I. I. Rubin's

Essays on Marx's Theory of Value


Marx's theory of commodity fetishism has not occupied the place which is proper to it in the Marxist economic system. The fact is that Marxists and opponents of Marxism have praised the theory, recognizing it as one of the most daring and ingenious of Marx's generalizations. Many opponents of Marx's theory of value have high regard for the theory of fetishism (Tugan-Baranovskii, Frank, and even Struve with qualifications [1]). Some writers do not accept the theory of fetishism in the context of political economy. They see it as a brilliant sociological generalization, a theory and critique of all contemporary culture based on the reification of human relations (Hammacher). But proponents as well as opponents of Marxism have dealt with the theory of fetishism mainly as an independent and separate entity, internally hardly related to Marx's economic theory. They present it as a supplement to the theory of value, as an interesting literary-cultural digression which accompanies Marx's basic text. One reason for such an interpretation is given by Marx himself, by the formal structure of the first chapter of Capital, where the theory of fetishism is given a separate heading. [2] This formal structure, however, does not correspond to the internal structure and the connections of Marx's ideas. The theory of fetishism is, per se, the basis of Marx's entire economic system, and in particular of his theory of value.

What does Marx's theory of fetishism consist of, according to generally accepted views? It consists of Marx's having seen human relations underneath relations between things, revealing the illusion in human consciousness which originated in the commodity economy and which assigned to things characteristics which have their source in the social relations among people in the process of production. "Unable to grasp that the association of working people in their battle with nature, i.e., the social relations among people, are expressed in exchange, commodity fetishism considers the exchangeability of commodities an internal, natural property of the commodities themselves. In other words, that which is in reality a relationship among people, appears as a relation among things within the context of commodity fetishism." [3] "Characteristics which had appeared mysterious because they were not explained on the basis of the relations of producers with each other were assigned to the natural essence of commodities. Just as the fetishist assigns characteristics to his fetish which do not grow out of its nature, so the bourgeois economist grasps the commodity as a sensual thing which possesses pretersensual properties." [4] The theory of fetishism dispels from men's minds the illusion, the grandiose delusion brought about by the appearance of phenomena in the commodity economy, and by the acceptance of this appearance (the movement of things, of commodities and their market prices) as the essence of economic phenomena. However this interpretation, though generally accepted in Marxist literature, does not nearly exhaust the rich content of the theory of fetishism developed by Marx. Marx did not only show that human relations were veiled by relations between things, but rather that, in the commodity economy, social production relations inevitably took the form of things and could not be expressed except through things. The structure of the commodity economy causes things to play a particular and highly important social role and thus to acquire particular social properties. Marx discovered the objective economic bases which govern commodity fetishism. Illusion and error in men's minds transform reified economic categories into "objective forms" (of thought) of production relations of a given, historically determined mode of production-commodity production (C., I, p. 72). [5]

The theory of commodity fetishism is transformed into a general theory of production relations of the commodity economy, into a propaedeutic to political economy.


[1]Rykachev is an exception. He writes: "Marx's theory of commodity fetishism can be reduced to a few superficial, empty and essentially inaccurate analogies. It is not the strongest but almost the weakest section in Marx's system, this notorious disclosure of the secret of commodity fetishism, which through some kind of misunderstanding has preserved an aura of profundity even in the eyes of such moderate admirers of Marx as M. Tugan-Baranovskii and S. Frank." Rykachev, Dengi i denezhnaya vlast (Money and the Power of Money), 1910, p. 156.

[2] In the first German edition of Capital, the entire first chapter, including the theory of commodity fetishism, appeared as one part with the general title "Commodities" (Kapital, I, 1867, pp. 1-44).

[3] Bogdanov, A., Kratkii kurs ekonomicheskoi nauki (Short Course of Economic Science), 1920, p. 105.

[4] Kautsky, K., The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx, London: A. and C. Black, 1925, p. 11. (This translation of Kautsky's work contains misprints which are corrected in the citation given above.)

[5] The letter "C" stands for Capital, and the Roman numeral stands for the volume. The page numbers refer to the three volume edition of Karl Marx's Capital published by Progress Publishers, Moscow: Vol. I, 1965; Vol. II, 1967; Vol. 3, 1966 [-Translators)