4. The critique of Marxian reification (1)

Submitted by libcom on July 30, 2005

Up till now, we have considered radical thought as a critique of the substance of Marxism: of the content of Marx's ideas and, after 1917, of their realization. We have not yet looked at the critique of the form taken by Kari Marx's doctrine, namely the critique of its scientific character.

The problem immediately arises: what do we mean by 'doctrine' when dealing with a thinker who, as we know, has left his stamp upon such a wide variety of spheres, from philosophy, political science, economics and sociology (seen as the science of the laws of the evolution of society) to utopia.

For while the various shades of Marxism, from orthodoxy to left-wing extremism, disagree as to the relative importance of the different components of the total system, and while a good many view Marxian economic thought as the predominant, and even unique element, others claim to have discovered a richer, more complete 'Marx, the philosopher'. The entire critique developed by the Marxist 'philosophers' (Lukacs, Korsch, the Frankfurt School, the philosophical tendency of the 1950s and 1960s) is devoted to demonstrating the importance of philosophy in the works of Marx, and the interaction between his Hegelian -- or neo-Hegelian -- ideas and his political, economic and sociological thought. It attempts to rehabilitate this sphere by presenting Marxism as a totality, claiming that social-democratic and, later, communist orthodoxy had fastened exclusively upon its economic doctrine. However, the 'philosophers' at no time challenged this doctrine itself; all they were concerned to do was to dispute the preponderance accorded to economics by the theoreticians and practitioners of Marxism, and the absurdities arrived at by reducing the latter to a form of economism.

In this sense, we may say that they managed to shake the Marxist edifice by concentrating the interest of the inquisitive Marxist upon the coherence of the parts as related to the whole and hence upon an analysis of the form of Marxism. But they never actually tackled the question of the conception of Marxian economic theory, only its results.

Paradoxically (though the paradox is only apparent), this challenge originated in the avant-garde of the arts; in twentieth-century capitalist Europe this has frequently constituted the avant-garde tout court. The destruction of figurative art in the period preceding the First World War, and the popularization of abstract art in the post-war period gave rise to reflection on the subject of art, its techniques and its meaning; this reflection centred around the Bauhaus, in Weimar Germany. After 1933, the spiritual heritage of the Bauhaus took refuge in Scandinavia, where there was still sufficient freedom for independent thought. Thus the Dane, V. B. Peterson, published Symboler i abstrakt Kunst in 1933, sparking off a wave of emulation that took root in the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, of which the Danish painter and philosopher, Asger Jorn, now appears to have been the strongest personality. In 1960, Asger Jorn published a Critique de la politique économique ('Critique of Economic Policy'), in which he reviewed the theoretical foundations of the economic policy of Marxist socialism. His critique of socialist economic policy led him to formulate a critique of the Marxian critique of (so-called classical) political economy, and hence of Capital. (2) This concerns the theoretical foundations of Capital, and chiefly Part I, entitled: 'Commodities and Money'.

The original feature of Jorn's approach was that he did not consider the content of the critique of the capitalist economy. Instead, he chose to refute the form in which this critique was couched, i.e. its scientific character in the light of the concept of science as refined and developed in the twentieth century.

Reification and the Marxian critique of commodities

The word reification comes from the Latin res (thing, in the sense of object), and as a concept, was developed by the Marxist 'philosophers' in the 1920s, and by Georg Lukacs in particular (he used the German words Verdinglichung and Versachlichung), thereby designating what Marx had meant when he used the expressions alienation and the fetishism of commodities and what Hegel had conceived of as the manifestation of alienation in the historical process. (3) Reification, for Lukacs, is that phenomenon which transforms beings and thought into things.

Jorn gives a more precise definition of reification which, for him, is the devalorization of a concept into the status of an object. This is a consequence of the economic policy of Marxist socialism, which reduces the entire reality of the social process to its economic state, and which reduces man himself to the status of an economic factor.

Jorn then turns to the Marxian critique of capitalist economics in his search for the theoretical foundations of this economic policy.

Marx viewed capitalist production as a vast accumulation of commodities, and his critique of the capitalist mode of production presupposes an analysis of commodities, which he undertakes in chapter 1 of Capital, the cornerstone of his entire critique. Right from the first paragraph, (4) however, Marx confuses two absolutely different notions: that of value and that of object, by identifying the one with the other. The object of utility, for Marx, becomes 'use-value', and the object of exchange (or commodity) 'exchange-value'. By arbitrarily identifying an object with its value, the object thereby metamorphoses into value. (5)

By confusing two distinct notions, Marx idealized the object while at the same time supplying the first example of reification of language by reducing an ideal notion, a concept, to the designation of a purely material reality. On top of this, in developing his reasoning, he arrived at an absurdity, since we cannot use a value, whereas we can and do use objects (hence the expression 'useful object'), and we do exchange goods for other goods. It is this exchange that determines price, which is the economic index of the value of a commodity.

Marx confuses these terms because he lacks a coherent philosophical conception of the world and hence of the economic phenomenon seen as a manifestation of this coherence. The absence of a philosophical system (in the Hegelian sense as set forth in the preface to The Phenomenology of Mind) leads him to employ the German word Wert in its two senses, abstract meaning value, and concrete meaning goods, product, commodity.

Asger Jorn 's theory of form and the critique of commodities

In theoretical terms, the identification of value with commodity amounts to identifying value in itself with the form of value. The passage from the one to the other constitutes, as Jorn puts it, the process or substance. For Capital to have had a scientific value, it would have had to have been a critique of the form of value, that is, of commodities, and not of abstract value in itself.

The critique of form called for a theory of form, and Marx had developed no such theory. (6) Jorn proposes one that apprehends form as form of matter. He shows that matter (in the sense of raw materials) takes the form of its content, but that as soon as it is transformed, substance and form cease to coincide. When a tree is changed into a table, the material wood becomes content and the table-form becomes form. Thus, in the object of utility, matter appears as its substance :'Forms only become substance in the process transforming them into other forms.'

Jorn generalizes from this observation to the entire economic process, and deduces a commodity cycle that is considerably more developed than the Marxian one.

In Marx, this cycle takes the form of an exchange implying the following type of changes : commodity to money to commodity or C -- M -- C. In this process, a commodity is exchanged for money which in turn is exchanged for a commodity. Clearly though, while this model may suffice to illustrate commercial exchange (on the market level), it is inadequate as an explanation of the total process taking place within the social economy, since it takes into account neither the stage prior to the commodity phase, nor what happens to it after the exchange. The complete cycle, according to Jorn, occurs as follows:


where U means useful objects and N the natural form of the objects (in the sense of raw materials).

Thus, upstream we have the transformation of nature into objects of utility and that of objects of utility into objects of exchange; downstream, we have the commodity acquired in exchange for money reverting to its use-function, i.e. utilized, and then, in the form of refuse, reintegrated into the natural cycle. The process necessary for creating capital thus begins before the commodity, and ends after the exchange.' According to Jorn, only this complete cycle can provide us with a scientific view of the process of production and consumption in the capitalist economy.

By taking as his starting point the materialist concept of form and the resulting scheme, Jorn analyses the transformation of the object of utility into a commodity. Three conditions are necessary for this to occur:

(a) that the usefulness of the object must be as universal as possible so as to be desired by a maximum number of consumers (hence, historically speaking, the transition from craft to industry),

(b) that objects be interchangeable (leading to mass production),

(c) that consumption rise to ever higher levels (for which purpose, advertising is used).

The transition from use to exchange -- upon which question Marxist economists remain rather discreet -- is of the greatest importance, in Jorn's view, to our understanding of the capitalist production cycle. This is because, for an object of utility to become an object of exchange, it must first be shorn of all immediate utility : its transformation into a commodity implies thus its devalorization. In actual use, the usefulness of the object lies in its quality as an object : it is therefore valorized as an object of utility through its utilization. Conversely, however, the slightest utilization devalorizes it as an object of mercantile exchange. The transition is the one that occurs from quality to quantity. The commodity therefore appears as a socialized object of utility, as a quality becomes quantity.

According to this view, money is apprehended, from the point of view of economics, as a totally socialized commodity; for it to serve as the yardstick of value for other commodities it first had to lose all value in-itself (and hence any possibility of being useful). It is not only a mass-produced commodity, it has no value outside the series of banknotes to which it belongs. (8)

The transition from object of utility to commodity, as presented by Jorn, also accounts for the phenomenon of the primitive accumulation of capital or the formation of social saving. Under the ancien régime, it was disaffection for objects of utility that enabled the merchant to hoard or store his goods. Storage is an early form of saving, and the accumulation of savings (i.e. non- consumption) made possible the formation of social capital and the vast increase in wealth. By denying the necessity of saving, Marx conceived of the economy as a closed system of production and consumption: yet, without accumulation of wealth, without economizing, there can be no science of economy. Any economic policy applying the Marxian reasoning results in an a-economic conception of the economy seen as a process of reproduction. It would be a 'biological economy', in which all production is fully consumed. (8)

Concrete utopia: the realization of art

Jorn views Marx first and foremost as a defender of the poor, pleading in his day the cause of the proletarian, who had no other property than his own person. His arguments are convincing to whoever is already convinced, but he was incapable of developing them into a vigorous case because of his confusion of science with technique. Lacking a precise concept of science, he saw no other way of coming to the rescue of the proletariat than through the abolition of surplus value. Carried out to the letter, his system effectively results in the suppression of saving.(10)

Marx correctly noted that capitalist accumulation presupposed saving, and that the suppression of saving implied the same for surplus value. Jorn, on the other hand, states that surplus value has always existed, the excess of production over reproduction constituting the wealth of all societies. It is through surplus value that we create wealth: society's members may enjoy it as consumers. The socialization of consumption stems from the logic of the capitalist process itself, since the latter socializes objects of utility, i.e. makes them available for the consumption of each and everyone in the form of commodities.

Consequently, the aim of economic socialism (the suppression of surplus value) theoretically leads to a contraction of consumption, and to a growing 'privatization' of it. But at the same time, the political conception of the State (on the one hand, the State is viewed as an 'apparatus' to be made use of in order to apply a specific economic policy, while on the other hand it is denied and its suppression demanded)" derives from the same absurdity; the partisan concept of the State views it as a substance and not as a form -- 'the perfect form', notes Jorn, as did Hegel - of higher organization of society. In this respect, the State is the locus where the conflicts and excesses of partisan politics cancel each other out.

Marxist socialism thereby managed to achieve the contrary to what Marx's economic project set out to achieve (the accession of the poorest class to ownership of the means of production): it reduced the number of owners to one single owner, the State. Economic equality was achieved through the impoverishment of all.

Jorn countered the pure concept of political revolution with one of his own: the artistic revolution. The former results in the devalorization of man (where quality turns into quantity) and to generalized reification. He, on the other hand, foresees the replacement of authoritarian socialism by its contrary: a value-liberating society. According to this dialectic, a world of creation will follow upon the world of economy. In this new world, Jorn concludes, the changing of the conditions of existence will be the works of the producers themselves, become creators.


1 In line with recent usage, I shall use the adjective Marxian to indicate what refers to Marx himself; Marxist will therefore refer to his doctrine as a whole, as interpreted by his disciples.

2 After the Second World War, Jorn played a part in the International of Experimental Artists, which published the review Cobra (Copenhagen-Brussels-Amsterdam) He helped found the Internationale Situationniste in 1957, leaving it in 1961. His Critique de la politique economique was published in the 'Rapports presentés a 1'Internationale Situationniste' series in 1960.

3 G. Lukacs, Geschichte und Klnssenbewusstsein (1923).

4 The paragraph is entitled 'The two factors of a commodity: use-value and exchange value or value proper'.

5 'When, at the beginning of this chapter, we said, In common parlance, that a commodity is both a use-value and an exchange value, we were, accurately speaking, wrong. A commodity is a use-value or object of utility, and a value 'Capital, ch. 1, section 3, A, 4:'The elementary form of value considered as a whole' (translated by S. Moore and E. Aveling, edited by F. Engels, London, 1889).

6 Jorn points out that, from the point of view of its theoretical foundations, Capital is inseparable from the so-called philosophical works of Marx's youth. Philosophically speaking, the origins of this identification lie in the ill-conceived relationship between subject and object. In his 1844 Manuscripts (which Marx himself described as a necessary settling of accounts between criticism and its origins -- i.e. Hegelian dialectics') Marx develops a Kantian conception of the noumenon and the phenomenon, and fails to see the movement, the dialectic that makes alienation (Entfrendung or Entiiusserrng) the process whereby the self objectivizes. As a result Marx's conception of the in itself and of the for-itself is a static one; they are seen as an opposition, within thought itself, between abstract thought and sensible reality ('Der Gegensatz des abstrakten Denkens und ... der sinnlichen Wirklichkeit ... innerhalb des Gedankens selbst'). Marx adds that all oppositions are merely the exoteric form of this fundamental opposition (Okonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte, 3rd MS, p. xvii). Most 'Marxologists' have now abandoned the Hegelian descendance thesis. The Feuerbachian origins of Marxian thought are attested to by 'bourgeois science' (cf. D. McLellan, The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx, London, 1962, pp. 101 ff) and by 'communist science 'For us.the question from where did Marx arise? is therefore of the highest importance: he arose from neo-Hegelianism, which was a returning-back from Hegel to Kant and Fichte, and then from pure Feuerbachism... .' (L. Althusser, 'Avertissement' to Book I of Capital, Paris, 1969).

7 Marx (Capital, pt 1, ch. 1) reduces the capital formation process to the exchange of commodities, whereas it implies first the manufacture of the object of utility and its non-utilization straightaway.

8 Two banknotes of the same face-value are indistinguishable apart from their serial numbers.

9 'When viewed, therefore, as a connected whole, and as flowing on with incessant renewal, every social process of production is, at the same time, a process of reproduction.' (Quoted by Jorn from Capital, pt 1, ch. 23.) And also, 'The conditions of production are also those of reproduction' (ibid., Moore-Aveling translation).

10 We are dealing with private saving here: economically, the socialist revolution (or communist revolution -- according to Jorn the two are distinguishable not in terms of their goals but in terms of the 'means of acceding to power') is embodied in the abolition of private saving. Right from the outset, saving will be social, i.e. forced.

11 Lenin successively held each of these two views. In State and Revolution (Petrograd, 1918) he begins by calling for the destruction of the State, and refers to Marx in doing so. But Marx's 'anarchism' concerns the higher phase: communism. Jorn seems unaware of the fact that, for the transition period, Marx: calls for a dictatorial State: on this point, there is no difference between the young Marx and the mature Marx Cf. his letter to Weydemeyer, 5 March 1852, in which he states that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat (letter cited by Lenin in the 2nd edn of his pamphlet in support of his thesis concerning the proletarian State). Some 20 years later, in his Marginal Notes on the Programme of the Germnn Workers' Party (1875) he once more re-stated that, in a period of political transition, the State 'could not be anything other than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat'.