Alfred Sohn-Rethel – Commodity Form and Thinking Form 2/10

2. Foundational significance of the Marxian commodity analysis
The analysis of the commodity at the beginning of Capital takes a very special place within Marx’ opus. It is more than just the cornerstone of the critical analysis of the capitalist mode of production, with all this implies for Marxism. At the same time, it is Marx’ own stated instructive example for handling the historical-materialist method. It isn’t for nothing that the programmatic formulation of this method is found in the introduction to the text from 1859 in which Marx first published his analysis of commodities and money¹. Thus, the same general philosophical significance proper to this formulation of the materialist view of history also applies to its concretion in commodity analysis.
Understood in the light of the universal truth of historical materialism in general, commodity analysis uncovers an important link of mediation, through which certain load-bearing forms of consciousness determine themselves in epochs of developed commodity production. “It is not consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” This sentence, in which Marx expresses his opposition to the idealist way of thinking, formulates the materialist core of the Marxian view of history, and is deserving of the most precise attention.
It is obvious that Marx doesn’t state his materialist view as a simple inversion of idealism. In the quoted sentence, the pure, abstract concept of “being” is amended with “social”. This expresses that the reversal, or, as it is called elsewhere, the “eversion” doesn’t just turn the content of the conviction into its opposite, but that the whole thinking form is transformed. The epitheton “social” introduces determinations which escape the timelessly abstract speculation of traditional philosophical thought. The process of the determination of consciousness is understood as a societal, historical, always specific process that isn’t about “the” consciousness “of” man, but about specific concepts of specific historical classes, groups and individuals. Contrary to “being” in the ontological sense, social being isn’t a final instance of determination, either. Quite the contrary, “social being” is understood as the economic structure of a society and as the determinate totality of conditions of production, which correspond to a specific stage in the development of the forces of production. Social being, understood this way, turns out to be the “real basis” of certain given forms of consciousness. Considering mind forms and the real basis not separately from each other, but in continuous relation and reciprocal constitution, such that the economic structure of a society is taken onto the corresponding forms of consciousness and that vice versa the forms of consciousness are taken to be transparent to their foundational material conditions; this is always the mark of an authentically materialist consideration of history². The Marxian materialist way of thinking thus gets rid of all instances of the timeless, absolute form of abstraction and of the rigid metaphysical demarcations and formations of opposites of traditional philosophical thinking.
It is precisely in this point that the Marxian analysis of the commodity form gains further and deeper significance. A historical materialist is under no compulsion to contend himself with the polemical opposition of the Marxian dialectical way of thinking and the traditional metaphysical form of the concept. This concept form isn’t suspended in thin air, it must itself have a specific material foundation and a necessary historical determinedness. And it is in more than one sense obvious to look for this foundation and determinedness precisely in the commodity form, for all those epochs in which developed (simple or capitalist) commodity production exists.


[1] TN: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

[2] TN: This sentence isn’t grammatically correct in the german original, either.

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