­ma­rize this move­ment in the fig­ure below. Marx calls this move­ment hypo­sta­ti­za­tion. It con­sists of the sep­a­ra­tion of a pred­i­cate from its sub­ject, its hypo­sta­ti­za­tion into an abstract cat­e­gory which is then incar­nated in some empir­i­cal exis­tence. Marx also says that we are deal­ing with an inver­sion of the empir­i­cal into spec­u­la­tion (abstrac­tion and auton­o­miza­tion) and of spec­u­la­tion into the empir­i­cal (incar­na­tion). This crit­i­cal model is thus gov­erned by two oppo­si­tional cou­ples: subject/ object and empirical/speculation.

Ranciere Hypstasization

Accord­ing to Della Volpe, this is the model Marx used to crit­i­cize clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy in A Con­tri­bu­tion and in Cap­i­tal. Clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy sep­a­rates the eco­nomic cat­e­gories from their sub­ject which is a deter­mi­nate soci­ety, and hyposta­sizes them into gen­eral con­di­tions, eter­nal laws of pro­duc­tion. It then moves from spec­u­la­tion to the empir­i­cal by mak­ing the deter­mi­nate, his­tor­i­cal, eco­nomic cat­e­gories of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion into a mere incar­na­tion of gen­eral cat­e­gories which are those of all pro­duc­tion.

A par­tic­u­larly clear exam­ple of the use of this schema can be found in Marx’s cri­tique of John Stu­art Mill in the 1857 Intro­duc­tion. Thus, in Mill, pri­vate prop­erty appears as the empir­i­cal exis­tence of the abstract cat­e­gory of appro­pri­a­tion. There is no pro­duc­tion, says Mill, with­out the appro­pri­a­tion of nature by man. Hence prop­erty is a gen­eral con­di­tion of all pro­duc­tion. This abstract cat­e­gory is then incar­nated in a very spe­cial type of prop­erty, cap­i­tal­ist pri­vate prop­erty.

Using pas­sages such as this, and the pages from the gen­eral Intro­duc­tion on ‘deter­mi­nate abstrac­tion’, Della Volpe sums up the crit­i­cal work car­ried out by Marx; he opposed clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics by every­where sub­sti­tut­ing deter­mi­nate (his­tor­i­cal) abstrac­tion for inde­ter­mi­nate gen­eral abstrac­tions or hypostases.

Such an inter­pre­ta­tion seems to neglect one essen­tial prob­lem, that of the the­o­ret­i­cal con­di­tions nec­es­sary for the model of the 1843 text to be able to work. For this, the two oppo­si­tions, subject/object and empirical/ spec­u­la­tion, must be per­ti­nent oppo­si­tions within the the­o­ret­i­cal field of Cap­i­tal.

First of all, we must be deal­ing with a sub­ject. For the model to be able to work, soci­ety has to play the part of a sub­ject which human­ity played in the anthro­po­log­i­cal dis­course. Two pas­sages in the gen­eral Intro­duc­tion really do speak of soci­ety as a sub­ject. But this def­i­n­i­tion of soci­ety as a sub­ject is con­demned by Marx else­where and, as we shall see, it is incom­pat­i­ble with the con­cepts he sets to work in Cap­i­tal. On the other hand, the appli­ca­tion of the empirical/speculation model pre­sup­poses a cer­tain kind of rela­tion between eco­nomic real­ity and eco­nomic dis­course. If this rela­tion no longer exists in Cap­i­tal, this cou­ple ceases to be oper­a­tional.

It is on the basis of this prob­lem­atic that I shall seek to define the speci­ficity of the ‘cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy’ con­sti­tuted by Cap­i­tal. This will give us an index which enables us to deter­mine whether we really are deal­ing with a change of the­o­ret­i­cal ter­rain.

(1) The Problem of the Starting-Point and the Critical Question

a) Value and value-form

We know the impor­tance Marx attrib­uted to the prob­lem of the start­ing-point of a sci­ence in the gen­eral Intro­duc­tion of 1857. The fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter of this ques­tion is con­firmed in Cap­i­tal. Thus when Marx is crit­i­cis­ing Smith in Vol­ume Two, for exam­ple, he states that the source of his errors and con­tra­dic­tions has to be looked for in his ‘sci­en­tific start­ing-points’. Hence this is the level at which we ought to be able to find the dif­fer­ence between Marx and clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics.

What defines the sci­en­tificity of clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics for Marx?

Clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics seeks to reduce the var­i­ous fixed and mutu­ally alien forms of wealth to their inner unity by means of analy­sis and to strip away the form (Gestalt) in which they exist inde­pen­dently alongside one another. It seeks to grasp (begreifen) the inner con­nec­tion (inhere Zusam­men­hang) in con­trast to the mul­ti­plic­ity of out­ward forms (Erschei­n­ungs­for­men) (The­o­ries of Sur­plus-Value, MECW 32, p. 499).

In Cap­i­tal (Vol. 3, p. 969), Marx uses the word auflösen (dis­solve) to des­ig­nate the work of clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics. Clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics dis­solves the fixed forms of wealth, an oper­a­tion which, in the same text, Marx describes as a crit­i­cal oper­a­tion. This dis­so­lu­tion is a return to an inner unity, the deter­mi­na­tion of value by labour time.

Clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy is thus con­sti­tuted as a sci­ence by its instal­la­tion of a dif­fer­ence between the diver­sity of phe­nom­e­nal forms and the inner unity of the essence. But it does not reflect the con­cept of this dif­fer­ence. Look at its appli­ca­tion in Ricardo:

Ricardo starts out from the deter­mi­na­tion of the rel­a­tive val­ues (or exchange­able val­ues) of com­modi­ties by ‘the quan­tity of labour’ … Their sub­stance is labour. That is why they are ‘val­ues’. Their mag­ni­tude varies, accord­ing to whether they con­tain more or less of this sub­stance (The­o­ries of Sur­plus-Value, MECW 31, p. 389).

Ricardo deter­mi­nes two things: the sub­stance of value which is labour; and the mag­ni­tude of value which is mea­sured by labour time. But he neglects a third term: ‘Ricardo does not exam­ine the form – the pecu­liar char­ac­ter­is­tic of labour that cre­ates exchange-value or man­i­fests itself in exchange-val­ues – the nature of this labour’ (ibid.).

In the analy­sis of value which is Ricardo’s sci­en­tific start­ing-point, there is thus an absent term in the first chap­ter of Cap­i­tal: ‘The sub­stance of value and the mag­ni­tude of value have now been deter­mined. The form of value remains to be analysed’ (Le Cap­i­tal, t. 1, p. 62; not in the Eng­lish edi­tion).

This is the work Ricardo never did. He was sat­is­fied with the restored unity. The dis­so­lu­tion (Auflö­sung) of the fixed forms of wealth he regarded as the solu­tion (Lösung) of the prob­lem of value. Marx’s pro­ce­dure, on the con­trary, as Engels points out in the Pref­ace to Vol­ume Two, is to see in this solu­tion a prob­lem. Marx poses the ques­tion we can call the crit­i­cal ques­tion: Why does the con­tent of value take the form of value?

Polit­i­cal econ­omy has indeed analysed value and its mag­ni­tude, how­ever incom­pletely, and has uncov­ered the con­tent con­cealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the ques­tion why this con­tent has assumed that par­tic­u­lar form, that is to say, why labour is expressed (sich darstellt) in value, and why the mea­sure­ment of labour by its dura­tion is expressed in the mag­ni­tude of the value of the pro­duct (Cap­i­tal, Vol. 1, pp. 173–4).

The crit­i­cal ques­tion is the prob­lema­ti­za­tion of the con­tent-form rela­tion­ship. For Ricardo, value is labour. It does not mat­ter in what form this sub­stance appears. For Marx, labour is rep­re­sented in value, it takes on the form of the value of com­modi­ties.

Given the equa­tion: x com­modi­ties A = y com­modi­ties B, Ricardo resolves it sim­ply by say­ing that the sub­stance of the value of A is equal to the sub­stance of the value of B. Marx shows that this equa­tion is posed in very spe­cial terms. One of the terms only fea­tures as use-value, the other only as exchange-value or form of value.

Hence we must pose:

Form of value of A = Nat­u­ral form of B.

B lends its body, its nat­u­ral form, for the expres­sion of the value of A.

The value must there­fore have its form of exis­tence in the nat­u­ral form of B. Hence we can­not be sat­is­fied with an affir­ma­tion of the iden­tity of the con­tent of A and B. We can see this from the cri­tique Marx made of Bai­ley in the The­o­ries of Sur­plus-Value. For Bai­ley, value is merely a rela­tion between two objects, just as dis­tance is a rela­tion between two objects in space. ‘A thing can­not be valu­able in itself with­out ref­er­ence to another thing … any more than a thing can be dis­tant in itself with­out ref­er­ence to another thing’ (cit. Marx, The­o­ries of Sur­plus-Value, MECW 32, p. 329).

Look how Marx refutes this argu­ment:

If a thing is dis­tant from another, the dis­tance is in fact a rela­tion between the one thing and the other; but at the same time, the dis­tance is some­thing dif­fer­ent from this rela­tion between the two things. It is a dimen­sion of space, it is some length which may as well express the dis­tance of two other things besides those com­pared. But this is not all. If we speak of the dis­tance as a rela­tion between two things, we sup­pose some­thing ‘intrin­sic’, some ‘prop­erty’ of the things them­selves, which enables them to be dis­tant from each other. What is the dis­tance between the syl­la­ble A and a table? The ques­tion would be non­sen­si­cal. In speak­ing of the dis­tance of two things, we speak of their dif­fer­ence in space. Thus we sup­pose both of them to be con­tained in the space, to be points of space. Thus we equal­ize them as being both exis­tences of space, and only after hav­ing them equal­ized sub specie spatii we dis­tin­guish them as dif­fer­ent points of space. To belong to space is their unity (ibid., p. 330).

This text seems to me to be open to two read­ings. At one level, Marx is defend­ing Ricardo against Bailey’s crit­i­cism by dis­en­gag­ing the exis­tence of a sub­stance of value. The exis­tence of this sub­stance com­mon to the two terms of the rela­tion means that we are not deal­ing with a rela­tion of the type A = table. This last rela­tion is an absurd, irra­tional rela­tion. By dis­en­gag­ing the sub­stance of value, Ricardo avoids irra­tional­ity at this level. But since he does not dis­en­gage the form of value, he con­demns him­self to fall in his turn into con­tra­dic­tion and irra­tional­ity where more com­plex and devel­oped forms than the com­mod­ity form are con­cerned.

What Ricardo omits is the crit­i­cal ques­tion, the ques­tion of the ‘=’ sign. As we have seen, this sign is prob­lem­atic in that it relates together two terms which are pre­sented in absolutely het­ero­ge­neous forms. On the one hand we have a pure thing, on the other a pure incar­na­tion of value:

A close scrutiny of the expres­sion of the value of com­mod­ity A con­tained in the value-rela­tion of A to B has shown us that within that rela­tion the nat­u­ral form of com­mod­ity A fig­ures only as the aspect of use-value, while the nat­u­ral form of B fig­ures only as the form of value (Cap­i­tal, Vol. 1, p. 153).

The iden­tity posed by the ‘=’ sign thus con­ceals a most rad­i­cal dif­fer­ence. It is an iden­tity of oppo­sites. ‘The rel­a­tive form of value and the equiv­a­lent form are two insep­a­ra­ble moments, which belong to and mutu­ally con­di­tion each other; but, at the same time, they are mutu­ally exclu­sive or opposed extremes’ (Vol. 1, p. 139–40). This iden­tity of oppo­sites is only pos­si­ble because one form (the nat­u­ral form of B) itself becomes the form of man­i­fes­ta­tion of its oppo­site value.

Thus, we see, and could have read implic­itly at a sec­ond level in the pas­sages on Bai­ley, that com­modi­ties are only equal in the very spe­cial mech­a­nism of rep­re­sen­ta­tion (Darstel­lung). They are nei­ther equal as mere things, nor even as items of the same sub­stance; they are equal in deter­mi­nate for­mal con­di­tions imposed by the struc­ture in which this rela­tion is achieved.

We can make this ref­er­ence to space say a lit­tle more than Marx says about it explic­itly. The forms in which the things are related with one another by the dimen­sion of value are forms deter­mined by the struc­ture of a cer­tain space. The prop­er­ties they take on in the equa­tion must be deter­mined by the prop­er­ties of the space in which the rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the Darstel­lung, is achieved. The instal­la­tion of this space which makes an impos­si­ble equa­tion pos­si­ble is expressed by a cer­tain num­ber of for­mal oper­a­tions: rep­re­sen­ta­tion, expres­sion, adop­tion of a form, appear­ance in such and such a form, etc.

Let us con­sider one of these oper­a­tions: ‘Value takes on the form of a thing.’ This exam­i­na­tion will enable us to make the mean­ing of the content/form rela­tion clear; it is a mat­ter of the rela­tion between the inner deter­mi­na­tion and the mode of exis­tence, the phe­nom­e­nal form (Erschei­n­ungs­form) of this deter­mi­na­tion.

In fact, the expres­sion means that value has its mode of exis­tence, its phe­nom­e­nal form (or form of man­i­fes­ta­tion), in the nat­u­ral form of the equiv­a­lent com­mod­ity. The para­dox is that value is unable either to appear or to exist. In so far as it appears in the nat­u­ral form of a com­mod­ity, it dis­ap­pears in it as value, and takes the form of a thing.

Value thus has its form of man­i­fes­ta­tion in the exchange rela­tion only in so far as it is not man­i­fested there. We are deal­ing with a type of causal­ity quite new in rela­tion to the 1844 Man­u­scripts. In the Man­u­scripts the equa­tions which expressed the con­tra­dic­tions (e.g., the erec­tion of the world of things into val­ues = the depre­ci­a­tion of the world of men; or value of labour = value of means of sub­sis­tence) all referred to the equa­tion: essence of man = essence for­eign to man, i.e., they referred as their cause to the split between the human sub­ject and its essence. The solu­tion of the equa­tion lay in one of its parts. The essence of man sep­a­rated from the human sub­ject pro­vided the cause of the con­tra­dic­tion and the solu­tion to the equa­tion. The cause was referred to the act of sub­jec­tiv­ity sep­a­rat­ing from itself.

Here, in the equa­tion, or, what amounts to the same thing, the con­tra­dic­tion: x com­modi­ties A = y com­modi­ties B, the cause is not in the equa­tion. The lat­ter presents a rela­tion between things, a con­nec­tion between effects deter­mined by the absence of the cause. This cause lies in the iden­tity of use­ful labour, cre­ative of use-val­ues, and labour cre­ative of exchange-val­ues, of con­crete labour and abstract labour. It is well-known that, in a let­ter to Engels dated 8 Jan­u­ary 1868, Marx declared that the dis­cov­ery of the dou­ble nature of labour (con­crete labour and abstract labour) is ‘the whole secret of the crit­i­cal con­cep­tion’ (MECW 42, p. 514). This dis­tinc­tion is indeed what enables us to prob­lema­tize the unity of the two deter­mi­na­tions. Clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics took the con­cept of labour with­out mak­ing the dis­tinc­tion. Hence it could not under­stand the speci­fic char­ac­ter of the unity: abstract labour/concrete labour, and fell into inex­tri­ca­ble dif­fi­cul­ties. Hav­ing thought the dis­tinc­tion, Marx can think the unity. The lat­ter is the result of a social process. The absent cause to which we are referred is the social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion.

Thus the for­mal oper­a­tions which char­ac­ter­ize the space in which eco­nomic objects are related together man­i­fest social processes while con­ceal­ing them. We are no longer deal­ing with an anthro­po­log­i­cal causal­ity referred to the act of a sub­jec­tiv­ity, but with a quite new causal­ity which we can call metonymic causal­ity, bor­row­ing this con­cept from Jacques-Alain Miller, who for­mu­lated it in the expo­si­tion he devoted to the cri­tique of Georges Politzer. Here we can state it as fol­lows: what deter­mi­nes the con­nec­tion between the effects (the rela­tions between the com­modi­ties) is the cause (the social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion) in so far as it is absent. This absent cause is not labour as a sub­ject, it is the iden­tity of abstract labour and con­crete labour inas­much as its gen­er­al­iza­tion expresses the struc­ture of a cer­tain mode of pro­duc­tion, the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion.

In other words, the equa­tion: x com­modi­ties A = y com­modi­ties B is, as we have seen, an impos­si­ble equa­tion. What Marx does, and what dis­tin­guishes him rad­i­cally from clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics, is to the­o­rize the pos­si­bil­ity of this impos­si­ble equa­tion. With­out this the­ory, clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics could not con­ceive the sys­tem in which cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion is artic­u­lated. By not rec­og­niz­ing this absent cause, it failed to rec­og­nize the com­mod­ity form as ‘the sim­plest and the most gen­eral form’ of a deter­mi­nate mode of pro­duc­tion – the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. Even if it did rec­og­nize the sub­stance labour in the analy­sis of the com­mod­ity, it con­demned itself to incom­pre­hen­sion of the more devel­oped forms of the cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion process.

In his cri­tique of the start­ing-point of clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics, Marx dis­en­gages a prob­lem which is that of the mode of man­i­fes­ta­tion of a cer­tain struc­ture within a space which is not homo­ge­neous with it. We must now make clear the terms of this last prob­lem.

b) The prob­lem of eco­nomic objects

Take the com­mod­ity-object. Three state­ments of Marx enable us to define its object char­ac­ter:

1) ‘The prod­ucts of labour take on the com­mod­ity form.’ Here we see that strictly speak­ing there is not a com­mod­ity-object but a com­mod­ity-form.

2) The prod­ucts of labour, when they become val­ues, change into ‘things which tran­scends sen­su­ous­ness’ or social things (sinnlich-übersinnlich oder gesellschaftliche Dinge)’ (Vol. 1, pp. 163–4).

3) ‘Com­modi­ties pos­sess an objec­tive char­ac­ter as val­ues (Wert­ge­gen­ständlichkeit) only in so far as they are all expres­sions of an iden­ti­cal social sub­stance, human labour’ (Vol. 1, p. 138).

The ques­tion is to define the Gegen­ständlichkeit of com­modi­ties, i.e., their real­ity as objects. The lat­ter is a very spe­cial real­ity. The thing­ness of com­modi­ties is a social thing­ness, their objec­tiv­ity an objec­tiv­ity of value. Else­where Marx says that they have a phan­tas­magoric objec­tiv­ity. This objec­tiv­ity only exists as the expres­sion of a social unity, human labour.

We can there­fore no longer have a sub­ject-object cou­ple like that of the 1844 Man­u­scripts. In the Man­u­scripts, the term Gegen­stand was given a sen­su­al­ist mean­ing, whereas here it is no more than a phan­tom, the man­i­fes­ta­tion of a char­ac­ter­is­tic of the struc­ture. What takes the form of a thing is not labour as the activ­ity of a sub­ject but the social char­ac­ter of labour. And the human labour in ques­tion here is not the labour of any con­sti­tu­tive sub­jec­tiv­ity. It bears the mark of a deter­mi­nate social struc­ture:

It is only a his­tor­i­cally speci­fic epoch of devel­op­ment which presents (darstellt) the labour expended in the pro­duc­tion of a use­ful thing as an ‘objec­tive’ (gegen­ständlich) prop­erty of that arti­cle, i.e., as its value. It is only then that the pro­duct of labour becomes trans­formed into a com­mod­ity (Vol. 1, pp. 153–4).

It is there­fore a ‘his­tor­i­cally deter­mined epoch’, i.e., a deter­mi­nate mode of pro­duc­tion, which achieves the Darstel­lung of labour in the phan­tas­magoric objec­tiv­ity of the com­mod­ity.

The sta­tus of this Gegen­ständlichkeit is made even clearer when Marx speaks of an illu­sion of objec­tiv­ity (gegen­ständliche Schein):

The belated sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery that the prod­ucts of labour, in so far as they are val­ues, are merely the mate­rial expres­sions of the human labour expended to pro­duce them, marks an epoch in the his­tory of mankind’s devel­op­ment, but by no means ban­ishes the sem­blance of objec­tiv­ity pos­sessed by the social char­ac­ter­is­tics of labour (den gegen­ständlichen Schein der gesellschaftlichen Charak­tere der Arbeit) (Vol. 1, p. 167).

The char­ac­ter of this Gegen­ständlichkeit is such that it is only rec­og­nized for what it is, i.e., as a metonymic man­i­fes­ta­tion of the struc­ture, in sci­ence. In ordi­nary per­cep­tion it is taken for a prop­erty of the thing as such. The social char­ac­ter of the prod­ucts of labour appears as a nat­u­ral prop­erty of these prod­ucts as mere things.

This the­ory of the sen­su­ous-super­sen­su­ous object enables us to mark the dif­fer­ence between the prob­lem­atic of Cap­i­tal and that of the 1844 Man­u­scripts. In the Man­u­scripts, eco­nomic objects were treated in an amphi­bo­log­i­cal fash­ion because the the­ory of wealth was over­laid by a Feuer­bachian the­ory of the sen­su­ous. The sen­su­ous char­ac­ter of the objects of labour referred to their human char­ac­ter, to their sta­tus as objects of a con­sti­tu­tive sub­jec­tiv­ity. Here objects are no longer taken for any­thing sen­su­ous-human. They are sen­su­ous-super­sen­su­ous. This con­tra­dic­tion in the mode of their appear­ance refers to the type of objec­tiv­ity to which they belong. Their sen­su­ous-super­sen­su­ous char­ac­ter is the form in which they appear as man­i­fes­ta­tions of social char­ac­ter­is­tics.

The sub­sti­tu­tion of the rela­tion­ship sensuous/supersensuous social, for the rela­tion­ship human/sensuous, is fun­da­men­tal for an under­stand­ing of what Marx calls the fetishism of com­modi­ties.

To show this let us exam­ine the begin­ning of sec­tion 4 from the first chap­ter enti­tled ‘The Fetishism of the Com­mod­ity and Its Secret’: ‘A com­mod­ity appears at first sight an extremely obvi­ous, triv­ial thing. But its analy­sis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abound­ing in meta­phys­i­cal sub­tleties and the­o­log­i­cal niceties’ (Vol. 1, p. 163).

I think it may be instruc­tive to take this last phrase absolutely to the let­ter. It means that the com­mod­ity is the­o­log­i­cal in the sense the con­cept of the­ol­ogy has in the anthro­pol­ogy of Feuer­bach and the young Marx. Let us fol­low this guid­ing thread in the analy­sis of the com­mod­ity:

In the pro­duc­tion of the coat, human labour-power, in the shape of tai­lor­ing, has in actual fact been expended. Human labour is there­fore been accu­mu­lated in the coat. From this point of view the coat is a ‘bearer of value’ (Wert­träger), although this prop­erty never shows through, even when the coat is most thread­bare (Vol. 1, p. 143).

The object is no longer trans­par­ent. The whole the­ory relat­ing the sen­su­ous and the object to the human sub­ject col­lapses. The coat has a qual­ity which it does not get from the act of a sub­ject, a super­nat­u­ral qual­ity. It is the bearer (Träger) of some­thing which has noth­ing to do with it.

Here we have come once again upon the con­cept of the bearer which we located in the dia­gram of the anthro­po­log­i­cal cri­tique of spec­u­la­tion, and with it we return to a func­tion which cor­re­sponds to the func­tion of incar­na­tion in this same dia­gram. The empir­i­cal thing (the coat) becomes the bearer of the super­nat­u­ral abstrac­tion value just as the empir­i­cal exis­tence of the monarch became the incar­na­tion of the abstract cat­e­gory ‘sov­er­eignty’ in Hegel.

Nev­er­the­less, the coat can­not rep­re­sent value towards the linen unless value, for the lat­ter, simul­ta­ne­ously assumes the form of a coat. An indi­vid­ual, A, for instance, can­not be ‘your majesty’ to another indi­vid­ual, B, unless majesty in B’s eyes assumes the phys­i­cal shape of A (Vol. 1, p. 143).

It is not just because it is a ques­tion of majesty here and of sov­er­eignty in the Con­tri­bu­tion to the Cri­tique of Hegel’s Phi­los­o­phy of Law of 1843 that we can affirm the homol­ogy between the struc­ture of the man­i­fes­ta­tion of value and the struc­ture of incar­na­tion which con­sti­tuted an ele­ment of the gen­eral struc­ture of spec­u­la­tion in the 1843 text. Value is incar­nated in the empir­i­cal exis­tence of the coat, just as majesty is incar­nated in the empir­i­cal exis­tence of A, and sov­er­eignty is incar­nated in the empir­i­cal exis­tence of the Hegelian monarch.

Thus we see emerg­ing an iden­ti­cal form to that of 1843. But it has nei­ther the crit­i­cal func­tion that it had in the anthro­po­log­i­cal cri­tique of spec­u­la­tion, nor the func­tion which the Della Volpe school want it to play as a cri­tique of the spec­u­la­tive oper­a­tion per­formed by clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy. The union of the sen­su­ous and the super­sen­su­ous here expresses the phe­nom­e­nal form of value itself, and not its spec­u­la­tive trans­la­tion. In the 1843 Cri­tique this union was pre­sented as a spec­u­la­tive oper­a­tion. Hegel trans­formed the sen­su­ous (the empir­i­cal) he found at the start­ing-point so as to make a super­sen­su­ous abstrac­tion from it which he then incar­nated in a sen­su­ous exis­tence which served as a body for this abstrac­tion.

This means that the pat­tern which des­ig­nated the spec­u­la­tive pro­ce­dure in the anthro­po­log­i­cal cri­tique, here des­ig­nates the process which takes place in the field of real­ity itself. This con­cept of real­ity (Wirk­lichkeit) must be under­stood to mean pre­cisely the space in which the deter­mi­na­tions of the struc­ture man­i­fest them­selves (the space of phan­tas­magoric objec­tiv­ity). We must care­fully dis­tin­guish between this Wirk­lichkeit, real with respect to per­cep­tion, and the wirk­liche Bewe­gung (real move­ment) which con­sti­tutes the real with respect to sci­ence.

We see that the prop­er­ties which define the Wirk­lichkeit, the space of appear­ance of the deter­mi­na­tions of the eco­nomic struc­ture, are the prop­er­ties which defined the oper­a­tions of spec­u­la­tive phi­los­o­phy for the young Marx. The com­mod­ity is the­o­log­i­cal, i.e., real­ity is of itself spec­u­la­tive, it itself presents itself in the form of a mys­tery.

There is another exam­ple of this change in func­tion of the struc­ture of incar­na­tion in the text enti­tled Die Wert­form (the first draft of Chap­ter 1 of Cap­i­tal):

This inver­sion (Verkehrung) by which the sen­si­bly-con­crete counts only as the form of appear­ance of the abstractly gen­eral and not, on the con­trary, the abstractly gen­eral as prop­erty of the con­crete, char­ac­ter­izes the expres­sion of value. At the same time, it makes under­stand­ing it dif­fi­cult. If I say: Roman law and Ger­man law are both laws, that is obvi­ous. But if I say: Law (das Recht), this abstrac­tion (Abstrak­tum) real­izes itself in Roman law and in Ger­man law, in these con­crete laws, the inter­con­nec­tion becomes mys­ti­cal (‘The Value-Form’, Cap­i­tal and Class, no. 4, spring 1978, p. 140).

The process which char­ac­ter­izes the mode of exis­tence of value here is the one which char­ac­ter­ized the spec­u­la­tive Hegelian oper­a­tion for the young Marx, and which he illus­trated in The Holy Fam­ily by the dialec­tic of the abstract fruit real­iz­ing itself in con­crete pears and almonds.

If real­ity is spec­u­la­tive, an extremely impor­tant con­se­quence fol­lows: every crit­i­cal read­ing which claims, along the lines of the let­ter to Ruge, to speak or read things as they are, is inval­i­dated. The ambi­tions of the let­ter to Ruge are refuted in one short sen­tence which tells us that ‘Value does not carry what it is writ­ten on its fore­head’ (Es steht daher dem Werte nicht auf der Stirn geschrieben was er ist).

We are no longer con­cerned with a text call­ing for a read­ing which will give its under­ly­ing mean­ing, but with a hiero­glyph which has to be deci­phered. This deci­pher­ing is the work of sci­ence. The struc­ture which excludes the pos­si­bil­ity of crit­i­cal read­ing is the struc­ture which opens the dimen­sion of sci­ence. This sci­ence, unlike Ricardo, will not be con­tent to pose labour as the sub­stance of value while derid­ing the com­mod­ity fetishism of the Mer­can­tilists who con­ceived value to be attached to the body of a par­tic­u­lar com­mod­ity. It will explain fetishism by the­o­riz­ing the struc­ture which founds the thing-form adopted by the social char­ac­ter­is­tics of labour.

Our thanks to Colin Beck­ett and Wes House at Verso Books for allow­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of this excerpt. 

This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled “A Strug­gle With­out End”: Althusser’s Inter­ven­tions.

Author of the article

is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris VIII.