I. I. Rubin's

Essays on Marx's Theory of Value

Chapter Three

As we have seen, in commodity-capitalist society separate individuals are related directly to each other by determined production relations, not as members of society, not as persons who occupy a place in the social process of production, but as owners of determined things, as "social representatives" of different factors of production. The capitalist "is merely capital personified" (C., III, pp. 819, 824). The landlord "appears as the personification of one of the most essential conditions of production," land (C., III, pp. 819, 824). This "personification," in which critics of Marx saw something incomprehensible and even mystical, [1] indicates a very real phenomenon: the dependence of production relations among people on the social form of things (factors of production) which belong to them, and which are personified by them.

If a given person enters a direct production relation with other determined persons as owner of certain things, then a given thing, no matter who owns it, enables its owner to occupy a determined place in the system of production relations. Since the possession of things is a condition for the establishment of direct production relations among people, it seems that the thing itself possesses the ability, the virtue, to establish production relations. If the given thing gives its owner the possibility to enter relations of exchange with any other commodity owner, then the thing possesses the special virtue of exchangeability, it has "value." If the given thing connects two commodity owners, one of whom is a capitalist and the other a wage laborer, then the thing is not only a "value," it is "capital" as well. If the capitalist enters into a production relation with a landlord, then the value, the money, which he gives to the landlord and through the transfer of which he enters the production bond, represents "rent." The money paid by the industrial capitalist to the money capitalist for the use of capital borrowed from the latter, is called "interest." Every type of production relation among people gives a specific "social virtue," "social form," to the things by means of which determined people enter into direct production relations. The given thing, in addition to serving as a use value, as a material object with determined properties which make it a consumer good or a means of production, i.e., in addition to performing a technical function in the process of material production, also performs the social function of connecting people.

Thus in the commodity-capitalist society people enter direct production relations exclusively as commodity owners, as owners of things. On the other hand, things, as a result, acquire particular social characteristics, a particular social form. "The social qualities of labor" acquire "material characteristics," and objects, "social characteristics" (C., I, p. 91). Instead of "direct social relations between individuals at work," which are established in a society with an organized economy, here we observe "material relations between persons and social relations between things" (C., I, p. 73). Here we see two properties of the commodity economy: "personification of things and conversion of production relations into entities [relations among things]" (C., III, p. 830), "The materialization of the social features of production and the personification of the material foundations of production" (Ibid., p. 880).

By the "materialization of production relations" among people, Marx understood the process through which determined production relations among people (for example, between capitalists and workers) assign a determined social form, or social characteristics, to the things by means of which people relate to one another (for instance, the social form of capital).

By "personification of things" Marx understood the process through which the existence of things with a determined social form, for example capital, enables its owner to appear in the form of a capitalist and to enter concrete production relations with other people.

At first sight both of these processes may appear to be mutually exclusive processes. On one hand, the social form of things is treated as the result of production relations among people. On the other hand, these same production relations are established among people only in the presence of things with a specific social form. This contradiction can be resolved only in the dialectical process of social production, which Marx considered as a continuous and ever-recurring process of reproduction in which each link is the result of the previous link and the cause of the following one. The social form of things is at the same tune the result of the previous process of production and of expectations about the future. [2]

Every social form related to the products of labor in capitalist society (money, capital, profit, rent, etc.), appeared as the result of a long historical and social process, through constant repetition and sedimentation of productive relations of the same type. When the given type of production relations among people is still rare and exceptional in a given society, it cannot impose a different and permanent social character on the products of labor which exist in it. "The momentary social contact" among people gives the products of their labor only a momentary social form which appears together with the social contacts which are created, and disappears as soon as the social contacts end (C., I, p. 88). In undeveloped exchange, the product of labor determines value only during the act of exchange, and is not a value either before or after that act. When the participants in the act of exchange compare the products of their labor with a third product, the third product performs the function of money in embryonic form, not being money either before or after the act of exchange.

As productive forces develop, they bring about a determined type of production relations among people. These relations are frequently repeated, become common and spread in a given social environment. This "crystallization" of production relations among people leads to the "crystallization" of the corresponding social forms among things. The given social form is "fastened," fixed to a thing, preserved within it even when the production relations among people are interrupted. Only from that moment can one date the appearance of the given material category as detached from the production relations among people from which it arose and which it, in turn, affects. "Value" seems to become a property of the thing with which it enters into the process of exchange and which the thing preserves when it leaves. The same is true of money, capital and other social forms of things. Being consequences of the process of production, they become its prerequisites. From this point on, the given social form of the product of labor serves not only as an "expression" of a determined type of production relations among people, but as their "bearer." The presence of a thing with a determined social form in the hands of a given person induces him to enter determined production relations, and informs him of its particular social character. "The reification of production relations" among people is now supplemented by the "personification of things." The social form of the product of labor, being the result of innumerable transactions among commodity producers, becomes a powerful means of exerting pressure on the motivation of individual commodity producers, forcing them to adapt their behavior to the dominant types of production relations among people in the given society. The impact of society on the individual is carried out through the social form of things. This objectification, or "reification," of the production relations among people in the social form of things, gives the economic system greater durability, stability and regularity. The result is the "crystallization" of production relations among people.

Only at a determined level of development, after frequent repetition, do the production relations among people leave some kind of sediment in the form of certain social characteristics which are fixed to the products of labor. If the given type of production relations have not yet spread widely enough in the society, they cannot yet give to things an adequate social form. When the ruling type of production was crafts production, where the goal was the "maintenance" of the craftsman, the craftsman still considered himself a "master craftsman" and he considered his income the source of his "maintenance" even when he expanded his enterprise and had, in essence, already become a capitalist who lived from the wage labor of his workers. He did not yet consider his income as the "profit" of capital, nor his means of production as "capital." In the same way, due to the influence of dominant agriculture on precapitalist social relations, interest was not viewed as a new form of income, but was for a long time considered a modified form of rent. The renowned economist Petty tried to derive interest from rent in this manner. [3] With this approach, all economic forms are "subsumed" under the form which is dominant in the given mode of production (C., III, p. 876). This explains why a more or less extended period of development has to take place before the new type of production relations are "reified" or "crystallized" in the social forms which correspond to the products of labor.

Thus the connection between the production relations among people and the material categories must be presented in the following manner. Every type of production relation which is characteristic for a commodity-capitalist economy ascribes a particular social form to the things for which and through which people enter the given relation. This leads to the "reification" or "crystallization" of production relations among people. The thing which is involved in a determined production relation among people and which has a corresponding social form, maintains this form even when the given, concrete, single production relation is interrupted. Only then can the production relation among people be considered truly "reified," namely "crystallized" in the form of a property of the thing, a property which seems to belong to the thing itself and to be detached from the production relation. Since the things come forth with a determined, fixed social form, they, in turn, begin to influence people, shaping their motivation, and inducing them to establish concrete production relations with each other. Possessing the social form of "capital," things make their owner a "capitalist" and in advance determine the concrete production relations which will be established between him and other members of society. It seems as if the social character of things determines the social character of their owners. Thus the "personification of things" is brought about. In this way the capitalist glows with the reflected light of his capital, but this is only possible because he, in turn, reflects a given type of production relation among people. As a result, particular individuals are subsumed under the dominant type of production relations. The social form of things conditions individual production bonds among particular people only because the social form itself is an expression of social production bonds. The social form of things appears as a condition for the process of production which is given in advance, ready-made, and permanently fixed, only because it appears as the congealed, crystallized result of a dynamic, constantly flowing and changing social process of production. In this way, the apparent contraction between the "reification of people" and the "personification of things" is resolved in the dialectical, uninterrupted process of reproduction. This apparent contradiction is between the determination of the social form of things by production relations among people and the determination of the individual production relations among people by the social form of things.

Of the two sides of the process of reproduction which we have mentioned, only the second side - "personification of things" - lies on the surface of economic life and can be directly observed. Things appear in a ready-made social form, influencing the motivation and the behavior of individual producers. This side of the process is reflected directly in the psyche of individuals and can be directly observed. It is much more difficult to trace the formation of the social forms of things from the production relations among people. This side of the process, i.e., the "reification" of production relations among people, is the heterogeneous result of a mass of transactions of human actions which are deposited on top of each other. It is the result of a social process which is carried on "behind their backs," i.e., a result which was not set in advance as a goal. Only by means of profound historical and social-economic analysis did Marx succeed in explaining this side of the process.

From this perspective, we can understand the difference which Marx often drew between the "outward appearance," the "external connection," the "surface of phenomena," on the one hand, and "internal connection," "concealed connection," "immanent connection," the "essence of things," on the other hand.[4] Marx reproached vulgar economists for limiting themselves to an analysis of the external side of a phenomenon. He reproached Adam Smith for wavering between "esoteric" (external) and "exoteric" (internal) perspectives. It was held that the meaning of these statements by Marx was very obscure. Critics of Marx, even the most generous, accused him of economic metaphysics for his desire to explain the concealed connections of phenomena. Marxists sometimes explained Marx's statements in terms of his desire to differentiate between methods of crude empiricism and abstract isolation. [5] We feel that this reference to the method of abstraction is indispensable, but far too inadequate to characterize Marx's method. He did not have this in mind when he drew an opposition between the internal connections and the external connections of a phenomenon. The method of abstraction is common to Marx and many of his predecessors, including Ricardo. But it was Marx who introduced a sociological method into political economy. This method treats material categories as reflections of production relations among people. It is in this social nature of material categories that Marx saw their "internal connections." Vulgar economists study only outward appearances which are "estranged" from economic relations (C., III, p. 817), i.e., the objectified, ready-made form of things, not grasping their social character. They see the process of the "personification" of things which takes place on the surface of economic life, but they have no idea of the process of "reification of production relations" among people. They consider material categories as given, ready-made "conditions" of the process of production which affect the motives of producers and which are expressed in their consciousness; they do not examine the character of these material categories as results of the social process. Ignoring this internal, social process, they restrict themselves to the "external connection between things as this connection appears in competition. In competition, then, everything appears inside out, and always seems to be in reverse." [6] Thus production relations among people appear to depend on the social forms of things, and not the other way around.

Vulgar economists who do not grasp that the process of "personification of things" can only be understood as a result of the process of "reification of production relations among people," consider the social characteristics of things (value, money, capital, etc.) as natural characteristics which belong to the things themselves. Value, money, and so on, are not considered as expressions of human relations "tied" to things, but as the direct characteristics of the things themselves, characteristics which are "directly intertwined" with the natural-technical characteristics of the things. This is the cause of the commodity fetishism which is characteristic of vulgar economics and of the commonplace thinking of the participants in production who are limited by the horizon of the capitalist economy. This is the cause of "the conversion of social relations into things, the direct coalescence of the material production relations with their historical and social determination" (C., III, p. 830). "An element of production [is] amalgamated with and represented by a definite social form." (Ibid., p. 816). "The formal independence of these conditions of labor in relation to labor, the unique form of this independence with respect to wage-labor, is then a property inseparable from them as things, as material conditions of production, an inherent, immanent, intrinsic character of them as elements of production. Their definite social character in the process of capitalist production bearing the stamp of a definite historical epoch is a natural, and intrinsic substantive character belonging to them, as it were, from time immemorial, as elements of the production process" (Ibid., p. 825). [7]

The transformation of social production relations into social, "objective" properties of things is a fact about commodity-capitalist economy, and a consequence of the distinctive connections between the process of material production and the movement of production relations. The error of vulgar economics does not lie in the fact that it pays attention to the material forms of capitalist economy, but that it does not see their connection with the social form of production and does not derive them from this social form but from the natural properties of things. "The effects of determined social forms of labor are assigned to things, to the products of that labor; the relation itself comes forth in a fantastic manner in the form of things. We have seen that this is a specific property of commodity production. .. Hodgskin sees in this a purely subjective illusion behind which the deceit and interest of the exploiting classes is concealed. He does not see that the manner of presentation is a result of the actual relation itself, and that the relation is not an expression of the manner of presentation, but the other way around" (Theorien uber den Mehrwert, 1910, Vol. III, pp. 354-355).

Vulgar economists commit two kinds of errors: 1) either they assign the "economic definiteness of form" to an "objective property" of things (C., II, p. 164), i.e., they derive social phenomena directly from technical phenomena; for example, the ability of capital to yield profit, which presupposes the existence of particular social classes and production relations among them, is explained in terms of the technical functions of capital in the role of means of production; 2) or they assign "certain properties materially inherent in instruments of labor" to the social form of the instruments of labor (Ibid.), i.e., they derive technical phenomena directly from social phenomena; for example, they assign the power to increase the productivity of labor which is inherent in means of production and represents their technical function, to capital, i.e., a specific social form of production (the theory of the productivity of capital).

These two mistakes, which at first glance seem contradictory, can actually be reduced to the same basic methodological defect; the identification of the material process of production with its social form, and the identification of the technical functions of things with their social functions. Instead of considering technical and social phenomena as different aspects of human working activity, aspects which are closely related but different, vulgar economists put them on the same level, on the same scientific plane, so to speak. They examine economic phenomena directly in those closely intertwined and "coalesced" technical and social aspects which are inherent in the commodity economy. The result of this is a "wholly incommensurable [relation] between a use-value, a thing, on one side, and a definite social production relation, surplus-value, on the other" (C., III, p. 818); ". .. a social relation conceived as a thing is made proportional to Nature, i.e., two incommensurable magnitudes are supposed to stand in a given ratio to one another" (Ibid., p. 817). This identification of the process of production with its social forms, the technical properties of things with social relations "materialized" in the social form of things, cruelly revenges itself. Economists are often struck with naive astonishment "when what they have just thought to have defined with great difficulty as a thing suddenly appears as a social relation and then reappears to tease them again as a thing, before they have barely managed to define it as a social relation" (Critique, p. 31).

It can easily be shown that "the direct coalescence of material relations of production with their historical-social form," as Marx put it, is not only inherent in the commodity-capitalist economy, but in other social forms as well. We can observe that social production relations among people are causally dependent on the material conditions of production and on the distribution of technical means of production among the different social groups in other types of economy as well. From the point of view of the theory of historical materialism, this is a general sociological law which holds for all social formations. No one can doubt that the totality of production relations between the landlord and the serfs was causally determined by the production technique and by the distribution of the technical factors of production, namely the land, the cattle, the tools, between the landlord and the serfs, in feudal society. But the fact is that in feudal society production relations among people are established on the basis of the distribution of things among them and for things, but not through things. Here people are directly related with each other; "the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labor, appear at all events as their own mutual personal relations, and are not disguised under the shape of social relations between the products of labor" (C., I, p. 77). However, the specific nature of the commodity-capitalist economy resides in the fact that production relations among people are not established only for things, but through things. This is precisely what gives production relations among people a "materialized," "reified" form and gives birth to commodity fetishism, the confusion between the material-technical and the social-economic aspect of the production process, a confusion which was removed by the new sociological method of Marx. [8]


[1] Cf. Passow, Richard, Kapitalismus. Jena: G. Fischer, 1918, p. 84.

[2] Below we give a brief presentation of conclusions developed more fully in our article, "Production Relations and Material Categories," Pod znamenem marksizma (Under the Banner of Marxism), 1924, No. 10-11.

[3] Cf. I. Rubin, Istoriya ekonomicheskoi mysli (History of Economic Thought), Second Edition, 1928, Chapter VII.

[4] See C., III, p. 817; and other works.

[5] J Kunov, "K ponimaniyu metoda issledovaniya Marksa" (Towards an Understanding of Marx's Method of Research):" Osnovnye problemy politicheskoi ekonomii. 1922, pp. 57-58.

[6] Marx, Teorii pribavochnoi stoimosli (Theories of Surplus Value), Vol. II, p. 57.

[7] Only by viewing this "coalescence" of social relations and material conditions of production from this point of view does Marx's theory of the dual nature of commodities become clear to us, as well as his statement that use values appear as the "material depositories of exchange value" (C., I, p. 36). Use value and value are not two different properties of things, as is held by Bohm-Bawerk. The contrast between them is caused by the contrast between the method of natural science, which deals with the commodity as a thing, and the sociological method, which deals with social relations "coalesced with things." "Use value expresses a natural relationship between a thing and a man, the existence of things for man. But exchange value represents the social existence of things" (Theorien uber den Mehrwert, 1910, Vol. III, p. 355).

[8] In general, the connection between things and social relations among people is more complex and many-sided. Thus, for example, taking into consideration only phenomena which are closely related with our theme, we can observe: 1) in the economic sphere of various social formations, the causal dependence of production relations among people on the distribution of things among them (the dependence of production relations on the structure and distribution of productive forces); 2) in the economic sphere of the commodity-capitalist economy, the realization of production relations among people through things, their "coalescence" (commodity fetishism in the precise meaning of the words); 3) in various spheres of various social formations, the symbolization of relations among people in things (general social symbolization or fetishization of social relations among people). Here we are only concerned with the second topic, commodity fetishism in the precise meaning of the words, and we hold it indispensable to make a sharp distinction between this topic and the first (The confusion between the two is noticeable in N. Bukharin's Historical Materialism [English language edition: New York: Russell and Russell, Inc., 1965], Russian edition, 1922, pp. 161-162) and between this topic and the third (A. Bogdanov's theory of fetishism suffers from this confusion).