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The Missing Link

Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology

by Alfred Sohn-Rethel
Humanities Press, 216 pp., $10.25 (paper)

Modern thought tends to divide things into two worlds—a world of the empirical, the concrete, the particular, and a world of the abstract, the logical, the universal. Here lies the basis for the famous distinction between synthetic and analytical knowledge, the first covered with the fingerprints and grime of the material world, the second glowing with the radiance of disembodied thought. How these two worlds connect, which world dominates the other, how one can understand the opposing view, are among the deepest and most persistent of philosophical questions, questions that moved Kant to the formulation of his “synthetic apriori,” Hegel to the idea of a logos in which both thought and matter might find a common ground, and modern philosophy to the distinction between positive (testable) and metaphysical (nontestable) propositions.

The division of things into two worlds is not limited, however, to philosophy. Its consequences reach into social thought and beyond that into social life. Stemming from the difference between the base world of things and the empyrean realm of thought is the division between the “higher” learning and the “lower” crafts and skills, the rationale that elevates the priest above his flock, the justification for the privileges of the manager and the duties of the worker, and, not least, the gulf between the intellectual and the man in the street.

It is Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s extraordinary achievement in his short, often difficult Intellectual and Manual Labour to suggest a hitherto unsuspected connection between these two worlds. For Sohn-Rethel’s thesis is that the world of intellect—above all, of science and mathematics and abstraction in general—does not owe its origins to the exercise of pure thought. Rather, it finds its roots in a change in human awareness induced by the arrival of a crucial stage in meterial history. This is the stage when men learn to coordinate their labors by universal exchange mediated by money. In this new world of generalized exchange, men are forced to enact a kind of abstraction and thereby discover the possibilities of abstract thought through the experiences of social life. Just as Kafka’s prisoner in “The Penal Colony” finally learns the nature of his crime when the charge is written on his back by a machine, so men in exchange societies learn about the nature of abstraction when their own acts grind its meaning into their heads.

A student before World War I, Sohn-Rethel early became convinced that there existed a level of social and historical understanding within Marx of which Marx himself was only vaguely aware, if aware at all. The key lay in Marx’s long struggle to understand the nature of the word value, a word that referred to the mysterious property of exchangeability possessed by commodities. Sohn-Rethel saw that behind the question “What is value?” there lay another, perhaps still deeper question, namely, “How can an abstract concept, such as value, be connected with a physical entity such as a commodity?”

It came upon me that in the inner-most core of the commodity structure was to be found the “transcendental subject,”’ he writes in the preface to his book. “Without needing to say so, it was obvious to everyone that this was sheer lunacy, and no one was squeamish about telling me so! But I knew I had grasped the beginning of a thread whose end was not yet in sight…. ‘Sohn-Rethel is crazy!’ was the regretful and final verdict of my tutor Alfred Weber (brother of Max), who had had a high opinion of me.”

Sohn-Rethel spent many years following that thread, at various times associating with Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch, Heidegger, Cassirer, Koyré, and others. His manuscript on the two kinds of labor was not completed until 1951, when it was turned down by a left-wing publisher in London as too unorthodox for them and by conventional publishers as too Marxist for them. As a result, until 1970 Sohn-Rethel was known, if at all, only as the author of three obscure papers.

In that year Intellectual and Manual Labour finally appeared in Germany where it created an immediate stir and secured for its author a professorship at the University of Bremen, where he is now emeritus. In 1978 an English edition created an equivalent stir in scholarly Marxist circles in England, and some time during 1979 the book crossed the ocean. I first heard of the title only last year. Since then I have read the book three times, for there is nothing easy in it despite its brevity and its intellectual bravura. Here I present a short, necessarily simplified version of its central thesis. Readers who are interested must turn to the original for the detailed argument.

The crux of Sohn-Rethel’s idea, as I have already suggested, is that abstraction, the supreme achievement of intellectual labor, has a material basis—that is, it springs from a particular kind of social action and not just from wholly independent thought. The action, as I have also said, is that of exchange, not as the isolated bargains among a few people, but as the omnipresent activity by which organized economic life is created from the independent pursuits of virtually all individuals. This integrative synthesis comes about when most people are forced to live by exchanging the products of their own labors for their “equivalents” (or better) on the marketplace.

What is so abstract about this universalized exchange? Sohn-Rethel’s answer is that the activity of exchange embodies abstraction because it requires people to carry in their minds a distilled image of commodities that is separate from, and even irreconcilable with, the actual physical nature of commodities. All commodities exist to be used, to be enjoyed, to give off what modern economists call their “utilities.” Commodities have no raison d’être if they are not used, and no one would produce or acquire a commodity that was never to be used. Yet What is striking and remarkable about exchange is that commodities cannot be used while they are being exchanged. To put it differently, their use as objects of exchange obviates for that period of time their use as objects of utility. As Sohn-Rethel writes:

In the marketplace and in shop windows things stand still. They are under the spell of one activity only; to change owners. They stand there waiting to be sold. While they are there for exchange they are not there for use. A commodity marked out at a definite price, for instance, is looked upon as being frozen to absolute immutability throughout the time during which its price remains unaltered. And the spell does not only bind the doings of man. Even nature herself is supposed to abstain from any ravages in the body of the commodity and to hold her breath, as it were, for the sake of this social business of man.

In this way men play out a strange drama of renunciation and imagination in the act of exchange, a drama that makes use of the idea of the commodity without actually making use of the commodity itself for the purpose for which it exists. Moreover, we not only abjure this primary use, but the act of exchange also forces us to forgo the intimate scrutiny that is our normal attitude toward the things of the world. Thus during the act of exchange we conjure up a realm of timeless and changeless existence in which things can change places without suffering any alteration in their material being. (Were this not the case we could never exchange one thing for another without constantly interrupting the process to inspect the commodity in its journey of changing ownership, thereby hopelessly disrupting the process.) And so it is that the act of exchange on a regular basis forces abstract ideas—stasis, inertia, equivalence—into our daily lives and into our consciousness.

The instrinsic abstraction of the mixed act-and-idea of exchange attains its purest expression in the role played by money, the sine qua non of organized social exchange. The peculiarly abstract property of money comes sharply to mind if we compare a monetized society with a nonmonetized one, say a society of bartering agriculturalists exchanging their surplus productions among themselves. As we can see in any primitive society, the agriculturalists would examine with great care the commodities they received and those they offered. They would insist on tasting the wine they accepted for grain, and the wine suppliers in turn would inspect the grain they took in payment. Exchanges would not be made if the quality of any commodity was not up to expectations.

Now consider a society where objects are exchanged for money. The person who offers money for a commodity may still carefully inspect the wares he is buying and may refuse to go through with the exchange if they are faulty. But what about the seller, who takes money as satisfying his part of the exchange process? Curiously, no such inspection process takes place. Whether the coins are newly struck or worn thin, whether the money is mint-fresh or creased and torn makes no difference. The money itself incorporates an unchanging “value” even though its physical manifestations are clearly not unchanged.

And yet this abstract property is nonetheless lodged in real metal and paper, as anyone will discover who tries to buy goods with melted coins or shredded bills, which have different physical characteristics from, and are therefore not endowed with, the abstract property of invariant value that we attribute to money. Thus money is a paradox, Sohn-Rethel points out: an abstract thing. As such, however, it only expresses in the most clear-cut fashion the property of being both concrete and abstract possessed by all commodities once society enters the stage of universal commodity exchange.

This brief sketch hardly does justice to the complexity of Sohn-Rethel’s argument, which draws heavily on, and assumes a familiarity with, Marx’s analysis of the social relations incorporated in commodities. But I trust that even without this background his crucial insight is comprehensible—namely that there is a foundation for abstraction that does not depend solely on disembodied thought. Note that Sohn-Rethel in no way questions the existence of two modes of thought, the concrete and abstract. He is interested only in demonstrating that this duality may arise from the character of social existence and not from an aboriginal division of thought into two independent modes.

Of necessity this can be no more than a possibility, an exercise in what used to be called conjectural history. But Sohn-Rethel uses his insight to suggest a rich extension of the materialist view of history, namely that we should logically expect the appearance of abstract concepts such as mathematics and formal philosophy at the same time and in the same culture as that in which exchange is brought to maturity through the introduction of coined money. And this is what we find in the history of Greek thought in the period immediately following the development of coinage around 680 BC. At that point the anthropomorphic Homeric view of a universe run by gods and spirits begins to yield to that of a cosmos governed by impersonal causes and relationships. “It is interesting to note,” writes Sohn-Rethel, “that Pythagoras, who first used mathematical thought in its deductive character, followed after the first spread of coinage in the seventh and sixth centuries BC and is now believed to have himself been instrumental in instituting a system of coinage in Kroton, where he emigrated from Samos around 540 BC.”

What is striking in this sudden emergence of mathematics and formal philosophy is how closely their abstract ideas resemble in structure the abstractions required for a society of exchange. In such a society, as we have seen, men must learn to suspend the critical examination of material life in order to permit the assumption that a timeless, changeless realm exists in which exchange may take place. So, too, in the new reach of philosophic thought, the endlessly differentiated and variegated objects of nature are set aside to make way for the timeless, changeless realm in which natural laws and geometrical figures may also live their mixed real and abstract lives.

Sohn-Rethel develops the interplay between the material relationships of social life and the character of the abstract world of thought over a wide range of societies, beginning in the Bronze Age itself. “In our opinion,” he writes, “intellectual in separation from manual labour arises as a means of the appropriation of products of labour by non-labourers—not originally as an aid to production. It served in the calculation of tributes, the accounting credits and repayments in the relation between the temple authorities or officials of the Pharoah and their debtors, the storing and listing of appropriated products, the recording of the volume of incoming or outgoing supplies and other similar operations.”

Sohn-Rethel thereafter traces the changing historic form of intellectual labor and its relation to the prevailing requirements of manual labor. This takes him to speculations on the relation of Egyptian protomathematics to the art of rope measurement developed to superintend Egyptian agriculture; then to the leap to Greek mathematics linked, as we have seen, with the rise of a generalized exchange society; thereafter into an examination of the appearance of the new form of highly abstract capitalist labor, reduced to machinelike motions and quantifiable expenditures of energy, and to the corresponding rise of a “science” of management still characteristic of latter-day capitalism and its immediate heir-apparent, industrial socialism.

Sohn-Rethel does not break new ground here, for the crucial importance of the changing labor process has received ample recognition from Marxist historians. But he endows this theme with new depth as we come to see the age-old division between head and hand, with the differential social esteem attached to each, as part of the “necessary false consciousness” of social life. The distinction between intellectual and manual labor thus appears as an aspect of an inescapable but ultimately unsupportable belief in the natural existence of two immiscible spheres of life: one grubby, one pure; one all too human, the other semidivine.

In the seventeenth century the Levelers sang:

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the Gentleman?

In our own time the division between high-born and base-born has become a fiction, transparent to every eye. But the distinction between the lowly manual world and the lofty intellectual one continues to buttress the division of society—no longer as lord and serf, but as officer and subaltern, party cadre and party member, expert and everyone else. Even after the rights of property have been unmasked, those of intellectual labor remain. Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s discovery of fingerprints on the products of purest intelligence will play an important role in the long history of human disenthrallment from its own social fetishes.

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