I. I. Rubin's

Essays on Marx's Theory of Value

Chapter Seven

The question of the origin and development of Marx's theory of fetishism has until now remained completely unexamined. Though Marx was very thorough in pointing out the origins of his labor theory of value in all his predecessors (in three volumes of Theories of Surplus Value he presented a long list of their theories), Marx was very stingy in his remarks on the theory of fetishism. (In Volume III of Theorien uber den Mehwert, pp. 354-5, 1910 edition, Marx mentions an embryonic form of the theory of fetishism in Hodgskin's work. In our opinion, the remarks are very unclear, and refer to a particular instance.) Although the question of the relation of Marx's theory of value to the theory of the Classical Economists was discussed in economic literature with great zeal though without particular success, the development of Marx's ideas on commodity fetishism has not attracted particular attention.

A few observations on the origin of Marx's theory of commodity fetishism can be found in Hammacher's book (cited earlier). In his view, the origins of this theory are purely "metaphysical." Marx simply transferred to the field of economics Feuerbach's ideas on religion. According to Feuerbach, the development of religion represents a process of man's "self-alienation": man transfers his own essence to the external world, transforms it into god, estranges it from himself. At first Marx applies this theory of "alienation" to ideological phenomena: "the entire content of consciousness represents an alienation from economic conditions on the basis of which ideology must then be explained" (Hammacher, op. cit., p. 233). Later Marx expands this theory to the field of economic relations and in them he reveals an "alienated" material form. Hammacher says that "for almost all earlier historical epochs, the mode of production itself represented a universal self-alienation; social relations became things, i.e., the thing expressed what was actually a relation. Feuerbach's theory of alienation thus receives a new character" (Ibid., p. 233). "Human needs are realized and appear in the form of alienated essences in religion, according to Feuerbach, just as economic relations do in social life according to Marx" (p. 234). Thus Marx's theory of fetishism represents "a specific synthesis of Hegel, Feuerbach and Ricardo" (p. 236), with a primary influence of Feuerbach, as we have seen. The theory of fetishism transfers Feuerbach's religious-philosophical theory of "alienation" into the field of economics. Thus it can be seen that this theory does not contribute in any way to an understanding of economic phenomena in general and commodity forms in particular, according to Hammacher. "The key to the understanding of Marx's theory lies in the metaphysical origin of the theory of fetishism, but it is not a key for unveiling the commodity form" (p. 544). The theory of fetishism contains an extremely valuable "critique of contemporary culture," a culture which is reified and which represses living man; but "as an economic theory of value, commodity fetishism is mistaken" (p.546). "Economically untenable, the theory of fetishism becomes an extremely valuable sociological theory" (p. 661).

Hammacher's conclusion on the sterility of Marx's theory of fetishism for understanding the entire economic system and particularly the theory of value is a result of Hammacher's inaccurate understanding of the "metaphysical" origins of this theory. Hammacher refers to The Holy Family, a work written by Marx and Engels at the end of 1844, when Marx was still under strong influence of utopian socialist ideas, particularly Proudhon's. Actually in that work we find the embryo of the theory of fetishism in the form of a contrast between "social," or "human" relations, and their "alienated," materialized form. The source of this contrast was the widespread conception of Utopian Socialists on the character of the capitalist system. According to the Utopian Socialists, this system is characterized by the fact that the worker is forced to "self-alienate" his personality, and that he "alienates" the product of his labor from himself. The domination of "things," of capital over man, over the worker, is expressed through this alienation.

We can quote certain citations from The Holy Family. The capitalist society is "in practice, a relation of alienation of man from his objectified essence, as well as an economic expression of human self-alienation" (Literatunoye nasledie, Literacy Legacy, Vol. II, Russian translation, 1908, pp. 163-4). "The definition of purchase already includes the manner in which the worker relates to his product, as toward an object which is lost for him, which is alienated" (p. 175). "The class of the propertied and the class of the proletariat represent human self-alienation to the same extent. But the first class experiences itself as satisfied and confirmed in this self-alienation. It sees in this alienation a confirmation of its power. In this alienation it holds an image of its human existence. However, the second class experiences itself annihilated in this alienation. It sees its own weakness in this alienation, and the reality of its inhuman existence" (p. 155).

It is against this "apex of inhumanity" of capitalist exploitation, against this "separation from everything human, even from the appearance of the human" (p. 156) that Utopian Socialism raises its voice in the name of eternal justice and of the interest of the oppressed working masses. "Inhuman" reality is contrasted with Utopia, the ideal of the "human." This is precisely why Marx praised Proudhon, contrasting him to bourgeois economists. "Sometimes political economists stress the significance of the human element, though only one aspect of this element, in economic relations, but they do this in exceptional cases, namely when they attack a particular abuse; sometimes (in the majority of cases) they take these relations as they are given, with their obviously expressed negation of everything human, namely in their strict economic sense" (p. 151). "All the conclusions of political economy presuppose private property. This basic assumption is, in their eyes, an incontestable fact which is not susceptible to further investigation. .. However, Proudhon exposes the basis of political economy, namely private property, to critical examination " (p. 149). "By making working time (which is the direct essence of human activity as such) the measure of wages and the value of the product, Proudhon makes the human element decisive. However, in old political economy the decisive factor was the material power of capital and landed property" (p. 172).

Thus in the capitalist society the "material" element, the power of capital, dominates. This is not an illusory, erroneous interpretation (in the human mind) of social relations among people, relations of domination and subordination; it is a real, social fact. "Property, capital, money, wage labor and similar categories, do not, in themselves, represent phantoms of the imagination, but very practical, very concrete products of the self-alienation of the worker" (pp. 176-177). This "material" element, which in fact dominates in economic life, is opposed by the "human" element as an ideal, as a norm, as that which should be. Human relations and their "alienated forms" - these are two worlds, the world of what should be and the world of what is; this is a condemnation of capitalist reality in the name of a socialist ideal. This opposition between the human and the material element reminds us of Marx's theory of commodity fetishism, but in essence it moves in a different world of ideas. In order to transform this theory of "alienation" of human relations into a theory of "reification" of social relations (i.e., into the theory of commodity fetishism), Marx had to create a path from Utopian to Scientific socialism, from praises of Proudhon to a sharp critique of his ideas, from negating reality in the name of an ideal to seeking within reality itself the forces for further development and motion. From The Holy Family Marx had to move toward The Poverty of Philosophy. In the first of these works Proudhon was praised for taking as the starting point of his observations the negation of private property, but later Marx built his economic system precisely by analyzing the commodity economy based on private property. In The Holy Family, Proudhon is given credit for his conception that the value of the product is constituted on the basis of working time (as "the direct essence of human activity"). But in The Poverty of Philosophy, Proudhon is subjected to criticism for this theory. The formula on "the determination of value by labor time" is transformed in Marx's mind from a norm of what should be into a "scientific expression of the economic relations of present-day society." (The Poverty of Philosophy, cited earlier, p. 69). From Proudhon, Marx partially returns to Ricardo, from Utopia he passes to the analysis of the actual reality of the capitalist economy.

Marx's transition from Utopian to Scientific Socialism introduced an essential change into the above-mentioned theory of "alienation." If the opposition which he had earlier described between human relations and their "material" form meant an opposition between what should be and what is, now both opposing factors are transferred to the world as it is, to social being. The economic life of contemporary society is on the one hand the totality of social production relations, and on the other a series of "material" categories in which these relations are manifested. Production relations among people and their "material" form is the content of a new opposition, which originated in the earlier opposition between the "human" element in the economy and its "alienated" forms. The formula of commodity fetishism was found in this way. But several stages were still necessary before Marx gave this theory its final formulation.

As can be seen from the citations from The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx said more than once that money, capital and other economic categories are not things, but production relations. Marx gave a general formulation to these thoughts in the following words: "Economic categories are only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production" (The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 109). Marx already saw social production relations behind the material categories of the economy. But he did not yet ask why production relations among people necessarily receive this material form in a commodity economy. This step was taken by Marx in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, where he says that "labor, which creates exchange value, is characterized by the fact that even social relations of men appear in the reverse form of a social relation of things" (Critique, p. 30). Here the accurate formulation of commodity fetishism is given. The material character which is present in the production relations of the commodity economy is emphasized, but the cause of this "materialization" and its necessity in an unregulated national economy are not yet pointed out.

In this "materialization" Marx apparently sees above all a "mystification" which is obvious in commodities and more obscure in money and capital. He explains that this mystification is possible because of the "habits acquired in everyday life." "It is only through the habit of everyday life that we come to think it perfectly plain and commonplace, that a social relation of production should take on the form of a thing, so that the relation of persons in their work appears in the form of a mutual relation between things, and between things and persons" (p. 30). Hammacher is completely right when he finds that this explanation of commodity fetishism in terms of habits is very weak. But he is profoundly mistaken when he states that this is the only explanation given by Marx. "It is startling," Hammacher says, "that Marx neglected the grounds for this essential point; in Capital no explanation whatever is given" (Hammacher, op. cit., p. 235). If in Capital these "habits" are not mentioned, it is because the whole section of Chapter I on commodity fetishism contains a complete and profound explanation of this phenomenon. The absence of direct regulation of the social process of production necessarily leads to the indirect regulation of the production process through the market, through the products of labor, through things. Here the subject is the "materialization" of production relations and not only "mystification" or illusion. This is one of the characteristics of the economic structure of contemporary society. "In the form of society now under consideration, the behavior of men in the social process of production is purely atomic. Hence their relations to each other in production assume a material character independent of their control and conscious individual action. These facts manifest themselves at first by products as a general rule taking the form of commodities" (C., I, pp. 92-93). The materialization of production relations does not arise from "habits" but from the internal structure of the commodity economy. Fetishism is not only a phenomenon of social consciousness, but of social being. To hold, as Hammacher does, that Marx's only explanation of fetishism was in terms of "habits" is to neglect altogether this definitive formulation of the theory of commodity fetishism which we find in Volume I of Capital and in the chapter on "The Trinity Formula" in Volume III.

Thus in The Holy Family, the "human" element in the economy is contrasted to the "material," "alienated" element just as ideal to reality. In The Poverty of Philosophy Marx disclosed social production relations behind things. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, emphasis is placed on the specific character of the commodity economy, which consists of the fact that social production relations are "reified." A detailed description of this phenomenon and an explanation of its objective necessity in a commodity economy is found in Volume I of Capital, chiefly as it applies to the concepts of value (commodity), money and capital. In Volume III, in the chapter on "The Trinity Formula," Marx gives a further, though fragmentary, development of the same thoughts as they apply to the basic categories of the capitalist economy, and in particular he emphasizes the specific "coalescence" of social production relations with the process of material production.